October 30, 2012

Changes in the carnivalesque nature of Halloween

The shift has been going on for some time now, but it finally hit me last weekend that the 20 and 30-somethings who get dressed up for a Halloween party are no longer bothering to do so on Halloween night. Instead they're playing it safe by going out overwhelmingly on the Saturday (or perhaps Friday) before Halloween.

Masked balls and the like are supposed to rejuvenate the health of a community by giving it the occasional hit of stress, over-turning the ordinary order of things to a smallish degree and for a limited time only. It's like playing sports to stay healthy, welcoming those shocks and hits, provided that they're not out of proportion or ever-lasting. Without shaking things up periodically, the community muscles atrophy, and its nerves weaken. The revelry of New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July (at least back in the good old days) also serve this function.

However, the push to move Halloween parties away from a specific date and toward the previous Saturday night robs them of their carnivalesque potential -- if people go out partying in their ordinary lives, it's always on a Friday or Saturday night, so there's nothing unusual and special about partying on the Saturday-before-Halloween. And girls picking out a hooker dress, plus some throwaway ironic embellishment to make it a costume, is not very different from their outfit-picking rituals on an ordinary Saturday night.

When a holiday is celebrated on a particular date, though, it could possibly land on a day when you normally wouldn't be carrying on the way you are. That out-of-the-ordinary feeling heightens your appreciation for the holiday. Children travelling around the neighborhood in packs after dark is unusual enough, but what's more, most of the time it will fall on a school night! It's odd, but 2nd graders in the 1980s were more adventurous than today's 20-something party-poopers who wouldn't dare go out late on a week night.

And their complaints about having to work or go to class the next morning just show how little feeling they have for Halloween, that they wouldn't sacrifice even a small disruption to their personal routine. It's as though they began to do away with Christmas dinners because, ugh, y'know I really don't wanna show up to work the next day with a belly ready to burst. Like, let's just do a cute little Christmas falafel wrap instead, it'll totes be fun, and like, Jesus was Middle Eastern anyway, right?

Then there's the costume types that represent a temporary exchange of roles between the high and the low, the blessed and the cursed. Mannerheim's comment about ugly sweater parties reminds me of our age's great love of blackface, and more importantly who it's aimed at. Assuming they were choosing a caricatured, rather than more sincere costume, people today no longer dress up as plantation slaves, hobos, or poindexters.

Today's joyless pranksters must instead send up anyone who was fun, exciting, sociable, and capable of feeling positive emotions -- the '70s cop, the disco dancer, the '80s jock (sweatbands), and the Maiden and Bon Jovi-era metalhead. Dude, can you believe those guys used to physically stand up for their friends and kiss girls? How fucking gay, it'll make the perfect wacky costume.

Meanwhile, the attention whores must corrupt the coy feminine charm of the nurse, the schoolgirl, and even the librarian. I know that girls used to wear similar costumes in the good old days, but it wasn't in blackface -- the shift is signaled by the names of these costumes today always beginning with "sexy." Sexy nurse, sexy schoolgirl, sexy librarian. And of course "sexy" here means attention-whoring, look-but-don't-approach, Fergalicious -- cold and repulsive, totally unlike the warm engaging attitude of the people they're dressed up as.

As with most cases of blackface, here we do not see the marginalized mocking their masters, but the reigning majority of autistic killjoys taking pot-shots at extinct groups who actually had an enjoyable social life.

October 27, 2012

Young people drinking less, except before sex

Recently I pointed out one strange aspect of the prudification of the culture over the past 20 years -- that drunkenness seems to have become a goal in itself, not as a pleasantly buzzed gateway toward further fun activities. Another part of this shift may be that young people have become incredibly more self-conscious over that time, even around their friends at the increasingly dominant small parties. They therefore require a stronger dose of booze to loosen themselves up and at least attempt to mingle.

I think this is where the false perception of greater binge drinking comes from. The CDC's nationally representative Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks high schoolers if they've had 5 or more drinks within a couple hours, during the past 30 days. In the mid-1990s, 33% had, yet by 2011 only 22% had. This pattern over time is not unique to hardcore drinking: it shows up for casual drinking as well (having had at least one drink in the past 30 days).

But you have to actually have some kind of life to be out in a situation where binge drinking is going on in the first place. Perhaps lower rates of binge drinking simply tell us that, as we know from so many other sources, young people today have no life and lock themselves indoors all day, either playing video games or farting around on the internet, where no kegs can tempt them. We would have to compare rates of binge drinking to rates of going out to parties in order to determine how likely they are to binge drink, assuming they're already out at a party. For all we know, binge drinking could be more likely to occur at parties.

Fortunately the YRBS does ask a question about drinking alcohol in a specific social context, namely before having sex. Technically it asks if you used alcohol or drugs before your last intercourse, but alcohol is overwhelmingly what it would have been. Marijuana usage is far lower, and hard drugs like cocaine minimal. And for high schoolers, the scene leading up to getting it on is more likely to have been a party where they were drinking, not vegging out and watching horror movies while getting baked, then satisfying the munchies before falling asleep.

The graph below shows the rates of binge drinking and of having used alcohol (or drugs) before having sex the last time.

The blue line shows the decline mentioned above. However, the red line shows no substantial change in drinking before having sex, although at least it's down from the early 2000s. But given how much drinking has declined in the broader context, you'd think it would've fallen also in the specific case of before sex.

To see how much more likely it has become to drink before sex, relative to drinking overall, look at the ratio of drinking-before-sex compared to some baseline like binge drinking (it works the same if casual drinking is used as the baseline). You could also take the difference in rates, or the difference relative to the baseline; they all show the same thing. But a ratio is simpler to understand.

In the early 1990s, the before-sex rate was about 70% of the binge-drinking rate; by 2011 it has risen to over 100%, meaning that high schoolers today are more likely to drink before sex than to binge drink. I can't help but notice the brief halt-and-reversal of this trend during the mid-2000s euphoria. For those few years, the entire culture took tiny steps back toward the rising-crime culture of the 1980s, probably in response to 9/11. But by now we're well back on the path set out in the early-mid '90s.

To reiterate, the major change is not so much in their overt behavior (drinking before sex), but in their underlying psychology -- their mindset, tastes, and inclinations -- and how the behavior functions in their broader lives. Before, maybe they just happened to be drinking at a party before pairing off -- the two were more independent. Now, they're more closely linked, as shown by young people's higher preference for drinking before sex, relative to their overall inclination to getting drunk.

So we shouldn't be fooled by the lower rates of drinking among young people -- it probably means that they just don't go out as much as they used to. Relative to their overall alcohol consumption, they're much more likely than before to consume it before having sex. That's one more sign of how paralyzingly self-conscious they've become, where getting blasted is required in order to open up in bed. Not healthy. Blaming others for their problems has also become more widespread -- anything to protect their precious self-esteem -- so they need a reputational insurance policy like dismissing responsibility with, "Dude, I got so drunk last night, I don't remember anything..."

And then there are the emotional functions. Now that they're more avoidant, they'd like for an act that threatens them with potential intimacy to be as forgettable as possible, for it to leave no emotional trace -- well then, why not make sure you black out while it's happening? They also fear getting emotionally excited, so they choose to get drunk in order to be in more of a daze than in a vivid state of arousal. They just fumble through some bad sex (Whiskey dick for the guy, perhaps something similar for the girl), without feeling like they're being lifted out of their ordinary selves.

It's too bad we don't have data going back before the '90s. You certainly don't see this kind of thing in the teen movies of the '80s, whether Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science, Heathers, Teen Wolf, or whatever else. To judge from Fitzgerald's stories of the Jazz Age, that period too seemed like young people wanted to have a few drinks just to loosen up, but that they wanted to be lucid enough to remember what great fun they were about to have. Getting tanked before petting or getting it on doesn't show up, as far as I remember.

I wonder about the mid-century, another period incredibly similar to our own in attitude. Re-reading this excerpt from Time's original article on the Silent Generation, it does sound like these young people had gotten pretty blotto during their otherwise innocuous small party. Maybe their panic about juvenile delinquency, and similar anxieties of the time, were like ours today -- that young people may not have been behaving as wildly as before, but that they were acting out too much in what should have been easy-going and fun-loving situations, like having a small get-together or going for a roll in the hay.

In any event, this case study shows the value of looking at more specific contexts that some behavior occurs in, if there are good hints and data at the finer-grained level. Even an apparent exception to the prudification of society -- no real change in one type of drinking -- turns out to adhere to the larger pattern, where young people are so self-conscious and emotionally avoidant that they'll give booze a second chance, provided it'll help them get through their awkward sex lives.

October 26, 2012

Grown-up hijackers of Halloween are changing its roles from guest-host to selfish contestants

There's some interesting data in this USA Today article about a topic I've covered for awhile now (just search the blog for Halloween). The clearest sign of the holiday's "adultification" is that at Halloweenexpress.com, over 60% of costumes sold now are for adults, vs. under 30% a decade ago. If they had sales data two decades ago, they would've found more like 3% of costumes going to full-grown adults.

It would be a mistake, though, to view the major change in the nature of Halloween as adults simply taking over the holiday. I don't think I've emphasized it before, but it's not as though the roles that the participants play have stayed the same, only now the participants are grown-ups instead of children. It's that the roles themselves have fundamentally changed.

When Halloween was a real holiday, social interaction centered around trick-or-treating, where the children played the role of guest and the candy-passer-outters the role of hosts. Guest-host relationships are fragile and so are always the first to go during a breakdown of trust. The guests begin to believe that their hosts would take advantage of them, abusing their higher status. And for their part, the hosts begin to believe that their guests would take advantage of the hosts' vulnerable state after letting strangers get so close to their personal space.

Aside from trick-or-treating, hitch-hiking is another guest-host relationship that has completely evaporated over the past 20 years. It used to be common during the early 20th C, but disappeared during the cocooning mid-century, only to be re-discovered in the 1960s.

At any rate, today's grown-up Halloween participants do not enter into any sort of special guest-host relationship, other than at most your garden variety house party. Even there, the role of host is minimized -- they're just supposed to allow their home to be used for the small get-together, not to hand out gifts, etc. And the guests are supposed to minimize their role as well, just show up and mingle, rather than make a display of "please" and "thank you".

More importantly, the guests are not strangers, but close friends of the host. Some or most of the trick-or-treaters would have been known to the hosts, but they generally did not have frequent social contact with each other. They therefore had to overcome more potential distrust than close friends would have to, making the old Halloween ritual a stronger and purer example of guest-host interactions.

In such relationships, the two parties allow themselves to be somewhat vulnerable, trusting that the other party will not exploit them once their guard is down, and feeling something of a renewed faith in others when it's over and neither has in fact taken advantage of the other.

Unlike those relationships, today's Halloween ritual is more of an antagonistic status contest. Like, who can think up and pull off the most uniquely ironic costume? Or who can make the most obscure allusion? This is the opposite of the children's pattern, where they wear costumes that aren't so different from each other's. It pushes everyone in the direction of the catty red carpet diva who, despite trying to quiet her self-consciousness, remains anxious about what all those other bitches are wearing, and whether the audience will judge her look to be among the best.

There's a small degree of that competitiveness in any party atmosphere, but at your ordinary party, the range of what you're expected to wear is a lot narrower. It's generally considered in bad taste to show up to a normal party dressed incredibly different from anyone else, trying to stand out that much.

On Halloween, though, anything goes, and that invites people to go as far-out as they please in order to distinguish themselves from their competitors. This also means you have to plan a lot more, instead of thoughtlessly opting for one of a limited range of choices, which would have allowed you to forget yourself and get lost in the moment. Now you've got the spotlight of self-consciousness trained on your face the entire night.

One final note -- a holiday of reversals also tells us about what ordinary life is like, through contrast. In the good old days, people in everyday life were a lot freer to wear whatever they wanted, keep their hair long or cut it short, and listen to this, that, or the other music group. And in the current age, people are a lot more conformist in how they dress and groom themselves, how they entertain themselves, and so on.

October 23, 2012

Songs about, or for, the free-spirited

Style Council, "Speak Like A Child":

You usually can't even tell what Paul Weller is saying, but a simple evocative phrase in the chorus is all it needs. The music and the non-linguistic part of the singing convey the feeling perfectly on their own. (It sounds more sublime on a CD.)

In our socially avoidant age, I think most people would equate "free spirit" with someone who believes they're above belonging to a group or to another person, whether because they're mousy and fearful or dismissive and haughty. But Fergie has a dead soul, not a free spirit.

In a rising-crime period, people imagine them in a Romantic way -- as someone who is willing and actively looking to bond with someone else, and who can even stay attached to that single other person, provided that they keep supplying the magic. Although not fated to be so, free spirits are thus more likely to be heartbreakers, albeit of the type who never mean for it to happen, unlike more calculating types like gold-diggers. Hey, you gotta take the good with the bad.

It's too bad they didn't have Style Council back in the Jazz Age. All those readers taken in by Fitzgerald's female characters would've loved them.

October 22, 2012

Drunkenness as its own goal among young party people

Another puzzling trend I've noticed since the later half of the 1990s is that often when young people get together for what should be wild fun, it only goes so far as getting drunk. In the good old days, drinking was more for greasing the gears of social interaction, or raising hell. Now it's an end in itself, and once that state is reached, the party or get-together has hit its peak -- people will just stay drunk for awhile, then wind down and go home to recover, but without having used their inebriation for some larger purpose.

The ubiquity of beer pong, flip cup, and other boring drinking games are the most obvious sign of this shift. By turning the act of consuming alcohol into a competitive game, party-goers protect themselves against indulging in "alcohol-fueled behavior," since doing so would distract them from the goal of simply drinking more booze in order to score higher in the game. Keeping their eyes on the prize, they will not pipe up with, "Hey, we're already pleasantly buzzed enough, so why don't we go do X?" where X is anything other than continue with a pointless drinking game.

Are the parties I've been to unrepresentative? I occasionally overhear Millennials talking about what happened over the weekend, and by now I've given up hope of being scandalized. It's invariably something like, "Oh my god, we got SO drunk last night!" or "Oh my gosh, my best friend and I always act so silly when we get drunk -- I mean like, acting STUPID!" Never anything about what the drinking led to afterward, as there was no afterward. All the during-and-after pictures that fill my Facebook feed from my Millennial friends tell the same story.

The same goes for overhearing them in anticipation on Friday or Saturday afternoon -- "Dude, we're gonna get SO drunk at this kid's rager tonight!" Never any mention of what they expect their drunkenness to lead to -- hitting on girls, getting laid, going for a joyride, T.P.-ing somebody's house, etc. Some must believe that getting drunk will magically make fun things happen, while others kind of realize what a bunch of killjoys their generation is, and are trying to hype themselves up for a boring party to give some dignity to the only kind of interactions that are possible with their peers.

You rarely see young kids just hanging around outside anymore, and guzzling a lot of booze doesn't seem to change that. I can't remember the last time I saw young people drinking and having fun outside on an ordinary Saturday night, emphasis on having fun. At most you might see a small house party spilling out onto the front porch, and usually not even that.

Long gone are the days of wandering out into a wooded area with a six-pack, shooting the shit, throwing rocks at stuff, and carving figures into trees (or whatever else, if you went out there with your girlfriend instead of your buddies).

Over the summer, I did see a group of three people on their front lawn in sleeping bags, staring up at the sky at night, maybe or maybe not drunk. It's such an unusual sight that I stopped dead in my tracks to look them over for a second, just to convince myself they were really there. Even if you don't have access to a large patch of grass to lay on, you could always recline on the hood or roof of your car after you and your friends had gotten drunk and wanted to look up at the sky while chewing the fat.

Why does staring up at the sky make for a stronger bonding experience anyway? Maybe with a less feature-rich frame of reference for your physical surroundings, you become less bodily aware, kind of like meditation except that your eyes are open and you're talking with other people. Usually the kind of de-individuation that involves open eyes and talking is shared rhythmic motion -- dance, drill, and the like. Looking-up-at-the-sky bull sessions could be unique in combining still bodies with wide-open eyes and moving mouths during a de-individuating, group bonding experience.

Whatever the reason, a little alcohol always helps too, but only if the participants have such a larger goal in mind. By fixating so much on GETTING SHITFACED BRO, today's well-behaved young people keep their feet nailed to the ground, believing any form of exploration, alcohol-guided or not, to be dangerous.

October 21, 2012

The return of small-only gatherings in youth party culture

"And I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby
Every place that I checked to get that quote had a bunch of people who totally misunderstood it, so at the risk of killing the joke, here's what she means. In a large gathering, each person's spotlight of attention is diffused over so many people, that no single person feels like they're being intently focused on by most attendants, let alone by all of them.

This feeling of not being watched by most or all others lets two people take their interaction wherever it wants to go, without having to freeze in place every time someone else's spotlight jerks over toward them, anxious about how they're being perceived. Large parties make for those "I Think We're Alone Now" kind of interactions.

Small parties work the other way, where each person may be fairly focused on all the others -- on some more than on others, of course, but still there's not that feeling of being able to slip away from the watchful eye of The Group, nowhere where two people could just talk about or do whatever without being noticed by others. This puts people more on their guard at small parties.

In a healthy world, people go to both large and small parties, enjoying the good parts of each, and putting up with the bad parts as a necessary cost. But sometime over the last 20 years, we've returned to the mid-century era of relying mostly on small gatherings, unlike the earlier large-party atmosphere of the Jazz Age, and also unlike the larger-scale shindigs from the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, Animal House, and Weird Science.

The nightclub craze of the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties is also long gone. In low-trust periods, people just don't feel comfortable being surrounded by so many strangers in such an unprotected space. It's not only that people in such periods are less promiscuous and have lower sex drives, since you could always go out dancing with your steady partner or group of friends. They just feel awkward in public spaces, so nightclubbing becomes a fringe activity.

At small parties, though, there's no carnivalesque feeling that all barriers have been removed between groups and individuals, so to low-trust people it feels safer. There are probably no more than five separate little groups of friends, and since each group knows the hosts, they aren't that far apart in social distance. To the low-trust person, knowing that some unknown group comes pre-approved by mutual friends eases the interactions between strangers.

In an old post I excerpted a party scene from Time's original article on the Silent Generation, which unfortunately is no longer free online. It sounds pretty familiar, a rather small gathering where nothing too wild takes place. The attention-whoring described is not surprising given how self-conscious the average person will be in a small party, yet where there's an understanding that something unusual should happen.

It's like how everyone pretends to be fascinated by the boring game of beer pong that they're watching. If they respond to it like they should, by ignoring it and talking about or doing something fun with another person, the intense spotlight of small-party groups will train itself on them, to remind them that we're all here to watch beer pong, so don't kill the mood, bro. Kids are so conformist these days.

It's not as though young people in the good old days lacked group activities where everyone got together to pump themselves up as a group, rather than pair off and wander here, there, or anywhere. Sports games are only the most obvious example, and fans were much more rabid during the '20s and the '80s. But they also held their own events where, within an atmosphere of groupiness (those inside vs. outside the party), anyone could still find their own hidden little place, away from prying eyes. They enjoyed a healthier balance of event types.

I still stand by two older posts about how boring the typical Millennial house party is (and that episode was from Halloween, no less), and how beer pong reflects anti-social trends. And after a brief resurgence of nightclubbing during the mid-2000s, its appeal to young people keeps falling. Now, even when they do go out, it's mostly to whore for attention if they're female, and if male, to stare at "hot chicks" without making a move. No one's in any danger of making a connection.

October 19, 2012

The myth of wealthy gays and blue-collar lesbians

A major misconception that normal people have about gays is that they're more sophisticated, dashing or stylish, and relatively wealthy. Most of these images come from propaganda shown on TV and movies, and would be quickly corrected if you lived in a city where they congregate. What a rude awakening to discover that in reality queers have campy taste, dress like 13 year-olds, and want for disposable income (especially after paying for all the drugs, and for young bodies if they're middle-aged AIDS mummies).

The same goes for the blue-collar, manual-labor lesbo. I've only ever seen one who was like that -- shaved head, cargo shorts, wife-beater, and barbed wire tattoo around each bicep. You're far more likely to find lesbian professors, for example, and other middle-class and professional types as well, I'd assume.

(One of the few heart-warming facts about the make-up of university faculty is that there tend to be very few fags. Most gay agitation on campus comes from full-time activist groups and students, not so much from professors. But there's always a good number of lesbian faculty who show up to support the cause.)

But for the benefit of those who don't live around many homosexuals, let's turn to the General Social Survey. (Only whites are studied.) First consider education level. Among males, straights average 13.8 years of education and gays 14.5. Despite their mild advantage in education, though, gays' average annual income is much lower. Among high school graduates, gays earn about $49,000 vs. $61,000 for straights (adjusted for inflation to the year 2011).

This fits with the infantilization theory of male homosexuality, since they earn less not because they are dumber or less educated, but simply because they're underachievers and don't want adult responsibilities. The feminization theory does not account for this pattern because when women earn less than men, it's because they don't go to school for as long, work fewer hours, or don't work at all, mostly to take up the duties of being a wife and mother. Gays have no nurturing instinct, let alone nurturing behavior, and so do not have that excuse to fall back on for their lower earnings.

As for non-heterosexual females, straights average 13.7 years of education, bisexuals 13.6, and lesbians 14.5. (I break out bisexual vs. lesbian here because there does seem to be a distinct bisexual type in women, whereas most "bisexual" males are homos deep down.) Unlike the gay case, though, lesbian high school grads earn more on average than straight women -- about $52,000 compared to $36,000. Bisexuals earn the least, at $28,000.

I don't have a simple grand theory of lesbians and bisexuals, but those figures match with other patterns, where lesbians are more adult-like, generally blending in in everyday life (unlike freakish faggots), and bisexuals have a neurotic, pissed-off, wild-child profile. At any rate, clearly the causes and outcomes of deviant sexuality are very different between males and females.

The old stereotypes of the gay ghetto and the careerist lesbian are much closer to the truth than the newly invented propaganda about cultured, wealthy gays and Rosie the Riveter lesbians. Actually, most of the smokescreen is devoted to obscuring the reality of gay life, since it would be too depressing, and too damning of the pro-gay crusade, to show a drug addict free-loading at some friend's house, before going out to a Lady Gaga nightclub to suck 10 different dicks.

Instead we must be presented with the impeccably dressed sophisticate who lavishes his disposable income on taking out his fag hag friends to exotic dinners. Back on planet Earth, it's the chick friend who plays the mothering role to the down-and-out fuck-up of a son played by her gay BFF.

GSS variables used: sex, race, educ, sexsex5, conrinc

October 17, 2012

Over-production of elites: A higher ed bubble in the military

In his studies of the rise and fall of empires, Peter Turchin emphasizes that in the lead-up to a climax of internal social conflict, there is an over-production of elites. They got in while the getting was good, during an age of increasing societal cohesion (and so, presumably in trust of others in the in-group). But more people keep trying to get into that niche even when there's no more room left. That is, sponging off of the peasantry can only support so many elites, and the peasants may be willing to tolerate a fair amount of that, so long as they have trust in their superiors, perhaps personally if they're lower-ranking but more like faith in their symbolic representations and in the institutions they run.

However, with rising numbers trying to claw their way into the elite, their relationship to the peasantry becomes quite exploitative, fraying the fabric of good faith. This is between-class conflict, but the competition is no less intense within the elite class, with so many aspirants vying for a fixed number of slots, and with the current elite members trying ever more desperately to protect their downward fall, should they be displaced by ever more ruthless newcomers.

Turchin posts at the Social Evolution Forum here, and has also written a terrific and easily readable popular book, War and Peace and War, about the cycles in societal cohesion at a massive scale.

America looks like it's at or heading into some kind of climax in social breakdown, not necessarily the kind of bloody civil wars that plagued pre-modern states, but probably something like the disintegration of Britain after its Victorian peak of political power. Turchin explores this theme here. One key sign is the over-production of elites, most obviously in the form of the higher education bubble that began inflating around the 1980s.

This parallels the rising enrollments at Oxford in the decades leading up to the English Civil War. In those days too, a diploma was more of a credential for the young careerist, so the explosion in enrollments was a good proxy for more intense competition within the elite class.

I think another great place to look for this pattern today is related to the higher ed bubble, but specifically its counterpart within the military. I've never been, but most of my family has, and I recently enjoyed a good bull session with my brother about how bureaucratic the Army keeps getting.

Because it's funded with huge amounts of tax-payer dollars, and because it's one of the few institutions that most Americans wouldn't dream of touching, the military is the safest bet for someone looking to credential themselves via education and get a cushy managerial type job, with no ambition to lead, but simply to eke out a comfortable and stable living, without having to produce very much.

These are the ubiquitous non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, that he has to deal with, particularly those in grades E-4, E-5, and E-6. They have not received a commission, and so do not have command of those below them. They are charged with more managerial or supervisory duties of their subordinates. The lower grades E-1, E-2, and E-3 are basically grunts or initiates, and the higher grades of E-7 and above are what we would probably call more executive roles in the private sector.

The way he made it sound, the E-4 through E-6 grades are like store manager, district manager, and regional manager, more interested than those in other grades are in giving out pointless busy-work so that it looks like they're needed to supervise and manage that load of work. He also said they're somewhat likely to be out-of-shape, and so not the most inspiring folks to lead a group of soldiers.

Promotion from the lower ranks through the E-4 to E-6 ranks is based on points awarded for several factors, but some of those get maxed out quickly because they have a natural upper limit. For example, your physical training score gets maxed out because you can only get so fit. Ditto for your marksmanship score -- you can only get so keen in hitting the targets.

Then he told me about points awarded for "education," which is a domain that has no natural upper limit. You can take courses forever. You're only allowed a fixed number of correspondence courses, but normal in-person coursework is fair game. Points don't differ according to the subject matter of the course, the institution that the credits are received from, the grade you receive, etc. It's all just credit hours.

I'm sure that aspiring bureaucrats wouldn't want to raise any eyebrows by taking Mayan basket-weaving from the local junior college, but that still leaves just about everything else open to study.

So, there is an incentive to just keep taking more and more coursework to get promoted up through the middle-management ranks. Now, if you want to get up past E-6, I understood him to mean that you'd need more of what a normal person would think of as "officer material," like leading others in combat, greater praise from peers and superiors, and so on. But if you're just looking to lock in a comfortable living without having to do too much, other than going through a long and boring, yet fairly safe, credentialing process -- and even then at much lower cost than if you took courses as a civilian -- then why worry about whether you've "got what it takes"? It beats the ever more vicious struggle for good-paying slots in the private sector.

In our off-the-cuff conversation, he made it sound like this managerialist problem has been getting worse in recent years, even though he's pretty new -- more like what you hear from others, plus your own limited experience. That would provide another great example of rising competition to get into an elite position, and also through the route of credentialist coursework. But these are more qualitative changes in the nature of the job that someone has as an E-5, not necessarily in their sheer numbers or share of the entire Army. So I don't have an easy time series graph to show these changes over the past several decades.

However, we can get a pretty good hint of when the credentialist process really took off by looking at major milestones in the history of NCO Education System. Here is a brief overview of the NCO, with some focus on the educational component of advancing. Under "NCO Education I," covering the mid-20th C., it sounds more these early officer education programs were like an optional way for real try-hards to score some extra points, but not so widespread or required. What really jumps out as a sign of a higher ed bubble is the developments covered in "NCO Education II":

The Sergeants Major Course first began in January 1973 as the capstone training for the Army's most senior NCOs. The Sergeants Major Academy also operates three senior NCO courses outside NCOES that are designed to train NCOs for particular positions. These are the First Sergeant Course (FSC), the Battle Staff Course (BSC) and the Command Sergeant Major Course (CSMC).
These are the upper levels (a Sergeant Major is an E-9), where most of those in search of a cushy job would find their duties too onerous. So there's still creeping credentialism in the 1970s, but not widespread.

In 1986 [Primary Leadership Development Course] became a mandatory prerequisite for promotion to staff sergeant. This was the first time an NCOES course actually became mandatory for promotion.
A staff sergeant is an E-6, about the highest rank that the parasitic types aspire to. Because it's the middle-management level, and because coursework is now mandatory, I'd say the mid-late 1980s is a good point to mark the beginning of the education bubble within the military. And as with other institutions during the still-growing bubble, there are lots of new, massive buildings with dazzling equipment (note also the banal bureaucratic self-praise toward the end):

In 1987 the Army completed work on a new state-of-the-art education facility at the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, further emphasizing the importance of professional education for NCOs. This 17.5 million-dollar, 125,000 square foot structure allowed the academy to expand course loads and number of courses. As the Noncommissioned Officer Education System continues to grow, the NCO of today combines history and tradition with skill and ability to prepare for combat. He retains the duties and responsibilities given to him by von Steuben in 1778 and these have been built upon to produce the soldier of today.
By the later half of the '80s, the Cold War had more or less been won in our favor, which removed a key source of threat from outside that served to keep us tighter within. Before that, we'd had the Indian threat for several centuries, until the 1890s when the frontier was closed.

With a relaxing pressure from outside to make us play nice with each other inside, the elites began to really go after each other, not only in the bitter Culture Wars, but in the everyday pursuit of Looking Out For Number One. So what if I'm gaming the military system to secure a sweet paycheck for life? You gotta do what you gotta do. And hey, better to sponge off of tax-payers by merely being unproductive and pointless -- not actively hostile and destructive like some Marxist English professor, amirite?

Well, except for having an incentive to launch and continue all those pointless wars that are a main drain on our prosperity. Disturbingly, rising debt due to war costs was a feature of earlier episodes where the breaking point was just around the corner.

Most people, including me, have overlooked the military as another battlefield of intensifying intra-elite warfare, probably because we think of it as the One Last Bulwark against darkness and decay. But it's a government institution just like any other, and no less susceptible to the tactics of those aspiring to join the elite in other domains. Also, the shift in values and behavior seems to be fairly recent, no more than one generation old, so you might not have suspected it was this bad if your views were based on any of its earlier history.

As we slide further into societal break-up (not bloody civil war), people in the military will probably feel more open to discussing the problems honestly, as my brother did. Now that we no longer face great military threats, it's best to begin the process of de-sanctifying the military. The earlier sanctification served its purpose, but those conditions are now long gone. A freak occurrence like 9/11 was not enough to hold popular solidarity together for more than a few years (maybe through 2006), and that's the most we can expect for the near and middle-term.

October 15, 2012

Are we living through a "comfort revolution" in design?

Here is a free WSJ article making the case for. These kinds of articles never resonate with me, probably because I have a decent memory for what the world was like before the so-called revolution.

The average person today is still wearing synthetic unbreathable fabrics during summer, sits on similarly unbreathable seat cushions, and now more than ever exposes themselves to the elements. It's like the Tasmanians, who lost an already primitive tool kit when they got separated from the Australian aborigines. Most people no longer wear gloves when it's freezing or carry umbrellas when it's pouring because -- ugh -- so formal and stuffy.

Probably the best example of truly greater comfort within the past several decades is how common air conditioning is, but that has nothing to do with design or fashion.

An over-emphasis on comfort like we have today also makes us ultimately more uncomfortable. Shocks and stressors from the environment signal to our body that it needs to allocate finite resources to building and maintaining our strength. Otherwise your body just assumes you're bed-ridden and doesn't bother with strong bones and muscles. Of course we still have to open jars, climb stairs, and other simple things. A too-pampered body will not be up to the task, so today you hear people complaining about how uncomfortable the activities of daily life have become.

We're moving too far in the direction of moving around on power scooters, and judging from those people's facial expressions, they're not happy or relieved. They look miserable, and part of that comes from wasting their body in the name of comfort.

So it's hard to sort out all of the changes in recent times, to see whether the net result is greater or lesser comfort or no noticeable change. Subjectively, though, I don't remember people complaining about how uncomfortable stuff was in the 1980s or '90s. And pain is an absolute, not relative thing. If something really is uncomfortable, people say so whenever they're doing it, like women wearing high heels. They've never said they were comfortable, never re-wired their brains to find what was expected of them to be comfortable, etc., if it actually wasn't.

As for the examples in the article, that's all just a change in tastes. When there are major shifts in tastes, people rationalize it as a liberation from the prison-like conditions of ye olden days. Architecture of the Jazz Age saw revivals of all sorts of historical styles, often fused with Machine Age principles. There was the Tudor revival, Egyptian and Neo-Classical revivals, Collegiate Gothic, and so on. But that was still too confining, the dead head of history stretching its arm from the grave to grab hold of our ankle as we try to escape.

But the architecture and other design of the Mid-Century Modern period was not more comfortable, just responding to a shift in aesthetic and social preferences -- away from pleasurable ornament and front-porch gregariousness, and toward emotionally minimalist surfaces and backyard patio seclusion.

The past 20 years have seen a re-birth of the drab minimalism and design-as-bubble-building, and it's once again being rationalized as the march of progress leading us into The World of Tomorrow, Today. And the more cocooning social attitudes are being reborn as well. Track pants and sweatshirts are not more comfortable than jeans and t-shirts. Rather, they function to say, "I don't want those bothersome boys coming up and talking to me. I have more important matters of my own to take care of, like reminding all those jealous bitches out there that I'm like so much more fashionable and sophisticated than they are." Or if male, "Welp, the girls have given up on prettying themselves up for the boys, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

As for cars, the other major domain covered in the article, again I think that's more of a change in preferences than an even closer match between preferences and reality. Remember how car designs cycle over time with the crime rate. To people from a falling-crime era, like the mid-century or the past 20 years, the interiors of rising-crime era cars look cramped, whether from the Jazz Age or the New Wave Age. But people during those times when they were popular felt that they were cozy, not cramped, with friends sitting close together. And they'd react with agoraphobia to the sprawling interiors of falling-crime era cars, with everyone in their own separate little world. The types of things that make people uncomfortable is not the same over time.

The same goes for color -- red and orange are not uncomfortable, let alone painful, but stimulating. The trend toward desaturated car exteriors and interiors is part of the broader shift away from anything viscerally exciting. A visitor from 1978, travelling through time in a banana yellow Stingray Corvette, would feel uncomfortable looking out at all the black, white, gray, and silver. "Hey man, didn't we, like, leave those dull 1950s behind, man?" Bummer dude -- they're back.

In fairness to the article, I think our age, and the mid-century age, probably are marginally more comfortable, although it's not so huge of a difference that everybody remarks about it, like they do for the presence vs. absence of ornament. Still, it's worth giving up a tiny amount of private comfort to make yourself more appealing and pleasing to others. I'm sure that compared to the less dressed-up mid-century, the clothing of the Jazz Age felt more fussy, just like today's cargo shorts and track suits feel less constricting than the skin-tight jeans and power suits of the Go-Go Eighties. But look at how much more engaged they were with other people, how lacking in self-consciousness they were, and how much fun they were having.

Even those far removed from office work chose to sacrifice a little personal comfort if it would make their audience connect more closely with them, like guys in a rock band wearing leather pants, and female performers being more made up than fashion models.

It's only natural for people undergoing a seismic shift in popular preferences to rationalize the attendant shift on the producers' side as a long-awaited liberation from the toil of the dark ages. But anyone trying to take stock of what happens over time has to keep in mind that what we assume to be "human nature" can change very quickly -- and back again.

Ever felt stirred awake by the musical voices of your deep ancestors?

Finally, a CD by Big Country found its way into the local used record store (it's a greatest hits). The songs taken from The Crossing don't just get me up on my feet -- just about any decent new wave song could manage that. There's something more, like they're calling to something inside me to wake up, alternately using battering rhythms and streams of heart-string-tugging flourishes to get its attention and hold it.

Here are "Harvest Home" and "Fields of Fire", but you probably know them best for "In a Big Country" --

There's no one else here in my room, but that doesn't stop me from bouncing around in a circle dance, imagining that like-minded, or like-bodied others are here cutting a little rug too. I've never heard Big Country at '80s night, so it's not like a re-enactment of a real experience. It feels more like a family reunion with people I've never met but who, from shared roots, automatically resonate to music like this.

It's not simply grooving to it, which outsiders could feel as well. As I said before, I groove to plenty of good music, but this is something more. It's like how people who read Shakespeare in translation can resonate with it, but to a native speaker of English, the experience is more pure and immediate. That's no slight to non-native speakers -- we too would have a less powerful connection when reading Dante than our Italian counterparts.

Music and dance are already so effective at what social psychologists call "de-individuation," or in plain terms just letting go and going with the flow of the group. But that final remaining fence-post of self-awareness gets washed away too when there's a direct channel to conduct your individual spirit into the greater culture source.

It seems a little odd since only between 1/4 and 1/2 of my blood is Celtic. One grandmother is Scotch-Irish, and her husband was some English, I think Scotch-Irish, and maybe Welsh too. I've got a fully Japanese grandmother, and her husband is a mix of French and English.

Consciously pursuing one or another directions back through my history has yielded very little in the way of feeling a strong bond with that root of the tree. It's a lot like dating and mating -- you get to know the various ancestral voices, and either there's instant chemistry or there isn't. Something about Celtic musical influences, or the thought of grazing my sheep on rolling green hills, just does something for me. (I think the corniness of what I just said only proves how involuntary the reaction is.)

Well, to get away from the more mystical side of things, what might explain these kinds of responses to a culture that we may be quite unfamiliar with in our own lives -- I've certainly never been to Scotland, nor have I seen or heard much, if any, of their folk music through media here in America. All we have to do is remember that the culture that survives isn't a random sample of what was circulating -- it resonated with people's preferences. So it's not something you need to be exposed to, or explicitly taught to appreciate, when you're growing up. If those are your people, and they liked it enough to hold onto it, it'll probably strike a chord with you too.

That would also explain why Irish music picks me up as well, although not to the same extent. I don't have any Irish roots, but the ways of making a living in Ireland and Scotland weren't so radically different, with both places (as well as mountainous Wales) relying much more on pastoralism than they have in other nearby parts of Northwestern Europe. And of course ultimately they do share blood far enough back.

Perhaps it's just chauvinism, but Scotland does seem to strike the proper balance between pastoralist and agrarian influences, not as footloose as the Irish but not as nose-to-the-grindstone as the English either. In fact it seems like every region where pastoralism and agriculture mixed has their Scottish, Irish, and English. In the Near East, that would be, respectively, the Lebanese, the Bedouin, and the Egyptians.

Maybe the best way to wrap up would be listing some more pop songs with greater or lesser Celtic influences, for those interested in exploring further. I'm not counting songs that are too self-consciously Celtic, only those where it fits in seamlessly, even if strikingly. Something that feels like it's trying to call your soul back to the land of the ancestors, kind of thing. Not merely rock songs by bands from a Celtic country. Please leave a comment for the ones I've missed.

- Just about anything from Starfish by the Church. The solo for "Under the Milky Way" has the same bagpipe-sounding guitar that Big Country pioneered.

- Speaking of Australians, "Kiss the Dirt" by INXS. It's only faintly there, but still enough to make it sound like an eclectic mix of rock plus something more ancient.

- The pennywhistle solo in "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon.

- "The Hardest Walk" by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Several songs on Psychocandy have a clear Scottish folk sound, only fused with grungy modern rock music.

- On that note, My Bloody Valentine wouldn't make it, at least not the songs on Loveless. Just your generic grunge music, not grunge fused with something else like on Psychocandy. Ditto for U2, a great band, but not one whose songs have made me feel like I need to re-connect with my Celtic roots.

- But if you are looking for something alterna from that time, a much more successful effort was "Dreams" by the Cranberries.

- "Song to the Siren" as covered by the Cocteau Twins for the This Mortal Coil project.

- Something from Bananarama's self-titled album (1984), when they were more new wave and synthpop. It's a great album all the way, by the way, which you might not have expected if you only knew them from "Venus" and later dance pop songs. The Celtic influence is more low-key, but also more pervasive, in their way of vocal harmonizing and copious use of melodic ornamentation in the vocals, although no one instance ever rising to the distracting level of Mariah Carey et al. "Rough Justice" and "King of the Jungle" might have it more than the others.

- Which reminds me of "Since Yesterday" by Strawberry Switchblade, although admittedly it's not so central in this song. But I'd suspect that listening to the rest of their songs would uncover a purer example.

- "The Village" by New Order. I'm not sure that the band members have any Celtic roots, but this one sure sounds like it. It's got the two parts: an unsustainable pairing of restraint with a driving beat, then letting loose with all those melodic motifs trying to tug at the heart-strings.

- "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush. Another excellent fusion of the primeval with the futuristic, drawing on Celtic for the ancient sound.

- There's a whole lot of everything, including Celtic, on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart by Camper Van Beethoven (Dave Lowery's college radio band before Cracker). But "She Divines Water" and their adaptation of "O Death" have that summoning-you-back-to-your-roots quality.

- It's too bad red-headed babe Belinda Carlisle never did anything palpably Celtic, although "Half the World" and "Summer Rain" have vague unspecified World Music influences.

- "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by the Proclaimers.

- The highly similar "Don't Look Back" by Fine Young Cannibals.

- More ancient-futuristic fusion from OMD with "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans". A lot of their other songs have at least a passage here or there, like the motif between verses of "Talking Loud and Clear".

- I was going to suggest something by Echo and the Bunnymen, but I'm growing too tired to think of a good example right now. Also not sure how prominent the sound would be within the overall song.

October 14, 2012

Gay Peter Pan-isms: Campiness

The most popular view of gay weirdness is that it's a form of feminization (acting like sissies), but most of the evidence shows that it's actually infantilization. Females are more neotenous, though, so it's easy to confuse the two. So, we need cases that point only to one or the other cause, where females are not very childlike.

Most important is the absence of a nurturing instinct among queers, which is the defining feminine trait.

How about campy tastes and behaviors? Adolescent and adult females aren't very into camp -- they're more likely to call it childish, although they may have a few favorite guilty pleasures. And certainly the entire culture is campier now than it was even 20 years ago, but I'm talking about relative to the whole society at a given time.

Camp is really more of a juvenile male domain. There's the fascination with violating disgust taboos just to get a rise out of others, plus the caricatured understanding of how others look, think, feel, and behave. As they mature, they might still retain the desire to violate taboos to shock the squares, but it'll turn more toward symbolic disgust taboos, like pointing out that the audience's beloved Target is a Wal-Mart for liberals. And from more experience interacting with others, they'll have more nuanced views of what makes people tick.

Normal males might still have a few guilty pleasures that exploit camp -- I can still get a kick out of the Garbage Pail Kids -- but after age 10, they out-grow it as a primary source of enjoyment and entertainment.

By the way, gays' campy tendencies are the main thing that keeps them from becoming the style icons they fantasize themselves to be. It's hard for them to look like they're not in some child's "let's play dress-up" costume of a normal adult. When I watched Project Runway sometime in the mid-2000s, Tim Gunn had a stock phrase to describe these inclinations among homosexual designers, because it was so common -- "clown clothes".

So here's another case where the infantilization theory of homosexuality can account for the facts, and the feminization theory cannot.

October 13, 2012

The transmission of social avoidance across generations

One of the stranger patterns in this age of helicopter parenting is how neglectful the mother or father is when their child shows clear signs of distress, even in public, where you'd think that shame would lead parents away from neglectful behavior. You'd also think that all that hovering meant they're just waiting to receive the distress signal, when they'd swoop in and smother the kid with affection to reassure it.

In reality, though, kids scream and cry all the time in public spaces, and their parents either totally let it slide or respond to them with incredibly flat affect, at least considering the kid's apparent cry for help. The inflection in their voice isn't so different from an ordinary conversational tone, nor do their facial expressions depart from their normal shape (they don't reflect a sudden surge of concern, for example).

In fact, they try to engage their child on a completely rational, rather than emotional level, explaining why the kid is in factual error in assuming that the evident cause of distress will continue to distress them. Man, he doesn't care about whether his beliefs are true or false -- he just wants someone to comfort him.

They take this approach also when the kid is obviously acting out to get attention, such as the toddler who kept kicking the back of the seat of a woman in my row on a plane. The mother twice asked the ankle-biter how he would feel if someone else were kicking the back of his seat. Children are incapable of empathy at such a young age (which is why they find it so easy to kick people's seats like that), so the mother was clearly trying to reason logically with her kid, as though it were a discussion in an ethical philosophy course.

When parents either don't respond at all to distress signals or acting out, or if they only respond in an emotionally uncommitted way, the kid begins to suspect that he lives in a world lacking emotional closeness or fellow-feeling. Of course he could be wrong by inferring this only from how his parents treat him, but since the way that adults in general treat children in general tends not to vary so much within a given time and place, it's not such a bad guess.

That hunch is then confirmed when genetically unrelated grown-ups also fail to respond to his distress signals and acting out, or do so without any feeling behind it. All the other grown-ups feel that "It's not my place" to intervene, whether to console an upset baby or to pinch the ear of one who's acting out, and shouting "Listen to your mother!" to drive the point home.

So, the child concludes, basically no one is emotionally invested in coming to my aid (if they do in the first place). If that's how the grown-up world is, and I'll eventually wind up in that world, I'd better prepare by dialing down whatever desire I may have to attach myself emotionally to others. By adolescence, that avoidant attachment style has more or less hardened into shape for life, much as their native language development is done by that point, after which they cannot effortlessly acquire other languages.

And of course the opposite goes for children who experience a world where adults respond with gusto, whether positive or negative. You don't get that worked up emotionally for those who you aren't very attached to, so it must be that emotional closeness will be a regular feature of adult life, and you had better prepare for that by dialing up your desire to connect that way with others.

The main source of change over time is, as usual, the trend in the crime rate. When it's rising, parents take a greater risk by ignoring their children's distress signals, whereas parents can afford more to call their kids' bluff during a falling-crime period.

This creates very sharp divides between those who went through childhood just before vs. just after a resting point in the crime rate. For example, those who went through most of childhood from 1959 onward into the '60s -- the Baby Boomers -- were seen by the Silent Generation just before them as having been shown too much affection in childhood, which made them overly emotional as adults. The Silents had been children during an earlier era of helicopter parenting, where parents let their kids be watched over by radio and later TV, and where spanking was frowned on as retrograde. And with kids sheltered from public spaces, they wouldn't receive correction from adults outside the family. The results can be seen in exaggerated but no less illuminating form in the classic film noir movie Mildred Pierce.

As the crime rate soared, parents only devoted greater emotional intensity to their children -- again, positive or negative. If you gave signs of distress, they took it very seriously, and their tone of voice switched to a highly inflected form of Motherese, and they'd twist their faces into more unusual, silly shapes to try to cheer you up. Also, if you were acting out, they wouldn't just try to explain why what you did was wrong -- they'd just give you a real passionate beating. Spanking with the hand, spanking with a shock weapon, smacking in the face, pinching the ear, pinching the tender parts of your arms or legs, vocalizing through shouts, wearing a clearly angry face, and so on. I don't recall specific cases, but I do remember adults outside the family taking an interest in our discipline if it was in a public space, although not trying to usurp our parents' role.

And sure enough that's resulted in high levels of emotional attachment among those kids. I'd say roughly those born between 1975 and 1984 are most likely to be sentimental, nostalgic, and most at ease opening up emotionally, not to mention wanting others to open up as well. That's just the culmination of the trend first begun with Baby Boomers, and continuing through Generation X.

Then on the other side are the Millennials, most of whose pre-pubescent social learning took place in falling-crime times, when parents began to emotionally detach themselves more from their kids, notwithstanding all the hovering, monitoring, and regulating. Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers find the Millennials' social nature puzzling, but it's downright bewildering to people born in the late '70s and early '80s, where the contrast with Millennials is sharpest.

Millennials always have their guard up, even around people they're supposed to feel comfortable with. The physical reflects the emotional: even around supposed friends, they've got their laptop out to wall others off, or they're holding their protective phone or ipod in front of their chest, jamming earbuds in their head, wearing sunglasses indoors, etc. It's totally common to see a group of "friends" all like this sitting near each other in Starbucks -- physically close yet emotionally isolated. Time to update the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks...

I haven't asked around really extensively, but I think most people my age and older share this assessment about the younger generation. It's easier for me to shoot the shit with a Baby Boomer who's pushing 60 years old, just because they aren't socially and emotionally retarded.

It seems like in the good old days, people wanted to socialize to some degree with those who were somewhat younger than they were. It was like your responsibility to initiate them, all in a fun-loving and informal way -- show them the ropes. But if there's a fundamental split between the two in attachment styles, it won't go anywhere. Kind of like how the Silents didn't really mentor the Boomers, who more or less brought themselves up, my mini-generation of late '70s / early '80s births doesn't seem to care much about showing Millennials how to join the cool older kids. The personality differences are just too great.

For a little while during the mid-2000s, I gave it a shot, and they actually responded somewhat. But that was a partly rising-crime zeitgeist, due to the reactions to 9/11. Somewhere around 2009 they started to really dork out, and it's only gotten worse since. It feels like a gip, since you get a sense of meaning in life by helping the next age group below you to join you and eventually take your place. It gives you a feeling of continuity and immortality of the cultural group that you belong to.

Now, though, they'd rather snicker along with Jon Stewart's lame snark, plug into video games, or pretend to converse on Facebook / texting. By now, there's little use in trying to help them act normal; their preferences are set. Might as well wait until the next incarnation of the Baby Boomers come along, where you'll find a more receptive audience. Of course it won't be two adjacent age groups interacting, but that doesn't prevent you from having some influence.

October 10, 2012

Shared rhythmic motion and affection for pets

I haven't yet read William McNeill's book Keeping Together in Time, but the basic idea is that shared rhythmic motion is a powerful way to bond individuals within a social group, be it a church, military unit, or sports team. Just think of something so simple and effective as, doon doon CHA, doon doon CHA, We Will, We Will, Rock You!

As modern populations become more cerebral, and less corporeal, books like this are sorely needed to remind ourselves of the power of ritual, and the relative weakness of beliefs, in holding a group together.

I should probably wait until reading the book before saying much more on that topic, but there seems to be another, less important application of the idea, namely to human-animal bonding. My impression is that the closest bonds are between horse-riders and their horses, then cat-owners and their little purr-balls. Riding a horse is the highest degree of shared rhythmic motion that a person and an animal can reach. Petting a purring cat is not so striking of an example, but still above all other cases of normal human-animal interaction. You generally don't see dog-owners stroking their dog's fur rhythmically for a decent stretch of time, and the dog's happy panting isn't as resonatingly rhythmic as a cat's purring. And dog-owners maintain more emotional distance from their dogs, regarding the cat-owners as too closely connected for the good of their own independence.

Depending on how they're being used, cattle, sheep, and goats may also elicit strong feelings of attachment from their owners. Generally, if they're being driven by pastoralists, an intense bond forms -- this is kind of a looser form of riding the animal from point A to point B, with the owner walking alongside the herd, their trotters all striking the ground with more or less the same rhythm. If they're kept as more sedentary barnyard animals, though, with little or no shared rhythmic motion, you don't find their owners composing songs to them, using their eyes as the ideal to compare the beauty of human eyes to, and so on.

The same seems to be true with pigs: if they're being driven hither and thither by their young male owners, they get real attached to the little snub-noses. Being kept as barnyard animals doesn't lower the affection as much as it does for cattle or sheep, perhaps because the driving-around case is not as intense as it is for herd animals. My mom grew up on a "farm" -- there was little agriculture up there in the Appalachian hills, but they did keep lots of domesticated animals and relied on them somewhat for subsistence. At least in her case, she said that slaughtering the pigs always felt like the greatest loss of a social bond.

Shallow bonds are the most you can hope for between people and birds or fish, and sure enough they don't share any rhythmic motion, or even get in synch with little or no motion, as when cats purr. You can bet, though, that if we ever domesticate a large bird of flight, and feel the repeated flapping of its wings as we rode it for transportation, we'd develop a real soft spot for them.

At the very bottom are the creepy-crawlies -- insects, arachnids, snakes, and so on -- that we not only do not share any rhythmic motion with, but have typically been a threat to our health.

I'm no expert on human-animal relationships, but the basic idea seems to be borne out, not just across species but even within species, like what emotions cattle stir up in pastoralist vs. sedentary societies, or how connected people feel to dogs that just loaf around the house vs. go out jogging with their owners.

October 9, 2012

Ruining haunted houses with the flick of a switch

As if kids today weren't sheltered enough, now their bed-wetting parents have pushed it even further -- "lights-on" haunted house tours. Here's a list of some. I read about it in a Columbus, Ohio newspaper, but through googling found ample examples from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois. Before long expect it to infect the brains of mush-head parents near you.

It's just one more case in an ongoing series of "family values" meaning the unraveling of community cohesion and the sweeping of traditions into the dust bin. Whatever it takes to isolate every nuclear family unto itself. "Fun for the whole family," meaning that no member will have an excuse to leave the nuclear unit for even a few hours to interact socially within non-kin groups, like your peers. And everyone being bored out of their minds from the lowest common denominator, kiddie crap that's supposed to give the entire family a great big boner...

I also notice that there seems to be another important source of parents these days trying to delay their children's development until, well, forever. The clear source is their fear that the real world will hurt their kids' feelings, scrape their knees, etc., so that they lock them up inside all day to prevent that harm.

But the overlooked source is that in times of helicopter parenting, the entire society has shifted its time horizons farther into the future, so even the adults aren't maturing like they used to be. Grown-ups are doing things that used to be kiddie stuff, but that -- due to the time horizon shift -- are now considered adult. Like dressing up and going out unsupervised on Halloween. Or watching fantasy-themed movies. Etc.

So when you've got a man-child for a father, he's going to hold back your development because, Hey, this Hobbit movie stuff is some real heavy mature shit -- didn't you hear how low their chanting voices were in that preview? Maybe when you're as tough as your old man, you can see it alone. But since you're 10, I'd better go with you just in case. And your 5 year-old brother can forget about it. Perhaps in 2012 it needs to be stated overtly: grown men shouldn't pride themselves on accomplishing what any normal kindergartner does in a normal world.

October 3, 2012

Disgust-based morality, by politics and class

I haven't gotten around to reading Jonathan Haidt's books just yet (just talks and shorter prose), so the result below may already be known and discussed. If so, at least this would replicate it using another sample.

Briefly, his work has shown that liberals and conservatives differ in how many moral "taste receptors" activate when they ponder moral questions. (I don't know if there are behavioral studies too). The moral sense of liberals gets activated mostly by the receptor for avoiding harm / caregiving, and for fairness / justice / reciprocity. Conservatives' moral sense gets activated by those two, but also by those for authority / obedience, maintaining in-group vs out-group borders, and purity / sanctity / disgust / taboo.

This is part of the ongoing culture wars, so I thought it might also look like what Andrew Gelman and others have found about class differences and participation in ideological wars. They found that lower-income people are not so divided politically when you look across the country -- a poor blue-stater and a poor red-stater are pretty close, and both fairly in favor of Democrats. However, as you move up toward the highest-income people, the divide between red-staters and blue-staters rips into a chasm. So, the rich in Texas and in Connecticut are very far apart, the former heavily Republican and the latter heavily Democrat.

It also gets at the reminder from Henrich et al (2010), "The Weirdest People in the World," that studying college-educated Americans will obscure patterns happening at the lower-class level within the West, not to mention in non-Western countries.

To examine disgust-based morality, let's look at the General Social Survey question that asks what you think about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. Other aspects of the pro-gay movement may activate other moral receptors in conservatives, but the corporeal act of one man getting jammed up the butt by the cock of another man -- that's enough to make a conservative's skin crawl.

Responses basically fall into there's nothing wrong with it vs. it's always wrong, so I lumped them into those who said there's nothing wrong vs. there's something wrong. The red bars below show the "yuck" responses. There are many ways to operationalize class; the charts split people up by years of education -- 1 to 8 years, 9 to 12, 13 to 16, and 17 to 20. Respondents are restricted to whites to avoid racial confounds with both class and with disapproval of homos. Their age was restricted to 30+ since lower ages might not have had the chance to complete so many years of schooling.

These charts show disapproval of gay sex by political orientation, from very liberal to very conservative, separately for the four education-based class groups.

The difference in disgust-activation across the political spectrum can be seen by the slope of the line going across the tops of the red bars. It's more or less flat among the lowest class, who didn't complete any high school, from a low of about 80% within "very liberal" to a high of about 95% within "very conservative". Among those who had high school, there's a steeper slope, and there's an even steeper one among those who had some college. The steepest slope of all is among those with post-graduate schooling, going from a low of about 15% to a high of about 85%.

The same pattern turns up if, instead of education, you use income or job prestige to measure class (charts not shown). I split up income into those who made $10,000 or less, $30-50K, $50-90K, and $90-170K. (No one made more than $163K; data are in constant 1986 dollars.) For job prestige, I split people up into 8 groups of size "10" on the GSS' job prestige scale, which goes from roughly 17 to 97.

So, as with the red-state vs. blue-state culture war, the broader culture war seems to be a divide mostly among the middle and upper classes. Closer to the bottom, pretty much everyone is in agreement that sodomy is sick and wrong. Across the world's primitive cultures, disgust plays a decent role in morality, so lower-class Westerners and conservatives of all classes are more in touch in real life, the natural roots of mankind, etc.

That ties back to a point I recently made about conservatives being more emotionally intact and liberals more emotionally numb. Disgust is after all one of the most powerful emotions you can experience. For liberals, a homosexual half-corpse eaten up by diseases, of which HIV is only the nastiest species out of thousands, is an abstract public health problem that activates the caregiving receptor. How the body got that way is anybody's guess, I guess. The liberal disconnect from reality here stems from their blunted disgust response.

I'll try poking around the GSS to see if other moral receptors show this pattern as well. And I'll re-visit the theme of disgust and morality a few other times too.

GSS variables used: homosex, polviews, race, age, educ, realinc, sei

October 2, 2012

Knowing suicide victims doesn't affect number of sex partners

A previous post showed that knowing homicide victims made a person take more sex partners, even after controlling for age, race, sex, education, and one's own violent experiences, such as having been punched or having been threatened with a gun.

Terror Management Theory is a body of research that shows how people respond differently when they're primed with thoughts of death. That naturally links into my focus on rising-crime vs. falling-crime cultures. In that paradigm, though, they don't distinguish violent from non-violent death, or even within violent deaths, those that are self-inflicted (suicide) or other-inflicted (homicide).

So for the earlier result, is it something about exposure to a murder that triggers this change in behavior, or will any kind of death have the effect? Does violence need to play a role in the death? My explanation in the first post was that it had to be caused by someone else because that gives you the signal that there seem to be more bad guys out there, almost closing in on your own social circle. Feeling that squeeze motivates people to get on with getting it on before it's too late. That is general -- they should start "things," whatever they are, earlier and try to accomplish their goals sooner.

The General Social Survey also asks if you know anyone who committed suicide in the past year. I repeated the procedure from the case of knowing homicide victims, but this time there is no effect of exposure to death, even a violent death. In a similar regression as before, but swapping suicide for homicide victims, the "know someone who was killed" variable is no longer a significant predictor, not even close.

Repeating the look at 18-39 year-olds who had ever been hit or punched (to control for a person's level of rambunctious or wild lifestyle), those who knew a suicide victim had exactly the same number of partners as those who did not. Those who knew a suicide victim were equally likely to have had 2+ partners, and slightly more likely to have had 0. This again is in contrast to the effect of knowing homicide victims, within this young and wild sub-population.

So, just being exposed to death in real life, even a violent one, does not appear to put one's feet to the fire and alter their daily behavior. It specifically has to be a violent death caused by someone else. The interpretation is that you don't change your own behavior if you feel the cause of violent death couldn't also cause yours, as in suicide, but only where the cause of their death might also seek you out, as in homicide.

One prediction that I don't know how to test right away is that you should see something similar, although less pronounced, if the cause of violent death were not an agent -- say, a recurring series of earthquakes that graphically claimed the life of someone you knew, and could well claim yours tomorrow. It's not as motivating as believing that there are agents out there purposefully targeting people, but it still has that "we're all in the same boat" feeling.

GSS variables used: partners, suiknew, gun, hit, age, sex, race, educ