Malcolm Gladwell the Empiricist Mansplainer

A good old friend and I hit a bit of a mudpit this weekend and I’ve been sitting soaking in it for a few days.  He sent me a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?”and wanted to talk about it. The article had been circulating in the clinic at Pacific College, where his wife is studying acupuncture and my wife did her graduate work. The students and some of the faculty were incensed by Gladwell’s argument that marijuana might not be as medically useful as we make it out to be. My boy couldn’t quite figure out why that was so offensive. I mean, usually acupuncturists aren’t that into the idea of medical, so their distaste for the too-cool Gladwell was a bit surprising. Something else was happening.

Then I realized that when I looked at Gladwell’s article, all I saw was a guy saying Nobody knows anything until empiricism tells them what they can know. And that made me think that the annoying thing about the piece (and a growing mass of public research writing) is that it wasn’t really about weed at all. The argument Gladwell is making seems to be that we should all hold off on our own observations and conclusions until authorized scientific knowledge-makers weigh in.

He tips his hand early on, when he reviews the 2017 National Academies of Health and Medicine report on the current state of research knowledge about cannabinoids. In a series of terse dismissals, he corrects the “widely supposed” benefits of pot. He insists that we just don’t know if it helps with nausea, ALS, Parkinsons, or epilepsy. Those who think it has been helping with their glaucoma for 10 years are probably wrong, Gladwell explains.

So I guess it doesn’t really matter that people have been feeling relief from these disorders. That doesn’t count as data for Gladwell unless these effects are measured by outside observers as part of randomized trials and then communicated in simple sound bites to the public. So my father-in-law’s church friend whose Parkinson’s was visibly affected by marijuana was just fooling herself. The legion of old folks who got glaucoma relief aren’t authorities on their own bodies enough to know if it was pot or their own misguided love of a placebo effect.

And that’s probably why public scholarship – and maybe a lot of sci comm more broadly – rubs folks the wrong way. Clear-cut experiences are shoved off as insufficient ways to know about something. This is probably especially irritating for folks when the study-backed methods of Gladwell-approved medicine had failed so many of them so miserably for so long before weed came along as an alternative option.

I suspect that this is the real reason that the acupuncture med students were so annoyed with Gladwell’s piece. The same kind of argument is made about the treatments practiced in a rapidly-growing number of acupuncture and herbal medicine clinics across America. You can do an easy one-to-one substitution.

Acupuncture is providing relief from chemo side effects? No way. There’s no placebo trial. So it isn’t happening.

But, doc, I feel a lot better than I did before the acupuncture.

That doesn’t mean a thing. 

It probably does to the chemo patient though. Or the addict. Or the person with fibromyalgia who trusted in Gladwell-approved medical institutions for years, but finally got fed up, looked elsewhere, and got the relief they needed.

When writers like Gladwell get to humping empiricism like this, it’s limiting the range of how we can know things. Maybe he believes that’s the only knowledge can be trusted. That’s cool. But there’re a lot of people out there with contradictory evidence. And just telling them that that evidence doesn’t count – that we just need to listen to the smart guys – is a crude way of thinking about knowledge.

Bringing it all Back Home

IMG_0212I’ve been sort of obsessed with thinking about talking about our work outside academia since I first realized that this was going to be my life. A first-gen kid going home and talking about the ways Fox and the second Bush administration were distorting reality, I found myself simultaneously trying to argue politics and explain how I used LexisNexis to prove the points I was making. It was a real mix of ideas and epistemologies, because first I found myself interrupting heated debates by explaining (to equally skeptical but intrigued friends and family) how database searches worked and why an amalgamation of texts, keyword searches, and citations mattered when talking about whether or not members of Hezbollah were good guys or bad guys.

Later on, during my first bout in grad school, in a whiskey-hazed kitchen back home I slipped up and said “It’s like this story this guy Fredric Jameson writes about this fucked up hotel in LA” during a conversation about jobs and real estate in Michigan right before the 2008 debacle. I slurred something about “pretentious shit,” probably apologizing for dropping a citation into conversation with a friend, but had already derailed the night. My boy got it, better than I did really, but we never quite got back to the topic at hand, instead spending the rest of the night talking about why it mattered that somebody else had said something like I was saying and whether it was useful to make abstract connections like Jameson made between the Bonaventure Hotel and finance capital. I just sort of struggled with mashing together ideas and premises and methods and all the rest of it.

Image result for witches, witch-hunting, and women federici pmpressSo when I sat down with Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-Hunting, and WomenI was primed to be excited on multiple levels. Her connection between the historical dispossession of women in the nascent moments of capitalist development with structures that continue to justify misogynistic practices today is stunning in its clarity and importance. But even more important was her note that this small book was intended as a more accessible presentation of her earlier Caliban and the Witch.

Obviously, she’s worlds ahead of me, but it seems like Federici is thinking about how to balance content and epistemologies too. So there’s a lot to learn from this masterful little piece. The early parts of the book introduce readers to atrocities committed on female bodies, fueled by the desire to disempower women during the enclosure of the commons in the first great wave of primitive accumulation of capital. But the structure itself is just as instructive. Federici frames the the first chapter in terms of a series of questions: Why speak of witch hunts again (particularly if new facts or cases are not being introduced)? What proof do we have that witch hunts developed out of the new logic of systematic capitalist expropriation of the commons? Isn’t this argument all a bit circumstantial?

All of these questions lead Federici to teach readers not just what happened, but also how we can understand the method of connecting historical trends that have been so deeply-entrenched in capitalist accumulation that no records exist proving them as such. Her critical reading of historical correlations asks readers to think about how two broad trends that exist at the same moment in the same social space could not be related, and it is that lesson that seems so important to talking to broader audiences about the ongoing historical problem of torturing and murdering women as a means of disciplining new zones of capitalist accumulation. So, when I read

There is undoubtedly a direct relation between many cases of witch-hunting and the process of the ‘enclosures,’ as demonstrated by the social composition of the accused, the charges made against them, and the common characterization of the witch as a poor old woman, living alone, dependent on donations from her neighbors, bitterly resenting her marginalization, and often threatening and cursing those who refused to help her

I find myself wondering not just what readers learn here, but what they learn how to do and how they learn to think about the world. This epistemological education is threaded through the text, as Federici encourages readers to see connections between concurrent phenomena like the violent clearing of lands for mining interests and the purportedly benevolent official development plans authored by the World Bank and IMF. In broad sweeping lists of violent acts perpetrated against women across the globe, Federici includes the violence of predatory “micro-credit” that often leads to catastrophes for those the neoliberal lenders claim to be most interested in helping. Putting atrocities side by side encourages readers to do the same – to think about the logical connections between violent attacks on women occupying the commons and the machinations of the global giants pushing for those commons to be expropriated. It is this rhetorical and epistemological inter-weaving that seems so important in Federici’s book. If I end up in a late night kitchen with any old friends over the holidays, I hope I can manage a bit of the same.


Language, Race, and Cartoons

Image result for octonauts pesoSo, I’ve been watching a lot of Octonauts with my daughter lately. The adventures of a handful of mammals, doing research and rescue missions in the ocean, it’s really the perfect blend of educational (a different sea creature is featured in each episode) and fun (there’s a cat pirate and some madcap hybrid creatures that are a mix of different vegetables and fish). After a few episodes, Eve and I usually end up pretending to be octonauts. She’s a sick or injured sea creature and I’m a member of the crew, come to help her.

But here’s the thing. At least two of the crew members have marked speech. Professor Shellington, the junior faculty researcher otter, has a light Scottish burr. And Peso, the medic penguin, speaks with what might best be described a softened chicanx phonology, but it is (typical of the dialect) hard to pin down.  Carmen Fought does a better job in her book than I can do here in this blog post. Sometimes his prosody is more syllable timed than stress timed, but this varies. His vowels are more regularized than those of other varieties of English. It’s not a chinanx accent, because it has some features like final cluster deletion or the modification of the ch- sound. Honestly, it just might be a mock latinx accent, performed by a ho-hum British voice actor. But It’s about how we’re supposed to read him that concerns me, which seems to be through a subtle little bit of cartoon-level enregisterment.

So here I am, playing with my daughter, pretending to be her favorite character Peso – a healer, a seeker of knowledge, a brave friend (when he has to be), a caring family member, and perhaps the ship captain’s #1 choice for a second-in-command. And to do it, I have to do his voice, which – honestly – I do pretty well.

So what am I teaching my daughter about language and race? I would think that, for her, Peso isn’t racialized. He’s a penguin. But most of her teachers are latinx, many with pronunciation patterns that she might recognize as sometimes not-to-different from Peso’s. Does her white father’s use of a caricatured speech pattern do parodic work, like a character from The Office mimicking AAVE or (closer to home) my dad doing a bad Cheech & Chong routine during conversations about legalizing medical marijuana?

I think not. But I felt on guard when we’re playing, like I need to be true to Peso and not misrepresent him. The cartoon penguin. I hoped she would grow out of Octonauts before I figured out how I felt about talking like Peso.

But then it happened. She found a youtube Octonauts video (normally, she watches it on Netflix). The animation was a bit different. And Peso had a muted British accent. Like something from a blasé PBS show. She was pissed. Why would they make Peso change the way he talks, Dad?

I couldn’t get what she meant exactly from her. She’s four, so there’s some slippage between her sense of “real” people and characters in books or on TV. But her phrasing is really intentional – she’s a nuanced person – and the way she phrased this hit me. Did she think that the show had made Peso talk differently? Like, someone had come to the character behind the scenes and asked him to stop speaking in ways that reminded people of a latinx speaker? What would this mean about her insistence that I “do the voice” for Peso and Shellington, but I could generally get away with using my own voice if I was playing another character who didn’t use marked speech features?

Mock accents are an easy form of popularized racism. Misuse of habitual be while aping varieties of African American speech bugs the shit out of me. When Trevor Noah does impressions (really well), I’m always a little conscious that mockery is at work in there, pointing equally at pretty much everyone, but drawing on tropes and language ideologies all the way.

So there isn’t an easy answer for me to come to, I know. But I suppose the best I can do is to be mindful of the discomfort I feel around language mockery in all its forms. I can be Peso, and I can do the voice, maybe because it means that my daughter will be reminded that heroic figures talk like that too, something that pop culture doesn’t do so much.  I can keep taking my kids to pro-immigrant rallies and organizing events for sanctuary city policies in our town, places where she’ll interact with people who have less bastardized versions of latinx speech patterns. It’s a start.