23 August 2023

Tony Stark’s phone

Andy Warhol talked about the democratizing power of certain industrial age products.

You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Emphasis mine. This is what the Campbell’s Soup can paintings were about.

Not everything obeys that logic. The fantasy of the Batmobile reflects how a zillionaire who is (or has access to) an engineering genius can have a much better car than you, because it benefits from using rare materials, labor-intensive machining on the parts, more time from a mechanic devoted to tuning and maintainance, et cetera.

Software and consumer electronics are mostly like a Coke. Tony “Iron Man” Stark in the movies having a much better smartphone than you do, but this does not make sense. The hard part of making a smartphone is the up-front design & development of the chipset and the software. Once you have covered those costs to make one, making additional copies of it is very cheap. Everyone can have the best.

I have long joked that Apple’s business model was spending enormous fortunes to make the toys Steve Jobs wanted, and then covering the cost of doing that by selling identical copies of his toys to everyone else.

If you ask me, the implications are not just democratic but socialist.

17 August 2023

Dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must

On Twitter, Julian Sanchez offers a news clip featuring video (starting at 5:08) of Roger Stone dictating a Trump campaign memo two days before the 2020 election:

Starting at 5:08, Stone says:

Although state officials in all fifty states must ultimately certify the results of the voting in their state, the final decision as to who the state legislatures authorize be sent to the Electoral College is a decision made solely by the legislature. Any legislative body may decide, on the basis of overwhelming evidence of fraud, to send electors to the Electoral College who accurately reflect the President’s legitimate victory in their state, which was illegally denied him through fraud.
We must be prepared to lobby our Republican legislatures by personal contact, and by demonstrating the overwhelming will of the people in the their state — in each state — that this may need to happen.

Sanchez says:

So they were plotting to cry “fraud” and attempt to steal the White House even before the election.

Stating the obvious and all, but this seems relevant to the question of whether Trump believed what he was saying. They’d decided on this course before any of the specious “evidence of fraud” had even been fabricated.

Obviously I remember Trump planting the “if I lose they cheated” seed well in advance, once it was apparent he was likely to lose. But I hadn’t realized the whole scheme of pressuring state legislatures to throw out the results was being actively planned so early.

John Holbo expands:

[ deep breath ]

It’s worse. It’s so, so bad — so much worse even than that — that it’s hard to keep the big picture in view. But let’s try.

Trump was denouncing vote-by-mail as “dangerous” and “fraudulent” as early as April, 2020. So they were plotting to cry “fraud” and attempt to steal the White House even before the election. In fact, he made similar claims way back to 2016. All totally baseless.

But let’s just go back to April, 2020. As many have noted, as many Republicans’s have regretted, this was shooting himself in the foot. His voters believed him. He depressed his own turnout.

Why would Trump do that? He deliberately lowered his chances to win honestly because he calculated that doing so increased his chances to cheat — to steal the election by falsely alleging the election was stolen by Democrats. To repeat (this is so incredible but it’s true): he was so invested in stealing the election, even as early as April, 2020, that he calculated that it was worthwhile to sacrifice his chances of winning the election honestly, to increase his chances of winning dishonestly.

Can I really crawl inside his head and know this was his plan, not just his moment-by-moment instinct? Isn’t he just a guy who always screams ‘fraud?’ It’s like breathing? Yes. Even so. His Machiavellian mind, or lizard brain, as you like it, was enacting the plan by April. By April, he was putting an awful lot of chips on this:

Election night, Trump is ahead in at least some key states, and then we get up the next morning and he’s behind. Then he screams fraud. Then there’s total chaos, and Trump hopes to emerge holding the vote bag — somehow.

This has been his modus operandi in business for decades. Profit in the chaos of collapse. Trump is the guy who convinced me Gary Gygax was right. There is such a thing as “chaotic” as a stable alignment. Trump wants to do it the chaos way. He feels he’s strongest then.

I’ll say it one last time and move on to my next point: expending political capital, diminishing one’s own strength, to invest in capacity to convincingly allege fraud, based on nothing, shows intent to falsely allege fraud.

We want what we are willing to spend to get. Trump spent.

Next point: what are we forgetting about election 2020? What has faded in the rearview? And what are we forgetting about January 6, as well? What common denominator of both events - that seem so seared into our brains - has sort of slipped away?

Answer: the ex ante likelihood of way more confusion than there turned out to be, in the event. Epistemic chaos. The day before the election, it seemed so, so likely that there would be at least a few places in which the results would be legitimately disputed, after the fact. Maybe there would be violence on the day. But at least there would be nailbiters, jurisdictions in which something goes wrong, at least looks bad. Trump was planning on that. If there is any epistemic chaos, he can scream ‘fraud!’ and provoke a constitutional crisis.

Then it’s a jump ball and he figures Republicans are going to be more ruthless than Democrats in that sort of environment. (Probably right.) Plus there’s a Republican majority on the Supreme Court.

The fact is: there wasn’t any ‘epistemic chaos’ whatsoever. The election results were very clear, and no credible allegations of fraud emerged. Fox called it for Biden in Arizona on election night. 2000 mules is silly. The Kraken ain’t even a shrimp.

And yet, even with that level of crystal clarity, here we are, in 2023, and the 2024 Republican Prez nomination is all about Trump still trying to retroactively gaslight us about 2020. Imagine if he had had anything to work with. Anything at all, beside the pillow guy’s nonsense?

That is to say:

  • Trump was planning on chaos.
  • chaos seemed awfully likely.
  • if there had been chaos, he might have pulled it off. It came shockingly close to working with no chaos.

Which brings us to January 6. What went wrong on January 6 for Trump? The same damn thing that went wrong on election day: no chaos. Of course there was plenty of chaos on January 6, but no epistemic chaos. No real uncertainty about what happened or who was at fault.

Trump was bargaining on some clash that was more ambiguous. Imagine if there had been some Antifa there. Imagine if anyone on the left had done anything wrong - even one thing that even looked sus - on that day? Imagine if the left had not been pure as Caesar’s wife on Jan 6?

But in fact it was totally clear that it was Trump’s fault. It’s all on damn film. There aren’t any real doubts. And still Trump has convinced his followers and he leads the Republican Party. Imagine if there had been actual moral confusion — as opposed to just violence — on the day?

Trump was planning all along to leverage reasonable doubt, on election day, on January 6, to steal the election. He figured he could make doubts break his way. And I think he was probably right.

Because there turned out to be no doubt. And he’s still making a show of it, with absolutely nothing to work with. No one even has a theory anymore about how 2020 was stolen. People at least think they have a blurry snapshot of Bigfoot. So, to conclude this thread: yeah, they were planning to cry ‘fraud!’ and steal the White House as early as early November. Trump was demonstrably planning it as early as April. Heck, he was probably vaguely planning it from November 7, 2016.

But who knows? Maybe, after he won that first time, he planned to ‘go straight’ for a change. Maybe victory went to his head and he dreamed of being a great President by non-fraudulent means. I’m willing to believe he dreamed of that for a day or a week. I’m not such a cynic!

Califia’s Law

Patrick Califia’s essay “Whoring In Utopia” offers a powerful provocation:

  • Utopian social & political visions implicitly assume that in an ideal society sex work would not exist
  • Examination of that assumption reveals it as foolish at best and poisonous at worst
  • Contemplating what utopian sex work in a utopian society might be like is an illuminating exercise for considering our values and ideals in utopias, sex work, and sex in general

I first read it back in the 20th century. Just now it inspired a hypothesis which — in the spirit of provocation — I offer in a voice of certainty:

Califia’s Law

Just as a system which does not make things better for sex workers does not make things better for everyone, a system which does make things better for sex workers will make things better for everyone.

I have a couple of stories about this from my work as a user experience designer demonstrating how huge a blindspot most people in the industry have around sex work.

PhotoBug (not their real name)

A photo-sharing platform — something like Instagram or Flickr — wanted to court professional photographers. They talked about making it easy for folks like your local portraitist to sell high-quality prints and stuff through the service.

“Cool,” I said. “I can design a solution for that. What will be your stance toward porn?”

“Oh, we just will not allow that, obviously.”

“Okay, do you need help with your curation tools, too?”

“What ‘curation tools’? Porn will not be allowed.”

“Um. Well. If you forbid porn on your platform, you have to check every post to make sure it is not porn. Robots can help, but you need people to look. Those people need tools, you need to set policies, and you need to get that set up right away because sex workers are early adopters.”

“Oh no!” said the PhotoBug people. “We don’t want to do all that.”

“There are other approaches,” I told them. “For example, since you are building the infrastructure, you can make two services: PhotoBug and SexyPix. The clever bit is you make the margin for the photographer better on SexyPix, so sex workers do not show up on PhotoBug because you give them a better alternative.”

“But then we are maintaining a porn site! No way!” said the PhotoBug people.

“Okay, then you have to start building out your curation capacity now, as fast as you can,” I told them.

“Let’s stop talking about this. We won’t allow porn. We are paying you to design this for serious photographers.”

PhotoBug were entirely serious in thinking that they would simply “not allow porn”, they therefore did not need to address it in their design, resources, or business model. I was out of line in raising the question.

Guess what happened later.

NiceVideo (not their real name)

A company “democratizing video” asked for a design for “ordinary people” sharing video which was not just YouTube.

I said, “Okay, you have a lot of people posting videos of their kids’ birthday parties to public YouTube because it is easy to send the link to Grandma. It would be better to have a private solution easy enough for anyone to use.” Then I figured out how to do it. Users could create a collection of videos with a list of people who were allowed to see it; people on the list got notified when new videos were posted.

NiceVideo loved it.

I pointed out how the solution would also be useful to sex workers and pirates. The NiceVideo executives said that I should not worry about that, I was being silly.

To my knowledge, they never implemented any curation. They did have problems with server load, though.

Obviously the tech industry has repeatedly made moves hostile to sex workers. I can report that stupidity and consequent panic are every bit as powerful a force as malice, if not more.

16 August 2023

Maestro, cultural politics, and the Nose

I have watched this trailer a few times and looked at the promo pictures and I have a Take.

This Jewish guy thinks the nose is a bad mistake but an honest mistake. The distinction is worth making.

Criticisms like this widely-circulated comparison of images by Joel S <@jh_swanson> go one step too harsh.

Left: Bradley Cooper with his prosthetic nose, playing Leonard Bernstein.

Right: The actual Leonard Bernstein.

This isn’t about making a non-Jewish actor look more like Leonard Bernstein; it’s about making a non-Jewish actor look more like a Jewish stereotype.

I vigorously agree that in historical and cultural context, a Jewish character with a cartoonishly exaggerated nose — especially a real person whose appearance we know — is Doing Antisemitism. There are shots in that trailer where the prosthetic makeup on Cooper’s nose is way too much. The trailer is Doing Antisemitism.

My partial defense of The Nose

So where do I differ from readings like Joel S’s? Why call this an “honest mistake”?

I imagine that a lot of folks have an image of Leonard Bernstein in their mind much like mine. I picture him in late middle age when — as with everyone as they grow older — his nose was a discernible bit bigger than when he was young:

Did you catch that two of those photos are of Bernstein and two are Bradley Cooper? One can identify which is which if one looks attentively, but I think those examples demonstrate how in some framings, at least as Older Bernstein, the nose works, helping a famous-and-thus-recognizable actor like Cooper to inhabit the role rather than read as himself. I understand why folks like Joel S read Cooper as making the bigoted assumption that Jewish person must be portrayed with an outsized nose, but the many shots which land well persuade me that the makeup prosthetic was a more thoughtful choice than just a manifestation of hard bigotry.

“Thoughtful” does not mean “thoughtful enough”, but carelessness is a meaningfully different problem from minstrelsy.

Plus I have to name how very uneasy I feel about folks I have seen using Joel S’s photo of young Bernstein to say “pshaw, Leonard Bernstein did not have a big nose”.

Notice a similarity in the framing in these early photos? I cannot help but suspect that this is because portraits which survived de-emphasized his nose. Because of antisemitism. I do not take these commentators as playing a trick, but I sure do want to steer well clear of criticizing the makeup in Maestro in a way which implies something wrong with Bernstein’s actual nose. I want to stand with the Adrian Brody Faction Of Handsome Ashkenazi Schnozz Pride.

Any biopic is hard

Portraying a famous real person in film is inherently tricky. There are legit reasons to avoid trying to make an actor resemble the real person they portray … or to work hard to try to achieve as good a semblance as possible. I think the two best Movie Nixons are Philip Baker Hall just looking like himself and Frank Langella in prosthetics looking the part.

The way this always-tricky choice is further fraught with the cultural politics of representation makes me think of an interview I saw with Denzel Washington back when Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film was new. He said something about how they worked to make him resemble Malcolm as much as possible, though “obviously” they could not lighten his skin to match the man he was portraying. I was an attentive enough young white guy to see why a white director must not change a Black actor’s skin tone with makeup, and why a Black director would hesitate to do it … but it was not obvious to me that it was entirely out of bounds for Black director. I say “not obvious” not because I am skeptical of Washington & Lee’s judgement but because it is entirely outside my lane. As an attentive white guy, I need to stay aware of my ignorance and reflect on what I can learn from surprises.

The opacity of Lee’s choice to my white eyes shows how the overlap between filmmaking and cultural politics produces choices as subtle as they are important.

This moment is hard

All this comes on the heels of recent lively conversation about media representation in general and of Jews in particular, which makes it sensitive. My own antennæ are up because of some recent examples:

  • I am cool with goyim making Mrs. Maisel because by my lights it lands in the Good Enough To Be Worth Criticizing range. And I respect Jews who feel betrayed by it.
  • I think Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder dances closely with antisemitic minstrelsy but succeeds in taking refuge in audacity. I personally love it, but I also have enough of a visceral understanding of Jews disgusted by it that I wonder whether maybe it should not have been made.
  • I hate Hunters with a purple passion. I wanted so badly to love a pulp adventure story about Jews hunting Nazis! But in a way I doubt I could ever truly communicate to someone who is not Jewish, the characters talk and act so much like a gentile’s idea of Jews, so lack a Jewish sensibility, that I find it repulsive. And yet there are Jews who delighted in it, and more power to them.

I imagine that Cooper wanted to tell a story about love — of friends and family and music — rather than about Bernstein’s relationship with Jewish life in America. But the context forbids ignoring it.

Plus I must add that despite having less personal stakes in the portrayal of Bernstein’s romantic life, I am actually more upset that the trailer implies that Leonard Bernstein was heterosexual. I sure hope that is misdirection.

Where I am coming from

Given all the cultural politics here, I must situate myself, to inform how one might read my read.

Do not infer that I claim to have the one true analysis. I stand in solidarity with Jews who have less forgiving readings. They deserve attention and support. I plan to attach links to good commentaries as I find them.

Though I refuse the position that only Jews have a right to comment on this at all, I expect readers to respect the heft which comes from me being an Ashkenazi Jew interested in questions of Jewish representation in pop culture. I have a long rant on this site about the cultural politics of Superman’s hair and his Jewish creators, for Rao’s sake.

In talking about not-Jewish Bradley Cooper’s responsibility here, I want to avoid the common move of faulting actors too readily. An actor needs to place enormous trust in a director making their performance function in the context of a work as a whole, so I believe we need to place responsibility for how characters are represented on directors’ shoulders, not actors’. (Uh, except Scarlett Johanssen, who needs to back up and examine her choices.) Cooper bears responsibility because he directed this film.

I differ from some social justice advocates in how strictly I think we need to watch who tells stories about whom. Obviously we need more stories about marginalized people authored by creators from those groups. And I want creators to embrace a cocktail of diligence and adventurousness in telling stories which include people who come from a different background from their own. When a work is thoughtful enough to be worth criticism for its inevitable failings, let us show our respect by criticizing those failings unsparingly without rendering the entire work illegitimate.

Plus anyone misrepresenting this thread by saying “golly, JK is Jewish and said this is No Big Deal” can fuck right off. That would be dirty pool even if that were what I was saying.

Do better, Cooper

I quite liked director Bradley Cooper’s ambitious, flawed A Star Is Born, I like that he took his swing at Maestro, and I suspect that the picture will prove to be pretty good on the artistic merits. I consider it legitimate for goyish Bradley Cooper to direct a film about Jewish Leonard Bernstein, cast himself, and try to increase his resemblance. But legitimate is well short of good. It does not look like Cooper did his homework carefully enough. He needed to involve and listen to Jews who would tell him ya gotta dial back that schnozz, Bubbeh.

I will reserve strong judgment of the cultural politics until after we have the entire film to consider, but there is already enough cause for concern that Cooper needs to address hard criticisms like these now.

Other commentaries

Daniel Fienberg, the Hollywood Reporter’s film critic, snarks about early set photos:

Sigh. My question, “How many pounds of latex would it take to make Bradley Cooper into an elderly Jewish man?” was supposed to be rhetorical. The answer, BTW, is “Enough latex that somebody should probably find it a hair problematic.”

My critiquing of Bradley Cooper converting to Latex Judaism caused me to fail to even notice Carey Mulligan as Leonard Bernstein’s first wife, who was Chilean-Jewish. That’s a lot of ethnic cosplay for one movie.

What Bradley Cooper’s Makeup Can’t Conceal from Yair Rosenberg:

If you haven’t heard about the controversy surrounding Bradley Cooper’s nose, you’ve made better choices than I have. (Well, until now.) Here’s the short version: Maestro is a forthcoming biopic about the renowned Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein. The film stars Cooper, who also co-wrote and directed it. Last week, the trailer for the film was released, revealing that the actor’s nose had been … enhanced for the screen. Outraged social-media users and the websites that write about outraged social-media users quickly turned on the movie, creating such consternation that Bernstein’s own family felt compelled to publicly defend Cooper and his creative choices.

As a Jew with a big nose and even bigger mouth, I have some thoughts.

First off, this debate isn’t really about the nose. It’s about a non-Jewish actor playing a famous Jewish figure. Few people would have complained if a Jewish performer—whether with a noticeable natural nose or a fake one—had been cast in this role. Rather, the problem was casting a non-Jew and then accentuating his features in a stereotypically Jewish fashion. At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with representation, such a casting decision compounded by the attempt to disguise it felt like a cartoonish affront to the entire enterprise. Cooper’s artificial nose is not anti-Semitic, but it is understandable why many found it off-putting. Something need not be bigoted to be a bad idea, especially in an industry that today claims to take care to avoid evoking stereotypes of minority groups. That the studio did not anticipate the fuss over Cooper’s prosthetic suggests an institutional blind spot.

But although Cooper’s critics have a point, their proposed solutions would actually make the situation worse. Our cultural conversation is enhanced, not diminished, when diverse performers inhabit other communities and humanize them for audiences. And Jews should know this better than most. After all, though they comprise just 2 percent of the American population, Jewish actors have been able to portray a wide variety of non-Jews on-screen, to the great benefit of both American Jews and American culture (just ask fans of Harrison Ford, Daveed Diggs, or Natalie Portman). Insisting that Jewish roles go exclusively to Jews could constrict rather than broaden the space for Jewish performers, and relegate aspiring Jewish actors to a narrow niche.

The truth is, just as it’s possible for Jews to sensitively portray non-Jewish characters, it is possible for non-Jews to empathetically embody Jewish ones. The merit of Cooper’s portrayal will be determined not by the nature of his nose but by the quality of his performance. The real question is not whether non-Jews can play Jews, but whether they can do the Jewishness justice. To take one example, the problem with the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, is not that the trailblazing Jewish judge is portrayed by the non-Jewish Felicity Jones. It’s that the feminist jurist’s deep and abiding Jewish identity was almost entirely effaced from the story.

Leonard Bernstein’s musical career similarly cannot be disentangled from his Jewish commitments. In a 1989 interview, the conductor spoke of how his calling was first kindled in synagogue, recalling how “I felt something stir within me, as though I were becoming subconsciously aware of music as my raison d’etre.” Bernstein’s first complete surviving composition was a setting of Psalm 148. Over the course of his life, he wrote more than 20 Jewish works. His first symphony, Jeremiah, was named and modeled after the biblical prophet of lamentation. His third symphony is called Kaddish, after the Jewish mourning prayer, and alternates between the Hebrew and Aramaic of the original text and Bernstein’s haunting English words, which are rife with biblical references to sources as diverse as the Song of Songs and the Book of Job.

Bernstein saw the piece, in which the speaker argues openly with God, as fundamentally Jewish. “Our great Judaistic personalities of the past, including Abraham, who founded Judaism, and Moses and the prophets, all argued with God,” he said in a 1985 interview. “They argued with God the way you argue with somebody who’s so close to you that you love so much, that you can really fight.”

As the conductor’s longtime assistant Jack Gottlieb put it, “Bernstein may not have been traditionally observant, but he was deeply Jewish in every other way. In fact, he once described himself as a ‘chip,’ not off the old block, but ‘off the old Tanach,’ the Hebrew acronym for the complete Bible. As a teenager he even briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a rabbi.” Judaism was not incidental to Bernstein’s life; it was essential.

Hollywood has shown that it can manufacture a Jewish nose. But can it tell a Jewish story? A mass-market feature film is unlikely to dive deeply into its subject’s Jewish background, which might be confusing to general audiences. But that doesn’t mean the movie can’t make artful allusion to the material. If Maestro manages to encompass Bernstein’s Jewish commitments, then it will have truly captured a reflection of the artist. If not, no amount of makeup will obscure the absence.

02 August 2023

Meta-communication, dishes, and justice

With Twitterpocalypse upon us, another captured thread.

It starts with a gendered norm about working on shared tasks, and a word of advice:

Fellas, come correct at dinnertime by jumping on washing dishes earlier than feels natural. You should feel like you are being pushy about seizing the dishes.

The tricky thing is that white American men and women learn different patterns for working together. (Keep the usual caveats in mind about generalizations as I break down how this is harder than it sounds.)

When men work on a task together, there is a whole territorial thing; one cannot join in without an invitation, and there is a lot of explicit discussion of who is doing what. Women have different norms. Among women, a good citizen just steps in and shares the work.

Men must resist an impulse to ask “Can I help with the dishes?” When women ask each other if help is necessary with these kinds of chores, they are signaling that they want to be excused from doing it; the ritual reply is, “no, it’s fine, I’ve got it”. So asking that gets read as double-unhelpful: not only not-helping but asking for approval for not-helping. Plus, women working together on a routine task do not talk about the task itself, they talk about something else, so men must also resist a tendency to confuse things by getting into anything more than than minimal necessary discussion of who will load the dishwasher or whatever. Add these communication disjoints to deep sexist assumptions and simple laziness, and you get women doing all the dishes yet again.

I find that the best way to outfox this communication pattern stuff is to clear a few dishes before everyone has finished eating. If you wait until everyone is done and had a moment, women will suddenly do it when you blink and you are that lazy shmuck.

There is a reverse version of this, when women jump into working on a task with a group of men uninvited. It disrupts men’s expectations of how one should do those things, and the surprised men say, “Hey, hold it a second, don’t mess with that.” Women come away reading the communication pattern as a demonstration that the men are just sexist shmucks hostile to women working with them.

When one leaves one’s gendered lane, the meta-communication patterns push back and people misread each other as “rude”, reïnforcing a gendered division of labor even among people who reject an expectation that some work is for men and other work is for women. None of which is to say that there are not also conscious and unconscious sexist biases in play in these situations; of course there are. The meta-communication gap compounds those biases and is compounded by them.

This fits together with what work is gendered and how. Men are given Changing A Tire type stuff one does infrequently, making it more important to discuss explicitly. Women are expected to do routine, familiar, repetitive work. Through a feminist lens, one sees how The Patriarchy wants the work it assigns to women to stay socially invisible: don’t talk about it, and say you don’t need help, et cetera.

Erika Hall observes:

This happens in the workplace as well. When we were doing gender bias workshops, some of the biggest problems we encountered were around invisible work and structural incentives. That’s the biggest flaw in most unconscious bias training, the assumption that the issues are totally cognitive and interpersonal, and not at all structural.

Marco Rogers describes another example on Twitter:

Here’s something I've been studying on here for a bit. A lot of men, seem to have been conditioned to think that telling someone that you disagree is the same as asking them a question. Like the way they learn to engage is by creating a conflict. I don’t think this is a small thing. In fact, I think it is the source of a lot of the unintentional frustration that men cause on here. (I’m only talking about those who actually “mean well”.)

It has been helpful for me to see this as unintentional conditioning separate from intent. At least for some men (including myself). Ever since this occurred to me, I’ve noticed how even when men intend to ask “sincere” questions, it often comes in the form of a challenge.

This has a bunch of negative effects. It’s easily misunderstood as a bad faith challenge rather than an attempt to engage. There are a lot of bad faith challenges out there and they sound exactly the same. In fact those bad actors always hide behind “good intent”.

Engaging in the form of a challenge also puts all of the burden on the receiver to unpack what you mean to ask and what kind of response would be appropriate. You are implicitly asking for a tremendous amount of grace when you ask someone to navigate this unexpectedly.

I wanna be clear that even though we can give the benefit of the doubt in seeing this as a an unintentional learned behavior, that doesn’t the people who do this are off the hook. We still need to do better. We can learn to do better.

How do you disagree with somebody when you legit “don’t agree?” Do you think it's as simple as, “I disagree because ?” I guess I'm asking if you think disagreeing with an actual argument is sufficient to make it good faith? Seems like it, but what’s your experience?

I’m glad this thread is resonating with so many people. I wanna spend a little time on this question, which I’ve gotten a number of times today. Essentially what’s “the right way” to disagree? Be warned that a lot of this is gonna feel unsatisfying.

The first question a lot of us need to ask is “why does this person need to hear that I disagree?” Twitter is still largely a uni-directional medium. People post a tweet because they want to express themselves. Not because they’re asking each individual if they agree or disagree.

I’ve talked about this a lot in the past. This is hard because there’s this subculture of men that have decided Twitter is some kinda Thunderdome of ideas and direct debate. “Why post something if you didn't want a response?” Please stop doing this.

Instead, ask yourself what it is that you actually want out of this exchange. Start by framing the conversation you want to have. Do you want them to help you understand their comments? Try saying that first. “I’m not sure I understand, would you be willing to expand on this?”

Taking the time to set context and frame conversations before diving in is a huge part of effective communication. More so, it gives the other person the opportunity to reframe the conversation or tell you they're not interested.

I happen to know a particular consequence of this one which crops up a lot in science eduction. There is a gendered pattern in how people tend to prompt for help when they half-understand something. Men tend to ask a more directly challenging prompt: “It does ... X? Why doesn’t it Y?” Women tend to prompt for an explanation in a positive form: “So it does ... X?” This leads male teachers acting in good faith to still fail to support women students. They hear the prompt they recognize from male students, and offer further explanation, but misread the common prompt from women, hearing it simply as uncertainty, unhelpfully saying, “yes, that’s right”, and moving on. The teacher sincerely attempting to address female students nonetheless ends up answering men’s questions and brushing off women’s questions.

I have a related example from a website about these kinds of breakdowns.

Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.

In other public contexts, too, such as seminars and debates, when women and men are deliberately given an equal amount of the highly valued talking time, there is often a perception that they are getting more than their fair share. Dale Spender explains this as follows:

The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.

In other words, if women talk at all, this may be perceived as 'too much' by men who expect them to provide a silent, decorative background in many social contexts. This may sound outrageous, but think about how you react when precocious children dominate the talk at an adult party. As women begin to make inroads into formerly 'male' domains such as business and professional contexts, we should not be surprised to find that their contributions are not always perceived positively or even accurately.

It is a teacher’s responsibility to have the skill to overcome these meta-communication challenges with students and support them all equally, but it is very hard, requiring skill and grit even if one knows what to look for.

Consider how the ask-by-challenging pattern plays in the other direction, when a woman is describing her situation and a man experiences sincere confusion and wants to ask for help understanding better. When a fella asks “you say you are experiencing ... X? why isn’t it Y?” women have every reason to read that as a challenge, a refusal to believe and accept their experiences. Not least because of course it all too often is!

One of the tough problems in social justice in our moment is grappling with even registering the difference between good faith and bad faith engagement. We have a lot of bad faith actors deliberately feigning good faith engagement. The particular meta-communication pattern I am talking about comes across a lot like the annoying, deliberately time-wasting troll tactic of sealioning. Part of the perniciousness of sealioning and other anti-social-justice trolling is that it is a deliberate attempt to train all of us to jump to a presumption that others are speaking in bad faith, which throws sand in the gears of all of our ability to talk.

The corrosion of our ability to presume good faith is very severe. I have made the “I hope it’s okay if I push back on this a little. I’m not sure if it makes sense because of X. Am I misunderstanding something?” move Rogers recommends many times and been read as disingenuous. I respect why so many people are in that place but it does not make it any less frustrating for all involved.

And while Rogers describes how fellas should re-tune how we communicate — and I agree with his recommendations — I also have to confess how tricky and discomforting that adjustment plays out. Something deep in me objects that if I don’t frame some questions as “why is it X, why isn’t it Y” I am depriving the other person of clarity about where my confusion lies. Not using my deep-seated pattern feels clumsy, evasive, and rude. Even knowing it is not rude but polite, it still feels wrong every time I do it.

This visceral discomfort one feels stepping outside of one’s culturally-inscribed meta-communication patterns is part of why re-training them in one’s self is so hard — and part of why the skill abandons us in the fraught conversations when we need it most.

Even knowing that meta-communication is a thing at all is itself a difficult competency to develop. Describing these kinds of breakdowns to someone who does not already recognize the type sounds like a bullshit rationalization: “no, what I said was fine, you don’t understand what I really mean”.

In these meta-communication frictions, it is hard to resist the feeling that other people are stubbornly refusing to communicate and act in the natural, easy way … while they experience you as the stubborn, awkward, demanding one! Shifting to a radically different meta-communication pattern is very, very difficult. It requires both vigorous will to do consistency and sophisticated skill to do well. Even having first registered the thing with washing dishes back in the 20th century, I still have all too many inattentive moments when I screw it up.

People who call for others to use their preferred meta-communication rarely register how much they are asking. It requires a cultural competence in knowing that meta-communication is a thing, a skill in knowing the particular pattern which creates the particular error, and a skill in recognizing the pattern in the heat of conversation. There are a zillion of these little gendered meta-communication patterns. And a zillion more racial and cultural patterns. And a zillion more social class patterns. And so on. However dedicated one is, one cannot learn them all.

All this is political. Who has to adapt to whose meta-communication patterns to prosper? Having one’s deep-seated meta-communication patterns match those of people in positions of power is a profound form of privilege. Code-switching — taking on different meta-communication patterns than the ones one grew up with — is difficult to learn and demanding to do day-to-day.

And while I would like social justice advocacy to better address disjoints in meta-communication patterns, I also want to raise a yellow flag of caution about leaning too heavily on this account of why things go wrong. I am galled by examples like a fella claiming that women are misreading meta-communication when they register “mansplaining” … without him having bothered to look up the meaning of the term “mansplaining”, which is almost too on the nose.

More commentaries on this stuff worth a look:

On Twitter, Rickesh Lakhani addresses related stuff around housework and communication:

Hey, men who are with women. Ever say things like… “Have you seen the …” “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it” “But I do so much around here” “Why didn’t you ask me to do it?” “I do more than my friends” “Let me know if I can help” Then let’s talk about mental load.

Mental load is having to remember and plan for all of things it takes to run a household, which is a huge part of the work outside of the actual tasks. Normally, it's women who primarily take this on, and it's exhausting.

And it’s usually for tasks that are not as celebrated and often go unnoticed. Things like changing the sheets and towels. Planning out what meals are going to be for the week. Making sure there are the right sizes of clothes available for the children. While you are probably carrying out a lot of tasks and perceive that the workload is equal, it’s likely not when you factor in the thinking work. If you aren’t thinking, planning, coordinating, then it’s not equal.

I’m not saying that this is all men or all relationships, or that it hasn’t gotten better over time. But the mass exit of women from the workforce in the last 2 years is largely because of the household responsibilities that have defaulted to women, like childcare.

So what can you do? Take an active role in managing the household. Make a schedule or a list. Have regular conversations. Don’t wait to be told. Don’t assume that everything just magically happens. And celebrate all support of the household, even the unglamorous things.

I’m far from perfect here. I’m still practicing and catching when I find myself doing these things, which is more often than I would like. But I’m trying. It’s not easy unlearning decades of conditioning. But we have to because right now, it’s totally unfair.

There’s a whole other important recognition needed here, which is all of the single folks, lone parent families, and others who do it all solo. Big respect to all of you who make it work.

Some very insightful responses that warrant a couple of additions here: Sometimes couples agree to have one person do more of the planning. As long as the conversations are happening and each person truly agrees to what is happening and is happy with it, that’s what matters.

I’m speaking as a cishet married man with children, but this for sure plays out in other relationships as well. There are so many beautiful different relationships and families (LGBTQ2SIA+, siblings caring for elders, roommates) where mental load needs to be openly discussed.

Have had a few neurodiverse and disabled folks sharing that their relationships or households do things differently, or that they sometimes struggle with executive function. Thank you for sharing this. Hopefully, open conversations are happening that help to make things work.

There are other types of invisible labour too. Emotional labour (investing in the relationship), kinship labour which I just learned about (maintaining ties outside of the home, remembering birthdays), and others, again often taken on by women.

On Twitter That Electrical Engineer has a thread with a lot about the intersections of gendered meta-communication, decision fatigue, neurodivergency, and work which does and does not pay wages:

Someone has asked me what else I’ve observed. And oh boy — there’s another really messed up one. Men outsourcing mundane decision making to women and causing decision fatigue — meanwhile they get to preserve their brains for work. Let me look for the thread.

Then joking about “how women can’t decide what to eat" like it's a cutesy thing. Sir, your {insert} has been making so many decisions that her brain has shut down and won’t let her make any more. She's literally struggling with comprehending the stuff on the menu. Help her!

The human brain doesn’t have limitless decision making capacity - it has a bandwidth which when exhausted, someone struggles to think even the most basic thoughts. It’s why you’ll get shouted at for asking “where can I find the spoon”. That “I don’t know” is honest. The brain, at that moment, doesn’t have bandwidth to figure out where the spoon is - even when it's something they put somewhere every day. It's super easy for Autistics to realize this in themselves because our social bandwidth is near non existent - we guard the little we have.

And do you know what happens when women show up sick in hospital? They are told they are anxious. They are told “it’s all in your head”. Then when we talk about the things that make women anxious and affect their mental health, there’s clowns who want to center themselves.

This isn’t about me. Repeat that to yourself enough times. It’s about people who should start caring for themselves as much as they care for others. Because few people ask “how is the person caring for me doing?” They just take and drain. And that causes health problems.

We are anxious. We are fatigued. Some are burned out. Some are severely burned out. Someone decides to tweet likely explanations to other women. You get offended because “that’s not the case in my life as a man”. Well, great. Clap for your exceptional self and keep moving.

Articles I found useful on the topic:

Paul Ruebens aka Pee-Wee

Paul Ruebens was one of the few celebs I had sort-of hoped to meet because I had a personal story I thought they would enjoy.

I vividly remember watching the first episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I was a teenaged nerd, too old for it, but was curious.

The air of chaos built with meticulous craft awed me.

I was particularly struck by the genius of the Secret Word Of The Day. On Playhouse, Pee-Wee announced that for the rest of the day, if someone spoke the Word — that first one was “fun” — everyone should yell and wave their hands. They did it several times that episode, to the perplexity of the characters who had not gotten the Word.

I pictured adults across the country baffled by kids bursting into mysteriously synchronized pandemonium. Kids delighted by their shared secret. A perfect gently transgressive kid delight.

After watching Playhouse, Teen Nerd Me ate breakfast, hopped onto a bus, and attended a series of talks at UCLA by local science fiction writers, because of course I did. Dr. Greg Bear’s talk, informed by the research he had done for his then-new novel Blood Music, was the first time I heard about nanotechnology.

During that talk, Dr. Bear said, “XYZ would have applications which would be a lot of fun.”

And hearing the Word Of The Day, the Playhouse did its work and before I realized what I was doing, I reflexively waved my hands and exclaimed “aaaaaah!”


But I was not the only one. Almost half of the audience of a couple of hundred nerds also yelled and waved their arms at hearing Pee-Wee’s Word Of The Day!

Bear looked out at us in astonishment.

I will never forget the look on his face, or what he said.

All of you watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse this morning, too?”