Monday 5 April 2021

The gender debate... and why it does not make much sense to me

Listening to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I came across an interesting debate about genderised advertising. TV adverts of a famous chocolate brand targeting a female audience attracted the particular ire of the discussants. Whilst I have no particular view on chocolate advertising, feminine or otherwise, it got me thinking about what our world would look like if the dream of some campaigners came true who advocate gender neutral products, and a gender ‘blind’ life in general. Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we did not ‘see’ gender differences at all?  

He, she ....?
  (Copyright: Steve Tobak)

The issue about gender is clearly related, yet distinct, from biological sex. There are few who deny that, biologically, men and women are different. The debate turns around what happens next. Genders are social constructs and, whilst they feel ‘natural’, there is clearly something like internalisation going on: as we are growing up we develop role behaviours, some of which are related to what others expect from us as we are (rightly or wrongly) perceived to belong to either the female or male sex. So, what would happen to us if we achieved something approximating to a gender neutral upbringing and a gender neutral society? 


It is easy to agree that there are some aspects of our gendered societies we can do without. We all struggle from time to time with the gender stereotypes we are supposed to conform to. But before you say that the world would be a better place without those, try to envision this alternative gender neutral life. 


Here is why I have some doubts about the benefits of a place entirely bereft of gender differences. For a start, when we talk about the impact of gender stereotypes we tend to focus on the invidious aspects of them. We highlight our difficulties to conform to exaggerated notions of masculinity or femininity. Wishing these away sounds like opening up a perfect world. What gets less attention is that stereotypes and hackneyed ideas of masculinity or femininity have an important role to play in forming our self-perception as individuals. They are critical in allowing us to identify who we want to be and who we would rather not be. They have a discriminating function that creates choices. It is those choices that evokes agency, the very agency that we then use to take a stand against the very gender notions we refuse to accept. 


So, in essence, gender identities are formed in the crucible of personal struggles that require these very concepts we revolt against. This may not be the best argument to retain a gendered society, but it highlights the contradiction at the heart of the those who advocate a gender neutral world. It is the fact that we belong to something or someone that allows us to rebel and find another place in the world we live in. Without this, our lives may adopt a random quality that may create more problems than today. Thinking about this, I think I can reconcile myself to a bit of gender stereotyping, even though you won’t get me anywhere near a football stadium.   

Saturday 14 November 2020

Why we should not be too happy about Dominic Cummings' departure from government

As Dominic Cummings carried his cardboard box out of Number 10 Downing Street, the gloating started. It came not just from the usual suspects, those who bemoaned the exit of the UK from the EU and his role in it. They were joined by some on the opposite side of the Brexit battle. Cue Bernhard Jenkins, Conservative MP, an arch Brexiteer, who celebrated Cumming’s exit from Downing Street during a BBC interview saying that (paraphrasing) things will hopefully get back to normal now. Interestingly he did not stop there and noted that, during Cumming’s reign, the Cabinet contained surprisingly few Brexiteers and he hoped that this would now be reversed. 


Dominic Cummings on his way out

This makes me think… did we get Cummings wrong? By we, I mean the ones on the ever so cosmopolitan, liberal, Europe loving side. Let’s take a step back and look at this from a wider angle. Cummings is often credited for his firm anti-European commitment. But what we may have overlooked with the Brexit battle indignation still red hot in our eyes, is that Cummings’ preference for Brexit was a means, not an end. Cummings had a keen eye for the discontent of substantial parts of the public with the establishment. We may question the validity of this term, but the millions of voters who turned out on the day of the referendum knew exactly what he was talking about. 


For anyone who lives in the North of England, that establishment, real or not, cuts across party lines. In fact, it combines positions as contrary as Labour in North West city councils and traditionally Conservative ones in Yorkshire and the Humber. Conservatives, rightly or wrongly, were loathed for their close contact with money and business, being seen as traditionally favouring those who already made it. Liberals, on the other hand, were perceived as hypocritical as those articulating the benefits of globalisation were often employed in white collar jobs, drawing on European money or benefiting from middle class council jobs with little impact on real lives. Just ask yourself: How many ‘development officers’ were funded by European Convergence funding (my own hand goes up!) and how little impact did they have on suffering communities beyond creating another cushy office job? 


Cummings’ strategy was to bundle those discontented voices and give them a purpose. We may disagree with the thrust of that purpose but the fact of the matter is that he achieved something many on all sides of the political spectrum had long called for: a revolution in democratic participation. People who never voted before used to ballot box to send a signal to politicians across the political spectrum to say they had enough. We may scoff at the simplicity of the political message. But the fact is that Cummings managed what others had long failed at. He revived moribund political life in the UK and drew people into the political debate as never before. 


I can hear the shrieks of horror. But at what cost! you may say. So? The fact is that we will all do better if our public debate has more voices in it, not fewer. Cummings has demonstrated to all of us the rewards of listening to the disadvantaged, the ones who stopped shouting for help long time ago. We may not like what we hear, but forcing us to listen to the ones in need is at the heart of a healthy political discourse. It is however, also challenging our misconceived democratic credentials that are often based on the exclusion of those we do not agree with. 


And so we return why we should not gloat about Cummings’ departure. His desire to make us listen to those we disagree with should be reason enough to us in the North West of England to regret his leaving. It may signal a retreat to the status quo ante. And that can only be bad for people living in a corner of England that receives a fraction of the investment that London gets. 


That’s why I worry when I hear Bernhard Jenkins and others, on the liberal side of politics, rejoicing that things will go back to normal now. Where I live, in Walton (Liverpool), this ‘normal’ has not served the people well. It is officially the most deprived constituency of England and Cummings was the first one to be interested enough to listen up. That does not make him a crusader for the dispossessed. But it makes him a champion of democracy. The irony! 


Saturday 29 December 2018

Social science nostalgia - David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd

From time to time it pays to go back to your (scientific) roots and re-read a classic. The first book I read when studying sociology was David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and, recently, I have been lucky to obtain a 1955 abridged edition on a second hand online bookstore. To make things perfect, the book is in pristine condition and comes with the previous owner's name on the front matter with the date and location of its original purchase: New York 1955. Such are the travels of books.

Where only the brave may go. David Riesman in 1953.
Copyright: Getty images

Riesman put forward a fascinating social character study of American society over time. His account falls somewhere in between mentalite and longue duree sociology of social conduct and, in a way, his narrative can only be called prescient. His main thesis is that there are different types of characters generated by the different societies people live in. He starts with the question: why do societies get the type of social behaviour that they need to survive?

It is a curious starting point, and consequently, he needs to say something about the type of society he wants his social characters to fit into. He distinguishes three ideal types (the work has echoes of Weber's work) of societies, traditional, inner-directional and outer-directional. Accordingly, there are three modes of social behaviour: traditional, inner- and outer-directed characters.

In traditional societies, people live by norms and standards that are set and rarely questioned. They extend to all life domains and pervade all aspects of social behaviour. Traditional standards do not need to be logical, and obedience to them is policed and enforced through power relations. Any theory of social behaviour somehow has to deal with instances of divergence from norms or non-conformity and Riesman thinks that deviance is 'accommodated' through institutionalised roles where some sort of (abberant) individuality can be lived yet within strictly defined limits, such as the medicine man in tribal societies.

Inner-directed societies are different to traditional societies in that they accomplish conformity, and thus stability of social relations, through the internalisation of norms and values. Riesman thinks that internalised sets of goals, learned throughout childhood and reinforced throughout adulthood by religous, social and political institutions, are mainly responsible for social peace in those societies.

The third type of society is the most intriguing as Riesman observes a shift from inner-direction to outward direction of norms and standards of behaviour. People, so he argues, become increasingly sensitised to the preferences and inclinations of others and take those to be the guiding principles of their own conduct. As the inner-directed type of character was epitomised by the Renaissance and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Riesman believes modern (American) man to exemplify perfectly the outer-directed person. Today, he believes, we want to be and aim to behave in the way we see it done by others. As he puts it

'What is common to all the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual... The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance [from others]: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.' (p37).

Note that this was written in 1950, well before the invention of Instagram. However, apart from the striking resonances with our lives lived through (and by) social media, Riesman does something else very remarkable. His theory is what Robert K. Merton would have called an 'all-embracing, unified theory' and he was highly critical of it. Riesman is a system builder as Marx and Hegel were before him in the philosophical realm and Merton has little time for them. He notes that

'a total system of sociological theory, in which observations about every aspect of social behaviour, organistion, and change promptly find their preordained place, has the same exhilirating challenge and the same small promise as those ... philosophical systems which have fallen into deserved disuse.' (Robert K. Merton, On Theoretical Sociology, New York: Free Press, 1967. p.45)

Merton's key criticism is that any all-encompassing theory of social behaviour requires a functionalist explanatory framework which allows all phenomena of social life to fit into the larger theory, something that is achieved only through disregard of much that goes on in life, or through abstraction from much of life's detail. In both cases, observations are made to fit the larger theory by neglecting much else. Consequently, large scale theories are either so general that they say little at all (ultimately failing Popper's test of fasifiability or verifiability), or can only be said to be valid by ignoring much of reality.

Yet, Riesman's book is still instructive. It is an unabashed attempt to formulate a working interpretation of social behaviour and societal structures. Remember his original question: how do societies generate the behaviour they need to continue to exist? Riesman's quest strikes us as inadmissively functionalist today. Martin Hollis called this type of functionalist or system thinking 'mystical' where societies as purposive systems 'exert pressure' on its parts, the individuals (Martin Hollis, The Philosophy of Social Sciences, Cambridge: CUP, 1994, p.106).

Yet, Riesman's book is a reminder of what sociological theory once thought possible and to which lengths it went to shape long duree narratives of social behaviour and its relationship with social structures. It was a bold attempt at designing a plausible structure-agency model for social conduct, its audacity acknowledged in 1954 by Time magazine when Riesman graced its cover.

And it is still a great read.

Saturday 1 December 2018

A superstar is born

About two years ago I attended a concert at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall. The main attraction was a shy young man playing the cello, who had just won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He delivered a polished performance, technically secure, at times allowing the audience a glimpse of things to come. He was helped at the conductor's pult by the firm leadership of Vasily Petrenko who is not one for musical extravangance but clear and sound delivery.

What a difference a year, or two, makes. The Royal Wedding, assorted media performances later and, yesterday, the same person filled the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool to the rafters with people who were dying to hear him (and take a picture on their iphone) at a solo performance, accompanied on the piano by his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason at The T.J. Martell Foundation in October 2018
As I wrote in 2016, there was never any doubt that Kanneh-Mason had the potential for cello stardom. His almost flawless technique prepared him for a steep musical career. The question was how he would navigate the stumbling blocs on the way, not least those moments of fame which were bound to come him as a rare example of a gifted black musician in a country that was (and still is) crying out for more diversity amongst its performers and audiences. As everyone knows who has been in a concert hall in the UK, auditoria here are filled with people from the same demographic: white, middle class and well into pension age, presumably a legacy of the brutal cull of secondary school music teaching in the 1980s. So it is no surprise that a country hungry for a fresh face embraced Kanneh-Mason (and his family) with open arms.

Yet with fame, especially of the Royal Wedding type, come problems and it was an open question whether Kanneh-Mason would be able to walk the fine line between cashing in on the popular classical music promise and the hard slog of the concert hall performances and studios.

As more recordings of him were released, the worries increased. Most of the pieces were pleasant yet musically inconsequential nods to popular taste. The real test would be whether he would develop his repertoire and further take on the modern classics, as he did with so enormous success with Shostakovich's cello concerto. The British say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and last night, the pudding was being served and it was delicious indeed.

The evening started with an dynamic delivery of Boccherini's Cello Sonata No 6. Brother and sister displayed a special rapport which helped with the rapid tempi changes and Haydnesque flourishes.

The next piece was Puolenc's Cello Sonata. I must have heard it now perhaps a hundred times, most notably played by Daniel Mueller Schott and Robert Kulek. Whilst studio recordings hugely privilege the cello, as studio technicians can dim the piano sound and heighten the prominence of the cello, both cello and piano were perfectly synchronised last night and Isata Sheku-Mason took the foot of the pedal in the right moments to allow her brother to shine.

Poulenc's second movement is the Cavatine, a beautiful instrumental aria. This was where technical prowess was to be transformed into personality and, whilst I would have loved a less hurried, more longing interpretation from Kanneh-Mason, he clearly put his own stamp on the piece which means he has now joined the musical conversation about the piece's interpretation in his own right, and that at age 19. 

The fourth movement of Poulenc's Sonata was probably the trickiest for both to navigate and both may agree that there were moments that needed extra work still. But even in those moments of strain, if anything, Sheku Kanneh-Mason appears only to be the victim of his own success. His technique is so polished, his dexterity so extraordinary that he sometimes rushes some of the passages instead of slowing them down. Sometimes less is more, and since the first bars of the fourth movement are fiendishly difficult for the piano too, a slower pace may have worked wonders.

Debussy's Cello Sonata and Brahms' Cello Sonata No 2 followed after the interval. Both brother and sister offered a muscular interpretation of Brahms, and Sheku an energic and forceful pizzicato in Debussy's Sonata's second movement. There were perhaps moments of technical brilliance that lacked the emotional urgency in Debussy but to say that is to take nothing away from a superlative performance of a promising cellist superstar in the making.

Brahms' Sonata was perhaps the most difficult piece for the hall. Liverpool's Philharmonic has the acoustic characteristics of a barn hall and solo instruments are helped greatly by sparsely instrumented passages. In turn, where composers pull out all the stops, the sound easily gets mixed in with its own echo from the bare walls. So, whilst Poulenc and Debussy were perfect for the hall, Brahms' Sonata got slightly drowned in its own reverberations. Brahms' was clearly a piece ideal for the more intimate, originally scheduled location of the concert. (It didn't help that there is always somebody who finds it difficult to switch off their mobile phone.)

I tend to close my eyes during performances since the various antics of performers (conductors and soloists alike) interest me little. Last night however I couldn't do this. Kanneh-Mason's technical skills were never in doubt but what he now offers audiences is starting to become a musical personality, a way of playing that is his very own. His famous pout notwithstanding (he has publically commented on it) his way of playing now clearly shows that he is one with his cello. More so, he dabbles in displays of full control over the instrument yet also developed a way to indicate critical distance to it. This creative tension between the player and instrument, a simultaneous unity and separation, is riveting to observe.

In Sheku Kanneh-Mason we are blessed with that rare thing, the career of a musical superstar unfolding in front of our eyes.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Why the Democrats may struggle to win the mid terms

As Democrats do not tire to remind us, Hilary Clinton garnered more votes than Donald Trump in the presidential election of 2016. Yet, many of those votes were cast in the wrong place. That's the summary analysis of Clinton's defeat widely shared amongst political observers and pollsters.

The Democratic Party may be heading for a repeat of 2016 in the mid-terms next week. You may ask why. Here is why.

Perceptions matter and Clinton's campaign was seen to be dominated by niche issues, such as rights for transgender people, LGBT and minorities. This may have been a misperception but Clinton did little to counter it by formulating policies for ordinary Americans. The 'glass ceiling' gimmick at the Democratic National Convention was symptomatic for a campaign that was skewed towards issues which meant little to ordinary Americans.

Shards for splinter groups. Hilary Clinton at the Democratic Party Convention 2016
Listening to her former running mate Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia yesterday the Party seems to be repeating its old mistakes. He praised how reinvigorated the campaign for the mid terms has been and got excited listing pretty much every minority in the book, throwing in a mention of women for good measure.

LGBT and trans campaigners certainly know how to make noise. They are civil rights campaigners on a mission. And they know how to dominate the airwaves. But beware thinking that their vocal media presence translates into votes at the ballot box. In fact, the most intriguing fact in recent months has been the steady high support of women for Trump and the Republican Party, even in the face of MeToo.

The reason is simple. The economy is creating the best employment figures for decades and Trump appears to be doing what he promised to do (you may of course disagree that these are worthy things to be done in the first place). The economic message of the Republican Party is clear. The economic policy of the Democratic Party is ... well, unclear, to say the least. It seems that most of the prominent Democratic candidates are more concerned about transgender rights focusing on identity politics than how to keep the economy moving.

It's a curiously topsy turvy picture for anyone who remembers the 1980s (like I do). It seems that the Democrats are waging the cultural wars that Republicans ran under Reagan and (to a lesser extent) under Bush Senior. The difference is however that Reagan's campaigns were targeted at ordinary Americans, coupled with a sound message about economic prosperity, whereas Democrats still appear to have little to say on the economy and focus their cultural electoral signals on minority groups that make up a tiny fraction of the American population. I would be surprised if transgender issues are a big vote mobiliser on November 7th.

At the moment, the Democrats are expected to win a majority in the House of Representatives, making legislative work difficult for the president. I am growing ever more skeptical of this expectation. Let's see next week. 

Monday 24 September 2018

Why there should not be a people's vote

Of all people I should be the last one to side with Farage and the like in all matters of Brexit. As a German without a British passport I will lose most of my civil rights on 19th March 2019. However, recently I found myself increasingly frustrated and worried about the calls for a second referendum or people's vote on Brexit. There may be many things wrong with the first Brexit vote, not least our lack of understanding of how social media may or may not have been used (unduly) to influence the outcome of the vote. However, I do not find the various reasons for a second vote convincing. Here is why.

Argument 1: They did not know what they voted on

This is a bad argument to put forward. Not only does it reak of patronising voters it also cuts both ways. If people had really been ignorant of what the referendum question was about (or what a decision either way entailed) then re-running the referendum assumes that voters can only genuinely cast their vote under conditions of absolute knowledge. This strikes me as a ludicrous condition for voting in a democratic society. Whether we like it or not, frivolous voting is a right everyone has in a free country. And so is voting on grounds of self-declared ignorance.

The outcome of the negotiations need to be endorsed by the voters

Well, it does indeed. That's what parliament is for. Referenda are a poor mechanism to discriminate between policy options. And if I remember correctly that was also an argument against the first referendum. I still agree with this and hence a second referendum would solve little that cannot be decided by elected MPs.

We should stop Brexit 

That's probably the most annoying argument and one that is most likely to backfire. There is no guarantee that a second referendum would yield a substantial majority for remaining in the EU. Just think about the difficulty of drafting the referendum question. Would it be a three way choice between 'the deal', 'no deal' and remaining in EU? That would split the 'remain camp' and likely deliver a supporting vote for 'the deal', whatever that may be. So, remainers would not get from such a referendum what they wanted (to preserve EU membership). And why would people 'know' more about 'the deal' or 'no deal' options if they, allegedly, were in a state of fateful ignorance about the benefits of EU membership? Are the ramifications of 'the deal' any simpler to grasp? 

So, why are we talking about a second referendum or people's vote? It may be worthwhile to have a look at who is advocating it. John Harris's podcasts are little windows into our divided soul. And it seems to me that the dividing line between us runs somewhere between London/South of England and the rest of England and Wales. I think it's no surprise that this is also roughly the line that divides the well off from the deprived areas in England, those that have benefitted from, and have accommodated themselves with immigration and a global economy and those that have not.

I accept that Brexit will not rectify the injustices and imbalances between London and the rest of the country. But, living in the North West of England, I also understand those who feel left behind and may now look on with some schadenfreude as London house prices fall and multinational companies start to relocate to other European cities. The movement for the people's vote is born out of a recognition that with Brexit, London and the South of England would suffer (though the rest of England would disproportionately suffer even more). Yet for Londoners who have treated the rest of the country with imperial disdain and contempt for decades, many Northerners thought this was pay back time. And I can't blame them.

In this context, campaigning for a people's vote appears to be counterproductive. It ties up energies that are really needed to argue for a sensible, smooth exit from the EU. It would make more sense to work out how we can get to an EFTA or Norway solution and how to get this through parliament rather than wasting political capital on preventing something that has democratic legitimacy: leaving the European Union.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Why Trump is winning

I am reading a lot of poetry these days. Call it escapism. Listening to the news makes me depressed and no one wants to feel low. So, I turned to poetry. A modest investment of about £8 gets you 'The Poetry Review' in your well ordered local bookstore and in a recent issue I found a poem by Mel Pryor called 'Cliff'. It's neat and has some nice turns of phrases such as when she talks about 'these daily unminuted miracles' (The Poetry Review, p.17).

I guess it's the poem's sense of ending that appeals to me. Recently, things in the political world have felt increasingly like we are standing at a precipice. But, and this is my point, this is a mistake and it can become a serious political error if progressives believe that everyone feels like that. Dread is not a political motivator. So let's look at the facts.

Trump's popularity with his base feeds on public outburst (and plenty of unacceptable ill-tempered language) about minorities, people he does not like (anymore), and railings against the establishment. The reaction of progressives is instructive. They dislike his foul verbiage, the damage to established institutions he does with his tweets and his exploitation of the presidency for his own gain. They dislike that he offers the American people some populist grub and that many of them take it.

But here is the crux. Progressives are indignated by Trump's actions and tweets, and as they become more and more outraged they start to believe that, if only Trump was gone (impeached or otherwise) they would win again and everything would go back to normal. They take the messenger for the message. There are already signs that Democrats tailor their mid-term campaign to the tune of Trump. In a sense, they take populism's bait and swallow it hook line and sinker.

Indignation is always a bad compass in politics. Whilst indignation is the way in which we police our norms of public behaviour, it is in essence a blunt tool. It only reaches as far as our gut feelings last and that's not very far indeed. Remember the little dead boy that was carried on to a Turkish beach by a police officer at the height at the Syrian refugee crisis? I bet you do! And what came of it? Exactly.

The reason Trump won (and this is what progressives don't want to hear) is that neither the Clinton campaign nor the Democratic Party actually made a positive offer to the American people in 2016. I vividly remember a moment in the primaries during Clinton's first bid for the candidacy of the Democratic Party (in 2006) when she started to tear up and declared that she had 'so many opportunities for this country'. What these were she showed us ten years later in 2016: a long list of things to do for ... transgender people, women, minorities, gays, and any other poor marginalised soul in America. But what she could never say is why any middle of the road, no nonsense American who didn't define himself by his or her sexual or racial identity should vote for her. She never told middle America why she should be in office.

Government jobs for everyone - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Source: Mark Lennihan/AP

I know some of these words hurt (it's indignation again, see). We all want to do our best for minorities and people on the margins of society. But what progressives often forget is that campaigning on issues that matter to only a handful of people is unlikely to succeed. And so we go again, come the mid-term elections. The latest candidate to make the headlines is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - somebody who says that the border force should be abolished and that everyone should be guaranteed a job by the government. Familiar stuff? Yes, we heard this before. If you are old enough, that is, and your memory reaches back to the 1970 and 1980s.

So, what's going wrong? The answer is simple. Whilst Trump dishes out populist messages, progressives are sidetracked by their indignation and veer to the extreme left, strengthening those parts of their electoral offer that made them lose the last election: identity politics. The people who may feel less and less represented are those in the centre, the moderates who do not think that transgender toilets are the most urgent thing to instal when there is an opiod crisis affecting communities up and down the country.

What may break it for Trump is not his ill-tempered language or his tweeting but the economy. At the moment, the American economy is overheating. He is urging the Fed to lower interest rates, which would be catastrophic for inflationary pressures. He may just turn out to steer the American economy into a serious crisis and middle America won't tolerate that.

The maths show that Democrats are likely to win back the House of Representatives in November, yet are unlikely to win the Senate. But if they think that this paves the way for a win in the presidential elections in 2020 (or indeed for impeachment) they are mistaken. Up till now, they have nothing to offer to those in the centre ground of politics. All they offer is their indignation and their desire to boot out Trump. That's not an electoral programme.

If they don't change course, then I guess there is more poetry for me.