Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Ideological Racism of the Left


“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting,” 
-Salman Rushdie

As a lifelong liberal I am sad to say that I no longer recognise this new strain of liberalism, one that seems infected by close-mindedness, intolerance and a severely judgmental view of everyone that does not conform to some inane and thin-skinned acid test.

It seems that as the liberal world order began to thrive across the globe in the seventies and eighties, the liberal mind grew smaller. Rather than embrace diversity of thought, the left today seems to take pride in chastising, publicly shaming and tearing down anyone whose thinking diverges even slightly from the liberal mob.

As a result, liberals come across as closed-minded, parochial and so thin skinned that they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that protecting free speech means that everyone is entitled to his or her views, no matter how vehemently we might disagree.

In 2014, Brendan Eich, Co-Founder of non-profit browser Firefox and inventor of the programming language JavaScript, was forced to step down of CEO of his company after a popular dating site called for the boycott of the browser. Mr. Eich’s unforgivable crime: he had made a single donation of $1,000 to a group that opposed gay marriage six years earlier.

Seems it did not matter that Mr. Eich was a highly qualified technology executive who had also been part of creating a company that had a history of an open and inclusive workplace, nor did it matter that there was no charge against him of discriminating against gays by bringing his political views into the workplace. He was punished simply because he had a different opinion. I disagree with his view, but I also respect that he has the right to have it.

More recently, Google, which claims to be a champion of free speech, quashed and censored the freedom for one of their employees. By firing James Damore, Google basically proved his point. His memo titled the ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ was arguing that Google's, and more broadly, Silicon Valley’s corporate culture is wholly intolerant of conservative views. Forget the merits of Mr. Danmore’s argument in his memo. The point is that he not only has the right to hold such views, but also to openly share them without fear of persecution or prosecution, provided doing so does not break any laws or violate the first amendment, which he did not.

I have no doubt that Google’s lawyers found sound legal grounds to fire him based on some violation of their corporate policy, but a wiser course for Google, as the Economist argued, would have been for Larry Page to have written a full-throated and detailed rebuttal of Mr Damore’s argument. Google would have shown that it respects free speech, especially when it disagrees, and using data and scientific evidence could have eloquently debunked Mr. Danmore’s contention that women are inferior software engineers and programmers.

The whole point of free speech is not that bad or insensitive views and ideas will cease to exist, but that when we encounter ideas like Mr. Danmore’s, we can use more speech to defeat them with better ideas and actual evidence.

If we shut down opinions simply because we find them unkind or hurtful, we will kill free speech. We need to look at actions and not views alone; this is why expressing even the most heinous ideas or opinions publicly is protected under the first amendment. We can draw a line when such views trample on someone else’s rights, discriminate against a group or break laws.

This ideological censorship based on some group deeming something “offensive” is happening even in the media. A conservative writer, Daniella Greenbaum, resigned from Business Insider (BI) after being censored. She wrote a piece defending Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender man, arguing that the main challenge of acting is to portray someone other than oneself and that “Johansson's identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen.

Her article went through the publication’s editorial review process before it was published, but the moment it met with resistance, BI took it down. They claimed it was suddenly in violation of their editorial standards, which the article had passed earlier. Rather than take it down to placate the mob, BI should have encouraged everyone who disagreed with her to pen a rebuttal.

I call this disturbing trend, one that shuts down various points of view, ideological racism and it has become even more pervasive in the age of social media mobs. I decided to do research to try and understand how, liberals, once open-minded, thick-skinned and valiant defenders of free speech, had suddenly become so sensitive, plaintive and censorship-happy.

Over the last generation, a dangerous idea has started to take hold among students and faculty on college campuses across the country, one that suggests that speech is violence.

We are not talking about verbal threats against individuals, which are illegal and not protected by the first amendment. No, this idea of words inflicting violence refers to speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that simply ‘upsets’ people. Basically, saying that if I were to give a speech on a college campus criticising Indians for not wearing deodorant (a fact), it would be considered violence against Indian students.

A few years ago, a group at Columbia University penned an Op-ed in the student newspaper calling on the school to start implementing “trigger” warnings in curricula to alert students about  potentially distressing material, even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry. In 2014, students at the University of California urged the school to make trigger warnings mandatory on all class syllabi, which would require the school to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes.

Recentlya Rutgers University sophomore suggested that alerts should be issued for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ to say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence and a Columbia student publicly complained about her professor using the word “negro”, even though he said it in a lesson about 1960s America.

Sadly, this anti-intellectual, anti-learning and anti-free speech movement has spread well-beyond classrooms and now extends to blocking all Conservative speakers, and even Liberals who don’t spout the party line, from lecturing on campus, often using the ridiculous argument that words are weapons that can cause physical harm.

Ironically, while students complain about the ‘violence’ of words, they seem to have no issue resorting to physical violence to prevent speakers from setting foot on campuses. A talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray was violently shut down by students who physically attacked him and in the process injured a Middlebury professor who was with him. At University of California, Berkeley, once a bastion of free speech, a group with bandannas wrapped around their faces, tore down barricades, shot projectiles at police and lit a light stand on fire, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage, and succeeded in cancelling a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial far-right speaker.

Another trend contributing to this growing ideological racism has been the creation of ‘safe spaces’. The original purpose of a ‘safe space’ was narrowly defined and meant as a temporary physical space on campus for marginalised groups, often gay and transgender students, to discuss issues without abuse or public attacks. However, what was meant to be a temporary space is morphing into permanent ones for various aspects of campus life; from segregated study halls and libraries and some advocates have turned their attention to student housing, which they want to turn into safe spaces by segregating student living quarters.

Another factor is the lack of diversity within faculty. In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that has surveyed undergraduate teaching faculty for the last twenty-five years found that liberals now outnumber conservative professors, five to one. Another 2017 study by Econ Journal Watch found that faculty at the top 40 colleges, in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law and Psychology were registered Democrat versus Republican by a whopping 11.5 to 1 margin. The New Yorker described this failure among our higher education institutions, now completely dominated by the left, as an unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech.

For me the main issue is that these developments defeat the main purpose of higher education, which was to open minds rather than to create conformity. Colleges are meant to challenge our thinking by introducing new ideas and exposing us to a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead, it seems education is now focused on creating false realities and safe echo chambers which do not prepare students for the realities of life in the real world.

Colleges are the final rite of passage between the safety and security of home and the unfairness and harshness of life.  Time there is meant to help students grow thicker skins, in part by interacting with people who have different views, backgrounds and life experiences than their own. As our world continues to shrink, having a thicker skin has become more, not less, important.

The point is not to pretend that there are no Holocaust deniers or to tell them never to engage with people with offensive views. Progress requires us to work with all types of people. We need to teach children the facts of history (good, bad and ugly) and equip them with critical thinking skills and thick skins so they can publicly debate and defeat bad ideas with better ones.

How can you change the world for the better, if you refuse to accept its ugly realities first?

Every successful democratic society requires a broad spectrum of views, thoughts and ideas to thrive and succeed. This is the point of diversity, not simply skin colour, but diverse thinking. As a brown person, I would rather someone openly hate the colour of my skin but embrace my thinking, not the other way around. If we try to mould everyone into one way of thinking, then that is the end of innovation and progress in society.

As Mr. Rushdie said, the price of free speech, and a free society, is that ugliness comes with it. If we try to close down speech we define as critical, unkind, hurtful or distasteful, then we walk away from free speech all together – there is no middle ground.

As a society we would be wise to remember that sticks and stones may break bones, but censoring words and thoughts destroys democracy.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Hollywood’s Glass House


(Image: g4sfacts.org)

“Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made!"
Groucho Marx

I am no fan of President Trump but I am a movie fanatic. I can quote lines, recite entire dialogues and even rattle off names of obscure directors and screenwriters. Ever since I was a child I have been enamored of movies and their power to connect people, build empathy, change attitudes and be a force for good - a force that can change the world in positive ways.

I also used to enjoy watching the Oscars back when it was still a celebration of the art and its greatest auteurs. It is true that Hollywood has always been a liberal bastion that championed a variety of issues, from famine and genocide to civil war, but for the most part their causes pertained to humanity and were not blatantly partisan; after the last election the mask came off and every awards ceremony has been hijacked by tone-deaf, selective lecturing and hypocritical finger pointing.

It is one thing to use your art as a valid and powerful way to protest something. I am all for making movies and documentaries that champion causes and wade headfirst into divisive political issues; however, it is entirely another thing to abuse the microphone at a non-political event meant to celebrate this art. Putting aside the fact that awards shows are not the right venue to bring up politics, the reality is that Hollywood is also the last group of people in the world who should be preaching morality, diversity and equality based on the facts within their own industry.

A study of 900 popular Hollywood films over the last decade by USC Annenberg School forCommunication and Journalism found that despite the industry's preaching diversity to the rest of us, “there has been little year-on-year rise in inclusion in films released in 2016”. Across the board the industry fails on inclusivity when it came to minorities, LGBTQ and disabled people. As recently as 2016, the same study found that 70.8% of speaking roles in top 100 films were still being awarded to white actors. Even behind the scenes their record remained appalling with women making up a measly 4.2% of directors, 13.2% of writers, 20.7% of producers and just 1.7% of composers.

Further, another 2016 UCLA study found that film studio heads are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. Management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male. Film studio unit heads are 96 percent white and 61 percent male. TV network and studio heads are 96 percent white and 71 percent male. TV senior management is 93 percent white and 73 percent male. TV unit heads are 86 percent white and 55 percent male.

As a result, the recent award show protesting and preaching comes across as a disingenuous PR stunt designed to distract us and prevent shining a light on their own industry. Even after the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein, as the New Yorker put it, “A few of the mighty have fallen,a few of the less mighty have been embarrassed, but the institutions that protected them remain unshaken, their potentates still in power.”

Oprah spoke eloquently and passionately about “speaking your truth” at the last Golden Globes, and while Hollywood seems willing to point fingers, it is entirely unwilling to introspect or make meaningful changes to the predatory atmosphere it has nurtured within its ranks. Hollywood seems to have forgotten the wisdom about glass houses or perhaps they assumed we would not hold them to the same standards they rightly want to hold the President and his administration to, when it comes to women, minorities and the disabled.

I laud the release of 'Black Panther' but we cannot ignore the fact that it has taken one hundred and eight years, ninety Academy Awards and the election of Donald Trump to create the first black super hero movie. This year, Jordan Peele became only the fifth black man to be recognized in the Best Director category, and the first to win for Best Screenplay. Greta Gerwig was only the fifth woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. Only one woman has won this category in the Oscars 90-year history. I hope we won’t have to wait another hundred years for black, female and minority studio heads.

Interestingly, I am not the only person feeling this way about Hollywood’s now shallow and incessant preaching at award shows since the last election. The 2018 Oscars were the least-watched in history, scoring a 19% drop from 2017. To give you an idea of the magnitude - the Oscars have never fallen below 32 million viewers and 21 metered markets household rating before, making this year’s ratings the lowest since they started keeping records. Even among the coveted youth audience, social media mentions were down a whopping 28% from last year. The Golden Globes witnessed their lowest TV ratings in six years. Even the Grammys, where Hillary Clinton showed up, suffered a precipitous decline to amass its lowest tally since 2008, a 24% drop from the previous year.

If we want to hear political speeches, we will attend a political rally. 
If we want a lecture, we will find a college professor.
If we want to a sermon, we will go to church.
If we want to be chastised about our lack of morals, we will visit our parents.
We come to Hollywood to be entertained and the industry seems to have forgotten its place in society.

As long as Hollywood uses their art to make us laugh, cry, inform, broaden and challenge our thinking, we too are willing to overlook the fact that they are mostly well-meaning but grossly overpaid and completely out of touch elites. The air around them is so rarefied that Jennifer Lawrence is lauded for picking up her dog’s poop, and Gwyneth Paltrow argues that moms who have office jobs have an easier life than an actress making $9 million a movie.
 
Movies have the power to connect people, build empathy, change attitudes and become a force for good - a force that can change the world in positive ways. I hope Hollywood remembers to wield this great power by letting their art speak for them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Facebook and Division by Data in the Digital Age

(Image: theodysseyonline.com)

“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)

There was a time not too long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools, local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.

It was not that people gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives, and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not have otherwise had.

I am not suggesting that we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also civil and respectful.

The internet, with its ability to turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through diverse and shared experiences on a scale unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.

In country after country, social media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.

Nobody seems willing to entertain or discuss a point of view slightly different from their own. We have lost the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not share our finite and inflexible worldviews.

It’s as if we have all stopped talking to each other, and now only talk at each other. What happened?

To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live, work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and viewpoints.

Even online we have retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email and social media.

While it is true income and educational segregation have been in part responsible for our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol. Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.

Every advertiser and marketer has always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command, even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on an individual level.

Like most innovations, this type of data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking for it.

Sounds great in theory, but nobody considered the dangerous and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive algorithms that now power every website, internet service and mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us shoes and diapers.

What started as an advertising tool has now grown into an information arms race with numerous companies accumulating more and more personal data on each of us without any transparency, independent or third party oversight. People do not have the ability to opt-out and nobody has a clear idea of how this data is being used or with whom it is being shared.

Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by governments, it has greatly increased the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and influence behaviour of individuals and groups.

We need look no further than the 2016 US election. We know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to target, test and fine-tune messages that spread various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.

It is important to understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving, Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India. The targeting is both granular and precise.

In addition, you can exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).

This is what I refer to as division by data, when data is used to segment and sub-segment every section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide “what” to show people.

What this means is that what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix recommendations and even Google search.

Ask a liberal and a conservative friend to type in the exact same search query, e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the results and ‘facts’ they get are. I urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr. Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.”

Consider that Facebook has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users worldwide and Google is what the world relies on to search for news, information and facts, and both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.

This is where the notion of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects and dividing them into ever smaller groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’ uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might manage to increase ad sales, but we also increase societal divisions by reducing the ability to find common ground on issues.

In the digital age, we have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared experiences that human beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to diversity of thought and open-mindedness.

This is a solvable problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

I am Not Applauding, Hollywood




 (Image: Western Free Press / Artist: Sabo)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 
Martin Luther King Jr. 

The mainstream media and coastal Americans are gushing about the Golden Globes this morning. People are lauding Oprah’s speech and pushing her to run for President in 2020.

I admire Oprah and she gave one hell of a speech. I agree with her that “speaking our truth is the most powerful tool we have…” but the problem lies in the fact that Hollywood has always hidden its truth, and refused to speak out, while being the first group to point fingers at everyone else.

Oprah’s brilliant speech and its full-throated celebration by the very people who have always had a voice and the power to speak their truth masks a deep hypocrisy and glosses over their lack of courage. Until they are willing to call out their cowardice we cannot truly move forward and ensure that the voiceless are no longer suffering in the shadows.

For me, therein is the problem with celebrating the Hollywood stars jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon now that it is in vogue and there are no risks associated with speaking their truth. Is this not same truth they did not speak when it might have cost them an acting role or a seven figure salary?

Rosa Parks did not sit on that seat in order to become a trending hashtag. Mahatma Gandhi did not embark on fasts unto death to write a bestseller and Mother Teresa never wanted movies made about her life. These icons of history did what they did because they were tired of injustice and were willing to lose EVERYTHING to fight for all those who did not have a voice or could not fight.

All we are doing by applauding Hollywood is applauding spinelessness, and telling future generations that it is okay to wait to speak your truth only when it is convenient, only when it will not cost you anything personally, and only when it will not harm your career.

I am incensed that people like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek chose to stay silent. By doing so they made a decision that their careers, successes and fame were more important than telling this horrific truth.

I am not talking about when any of these actresses were starting out, living off someone’s couch and likely working two jobs just to make ends meet, having no voice or recourse. I am upset that when they became stars, powerful women in their own right, after they had paid their dues and earned their way up the ladder, and when they had the choice to share their truth – they still chose to stay silent.

By choosing silence they chose to leave in the shadows the millions of voiceless women who are taken advantage of and abused every day in their industry.

Meryl Streep felt compelled to speak out about the way Trump belittled a handicapped reporter, she cried, but never once did she feel the need to address the casting couch and horror stories of misogynistic, degrading and predatory behaviour of people she was close to and had worked with for years. I was deeply disappointed.

Make no mistake. I am glad that we are finally having this conversation and that a spotlight finally shines on the horrific experiences women across industries have suffered and had to endure, and still settle for lesser advancements than men less able or talented, purely because of their gender.

But for us to turn this moment into a lasting movement, one that results in real generational behavioral change, we need courageous people to carry the torch, not opportunists looking to burnish their own celebrity and trend on Twitter.

Courage is taking the plank out of your own eye before taking the speck out of someone else’s. I have not seen courage in Hollywood.

The Time’s Up announcement of a legal defense fund for underrepresented groups is a wonderful thing, but here is the thing about overcoming the greatest personal adversity: we cannot help people with handouts or defense funds alone. We need to inspire them to find their voice and find the courage to come forward. The only way to do that is through our own actions.

If the traditionally powerful have rarely been courageous, rarely put everything on the line, rarely spoken out against gross injustice, then how can we expect the single mother, the catering manager, the gaffer, the set decorator or the location scout to come forward and risk losing everything to do the right thing?