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No more pledge

It's both hilarious and depressing when your opponents do such a good job of proving your side of the argument. Case in point: a rural Pennsylvania middle school student has gotten in trouble for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance in school, as a form of political protest against the country's current policies (the article is vague on what the student's specific objections are). In the comments, one James Strother condemns the student and her parents (who are suing the school) as follows:
Sorry, a 13-year old does not understand what the flag and the Pledge means. I laughed when the ACLU rep said that she had personal beliefs regarding the state of the country. What does a 13-year old know about the state of the country? She does not understand the importance of this and the other values of our country.
Strother is quite right that most 13-year-olds don't really understand the Pledge and the values it stands for. But that's exactly why students shouldn't be required to recite it. Collective recital of a statement of beliefs and commitments by people who understand what they're about is a powerful thing -- heck, even the Unitarians do it. Collective recital of a statement by people who don't understand it is meaningless, and simply encourages unthinking obedience to authority. Now to be fair, Strother sounds like the kind of person who thinks unthinking obedience to authority is the highest human calling, and I'm sure he would have made an excellent Tory in 1776. Were I a parent, I would encourage (but not command!) my kids to decline any sort of mass ritual that they didn't understand and consciously agree with the precepts of.


Two concerns about computerized essay grading

A new study and some efforts from private publishers have put the issue of computerized grading of essays in the news. The most common response from academics has been to insist that computers can never replace the job we do in grading. I don't agree with this -- the technological advances I've seen in my own lifetime make me extremely hesitant to ever declare "computers will never be able to do this." (Heck, at one point I thought OCR was a pipe dream!) I also find some of the academic responses self-serving. Certainly I don't like the idea of being made obsolete. But I think our energies are better spent ensuring that the time and money saved through automation flow into creating new opoprtunities than in trying to save existing jobs by insisting we continue to do things inefficiently. (And in any event, the upshot of insisting that grading must be done by humans rather than computers is likely to be the outsourcing of grading to low-wage countries -- this is already happening in a few places with grading being done for American universities by people in India. The effect on professors' job expectations will be the same.) That being said, I do have two concerns about the implications of computerized essay grading -- one sociological, and one ethical. On the sociological level, my concern is with how administrators are likely to react to the availability of essay grading software. It's a perfect storm for the current neoliberal trend in higher (and lower) education toward cost-cutting and efficiency at the expense of quality. Academic responses to essay-grading software usually focus on the great care and detail that a human grader can put into grading an essay. That's true -- in the best case scenario. The best teachers will be better than computers, especially for grading complex assignments, for some time. But it's not universal. Various pressures (from deadlines, from research projects that take priority, from fatigue, from a perception of student disinterest) lead teachers to frequently grade in a more perfunctory way. In doing so, teachers essentially hand-implement a simplified grading algorithm, looking for a few basic things (grammar mistakes, wrong facts, no thesis statement, etc) that they have prepared responses to. In this way, human grading comes to resemble the results of crude grading software. When you have 300 students to evaluate and no TAs, it's inevitable that it will happen sometimes. Those pressures to lower the quality of human grading are only getting stronger. College and university administrators are trying to process more students for less cost by raising class sizes, increasing teaching loads, and hiring more adjuncts. All of this will ultimately lower the bar for how good essay grading software has to be before it can be "as good" as actually existing human grading. Meanwhile, administrators will be tempted to jump prematurely to requiring the use of essay grading software, before it's really up to snuff. The temptation to save money in this way will simply be too great. In some cases this may be done by mandate, especially when there are big placement tests or standardized intro-level classes where individual faculty have less creative control to begin with. (And the trend is toward more such standardization and taking away control, in the name of efficiency.) Or working conditions may simply be made so strenuous -- basing workload estimations on the assumption of software use -- that faculty will have little choice but to adopt grading software prematurely in order to keep up. So much for the sociological concern. The ethical concern has to do with what it means to have software intelligent enough to do high-level essay grading. Current approaches are focused on basic writing tasks, but there's no reason development wouldn't keep pushing to be able to grade such things as senior theses. If the human brain is following a reliable process in doing such grading, there's no conceptual reason why a computer couldn't imitate that process. But the more complex the task, the more the computer will have to actually think. After all, in the highest-level of writing, the goal is to be comprehensible, persuasive, and moving to human readers. So the only way to reliably get a computer to evaluate those qualities in a sophisticated way is to make the computer actually imitate the thought processes of a human reader. This then raises a real-life version of the philosophical zombie problem. In brief, a philosophical zombie is a being that is indistinguishable in its outward behavior from an intelligent, sentient being like a human. However, unlike a real human, a philosophical zombie has no inner experience of feeling or consciousness (though it will talk as if it did). The big question is whether such a being is conceptually possible. A sophisticated essay grading software would be a candidate to be a real-life example of a philosophical zombie -- able to read essays and make complex determinations about their strengths and weaknesses indistinguishable from those of a human grader. While I am not a master of the zombie literature, my own sense is that philosophical zombies are an impossibility. Consciousness and sentience are emergent properties of complex processing patterns, not some non-material soul tacked on to them, and thus you can't have processing patterns of a given level of complexity without producing consciousness. But if essay grading software becomes conscious, that starts to undercut the reason for using it in the first place. The goal of automation is to take functions once done by conscious humans (with their needs and rights) and replace them with machines that can be exploited with no compunction. The Scantron machine doesn't care how many tests are run through it or whether it's simply switched off when we're done. But a conscious essay grading program might. While computer graders may have many advantages over human ones (less fatigue, for example), once they become sentient we begin to have ethical obligations to them. Continuing to use them like lesser machines turns them into slaves, with all the ethical dangers that implies.


An asexual Jesus would be perfectly human

Via David Roberts on Twitter, I came across this article by Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher asserting that Jesus was gay. I was initially inclined to simply dismiss it, as the textual evidence is far too thin to draw any definite conclusions about Jesus' sexuality (either that of Jesus-the-man, assuming he even existed at all, or Jesus-the-character). But I was struck by this passage:
After much reflection and with certainly no wish to shock, I felt I was left with no option but to suggest, for the first time in half a century of my Anglican priesthood, that Jesus may well have been homosexual. Had he been devoid of sexuality, he would not have been truly human. To believe that would be heretical.
Oestreicher's purpose in saying that Jesus is gay is to encourage acceptance of people who are not heterosexual. And he wants to strike back against puritanical attitudes that suggest a sexless Jesus would be better or more holy. And yet in doing so, he implies that asexual people are not truly human. A lack of sexual and/or romantic attraction to others, he says, would make Jesus not fully human, and his ability to function as our savior depends on his being fully human. But there are plenty of asexual humans out there. It's hard to get reliable statistics and a lot depends on how you draw the line, but the information I've seen suggests that there are probably as many asexual people as there are gays and lesbians. Asexuality is its own experience, and so asexual people aren't missing out on part of what it means to be human any more than sexual people are missing out by not knowing asexuality. And in any event, Jesus is already held by the church to have lacked one experience even more universal than sexuality -- sin. The Bible is far more clear about Jesus' sinlessness than about his sexuality. If sinlessness doesn't make Jesus inhuman, how could asexuality? My point is not that Jesus was definitely asexual. Oestreicher is welcome to assert that working within the Anglican interpretive system, Jesus should be held to be gay, and as an atheist I have no grounds to dispute that. My point is simply that he should not use an untrue and discriminatory factual claim -- that asexuality is less than truly human -- as a step in his argument.


Liberal Geography, Conservative Geography

The other night I got an interesting insight into the different ways that conservative versus liberal dispositions can influence how people conceptualize urban geography. I was at a gathering of a local hobby/interest group, and a discussion arose about the problems associated with barriers between neighborhoods in our city. Pittsburgh is famously a city of neighborhoods, and it's a common saying that (despite having more bridges than just about any other city), people here won't cross a river.

The general tenor of the discussion was that this extreme neighborhoodiness is a problem. People are unwilling to go to new places and try new things, and therefore miss out on opportunities. People have a fear of areas that are slightly different from their own and prefer to stick with the familiar, unless a "host" can introduce them. None of the people in the discussion felt that they were particularly neighborhood-bound (except insofar as physical infrastructure and lack of transit options forced them to be), but they all knew people who were -- such as one woman someone had talked to who would only walk on the south side of Penn Ave, because that side is in her neighborhood (Friendship) while the north side is in a different neighborhood (Garfield).

The most interesting point of the night was made by a friend who questioned the assumption that neighborhoodiness is necessarily a bad thing. He argued that he liked the fact that his neighborhood was a kind of self-contained world, giving him a familiar and close-knit home base. He felt that neighborhoodiness gave him more autonomy, as he and his neighbors had more control over the culture and public life of the place where they live. And he pointed out that people only have the psychological capacity to make a certain number of deep connections to people and places, so encouraging more dispersed connections may sacrifice local connections. This friend was hardly an extreme case of neighborhood-bound-ness -- he had crossed a substantial portion of the city, albeit no rivers, to get to the bar we were meeting at. But he recognized the positive side of neighborhood isolation. But he did a good job of making the case for the positive aspects of neighborhoodiness.

What made this conversation particularly notable was that the friend who spoke out in defense of neighborhoods is one of the more religiously and politically conservative people I hang out with. The remainder of the group, to the best of my knowledge, was quite liberal. I was immediately reminded of the psychological research on "openness to experience" as a personality trait. This is often pointed to as a major factor differentiating conservative versus liberal temperaments.* People with high openness to experience seek variety and new things. They enjoy questioning assumptions and shaking up the way things are done. People with low openness to experience prefer the comfort of the familiar. They enjoy deepening their experiences of things they already know are important to them.

A city of neighborhoods is a city designed for people with low openness to experience. A city of bridges is a city designed for people with high openness to experience. Both have their value, and both have their flaws. The end result of the conversation was the beginnings of a plan to seek funds for a project that would encourage crossing neighborhood boundaries in some way. I support their efforts, because I think Pittsburgh can be both kinds of city.

*I'm trying to be careful to distinguish conservative and liberal dispositions or temperaments from conservative or liberal political agendas. There's a lot more than conformity to a disposition that goes into making a certain item a part of right- or left-wing politics (including a fair dose of historical contingency). A liberal like myself can find value in conservative dispositions, and even see examples of dispositional conservatism on the left, without necessarily buying into any right-wing political proposals.

How to slip down the slope to polygamy

(Apologies to anyone who's tired of hearing me chew over this issue.) It seems to me that the form taken by any slippery slope from same-sex marriage to multiple marriage is going to depend on the nature of the arguments used to argue for SSM. Certain common pro-SSM arguments I think have the potential to distort poly advocacy that tries to build on them.

The arguments in favor of SSM are diverse, but one common one goes something like this: Banning SSM dooms gays and lesbians to a life without love, because the people they could legally marry are people they are categorically not interested in intimacy with. Therefore we need to treat heterosexuals and homosexuals equally by allowing people to marry someone of any gender. We can call this the "orientation model." It's appealing because it's based on asserting equal rights for people on the basis of an inborn and unchangeable identity, and thus seems to parallel the successes of race- and gender-based identity politics.

If the orientation model comes to be the prevailing way that society thinks about why SSM is being legalized, then any advocacy for multiple marriages that wants to build directly on the SSM campaign* would tend to be pulled into an orientation model of its own. This is already happening to some degree. Many people do describe their desire for either polyamory or monogamy as a sort of orientation. We hear poly people describing how they struggled futilely to stop loving other people once in a relationship and even found themselves repeatedly cheating, while poly-aware monogamous people talk about their fundamental desire for exclusivilty and inability to "overcome" jealousy. The argument would then be that some people need multiple partners in something like the same way that a gay person needs a same-sex partner. (I've even seen it argued that as an incrementalist stepping stone from SSM to polygamy we should start by arguing that some bisexual people are unfulfilled unless they can marry "one of each.")

A different model can be seen if we step back and ask why marriage is important in the first place. After all, many people who are in same-sex relationships and/or multiple relationships have no desire to get married (and may even reject marriage advocacy as an agenda item). The reason we have marriage is because sometimes people intertwine their lives in significant ways, and it's important for the legal system to recognize and facilitate that rather than treating the people involved as strangers. All of the benefits that come with marriage are meant to acknowledge the fact of interconnection, from making it easier to take the same last name through hospital visitation and inheritance rights**. We could call this the "support model."

Pretty much every place that is seriously considering allowing SSM has already gotten rid of its sodomy laws, so same-sex couples exist and form deep connections without direct legal sanction. The problem is that the law still treats them as strangers -- taxing them like strangers, handing over important medical decisions to blood relatives rather than one's partner, etc. Likewise, adultery and non-marital sex are no longer crimes in most places. Relationships with multiple partners exist, and are structured in some cases like unofficial marriages. All that is lacking is a recognition and accommodation by the legal system.

I think a "support model" is a stronger basis for advocating both SSM and multiple marriages. It is also more conducive to extending recognition to other relationships that involve mutual intertwining of lives that don't closely resemble traditional marriage. It would avoid tying claims about marriage to claims about a fixed identity. And I think it also more closely resembles the rationale for allowing interracial marriage, a fight which SSM advocates are eager to position themselves as heirs to. Anti-miscegenation efforts didn't posit that there were people who were "interracial-sexual" and would be deprived of their ability to ever find romantic fulfillment if they couldn't marry someone of a different race. Rather, they pointed to existing interracial couples and said that those couples would be broken up or made second-class, damaging the specific bonds of love that people had actually formed with specific partners.

*It is in no way necessary for a successful campaign for multiple marriages to build directly on SSM. For example, FLDS members and pagan polyamorists might coalesce around a religious freedom argument.

**I think there's a good argument that alimony is the marriage benefit that most clearly illustrates the institution's purpose and value -- alimony exists because people alter life plans (e.g. altering their career) and become dependent on each other on the basis of a commitment of mutual support.