Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Culture / Society (page 1 of 68)

How to weaponize editing: The Daily Stormer’s style guide

Ashley Feinberg has a scary but great piece dissecting the Daily Stormer’s style guide.

It’s more than a style guide for writing internet-friendly neo-Nazi prose; it’s a playbook for the alt-right…. The site’s stylistic decisions, the subjects it covers, the specific racial slurs it employs — all are consciously chosen for the purpose of furthering The Daily Stormer’s ultimate goal, which, according to the style guide itself, is “to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses.” Everything is deliberate.

The guide is particularly interested in ways to lend the site’s hyperbolic racial invective a facade of credibility and good faith. Or at the very least, in how to confuse its readers to the point where they can’t tell the difference. The Daily Stormer, for instance, uses block quotes for much the same reason Richard Spencer stuffs himself into vests…: it allows writers to borrow some of mainstream media’s air of scrupulousness and good hygiene.

I know that manipulation is nothing new– rhetoric and music were seen by ancient Greek philosophers as tools for manipulating the passions of the unwise– but I think we’re living in a Cambrian explosion for manipulation, thanks to two trends: the weaponization of behavioral economics or persuasive technologies, A/B experiments that aim to fine-tune products to suit our preferences, and technologies technologies that behave like car salesmen– adjusting their sales pitches based on our previous purchases and current behavior; and the growing use of these strategies for ends that are, at best, sketchy. When Facebook encourages you to spend time with friends on Facebook so they can track your social graph and sell it to advertisers; when games are designed to have no clear end-point so you feel like you’re abandoning your friends if you stop playing; when the Daily Stormer uses humor and block quotes in an effort to normalize virulent anti-Semitism; it becomes easy to assume that these kinds of efforts are lurking in the background of every interaction or communication.

The story of Max, the library cat

The Washington Post as the low-down on “Max, the cat who lost the library but won the Internet:”

Max spent time on the streets as a young cat, so he learned to roam early on. About a year ago, he was adopted at a shelter by Connie Lipton, who lives across a small street from Macalester, where Lipton’s husband teaches religious studies. Max made very clear that he wanted to continue roaming, Lipton said in an interview Wednesday, so they let him. And roam he did, making friends across campus. Last summer, Max hung out at a reunion event that featured live music and a large tent. He enjoyed spending time on a vast green where students play Frisbee. He frequented student housing down the street, entered the science building more than once, and stopped by the Spanish and Portuguese department….

But when Max began entering the library, zipping by students whose arms were loaded with books, “he started getting in trouble,” Lipton said.

“one of the key markers of the class divide is confidence”

Rebecca Nicholson writes in The Guardian about social mobility in the UK:

I was born into a working-class family in north Lincolnshire…. I was the first in my family to get A-levels, and then the first to go to university…. [At Oxford] I learned that one of the key markers of the class divide is confidence – if you’re born into an advantaged background, confidence practically comes home with you from the hospital; otherwise, you have to learn it as carefully as you would a musical instrument.

I’ve been interested in the question of why lots of history’s greatest social reformers, saints, and other religious and social leaders come from backgrounds that were somewhere between privileged and princely; and I think that this kind of confidence is one of the keys. Nicholson puts her finger on the way privilege makes confidence– confidence in one’s self, in the fairness or easiness of the world, and in a belief that one can change it for the better– simply part of one’s character and inheritance, rather than something you have to struggle to claim.

“Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You”

Lindy West admits that “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.” It’s a terrific piece:

When Allen and other men warn of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” what they mean is an atmosphere in which they’re expected to comport themselves with the care, consideration and fear of consequences that the rest of us call basic professionalism and respect for shared humanity. On some level, to some men — and you can call me a hysteric but I am done mincing words on this — there is no injustice quite so unnaturally, viscerally grotesque as a white man being fired….

In a just system, Weinstein would have faced career-ruining social and professional consequences the first time he changed into a bathrobe and begged a horrified woman for a massage. In a just system, the abuse wouldn’t have stayed an open secret for decades while he was left free to chew through generation after generation of starlets. Weinstein’s life, like Cosby’s, isn’t the story of some tragic, pitiable downfall. It’s the story of someone who got away with it.

The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy. The cost of being Harvey Weinstein is not getting to be Harvey Weinstein anymore. We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them. Happy Halloween.

I look forward to the day when great writers don’t have to spend time writing about things like this (I wish I could write as well as her), but this is the world we live in.

Startups and “the Frightful Five”

One of the arguments you regularly hear in Silicon Valley is that we shouldn’t worry about the power of Facebook, Apple, or Google (or Amazon and Microsoft) because in the fast-moving world of technology, all glory is fleeting: their market share could be be destroyed by a plucky upstart tomorrow. Farhad Manjoo explains in “How the Frightful Five Put Start-Ups in a Lose-Lose Situation” why this is nonsense: essentially, today’s companies are better at watching the landscape, identifying promising new ideas, and copying those it can and buying those it can’t:

Because today’s giants are nimbler and more paranoid about upstart competition than the tech behemoths of yore, they have cleverly created an ecosystem that enriches themselves even when they don’t think of the best ideas first. The Five run server clouds, app stores, ad networks and venture firms, altars to which the smaller guys must pay a sizable tax just for existing. For the Five, the start-up economy has turned into a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose proposition — they love start-ups, but in the same way that orcas love baby seals.

Come for the salmon and natural beauty, stay for the white nationalism

This piece by David Lewis about a white nationalist convention in Seattle is something:

Seattle had somehow gone from virtually no open racists (although I’ve worked retail at places with pretty open whites only management policies) to being the kind of place to which you’d travel all the way from Sweden to study a new style of racism….

Former skinhead movements fizzled out because, in addition to requiring fanatical racism from their followers, they also required severe lifestyle changes like going off to live in survivalist compounds or being a Nazi 24/7. The Johnson Seattle approach to racism is more like, “let’s get a cake for Hitler’s birthday after picking the kids up from soccer practice,” making it more compatible with the way a lot of these people already live and the way they grew up.

Between this and the Buzzfeed article about Milo, it seems clear that while in most circles it’s still socially unacceptable to be openly white nationalist, they’re trying hard to change that.

Dunkirk and different forms of heroism

My family and I saw Dunkirk late last week, and I spent the next couple days turning it over in my head. It is, of course, a really great movie, as you would expect from Nolan, and one that does a certain amount of time-bending and bobbing and weaving with narrative. The performances are terrific, and the end of the film is just wonderfully bold.

But Dunkirk also defies virtually every wartime movie convention. There’s no movie reel explication, no character has their backstory detailed in conversations over rations or a bottle of wine found in an abandoned farmhouse, the politicians and generals are completely absent; all that’s left is people, many of whom look pretty similar (uniforms and haircuts will do that), trying to escape the machinery of war.

And, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out in her essay “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks,”* trying to help each other escape the machinery of war:

the emotional heart of the event has nothing to do with battle – give or take a bit of dogfighting – and everything to do with generosity; unarmed sailors saving strangers for no better reason than that they needed to be saved…. Up close, all you can see in a thousand small boats, defenceless against the skies, is what Thatcher dismissed as the “soft virtues”: humility, gentleness, sympathy. Of her “vigorous virtues” – self-sufficiency, independence, rectitude – almost none.

Indeed, that is the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship. The mood of postwar Britain was the one that built the NHS, created social housing and signed up to the UN refugee convention. If anything is ever learned from bloodshed, and it would be better if we didn’t have to learn it repeatedly, it’s that there is no fit memorial to those who gave their lives but near infinite generosity between those who didn’t.

This reminds me a lot of Harry Leslie Smith’s writing about the legacy of World War II, and how at fantastic cost his generation built a postwar world that was not only peaceful, but incomparably fairer, more secure, and more prosperous for everyone, most especially people who had grown up poor during the Depression (as he had). Dunkirk, unlike most war movies, isn’t mainly about action and killing; it’s mainly about saving people. Even the dogfights are about shooting down German planes that otherwise would strafe and bomb British soldiers and ships, which makes it more like the action on the ground.

It also reminds me of some reading I’ve been doing on heroism, and how to think about it. In a series of essays (this one on “The Banality of Heroism,” is easily accessible), Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that people who act heroically voluntarily risk life and limb, or reputation or honor (as whistleblowers and reformers do); that they often have to actively navigate and overcome obstacles to undertake those acts; that they do so without expectation of reward, or even much expectation that their acts will be remembered. Heroism isn’t just something you exhibit on the battlefield or fighting criminals; it’s a quality people exhibit when standing up for justice, or opposing popular but wrong points of view, or rescuing stranded soldiers and allies.

So you go into Dunkirk expecting military heroism, and witness a very different sort: that kind of heroism exhibited by the first responders in the World Trade Center who risked life and limb to help people get out, or the heroism of people who help rescue strangers during an earthquake or flash flood. But better than most movies, Dunkirk makes the case that both varieties of heroism deserve our respect.

* (Of course, “It’s not what Nigel Farage thinks” is one of those lines that typesetters would be able to set in their sleep; they wouldn’t even need to think about where in their trays they’d need to reach for the correct letters, they’d done it so often.)

Do kids’ over scheduled lives crowd out grandparents?

My son was at a rugby tournament today (a Sunday), at a field that was a couple hours’ drive. So when I came across this piece by Louis M. Profeta I took notice:

Some years back, I wrote a piece that went viral, “Your Kid and My Kid Are Not Playing in the Pros,” and I got more than a thousand e-mails about the article. Most were supportive, some not, but what I was completely unprepared for was the correspondence I received from grandparents. For the most part, they were all absolutely heartbreaking. The central theme was that they did not know their grandchildren because travel sports had robbed them of weekends and Sunday night dinners and countless other opportunities to interact. Going to their baseball games in the middle of the summer — or sitting in a loud gym — was just not a bonding experience for them; it was physically exhausting. Besides, you can’t talk about rationing sugar during the war, or marching on the mall, or sitting through the Watergate hearings between timeouts. It doesn’t work like that, that’s not enough.

I’ve had plenty of Saturdays or Sundays where I was in the car for hours with kids, but the piece makes me wonder to what degree overscheduling kids’ lives comes at the expense of extended family. In these very highly scheduled lives, do we deepen horizontal connections with teams and interest groups but unintentionally weaken connections between generations?

“To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete”

Dylan Hernandez has an excellent piece in the New York Times about class and the SATs. Hernandez grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a working-class family, and talks about spending time in a summer program at Phillips Exeter.

His classmates that summer were in the main from families that were far better-off, and were “impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles,” as well as “truly interesting people.” But he was surprised to find that they were also serious SAT grinds:

The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete….

Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.

As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.

This seems to me a pretty accurate reflection of the way advantage and merit work in America today: most kids from advantaged backgrounds work hard to leverage the benefits of their upbringing; but they still enjoy those advantages.

How “weak parties and strong partisanship” brought us 2016

Political scientist Julia Azari has an essay on Vox explaining the rise of Trump in terms of “weak parties and strong partisanship:”

The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong…. it is a particularly dangerous combination [because] parties can’t control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Why is this a very bad combination? It encourages polarization between parties, and a heightened sense that people who belong to other parties, and the candidates they support, are evil. It creates an environment in which partisan voters can be mobilized to vote against the opposition even if they have strong reservations about their own candidate. It means that the apparatus of a political party can more easily fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s major principles, but succeeds in appealing to its rank and file.

And it also makes moderation much less likely in governing. Compromise with the other party seen as weakness, but each side is less likely to have things that the other wants or needs. As ideological purity becomes more important, it becomes more dangerous for politicians to engage in bipartisan deals, or to be seen as wavering or uncertain in their ideological commitment. And partisanship undermines institutions. As Azari puts it, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments,” or for “courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies” to be seen as trustworthy when citizens are inclined to “view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

And of course the bad news here is that the structural forces that gave rise to Trump are either not going to go away if he loses, or will overwhelm to GOP and Washington if he wins. One is hard pressed to imagine a cabinet consisting of his most ardent supporters and apologists serving as a balance against his authoritarian tendencies; and Capitol Hill hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage so far either.

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