Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Disrespecting Women's Free Choices

It is a truth universally acknowledged that women are underrepresented in corporate executive ranks. The reason, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino explains, is that women do not want to occupy those lofty positions. They are unwilling to make the trade-offs that the positions require.

Many researchers consider this to be evidence of a crime, of sexist discrimination. They are persuaded that having more women in more positions of executive authority makes a company more profitable. And yet, they rarely consider the simple fact that women who do not want to rise up the corporate hierarchy have a right to their preference, that they are free to choose how they spend their time and energy. And that perhaps we should respect them for as much.

The researchers imagine that people are wired to seek personal happiness-- individual self-actualization-- and that women who want to spend more time with their children are compromising their happiness. Researchers never seem to consider that women are often happy to spend extra time with their children, that men are not adequate substitute mothers, and that mothers are happy to fulfill their moral duty to care for and to raise their children. 

Apparently, these studies assume that exercising corporate power and earning gobs of money are the only real measure of happiness. They systematically disrespect women’s life choices because they are laboring under an ideological imperative that claims that career success is the sine qua non of human and especially female happiness.

These studies never ask whether or not children will suffer when their mothers abandon them. When Anne-Marie Slaughter famously quit her job as head of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, she explained that her absences from home had harmed her children. Her older son, cared for by his father, had been suspended from school, had started hanging around with the wrong crowd and had been picked up by police. 

Slaughter did what a good mother should do. She decided that her and her husband’s experiment in role reversal parenting had not worked. So she made a free choice and moved back home. Naturally, feminists rejected her for as much. They blamed it on the patriarchy. But, they never showed respect for Slaughter’s free choice. 

When it comes to freedom to choose, feminists often accept only one free choice. Any time a woman chooses to live her life in a way that does not promote feminist ideology, the ideologues trash her.

In her Scientific American article, Gino describes the gender disparity that exists in American corporations:

There is a striking gender gap in leadership positions across our society. Women represent 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, only 15 percent of executive officers at those companies, less than 20 percent of full professors in the natural sciences, and only 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms. Scholars of the gap suggest that some of the explanation relates to how people perceive and react to women – the gender-based discrimination we so often read about in the news, which is perpetuated by both men and women. Compared to men, research shows, women are perceived as less competent and lacking in leadership potential. They receive fewer job offers and lower starting salaries, and are more likely to encounter challenges to, and skepticism of, their ideas and abilities.

As for the possibility that there is something about being a woman that makes it more difficult to be a good manager, the professor does not consider the point. And, as for the Darwinian theory that a more powerful woman will be less attractive to men while a more powerful man will be more attractive to women, apparently this does not enter into anyone’s thinking. Anyone, that is, except for the women themselves.

For many women, being a manager is simply not satisfying and it is not worth the tradeoff.

Gino continues:

... women feel less happy than men when they occupy managerial positions, and expect to make more tradeoffs between life and work in high level positions. This points to a different way of understanding the problem and potentially solving it.

Naturally, she assumes, based on no real evidence, that women do not end up with the career that they want. It might be that they end up with the life that they want, but that does not seem to matter. She adds that companies with more women in executive roles are more profitable, message that apparently has not reached the immensely profitable companies in Silicon Valley. One repeats, yet again, that the company that was more aggressive in hiring and promoting women was Yahoo! How did that work out.

Thus, without knowing what kinds of companies are being referenced, I would be skeptical of these observations. If they are true, the marketplace will easily correct the situation. Companies that want to be more profitable will hire more women and companies that refuse to do so will fall by the wayside.

In Gino’s words:

Women may not end up with access to the type of career they want. As for firms, a recent paper based on data from nearly 22,000 firms globally found that going from having no women in corporate leadership (i.e., the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30 percent female share is associated with a 15 percent increase in profitability. Such benefits are due, at least in part, to the diversity in thinking and perspective that women and men bring to the table. As the researchers found, a single female CEO doesn’t perform better than her male counterpart when controlling for gender in the rest of the firm, but a higher rate of gender diversity throughout the organization does have an impact. There is a very good business case, then, for organizations interested in increasing gender diversity. But how can they get there, knowing that there are many reasons that may hold women back?

But, what if the women who occupy these high executive positions find themselves not having the lives that they want to have, not being able to spend time with their children when they want to do so? High executive positions are very demanding and very time consuming. When you reach the pinnacle of corporate success your time is no longer your own. Do we know whether these executive women are married or unmarried, have or do not have children?  Life has trade-offs and people ought to be respected for the trade-offs they make.

Gino remarks:

This is a question addressed in a recent paper by Brockmann and colleagues. In fact, the paper compellingly demonstrates that for women in positions of leadership, the level of happiness and life satisfaction is lower than that of their male counterparts.

She adds:

Top level positions in organizations come with many benefits, from higher pay to more influence, prestige and power. But they also require a larger time commitment. For women, that time commitment is often viewed as the need to make tradeoffs between family and work activities. Promotions to top positions in an organization, in fact, often involve sacrificing free time for money. And women realize that’s the case.

Again, why the subtle but persistent disrespect for the choices that women freely make:

he reason is that they see the position generating not only positive outcomes (such as money and prestige) as much as men do, but also negative ones (such as tradeoffs they’ll need to make and time constraints). That’s where men and women differ: in how much they predict these negative outcomes will affect their lives. The tradeoffs and constraints women predict they’ll experience when reaching high-level positions are related to the fact that, as we find in our work, women have a higher number of life goals as compared to men.

Researchers happily blame it on unsupportive men. This means that men should abandon their career goals in favor of their wives, regardless of the effect this will have on couple dynamics. We recall, yet again, that Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik did exactly that… and that it did not work out very well. One notes that such role reversal marriages require an ideological commitment that most people do not have and do not want to have. Being loyal to your ideas and being loyal to your children are not the same thing.

In Gino’s words:

Research has found that women often do not get the support they may need at home, when caring for house-related activities (e.g., doing laundry or making dinner) or when caring for children. It is possible, then, that women may worry their partner won’t step up and take over some of the domestic duties – and that such worry is larger for them than for men.

Naturally, Gino wants to rectify the situation and feels it is desirable to do so. She wants to create conditions that will induce women into making decisions that might not be in the best interests of their children:

Women may consciously decide not to climb the organizational ladder even when they are well qualified. Organizations and leaders can influence this decision, though. As suggested by the work of Brockmann and colleagues, they can do so by structuring and compensating managerial work differently. Building in more breathing space for leadership positions, and allowing for flexible career paths, are the types of solutions that could lead both men and women to reach high levels positions in organization and experience the happiness that can come with them.

Again, the question remains: how much do we respect women when they make choices that they feel to be the best for them and their children. And, if women are more engaged and more consumed by the work as executives what will happen to their children?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Look Forward, Not Backward

For decades now cognitive therapists have been helping us to dig our way out of the profession’s Freudian funk. When Aaron Beck discovered that psychoanalysis was useless in treating depression, he developed other techniques. In particular, he taught his patients to develop a more balanced view of their self-deprecating thoughts. He saw that these owed nothing to Freud.

When Martin Seligman advanced cognitive therapy he sought to help his patients to gain a more positive sense of their lives. In naming his field positive psychology Seligman was countering the bleak and tragic Freudian vision that had cast a pall over the field and over far too many people’s lives. As has often been noted, not least by yours truly, Freudian mythmaking is relentlessly negative. It tells patients that they need to be strong enough to face the horrors of their unconscious desires. The result is more, not less depression. Most honest psychoanalysts have figured out that their discipline does not treat or cure mental illness.

Now, Seligman and others are taking the next step. They are trying to rid our thinking of the notion that therapy involves dredging up the past, even retelling the story of our lives. As you can readily understand, if you are looking backward you are much more likely to walk into walls.

The authors also reject the notion, noted a week ago on the blog, that we ought to live in the present. They have discovered that the human mind and human well-being is based on our relationship with the future. Again, I addressed the point in my post last week.

Of course, envisioning future possibilities belongs to the world of policy analysis. Planning for the future and implementing the plan effectively is not what anyone would call medical practice. Seligman, along with John Tierney, lays out the case for directing our attention to the future. He argues cogently that the human mind is distinct for its ability to evaluate many different futures. But he does not explain how one decides which action to take in favor of which future. There are no scientific facts about the future.

For the moment, we will leave these questions aside and examine the arguments that Seligman and Tierney presented in the New York Times, yesterday:

Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

Behaviorists thought of animal learning as the ingraining of habit by repetition. Psychoanalysts believed that treating patients was a matter of unearthing and confronting the past. Even when cognitive psychology emerged, it focused on the past and present — on memory and perception.

As it happens, we are not mired in the past. Only misguided therapists insist that we turn away from the present in order to reconstruct the past. We are, the authors explain, prospective beings. We orient ourselves and our actions by considering future prospects and possibilities:

But it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.

Thus, psychologists are discovering that emotions are not recollections of past trauma and are not reactions to present situations. They are giving us information that will guide our future actions. Of course, we are obliged to evaluate a current situation before deciding what to do to counteract it or to profit from it:

Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.

Guiding a patient toward a more constructive future. Teaching him or her how to make plans and to implement those plans. Showing how to look forward, not backward. Surely, those are positive steps. It will be interesting to see how psychologists try to practice this form of personal policy analysis.

Researchers are affirming these points. They have observed that people spend far more time thinking about the future than about the past:

If traditional psychological theory had been correct, these people would have spent a lot of time ruminating. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.

The key to positive psychology and to consequential action and to having a sense of purpose is to make plans. It's like the difference between having a road map and flying blind:

When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times, presumably because planning turns a chaotic mass of concerns into an organized sequence. Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen.

The authors continue that depression involves a hopeless attitude toward the future. It also suggests that one can do nothing about it. Obviously, when drawing up a plan one is manifesting a confidence in the chance that things will turn out for the better, if not the best. Drawing up a plan and implementing it is far more constructive than simply repeating, after me: things will get better:

While most people tend to be optimistic, those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future — and that in fact seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present. While traumas do have a lasting impact, most people actually emerge stronger afterward. Others continue struggling because they over-predict failure and rejection. Studies have shown depressed people are distinguished from the norm by their tendency to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating future risks.

Interestingly, research is showing that even when people do look back at the past in order to reconstruct their memories, they are working to improve their ability to function in the present and to plan for the future. They are not trying to find the unadulterated historical truth or to discover what they really, really wanted.  They are evaluating present possibilities in terms of what happened in the past. They are using the past to set themselves on a better course for future actions:

The fluidity of memory may seem like a defect, especially to a jury, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a feature, not a bug, because the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.

People do not dwell on the past because, the authors say, there is nothing you can do to change it. And people are less preoccupied with death than some people imagine, because there is nothing you can do about that either:

Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trump in Arabia

Sometimes ceremonies speak louder than words.

When President Donald Trump touched down at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia he was greeted by King Salman. The king had orchestrated an over-the-top welcome, with a military flyover, a lavish cardamom coffee ceremony and a presentation of the kingdom’s highest civilian honor. One notes that the king rode into the city in Trump's limousine. Were they happy to see Trump? You bet. Were they thrilled to be done with Obama and Hillary? You can bet on that one, too? 

Trump did not bow to the king. Melania did not wear a head scarf. And the king stepped forward to extend his hand to Melania Trump. On Obama's last trip to Saudi Arabia Michelle Obama extended her hand to the king. The king refused to reciprocate.

Today, the city of Riyadh is festooned with American and Saudi flags, alongside banners picturing King Salman and President Trump. The two leaders signed a number of deals, too. It is more important, they seemed to be saying, to do business with each other than to sign peace treaties or to hold yet another election.

Compare and contrast this to the welcome the Saudis offered Barack Obama on his last trip to Riyadh, in 2016. Obama was greeted at the airport by the mayor of Riyadh. Of course, the Saudis despised Obama. The president had sold out Hosni Mubarak, had sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, had made a mess of North Africa. Had facilitated the war and the carnage in Syria, and had sided with Iran against Sunni Arabs… even to the point of giving Iran access to nuclear weapons.

The Saudis shows respect and friendship toward Donald Trump. They showed contempt for Barack Obama.

Of course, in America it’s nearly the opposite: Americans worship Obama like a Messiah. They are falling all over themselves looking for new ways to disparage Donald Trump.

How could this be happening? How could it be that King Salman and the Arab Sunni world is coming together in Riyadh to celebrate Donald Trump? Today’s events have not yet unfolded as I write this post, but clearly, Trump has accomplished something extraordinary in Saudi Arabia. It more closely resembles Nixon in China than it does Obama bending over for the mullahs. Apparently, the Saudis were not very impressed when Barack Obama bowed down to their king.

It is perhaps redundant to say so, but the Saudis would never have accorded the same respect to Hillary Clinton. Given her record in North Africa and her effort to legitimize Mohamed Morsi, they would not have rolled out the red carpet to forge a strategic alliance with her. If they had wanted to deal with Hillary they would have made a contribution to the Clinton Global Initiative and invited Bubba to give a million dollar speech.

So, what is this ceremonial welcome telling us? Many American commentators, unable to stop trashing Trump and America, cannot figure out why the Saudis are happy to welcome Trump after Trump said some rather harsh things about Islam. They also have their knickers in a twist over the fact that Trump has chosen to make his first foreign trip as president to the nation that financed the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

What do they see in Trump? For one thing, Trump has been affirming his patriotism. He has been affirming his loyalty to his nation and its greatness. He is not apologizing for America and is not running around bad mouthing his country and declaring himself to be a citizen of the world. And Trump has rejected the policy of appeasement so dear to the Obama administration and the weak-kneed Europeans.

Think of it this way: if Obama could not show pride in his country how could anyone trust him? If Obama was backstabbing America’s allies, in Egypt and in Israel, why would anyone want to be his ally. If you do not love your country, why would you assume that you can be trusted to keep your word to us.

As I have been arguing, the Saudis have been showing signs of wanting to modernize. They have rid their schoolbooks of anti-Semitic propaganda, established preliminary ties with Israel, cut their funding for the Palestinian authority, and now, forged a strategic alliance to fight Islamist terrorism.

In the war on terror, this is certainly an important, even a defining moment. Hasn’t international Islamist terrorism been an attack on the Great Satan and the Little Satan? Didn’t the Sunni and Shia Muslims find a common enemy in the United States and Israel? Weren’t they saying that Western modernization was a corrupting process, one that good Muslims should avoid? Wasn’t their support for the Palestinian cause an attack on Western civilization?

The Saudi embrace of America and its president signals that that era is over. The ceremony makes it clear that America is a friend, an ally in the war against Islamist terrorism. And it also makes clear that Saudi support for foreign terrorist organizations will stop. One would also like to think that Wahhabi schools around the world will cease to incubate anti-Western terrorism. After all, that Muslim sect holds all non-Muslims in contempt.

Considering that Saudis have had a role in so much international terrorism, it seems fitting that they should call it off, put an end to it, and to do so by embracing a strategic alliance with the United States. And to bring together the leaders of the Sunni world in a ceremony that announces that they have rejected terrorism, that they will no longer use it to advance their cause. The ceremony sends a remarkably clear message. Obviously, this is not going to stop terrorism. Shia Iran is still in the game... but their strategic calculus has now changed.

And yet, Trump did speak ill of Islam. Doesn’t that irritate the Saudis? Perhaps, not as much as you think. I suspect that the Saudis have come to recognize that terrorism has not only accomplished very little, but it has damaged the reputation of Islam around the world.

While multicultural Westerners are whining about Islamophobia, Donald Trump was sufficiently honest to recognize that the reputation of Islam depends mostly on the behavior of Muslims. If every time you hear of Islam you hear about a terrorist bombing of innocent civilians—Muslim and non-Muslim—you will naturally associate the two. It takes a brutal mental contortion to brainwash yourself into not associating these actions with Islam.

So, the Saudi leadership, especially the crown prince, has decided to turn the page. It has decided to present a new face of Islam to the world. And it has decided to show that Islam can interact with other peoples from different faiths, not only to do business, but to show them respect and even to honor them.

It seems to be an extraordinary moment, one that might very well lead to a reformation within Islam. We imagine that when Nixon went to China he was taking the first step toward opening the Middle Kingdom to the outside world. We recall that China did not reform overnight, that it took years before even the most rudimentary forms of free enterprise were allowed. Thus, we should not imagine that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states will instantly change. But, clearly change is afoot.

Among the losers in this transformation and reformation are the Palestinians. Being the laboratory for terrorism, the Palestinians have been funded and supported by Sunni and Shia states as the vanguard in a struggle against the West. It would now appear that for the Saudis, this struggle has largely outlived its usefulness and that it is costing more than it is gaining. One suspects that the Palestinians will be more willing to negotiate a settlement with Israel.

Another loser, Vladimir Putin. At the end of the Obama administration Putin was running wild in Syria and Iran. He was strong enough to exclude America from peace talks. When the Saudi king bemoaned the nightmare that is Syria—nightmare they blame largely on Barack Obama—he was also rejecting any potential alliance with Russia. Today, while many Americans imagine that Trump is Putin’s puppet, or worse, the truth is that Putin has been relegated to the sidelines in the Middle East. The new strategic alliance between America and Sunni Arabs excludes him.

At this weekend’s summit, Vladimir Putin is the second biggest loser. If he had imagined that Trump would do his bidding, he miscalculated bigly. 

The biggest loser is Barack Obama. His legacy in the Middle East could not have been more definitively repudiated.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Is It a Dealbreaker?

Here we have it, your weekly dose of therapy. What would we do without New York Magazine and its latest therapist, Lori Gottlieb? At the least, and for our purposes, it shows us how a real therapist thinks about a real issue. It will not be very encouraging, but we are fearless truth-tellers, aren’t we?

This week Gottlieb presents us with the case of Smitten. This poor sod is smitten with a woman who hates the idea of having children. He wants to have children. Like someone who is not merely smitten, but bewitched he thinks that she is the One and that, if he does not marry her he will be consigned to singlehood, at least until he is 60.

If he were in your office and you are only interested in his rather defective reasoning capacity—clearly he is being manipulated by his lady love—you would be missing the point. So, keep in mind, we do not know how old he is. We do not know how old she is. We know nothing of his background or of hers. We do not know what he does for a living or what she does for a living. And, of course, we do not know how his family feels about her or about how her family feels about him. We do not even know whether she can have children.

Of course, this all feels a bit too similar to the case of the new president of France. But, I digress.

In short, we are not dealing with human beings with lives. We are dealing with love machines. Under the circumstances there is no way any therapist is going to be able to help poor, pathetic smitten.

What does Smitten have to say? Here it is, in slightly edited form:

After ten years exclusively short-term dating (primarily due to my inability to choose a partner that I’m sufficiently impressed with) I’ve finally found the one. As cliché as it sounds, everything is perfect. I’m thrilled and happy and we’re already talking about moving in because we “just know.” Except one thing … she has VERY strong feelings about not having children.

He continues:

Do I want kids? Maybe? Probably, I guess. It’s definitely not a deal-breaker right now. But perhaps that’s only because in my head I think she’ll change her mind.


In my mind it’s her or eternal bachelorhood, with the slight possibility of finding a second unicorn when I’m 60.

Before examining the mess that the therapist will make of this, consider the possibility that if he has not found a woman who is sufficiently impressive, this might mean that no other woman has found him sufficiently impressive to be the father of her child. Since he has been ensorcelled, and has no idea what is going on, this must count as a possibility. Whatever does he mean to say that she is a unicorn. We would be more encouraged if he saw her as a mermaid.

Of course, we know nothing about him except for his feelings for the One and his intimation that he wants to have children, so we are flying blind:

What does the therapist say? Glad you asked. In her words:

What does “impressive” mean to you — accomplished, warm, attractive, intelligent, witty, a dollop of quirky? Statistically speaking, if you’re young enough to be contemplating parenthood, there are plenty of single women around with these qualities, particularly in the “rich and famous” circle you seem to travel in. Maybe a relationship with any of them wouldn’t lead to marriage, but in a ten-year span, there should be enough to choose from to get something going for more than the short-term. 

Heaven knows what he means by impressive. Gottlieb does not know and neither do we. She remarks on his use of the phrase “rich and famous” and suggests that his social circles contain many women who want to have children—but, do they want to have his children?—and besides, if their friends have children while they do not, they will soon see their friends drift away.

Salient point, that went unmentioned.

Gottlieb continues:

“everything is perfect.” Great! Oh, wait, except for one thing. I’ll call this the perfect-except paradox.

I am not sure that we need to invent a special paradox for incoherent thinking, but Gottlieb is correct to point out that if his beloved does not want to have children, that can only mean that things are less than perfect. If she loves him, why doesn’t she want to have his children? Perhaps she wants to be president of the world and believes that motherhood will stifle her career ambitions. Think Theresa May and Angela Merkel. Yet, most men's mothers will never forgive her the dereliction. Why do we all pretend that the man's family has no say in these matters.

I will spare you Gottlieb’s musings about the man’s unconscious motivations for falling in love with a woman who does not want to have his children. They are superfluous and irrelevant. Especially when they amount to saying that perhaps he loves her because she reminds him of his mother and  perhaps he loves her because she does not remind him of his mother. This kind of mental drool passes for serious thinking to people who have never had a serious thought. No one seems to have noticed the salient point, namely that the argument cannot be refuted by any evidence. Thus, that you need to take it on faith.

Then, Gottlieb brings up the more important point. Has he or has he not shared with the One his own preferences, and certainly the preferences of his family:

You say that she “disdains the concept of procreation” — not just that she doesn’t want kids, but that she disdains the very idea of having them. When she says this, do you hide from her the fact that you “maybe” or “probably” want kids and worry that you might feel resentful about not having had any later on? Have you asked how she feels about being with a guy who might enjoy doing the very thing that she finds disdainful? If you can’t express yourself openly and directly, if you have to conceal important parts of yourself from her, if your way of dealing with an issue together is to “give a nudge” to your partner and hope that she’ll have a personality transplant, I wonder about the depth of emotional communion you believe you two share.

If you start worrying about “the depth of emotional communion” you are lost in a miasma of psychobabble. If he has never expressed his preference to her that can only mean that he is afraid of her. Or that she has completely unmanned him. The notion of nudging people comes to us from behavioral economics. It is not going to work here.

In some cases women are ambivalent about whether or not they want to have children. If such were the case Smitten might want to take the risk that she will change her mind. Or that she will choose to let God decide. Again, for all we know she cannot have children. No one considers this possibility.

Otherwise, the solution to his problem is frightfully simple. I am sure that you know it already. He needs to tell her that he respects her decision not to have children… and that it’s a deal breaker. At that point he will discover whether she is a woman who wants to live a normal married life or an ideological zealot who wants to deprive him of children. Some might see this as calling her bluff, but there is no other way of finding out where her true loyalty lies. For now it seems to lie with her careerism or even he wish to travel the world and have fun. If that is true, he should look elsewhere. If he cannot do that, he lacks testicular fortitude and deserves what he gets.

Stephen Cohen on Trump and Russia

Russia expert Stephen Cohen appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to offer his assessment of the Trump/Russia connection. I have quoted Cohen on other occasions, not only because he is an authority in the field, but because he writes for the The Nation. Thus, we do not expect him to be spinning for the Trump administration.

Dershowitz: Where's the Crime?

Let's try a little perspective on the latest round of Trump/Russia scandals. 

For your edification I post an interview from Tucker Carlson tonight. On last night's show emeritus Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz offering his legal analysis of the ongoing investigation of the Trump/Russia connection. 

Speaking as a lifelong liberal Democrat and proponent of civil rights, Dershowitz is especially concerned about the the absurdities and borderline illegalities in the rush to indict and impeach Donald Trump. He knows the law and he knows American history. He also knows that once you open this door, you are giving your opponents permission to return the favor. Apparently, media commentators and Democratic politicians do not. As the interview shows, Tucker Carlson was gobsmacked at the simple question: Where's the crime?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Learning How to Cut Herself

Of course, they have the best of intentions. The producers who recently put on a show about a teenage girl committing suicide wanted to raise awareness of the problem. They seem not to have considered that glamorizing and normalizing teenage suicide might just incite more girls to do the same.

The same applies to the newly glamorous condition of being transgendered. Precious few people seem to understand that since we are dealing with a belief and a conviction, the public presentation of the problem in the media might very well be producing more cases.

Raising awareness is not the panacea that it is knocked up to be. Writing in New York Magazine, Elizabeth King recounts her own experience with cutting herself, but then moves on to ask a researcher in the field about how the media promotes cutting.

She describes her experience:

I cut myself for the first time at age 18, in the closet of my freshman dorm room. It was late afternoon, and my roommates weren’t around. I snuck into the closet, pulled a pink disposable shaving razor from underneath my socks and underwear in the top drawer of my dresser, took off the protective cap, and dragged the blade in a lateral direction across the top of my left thigh. I felt hot, nervous, exhilarated, and guilty.

It’s not so much the why as the what? What are these people trying to accomplish by slicing up and scarring their bodies:

It’s well-established in medical research that most people who self-harm do so with the intention of releasing and relieving psychological pain. By inducing physical pain, the body is triggered to release endorphins, which creates a natural effect similar to morphine, relieving the emotional pain. But while the pain that drives the decision to self-harm comes from the inside, the idea to self-harm itself is very much external.

Looking back at her experience King remarks that she suffered the influence of a television show, called 7th Heaven. But she also recalls a discussion that she learned in middle-school. These gave her the idea:

I was deeply depressed when I started cutting, but in the moments leading up to the first time I hurt myself, I wasn’t thinking about my problems so much as a once-popular and very wholesome TV show I watched with my family: 7th Heaven. The family drama about a pastor, his wife, and their seven kids was popular in the late 1990s, and featured plotlines meant to address family dynamics and the low-hanging social-issue fruit of the day. The episode I had in mind was from 1998, where the third-oldest child in the family, Lucy, has a friend who cuts herself.

When my mental health deteriorated during my freshman year of college, I remember thinking that self-harm was what one did when severely depressed. It seemed like the logical extension of what I was feeling, a connection I’d unconsciously begun to make back when I first learned about the concept of self-harm in my middle-school health class: The way the teacher had described it — a way of gaining control, a brief relief of pain, and so on — sounded to me, in hindsight, like treatment instructions for severe depression. I’ve often wondered if I would have felt the same way about cutting had I never heard about it in school or on television. There’s a historical precedent for self-harm, and in each case, it’s a learned social behavior. If I’d never been taught about self-harm, would I ever have started doing it? Would anyone?

Surely, the teacher was trying to warn children against self-harm. And yet, to a middle school student like Elizabeth King, it sounded like a treatment program.

King turned to Janis Whitlock, a leading researcher, for some insight:

According to Janis Whitlock, the director of Cornell’s Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, there’s no definitive answer, but it seems nearly certain that there is no biological imperative to self-harm. In fact, humans naturally have the opposite impulse: to be physically safe and healthy.

Through her research, Whitlock has found that there are two primary ways that individuals will begin to self-injure. The first is by accident: One young woman that Whitlock had worked with told her that one day, she had accidentally scraped her leg against the sharp edge of a table while she was experiencing a lot of emotional pain. Noticing the slight relief and distraction that came with the physical pain in her leg, the patient got the idea that she could reproduce this sensation through intentional self-harm.

She continues:

But for those who don’t happen upon self-harm by chance, the idea comes from peers, pop culture, and school settings, Whitlock says: Between exposure to peers who self-injure and depictions in the media, it is “really uncommon for a young person not to have come across it” in some fashion. Everyone knows it’s out there, and some people end up seeing it as an option.

Whitlock explains that these days, young people who self-injure almost always fall into this second camp. Whitlock observed the pop-culture effect on self-harm while working with self-injuring teenagers in the 2000s, a time when explicit pop-culture references to self-harm had been showing up for a couple of decades.

The antidote, Whitlock says, is to avoid invoking these pop-culture representations when educating teenagers about self-harm. In fact, she adds, the best prevention strategy may be not to dwell on it at all – focusing on self-harm in health education, psychological settings, or peer-to-peer support scenarios can also backfire.

Keep this all in mind when considering how the ambient culture produces different types of mental afflictions. Or better, how its wish to raise awareness about problems ends up causing more of the problem… by giving people ideas.