Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rhythmanalysis of This Neo-Conservative Age

Analyzing Rhythm

I have been reading Rhythanalysis by Henri Lefebvre (2007) for an educational project. It is a thought-provoking look at what stands between and around the objects of traditional social science inquiry - the gaps, the lacunes, in other words the rhythm of production instead of the process of making or the products themselves.

It is an intriguing philosophical and analytical exercise, all the more so as it surrounds us in the everyday and yet has gone largely unnoticed and uncriticized. Lefebvre (2007) himself makes quite a tour of subjects as he articulates his theory and approach - he tackles bodies, then the body politic, capitalism, media and music in short order. Impressed, I am moved now to attempt a rhythm analysis of the present day. I will not have the breadth or depth of Lefebvre, and my analysis may be little more than armchair philosophizing, but as an exercise of thought it should suffice to bring about some insights into how the world is going, or where.

Our Testing Time

We live in an age of media-amplified upheaval, with polarizing lightening-rod figures like US president Donald Trump seemingly causing arrhythmia to our world body and the various political bodies (the US, Europe) that inhabit it. As Lefebvre (2007) himself presciently opined, "Today man, humanity, the human species is going through a testing time, where everything is thrown into question: including the existence of space, including the foundations of knowledge, of practice and of societies" (13).

I myself have made several abortive attempts at analyzing the discourse of Trump's ejections, but gave up due to their number, the paucity of their content (ie low ratio of content to rhetoric), and the excess media and academic attention afforded to Trump, which gives him too much credit as an actor of change. Instead, I will use rhythm analysis to conceive of the rhythm of events, in other words the movement of history at this point, in the hopes of finding something that a fine Discourse Analysis would undoubtedly miss. I agree with Lefebvre's (2007) assertion, "rhythm (linked on one hand to logical categories and mathematical calculations - and on the other to the visceral and vital body) would hold the secrets and the answer to strange questions" (14).

So, we are in an age when, for example, bodies in expansion (such as Germany) are out of synch with bodies in retraction (i.e. the US), in other words both exist in a state of an arrhythmia where once there was a healthy if imperfect eurhythmy. In terms of rhythm, the once outward (ie expansionist yet open to immigrants) America is retracting into nationalism and racism, while the once nationalistic and racist Germany is trying to keep its momentum of postwar expansion (acceptance of refugees, expansion of the EU). For simplicity of analysis, I will not at this time include bodies such as Russia, France, or China into my calculations, but instead focus on these two oppositional political entities.

Into this simplified or isolated horizontal axis (ie between states) I add vertical relations, ie where the leaders and their ideologies (ie the rhythm of their internal beliefs) rest inside their political bodies. Trump is both at the top of the socio-economic rank in the US, and has executive control of America's political structure. Merkel has similar control of Germany but comes from a lower, technocratic-bourgeoisie social demographic. She does not control Europe, but since US states have challenged Trump's legislation such as the controversial 'Muslim Travel Ban', these two arrhythmia cancel each other out for my purpose.

Ideologically, Trump is out of tempo with the liberal half of his society, but not with its elite, and has earned the support of the conservative half of the American populace due to his outsider acts and utterances, giving him an approval rating equal to Obama's at his peak (Sherman 2018). Merkel enjoys broad support ( 2018) but is slipping due to societal differences, fears of Russia, unpopularity of cabinet members, and lack of European partners.

US-German Arrhythmia

Seen in this light, Trump's attempt to (re-)establish a lone isorhythmic 'great' America has caused a formerly healthy eurythmia with Europe to morph into a diseased arrhythmia, while hinting at new eurhythmics with Russia and China. While Germany waits for the rhythm to reassert itself, Trump pushes it further into arrhythmia. Although Lefebvre's (2007) language is largely passive regarding change of rhythm, the discursive or confrontational aspect of rhythm - that one body may be deliberately throwing a previous eurhythmia out of synch - also comes under his gaze. He states,

"once one discerns relations of force in social relations and relations of alliance, one perceives their link with rhythm. Alliance supposes harmony between different rhythms; conflict supposes arrhythmia; a divergence in time, in space, in the use of energies. The relationship between forces, which requires the domination of one force and draws on the relations of alliance as means (and not ends), is accompanied by a disassembly of times and spaces; of rhythms." (68) 

In other words, Trump's pushing of arrhythmia with Germany, of disassembling the times and spaces of cooperation, is a means to get want he wants, not the end in and of itself.

As Lefebvre (2007) warns, rhythanalysis is preventative and not curative (68), and so the current turn of events is due to previous actions that have harmed the eurhythmia or harmony between Germany and the USA. He offers no solutions to this problem, just a clearer picture of the distortions and arrhythmia they cause.

However, Lefebvre (2007) gives a possible hint to a response when he notes how politics uses rhythms for its ends. He states,

"Political power knows how to utilise and manipulate time, dates, time-tables. It combines the unfurlings [deploiements] of those that it employs (individuals, groups, entire societies), and rhythms them. This is officially called mobilisation. The authorities have to know the polyrhythmia of the social body that they set in motion. It is the extreme case, revealing simultaneously official and empirical - political and military rhythmanalysis." (68-69)

Indeed, despite the public outcry and federal court order against the separation of illegal immigrants from the children at the US border, there is every sign Trump's office intends to separate more families than before (Stern 2018). This is a masterful stroke of rhythm, of waiting for the uproar to die down before continuing business as usual. It is part of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative shared playbook, with results visible in both Trump's shift on the post-financial crisis regulation Dodd-Frank, as well as his rethinking of the US-EU security alliance.

A Final Thought

What to do? Maybe intentional arrhythmia should be met in kind. Earlier today, I posted the following to Facebook under the heading "News I wish would happen..."

News flash: German ambassadors fly home, all US ambassadors & US troops expelled from Germany. "Have it your way, Don" says Merkel.

Perhaps, instead of waiting for Trump and other conservatives to disassemble times and spaces, to set the rhythms and oppositions that keep socialists and liberals off balance, the progressives need to set the social body in motion themselves instead of trying to keep it in political relations that no longer exist. Causing arrhythmia in the conservative camp could be the proactive step that snaps new relations into places, and at worse would only clarify the direction of a deteriorating eurhythmia fast enough to prepare oneself for adapting to the new realities that the eventual dissolution of an alliance entails. 

Sources (2018). "Merkel, Seehofer and Facebook fall in German public opinion."

Lefebvre, Henri. (2007). Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life. London: Continuum.

Sherman, Amy. (2018). "Story says poll shows Trump tied to Obama at same point in presidency"

Stern, Joseph. (2018). "Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement Is Budgeting for a Surge in Child Separations."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Transformative Learning and the Parkland Kids

Mezirow's Transformative Theory

I've been reading lots of Jack Mezirow lately. Mezirow is a guru of adult education, and has gained renown for his formation of what is known of as transformation theory.

According to Mezirow's (1997) transformational theory of education, whose goal is to prepare people for social change, three things are necessary for transformative learning - reflection, awareness of fields of reference (i.e. discourses), and participation in social change. Although Mezirow published his initial work in 1990, the clearest formation of his theory can be found in his 1997 formation, "Transformative Learning: Theory to practice," which appeared in New Directions for Teaching. Mezirow (1997) notes,

"Transformative learning is not an add-on. It is the essence of adult education.
With this premise in mind, it becomes clear that the goal of adult education
is implied by the nature of adult learning and communication: to help
the individual become a more autonomous thinker by learning to negotiate his
or her own values, meanings, and purposes rather than to uncritically act on
those of others. This goal cannot be taken for granted; educational interventions
are necessary to ensure that the learner acquires the understandings,
skills, and dispositions essential for transformative learning. Critical reflection,
awareness of frames of reference, and participation in discourse become significant
elements in defining learning needs, setting educational objectives,
designing materials and methods, and in evaluating learner growth using nontraditional 
methods such as portfolios." (Mezirow 1997: 11)

There are two problems with Mezirow's theory as articulated. First, he applies it only to adults, when in fact we had better provide Transformative Learning for our children, who face changes we cannot even foresee, if we want to build a better, lasting society. Second, Mezirow's definition of 'change' is narrow. Mezirow (1997) cites US Department of Labor and Australian government data on workforce preparation (7) as indicative of the changes people face, and for which they need Transformative Learning.  Not only is this complicit with capitalist valuation, which is precisely what causes inequalities and rapid change requiring Transformative Learning in the first place, it also ignores the pressing concerns of environmental degradation, growing inequality, and the erosion of democracy that we currently face worldwide.

Parkland Kids and Transforming America

Looking at the Parkland kids protesting now in the US, I can see ample proof that Transformative Learning is not only for adults, and that it can tackle more than job-readiness for labor market changes. The Parkland kids have undoubtedly been transformed by their (sadly traumatic) experience on February 14, 2018, just as the US has been transformed by the mounting toll of gun violence. Now, they have mobilized to shake the foundations of their society and demand change that protects their life.

These kids are showing an instinctive grasp of the tenets of Transformative Learning, as can be seen in the speech of student leaders (available HERE). First, they have reflected critically on the problem, how it affects them, and how others like politicians have failed to do so. "The adults have failed us," their representative intones, "This is in our hands now. And if any elected official gets in our way we will vote them out and replace them ourselves" (2:09-2:17), implying a transformation both in the status of the kids from powerless to powerful, as well as signalling their intent to enact a change in the status quo.

Second, they are aware of the fields of reference that dominate the discussion, and they know that guns in the US are seen by conservatives as an intractable political problem, as well as an essentialist cultural one. In response they have reframed it as a moral question, stating, "if that's what it takes, we will shame our national policymakers into protecting us" (0:20-0:24). They continue this vein, adding,

"This is about guns, and about our morality as a country. When the commander in chief's solution to this country's gun problem, you know we have a moral problem in the White House. When national policymakers value the blood money of the NRA over the lives of children, you know we have a moral problem in the halls of Congress" (1:07-1:35).

Since research has shown that conservatives respond to moral appeals (Feinberg and Willer 2012), this is a winning strategy for transformation.

Last, they are participating in the national discourse, the societal conversation about guns in all its aspects. The speech above touches not only on the students' own experience with guns, but the toll across American society, from conservative bastions like churches, to different racial communities. The representative asks for protection by policymakers "Not just in schools, but in churches, movie theatres, on the streets, and in the communities of colour, which are disproportionately devastated by the sickness of gun violence" (0:27-0:37). Besides the speech above and student walkouts across the nation, an art protest of 14, 000 shoes has been left on the lawn of the capitol to represent all those who have died in gun violence (PBS News). These multimodal appeals to various strata of American society, giving them a greater chance for enacting transformation.

As I write a chapter on Transformative Learning, and the attempt to codify it called Transformative Pedagogy,  I am inspired by those that have already made transformation a life practice, and hope to bring similar reflection, awareness of fields of reference, and social action into pedagogy.


Feinberg, Matthew and Willer, Robb. (2012). "The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes." Psychological Science, XX (X) 1-7.  London: SAGE.
DOI: 10.1177/0956797612449177

Mezirow, Jack. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult LearningSan Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, Jack. (1997). "Transformative Learning: Theory to practice." New Directions for Adult Learning and Continuing Education, no. 74, Summer 1974. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 5-12.

Open Book Media. (2018). "Student Speaks at US Capital: 'The Adults Have Failed Us. This Is in Our Hands Now'." Youtube Video.

PBS News Hour. (2018). "'The Adults Have Failed Us. This Is In Our Hands Now.' Students walkout over gun violence." March 14, 2018.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Two Jordan Petersons


For quite some time I have been bothered by Jordan Peterson without knowing quite why. I watch his videos and find myself nodding my head in agreement with some things he says, then shaking it in disagreement and disbelief at others. What exactly was happening here?
I was somewhat hesitant to write about Dr. Peterson, as my sphere of acquaintances has a very divided opinion on him, some praising and others vilifying him, and I wanted to avoid needlessly offending either camp. Also, it is easy for any criticism of Dr. Peterson to be dismissed as a 'leftist attack' on him, and thus undercut any valid critique one might make. Finally, Dr. Peterson has admittedly been the object of extremist 'leftist attacks', such as the unprofessional interview by Cathy Newman and the unethical silencing he was subject to at Queen's University. These unprofessional attacks are counter-productive, prevent dialogue, and only reinforce the feelings of persecution that justify the rhetoric of Dr. Peterson's vocal right wing supporters.
Recently, I happened upon a YouTube video of Dr. Peterson being interviewed on FOX News about the Parkland shooting (February 14, 2018) and his assessment of the shooter which I feel offers a chance to objectively assess Dr. Peterson's publicly presented discourses, ie the values or beliefs he expresses in his language. The video can be seen HERE)

Listening to the interview, it struck me that the reason for my confused reaction to Dr. Peterson's talks is that there are two Jordan Petersons on display, and they are entirely contradictory.


First, there is the clinical psychologist, Dr. Peterson, who says entirely reasonable things about the psychology or pathology of mass shooters in a measured and emotionless tone, and who shows patience even when the interviewer attempts to interrupt him (see 1:30). When asked why shooters commit their crimes, Dr. Peterson replies,

"Because they're nihilistic and desperate. I think life can make you that way unless you have a purpose, and a... destiny let's say. There's no shortage of suffering and malevolence in life and it's easy for people to become embittered by that. And if they don't see a way out, a way forward, they get angry about it and turn against life itself. And they make a display of their hatred for being by massacring the innocent. That's what's happening."

For anyone who has read literature on serial killers, such as Elliot Layton's (2003) Hunting Humans, Dr. Peterson's measured tone here is representative of the clinical psychologist when dealing with aberrant psychology. Dr. Peterson continues, "It's also kind of a psychological epidemic. You know, these people keep track of each other, and there's a competitive element to it." Once again, this observation is entirely in keeping with clinical psychology, and a rational conclusion regarding the wave of mass shootings in the US.

However, there is also the ideologue Jordan Peterson (or JP to his followers), who takes over discussion and says entirely ideological (ie reactionary, emotionally charged, and partisan) things about the world in general and its state of affairs, emphasizing key words in a stronger tone. After the above clinical comment on the 'competitive element' to mass shootings, JP adds, "And the fact that the media INSISTS upon publicizing the names of these shooters is not helpful. Because part of what drives them is motivation for notoriety. Because notoriety is better than being ignored." JP's emphasis on the word 'insist' (1:40) is noteworthy because 1) it is the first word he has stressed in the exchange, and thus indicative of his valuation of it, 2) as a verb it places the focus on the agency or responsibility of the subject, in this case the media, and 3) it is not followed by reference to any other possible agency in gun violence, such as the NRA or gun companies who equally 'insist' on the right to bear arms, the unacceptability of background checks or other regulation, and the impossibility of change in America's supposedly constitutionally-enshrined gun culture. In terms of Dr. Peterson's diagnosis of the shooter's pathology, this marks an ideological schism in his thought, one that prevents him from making an entirely rational and balanced diagnosis of the shooting or the pathology of the shooter.

The rest of the interview continues in this way, with Dr. Peterson starting a logical assessment, and JP making discursive additions to this. For example, Dr. Peterson answers the question "What mistakes do you think we are making as a society to produce an ever-increasing number of young men like this?" (which he notes is "A good question") by repeating his initial assertion on the lack of direction in life, even re-using the word 'malevolence', thus priming his audience to agree with him. However, JP continues, "and we need to take these sorts of philosophical and even religious issues seriously. But we don't." Adding 'religion' to discussion of a case that, so far as media reports show, seems to lack to any religious dimension, shows a clear ideological bent, specifically the appeal to conservative values of FOX News in the face of the de-centering and disorienting postmodern world in which we live. Carlson takes up this discourse, leading to the following exchange:

TC: Do you think we're taking them less seriously then we used to?
JP: Yes, definitely. I think that we talked in the past... we spoke much more about responsibility and... responsibility in particular, but also purpose and maturity, and we valued those things highly, we confuse them with TYRANNY and TOXIC masculinity, for example."

Once again, Dr. Peterson starts the response but JP finishes it with stressed keywords ('tyranny' and 'toxic') that have clear discursive purpose. 'Tyranny' is a common buzzword used against gun regulation in US political discourse, although it is not so clear in which sense JP is using it here, or against whom he is applying it. This lack of clarity is symptomatic of JP's speech patterns, and it is easy to see how this ambiguity could be co-opted by Alt-Right viewers of FOX News. Moreover, stressing 'toxic' and not masculinity implies that JP is OK with masculinity in toto, but refutes the assumption that it can turn 'toxic'. In terms of clinical psychology, this ideological dismissal of toxic masculinity seems to be out of step with Dr. Peterson's own field. Kupers (2005) has examined the effect of toxic masculinity in prisons, and since Dr. Peterson himself has done work in prisons and later in the interview cites male tendencies towards violence as a factor in their increased rates of incarceration, his refutation of toxic masculinity as a factor in violent gun crime is suspiciously unprofessional. Another psychologist, Veissiere (2018), offers a more nuanced interpretation of toxic masculinity and how society needs to perceive it, including its opposite toxic femininity, which offers more promise of utility than JP's ideological condemnation of the term.

In addition to being at odds with his own profession, JP's appeal to ideology is worrying because it shows how out of step he is with a compassionate response to tragedy. First, his derision of toxic masculinity in this interview is strange, as the Parkland shooting has not been especially linked to masculinity, unlike the 2014 Isla Vista shootings where the killer stated his intent to 'punish women'. In Parkland, men were as much targets as women, and thus the shooting could be seen as more like Columbine. A clinical psychologist would thus be expected to approach Parkland from a multifaceted pathological angle, but decrying toxic masculinity is thus misplaced and possibly a smokescreen to push JP's own agenda. In a case where 17 people are dead and Dr. Peterson has been called to media to comment as an expert, this is a terrible indulgence in the ideological right-wing soapbox.

As the interview progresses, the gap between Dr. Peterson and JP seems to narrow. When asked about greater violence among young men, he replies, "there's a very powerful biological component to that, despite what the postmodern social constructionists have to say about it. But they've got their head firmly buried in the sand so..." Here then we have a new entity, which I will simply call Peterson, who starts clinical statements but ends with off-topic ideological attacks on his imagined enemies. Peterson seems to be forgetting that the fathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, were considered both very much 'postmodern constructionists' at the time they were active. His digression also implies that he cares much less about discussing the supposed topic of the interview, the Parkland shooting, then pushing his own agenda.

Finally, when Carlson asks how we should be thinking more on how to raise boys as they are more likely to commit crimes, Peterson replies,

"Uh yeah, I think we should be thinking about that. I mean, the book I published here, this Twelve Rules for Life, is a meditation on exactly that. I've been lecturing online about the idea that responsibility is what gives life meaning and that meaning is the antidote to the sort of nihilism and aggression and resentment that might otherwise be produced."

This is the moment when Dr. Peterson and JP become one, when he pitches both his book and the video series that has increased his fame. To turn an interview about the death of 17 people into the opportunity to push one's writing and talks seems to me to be highly unprofessional in both a clinical psychologist and public figure, and marks Peterson's abandonment of any professional ethic. If there is one thing that Dr. Peterson and the ideologue JP seem to agree on, it is not to let an opportunity for self-promotion go to waste.

Finally, Carlson brings back the concept of toxic masculinity as an ideological football to play with, and asks Peterson to explain what it means. Peterson doubles down on his ideological detours, stating,

"Well, it is an attempt to smear the idea of masculinity by confusing masculine competence with tyranny. And it's part of the underlying idea that our culture is a corrupt, tyrannical patriarchy that was run by men for the advantage of men, which is a very pathological way of looking at the world, but a very common one."

Peterson's definition of toxic masculinity is a denial of the oppression and inequality in the male-dominated traditional society he and conservatives at FOX News idolize. Unintentionally, his reference to 'masculine competence' in the context of a mass shooting could also be read as praise of violence, and so allying itself with NRA downplaying of the tragedy. Either way, it is thus a populist appeal to his listeners, but more significantly, it is also at odds with the clinical psychological definition of the term, which Kupers (2005) describes as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence. Toxic masculinity also includes a strong measure of the male proclivities that lead to resistance in psychotherapy" (714). Peterson's response instead references back to the key word 'tyranny' he introduced at the start of the interview, and thus he has primed both Carlson and his listener's ears for agreement by repetition, also know as the 'illusory truth' or 'Barnum effect', a clear rhetorical strategy. As a clinical psychologist with knowledge of how to persuade people, this is a highly unethical use of Peterson's rhetorical powers.

Peterson concludes by elaborating on his definition in a way that clears up who he is really attacking - feminists, be they 'damaged' women or lost men 'trying to shirk responsibility'. He states,
"And if that description is accepted, it means that masculine energy, so to speak, whether it is manifested by women or by men, masculine every does nothing but prop up the tyranny of the patriarchy and so should not be fostered. And the only people who think that way are women whose relationships with men have been extraordinarily damaged or men who have no idea who they are or who are trying to shirk responsibility. The idea that masculinity in its essence is somehow toxic is an absolutely dreadful idea."

It must be noted that no one in the interview has attacked masculinity, toxic or otherwise. Peterson's digressive attack on toxic masculinity and defence of masculinity in general is a symptom of his own pathology, which is a blinding adherence to right-wing ideology and a form of split-personality wherein his ideological self compromises his professional judgment and ethics. If any responsibility is being shirked here, it is Peterson's own as professional psychologist and academic, who is supposedly interested in objectivity and truth.


In conclusion, I have found my analysis of Jordan Peterson's FOX interview disturbing on both a professional and personal level. Whereas Dr. Peterson was called to respond to a tragedy and provide suggestions for preventing ones like it, he has instead indulged in ideological posturing and advertising his wares. These are actions I expect in neither a professional academic or fellow human being.

To be fair, leftist critiques of patriarchy have left little room for espousing positive male values, and polarization of clinical terms like 'toxic masculinity' strip them of their usefulness and transform them into ideological lightening rods that stymy debate and understanding. This situation is at the root of Peterson's single-minded defence of masculinity, which doubtlessly reflects a similar struggle in the minds of his male followers. Yet as Veissiere (2018) notes, there is a more fruitful, less polarizing way to think about toxic masculinity. He states,

"The human mind is not well equipped to examine counterintuitive facts that violate our expectations. Our expectations are heavily modulated by cultural norms. These are norms we all know and obey, often without knowing that we know them. In a culture where one version of feminism has become an obligatory moral norm, pointing out that men fare much worse than women in many indicators of well-being is likely to be interpreted as "misogynist." Any talk of men’s issues is also likely to be read as a call for victimhood. In this version of the victimhood story, some men get to claim that women are the "real" oppressors. It is both interesting and alarming to note that competition for victim status is found on both sides of the gender equality debate."

If Jordan Peterson could engage issues of masculinity in more psychological terms as Veissiere does, I feel he could both help more the young males he purports to support, while refraining from unprofessional ideological attacks when called to do his duty as a public figure and clinical psychologist.

How do I now see Jordan Peterson now? To indulge in the narrative or mythic analysis that Jordan Peterson himself often uses, it is easy to see Jordan Peterson as a modern embodiment of Jekyll and Hyde. Just as Dr. Jekyll is a learned and compassionate man saddled with the brutish alter ego of Mr. Hyde, Dr. Peterson seems equally saddled with and morally compromised by the right-wing, patriarchal discourses of JP and the army of disenfranchised males that compromise his Alt-Right followers. Looking closely at Peterson's speech, I keenly feel the aptness of Robert Louis Stevenson's observation in Jekyll and Hyde: “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” (116)

I have great respect for Dr. Peterson and his attempt to have people reflect on their own failings, how they sabotage themselves, and find a purpose in life. However, I feel great sadness that this positive dimension of his work is mitigated and even negated by the ideology he espouses and the right wing extremism it inspires. By couching ideological thinking in terms of the science of psychology, Peterson validates unbalanced and irrational thinking. This has the consequence of dividing people on ideological lines, and uniting people in extremist positions. As Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote in Jekyll and Hyde, “You start a question, and it's like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others...” (15). Peterson has started stones of questioning and doubting others, which have been met with a cascade of both alt-right and extreme left protests. I only hope that he can at some point see the avalanche he is causing, and walk a more balanced path as both professional and person.


Based Jedi. (2018). "NEW: Jordan Peterson REACTS to Parkland Shooting with Tucker Carlson" [Uploaded Feb. 27, 2018].
Kupers, Terry. (2005). "Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison." Journal of Clinical Psychology. Vol. 61 (6). 713-724. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20105
Leyton, Elliot. (2003). Hunting Humans: The rise of the modern multiple murderer. Carroll.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. (2012 edition). The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Project Gutenberg E-book.

Veissiere, Samuel. (2018). "The Real Problem With 'Toxic Masculinity': Why our culture needs strong and nuanced gender archetypes." Psychology Today.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Why Academic Strikes Don't Work

This past year has seen an upheaval in academia, as many academics in North America and now the UK have taken to the streets to protest their precocity of their work conditions. The entire system of adjunct teaching, with university administrators dictating unfair work conditions to academics, is made possible by the glut in the supply of teachers, but goes against the supposed ethics of higher education.

The thing is, I am with them 100% in spirit. But sadly, I don't think protests alone will work for two main reasons.

The first reason is simple - adjuncts have no leverage. They need the job too much, both materially and spiritually, and have (so too many think) nowhere else to go.

Basically, whatever the transaction, you need leverage to negotiate a good deal, and ultimately, you need to be ready to walk away if the deal does not please you. Rich people have the freedom to do this, poor people don't. If you walk into a car dealership and say "I need this blue car, give me a good deal!" you have just sabotaged yourself.

In a similar fashion, striking academics say "I need this job, physically and mentally, so give me a better deal!" That isn't likely to happen with the neoliberal university system that now exists in the West and elsewhere.

This principle was made abundantly clear to me when I faced workplace bullying by a supervisor a few years back. I worked in a Language Centre at a small university at the time, and my new director singled me out for abuse, berating me for taking sick leave, hauling me into a 4 on 1 surprise attack meeting, and finally refusing to renew my contract. These were all abhorrent actions, and very contrary to the 'spirit' of a university, I thought, especially coming from a researcher who specialized in the pain of conflict.

But in terms of academic administration, these actions were entirely logical. In response, I went through official channels by reporting to the harassment officer. When that was stymied (why would they turn out one of their own who was just doing business?), I escalated by going to legal counsel, and threatening to communicate the details of the case to the media and the supervisor's research network. I knew the bridge was burnt,  and as I advised fellow sufferers of academic bullying (Bonnah 2017), I also understood that getting ready to walk away from the job is a precondition to getting a better deal.

Ultimately, the chance of unethical decisions coming to light got the administration's attention, and I was able to settle the affair in a way that allowed me to heal from the abuse, finish my PhD, and find a better position. It was still unfair and unjust, and sealed my decision to move away from teaching and into research.

In a similar fashion, if academics in precarious conditions want a better deal, in addition to protests, they need to threaten legal action, and raise the media profile of the university's 'wrongdoing', not just decry their unfair working conditions.

Another condition of academic work that complicates this situation is that, in all honesty, academics are generally unorganized and disloyal to one another. When I was abused, my coworkers told me bluntly it was my own affair, and they wanted nothing to do with my case, which they said I had brought on myself. I joined an academic union, but after 3 months of exorbitant fee paying with nothing to show for it, I quit my membership and got a free legal counselling session that lead me to getting out and finding better terms. I felt abysmally alone throughout the whole process, and am sure it would have driven some to despair and depression. Former coworkers later told me of their abuse after my departure and how they wish they had supported me more, but their actions make sense given their own precarious work conditions.

In April, I will be an associate professor, and will cross over to the other side of the line. As Jana (2018) notes, the higher you rise in academia, the more you have to lose, and thus the less you stand by your principles by throwing in with striking academics. Unlike my supervisor, who excused his abuse of me by saying he was just "a man of the organization," I am willing to walk away from the job if it asks me to compromise my ideals by abusing others. But I hope that striking academics in North America and the UK realize that they need to be able to get together or else get out if they hope to find a better life.


Jana, B. (2018). "Universities, neoliberalism, and the (I'm)possibility of critique."

Bonnah, T. (2017). "Fighting Power Harassment: Surviving and thriving against workplace bullying." Linked In article.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Women Scorned: Public Apology in Japanese & US Court Cases

We from English speaking lands tend to think of Japan as an alternate world where alien rules of conduct apply. Such is not the case. Japanese society is structured around group dynamics like any other, dynamics which exist in any country, but whose socio-cultural triggering conditions are different.

This week, two events with different details but similar characteristics show this universality of group dynamics, be they Japanese or foreign, especially in the context of public displays of regret or contrition.

First, in Japan the CEO of the 'Hare no Hi' (Beautiful Day) corporation, Shinozaki Yoichi, has been the centre of media attention and popular ire. Hare no Hi supplies kimonos for Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day), a once-in-a-lifetime public event where young people are recognized as adults, dress up, go to their city or town hall, hear speeches from local authorities, then feast and drink to celebrate the transition of becoming shakaijin (members of society).

Hare no Hi and similar companies take reservations years in advance to ensure the kimono of their clients' dreams on that special day. Every detail is chosen by customers, who also pay thousands of dollars for the privilege.

This year, Hare no Hi reneged on its obligations, leaving hundreds of young people without the necessary garments on their special day. According to Shinosaki's lawyer, this case involves upwards of 1600 customers, with a loss of 630, 000, 000 yen that might reach 1, 000, 000, 000 yen (NHK).

Women especially were hard hit, as they had paid thousands for furisode, long sleeved kimonos that signal their single status, thus symbolizing also the movement towards the next steps of marriage and starting a family. The furisode kimono is highly connected to female identity in Japanese society.

On the surface, then, this is a uniquely Japanese 'kimono scandal' that would leave North Americans, with their comparatively inexpensive high school grads, shaking their heads in disbelief. Yet in Japan, it is a clear-cut case of a company and its CEO neglecting to fulfil its societal duty.

In keeping with this judgment, Japanese media have framed the Hare no Hi president in ways that emphasize his dubious morality and blatant greed. An interview with his 'friend' quoted Shinozaki as saying, "First of all, think about yourself first before the customer." Japan is known for its 'service seishin', or spirit of hospitality towards the customer, and the CEO's words, although perfectly acceptable in a neoliberal context such as America, portrays Shinozaki's betrayal of Japanese cultural values. This has the effect of framing the CEO as the villain of this mediated narrative. 

Additionally, in the past few days the CEO has reappeared and talked with the press. On this morning's news, an interview with the CEO was shown and discussed. The points of emphasis were two:

1) The CEO laughed as reporters asked him about his hobby of singing, and whether he did so while in hiding from the outrage that blew up during the event.

2) The interview was performed as the CEO walked 3 km between stations, then back again.

First, the emphasis on Shinozaki's laughter paints him as callous and out of synch with public opinion. Having been a former police translator, I can attest that the formal expression of sadness or regret is highly significant in Japan. On the level of everyday life practice, most Japanese pride themselves on having tatemae, an unresponsive front or face presented to the world. There are times on life where this facade is dropped and (from a western perspective) excessive displays of emotion are expected. When women read a letter to parents at their wedding, or when an athlete talks about winning a particularly arduous event, tears are a welcome sight. Similarly, when being interviewed or interrogated about a transgression, tearful displays of regret are expected, even demanded, and met with outrage if not given. Guilt is decided as a result of this questioning; in Japan, the innocent man breaks down in tears, while the guilty bluffs or laughs. This is, generally speaking, the opposite of western patterns of response, where an innocent person is rightfully outraged, and the guilty are expected to hang their head in shame.

NHK coverage of Shinozaki's conference oddly used the same quote from a 19 year old woman who hadn't received her furisode kimono. The woman is quoted as saying, 「謝罪していましたが誠意が見えず、不信感を持ちました」, which translates as "He apologized but I can't see any sincerity, I still feel distrust or suspicion." The repetition of this quote by the NHK, whether intentional or not, testifies to the resonance of the sentiment and the Japanese expectation of convincing shows of sincere emotions such as regret. Added to this, the focus on Shinozaki's long walk paints him as an oddball, one who doesn't ride the train like all other labourers, and thus is even further left behind Japanese society.

The importance of public apology is not limited to Japan. In their examination of apologies in courtrooms, Rachlinski et al (2013) note, 

Because they are so common and so critical to harmonious social life, apologies can serve many different social functions. Generally speaking, apologies tend to play the role of a social palliative, mending relationships between the wrongdoer and the aggrieved party or the community.  Effective apologies convince the victim or victims that the wrongdoer’s conduct should not be taken as evidence that the wrongdoer is as blameworthy as the conduct otherwise might imply.  Apologies are intended to convince the recipient that the transgressor’s actions reflect a less malevolent mental state or that the transgressor’s long-term proclivities are not as destructive as his or her exhibited behavior would suggest. A successful apology restores at least some of a transgressor’s status as a trustworthy individual (1195)
Meanwhile, in the US, the trial against former US Olympic coach Dr Larry Nassar for his sexual abuse of patients has focused on victim's statements and demands for apology and shows of remorse or contrition. Coverage of the trial in Guardian (Grahamn 2018) also reveals that performative aspect of the event and the expectations of public apology, as well as repercussions when they are not met. The article focuses on the judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, when she reads aloud the defendant's letter requesting mercy, a staged performance with a prop like the aforementioned Japanese wedding letter, ending in the cliche “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The article notes,

"That line drew an audible gasp in the courtroom, and when she had finished reading out loud Aquilina tossed the letter aside in disgust. When Nassar refused to admit he was guilty in the final minutes before he was sentenced, stammering meekly “I’ve said my plea”, the judge handed down the maximum term – 40 to 175 years." (Grahamn 2018)

The 'audible gasp' is the manifestation of public shock, while Aquilina's tossing aside of the letter is a theatrical response to both the insincerity of its existence and the sentiments expressed within it. The final refusal to admit guilt is the confirmation of Nassar's lack of sincere emotion, which justifies his long prison sentence. This is the natural outcome when a sincere apology is not offered, for as Rachlinski et al (2013) explain,

The power of an apology to restore status makes it tempting for wrongdoers to offer insincere apologies. Appreciating the potential power of an apology, a wrongdoer might apologize disingenuously to gain some advantage. Apologies often consist of what economists call “cheap talk.” That is, apologies can be costless utterances for the transgressor that hold out the promise of restored status. An apology might need to be costly to transgressors in order to show that they are willing to pay a price to prove they are worthy of trust, particularly if the underlying conduct is egregious. Some conduct is so severe that a meaningful apology is simply impossible. In many circum- stances, however, merely stating an apology can benefit the wrong- doer, making it tempting to offer a feigned apology. People understand this well and react negatively to apologies that they perceive as insincere.  An insincere apology can suggest that the wrong-doer is willing to attempt to deceive the victim, thereby adding insult to injury. Alternatively, an insincere apology suggests that thewrongdoer does not truly understand what it is that he or she did wrong. Statements like, “I am sorry you feel that way,” hardly even qualify as apologies and might suggest that the speaker is affirmatively stating that he or she is not remorseful, especially if said in a sarcastic tone. Either way, an insincere apology makes the wrongdoer and the misconduct seem worse. In effect, attempting to apologize raises the stakes for the wrongdoer, making both redemption and reprobation more likely. (1196-1197)

Indeed, the reports of Shinozaki's inappropriate laughter and long walks clearly depict such a 'malevolent mental state', and fulfil their intention of framing the CEO as not a 'trustworthy individual.' In Nassar's case, these are signified by his letter, an obviously insincere response to the victim's statements he objected to hearing. Indeed, Nassar's actions decided his crimes, but his letter helped fashion his own punishment.
Although Nassar's crimes are unforgivable, especially in comparison with those of Shinozaki, the failure of both men to offer symbolic acts of contrition and regret explain the length of Nassar's sentence to some degree, just as it explains the condemnation of Shinozaki by Japan's media and the court of public opinion that feeds on it. Judge Aquilina's treatment of Nassar's letter and her choice of a maximum sentence signal the legal price of Nasar's transgressions, both against women's bodies, lives, and society itself, especially when no remorse is shown by the transgressor. Unless Shinosaki can offer some acceptable show of regret to his victims, he too may face harsh penalties, and justifiably so.

The point in common of these two cases is that violence done against vulnerable women, whether physical or economic, and which might previously have been overlooked in patriarchal society, is now becoming a socially unpardonable crime. In the US, the Nassar allegations surfaced amid the #metoo movement, a long overdue calling out of male sexual violence, abuse of power, and predation against women that has seen powerful men toppled from their positions in entertainment, but which has not progressed in other fields such as politics. In Japan, which is arguably more patriarchal than America, nevertheless Hare no Hi's neglect has shed light on the social consequences of unscrupulously profiting off of women, betraying their trust, and not showing acceptable forms of remorse.


NHK News Web. (2018). ”Haregi trouble: Shachou ga kaiken shi chinsha." [Finest Clothes Trouble: CEO holds press conference, gives apology].

Grahamn, Bryan. (2018).  "'I was molested by Dr Larry Nassar': how the gymnastics sexual abuse scandal unfolded."

Rachlinski, J et al. (2013). "Contrition in the Courtroom: Do Apologies Affect Adjudication?"  Cornell Law Faculty Publications. Paper 604.