What is a gene?

Now: The Rest of the Genome
by Carl Zimmer

In this jungle of invading viruses, undead pseudogenes, shuffled exons and epigenetic marks, can the classical concept of the gene survive? It is an open question, one that Dr. Prohaska hopes to address at a meeting she is organizing at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico next March.

In the current issue of American Scientist, Dr. Gerstein and his former graduate student Michael Seringhaus argue that in order to define a gene, scientists must start with the RNA transcript and trace it back to the DNA. Whatever exons are used to make that transcript would constitute a gene. Dr. Prohaska argues that a gene should be the smallest unit underlying inherited traits. It may include not just a collection of exons, but the epigenetic marks on them that are inherited as well.

These new concepts are moving the gene away from a physical snippet of DNA and back to a more abstract definition. “It’s almost a recapture of what the term was originally meant to convey,” Dr. Gingeras said.

A hundred years after it was born, the gene is coming home.

Genome 2.0: Mountains Of New Data Are Challenging Old Views
by Patrick Barry

This complex interweaving of genes, transcripts, and regulation makes the net effect of a single mutation on an organism much more difficult to predict, Gingeras says.

More fundamentally, it muddies scientists’ conception of just what constitutes a gene. In the established definition, a gene is a discrete region of DNA that produces a single, identifiable protein in a cell. But the functioning of a protein often depends on a host of RNAs that control its activity. If a stretch of DNA known to be a protein-coding gene also produces regulatory RNAs essential for several other genes, is it somehow a part of all those other genes as well?

To make things even messier, the genetic code for a protein can be scattered far and wide around the genome. The ENCODE project revealed that about 90 percent of protein-coding genes possessed previously unknown coding fragments that were located far from the main gene, sometimes on other chromosomes. Many scientists now argue that this overlapping and dispersal of genes, along with the swelling ranks of functional RNAs, renders the standard gene concept of the central dogma obsolete.

Long Live The Gene

Offering a radical new conception of the genome, Gingeras proposes shifting the focus away from protein-coding genes. Instead, he suggests that the fundamental units of the genome could be defined as functional RNA transcripts.

Since some of these transcripts ferry code for proteins as dutiful mRNAs, this new perspective would encompass traditional genes. But it would also accommodate new classes of functional RNAs as they’re discovered, while avoiding the confusion caused by several overlapping genes laying claim to a single stretch of DNA. The emerging picture of the genome “definitely shifts the emphasis from genes to transcripts,” agrees Mark B. Gerstein, a bioinformaticist at Yale University.

Scientists’ definition of a gene has evolved several times since Gregor Mendel first deduced the idea in the 1860s from his work with pea plants. Now, about 50 years after its last major revision, the gene concept is once again being called into question.

Theory Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait
by Veronique Greenwood

Over the years, however, what scientists might consider “a lot” in this context has quietly inflated. Last June, Pritchard and his Stanford colleagues Evan Boyle and Yang Li (now at the University of Chicago) published a paper about this in Cell that immediately sparked controversy, although it also had many people nodding in cautious agreement. The authors described what they called the “omnigenic” model of complex traits. Drawing on GWAS analyses of three diseases, they concluded that in the cell types that are relevant to a disease, it appears that not 15, not 100, but essentially all genes contribute to the condition. The authors suggested that for some traits, “multiple” loci could mean more than 100,000. […]

For most complex conditions and diseases, however, she thinks that the idea of a tiny coterie of identifiable core genes is a red herring because the effects might truly stem from disturbances at innumerable loci — and from the environment — working in concert. In a new paper out in Cell this week, Wray and her colleagues argue that the core gene idea amounts to an unwarranted assumption, and that researchers should simply let the experimental data about particular traits or conditions lead their thinking. (In their paper proposing omnigenics, Pritchard and his co-authors also asked whether the distinction between core and peripheral genes was useful and acknowledged that some diseases might not have them.)

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Jeff Biggers on Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine’s Truth-to-Power Message in 1776
by Jeff Biggers

“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” John Adams begrudgingly admitted, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Rarely in history has the extraordinary power of writing galvanized such an armed resistance. Paine was a living icon in his own age, an 18th-century romantic figure as reviled and revered as Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the 1960s; Paine would go on to play a key role in the French Revolution. While he was tried in absentia for treason in Britain, his Rights of Man book on the natural rights of people over monarchy would become a global literary phenomenon and upend England’s social order.

Intentional or not, the conviction of Paine’s writing underscored the role of writers in the resistance. He was a truth-teller, contentious and bold, and adamant about holding accountable the brokers of authorized versions of history, calling out their hypocrisy, omissions, and mistruths—and the betrayal of an American credo of “we the people.”

Paine had not cornered the market on this literary tradition, of course. And his own select vision, especially in recognizing a more perfect vision of “we the people,” would be challenged in the process.

The Literary Instigator of the American Resistance
by Jeff Biggers

His letter to the abbé sought to define the transformative impact of the resistance movement on Americans in the aftershock of their triumph. “Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country,” he explained to the French. “We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We can look back on our own prejudices, as if they had been the prejudices of other people. We now see and know they were prejudices and nothing else; and, relieved from their shackles, enjoy a freedom of mind, we felt not before.”

High-minded perhaps, but hardly delusional, Paine claimed this new way of thinking had “opened itself toward the world” and brought Americans into the world of nations. He didn’t trumpet the military triumph of Washington and his French allies; nor did Paine make an inventory of the natural resources and wealth now at American disposal. The future of the United States of America—and consequently the world—rested in the hands of “science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all,” which served as the great “temple where all may meet.”

Paine’s message to the abbé reflected the ongoing negotiations in Paris—and a clear admonition to its leaders. Instead of pursuing that “temper of arrogance,” he warned, “which serves only to sink” a country in esteem and to “entail the dislike of all nations,” Paine called on all leaders to find a way for the world to live in peace.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Letters, the tongue of the world, have in some measure brought all mankind acquainted, and by an extension of their uses are every day promoting some new friendship. Through them distant nations became capable of conversation, and losing by degrees the awkwardness of strangers, and the moroseness of suspicion, they learn to know and understand each other. Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.

REAL Democracy History Calendar: June 25 – July 1

This is another example of the ruling elite re-creating the conditions that caused the American Revolution. It was public outrage against this exact kind of corrupt abuse of power in usurping local self-governance that inspired the Declaration of Independence and the original constitution, The Articles of Confederation.

Is there some reason those in power want to start a second American Revolution? Or are they as clueless as the British ruling elite were, in not being able to imagine the people would revolt and could win?


June 30

2008 – Publication of Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” Is Stealing Our Democracy by Jane Anne Morris, corporate anthropologist and former POCLAD principal

“The several themes in this book all connect around the subversion of unrepresentative government democracy by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has usurped from Congress the role of making public policy, with judicial decisions based on the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. These rulings have built a body of law favoring large corporate interests over the rights of states, municipalities, labor, minorities, and the environment.”

As of 2008 according to Morris, 219 state laws had been overturned by Supreme Court just on commerce clause grounds. A complete list of state laws held to be unconstitutional is at http://law.justia.com/constitution/us/047-state-laws-held-unconstitutional.html
Info on the book is at https://rowman.com/isbn/9781891843396

June 25

1975 – Release date of the film “Roller Ball”
“In the film, the world of 2018 (referred to in the tagline as “the not too distant future”) is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston which deals with nominally-peer corporations controlling access to all transport, luxury, housing, communication, and food on a global basis. According to the tagline, in this world, ‘wars will no longer exist. But there will be… Rollerball.’

“The film’s title is the name of a violent, globally popular sport around which the events of the film take place. It is similar to Roller Derby in that two teams clad in body armor skate on roller skates (some instead ride on motorcycles) around a banked, circular track. There, however, the similarity ends…

“The various global corporations own Rollerball teams, named after the cities in…

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REAL Democracy History Calendar: June 18 – 24

“We’re fed up with behaving like subordinates content to influence the decisions of corporate boards and the corporate class. Having influence is valuable, but influencing is not deciding. We’re weary of waging long, hard battles simply for the ‘right to know.’ Knowing is critical, but knowing is not deciding. We’re tired of exercising our right to dissent as the be-all and end-all. Dissent is vital, but dissenting is not deciding. Influencing, knowing, dissenting, participating — all are important to a democratic life, but not one of them carries with it the authority to decide, the power to be in charge.

…”We’re not taking the subordinate role of asking the Enron Corporation to behave a little better. We’re not content with putting a corporate-designed and -controlled regulatory agency on Enron’s trail. Regulatory law protects corporations from pesky people. It enables and protects the corporate agenda as it was intended to do…If we seek democratic outcomes, we must frame activism in the people’s sovereign authority to rule.”

~ Virginia Rasmussen, The Struggle for Democracy: Activists Take the Offense

June 18

1849 – Birth of David K. Watson, Ohio Republican Attorney General
Watson sought to revoke the charter of the Standard Oil Company in 1892 for forming a trust. In his legal brief to the Ohio Supreme Court, he stated, “Where a corporation, either directly or indirectly, submits to the domination of an agency unknown to the statute, or identifies itself with and unites in carrying out an agreement whose performance is injurious to the public, it thereby offends against the law of its creation and forfeits all right to its franchises, and judgment of ouster should be entered against it . . .” State v. Standard Oil Co., 30 N.E. 279 (Ohio 1892)

June 19

1902 – Death of Lord Acton, English historian, politician and writer
“The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus…

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Trump’s Nobel Peace Prize

To a crowd of fans chanting “Nobel,” President Donald Trump agreed that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking of himself in third person, he asked what did Trump do to make Korea great again and he confidently answered, “Everything!” He did this with the beaming smugness that is his main talent.

Trump is the self-styled ‘negotiator’. Of course, every president negotiates. Not to mention that the North Korean government has made many agreements in the past and then broken them — then again, the same thing could be said about the United States government, and one might note that president Trump hasn’t shown much interest in maintaining international agreements.  Anyway, this mutual decision toward peace had nothing directly to do with the United States as it was an agreement between the two Koreas in officially ending war between them.

As for Trump’s America, it’s not only about the relationship with North Korea. When looking at South Korea, both leaders and the public there are worried about the unpredictability and unreliability of Trump’s belligerent insanity. They see it as a real possibility that Trump might start a military conflict or, once a conflict is started, that the US military might abandon South Korea. So, even though many South Koreans would agree that North Korea is a more tangible threat, it is a threat that most South Koreans have known and lived with for their entire lives. The most worrisome threat is the uncertain relationship with the United States, in how South Korea is still being treated as a colonial pawn that might be sacrificed in an instant if it served American imperial interests or Trump’s whims.

As an American citizen, this situation is troubling, along with U.S. foreign affairs in general. Consider that South Korea is a key ally (or colonial stronghold) for the geopolitical dominance of the United States military and trade, no matter what one thinks of American imperialism. When some of your government’s own allies fear and mistrust your government as much as do your enemies, that doesn’t portend a safe and secure future for your country. When Trump is long gone, others will have to clean up the mess and hope that not too much permanent damage was done, not that all or even most of our present state of decline can be blamed on Trump the tyrannical man-child (giving him all the blame would simply feed his ego).

Interestingly, South Koreans have a more positive view of Putin than of Trump. And it seems that Trump himself has a more positive view of Putin than he has of the American government and American people, that is to say he dislikes anything and anyone who doesn’t support his egomaniacal rule and personality cult. Of course, much of the American government and most of the American people return the favor in not liking or trusting our dear leader Trump. Whereas Putin always says nice things to puff up Trump’s ego.

It appears that, other than a few loyal followers and the Russian population, Trump has nearly united the entire world in hatred and fear of Trump (as a side note, Ronald Reagan stated the only way the world would be united was by an alien invasion, but he never clarified that the alien might be orange rather than green). If this global animosity was Trump’s intentional negotiating strategy, then it was pure brilliance. Keep up the good work, Mr. President!

* * *

While US, North Korea Both Make Threats, Only One Has Killed Millions of the Other’s People
by Eoin HigginsEOIN HIGGINS

Right-Wing Foundation, Scary Nuke Maps Drive Narrative on North Korea ‘Threat’
by Adam Johnson

NPR Can’t Help Hyping North Korean Threat
by Glen Frieden

NPR/Ipsos Poll: Half Of Americans Don’t Trust Trump On North Korea
by Scott Horsley

Poll: Majority of South Koreans, Mexicans, Germans Trust Putin More Than Trump
by Jack Crowe

It’s not just North Korea. Trump has a South Korea problem, too.
by Ishaan Thoroor

As crisis brews, some in South Korea fear Trump is ‘kind of nuts’
by Steve Benen

Koreans to President Trump: No tough talk, please
by Ock Hyun-ju

What Really Worries South Koreans: Trump
by Norman Pearlstine

Here in South Korea, people fear Donald Trump more than Kim Jong-un
by Brad Dennett

South Koreans Fear Trump More Than Kim Jong Un
by Jessica Kwong

Why Many South Koreans Fear the U.S.
by George Katsiaficas

‘I fear US is planning pre-emptive strike’: South Korea’s top war ‘prepper’ more worried about Trump than Kim
by Nicola Smith Jinna Park

Seoul worried US may launch limited strike, or ‘preventive’ action against North Korea
by Jeff Daniels

South Korea’s Real Fear
by Anthony Spaeth

South Korea’s Greatest Fear
by Sandy Pho

Washington Is Panicking About North Korea. South Korea Isn’t
by Sue Mi Terry

Why South Koreans Keep their Cool about North Korea while Americans Grow More Alarmed
by Juni Kim

South Koreans Are Surprisingly Unfazed By Surging Nuclear Tensions
by Nick Visser and Julie Yoon

A South Korean journalist explains why her country isn’t panicking
by Lindsay Maizland

Do South Koreans and Japanese live in fear that North Korea could launch a nuclear missile without warning, potentially destroying a city?
Quora

In South Korea, Daily Stresses Outweigh North Korea Missile Worries
by Christine Kim

Number one issue in the South Korean election? Not North Korea
by K.J. Kwon and James Griffiths

Most South Koreans doubt the North will start a war: poll
Reuters

Saviour or maniac? South Koreans split over Trump
by Agence France-Presse

Young South Koreans reject Donald Trump’s assessment of the threat from North Korea
One Young World

Young South Koreans want U.S. to get out / Presence of GIs, American influence there rankle youth
by Bobby McGill

From “American Gentlemen” to “Americans”: Changing Perceptions of the United States in South Korea in Recent Years
by Kim Jinwung

Majority of South Koreans favor North Korea ‘friendship’
by Julian Ryall

Hunger for Connection

“Just as there are mental states only possible in crowds, there are mental states only possible in privacy.”

Those are the words of Sarah Perry from Luxuriating in Privacy. I came across the quote from a David Chapman tweet. He then asks, “Loneliness epidemic—or a golden age of privacy?” With that lure, I couldn’t help but bite.

I’m already familiar with Sarah Perry’s writings at Ribbonfarm. There is even an earlier comment by me at the piece the quote comes from, although I had forgotten about it. In the post, she begins with links to some of her previous commentary, the first one (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture) having been my introduction to her work. I referenced it in my post Music and Dance on the Mind and it does indeed connect to the above thought on privacy.

In that other post by Perry, she discusses Keeping Together in Time by William H. McNeill. His central idea is “muscular bonding” that creates, maintains, and expresses a visceral sense of group-feeling and fellow-feeling. This can happen through marching, dancing, rhythmic movements, drumming, chanting, choral singing, etc (for example, see: Choral Singing and Self-Identity). McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).

The individual is lost, at least temporarily, an experience humans are drawn to in many forms. Individuality is tiresome and we moderns feel compelled to take a vacation from it. Having forgotten earlier ways of being, maybe privacy is the closest most of us get to lowering our stressful defenses of hyper-individualistic pose and performance. The problem is privacy so easily reinforces the very individualistic isolation that drains us of energy.

This might create the addictive cycle that Johann Hari discussed in Chasing the Scream and would relate to the topic of depression in his most recent book, Lost Connections. He makes a strong argument about the importance of relationships of intimacy, bonding, and caring (some communities have begun to take seriously this issue; others deem what is required are even higher levels of change, radical and revolutionary). In particular, the rat park research is fascinating. The problem with addiction is that it simultaneously relieves the pain of our isolation while further isolating us. Or at least this is what happens in a punitive society with weak community and culture of trust. For that reason, we should look to other cultures for comparison. In some traditional societies, there is a greater balance and freedom to choose. I specifically had the Piraha in mind, as described by Daniel Everett.

The Piraha are a prime example of how not all cultures have a dualistic conflict between self and community, between privacy and performance. Their communities are loosely structured and the individual is largely autonomous in how and with whom they use their time. They lack much in the way of formal social structure, since there are no permanent positions of hierarchical authority (e.g., no tribal council of elders), although any given individual might temporarily take a leadership position in order to help accomplish an immediate task. Nor do they have much in the way of ritual or religion. It isn’t an oppressive society.

Accordingly, Everett observes how laid back, relaxed, and happy they seem. Depression, anxiety, and suicide appear foreign to them. When he told them about a depressed family member who killed herself, the Piraha laughed because assumed he was joking. There was no known case of suicide in the tribe. Even more interesting is that, growing up, the Piraha don’t exhibit transitional periods such as the terrible twos or teenage rebelliousness. They simply go from being weaned to joining adult activities with no one telling them to what to do.

The modern perceived conflict between group and individual might not be a universal and intrinsic aspect of human society. But it does seem a major issue for WEIRD societies, in particular. Maybe has to do with how ego-bound is our sense of identity. The other thing the Piraha lack is a permanent, unchanging self-identity because such as a meeting with a spirit in the jungle might lead to a change of name and, to the Piraha, the person who went by the previous name no longer is there. They feel no need to defend their individuality because any given individual self can be set aside.

It is hard for Westerners and Americans most of all to imagine a society that is this far different. It is outside of the mainstream capacity of imagining what is humanly possible. It’s similar to why so many people reject out of hand such theories as Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. Such worldviews simply don’t fit into what we know. But maybe this sense of conflict we cling to is entirely unnecessary. If so, why do we feel such conflict is inevitable? And so why do we value privacy so highly? What is it that we seek from being isolated and alone? What is it that we think we have lost that needs to be regained? To help answer these questions, I’ll present a quote by Julian Jaynes that I included in writing Music and Dance On the Mind — from his book that Perry is familiar with:

“Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.”

Considering that, it could be argued that privacy is part of the same social order, ideological paradigm, and reality tunnel that tires us out so much in the first place. Endlessly without respite, we feel socially compelled to perform our individuality. And even in retreating into privacy, we go on performing our individuality for our own private audience, as played out on the internalized stage of self-consciousness that Jaynes describes. That said, even though the cost is high, it leads to great benefits for society as a whole. Modern civilization wouldn’t be possible without it. The question is whether the costs outweigh the benefits and also whether the costs are sustainable or self-destructive in the long term.

As Eli wrote in the comments section to Luxuriating in Privacy: “Privacy isn’t an unalloyed good. As you mention, we are getting ever-increasing levels of privacy to “luxuriate” in. But who’s to say we’re not just coping with the change modernity constantly imposes on us? Why should we elevate the coping mechanism, when it may well be merely a means to lessen the pain of an unnecessarily “alienating” constructed environment.” And “isn’t the tiresomeness of having to model the social environment itself contingent on the structural precariousness of one’s place in an ambiguous, constantly changing status hierarchy?”

Still, I do understand where Perry is coming from, as I’m very much an introvert who values my alone time and can be quite jealous of my privacy, although I can’t say that close and regular social contact “fills me with horror.” Having lived alone for years in apartments and barely knowing my neighbors, I spend little time at my ‘home’ and instead choose to regularly socialize with my family at my parents’ house. Decades of depression has caused me to be acutely aware of the double-edged sword of privacy.

Let me respond to some specifics of Perry’s argument.  “Consider obesity,” she writes. “A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity.” There are some insightful comparisons of eating practices. Not all modern societies with equal access to food have equal levels of obesity. Among many other health problems, obesity can result from stress because our bodies prepare for challenging times by accumulating fat reserves. And if there is enough stress, studies have found this is epigenetically passed onto children.

As a contrast, consider the French culture surrounding food. The French don’t eat much fast food, don’t tend to eat or drink on the go. It is more common for them sit down to enjoy their coffee in the morning, rather than putting it in a traveling mug to drink on the way to work. Also, they are more likely to take long lunches in order to eat leisurely and typically do so with others. For the French, the expectation is that meals are to be enjoyed as a social experience and so they organize their entire society accordingly. Even though they eat many foods that some consider unhealthy, they don’t have the same high rates of stress-related diseases as do Americans.

An even greater contrast comes from looking once again at the Piraha. They live in an environment of immense abundance. And it requires little work to attain sustenance. In a few hours of work, an individual could get enough food to feed an extended family for multiple meals. They don’t worry about going hungry and yet, for various reasons, will choose not to not eat for extended periods of time when they wish to spend their time in other ways such as relaxing or dancing. They impose a feast and fast lifestyle on themselves, a typical pattern for hunter-gatherers. As with the French, when the Piraha have a meal, it is very much a social event. Unsurprisingly, the Piraha are slim and trim, muscular and healthy. They don’t suffer from stress-related physical and mental conditions, certainly not obesity.

Perry argues that, “Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy.” Using Johan Hari’s perspective, I might rephrase it: Addiction is economically profitable within the hyper-individualism of capitalist realism, and people show a difficult to control craving that causes them to pay high costs to feed their addiction. Sure, temporarily alleviating the symptoms makes people feel better. But what is it a symptom of? That question is key to understanding. I’m persuaded that the issue at hand is disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. So much else follows from that.

Explaining the title of her post, Perry writes that: “One thing that people are said to do with privacy is to luxuriate in it. What are the determinants of this positive experience of privacy, of privacy experienced as a thing in itself, rather than through violation?” She goes on to describes on to describes the features of privacy, various forms of personal space and enclosure. Of course, Julian Jaynes argued that the ultimate privacy is the construction of individuality itself, the experience of space metaphorically internalized and interiorized. Further development of privacy, however, is a rather modern invention. For example, it wasn’t until recent centuries that private bedrooms became common, having been popularized in Anglo-American culture by Quakers. Before that, full privacy was a rare experience and far from having been considered a human necessity or human right.

But we have come to take privacy for granted, not talking about certain details is a central part of privacy itself. “Everybody knows that everybody poops. Still, you’re not supposed to poop in front of people. The domain of defecation is tacitly edited out of our interactions with other people: for most social purposes, we are expected to pretend that we neither produce nor dispose of bodily wastes, and to keep any evidence of such private. Polite social relations exclude parts of reality by tacit agreement; scatological humor is a reminder of common knowledge that is typically screened off by social agreement. Sex and masturbation are similar.”

Defecation is a great example. There is no universal experience about the privatization of the act of pooping. In early Europe, relieving oneself in public was common and considered well within social norms. It was a slow ‘civilizing’ process to teach people to be ashamed of bodily functions, even simple things like farting and belching in public (there are a number of interesting books on the topic). I was intrigued by Susan P. Mattern’s The Prince of Medicine. She describes how almost everything in the ancient world was a social experience. Even taking a shit was an opportunity to meet and chat with one’s family, friends, and neighbors. They apparently felt no drain of energy or need to perform in their social way of being in the world. It was relaxed and normal to them, simply how they lived and they knew nothing else.

Also, sex and masturbation haven’t always been exclusively private acts. We have little knowledge of sex in the archaic world. Jaynes noted that sexuality wasn’t treated as anything particularly concerning and worrisome during the bicameral era. Obsession with sex, positive or negative, more fully developed during the Axial Age. As late as Feudalism, heavily Christianized Europe offered little opportunity for privacy and maintained a relatively open attitude about sexuality during many public celebrations, specifically Carnival, and they spent an amazing amount of their time in public celebrations. Barbara Ehrenreich describes this ecstatic communality in Dancing in the Streets. Like the Piraha, these earlier Europeans had a more social and fluid sense of identity.

Let me finish by responding to Perry’s conclusion: “As I wrote in A Bad Carver, social interaction has increasingly become “unbundled” from other things. This may not be a coincidence: it may be that people have specifically desired more privacy, and the great unbundling took place along that axis especially, in response to demand. Modern people have more room, more autonomy, more time alone, and fewer social constraints than their ancestors had a hundred years ago. To scoff at this luxury, to call it “alienation,” is to ignore that it is the choices of those who are allegedly alienated that create this privacy-friendly social order.”

There is no doubt what people desire. In any given society, most people desire whatever they are acculturated to desire. Example after example of this can be found in social science research, the anthropological literature, and classical studies. It’s not obvious to me that there is any evidence that modern people have fewer social constraints. What is clear is that we have different social constraints and that difference seems to have led to immense stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses the rise in depression in particular, as have others such as Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism (I quote him and others here). The studies on WEIRD cultures are also telling (see: Urban Weirdness and Dark Triad Domination).

The issue isn’t simply what choices we make but what choices we are offered and denied, what choices we can and cannot perceive or even imagine. And that relates to how we lose contact with the human realities of other societies that embody other possibilities not chosen or even considered within the constraints of our own. We are disconnected not only from others within our society. Our WEIRD monocultural dominance has isolated us also from other expressions of human potential.

We luxuriate in privacy because our society offers us few other choices, like a choice between junk food or starvation, in which case junk food tastes delicious. For most modern Westerners, privacy is nothing more than a temporary escape from an overwhelming world. But what we most deeply hunger for is genuine connection.

Hyperobjects and Individuality

We live in a liberal age and the liberal paradigm dominates, not just for liberals but for everyone. Our society consists of nothing other than liberalism and reactions to liberalism. And at the heart of it all is individualism. But through the cracks, other possibilities can be glimpsed.

One challenging perspective is that of hyperobjects, a proposed by Timothy Morton — as he writes: “Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.”

Evander Price summarizes the origin of the theory and the traits of hyperobjects (Hyperobjects & Dark Ecology). He breaks it down into seven points. The last three refer to individuality — here they are (with some minor editing):

5) Individuality is lost. We are not separate from other things. (This is Object Oriented Ontology) — Morton calls this entangledness. “Knowing more about hyperobjects is knowing more about how we are hopelessly fastened to them.” A little bit like Ahab all tangled up in the lines of Moby-Dick.

6) “Utilitarianism is deeply flawed when it comes to working with hyperobjects. The simple reason why is that hpyerobjects are profoundly futural.” (135) <–I’ve been arguing against utilitarianism for a while now within this line of thinking; this is because utilitarianism, the idea that moral goodness is measured by whether an action or idea increases the overall happiness of a given community, is always embedded within a temporal framework, outside of which the collective ‘happiness’ of a given individual or community is not considered. Fulfilling the greatest happiness for the current generation is always dependent on taking resources now [from] future generations. What is needed is chronocritical utilitarianism, but that is anathema to the radical individuality of utilitarianism.

7) Undermining — the opposite of hyperobjecting. From Harman. “Undermining is when things are reduced to smaller things that are held to be more real. The classic form of undermining in contemporary capitalism is individualism: ‘There are only individuals and collective decisions are ipso facto false.’” <– focusing on how things affect me because I am the most important is essentially undermining that I exist as part of a community, and a planet.

And from the book on the topic:

Hyperobjects:
Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 427-446

The ecological thought that thinks hyperobjects is not one in which individuals are embedded in a nebulous overarching system, or conversely, one in which something vaster than individuals extrudes itself into the temporary shapes of individuals. Hyperobjects provoke irreductionist thinking, that is, they present us with scalar dilemmas in which ontotheological statements about which thing is the most real (ecosystem, world, environment, or conversely, individual) become impossible. 28 Likewise, irony qua absolute distance also becomes inoperative. Rather than a vertiginous antirealist abyss, irony presents us with intimacy with existing nonhumans.

The discovery of hyperobjects and OOO are symptoms of a fundamental shaking of being, a being-quake. The ground of being is shaken. There we were, trolling along in the age of industry, capitalism, and technology, and all of a sudden we received information from aliens, information that even the most hardheaded could not ignore, because the form in which the information was delivered was precisely the instrumental and mathematical formulas of modernity itself. The Titanic of modernity hits the iceberg of hyperobjects. The problem of hyperobjects, I argue, is not a problem that modernity can solve. Unlike Latour then, although I share many of his basic philosophical concerns, I believe that we have been modern, and that we are only just learning how not to be.

Because modernity banks on certain forms of ontology and epistemology to secure its coordinates, the iceberg of hyperobjects thrusts a genuine and profound philosophical problem into view. It is to address these problems head on that this book exists. This book is part of the apparatus of the Titanic, but one that has decided to dash itself against the hyperobject. This rogue machinery— call it speculative realism, or OOO— has decided to crash the machine, in the name of a social and cognitive configuration to come, whose outlines are only faintly visible in the Arctic mist of hyperobjects. In this respect, hyperobjects have done us a favor. Reality itself intervenes on the side of objects that from the prevalent modern point of view— an emulsion of blank nothingness and tiny particles— are decidedly medium-sized. It turns out that these medium-sized objects are fascinating, horrifying, and powerful.

For one thing, we are inside them, like Jonah in the Whale. This means that every decision we make is in some sense related to hyperobjects. These decisions are not limited to sentences in texts about hyperobjects.

Kindle Locations 467-472

Hyperobjects are a good candidate for what Heidegger calls “the last god,” or what the poet Hölderlin calls “the saving power” that grows alongside the dangerous power. 31 We were perhaps expecting an eschatological solution from the sky, or a revolution in consciousness— or, indeed, a people’s army seizing control of the state. What we got instead came too soon for us to anticipate it. Hyperobjects have dispensed with two hundred years of careful correlationist calibration. The panic and denial and right-wing absurdity about global warming are understandable. Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.

Kindle Locations 2712-2757

Marxists will argue that huge corporations are responsible for ecological damage and that it is self-destructive to claim that we are all responsible. Marxism sees the “ethical” response to the ecological emergency as hypocrisy. Yet according to many environmentalists and some anarchists, in denying that individuals have anything to do with why Exxon pumps billions of barrels of oil, Marxists are displacing the blame away from humans. This view sees the Marxist “political” response to the ecological emergency as hypocrisy. The ethics– politics binary is a true differend: an opposition so radical that it is in some sense insuperable. Consider this. If I think ethics, I seem to want to reduce the field of action to one-on-one encounters between beings. If I think politics, I hold that one-on-one encounters are never as significant as the world (of economic, class, moral, and so on), relations in which they take place. These two ways of talking form what Adorno would have called two halves of a torn whole, which nonetheless don’t add up together. Some nice compromise “between” the two is impossible. Aren’t we then hobbled when it comes to issues that affect society as a whole— nay the biosphere as a whole— yet affect us all individually (I have mercury in my blood, and ultraviolet rays affect me unusually strongly)?

Yet the deeper problem is that our (admittedly cartoonish) Marxist and anarchist see the problem as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is denounced from the standpoint of cynicism. Both the Marxist and the anti-Marxist are still wedded to the game of modernity, in which she who grabs the most cynical “meta” position is the winner: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta. Going meta has been the intellectual gesture par excellence for two centuries. I am smarter than you because I can see through you. You are smarter than they are because you ground their statements in conditions of possibility. From a height, I look down on the poor fools who believe what they think. But it is I who believes, more than they. I believe in my distance, I believe in the poor fools, I believe they are deluded. I have a belief about belief: I believe that belief means gripping something as tightly as possible with my mind. Cynicism becomes the default mode of philosophy and of ideology. Unlike the poor fool, I am undeluded— either I truly believe that I have exited from delusion, or I know that no one can, including myself, and I take pride in this disillusionment.

This attitude is directly responsible for the ecological emergency, not the corporation or the individual per se, but the attitude that inheres both in the corporation and in the individual, and in the critique of the corporation and of the individual. Philosophy is directly embodied in the size and shape of a paving stone, the way a Coca Cola bottle feels to the back of my neck, the design of an aircraft, or a system of voting. The overall guiding view, the “top philosophy,” has involved a cynical distance. It is logical to suppose that many things in my world have been affected by it— the way a shopping bag looks, the range of options on the sports channel, the way I think Nature is “over yonder.” By thinking rightness and truth as the highest possible elevation, as cynical transcendence, I think Earth and its biosphere as the stage set on which I prance for the amusement of my audience. Indeed, cynicism has already been named in some forms of ideology critique as the default mode of contemporary ideology. 48 But as we have seen, cynicism is only hypocritical hypocrisy.

Cynicism is all over the map: left, right, green, indifferent. Isn’t Gaian holism a form of cynicism? One common Gaian assertion is that there is something wrong with humans. Nonhumans are more Natural. Humans have deviated from the path and will be wiped out (poor fools!). No one says the same about dolphins, but it’s just as true. If dolphins go extinct, why worry? Dolphins will be replaced. The parts are greater than the whole. A mouse is not a mouse if it is not in the network of Gaia. 49 The parts are replaceable. Gaia will replace humans with a less defective component. We are living in a gigantic machine— a very leafy one with a lot of fractals and emergent properties to give it a suitably cool yet nonthreatening modern aesthetic feel.

It is fairly easy to discern how refusing to see the big picture is a form of what Harman calls undermining. 50 Undermining is when things are reduced to smaller things that are held to be more real. The classic form of undermining in contemporary capitalism is individualism: “There are only individuals and collective decisions are ipso facto false.” But this is a problem that the left, and environmentalism more generally, recognize well.

The blind spot lies in precisely the opposite direction: in how common ideology tends to think that bigger is better or more real. Environmentalism, the right, and the left seem to have one thing in common: they all hold that incremental change is a bad thing. Yet doesn’t the case against incrementalism, when it comes to things like global warming, amount to a version of what Harman calls overmining, in the domain of ethics and politics? Overmining is when one reduces a thing “upward” into an effect of some supervenient system (such as Gaia or consciousness). 51 Since bigger things are more real than smaller things, incremental steps will never accomplish anything. The critique of incrementalism laughs at the poor fools who are trying to recycle as much as possible or drive a Prius. By postponing ethical and political decisions into an idealized future, the critique of incrementalism leaves the world just as it is, while maintaining a smug distance toward it. In the name of the medium-sized objects that coexist on Earth (aspen trees, polar bears, nematode worms, slime molds, coral, mitochondria, Starhawk, and Glenn Beck), we should forge a genuinely new ethical view that doesn’t reduce them or dissolve them.

 

12 Rules for Potential School Shooters

In response to the Parkland school shooting, Jared Sichel takes a different perspective. He puts it into the context of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

I’m not sure of my opinion on this article, as might be noted by the title of this post. We should take Peterson seriously, but it is hard to know how his message applies to extreme cases of young males that are struggling to such an extent that they might commit mass violence. That is a lot to ask of a public intellectual, even when he has experience in clinical psychology as does Peterson.

The article begins with a general description of American school shooters, the implication being that by knowing who these people are we could help them before they turn violent (via the sage advice of a professorial father figure):

“He, like every one of America’s other young, school shooters since Columbine, is male. And like many, he grew up without a father present, is not socialized, is a loner, is not religious, sees himself as a victim, is angry and depressed, wants to get even, is attracted to violence, and meticulously planned his final, redemptive, act of chaos.”

I wanted to break this down a bit (although in less detail than I did with an earlier post on the demographics of violence). Let me start with the religious component. Whatever they identify or don’t identify as, many and maybe most school shooters were raised Christian and one wonders if that plays a role in their often expressing a loss of meaning, an existential crisis, etc. Birgit Pfeifer and Ruard R. Ganzevoort focus on the religious-like concerns that obsess so many school shooters and note that many of them had religious backgrounds:

“Traditionally, religion offers answers to existential concerns. Interestingly, school shootings have occurred more frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population (Arcus 2002). Michael Carneal (Heath High School shooting, 1997, Kentucky) came from a family of devoted members of the Lutheran Church. Mitchell Johnson (Westside Middle School shooting, 1998, Arkansas) sang in the Central Baptist Church youth choir (Newman et al. 2004). Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting, 1999, Colorado) attended confirmation classes in accordance with Lutheran tradition. However, not all school shooters have a Christian background. Some of them declare themselves atheists…” (The Implicit Religion of School Shootings).

Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, in studying school shootings, has noted that, “School rampage shootings tend to happen in small, isolated or rural communities. There isn’t a very direct connection between where violence typically happens, especially gun violence in the United States, and where rampage shootings happen” (Common traits of all school shooters in the U.S. since 1970).

It is quite significant that these American mass atrocities are concentrated in “small, isolated or rural communities” that are “frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population”. That might more precisely indicate who these school shooters are and what they are reacting to. Also, one might note that rural areas in general and specifically in the South do have high rates of gun-related deaths, although many of them are listed as ‘accidental’ which is to say most rural shootings involve people who know each other; also true of school shootings.

Sichel goes onto focus one particular descriptor of so many school shooters, that they are young males: “America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis of young males. […] “Boys are suffering in the modern world,” Peterson writes. […] Thus “toxic masculinity.” […] The combination of a toxic culture and broken homes has produced millions of anxious, confused, and even angry, teenage and young adult males.”

I’d put it more simply. America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis. Full stop. The crisis is found in every demographic and area of American society, even though it impacts and manifests in diverse ways of dysfunction and unhappiness.

But I might emphasize the point that some of the worst harmed are GenXers, which is to say middle agers, especially among certain demographics of white males such as in the lower classes and rural areas (the most harm in the relative sense of having experienced the greatest decline, the only demographic with worsening mortality rates). And I could add that GenXers — a generation with high rates of violent crime and social problems — are probably the majority of young parents right now, which is to say the parents of these school shooters and other struggling young men (and young women).

James Gilligan, among other issues, discusses this in terms of loss of status and loss of hope. This leads to stress and short term thinking, shame and frustration. Et cetera. It’s a whole mess of factors, across multiple generations, especially in considering how GenXers were the first mass incarcerated generation which caused much devastation, from absentee fathers to impoverished communities. It’s not only individuals who are hurting but also families and communities.

It just so happens that yesterday I wrote a post about American violence. Based on extensive data, I made the argument that lead toxicity and inequality are the most strongly proven explanations of violence, both in its increase and decrease. And it must be noted that violence in the US has been on a steep decline since the 1990s.

School shootings and other mass murder, however, is a different kind of action. Even though lead toxicity has been dealt with to some degree, although less so in poor communities (both inner city and rural communities full of old lead pipes and old buildings with lead paint), inequality keeps rising and that is one of the clearest predictors of a wide variety of social problems. And James Gilligan, as I discuss in that post, goes into great detail about why high inequality affects males differently than females. As part of his analysis of the stresses of inequality, he speaks of a culture of shame that particularly hits young men hard. To his credit, Jordan Peterson does admit that inequality is an important factor (as I recall, he discusses it in an interview with Russell Brand).

I’ll respond to one last bit from Sichel’s article: “And the aim of your life, Peterson argues, should not be happiness. He does not belittle it as a worthy pursuit among many, but “in a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.””

I wonder what Jordan Peterson would think of Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything. She clarifies the issue of individualism. The United States is simultaneously too individualistic and not individualistic enough. Or one could say that few Americans take seriously what individualism means or could mean, instead being mired in the pseudo-individualistic rhetoric that authoritarianism hides behind.

Partanen argues that the Nordic social democracies, on a practical level, have greater individual rights and freedoms. Individual happiness can only be attained through the public good. Nordic laws treat people as individuals, whereas US law prioritizes family which Partanen sees as being oppressive in how it is used to undermine public responsibility. The American nuclear family is expected to hold up the entirety of society, an impossible task.

This relates to the difference between the cultural notion of Germanic freedom (etymologically related to ‘friend’) and the legalistic tradition of Roman liberty (simply meaning one isn’t a slave). But I don’t think Partanen discusses this distinction. Maybe American (pseudo-)individualism is too legalistic. And maybe precisely because individualism is less of a political football in Nordic countries that genuine individualism is possible. Individualism can be a result of a functioning social democracy, but not a starting point as an abstract ideal.

 

* * *

Here is a relevant section from my violence post where I share a passage from Gilligan’s book. He goes into more detail about other factors influencing males, specifically young males. But this particular passage fits in with Partanen’s view. Simply put, it can’t so easily be blamed on family breakdown, missing fathers, and single mothers.

Preventing Violence
by James Gilligan
Kindle Locations 1218-1256

Single-Parent Families Another factor that correlates with rates of violence in the United States is the rate of single-parent families: children raised in them are more likely to be abused, and are more likely to become delinquent and criminal as they grow older, than are children who are raised by two parents. For example, over the past three decades those two variables—the rates of violent crime and of one-parent families—have increased in tandem with each other; the correlation is very close. For some theorists, this has suggested that the enormous increase in the rate of youth violence in the U.S. over the past few decades has been caused by the proportionately similar increase in the rate of single-parent families.

As a parent myself, I would be the first to agree that child-rearing is such a complex and demanding task that parents need all the help they can get, and certainly having two caring and responsible parents available has many advantages over having only one. In addition, children, especially boys, can be shown to benefit in many ways, including diminished risk of delinquency and violent criminality, from having a positive male role-model in the household. The adult who is most often missing in single-parent families is the father. Some criminologists have noticed that Japan, for example, has practically no single-parent families, and its murder rate is only about one-tenth as high as that of the United States.

Sweden’s rate of one-parent families, however, has grown almost to equal that in the United States, and over the same period (the past few decades), yet Sweden’s homicide rate has also been on average only about one-tenth as high as that of the U.S., during that same time. To understand these differences, we should consider another variable, namely, the size of the gap between the rich and the poor. As stated earlier, Sweden and Japan both have among the lowest degrees of economic inequity in the world, whereas the U.S. has the highest polarization of both wealth and income of any industrialized nation. And these differences exist even when comparing different family structures. For example, as Timothy M. Smeeding has shown, the rate of relative poverty is very much lower among single-parent families in Sweden than it is among those in the U.S. Even more astonishing, however, is the fact that the rate of relative poverty among single-parent families in Sweden is much lower than it is among two-parent families in the United States (“Financial Poverty in Developed Countries,” 1997). Thus, it would seem that however much family structure may influence the rate of violence in a society, the overall social and economic structure of the society—the degree to which it is or is not stratified into highly polarized upper and lower social classes and castes—is a much more powerful determinant of the level of violence.

There are other differences between the cultures of Sweden and the U.S. that may also contribute to the differences in the correlation between single-parenthood and violent crime. The United States, with its strongly Puritanical and Calvinist cultural heritage, is much more intolerant of both economic dependency and out-of-wedlock sex than Sweden. Thus, the main form of welfare support for single-parent families in the U.S. (until it was ended a year ago) A.F.D.C., Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was specifically denied to families in which the father (or any other man) was living with the mother; indeed, government agents have been known to raid the homes of single mothers with no warning in the middle of the night in order to “catch” them in bed with a man, so that they could then deprive them (and their children) of their welfare benefits. This practice, promulgated by politicians who claimed that they were supporting what they called “family values,” of course had the effect of destroying whatever family life did exist. Fortunately for single mothers in Sweden, the whole society is much more tolerant of people’s right to organize their sexual life as they wish, and as a result many more single mothers are in fact able to raise their children with the help of a man.

Another difference between Sweden and the U.S. is that fewer single mothers in Sweden are actually dependent on welfare than is true in the U.S. The main reason for this is that mothers in Sweden receive much more help from the government in getting an education, including vocational training; more help in finding a job; and access to high-quality free childcare, so that mothers can work without leaving their children uncared for. The U.S. system, which claims to be based on opposition to dependency, thus fosters more welfare dependency among single mothers than Sweden’s does, largely because it is so more miserly and punitive with the “welfare” it does provide. Even more tragically, however, it also fosters much more violence. It is not single motherhood as such that causes the extremely high levels of violence in the United States, then; it is the intense degree of shaming to which single mothers and their children are exposed by the punitive, miserly, Puritanical elements that still constitute a powerful strain in the culture of the United States.

* * *

After writing this post, another factor occurred to me related to this.

There aren’t only the chemicals kids get accidentally exposed to — including far from being limited to heavy metal toxins for there also such things as estrogen-like chemicals in plastics and the food supply, not to mention a thousand other largely untested chemicals that surround us on a daily basis — but also those we intentionally prescribe them such as the increasing use of psychiatric medications on the entire population, more problematically prescribed to the still developing youth. A relevant example are the ADD/ADHD medications that are given mostly to boys to get them, as some argue, to act less like boys and more like girls. And these drugs have been proven to permanently alter neurocognitive development, specifically affecting areas of the brain related to motivation.

Dr. Leonard Sax in Boys Adrift (see my post) argues that, by way of chemicals and drugs along with schools constraining and punishing typical male behavior, we have now raised two generations of boys who are stunted (physiologically, cognitively, and psychologically). This is seen in the growing gender disparity of sexual development, girls maturing earlier than ever before and boys reaching puberty later than seen with previous generations. The consequence of this is that more young women are now attending and graduating college, including in many fields (e.g., business management) that used to be dominated by males.

It’s even a wider problem than this. The dramatic changes are also seen in the larger ecosystem. Males of other species showing the effects of shrinking testicles and egg-laying, the latter being particularly non-typical for males of all species, in fact one of the defining features of not being male. It appears to be a multi-species gender problem. Boys aren’t just adrift but stunted and maybe mutating. Why would anyone be surprised that there is something severely problematic going on and that it is pervasive? Simplistic psychological and social explanations, especially of the culture war variety, are next to worthless.

Take the challenges targeting the young, especially boys, and combine them with the worsening problems of inequality and segregation, classism and racism, climate change and late stage capitalism, and all the rest. The worst cases of lost young males are indicators of deeper troubles coursing through our entire society. The stresses in the world right now are immense, leaving many to feel overwhelmed. If anything, I’m surprised there isn’t far more violence. With the increasingly obvious decline and dysfunction of the United States, I keep waiting for a massive wave of social turmoil, riots, revolts, assassinations, and terrorist attacks. The occasional school shooting is maybe just a sign of what is to come.

A Story of Walking Away

Back during the early Bush era, American imperialism was rearing its ugly head. I was in a group at the time where I met a guy who would become a close friend. The group read a story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a story written a in 1973 which was a couple of years before I was born. Those were the waning days of Nixon’s reign, another dark time right before his fall from power. I had forgotten about Le Guin’s story, until my friend mentioned it the other day. We are once more at a moment of societal angst. And the story remains relevant.

As told by the narrator, there is a utopian world, a supposedly wonderful and perfect society in all ways but one. A single innocent child must suffer alone as the price to be paid for the greater good. “The central idea of this psychomyth,” Le Guin explains in a preface, is “the scapegoat.” In giving the story further thought, my friend suggested: “I considered the central idea could be empire–that some would live very well off the misery of others (only 1 other in the story, but could be any number). Is one basis of empire, scapegoating?” I suspect Le Guin would accept that as a background influence to the central idea, if not the central idea itself. She says the inspiration came from William James (“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“):

“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

This story is about the belief in substitutionary sacrifice, a narrative frame that gives meaning and purpose. It has ancient roots and took its present form by way of Judeo-Christian theology. The scapegoat is at the heart of our civilizational project. Ultimately, it’s a form of dark magic. And its power comes from telling a compelling story. But the exact details of the story are a distraction, pointing away from whatever is the real issue.

The real issue, one way or another, is always the social order. To anchor a social order, a story has to be viscerally embodied within collective experience. It’s not enough that someone is sacrificed for it must be known and accepted, must be felt as real and necessary by those within the social order. It makes them complicit and so binds them to the social order. It is a social contract written in blood. Dark magic is blood magic.

Le Guin is using counter-magic by telling her own story. It appears as mere fiction to allow it to slide below our psychological defenses. By doing so, she slips in a seed of potential awareness. The story isn’t about some other place. It is about our own society. The belief in substitutionary sacrifice as having magical power is what makes this kind of society possible, the shining city on a hill of corpses. Imperialism or any such authoritarian regime comes at great costs and those must be rationalized as necessary for the greater good. Le Guin describes that the young people of Omelas, upon learning of the suffering child, are moved by compassion as any good person would be in a good society:

“Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.”

Let me bring this into present realities of our own society. This ritualized suffering of the condemned is why even rich, powerful white men can occasionally be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo. Anyone can be sacrificed, as long as the system itself is protected and unquestioned. The one thing that can’t be sacrificed is the social order itself.

That is what makes spectacles of publicly shaming individuals a safe outlet, whereas the greater and more pervasive realities of collective victimization must remain unspoken. This is why the overwhelming problems of lead toxicity and pollution, primarily harming poor dark-skinned people, has never led to the same level of moral outrage and media judgment as has the sexual scandals. And this is why those sexual scandals mostly focus on well off white victimizers and well off white victims. Millions of the poor and powerless being harmed far worse would never get the same amount of attention and concern.

Such media spectacle maintains the focus on those in power and privilege, their suffering and their wrongdoing. And so this keeps the public mind locked within the ideological structure of power and privilege. The rest of us are supposed to be spectators sitting silently in the dark as the actors entertain us on the stage. A few people will be sacrificed and then, as a society, we can fall back into unconsciousness. With substitutionary sacrifice, our collective sins once again are atoned for.

The only thing most of us have to do is passively submit to the public ritual. So we watch in silence. And the story being told is burned into our psyche, our soul. To tell a different story, as does Le Guin, is a danger to the world as we know it. And to read such a story threatens to break the magic spell, invoking a state of anxiety and discontent by reminding us that our way of life (and way of death) is and always has been a choice.

We are reminded that there are those who choose to walk away. What they walk away from isn’t only that society but, more importantly, the story of that society. They can only do that by walking toward a different story, even if another society hasn’t yet fully taken form. First, a story has to be told about the walking away:

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Wordplay Schmordplay

What Do You Call Words Like Wishy-Washy or Mumbo Jumbo?

Words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called reduplicative words or tautonyms. The process of forming such words is known as reduplication. In many cases, the first word is a real word, while the second part (sometimes nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most reduplicative begin as hyphenated words, and through very common usage, eventually lose the hype to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language.

Reduplication isn’t just jibber-jabber

There are several kinds of reduplication. One type replaces a vowel while keeping the initial consonant, as in “flip-flop,” “pish-posh,” and “ping-pong.” Another type keeps the vowel but replaces that first sound, as in “namby-pamby,” “hanky-panky,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “timey-wimey,” a word used by Dr. Who fans for time-travel shenanigans. Reduplication doesn’t get any simpler than when the whole word is repeated, like when you pooh-pooh a couple’s attempt to dress matchy-matchy. My favorite type is “schm” reduplication, though some might say “Favorite, schmavorite!” All the types show that redundancy isn’t a problem in word-making. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” notes via e-mail that even the word “reduplication” has an unnecessary frill: “I’ve always liked the ‘re’ in ‘reduplicate.’ We’re doing it again! It’s right there in the word!”

Reduplication

Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change.

Reduplication is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words. It is often used when a speaker adopts a tone more “expressive” or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often, but not exclusively, iconic in meaning. Reduplication is found in a wide range of languages and language groups, though its level of linguistic productivity varies.

Reduplication is the standard term for this phenomenon in the linguistics literature. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloningdoublingduplicationrepetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as “Bison bison”.

The origin of this usage of tautonym is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it is of relatively recent derivation.

Reduplication

The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren’t restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.

The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.

New coinages have often appeared at times of national confidence, when an outgoing and playful nature is expressed in language; for example, during the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined – the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies etc. That said, the introduction of such terms begin with Old English and continues today. Willy-nilly is over a thousand years old. Riff-raff dates from the 1400s and helter-skelter, arsy-versy (a form of vice-versa), and hocus-pocus all date from the 16th century. Coming up to date we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. I’ve not yet recorded a 21st century reduplication. Bling-bling comes very close but is 20th century. ‘Bieber Fever’ is certainly 21st century, but isn’t quite a reduplication.

A hotchpotch of reduplication

Argy-bargy and lovey-dovey lie on opposite ends of the interpersonal scale, but they have something obvious in common: both are reduplicatives.

Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.

Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.

As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.

The language rule we know – but don’t know we know

Ding dong King Kong

Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.

Jibber Jabber: The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule

In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o.

In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels.

See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.

This Weird Grammar Rule is Why We Say “Flip Flop” Instead of “Flop Flip”

As to why this I-A-O pattern has such a firm hold in our linguistic history, nobody can say. Forsyth calls it a topic of “endless debate” among linguists that may originate in the arcane movements of the human tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. Whatever the case, the world’s English speakers are on-board, and you will never catch Lucy accusing Charlie Brown of being washy-wishy.

Reduplicative Words

Ricochet Word

wishy-washy, hanky panky – name for this type of word-formation?

argle-bargle

Easy-Peasy

Double Trouble

English Ryming Compound Words

Rhyming Compounds

Reduplicates

REDUPLICATION

English gitaigo: Flip-Flop Words