Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

To automate, or not to automate? Is there value to the human element?

A Glimpse of the Future 

Last week I took a first look at some of the jobs that have been increasingly moving over to automation, and a few that might see more automation and fewer humans doing the work in the future.

In some cases this might not be a bad thing. In other cases, the robots may not do as good a job as humans might. A couple of cases-in-point leap to mind: bank tellers and retail store checkers. Which do you prefer?

Love ’em or hate ’em (I know people who feel both ways), these machines seem here to stay.

I’m older than dirt, so I remember before they had such contraptions. I remember having to plan to get money before the bank closed for the day or weekend, and how you always talked with a human being before you could complete any transaction.

I kind of liked it (confession: I still don’t own an ATM card, out of security concerns. Planning ahead: it’s a thing.), but then, I live in the Midwest, where bank tellers and grocery store checkers are apparently friendlier than they are in some other parts of the world. I like to get to know them, in the fond hope that if someone they didn’t know came in and tried to wipe out my bank account, they’d question it. I feel quite certain my bankers at Kansas City’s Country Club Bank would. Thanks, guys!!

I also remember before there was a self-checkout line at the grocery store. I even remember before they had bar codes on the groceries (what a pain that was!), and you had to watch the checker to make sure s/he didn’t make an error or ring something twice that you only bought one of. Of course, now when the machine steals your ATM or credit card information, you have few ways of knowing, so is that a net gain? Depends on for whom, I guess.

There’s reportedly now a trend toward automating fast-food service, unfortunately driven in part by the industry’s resistance to paying its employees a living wage. I can see how an automatic timer to pull the fries out of the hot oil at the penultimate moment might be a good thing, but completely removing all or most of the people? That’s a farther stretch for me.

You see, we’ve actually had automated fast-food delivery for a long time. They’re called vending machines, and they aren’t actually noted for their-high quality products or their ambiance.

Granted, Mickey D’s isn’t long on “ambience” either, but I kind of like to chit-chat with the smiling teens or senior citizens at the counter. Call me weird, but I prefer dealing with people, over figuring out the interface on yet another dang gadget. I’ve kinda perfected the human interface, at least to some extent, and I have this weird notion that people should be respected, even when they have low-end jobs.

An automated fast-food “restaurant” looks an awful lot like a glorified vending machine to me.

As I see it, the whole key should be playing to strengths. Robots and automation do some things way better than people. Business Insider interviewed Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington School of Law with expertise in robotics, who said, “For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks.” All of the applications we’ve looked at so far in both this and the previous post on this topic have been in that category.

Calo thinks, however, that robots are now, or soon will be, capable of moving beyond “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” It’s a fine line to define (sorry for the rhyme), so where do we draw it? If robots and automation can lift us beyond those “dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks,” isn’t that a net gain? I think it definitely is. If they can ever design a Roomba that cleans the potty, I’m all in!

Ivan Fourie encountered this friendly store clerk in Kyoto 2006, and immortalized her in a photo.

But people right now (and for millennia) do/have done way better at some things than robots and automation have managed so far. The determination to push automation/artificial intelligence beyond those basic limits won’t stop. (we’re talking about humans with an intellectual challenge. Of course they’ll pursue it as far as they can).

But just as industry doesn’t want to talk about the full cost of their initiatives (including environmental and human damage), so the people involved in the “second machine age” don’t want to talk about ALL the costs of their initiatives.

Are these Chinese robots cute enough to be worth their cost in human devaluation? Are they worth the effort of putting “friendly store clerk” and her siblings all over the world into financial devastation?

Would their AIs put good people out of work that they need? Don’t we all need people who are a positive part of their community? The friendly 7-Eleven clerk who brightens our morning? The bank teller who keeps our accounts safe? The shopkeeper who grows her small business locally? The first-generation immigrant family who runs the gas station? The custodian who keeps the school clean and well-maintained?

What’s the human cost of the fancy machines? Do they make life better for the humans in the community, or only for the corporations running the businesses?

I think we’re at a crossroads, in our contemporary life. We can look globally at ALL the costs of the decisions we take, or we can keep on looking only at money in a system skewed to ignore some of the most important costs of all.

Our choice.

Our future.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the future-vision graphic. The photo of the Safeway self-checkout is courtesy of WonderHowTo, and the photo of the ATM machine is from The Northeast Today; many thanks to both of you! The cynical minimum wage meme is from Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report.” Your thanks is that I acknowledged where it came from, dude. You certainly illustrated my point, anyway. Many thanks to NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for the photo of the automated fast-food restaurant. I am grateful to Ivan Fourie’s Flickr Photostream for the the friendly store clerk’s photo. Many thanks to Business Insider for the photo of the Chinese food service robots.


The Artdog Images of Interest

Mothers, 1919, by Käthe Kollwitz
Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorothea Lange 
Syrian Refugee Mother and Child, 2015, by Tara Todras-Whitehall, for the IRC

IMAGES: Many thanks to Gerry in Art’s wonderful post on Kollwitz, for the 1919 image Mothers, to the indispensable Wikipedia, for Dorothea Lange’s 1936 masterpiece, and to the “Uprooted” blog of the International Rescue Committee on Medium. 

The ‘medicinal art’ of Ricardo Levins Morales

I’ve been wanting to round out my mid-week “Social Justice February” posts with art–and I’ve found the perfect “poster man” for the topic. He is Ricardo Levins Morales. You may find that you recognize his work, but even if you don’t I hope you enjoy it.

Trayvon Martin-Ella Baker
I had seen this image before, but never knew who the artist was.

Posters have a long history in art. They haven’t always been appreciated for the art form they are, of course–Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example was scorned by other artists for his commercialism when he created what are now considered iconic images. And Alphonse Mucha tried to distance himself, later in life, from the Art Nouveau style he helped create with his marvelous posters.

Budget Priorities speaks to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ricardo Levins Morales, by contrast, has embraced the art of the poster-style image in his own unique way. The artist/activist has turned it into what he calls “medicinal art.” What does that mean?

History’s Perspective offers hope in an unjust world.

“when I work with any community I start with a diagnosis,” he explains in his online biography. “I ask what it is that keeps this group of people from knowing their power and acting on it. Not what has been done to them but wounds, fears or ways of thought keep folks immobilized.”

We Are the Mainstream

His work embraces social justice, the environment, empowerment for a variety of minority groups, and labor issues. I’ve collected a “mini-gallery” of some of my favorites here, but you can see many, many more wonderful pieces at his Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio website.

Environmental Justice

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio for all of the images shown in this post. I’ve linked each back to a page where you can purchase the image if you wish. Many are available in at least two formats.

Why can’t we be friends?

Sometimes folks just don’t hit it off right away.

Especially if they’re different in a lot of ways. Maybe they don’t look too much alike. Maybe they come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different belief systems. Or speak different languages.

Does that mean they’re doomed to hate each other?

We humans get crosswise with each other, too. But heck, we aren’t even different species.

Maybe the dog and the ferret are onto something.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Giant Gag, via Pinterest.

The beginning of the end?

The Artdog Quote of the Week 

As true today as the day he said it:

For the second year in a row, I plan to observe February with a special focus on social justice. In my opinion, these are more important principles than ever.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the “Social Justice Quotes” Pinterest pinboard for this quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Get drunk, light a fire, and eat dumplings or fruit! it’s Winter Solstice!

It’s the nadir of the year. The longest night, the shortest day. What’re you gonna do?

What else? Have a party!

That’s apparently been the Winter Solstice solution of choice for cultures all over the Northern Hemisphere since at least Neolithic times.

The famous triple-spiral design incised inside the Newgrange tomb, popularly thought to be Celtic, actually predates the Celts by several thousand years. It bears a striking resemblance to sun symbols seen elsewhere in northern Europe. The opening of the tomb precisely frames the rising sun of Winter Solstice.

Humans have undoubtedly been aware of the Winter Solstice for much longer than 5,000 years, but some of the earliest evidence that they took it seriously can be found at Newgrange, Ireland, where a Neolithic passage tomb that is thought to be at least 5,000 years old is aligned with the rising Winter Solstice sun.

I can’t find any archaeological evidence that those early Irish folk had alcoholic beverages, but it’s fairly likely. Fermentation is a process that happens naturally. Pottery jars discovered at Jiahu in China, that date back as early as 7000 BCE (about 9,000 years old) were found to contain the residue of a fermented beverage made from honey, rice, and hawthorn fruit, so it’s not hard to imagine that other people may also have created fermented drinks, but stored them in less long-lasting containers.

Patrick E. McGovern discovered that these 9,000-year-old pottery jars from Jiahu in China contained the world’s earliest known fermented drink.

Those are two of the four essential ingredients for a universally human Winter Solstice celebration: (1) knowledge that the Winter Solstice is a thing that happens, and (2) alcoholic beverages to drink. The other two are (3) Food for feasting, and (4) fires for warmth and light.

Maria Kvilhaug offers a detailed description of Old Norse Jól, or Yule traditions and cosmology. “The Yule celebration as a whole was often referred to as “drinking jól”, as in “to drink” yule. This descriptive term strongly suggests that drink was an important part of the celebration,” she wrote.

Greek Poseidon (left) and Roman Saturn (right) each were honored by their devotees with several days of drinking and feasting at the Winter Solstice.

The Norse weren’t the only ones who partied hearty on Winter Solstice. The ancient Greeks celebrated the Festival of Poseidon, god of the sea, with several days of drinking and parties. Perhaps better known these days is the Roman Saturnalia, celebrating a different god, but at the same time of year, and in pretty much exactly the same way–with feasting and lots of drinking.

In eastern Asia, the Winter Solstice festival of Dōngzhì focuses more on food than drink, with dumplings served more often in the north and dumpling-like filled rice balls called tangyuan served more often in the south.

Dōngzhì delicacies seem to focus on rice flour wrapped around assorted fillings. The main point: they are all warm and tasty.

The Iranian tradition of Yaldā Night also centers on food, especially red-colored fruits, and sweets. It is a gathering of family and friends to share the last fruits of summer and prepare for the leaner period of winter. The gathering continues until after midnight, the middle part of the year’s longest night, thus seeing themselves through an inauspicious time into a more hopeful period. Another traditional practice is reading or reciting poetry (especially the poetry of Divan-e-Hafez, sometimes used for divination of the future).

Hafez poetry and fruits help carry this Persian lady safely through Yaldā Night.

The fourth ingredient for a quintessential Winter Solstice celebration–especially one in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere–is a good, warm bonfire to light up the night and keep bad spirits at bay.

Most of us know about the Yule Log, which was adopted as a Christmas tradition throughout much of northern Europe. This is a large log, sometimes a whole tree, burnt through the course of the Yule season. If there was anything left, it sometimes would be kept to light the following year’s log. 

Large outdoor bonfires were often a feature of Yule, Beltane, midsummer and Halloween, in pre-Christian traditions. More recent festivals have combined the bonfire idea with the even more widespread and popular tradition of the Christmas Tree. After Christmas old, dried-up trees from many households (fire hazards, by that time) are sometimes brought together and burned in a public event.

San Francisco’s Richmond-area “Friends of the Rootless Forest” safely burn discarded Christmas trees on Ocean Beach for their annual “Post-Yule Pyre” event.


Many thanks to Knowth.com for the Newgrange tomb image (from a book by Michael and Claire O’Kelly; I couldn’t find a photographer’s credit). 

Many thanks to Patrick E. McGovern, the biomolecular archaeologist who did the analysis of the Jiahu pottery, for both the photo (thanks also to Z. Juzhong and the Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology), and for an interesting article about the find.

Many thanks to Gods and Monsters for the image of Poseidon (there’s an informative article at this link, too), and to Antiques.com for the photo of the Carthaginian marble statue of Saturn and the accompanying article about it.

I am indebted to Your Chinese Astrology for the photos of traditional Dōngzhì foods, and the informative article that accompanies them. 

Many thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the photo of the Persian lady reading Hafez while surrounded by fruits on Yalda Night. 

And finally, many thanks to the Richmond District Blog for the bonfire photo by “ampoda” (sorry no link available), and the article about the 2012 event by Sara B