Take that, Keanu Reeves.
October 1, 2014 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Privilege and oppression explained through math - specifically, matrices and Venn diagrams.
posted by divabat (87 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't believe the author of that article understands matrix mathematics very well. The elements of her matrix are all bouncing off of each other like crazy? I get where defines the column vectors to be racial, gender/sexual, and class, but she loses me when she says the column vectors interact. I wonder what would happen if she took the transpose of her matrix.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2014 [12 favorites]


This is What the Bleep Do We Know!? levels of bad science.
posted by TypographicalError at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2014 [20 favorites]


I don't believe the author of that article understands matrix mathematics very well.

She admits that upfront. It's essentially a kind of metaphoric or analogical use of mathematical concepts. I think it would be a misreading to get too hung up on the details.
posted by yoink at 10:33 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think the word "intersectionality" already gets at most of the "math" here.
posted by leopard at 10:34 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seems to me the real problem is that the analogy doesn't actually help the reader understand the issue at hand. Is ANYONE going to read this and have a better understanding of privilege as a result?
posted by TheShadowKnows at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


This is practically Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.

Step away from the Greek letters; you're going to hurt yourself.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Is ANYONE going to read this and have a better understanding of privilege as a result?

That's a fair criticism. But "omg, the math doesn't actually pencil out!" really isn't.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


the entire planet is a safe space for men, literally
posted by 0 at 10:44 AM on October 1, 2014


the entire planet is a safe space for men, literally

Unless she literally means figuratively, Challenger Deep and Mt. Pinatubo would like to have a word.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's a fair criticism. But "omg, the math doesn't actually pencil out!" really isn't.

At best the sketchy math is a distracting element.
posted by Artw at 10:48 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's a fair criticism. But "omg, the math doesn't actually pencil out!" really isn't.

Your comment was like a matrix with identical rows when you needed it to be invertible--singularly bad.

Was that math analogy helpful in understanding how wrong you are?
posted by TypographicalError at 10:49 AM on October 1, 2014 [13 favorites]


the entire planet is a safe space for men, literally

Yes, it's wonderful how far things have come for black men in America!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:49 AM on October 1, 2014 [18 favorites]


You know, I take my dig back; it was a cheap shot. I know what she means, even if she says it inartfully.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:51 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think it would be a misreading to get too hung up on the details.

I disagree. The author is busting out matrix mathematics and so the onus is on the author to understand matrix mathematics. The author claims her analogy is accurate, she states that "(Robin, Autostraddle Contributing Editor and this week’s Guest Mathematician, assures me that this analogy is accurate.)" Show your work, Robin.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:52 AM on October 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


The Matrix example is mostly just a way of explaining that the variables exist, without explaining how they interact. The Venn diagram makes more sense to me than the matrix as a tool for explaining how privilege affects an individual, but it lacks the multi-dimensionality necessary for a complete model.

I get it that some people still need to have their privilege explained to them in simple terms (you're white and male and straight; see how those add up?). I was hoping for a little more, you know, math in an article that claims to be about math.

I also have a really hard time reconciling this premise:
Nobody can actively rid themselves of their privilege, even if they work against the systems that grant it to them.
and this closing call to action:
Now that you know what privilege and oppression really are and how they operate, my deepest hope is that you’ll smash them.
Overall, I hope this is a helpful article to those who need it.
posted by Revvy at 10:53 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


I would like to take this opportunity to discuss racial and gender relations in modern Norway through the use of geology.

First, let us understand that gender identity is exactly like gneiss, while racial identity has all of the characteristics of a feldspar. Once you realize this, it becomes trivial to recognize that modern power relationships in a semi-open social system are like olivine, from which it is then an obvious leap to basalt.

Seeing the basaltic nature of political systems, the gneiss intrusions in the broader igneous matrix become recognizable through their intergranular boundries.
posted by aramaic at 10:53 AM on October 1, 2014 [33 favorites]


So where do the fjords come in?
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:56 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


The author is busting out matrix mathematics and so the onus is on the author to understand matrix mathematics. The author claims her analogy is accurate, she states that "(Robin, Autostraddle Contributing Editor and this week’s Guest Mathematician, assures me that this analogy is accurate.)" Show your work, Robin.

But that very comment is saying 1) "I don't actually know anything about matrices" and 2) "I'm only using it as an analogy--not claiming genuine computational accuracy." I think it's a pretty weak and poorly written piece, so I'm not going to go to the wall defending it, but it really, really isn't one of those "I can explain all this using quantum mechanics" type pieces. Complaining about the sketchy maths is like complaining that someone wrote "prices skyrocketed" when, in fact, a graph of the progression of the prices is not strictly comparable to the acceleration profile of a typical skyrocket and OMG, why didn't this author get a degree in ballistics before embarrassing themselves in this way!
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Just out of curiosity: out of the 18 (now 19) comments in this thread so far, have any been made by women?
posted by Greg Nog at 11:01 AM on October 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


One of the terrible things about this article is here:

Column one can be my racial identities: I’m light-skinned, Latina, and Italian.

Column two can be my gender and sexual identities: I’m cisgender, a woman, and I’m a huge lesbian.

Column three can be class-related stuff, education and citizenship status: I’m college educated, I’m an American citizen, and I’m gainfully employed.


The whole point of kyriarchy is that people have multiple axises of priviledge, and that these axises don't boil down to a series of yes no qualifiers. By codifying them down to a few discrete variables, especially "class-related stuff", she is doing no favors. And I think everyone could have a few choice axises that were forgotten.

Add some additional prescriptivist language bullshit:

Only a dominant group can oppress, and an oppressed group can never exert the same kind of oppression back because they, by nature of the concepts, don’t have the power or privilege to do so. This is an undeniable fact.

Sure, if the terms are accepted at the top yes. Most people you are trying to convince don't accept those terms. Metafilter has had no small amount of arguments over things like this.
posted by zabuni at 11:01 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


So where do the fjords come in?

Norway.

The fnords are something else again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:04 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Just out of curiosity: out of the 18 (now 19) comments in this thread so far, have any been made by women?

How I self identify is none of your business.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Just once i'd like to see an article that knows what a venn diagram is.
posted by empath at 11:10 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


The irony is that Be Excellent To Each Other is a simple maxim that helps to smash the oppression (potentially) demonstrated in the matrix. Take that Keanu Reeves, indeed!
posted by chapps at 11:10 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Add some additional prescriptivist language bullshit:

Yeah, the whole "only dominants groups can oppress" is nonsense found all over discourses about power. The same people will talk about how oppression works on an individual level, and ignore that power is often intensely personal and not always linked to power or privilege in wider society. They are, however and of course, much different in scale, but it works both ways.
posted by Thing at 11:12 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Seems to me the real problem is that the analogy doesn't actually help the reader understand the issue at hand. Is ANYONE going to read this and have a better understanding of privilege as a result?

Hello, yes, me, right here. I found it very helpful. The way she articulated and diagrammed the concepts really firmed up my previously vague and disorganized impressions of how privilege etc. works that I'd gradually picked up over the years via MetaFilter, Tumblr, etc.

Then again, I have a degree in Economics so I'm already inclined towards using graphs and equations to explain human behavior. So this may not work as well for everyone. However, I think the type of person this DOES work well for is also probably the type of person who would be otherwise disinclined to believe that systemic oppression exists (it's not rational, so the free market should eliminate it, right???) and thus her analogy could be a very useful tool for getting through to an otherwise hard-to-persuade group of people.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Complaining about the sketchy maths is like complaining that someone wrote "prices skyrocketed"

The only point of the math here is to convey a sense of profound, complex truth. The aim is to inspire thought.

Inspiration is important, but even more important is, you know, actual thought. Math isn't magic, it's a system of thought that takes work to develop. But you know, work is hard, while "gee whiz isn't that cool" is easy, so we end up with this crap.
posted by leopard at 11:16 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Just out of curiosity: out of the 18 (now 19) comments in this thread so far, have any been made by women?

I am a woman, a feminist, I have a math degree, and as soon as I got to the matrix analogy I stopped reading. Elements in matrices don't just bounce off each other like crazy, you actually have to do something with/to them.

A better way to illustrate this would have been taking 3x1 (gender/sexual?) and 1x3 (racial?) matrices and multiplying them to get a 3x3 matrix. Then multiplying that by another 1x3 (socioeconomic?) matrix for the final values. But then you would have to actually explain how to multiply matrices for the analogy to work.
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:19 AM on October 1, 2014 [36 favorites]


Just out of curiosity: out of the 18 (now 19) comments in this thread so far, have any been made by women?

Sorry for taking a whole 68 minutes to a) notice the new FPP, b) actually RTFA, and c) compose my comment, but now I'm here with my womanly opinions -- happy?

plz be making room in teh penis party nao kthx
posted by Jacqueline at 11:21 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Mathematics works by making precise, mathematical analogies. Reading a non-mathematical analogy to a matrix is just nails on a chalkboard to me.
posted by topynate at 11:23 AM on October 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


The "we need not discuss privilege if the metaphor is inexact" is a new one to me. Usually it's just "we need not discuss it because the author is being unpleasant" or "we need not discuss it because the author didn't get every fact exactly right."
posted by maxsparber at 11:27 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Actually my above is too strong. You can have an imprecise analogy if it's well-motivated, i.e. there's a deeper underlying mathematical truth. The classic example would be the rubber-sheet analogy for gravitation, an analogy which works because it exposes a deep concept - that we can expand the concept of curvature to work with relativity.

The metaphors in the article are the other sort of motivated.
posted by topynate at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


In college I developed a strong, visceral distaste for linear algebra even though I found the theoretical framework -- with its subspaces, basis vectors, orthogonalization, multidimensional polytopes, and so forth -- to be quite beautiful.

But it wasn't until about a year ago that I realized (due to MetaFilter, really) that visual representations of matrices were triggering my severe trypophobia.
posted by jamjam at 11:33 AM on October 1, 2014


Well, we either start from the presumption that it is a worthwhile subject, and that this particular metaphor didn't really do it justice, and then we can discuss what sort of mathematical metaphors might do better, or we start from the presumption that the subject is much less important than grading the maths and finding it failing, in which case all we do is shit in this thread.

I'd love to see this thread go one way rather than the way it started.
posted by maxsparber at 11:33 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Anyhow, while the actual math part of her analogy could be done better (e.g. like LizBoBiz suggests), I do think the author is onto something with this rhetorical approach. As soon as she mentioned matrices as way to model of relative levels of privilege and oppression I got what she was driving at even if the way she laid out the details was mathematically incorrect.

It would be great if someone more mathematically competent could take her analogy and improve upon it, because I think this method of explaining intersectionality could be very helpful in educating certain types of people who would otherwise be disinclined to believe that privilege and systemic oppression are significant factors in society or even exist. (And please leave the stupid Keanu Reeves joke out of version 2.0.)
posted by Jacqueline at 11:36 AM on October 1, 2014


It's pretty hard to have a discussion about privilege when it's framed as "understanding privilege via math" and the math doesn't make sense. Imagine someone claiming they will help you understand math via privilege, but then it turns out the analogy doesn't really have anything to do with privilege. We wouldn't be having a successful discussion about math, either.

The framing of this post is about the metaphor, not the topic, so we're talking about the metaphor.
posted by phooky at 11:36 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


jamjam: huh! I have trypophobia but matrices don't trigger me as much. Wonder why.
posted by divabat at 11:37 AM on October 1, 2014


... and then we can discuss what sort of mathematical metaphors might do better ... I'd love to see this thread go one way rather than the way it started.

Yes, please, this.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:38 AM on October 1, 2014


Mathematics works by making precise, mathematical analogies.

Well, no, it doesn't. "Analogies" aren't really part of the mathematical armamentarium. Analogies, by their very nature, are imprecise. To say "a is like b" is also to say "a is unlike b." Analogies ask us to consider the relevant likenesses and to discard the irrelevant unlikenesses. That is their nature. They demand charitable reading, because it's impossible, by definition, to propose a "precise" analogy. ALL analogies allow for the possibility of uncharitable misreading--otherwise they're not analogies, they're equivalencies (something that is part of the mathematical armamentarium). If I say that a collision between a quarterback and a linebacker is "like a Honda Civic being hit by a Mack Truck" that's a perfectly fine analogy, but obviously does not imply that there will be shattered glass strewn all over the scene, dead bodies, twisted metal and some possibility of a conflagration. To insist ("because I'm an accident investigator and I deal with car/truck collisions every DAY!") upon that level of "equivalence" or "precision" in the analogy would simply be poor reading.

I can understand that if you deal with matrices day in and day out you might find this example an analogy that's hard to work with. Similar things happen to most people with specialized knowledge. That's why we always find gun nerds sighing about inaccurate gun-based analogies and astronomy-nerds sighing about inaccurate astronomical analogies and so forth. But we also recognize that those people are generally misreading the analogy. They're insisting upon a level of precision (of equivalence rather than of relevant similitude) which makes them, in fact, bad—that is, uncharitable—readers.
posted by yoink at 11:39 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


From the AS comments:
I feel like a lot of the criticisms are getting hung up on the “bouncing off each other” phrasing, which to me is a cop-out critique?

In either case, I think the analogy works pretty well if we were to think of taking the determinant of the matrix, which would require all the elements of the matrix to interact with each other in diminishing and magnifying ways, to resolve into one unique external value, X. ys? Sunshine and accord?
posted by divabat at 11:40 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


happy?

never
posted by Greg Nog at 11:46 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well functors, for example, are very close to being formal analogies between mathematical structures, and at the same time are clearly not equivalences. They expose the details of how the two objects correspond in their nature, while excluding the parts that don't. While I never got especially deeply into category theory, it was plain to me that many informal mathematical arguments could be formalised in this way, and that when I read 'it can be seen that', 'we leave it as an exercise to show' etc. there was often a clear analogy that with some work could be turned into a formal categorical correspondence.
posted by topynate at 11:50 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Wow, it would be neat if you could get a determinant to give an interesting measure of privilege, but I don't see it. First off it means we'd need to start with a square (nxn) matrix, which imposes an unnatural constraint on the number of entries (must be n^2, like 9 in the article.)

I prefer the picture where privilege (and its lack) exist on multiple axes (race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, orientation, economic class, etc.), so your privilege is modeled by a vector: each component, say, is between zero and 2, non-inclusive. Your overall privilege would be some kind of weighted sum or product of the entries.

A product is tempting: that way low scores, like uneducated and poor, would compound (.2 x .3 = .06) However, if the measure could be a norm that would be really nice. Then relative privilege between individuals would make sense.

I'm stopping here though, because as tempting as it is, I think any sort of mathematical picture of humans will become dangerously stupid as soon as it seems like it is working nicely! It might be safer to stick with the original bad analogies that just convey a feeling of "complicated interaction."
posted by TreeRooster at 11:58 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


There's quite a long tradition of trading on the prestige and reputation of iron-clad precision of mathematics to bolster some non-math related thesis or another. The math invoked doesn't need to be precise or even relevant, as long as some math expressions are thrown in. It's like a magician saying "abracadabra" - it's an evocation, and nobody is meant to actually dive into the meaning of the word - the meat is elsewhere.

Now, this is merely a blog post somewhere and nobody is going to be treating it as "Science!", so not many people will get exercised about the smoke and mirrors aspect, but here's the reality: the exact same tactics are used by academics publishing in journals and without the caveat the author here is honest enough to provide (in effect: "I know nothing about math"). At least the author here is not trying to deceive. What of those countless BS articles by academics purporting to show us how "mathematics proves" this or that nonsense in a field completely unrelated. It's a whole cottage industry, a ripe target for a whole new Sokal takedown.

And that's the difference. The author here, is honest and upfront. You might or might not find the math evocations helpful to your understanding the issue discussed, but she's making no effort to deceive you into thinking that "math proves" a BS thesis as so many dishonest and incompetent academics do.
posted by VikingSword at 11:58 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Mathematics works by making precise, mathematical analogies.

Well, no, it doesn't. "Analogies" aren't really part of the mathematical armamentarium.
"A mathematician is a person who can find analogies between theorems; a better mathematician is one who can see analogies between proofs and the best mathematician can notice analogies between theories. One can imagine that the ultimate mathematician is one who can see analogies between analogies."

--Stefan Banach
posted by jamjam at 12:01 PM on October 1, 2014 [9 favorites]


I think this is a really interesting way of thinking about and representing intersectionality and the structural complexity of social power.

As a student of social science, however, I think it's necessary to point out that any refinement of the model should ideally be empirically based -- that is, you couldn't make this better just by knowing more about math. You would have to have actual data about comparative power dynamics.

That matters for several reasons. First, it is always better to be accurate than arbitrary when you're trying to inform people about things like social reality. Second, I think one would want to avoid assigning arbitrary values to various demographic/personal characteristics: what if (hypothetically speaking) wealth has an observably bigger effect on "total privilege" than, say, sexual orientation? The corollary of this consideration is that without quantification, all characteristics have equal effects not only between groups (i.e., wealth and skin color) but also within them (e.g., we shouldn't assume that medium-skin-tone people are distanced from privilege by 1 nominal degree while dark-skinned people are de-privileged by 2). Perhaps most importantly, though, intersectional analysis implies that there is the possibility of non-linear interaction effects with things like race, class and gender, and I'm not sure how feasible it would be to communicate something like that through this model.

Again, though, I think this is basically a good idea. It's always good to find innovative ways to communicate important but complex and subtle ideas.
posted by clockzero at 12:07 PM on October 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


Matrices can be part of an appealing analogy to "explain" privilege, but it's too easy to gum up the works, or worse, to start reifying the matrices themselves (and their underlying concepts).
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2014


I think this essay mostly fails because it attempts to explain one topic that very few people understand by analogy with another topic that very few people understand.

"Allow me to explain general relativity by analogy to the US corporate tax code."
posted by empath at 12:33 PM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


"Analogies" aren't really part of the mathematical armamentarium. To say "a is like b" is also to say "a is unlike b."

As jamjam's quote above suggests, analogies are so fundamental to mathematics that this is basically 100% wrong. Adding two vectors is "like" adding two numbers. Five-dimensional space is "like" three-dimensional space and is also "like" infinite-dimensional space. Addition in general is "like" manipulating a Rubik's cube which is "like" re-arranging a collection of items.

Mathematics is all about recognizing that certain mathematical objects appear in all sorts of contexts.
posted by leopard at 12:41 PM on October 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


The determinant is probably better. The matrix thing just seems really off because they're talking almost as if a matrix is by itself a mathematical equation. And then follow up by saying they're solving for X, when the only x there is used as a subscript, which I think was supposed to mark a specific element of a.

If we were able to reduce a person's traits to a coordinate, I think that'd be much more apt. As you add more dimensions to a coordinate system, the average distance of points in the coordinate space from the origin increases (although we'd need to take the distance to some power or somehow else treat the axes differently, because prejudice has a lot greater effect than would be apparent from a simple coordinate set.)

A mathematical analogy is different from the everyday use of analogy. It's probably better to say you start with a list of conditions. If an element/person/situation satisfies certain conditions, than you can expect some result (which may be quantified by a probability).

I also disagree with the end remark about how it only goes one way, and that reverse racism is a myth. That's pretty damn polarizing; why not just say that the any effects are trivial and a very often a red herring compared to the fairly systematic damage that oppressed groups face within a specific culture? It's very obvious to see unwarranted bias in almost every direction in kids, and I don't think anyone here believes that every person gained social maturity and awareness when they became adults.

I sound silly when I talk.
posted by halifix at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is an undeniable fact.

I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.
posted by corb at 12:50 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


As jamjam's quote above suggests, analogies are so fundamental to mathematics that this is basically 100% wrong. Adding two vectors is "like" adding two numbers. Five-dimensional space is "like" three-dimensional space and is also "like" infinite-dimensional space. Addition in general is "like" manipulating a Rubik's cube which is "like" re-arranging a collection of items.

I think the difference, however, is that in mathematics when you see a "likeness" of this sort, the obvious next step is to try to account for it with some conceptually higher theoretical account--that is, we discover some mathematical theory whereby the two "like" things can be explained as different expressions of one, coherent underlying reality. If the "likeness" cannot be precisely defined and calculated, in other words, it becomes simply a curiosity (and an eternal provocation to ultimate resolution).

That's not the way rhetorical analogies work, and to attempt to force them to do so is, as I said, bad reading.
posted by yoink at 12:50 PM on October 1, 2014


I can understand that if you deal with matrices day in and day out you might find this example an analogy that's hard to work with.

This isn't "Oh, they forgot to turn the safety off" pedantry. It's more like "Oh, they're using that gun as a serving tray." The analogy misunderstands matrices at the most fundamental level. There is no meaning whatsoever that could be garnered from their usage here.
posted by TypographicalError at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


topynate: "Mathematics works by making precise, mathematical analogies."

yoink: "Well, no, it doesn't. 'Analogies' aren't really part of the mathematical armamentarium."

leopard: "analogies are so fundamental to mathematics that this is basically 100% wrong"

yoink: "That's not the way rhetorical analogies work, and to attempt to force them to do so is, as I said, bad reading."

That's not actually what you said in the context of this back-and-forth.

At any rate, the only reason to mention matrices here is for the "ooh math! shiny!" effect.
posted by leopard at 12:58 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am not a mathematician (IANAM) but wonder if "increasing exponentially" is more accurate -- or easier to use for this -- than a matrix.

As in, "as you add social barriers to a persons' experience, the discrimination they face increases exponentially"

Mathematically this is probably wrong, but for me it might sum up the experience more accurately.

Perhaps more valuable, though, is finding the formula to decrease the rapid increase of discrimination.

Social policy that looks at multiple factors together?

Would, as some argue, economic justice alone do the trick for all these factors?

Is there one factor that has bigger impact, depending on your location, so that energy could be focused most productively in one way? (i.e. is race a big factor in some places, where in others gender takes predominance?)
posted by chapps at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2014


Another comment:
Yo, I’m two.some years into a physics Ph.D. and I actually think the math in this is pretty legit – you just have to limit it to Hermitian matrices (which describe physical systems, energies, time evolutions, etc) and think of it from a perturbation theory point of view. In that framework, you would absolutely need the column vectors that ‘bouncing off of each other’ – i.e., the off-diagonal terms of the matrix – to have a decent understanding of the system. Off-diagonal terms describe interactions – for example, between race and gender in this framework, or between two different electron energy levels, for a more physical example – and they’re totally necessary to accurately describe the system. If you want to better, more accurately understand the system, you bring in EVEN MORE interactions between more and more terms AT ONCE. And basically you tune your understanding from that.

Which is a too long-winded, too technical way of saying that I think that the mefi commenter quoted should take more physics courses, because column vectors interacting (inner products!) is actually super super important. And also I’m a huge nerd that really would love to see more science-analogies for queer theory on Autostraddle because this article hit all of my loves.
posted by divabat at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's not actually what you said in the context of this back-and-forth.

There appears to be some sort of malfunction with the way Metafilter is displaying on your computer, because I wrote a lot more in "the context of this back-and-forth" than you quote in your comment. Including the bits about how trying to force "precision" onto analogies is bad or uncharitable reading that you seem to have missed.

I assume what you're looking for is some sort of "oh mea culpa, analogies are fundamental to mathematics!!" moment. But A) I think there really is a big difference between what they mean in the context of mathematics and what they mean in the context of normal rhetorical practice and B) to the extent that they don't, that just means the mathematicians in this thread have one less excuse for insisting that this particular analogy has to be capable of resolved into actual equivalence.
posted by yoink at 1:07 PM on October 1, 2014


Another comment:

Please stop cross-posting other people's comments on other sites. You've already linked this thread there and that thread here and we can all read.
posted by 0 at 1:14 PM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


I mostly shared that because it specifically addressed the Mefi commentor.
posted by divabat at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


The only kind of mathematics that isn't first and foremost about implicit analogies and how they relate to each other is accounting, which ultimately resolves its metaphors into real world dollars and cents.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:41 PM on October 1, 2014


Meant to say: Probably the only kind... Not confident there aren't other branches of math as literal.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:42 PM on October 1, 2014


I would like to make a mathematical argument on behalf of oppression.

Oppression occurs when one group of people exercise power over another, in the same way that the number 5,142 dominates the number 15.

But how can that be fair, you ask? Aren't all people equal?

Nonsense. Inequality is a fundamental mathematical law. You can always compare two numbers and very few of them are equal. And for any number you can think of, there is always a bigger one. Quite frankly, life (and math) would be pretty uninteresting of there was only one number, so this unequal state of affairs is for the best.

But what about infinity, you ask? Surely once some has amassed a certain amount of power, they don't need any more?

Look up Georg Cantor my friend. There is a never-ending hierarchy of infinities. Even if you have an infinite amount of power, it's possible for someone to accumulate infinitely more than what you have.

Man's thirst for power is not a moral falling, it's a direct consequence of fundamental mathematics.

I hope all the second-year PhD students reading are as inspired by this as I am.
posted by leopard at 1:48 PM on October 1, 2014


leopard: the math only works that way if you ignore subjectivity. Unlike most countable things, humans are bigger on the inside than on the outside, so you can't compare them only quantitatively on the basis of their objective features without missing major parts of the real problem.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2014


No no no, in math you can take an incredibly complex object like a million-dimensional vector and reduce it to a single value on the well-ordered real number line. This mapping has all sorts of sound mathematical properties, thereby providing a fundamental justification for capitalism and the replacement of all complex measures of worth with a single, tractable monetary metric. It's so inspiring!
posted by leopard at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


maxsparber: The "we need not discuss privilege if the metaphor is inexact" is a new one to me.
Has an argument about privilege ever been discussed here without being attacked for its failure in some way to precisely, completely, and perfectly communicate to every human on Earth?

Seriously, folks: advanced degree, graduate courses in math, do complex math in my head for fun, and yet, sometimes a cigar is a penis, and a matrix is a decent analogy for the way we sequester our social lives in groups that limit us, and force preferred interactions in some directions but not others.

Here, let me draw it out on this napkin. Where the sum over X is all white people, Y' is disenfranchised laborers, and gamma represents...
posted by IAmBroom at 2:28 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was hoping for so much more from this - it's an interesting idea at it's core.

Unfortunately, aside from the questionable math, I have two major issues, one from the intro and one from the conclusion:

1. Privilege is a set of unearned benefits, rights, and access granted to people based on their membership in certain groups ... Privilege can include benefits all people ideally should have access to, like basic human rights.

Basic human rights are not a privilege. They are a right, as the name implies.

When I can talk my way out of a traffic ticket because I know some cops? This is a privilege.

That I can walk on the street at night without being shot? That is a basic right, and the fact that it is denied many people does not make it a "privilege" for me.

2. Now that you know what privilege and oppression really are and how they operate, my deepest hope is that you’ll smash them.

I see sentiments like this all the time, and I have no idea what they mean. How exactly do I smash my privilege? Undergo a sex-change operation, or take pills to darken my skin? Constantly remind everyone that I am smashing my privilege, or worse, constantly reminding everyone around me about theirs?
posted by kanewai at 2:50 PM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Basic human rights are not a privilege. They are a right, as the name implies.

I see where you're coming from, but that vector is orthogonal to the trajectory of gender studies. The crux of the issue, for gender studies, is this: Where do rights originate from?

The problem with "basic human rights" as originating in a common humanity is that this is a form of naturalism on one hand. That is, who decides? what counts? what's a violation of human rights? and similar questions are discursively moved out of the spheres of human politics--where they're actually being decided, e.g. when one UN commission declared that access to the internet was a basic human right--to a transcendental level where they are beyond question.

Second, this is not really true in any lived sense. The US legal system, for instance, reserves basic rights to the category of citizens, not, as the literal word in the Constitution, "persons." (Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects is one reference here, but among many.) "Rights" are actually dependent upon a suite of historical, institutional, economic, political, and social arrangements that make them contingent historically and geographically.

Perhaps a better analogy for understanding "rights" as part of privilege is to think of the institution of slavery. If you'll pardon the reductionism for a moment, it was not the right but the privilege for white people to marry who they chose, to go to church, to walk down a road, to drink from public waterways and so forth because that was beyond what was extended socially, legally, institutionally etc to the least-empowered set of people within the country. It seems not to get us very far to think of slaves simply as human-rights victims, because doing so naturalizes *our own* conceptions of the basic and projects it onto that experience.

Remember, slavery lasted hundreds of years. It's the legacy, in part, of such a history that privilege comes to include what now becomes narrated as "basic human rights." In this way, "privilege" becomes a sort of allusive chart for all those everyday things that don't contain strong institutional, social, political (etc) obstacles for an individual, a group, or a class.
posted by migrantology at 3:25 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


In some ways this entire post and discussion seems emblematic of the problems with expressing and explaining biases, privilege, and how those and other factors overlap in real life. The people most sympathetic to understanding the how privilege works in society are arguing over if the math is correct, and meanwhile it seems unlikely that outsiders who might actually be worth "converting" will bother to wade into the discussion or get anything out of this debate.
posted by cell divide at 4:07 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


How exactly do I smash my privilege?

I'm pretty sure this just means don't be a blind jerk in social and professional settings. If you see gender norms being reinforced by making a woman who is your peer take notes or get coffee, speak up. (Or terrible jokes, or porn as backgrounds, whatever.) Hiring for a job? Consider a diverse slate of candidates. Make sure that if you're hosting an event or a conference that you try to have a broad slate of speakers and that you're attracting a broad audience. Have codes of conduct for your events to make them more welcoming to women. Is the hierarchy of your organization mostly white and male? Think about why women and people of color never make it past job X (or why they don't apply at all.) Is there parental leave at your job? Does anyone make jokes about stay at home dads? Speak up.

You're not smashing "your" privilege. It's designed to break down the barriers that prop up privilege in all of its forms. (At least, that's how I read it.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:14 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this just means don't be a blind jerk in social and professional settings.

I think there can be a very wide range of appropriate responses to the existence of privilege. On one end, you can just be "aware" of your privilege, which basically amounts to don't be an asshole to the less fortunate. On the other end, you can work to demolish the existing social structure which is founded on a basic injustice.

I'm confused by this idea that these two responses are just slightly different flavors of chocolate though.
posted by leopard at 4:33 PM on October 1, 2014


you're white and male and straight; see how those add up?

After doing some vector field calculus and a bit of Riemannian geometry, the answer I get is: White, male, straight, and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.
posted by sfenders at 4:34 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm confused by this idea that these two responses are just slightly different flavors of chocolate though.

I'm sorry, I have no idea what this means.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:36 PM on October 1, 2014


One response involves not being a dickhead and donating some money to charity, the other involves joining a revolutionary movement to overturn society as we know it. Why are you pretty sure the author just means the first thing? Words like "oppression" are strong words -- do we really overcome systemic oppression by being polite to our coworkers?
posted by leopard at 4:39 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


the other involves joining a revolutionary movement to overturn society as we know it

I mean, the unofficial motto for my college might as well have been Death to the Patriarchy, and what I said before was pretty much the game plan even there, so if you have any examples of what this revolutionary movement is and how exactly society is being overturned that might be helpful. My original comment was a suggestion to reframe it from "tak[ing] pills to darken my skin" to less personal and more useful methods.

No, it's just not being polite. I'm all for targeting laws and creating new ones that better protect minority rights. But speaking up might have prevented, oh, the Jeopardy disaster of What is a tired stereotype? from yesterday-- someone's office discussed that, wrote it up, and put it in a script. If you mean paternal leave is overturning society or that making sure you hire a diverse workforce is a revolution, maybe we have a different definition of revolution?
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:55 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was hoping for so much more from this - it's an interesting idea at it's core.

Unfortunately, aside from the questionable math, I have two major issues, one from the intro and one from the conclusion:

1. Privilege is a set of unearned benefits, rights, and access granted to people based on their membership in certain groups ... Privilege can include benefits all people ideally should have access to, like basic human rights.

Basic human rights are not a privilege. They are a right, as the name implies.


I could be wrong, but I think perhaps the idea here is that since basic human rights are routinely denied to some while accorded to others, the recognition of those rights can be regarded as privilege. Of course, in an abstract sense, the characterization as a right implies that it should be accorded to everyone, but in practice we all know that this is not how the world works.
posted by clockzero at 5:14 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this just means don't be a blind jerk in social and professional settings. (etc.)

I agree with everything you wrote, but also wonder if this makes the discussion of addressing privilege just a more complicated way of saying "do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

I think that it's an important concept in the fight against racism, sexism, et al. It's just that I haven't seen it applied yet in any way that really helps the fight.
posted by kanewai at 5:19 PM on October 1, 2014


Talking about what constitutes smashing privilege makes me think of Harvey Milk, one of my heroes of social justice work. I love The Times of Harvey Milk documentary partly because it is full of little examples of solidarity across different types oppression as well as examples of the practical work involved in making change.

In one example, a friend of Milk's, who is Chinese, describes the work Milk did to make voting asier for voters whose English was not strong. In another, a union activist describes how he (a homophobe by his own description) joins Milk's election campaign after learning how Milk successfully got Coor's out of all San Francisco gay bars, in support of a union boycott. Finally, there is a great scene of two campaigners talking to people on the street about a referendum question that would make it possible to fire gay teachers... The ground work on the campaign is literally door knocking in a town that looks ready to vote in favour, and the turn it around, person by person, by just talking to people who disagree and politely convincing them.

To me, Milk is a fantastic example of what solidarity looks like, and what working with difference looks like. Empathy, listening, and political analysis...and then using your power to undo oppression whenever you can. I think it is also just getting into the work without worrying so much about how you fit in the matrix of oppression and privilege...

I guess I think your privilege matters less than your solidarity, and analysing exactly how your privilege stacks up is useful only until it becomes a distraction from getting stuff done.

And I think Milk is also an example of someone who had it in him to actually include people who were uncomfortable with him, or even had not supported gay rights before, like that union activist. And that takes someone really amazing.
posted by chapps at 5:25 PM on October 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


(But don't watch it without a big box of Kleenex)
posted by chapps at 5:26 PM on October 1, 2014


I mean, the unofficial motto for my college might as well have been Death to the Patriarchy, and what I said before was pretty much the game plan even there, so if you have any examples of what this revolutionary movement is and how exactly society is being overturned that might be helpful.

Right, it's almost as if college students are pretty privileged people who don't actually want there to be massive social upheaval.

Look, all I'm saying is that there's a certain moral urgency to words like "oppression" and "dehumanization" that seems to call for more than not using a porn scene as your desktop background at work.
posted by leopard at 6:06 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Right, it's almost as if college students are pretty privileged people who don't actually want there to be massive social upheaval.

That was...not at all the point. Nor is it really true in this case. I don't know if we are even arguing against each other: I'm not saying to stop at calling out passive sexual harassment in the office. I'm just saying that's a better start than hypotheticals about getting a sex change. What more would you suggest?
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:34 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


The cross-posting commenting is a little squicky. If a Mefite wants to comment over there, that should be up to up to him/her. And if the commenters from the blog want to address someone here specifically, they can come here and do it.

The Hermitian matrices would actually probably make more sense, seeing as how they often incorporate imaginary numbers and, "Privilege, now with extra MATH!" rhetoric is already irrational (see what I did there? It's wordplay now with extra MATH!).

The "we need not discuss privilege if the metaphor is inexact" is a new one to me. Usually it's just "we need not discuss it because the author is being unpleasant" or "we need not discuss it because the author didn't get every fact exactly right."

Metafilter isn't really about posting things you think people should read. It's for posting cool stuff from the Internet, which people then comment about. Sometimes the comments are going to be critical, but the OP doesn't get to control the way the thread goes, and neither does anyone else. That's Metafilter 101.
posted by misha at 12:01 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


I assume what you're looking for is some sort of "oh mea culpa, analogies are fundamental to mathematics!!" moment. But A) I think there really is a big difference between what they mean in the context of mathematics and what they mean in the context of normal rhetorical practice and B) to the extent that they don't, that just means the mathematicians in this thread have one less excuse for insisting that this particular analogy has to be capable of resolved into actual equivalence.

Maybe a mathematical analogy is different to a rhetorical analogy, but at least, I think that they're analogous.

Hey, did I just make an analogy between analogies?

One can imagine that the ultimate mathematician is one who can see analogies between analogies.

I AM THE ULTIMATE MATHEMATICIAN, WOOOOOO!!!!1
posted by Ned G at 2:21 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


A matrix is at once a very generic object and at the same time a very formally constrained one. I see what the article is getting at-- that the many components of a person's identity may interact in a complicated way with the current context to determine the direction of privilege. So in one context a white woman might have privilege over a black man and in a different context the opposite might be true. But by saying that this interaction can be represented specifically as a matrix (instead of the more generic function), the analogy implies many properties that I'm not sure the author intended. In particular, the fundamental nature of matrices is to represent linear transformations-- are we really meant to infer that there is some linear aspect to privilege?
posted by Pyry at 2:47 AM on October 2, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Hermitian matrix is a red herring. Analogies do not have to be exact. For example, Schrödinger's Rapist is a perfectly good analogy, even though it is not about quantum superposition, but rather "mere" uncertainty. No, the ultimate problem is that the analogy gets soggy pretty quickly. Matrices, Hermitian and otherwise, have too many moving parts to be helpfully illustrative in this case. Too quickly, the analogy begins to require lengthy explanations for itself. Worse, those explanations can veer into reification, or other forms of putting the cart before the horse - we can't really bring in perturbation theory without 1) burying some major assumptions under technical-sounding jargon, e.g. that there really is a "unique value X" with actual meaning; 2) selectively, and without warning, conflating technical terms with analogous or colloquial uses for those terms, e.g. roping in perturbation theory, while eliding the ways in which you're really just bringing in some concepts from it without literally applying it; and 3) letting the analogy take over by assuming elements which would be there if and only if this wasn't an analogy, e.g. assuming that there actually is an exactly solvable problem, since after all we require one for our use of perturbation theory.

It's a long walk for a short day at the beach.

Why not just say, "there a characteristics shared by groups which influence both how others treat you and how you perceive the world. Oftentimes, there are power imbalances among these characteristics. For example, on average, a white man who is seen as handsome and whose speaking style is seen as educated and whose manner is confident will often be listened to and looked up to as a leader. This treatment becomes self-reinforcing, and also has other effects: the man may become more confident as a result of the confidence others place in him, and he may have access to important opportunities as a result of his confidence and pleasant treatment. From his perspective, the system works. Contrast with how a stammering black woman whose speaking style is not seen as educated will be treated, and think about how she is going to perceive the world as a result.

These are group characteristics and group effects - individuals have their own stories as well.

Let's look at some real-world examples and statistics to illustrate my point..."
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:11 AM on October 2, 2014 [5 favorites]


This is the only time in my life I wished I remembered math beyond basic level algebra so I can understand everything people in this thread are talking about.
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:18 AM on October 2, 2014


This reminds me of the time when I thought about how, with regard to Dungeons and Dragons, 2E was like a common law system, whereas 3E and beyond were more like civil law systems. I then realized that nobody would care, and also that I could only make this comparison by butchering all the entailed concepts.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:27 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


So having your human rights respected is a privilege and so we need to smash privilege. Because if everybody's oppressed then that's social justice?
posted by I-baLL at 8:22 PM on October 2, 2014


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