BBC News – Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged

Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang has been told repeatedly to “check his privilege” – to be aware of how his socio-economic and cultural background shapes his views – and he’s not happy about it.”The phrase,” he writes, “handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.”

via BBC News – Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged.

This article is an interesting read as it highlights some concepts that I learned while studying the systems thinking modules as part of my Open University degree. ‘Weltanschauung’ was a term used widely,  and while it doesn’t directly translate to ‘worldview’ it is a close-enough approximation.

Tal is displaying some understandable frustration with this ‘check your privilege’ meme that seems to be popular among on-line activists. However, he is also showing the limits of his own Welstanshauung. He does have an advantage over many of his American cohorts, and this is not due to any hard work on his part but by the luck of his birth. White males in the west are much more likely to succeed than  ethnic minorities – this is the ‘privilege’ that Tal should be aware of. It’s not his fault and it’s not something he can do anything about, it’s just a consideration – an epistemological awareness of his situation.

He is only 20 and has most of his life ahead of him. His views are limited by his life experience, just like everyone else’s, and his worldview will change over time. Perhaps he will look back at his essay in a few years and wonder why he expressed himself in such a fashion? Opinions based on a personal Weltanschauung are fine and all but that doesn’t mean that others cannot provide their own responses based on their own experiences and views.

Tal is wrong, he should ‘check his privilege’, as should we all. We would all make more informed decisions.

Mary Elizabeth Williams writes far more eloquently about this than I can over at The Salon.

But what people often don’t like – what Fortgang himself quite obviously doesn’t like – is when someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes tries to tell you your experience. What people don’t like is when someone who moves through the world with a particular set of advantages writes an essay that uses the word “empathize” but then confidently announces that he lives in “a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.” Young man, if you honestly think this country doesn’t care about religion or race, then you are privileged. You have grown up in an America that has enabled you to not know otherwise. And I don’t need to you to be sorry about it, because you didn’t create that. I’d just love for you to someday understand it.

It’s not much different over here in the UK with our political elite; educated almost exclusively in expensive schools they fail to understand why the proletariat think they’re an utter bunch of privileged, useless tossers. It’s almost like they’re living in another world that bears limited resemblance to the reality of existing in a normal job with normal problems.

A bit of empathy – from everyone – would go a long way to soothe much of the discontent that exists between people from different backgrounds.

Shut up and listen

I read Freethought Blogs quite a bit and came across this excellent post by Paul Fidalgo:

We do not like to be told we are being jerks. We do not like to be told we are being demeaning, or belittling, or discriminatory, or bigoted, even if by accident. Particularly we skepto-atheists, who so pride ourselves on our rationality, our grip on reality, our ability to coolly evaluate information on its merits.

But, inevitably — and especially if you are a white male — you will be called out. You will say something, you will write something, you will assess an idea or a cause or a feeling expressed. It will contain, in this assessment, this comment, or what have you, a word, a sentence, a supposition, a slant that causes offense. Someone, likely not a white male, will point out how this comment is hurtful, how it exacerbates a stereotype, how it reveals one’s unacknowledged social privilege, how it seems to minimize the grievances of another group.

You know what happens next. The blood boils, the eyes widen, the hackles rise, the jaw tightens. You argue back. How could you think this of me? How could you accuse me of such a thing? I am enlightened, I am sensitive, I am progressive, I am rational. I am not one of those white males. What I said was devoid of bigotry, it was not demeaning, it was not belittling, it was not in any way tainted by privilege.

This fits in with both my experiences as a white, able-bodied male and as a systems thinking student. My worldview is shaped by experiences, so it is difficult to understand the worldviews of those from different backgrounds. I’ve often said something that seems innocuous to me but could be construed as upsetting or insulting to others. It’s often impossible to discuss some subjects without upsetting someone, but I do think that it’s important to at least try to understand the arguments of people from different backgrounds.

Being aware that you might be wrong, or might have some gaps in your knowledge, is part of being epistemologically aware. We are part of our environment and we can only see bits of it – there are huge portions of our world that we are unaware of, but which is in closer focus of those around us. We should listen to these people when they air their grievances rather than just discount them as being unreasonable or part of the “political correctness gone mad” brigade.

We might learn something.

T214: TMA06 and the EMA

I had a very welcome email from the Open University last night informing me that my mark for TMA06 had arrived. I’d been worried about this, because I needed a mark over 80% in order to achieve the magical 70% average over the six assignments, enough to give me a chance of a grade 2 pass for this course (the equivalent of a 2.1).

As it turns out I’d managed to get 86%. I am very, very pleased with this! This means that the course materials are finally starting to sink in, and that my chances of an eventual 2.1 degree are not dashed at this early stage. I still have a lot of course concepts to work on – I still struggle with emergent properties of systems, and I find it difficult to break out of my cognitive biases – but I’m starting to use the diagramming techniques better and managed to gain my best mark of the course just when I needed it.

I’ve put a lot of effort into this, although I could be much more organised in my approach. My poor wife has had to put up with me ignoring her for a couple of hours in the evenings while I tap away at my computer, or read through the course materials. I couldn’t do this without her support. I’ve also benefited greatly from some excellent comments by my tutor, who’s provided me with some much-needed guidance when I’ve been heading in the wrong direction, or missing the point of the course concepts. Cheers!

I’m now feeling more confident for the End of Module Assessment (EMA), due in by the 12th October. I still have 5,000 words to write but I think I can get something sensible down on paper in time. I need to exceed 70% on that in order to get the grade 2 pass, so I’ll be aiming high with my analysis.

I’m still looking at potential problems to analyse for this and I’m now considering the recently reported killing of a British man and the kidnapping of his wife in Kenya. This event is a tragedy for their family – and I feel a bit ghoulish for even considering this as a study opportunity – but there are all sorts of environmental, conflict and control issues involved with that story (and the whole Somali pirate thing) that would allow me to generate some interesting ideas and conclusions.

We shall see. In the meantime, I have a systems thinking framework to create. Should be fun!

T214: EMA – choosing a problem

My T214 study is approaching the end. I’ll be submitting the formative TMA07 on Friday, finishing off Block 4 in a few weeks, then engaging with the End of Module Assessment (EMA) in time to submit by the 12th October.

I need to write 5,000 words in the EMA. This seems like a LOT of words to me, but the EMA is split into manageable chunks and I’m fairly sure that I can create enough sensible content to get a decent mark. One part of the EMA requires me to find a problem to analyse, something that’s been in the news this year that I can apply my new, shiny systems practice techniques to.

I have a number of possible candidates for consideration; firstly, and most obviously, there is the biggest news of the year – the recent riots. There are a number of benefits to choosing this as my mess; there’s no end of potential material to use as evidence – from all sorts of perspectives – and it’s already been analysed to death in the media. It should be fairly easy to find relevant data on societal problems that may have contributed to the problem and potential intervention points. It’s also the most obvious subject matter to take forward into the EMA and I suspect many people will choose it.

Alternatively, I could pick something on the UK economy. The chancellor is keen to chop the 50% tax rate in order generate some impetus into the economy, while Warren Buffet has stated that the rich should pay more taxes. Economics is a true mess and the current economic problems in the UK would allow me to discuss all sorts of systems concepts. I also did A-level economics back at High School, so at least I have some background knowledge to draw on, even though I didn’t get a great grade. I’m tempted to go with this one, even though we didn’t cover economics directly in the course materials. I would find it interesting to do and it would give me a chance to look at both the Tory and socialist economic agendas.

I could pick something smaller scale and perhaps look at the “cloudgate” issues that caused a bit of a storm this year (pun intended). This was a mess that links into Climate Change and science reporting, and I could use the story to look at how science, and climate science in particular, is reported in the news. I have firm views on climate change (I’m staunchly in the science camp) and it would be interesting to look at alternative perspectives from a systems thinking point of view. There was a lot of discussion about the whole thing around various science blogs so I shouldn’t have a problem finding reference-able material.

I shall have a ponder. My current favourite is the economics one, but we shall see. It might be better to take on a smaller mess, or perhaps look at other stories in the news to find something different. I am more than willing to consider ideas if anyone has something in mind…

Crime in 20th Century Britain

Block 4 of my T214 course is concerned with examining crime and criminal behaviour from a systemic perspective. This is of particular interest at the moment due to the recent riots, and I’m aware that one of the concepts being raised is the viability and usefulness of prison.

I haven’t started on this yet but I did have a quick search on Google for crime statistics and found this rather interesting article on History Today about Crime in 20th Century Britain. It’s quite a long read but does give some interesting insight into how we’ve succumbed to rising crime figures over the last hundred years.

It’ll be interesting to see where this leads me.

T214: Activity 5.8 – analysing your messy situation

This activity asks me to think about the messy situation I’ve chosen for my assignments (Marconi’s descent into bankruptcy) by thinking about my feelings around that time. The question is:

Are there any aspects of the situation that you feel critical or guilty about, or where you attribute blame to others?

Superficially, I could rant along at length about certain people on the Marconi board who ruined the company (and I would be justified in doing so) but as I’m trying to learn some academic points from this exercise I need to approach it with a clear, unranty mind.

The thinking is this: criticism of others is often grounded in tension within ourselves, something subconscious that we’re not willing to accept. There’s an emotional aspect to being critical of others (rather than just corrective) that demonstrates something within us that we may not be aware of. If we can determine why we’re being critical in any particular situation then we can take a more balanced approach to solving whatever tension is causing us to be critical in the first place.

I’m finding it difficult to find my own failings or faults in this mess. I’m critical of the old Marconi board because they were incompetent idiots that ruined a profitable company. How am I going to discover my own tensions in this situation? Continue reading “T214: Activity 5.8 – analysing your messy situation”

T214: the problem with paradigms

I’m running a little behind with my T214 study but I’m determined to make a few posts about some of the subjects brought up in my readings. I may find these useful when I come to reflect on my learning.

One of the recent readings is concerned with “self-sealing behaviour”. This describes behaviour that reinforces your current beliefs; for example, a bully might persecute someone with low self-esteem, thus reinforcing the poor sod’s dim view of themselves. The reading talks a bit about blame, guilt and criticism, which I found to be quite interesting. Apparently, firms that employ a “blame culture” (whether they mean to or not) tend to have people that won’t accept any responsibility for their actions, and so avoiding any potential blame for failure. This makes it very difficult for companies to learn from their mistakes, as they sometimes won’t admit to having made any. Continue reading “T214: the problem with paradigms”