Category Archives: Society

Dehumanization studies

This talk by David Livingstone Smith (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England in Maine) scratches the surface of an important, disturbing topic, and at 11:32 he points out an important omission in our study of history and war:

if we really do care about humanity and decency and peace, we should treat dehumanization with the same seriousness that we treated cholera and smallpox. We should devote resources to studying it. We should devote resources to disarming it. But the fact is, to the best of my knowledge and I know quite a bit about this, there is nowhere in the world where there is a center, where there is a department where there is a government agency, where there is an NGO specifically devoted to the study of dehumanization… If we want our future to be less hideous than our past… then this has got to change – it’s time we took dehumanization seriously.

I’m aware of many places for the study of the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as centers for peace and conflict studies – these could no doubt offer great insight. But to specifically study the psychological phenomena behind the atrocities we want to end, that would be a great step towards peace.

Upskilling for resilience

Donnie Maclurcan of the Post Growth Institute muses on the learning we need in building resilient communities – and rightly emphasizes collective knowledge:

Voids in our individual skill-sets are actually critical to building harmonious communities. As Bill Kauth and Zoe Alawan say, “We need each other, and we need to need each other”. Caroline Woolard of the New York City barter platform OurGoods elucidates this concept in sharing that, “When you take a class in a barter system you know the teacher needs you too”.
Thus, I recently found myself wondering, what range of skills might we collectively need in order to thrive in post growth futures?
…there is a great deal to be gained from more of our learning happening together, building shared resilience in the process.

He also makes a good first pass at mapping the skills we could be learning as a community, to build resilience. See Upskilling for Post Growth Futures, Together

Christian ministry without faith

What do you do if you’re a Christian priest or minister who no longer believes in God? Most likely you are afraid to confide in anyone, you don’t want to hurt those in your family and your congregation, and you have no other training.

Dan Dennett discusses this, describing six actual ministers who continue to preach and minister to their flocks, despite their loss of faith. (They remain anonymous, of course.) He then discusses the evolution of religion. (56 minutes)

It’s not sport if you’re just watching

I visited Bangkok in 2007 (coming by train, bus and fishing boat up the Malay peninsula). After settling in, I was asked “So, you’re here for the World Cup?” I looked at this English fellow blankly. World Cup? Turns out people were flocking to Bangkok from around the world, to watch men kick a round ball around on the grass.

My new acquaintance chuckled. “There’s two kinds of Australians traveling overseas. Those who can’t wait to find out what’s been happening in sport while they’ve been away, and those who leave Australia to get away from the sport.”  As for me, I don’t see how sports “news” makes it into actual news programs.

Playing sport is fun. Watching top athletes can be inspiring. But if you’re just watching someone else play, what you’re doing is not sport.

Fun with white supremacists

You might want to microwave some popcorn – this is only a minute long, but you’ll want to savor the moment.

White supremacist leader Craig Cobb hears the results of the DNA test from a black British host who’s thoroughly enjoying herself:

John Safran (the Australian provocateur who did some role-reversal with Mormons in Utah, asking if they’d heard of evolution and The Origin of Species) had a similar adventure with white supremacist leader Richard Barrett – a great story but with a sad, sordid ending, brimming with hypocrisy and exploitation.

Hat tip to Liz McLellan for the video.

Communication only succeeds when people hear you

Of communication and cultural blank slates…

Paul Romer is a prominent economist with a vision for “reform zones” in developing countries, with charter cities that operate independently of the rules and institutions that have failed to create wealth in the country as a whole. The idea was to invite foreign countries to help set up new rules and institutions and build the cities, experimenting with new ways of doing things, to find what would work to create wealth and end poverty.

But for years the idea had no traction. Part of the problem was an accusation of colonialism – which seems to make no sense if the country is inviting them in and asking for help. However, Romer is not a people person, and he couldn’t sell the idea, until he had help packaging it into a clear, emotionally appealing 18 minute presentation – i.e. a TED talk.

This led to him connecting with two Honduran government officials with a similar vision who had also had trouble selling their idea, Octavio Sánchez and Javier Hernandez. With the help of the TED talk, the Honduran government was convinced. In a matter of months from Romer standing in front of an audience at TED, a constitutional amendment had been passed to allow charter cities (ciudades modelos) and work had begun preparing for this grand experiment. (See the follow-up TED talk.)

But all was not well. Romer was perceived to be bossy – Hondurans expected him to work with them, but he was apparently dictating terms. International media consistently reported it as Romer’s vision, rather than recognizing the work and vision of Hondurans. Local opposition increased, Romer was isolated, and a dubious-sounding deal was made with powerful interests. The project failed entirely when courts ruled it unconstitutional, but not before an outspoken opponent of the project, human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo, was assassinated.

Romer plans to keep trying, and says he’ll do things the same way next time. He has little patience for emotion and sensitivity about who gets credit and such matters, and believes that such things should be put aside in the interests of an important project.

TED helped Romer package his message, but it apparently didn’t solve his fundamental communication problems, nor lead him to take a participatory approach to the project. Running a large project in a country with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions takes more than communication, of course, but with the team divided and national opinion shifting away from them, they had little hope of facing down major challenges.

A bonus lesson: A charter city can never be a completely blank slate – corruption, paternalistic attitudes, non-participatory approaches and other institutional and cultural problems are part of the institutions working to set up the new city, and they won’t disappear by passing a constitutional amendment.

Further listening: Self-Improvement KickThis American Life, January 4, 2013.

Women in startups

My friend Michelle is working with a startup incubator at her university, and asks:

  • Why are women under-represented in startups?
  • Why is this a problem?
  • What to do about it?

Please share your thoughts and/or relevant links in the comments. (If it’s directly relevant to Australia, that’s a bonus.)

Here is my friend’s message in full:

Hi there, My friend Chris and I have been having a discussion recently and he’s kindly agreed to bring some questions of mine to your online brains-trust – I hope you don’t mind me asking a few things that you probably discuss all the time. In the last year my University has begun supporting/funding an incubator for start-ups. I think it’s a great idea, and told them so – it’s the first in the country – but I also couldn’t help noticing that, in their last few rounds, *very* few of the leads on successful start-ups (or at least, those pictured to take place in the official photos shoots) were women. I took this up with them and, to their credit, they were very open to a discussion on the subject. I mentioned that I knew women were under-represented in tech and start-ups, and they acknowledged that there was more than one way for them to be a ‘first’ in this area. I also said that I knew there was a literature on this topic – although I wasn’t much familiar with it beyond that – and they asked if I could put something together for them. So at the moment I am knee-deep in opinion and stats and reports (much of it specific to North America, but useful nonetheless) from all over the web and beyond, and am pulling together what I have in three separate areas:

  1. Why are women under-represented in the start-up arena? (I know that the literature on women in STEM/IT has quite some history, and I will necessarily draw on that – but for the sake of readability I am trying to keep this focused.)
  2. Why is this a problem? (As mentioned earlier, this particular programme at my University is already open to acknowledging that the current male dominance is ‘a problem’, for various reasons – but I’m also well aware, from what I’ve already read, that there is a vein of argument that says, ‘an idea is an idea is an idea… who cares if a man or a woman has it? It should be judged on its merit alone’ and another that says, ‘look, if women don’t want to get involved in start-ups, for whatever reason, why force them?’. So any potential come-back along these lines I would like to disarm before it even has the chance to be raised.)
  3. What to do about it? (I am finding this question a particular challenge in this context, since a lot of what I’ve read so far says – unsurprisingly – that women’s career trajectories and breaks for child-rearing play a large part in the lack of (or loss of women from) tech careers and jobs. Given that here we’re talking, in the main, about undergraduate students (the programme is also open to postgrads and University staff, but what I see of the successful start-ups tells me that it’s mainly undergrads getting involved), the marriage-and-children element is not yet in play in a big way. I know that what this will likely leave instead is the ‘culture’ arguments – girls’ socialization to maths and science and IT, how far they are encouraged to pursue these, how much they want to get into an environment where they perceive there will be conflict, etc – and that these will be difficult to address… but I get a sense that the University wants to try and do that.

I guess you probably discuss this kind of thing all the time, and don’t necessarily want to trawl through it all again in this forum. If you do, I would be very appreciative! If not, I would be very pleased to have any suggestions for especially useful documents or stats or arguments you might have read and would like to share. I think this might be an opportunity to actually do something productive, since there is already a will to act: the why and what just need to be spelled out in such a way that action becomes both possible and as easy as possible. Thanks! Michelle


Milton Friedman: women should offer to work for less (!!!)

Milton Friedman got a few things right – I imagine that’s how he got the Nobel prize in economics, for starters. This post is about a couple of the things he got wrong.

For one, he said that the unions are to blame for apartheid and women should respond to sexism by offering to work for less.


Another memorable moment was his statement in December 2005 that “the stability of the economy is greater than it has ever been in our history, we really are in remarkably good shape. It’s amazing that people go around and write stories about how bad the economy is, how it’s in trouble…”

Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls on fellow atheists to show respect, compassion and understanding towards believers.

The context is the relationship between education and belief in a personal god. This belief declines from around 90% among the general public to 7% among elite scientists – small, but  still a significant minority of top scientists who believe in some kind of personal god who can intervene in the world.

At 2:39 Tyson says this:

So here’s my problem, here’s my concern: When you’re educated and you understand how physics works, and you’re mathematically literate, and you understand data, and you understand experiment, and you go up to someone who doesn’t have that training, and they’re religious, and you ask them “Why are you you religious, you’re believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you?”, that’s unfair.
It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason: until that number [the 7% of elite scientists who believe in a personal god] is zero, you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. These are scientists among us in the National Academy of Sciences who are religious and pray to a personal god and I know some of them. And you’re fighting the public for their religious beliefs?
Figure that one out first, because maybe there’s an asymptote. Maybe you can’t change everybody. Maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe there’s something in the brain wiring that positively prevents some people from ever being an atheist.
If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it, and you’ll never know it because you’re not one of them. So I ask you, first for compassion with the public, but you should target your exercise, and your experiments on understanding that number. Because that’s not zero. Yes it’s low, but it’s not one percent, it’s not one-half of a percent, or a tenth of a percent – it is seven percent – one out of fourteen.Neil deGrasse Tyson

How far to take this? I think Tyson himself demonstrates a great balance in his public life, speaking clearly and openly, with humor and respect.