Year of Short Fiction Part 2: The Awakening

This week we’ll look at The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I want to situate the novella in time first. To me, this novella is almost a cross between Madame Bovary and Mrs. Dalloway. It is interesting that Madame Bovary is often considered to be the birth of modernism in literature (though in 1856, it was actually a few decades before modernism took hold). Mrs. Dalloway, on the other hand, in 1925, is almost the birth of postmodernism.

The Awakening is smack in the middle of these two novels being published in 1899. All three of these works have female protagonists that feel trapped by their social and marital roles. All three women bravely defy these expectations and then have tragic consequences for doing so. Bovary focuses a lot more on the social aspects whereas Dalloway focuses very much on the internal state of the character.

Chopin writes in the middle of these two modes beautifully (though I’d classify the novella as realism rather than modernism or postmodernism). I think if I had read this book in college, I wouldn’t have really gotten some of the paradoxical sentiments; it takes being married to understand these characters. Early on, Chopin establishes Edna Pontellier as happily married, except not quite.

It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.

This is a brilliant way to put it. There’s nothing in particular that can be voiced that makes either dissatisfied or unhappy. It’s rather just a feeling. I think we’ve all been there.

Later Chopin makes it even more explicit. The husband thinks to himself, I’ve done X, Y, and Z, why do have to be the one to now do this other thing. And it’s sort of these little feelings of entitlement that can build up to something significant even though deep down neither are dissatisfied. Both still love each other. I love how Chopin gets at that feeling through these little details.

Anyway, that’s what I referred to as a paradox before. Globally, one wants to yell at the characters: you’re happy, you can’t even voice any complaints. Yet, internally, it is very easy to identify with these details Chopin drops in for feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction.

The Awakening‘s subject matter is quite a bit different from Bovary despite the plot parallels. Emma Bovary seems to be having her affairs in attempt to escape the vacuous bourgeois life in favor of romance and beauty. In contrast, Edna Pontellier seems to have her affair in a broader struggle to establish an identity separate from “wife” and “mother.” It has a much more positive feminist message and has less to do with romance. Though, of course, there is overlap in these two themes.

I also think Chopin is much more ambiguous in the messages we are to take away. How should we view our roles in family and society? How does one find oneself with all these structures imposing themselves? What is the meaning of Edna’s suicide? These are all explored but no easy answers emerge, probably because there still aren’t easy answers.

As usual, I have to spend some time talking about prose style. I thought there were moments of true brilliance. The sea is a prominent symbol throughout the novella, and some early descriptions are amazing.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Edna learns to swim as part of her awakening, and she views this private space in the sea as essential to her freedom. This passage simultaneously is a description, a symbol, a revelation of Edna’s internal state, and a foreshadowing of the sensuous aspect of her awakening and eventual death. That’s a lot to pack into three sentences, and Chopin does it with elegant prose style.

When Should Campuses Shut Down Debate?

It’s been over a year since mob rule started taking over who is allowed to speak on college campuses. These types of things have obviously been going on longer than the most recent prominent cases, but the visibility seems to have brought us to a turning point. Angry students have learned that the administration will always cave to their demands out of fear. This is no way to run a university, but that is beside the point of this essay.

The question I want to explore is whether there is ever a legitimate reason to not allow someone to speak about or debate a topic. Here are some of the base assumptions I’ll be making:

1. Facts are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes overturn whole worldviews. Causing some discomfort in the pursuit of truth is never an acceptable reason to shut down a speaker or debate. We’d still believe the Earth was the center of the universe with this mentality.

2. Uncomfortable debates will happen on campuses anyway whether a particular speaker comes or not. We’ve all been in those classes where brief awkward exchanges happen between professor and student, and it quickly becomes apparent that the student believes something antithetical to what is being taught (intelligent design, the only valid foundation for ethics must be derived from a supreme being, the Holocaust didn’t happen, etc).

3. The people who will be so-called “triggered” by a speech or debate will not be in attendance anyway. They aren’t open to the ideas being discussed, so they have no purpose in attending. I’ll assume no one is being forced to go for a class or a grade. If a student thinks they might suffer from PTSD (or whatever hyperbolic acronym is in favor now), they just shouldn’t risk it by attending. Reasonable decisions by the students can avoid all harm that could come in this form.

4. This is almost never a free speech issue. Anyone can debate anything in public. Free speech is unrelated to a university spending resources to invite you to do this on their campus. The question should be whether the current way that universities deal with controversial speakers is in alignment with the goals of a university.

Here’s one legitimate reason for not bringing a particular debate to a campus. A topic is so settled, that there is no reason to publicly air an argument about it. Universities have limited funds, and wasting money arguing whether the Holocaust happened just isn’t a useful way to spend that money.

Note well: If you’ve already invited this debate, I don’t think that reason applies anymore. A group of students protesting the debate should not shut it down. If the university doesn’t want this debate, then they shouldn’t invite the speakers to begin with. Once an invitation is given, no amount of pressure should shut the event down.

Do I think the taboo nature of that debate topic ought to be reason for not having it? Absolutely not! Settled questions like these are probably not worth the time and money, but there isn’t much harm in debating them. When a question is truly decided, it isn’t hard to debunk the arguments. No one fears or protests this.

Sometimes it can even be useful to remind ourselves what makes their arguments bad and what the evidence is. It would be embarrassing if someone graduates from a major university and can’t respond to claims that the Earth is flat. Shielding students from these silly ideas instead of exposing them as frauds makes the ideas more likely to spread not less.

This brings me to the fear some of these students have about hearing certain viewpoints. The violent reaction to these ideas usually means the ideas have some merit. No one is afraid of a flat Earth debate. They would think it’s silly. The spherical Earth arguments win. No one will be convinced of the flat Earth theory in that debate.

The only reason students protest certain speakers is because they fear people might be convinced when they hear the evidence that contradicts their worldview. If they deny this, then ask why they are so worried about the students listening to the speaker. They’ll probably mumble something about not letting hate speech on campus, but if it’s purely hate speech, everyone will see this for what it is.

The reason no one is convinced by the Westboro Baptist Church is precisely because we’ve heard what they have to say. They debunk themselves with their hate speech. Censoring speech about topics makes it look like there is something there when there isn’t. I’ll reiterate, if the administration really thinks they will only get hate speech from a speaker, don’t invite them to begin with.

So far I think we’ve only dealt with really easy cases. Most of the people that students protest pose absolutely no threat. This means Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christina Hoff Summers should all be able to air their opinions. If they’re wrong, then that will come out in the debate or speech. They won’t convince people. If they aren’t wrong, then that is all the more reason to let them speak.

There are much harder cases, though. These are topics that one can couch in the language of the pursuit of truth, but it is hard to see why anyone would be researching it without some ulterior motive. This would be something like IQ differences between races.

I’m torn on these types of things. Part of the beauty of tenure at a university is the ability to research taboo topics without fearing for your job. We absolutely cannot make people come up with positive impacts of their research in order to fund it. The mathematician that studies the derived category of coherent sheaves on high dimensional varieties in positive characteristic would have a hard time coming up with any sort of real world positive impact as well.

Ah, but that research has no application, so it is somehow “neutral” you say. When there is a clear racist or otherwise negative application, then the researcher must justify it. This is a legitimate slippery slope though. Who gets to decide what is a “positive” application or a clear “negative” application to begin with? Once you allow any sort of censorship of research based on subjective judgments, you run into huge problems when the “wrong” people get in power.

So in summary, I think the types of people who get disinvited from campuses right now are easy cases. They should be allowed to speak. They pose no threat and will often give well thought out counterpoint to the established worldviews of many students.

There is a real and interesting debate to be had on more difficult cases, but overall, I see no way to restrict those debates without setting a dangerous precedent. So I tentatively say that we must also allow these taboo subjects to be researched and debated, at least in a university setting where the pursuit of truth must take priority.

Do we live in a patriarchy?

I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It was far better than I was expecting. The essays are personal and humorous yet address a lot of serious and deep issues. Her takedown of trigger warnings is particularly good. The essays are best when sticking to specific topics like the critiques of The Help, 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, Twilight, 12 Years a Slave, and Tyler Perry’s work. The inside look of the professional Scrabble scene is entertaining.

The essays get a bit worse when being more general. Sometimes back-to-back essays contradict each other. In one she argues that there should be more diverse representation in TV, movies, and books, because people have a hard time relating to people that don’t look like them. In the next, she spends 5,000 words about how deeply she identified with the white girls in Sweet Valley High. How are we supposed to take the previous essay seriously after that?

The most cringe-worthy part had to do with the elusive concept of “patriarchy.” She had just gotten through critiquing Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, which provides a book-long study with evidence and statistics to argue that patriarchy is essentially dead.

Gay’s sophisticated response to this was to laugh it off. Ha ha ha. Of course it’s not dead. Just look around you. It is so obvious we live in a patriarchy. Sorry Gay, but you can’t argue against the conclusion of an entire book by saying the conclusion is “obviously” incorrect.

Let me begin with a (fictional) story. In college I took a lot of physics. One day the professor gave a bunch of solid arguments with evidence and studies to back it up that the Earth goes around the Sun. I burst out laughing. It was so obviously false a conclusion.

I raised my hand, ready to embarrass the professor. I pointed out that I see the Sun go around the Earth every single day with my own two eyes. He might have had some fancy arguments, but I had obviousness on my side.

It is an unfortunate truth that much of what seems obvious (we can even produce convincing arguments!) is often wrong. This is exactly what is happening when Gay’s rebuttal is: look at the political system, most of Congress is men, we’ve never had a woman president, thus men hold all the political power.

That is convincing on its surface like the Sun going around the Earth is convincing on its surface. The gender of elected officials is one metric to measure political power. Can we think of any other?

Maybe we should take the premise of a representational democracy seriously and say the electorate have the power, because they elect members of congress. Who votes more? Well, women do! Now we’re at an impasse, because one metric claims women have the political power, and the other metric claims men have the power. This is looking a little less obvious now that we dig deeper.

I haven’t defined patriarchy yet. Most people don’t, because they don’t want to be tied down to a particular type of evidence. The relevant dictionary definition is: a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women.

For each metric you come up with to show our culture favors men, I’ll come up with one to show it favors women. My starting statistics will be: life expectancy, education (measured by amount of degrees conferred), incarceration rate, poverty rate, homelessness, victims of violent crimes, workplace fatalities, and suicide rate. Your turn.

I grant you that many people argue patriarchy causes these problems for men (often stated “patriarchy hurts men too”). But that’s playing with words. By definition, a patriarchy “favors men,” and therefore cannot be the cause of society-wide disadvantages for men.

Here’s the truth. Any claim about anything can be supported with evidence if the person who believes the claim gets to pick the metric by which we measure something. This is a form of confirmation bias and sometimes the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. Raw statistics like the ones we’ve been looking at are slippery business, because they tell us nothing about causation. Is the sparsity of women in congress because the opportunity is being withheld from them by some social system that favors men, or is it some other causal factor at play?

When you pick the gender of Congress as a measure, you see ahead of time that it works in your favor, and that’s why you picked it. In other words, when you look for a pattern, you’ll find it. To avoid statistical fallacies like this, we need a metric whose results we are blind to, and we need a solid argument that this metric is actually measuring what we think it is. Only then do we test what the results show. Then we repeat this with many other metrics, because the issue is way too complicated for one metric to prove anything.

I’m not saying we don’t live in a patriarchy. What I’m saying is that you can’t laugh off someone that claims we don’t with a book-long argument to support her case because it is “obviously false” to you. Any argument that we live in a patriarchy is going to have to be subtle and complicated for the reasons listed above. It’s also more likely that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Men are favored in some places; women are favored in some places; and it’s counterproductive to decide if one outweighs the other. We can work towards equality without one gender “winning” the “oppression” war.

Has 1984 Arrived?

Answer: No. This isn’t going to be some conspiracy theory post about living in a police state and carrying around devices that constantly spy on us even when they’re off: Big Brother is watching. That’s been done to death. This is a post about how many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have manifested in very unlikely places and ways.

One of the scariest and least likely predictions has to do with revising history to fit the current narrative. The reason this seems so unlikely in the novel is that it is such a monstrous task. Everything is physical, so every newspaper, book, and so on must be totally incinerated to put out a revised version. It is surprising Orwell even came up with this with how unrealistic and massive such an undertaking would be. Here’s a quote describing it.

“This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”

In today’s world everything is digital. It looks like pretty much all print media will be solely digital before too long (we’re talking years, but not decades?). This means no more newspapers or books to be incinerated. One quick click of a button revises every single copy.

It is true that the internet remembers everything, so it will be possible to find the older copy. But who’s going to do that? No one has the time or patience to sift through internet archives to find if something has been changed. I’m not saying any reputable news source does this (e.g. the New York Times post “Updates” at the bottom of an article that has been changed to notify the reader). But this unbelievable aspect of 1984 has become much more believable with how we get our information now.

Another disturbing aspect of Orwell’s dystopia is the concept of “doublethink,” and to a lesser extent, the formation of Newspeak where word’s are redefined so they can only be used to support a given message. Here’s a quote where doublethink is first introduced:

“His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, …”

A prime example of doublethink in our current world is in Twitter public shaming. These people claim the moral high ground while destroying an innocent person’s life over a politically incorrect joke. That is doublethink so extreme that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned it.

The examples that recur throughout the novel are “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” I have a new one from recent news. Our own politically correct coded language has hit such doublethink extremes that one cannot utter the phrase “all lives matter,” without a certain demographic hearing “black lives don’t matter.” To put it in the above terms “equality is inequality.”

The last disturbing point I’d like to address is something called the “Two Minutes Hate.” If it’s been a while since you’ve read the book, this is a moment in the day where everyone watches hate propaganda and gets all worked up about it. Winston, at first doesn’t totally buy it, but then as everyone around him gets angrier, he finds himself joining in, not even having to fake it. Then it ends, and everyone goes about their business as if it never happened.

It seems this is how a lot of people use Twitter. They go about their day. They randomly check Twitter. They see a pile-on hate mob trending. At first, the dongle joke doesn’t seem so bad, but after reading more and more hate comments, they start to get worked up. After about two minutes of this, they realize how insensitive this straight white man was to make a private joke to his friend (BB is watching). We have our own Newspeak. The word invented for this is “microaggression.” After getting worked up, this person doesn’t even have to fake their outrage as they tweet about firing him. Then they click off their phone and go about their business as if it never happened, just like the Two Minutes Hate.

In 1984 you can be accused of committing a thoughtcrime. The penalty is a public hanging. You don’t even have to act on it. Merely thinking the wrong thing amounts to a public death. It is scary how similar this is to someone like Justine Sacco, who dared to make a politically incorrect joke on Twitter. The mob tried to read her thoughts based on this and convicted her of a thoughtcrime against The Party. She proceeded to be publicly shamed for it. Her life was ruined.

Now there is no “Party” or “State” that is carrying this out like in the book, but the group that is doing this is politically motivated. The punishment isn’t as harsh, but the goal is the same: to incite fear in anyone that dares to think differently. I’m not sure if we should be more or less scared that it isn’t some Leviathan government forcing this on us. It is we the people who have imposed this on ourselves.