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Over time, leaders lose mental capacities (theatlantic.com)
175 points by prostoalex 91 days ago | hide | past | web | 114 comments | favorite

The research does not support this article (surprise).

- The researchers primed subjects on "power" by having the subject write an essay about a high, neutral, or low power situation. It's not clear that the intervention maps to what the article calls power.

- The researchers did not find statistically significant differences between the low power group and the neutral group. They also did not find significant differences between the neutral group and the high power group. If the neutral group varied this much, are we tracking meaningful differences?

- Is reduced mirroring "damage"? Is reduced mirroring necessarily undesirable? We have no idea.


For good or ill, this article isn't based on single paper but a range of papers from a group of authors.

It's still legitimate to critique the approach but I don't think you can simply pick apart a single paper to do that.

The article seems biased: it pathologizes power. However our ability to adapt to social role is probably an important asset. Most likely the changes they measured are good for the group's survival. A leader should not be seeking approval as much as a commoner. Maybe the problem is that we've violated some unstated "design assumptions" of our tribes. As for this CEO who got hauled before Congress - a blank affect sounds like the right approach. It's just a ritual for politicians to show off for the cameras, but expressing contempt (as Shkreli did) is dangerous.

I'm not sure what relation pathologizing power has with bias? I'm also not sure that losing your empathizing ability when in power is any more adaptive than any physical sort of atrophy is adaptive when bedridden. When you're powerful you don't have to exercise the empathizing muscle and so (many) leaders don't. But they should in the same way that I should go and exercise my physical muscles even though I don't have to.

Muscular atrophy is definitely adaptive as an anti-starvation tool. Don't need that particular muscle? Lose the muscle and become more calorie-efficient. And you get some free caloric energy out of consuming the muscle at the same time.

Muscular atrophy certainly is the result of adaption over time. Pissing your pants when you get scared enough is also a product of adaptation. But neither is particularly convenient for a modern human today, which is clearly the actual point of the post above.

Reflexive lack of empathy for people in proportion to the degree you have power over them may be a logical product of the evolution of the human organism. But it might not be something a democratic society benefits from in its leaders, to bring thing back to the topic.

> Most likely the changes they measured are good for the group's survival.

Unless I've missed something it seems much more reasonable to assume that the changes they measure were good for the leader's reproductive success, historically. That's a very different thing though...

A potentially useful instinct that has exceeded its bounds of usefulness is still a pathology. Eating lots of food is useful when you don't know when your next meal is, but in a modern context it leads to obesity. In this case, or seems like the CEOs' performance objectively went down, do I don't see how that's "good for the group's survival" in 2017.

"The article seems biased: it pathologizes power."

Nope. It just claims power lessens people's capacity for empathy.

They didn't mention seeking approval, they mentioned losing empathy. Those in power losing empathy for others is a big deal.

> Most likely the changes they measured are good for the group's survival

Why is that "most likely"?

This is a standard part of feminist theory- basically the idea is that people with no power spend a lot of time wondering what powerful people think, so they tend to have a good understanding of what powerful people think. But people in a privileged position don't really have any need to think about what less powerful people think- so they don't do it. And that's where you get the trope of women being mysterious creatures, whereas women seem to understand men perfectly. The same logic applies to bosses and workers.

>whereas women seem to understand men perfectly.

Ummmmm, this has not been my experience at all. Women seem as perplexed by men as the other way around. Believing you understand how someone works and thinks is not the same thing as actually understanding how someone works and thinks.

Besides being wrong (just do a google search for "how can I understand men") I find this part of feminist theory to be incredibly sexist.

EDIT: Also, if women did understand men perfectly you would think they would have absolutely no problem getting exactly what they want from men. If I understood someone perfectly, I would absolutely know the best ways to manipulate them. If your statement is true, the fact that women are still unequal in some respects (seats in the boardroom/more opportunity to improve career/etc) would probably mean that women don't want the opportunities they claim they do. After all, if they understood men as well as you claim they would have no problem extracting those opportunities.

If you can't get someone to do what you want, you definitely do not understand them perfectly by any stretch of the terms.

I don't know why, but the comment I originally replied to really bothered me and I thought of a simpler example.

If women understood men perfectly, there wouldn't be so many examples of classic male-female miscommunication. AskReddit threads are a testament to this. Take person A who only speaks Chinese and person B who speaks English as a first language as well as perfect Chinese. For some reason they often have misunderstandings, why would this be? Probably because person B doesn't speak Chinese as well as they think.

Sorry but this still bothers me. I'm not going to wade into the gender war so let me put it this way: we are also 'different' in other ways, so misunderstanding is generally not just down to one factor. So is it right to just simplify the attribution to male-female differences? Normal vs neurotypicals. Secular vs religious. White vs non-white. East vs West. Old vs young. Urban vs country. And so on it goes, plus the greys in between, and life experiences and assumptions and beliefs. Every person has a unique combination of these factors, creating a very grey (or colourful if you like) identity.

Then combine this with the time, place and mood the misunderstanding occurred in. Then you will realise that it's too fuzzy to just put it down to a factor such as gender differences ... so what to do? Simples: try not to judge, because at best it is inaccurate and at worse it feeds into the prejudice. It would be far more helpful to take the benefit of doubt while being honest and empathic, because that's the only way the two parties can meet at the centre. If one party refuses to budge, then perhaps just give in! Victories are ultimately a bit petty.

By the way, please don't take this as a holier-than-thou speech, and I'm not condemning you for being so 'simple'. The reality is that all of us are like this, because it's so deeply ingrained and easy, a shortcut in our search for explanation. But for the sake of peace, we can definitely try to rise above it. Honesty and empathy - without the tree-hugging tone.

> if women did understand men perfectly you would think they would have absolutely no problem getting exactly what they want from men

While I agree with the gist of your comment, this is not true. I perfectly understand how roulette works - yet it doesn't help me win. (Unless you're using a very literal meaning of the word "perfectly", like in some laplacian determinism sense.) In fact, we can get all sorts of interesting (probabilistic) understanding about the world, which doesn't provide any information to help us decide.

You might start by figuring out if this is really a part of "feminist theory" -- from the use of the word "seem", I don't think it is. If you're going to criticize someone, criticize what they actually say, rather than what they "seem" to think.

As an example: it's been frequently claimed that feminists hate men, but not because a lot of feminists say that they hate men.

> people with no power spend a lot of time wondering what powerful people think

While this sounds "obvious", I don't think that someone in financial or personal trouble is spending a lot of time philosophising about what rich people are thinking. They're more likely focused on their problems at hand. But even if I grant you that ...

> so they tend to have a good understanding of what powerful people think

... How does that logically follow from the first statement? Just because someone spends a lot of time thinking about something doesn't mean that they're correct in their conclusions. Conspiracy theorists spend an insane amount of time thinking about what "the powers that be" are thinking about. Does that mean they're correct in their conclusions? No, their conclusions are tainted by their own biases.

> And that's where you get the trope of women being mysterious creatures, whereas women seem to understand men perfectly.

Assuming the trope was actually accurate, how do you explain that powerful women also have the same trait? Why don't very poor men understand women perfectly? It's almost as though evolutionary psychology plays a role, rather than this less-power-makes-you-more-empathetic model.

Also, I don't understand how this isn't a sexist view, saying that "women understand men incredibly well because they spend a lot of time thinking about men, while men don't spend nearly as much time thinking about women."

> The same logic applies to bosses and workers.

Do you honestly think that workers understand bosses better than bosses understand workers? I find that generally both groups misunderstand each other in equal quantities. Also arguably bosses might understand workers better because most bosses have been workers but most workers haven't been bosses.


Unlimited power may cause some lack of capacity but it's worth keeping in mind that extreme powerlessness may also create actual neurological problems also - see the learned helplessness hypothesis [1]. Of course this doesn't take away from the point that equal relations are probably the most healthy - even on a neurological level. But it makes who really understands who a bit more complicated a question.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

> This is a standard part of feminist theory- basically the idea is that people with no power spend a lot of time wondering what powerful people think, so they tend to have a good understanding of what powerful people think.

Can you provide any sources for this in feminist theory? Because I've never previously encountered it, and I'd genuinely like to know more about how it fits with other bits of feminist theory if it really is a standard (or even common) element.

> And that's where you get the trope of women being mysterious creatures, whereas women seem to understand men perfectly.

No, that trope predates feminist theory by many millenia, it is not a product of it.

The theory explains the trope.

Patriarchy plus the romanticization of what is outside the norm explains the trope and is, in fact, the explanation I've usually seen for it from actual feminists.

“Oppression grants women deep insight” seems closer to a gender-based version of the “noble savage” concept than anything feminist I've seen.

Still waiting for actual feminist theory sources for the “theory” in question.

Calling it "logic" is a stretch.

I don't even understand fellow men. Where are these women that understand guys?

That's a really cool theory, but you're also stirring up the hornets' nest by bringing it up anywhere in tech environment, which got really feministic recently. BTW, one thing doesn't seem to stick: they don't label themselves as less powerful - in fact, their misandric agenda keeps trying to repeat the opposite.

I personally believe that the "mysterious creature" concept stems from women being more emotional and thus more difficult to analyse - we seem to have more scientific grounds for logic, whereas we still hadn't even agreed what an emotion is.

Please don't take HN threads into flamewars. It harms the community and leads nowhere new.

I hate dealing in stereotypes, but even if we stick to stereotypes, the idea that men are "less emotional" than women is hilarious.

Two stereotypical emotional memes for men:

- men think with their libido, and will throw away their life for a shag

- men have fragile egos, and will pick up a fight over a perceived injury to their honor

The sexist stereotype "women are emotional" just doesn't work.

Two stereotypical emotional memes for men:

Everyone worth discussing with knows it is an simplification.

Same as "women and feelings".

I'd guess however that pretending there is absolutely no truth to it whatsoever might leave one with a disadvantage when trying to understand what goes on.

'I personally believe that the "mysterious creature" concept stems from women being more emotional'

Why do you think women (as a gender) are more emotional?

I really get a cringe when people act as if their ideals are reality when they are just ideals in their heads. Good morning: a great majority of the world lives traditional lifestyles in patriarchal societies, and even in the "best" parts the gender disparity in responsibilities and rights continues, and the stereotypes are true to some extent for most of them too.

I dislike feminism per se as I see it to be just another sexism and not a step towards gender equality, as it tends to cause sexual etichette becoming more visual and everything having gender associations, and comes with detrimental practices like positive discrimination and extension of gender equality into non gender-related parts of life. And in tech these are so much amplified.

He can't prove it logically, but he feels very strongly that it must be true.

Yeah, I think that's a trope that needs unpacking to be credible.

If anything, I would say women tend to be more inclined to sharing and talking about their emotions. Men tend to try to hide them, or fight them. Which often pushes us down a progression of more extreme emotions, rather than gently easing ourselves back to center.

Fighting/denying our emotions also causes us to try to rationalize perceptions driven by our emotions, by ascribing them to the world around us. Because that's a false attribution, it makes it harder for our teams to get an accurate picture of the world outside our emotions.

braveo 91 days ago [flagged]

For the same reason the rest of the majority of the population believes it;

It's generally true.

Okay let's play this game. Let's accept that women are indeed more emotional creatures.

(So tempted to get all sarky with "wide-eyed" and "fragile" but onwards.)

Now what's wrong with being emotional? Even in environments such as tech, this is a necessity. Ultimately people use tech, so damn right we need to be emotional about it.

'Emotional fits' though uncomfortable to watch don't actually occur often, but when it does, it is usually grounded in a very good reason, which may not be made clear yet.

So either way, actually, it's still way better for us to embrace differences and listen to each other for a richer working environment and output. Diversity is only a barrier when you choose to look at it that way.

| "Women being more emotional"

You just cited the same argument to justify why the argument isn't true.

The lack of self-awareness in this comment is simply hilarious.

I can't access the research, but I was wondering if they tested on mostly men or if there was a decent size female group as well, and if they found any difference between men and women in this regard.

If men were more susceptible in a statistically significant way they would have called it out at least as a "further research needed" because it opens the door for future resource allocation. If women were more susceptible in a statistically significant way they wouldn't have framed the discussion so negatively in terms of CEOs and world leaders but instead framed it as a health issue because doing anything else in most academic settings is being needlessly reckless and unprofessional.

Since there's no mention whatsoever I'm betting there was no meaningful difference or the test group wasn't big enough to investigate the possibility of said difference.


They don't talk about it in any sentences, but they found that female CEOs correlate with having slightly higher stock volatility (1.612). Not sure if this is a valid interpretation, as I'm reading from a table.

N = 8533 CEOs, btw.

This is a remarkably low-quality article, and the citations are horrendously scattered throughout. This is much better, and clearer article (cited inside the original) from 2009:


Mirroring = doing whatever others are doing / fitting in.

It makes sense that people in authoritative positions would not do this as often.

I don't think that is what "mirroring" means as used in this article. It's about visualizing oneself doing something someone else is doing (aka empathy, to some degree), not copying what is being done.

As in the sense of Dr. Timothy Leary's Mind Mirror.


Mirroring = doing whatever others are doing / fitting in.

It's a natural guess, but no. Check out:


Still, it seems related to understanding and following others. I think many so-called "leaders" today aren't even serious leaders but actually they have a somewhat unnatural role of imposing on their subordinates arbitrary decisions received from their superiors, cold-blooded analyses, formal processes, etc. In such situations, understanding of the subordinates is unnecessary and any subconscious tendencies to follow their emotional states actively counterproductive, as it is the "leader" whose job is to dictate reality.

The article isn't talking about mirror neurons though.

It's referencing the section of the brain that is used for social mirroring, I believe.

I think it is talking about mirror neurons. The article states

> Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, [...] found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.

This paper this refers to is https://www.oveo.org/fichiers/power-changes-how-the-brain-re... , which states

> with respect to action observation, neural circuits that are related to action execution become active when the person observes someone else making the same action; in other words, the observer’s brain resonates with the model’s motor behavior. We refer to the network of brain regions involved in this process as the motor resonance system. Motor resonance includes the human parietofrontal mirror system, and many believe that resonance reflects mirror system activity. [...] Researchers suggest that motor resonance provides a scaffold for understanding the actions of our interaction partners, and those actions are frequently less important to those with high-power status. [...] In the present study, we examine whether power can increase or decrease interpersonal sensitivity by examining the effects of power priming on motor resonance.

The parietofrontal mirror system is the classic set of mirror neurons which were first identified in monkeys.

it's not monkey see, monkey do - it's monkey see, monkey imagines what it would be like for itself to do the same thing (what it would 'be' like also includes such things as what it would 'look' like)

I wonder if this is a common feature of leaders rather than a degenerative disease. Very competitive environments make way for sociopaths to get up to the top more frequently than normal people.

When you're leading a team or doing public speaking and just starting out, one of the challenges is that you second guess yourself terribly after you have chatted to the group. I think empathy is part of the cause - you see yourself (and what a complete idiot your are) from the perspective of each individual in the group. It can be debilitating if you don't figure out how to stop yourself from doing that. Part of that is turning off a certain amount of empathy.

As others have pointed out, the article may be flawed. But I think the job of leader calls for reduced empathy or some way to control it and the second guessing yourself that comes with it - and that is probably what the author observed.

Becoming worse at empathy is not the same as brain damage, people loose certain skills all the time if they are not exercised.

There is also evidence suggesting that empathy is a poor trait in leaders/judges, are we are most probably to empathizing with people we find relatable.

So you're saying CEOs have trouble relating to the average person? ;)

I can vouch for it. When you're over people, they're never going to give you their version of the unvarnished truth. You always get the PR-filtered version. Stay in this scenario long enough, and it's very easy to start actually believing the toadies.

This article ends in a gloomy note, I fear it might even start normalizing "asshole-ery".

I am reminded of a quote by Buffett or someone similar about more money turning assholes into even bigger assholes meaning there is nothing wrong in staying humble even after you become rich and powerful.

Are the brain studies in this article subject to buggy and flawed fMRI research?


edit: further reading https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/ignobe...

No, they are not. None of these studies used FMRI; they were either statistical or behavioral, with no neurological investigation. Did you read the article?

From the article you linked:

"Some people like to use the salmon study as proof that fMRI is woo, but this isn't the case, it's actually a study to show the importance of correcting your stats."

Presumably not, the mirror-neuron study does not use fMRI. It works by a measuring muscle response to transcranial magnetic stimulation.

> A reliable index of resonance is the amplitude of motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) recorded from a specific muscle via electromyography (EMG), while a person observes another person acting. An MEP is elicited by applying a single, fixed intensity TMS pulse over an area of the motor cortex that corresponds to a muscle underlying the observed action. For a given intensity of stimulation, changes in MEP amplitude reflect changes in the excitability of motor cortical representations (see Figure 1; for a review, see Fadiga et al., 2005).

It would seem some leaders are born this way.

I wonder how easily it can be passed to offspring (via nature or nurture).

Andy Kaufman used to work as bus boy when he was famous and when people asked him, "Are you Any Kaufman?" he would deny it. I wonder if doing things like this is a good treatment.

"Brain damage" is a rather extreme way of putting this. It's a slight decrease in empathy. Which sounds bad, but makes perfect sense. Empathetic people make terrible leaders. They get taken advantage of. They seek approval from others instead of making what they think is the best decision. They have trouble saying "no." They are indecisive when a decision is controversial and might upset some people.

I know this because I think I am an overly empathetic person, and I know I make a terrible leader. Even watching shows like the West Wing stresses me out a bit and I don't envy people who have to make hard decisions.

The downsides you speak of are not caused by being empathetic.

They are caused by not having developed skills in setting boundaries.

Being worried about upsetting people isn't a feature of empathy. It's a feature of a lack of perspective.

Might the best leader be the empathetic leader who recognizes and understands others' perspectives with enough self-control to not give in to others emotions?

I don't think reducing empathy would improve leadership. Ideally you'd expand your empathy to people you aren't directly interacting with.

For example, the difficult decision of firing a problem employee is made more difficult by empathy for that employee, but made easier by empathy for affected coworkers and customers.

I wonder if one could simulate the effects of power by having subjects play Civilization?

Leaders don't but managers do lose their mental capacities.

Article starts with jokes and it's hard for me to keep following as if it was a serious research.

Shower thought: So does love.

I completely misunderstood the headline going in, expecting something to do with the "current times voltage" sort of power and wondering what sort of gruesome experiment electrocuting brains was going on.

haha, that's what I thought too, some sort of EMF type research or something.


And what of comments like this? Are they the cure?


I doubt the phenomenon you are trying to describe is at all unique to the people who would usually be called white.

In China, ethnic Chinese probably feel the same way compared to immigrants or people of other heritage. Or ethnically Japanese people in Japan. Or Saudis in Saudi Arabia compared to minorities there.

In other words, there is a certain power inherent to being part of the dominant ethnic or cultural group in every human society.

(Although, still need to see research demonstrating membership in these dominant groups leads to same degree of empathy atrophy as the research in the article demonstrates for high status individuals like CEOs.)

> I would also posit that "white" is not an ethnicity, it's the fiction of a lack of one's ethnicity.

I would put this differently: I would say that "white" is a refusal to identify yourself with a group based on ethnicity. Which for many people who are labeled "white" by others makes sense, since they do not have a single "ethnicity" anyway. I am an example: my genetic ancestry includes Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, Mediterranean, and Native American, and I am adopted, so my cultural ancestry includes a few more things thrown into the mix. No ethnicity comes anywhere close to describing me, so I have no interest in or reason to identify with one.

As far as "fictitious power dynamics", if my choice to not identify with a group based on ethnicity gives me any power, it's a power that anyone can have by making the same choice. So I don't see how it gives me any advantage over anyone else. After all, what I said about not having a single "ethnicity" anyway probably applies to a majority of humans on this planet at this time, and even if it doesn't apply to you in a strict genetic sense, that doesn't mean you can't make the choice to not identify with a group based on ethnicity.

You're implying that all white men have a sense of entitlement and power, an assumption that is racist and sexist, much like saying black people all like watermelon or women all are overly emotional. You're blurring the line between cultural differences and racial differences which, if left unchallenged, lead to discrimination. There are millions of white men that aren't in a position of power or don't get ahead because of their skin color. In fact, due to affirmative action policies, if anything white men are being pushed out. What makes you think white men are privileged when as a whole, they've been seeing a decline in income?

Edit: to those downvoting me, could you please explain why?

This is a particularly bad misreading of the comment you're replying to.

The commenter quite explicitly said that they're not referring to all white men. Nor even that being white or a man are among the qualifying conditions.

They are referring to the degree to which people buy in, consciously or subconsciouly, to the notion that their whiteness or masculinity are inherently or naturally good/powerful/dominant.

The problem is acting like definitions are fluid when we're not. If I write a huge paragraph about how black people are violent, but mention in one sentence that I'm talking about black people as a symbol for power and not as a race, that doesn't change the fact that I just talked about an entire race as a whole. It's still ignorant, and blurring the line between race and culture is a dangerous rabbit hole.

Definitions are pretty fluid and the top level poster did take time to try to qualify the definition for the purposes of discussion. The problem is that fully qualify a definition often results in a long essay that nobody wants or has time to read, and trying to come up with a new label that's both accurate and accessible to the casual reader is a very slow and difficult process.

Since HN is a well-educated community, on the whole, it's not unreasonable to expect a little more work on the part of potential readers than for the same comment posted on a broader platform like Facebook. Unless I know from prior experience where a particular poster stands, when I read a comment I find attitudinally startling on HN I try out a few different interpretations before making assumptions about what was meant.

Personally, I agree that unclear or shifting definitions are bad for discourse.

And in this case, I would agree that there are better ways to express the idea.

I used a stronger tone than necessary about your original reading, I didn't mean to be hostile. But I did think it was clear that the poster was not generalizing as broadly as you took it.

Short answer: Yes.

What is more, your line of thinking is a good one.

Edward Said constructed basically this same argument - persuasively, I think - in Orientalism, his book on the history of western writing about the east (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism_(book)). If you can get a copy, I recommend it strongly: as you can no doubt see, the consequences of this idea are extraordinarily complex. For instance: what exactly determines Whiteness, if it's a concept that is defined only as "not-ethnic"?

Along those lines, Noel Ignatiev's (note: a controversial figure) book How the Irish Became White details how Celtic immigrants were NOT considered white in the antebellum South. Anyone in America, I think, with Irish or Scots ancestry knows the long history of American racism against the Celts. Ignatiev argues that the Celts 'gained' White status by setting themselves up as anti-Black by becoming strong proponents of slavery and speaking racist ideologies. I found this interesting and persuasive. The historical evidence of horrible and inhuman Irish anti-Black sentiment is obvious, but where other scholars have proposed things like "oh, the Irish came over and were racist just like everyone else" Ignatiev proposes a more universal truth about the way constructions of race interact.

I find issue with the very first posit that you mention. White isn't an ethnicity, yet somehow Black or Hispanic, or whatever is?

You presume then that attempting to be a white masculine man leads to brain damage, but what about black masculine man? Do they somehow not suffer the brain damage? Why is it considered damage in the first place? They did get in power, maybe what you see as damage is instead optimization.

I don't think black or Hispanic are really enthicities either. They're racial categories.

I think black men suffer some of the same brain damage as white men.

Women with masculine personality traits probably suffer it in some conditions too. If it's real, it's a fuzzy cluster around men, not a strict aspect of manhood only.

I see no reason to give your identity politics fetish air time. As other commenters have pointed out, you posit definitions that are both absurd and insulting.

I am in the camp that we should give insulting ideologies air time, so that they might be dissected early and often and publically. I split from many of my fellow leftist friends on this matter.

I think what you are getting at with "'white' is not an ethnicity" is that in post WW II United States culture, white is the default ethnicity. Earlier, say in pre WW I USA, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant was the default, and Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Catholics, were the "other" discriminated aganst and looked down on by those of default ethnicity. (Note that these are over-generalizations that might not be true for any particular individual).

I think that white people don't usually identify as being white. Minorities will identify as being their ethnicity. Like it's a tribe they belong to. They will mention it when they describe themselves. They sometimes form groups around it and say they are "proud to be X". Most white people don't identify by their race any more than by their hair color. Their first identity is often to their country or their city.

"White" people routinely identify themselves as Italians, Polish, Irish, or Germans. They have parades! They're very well attended! The Irish even have a holiday.

Black people do indeed identify themselves as "black", and not "Igbo" or "Yoruba" or "Zulu". But there's a reason for that: "black", in the sense of "African American", is an ethnicity we created, by kidnapping millions of people and stripping them of their original culture. Most "black" people in the US share a common culture and linguistic tradition, one that happens to have been created here.

So it makes sense that there is "black pride" and "Irish pride" but not "white pride". Of those three groups, "white" is not really an ethnicity.

In the past that may have been true. At least in my experience most white people don't even know their country of origin, and if they do it's really not that big of a deal. Ethnic festivals and holidays mostly just continue on as tradition now. They aren't signs of seriously separate cultures. You can't tell whether someone is Irish by how they talk, by how they dress, who they hang around, etc. The fact they are Irish is not an important part of their identity at all. These separate white cultures have mostly melted together over time into just "American culture".

Yes, "default ethnicity" might be a better term for what I am referencing than "white". Thank you.

While it's totally understandable once one looks into the historical context and notes similar patterns in other non-caucasian cultures, the use of the term 'white' in this context has become so confusing and problematic as to perpetuate the very problems it's trying to identify. Unfortunately a lot of the obvious alternatives are similarly problematic, and I haven't been able to think of a good novel one. My favorite term is 'authoritarian' but 6-syllable words are also a good way to lose a large part of your potential audience :-/

To me what you hint at is that since the 15th century, europeans were into the imperialism race. They were the most recent and largest default ethnic group.

If you look historically, “white” was still the label of the default ethnicity, but people that today we'd think of as “white” (and who would fit the use of “white” as a racial identifier, as in fact Hispanics quite often do) simply are not thought of as “white”, but rather as some distinct ethnicity.

It's worth researching, and indeed 50+ years ago, other communities were scapegoats. How and why these shifts is important.

You might enjoy this speech from Angels in America [1] As I think it hits pretty similar points to what you're saying: labels are about power dynamics and much less about the underlying descriptiveness of them.

1 - https://youtu.be/98fBiOVEcyI?t=250

All culture is a lie. There isn't such a thing as "white culture" except that which a 'bunch of people' get together and say "that activity over there, we'll call that 'white culture'".

There is no such thing as "America" - this is a social construct which only persists because, every day, people get out of bed and say "well, there is America, and it is 'that thing over there'" and, well, if enough people get together and say something is, the way it is, then thats the way it is.

All culture is a lie. It doesn't hold up on its own, under its own characteristics, like .. say .. Plutonium the Element does. In order to persist, the lie must continually be told.

So really, your invention is as much a lie as anything else. What you really want is to alter culture - and really, who doesn't want that, these days?

> All culture is a lie.

You clearly haven't met people from cultures other than yours, have you?

In fact, I've met many, which is precisely why I think that culture is a lie. We humans create such arbitrary lives.

erikpukinskis, did you read the article? There isn't a single mention of race (at all). The article is about people in power start making bad decisions, and it's clear this is not restricted to any single race/gender group. see: any conflict, ever, in any country.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but it doesn't seem like your comment is responding to the article - it's responding to the headline, and you're projecting some things onto it and responding to them. Please don't do that - it's what we see on every other news forum/website, and it degrades the quality of the conversation.

In all of the responses you've gotten so far, people seem to be caught up on the colloquialisms we employ when referring to ethnicities, such as "white" or "black".

Indicating "white" may not have been best term to use for the phenomenon he or she was trying to describe.

While I think there may be something to that pov regarding "whiteness", I think that pov about masculinity is quite wrong.

"Masculinity" is an appropriate idea, and masculinity is not a bad thing.

There may be some cultural associations with masculinity which don't need to be there, but I maintain that there is a sense of "masculinity" which ought to be recognized as appropriate in some circumstances (primarily among people who are male)

Well, women enjoy many privileges versus men. For example, men are profiled by police after violent crimes. They are more likely to be sacrificed in war, to be homeless, to be in prison. Women are ushered into clubs without paying, while men have to get $300 bottle table based on their gender.

If any of the above was done by race, it would be an outrage today and obvious racism. So, does that mean, in some aspects, you can just manipulate symbols from the article and claim women have similar forms of brain damage simply from their being a woman?

I think femininity probably has it's own associate brain damage too, yes. Different, but probably less extensive due to the demands of feminine people to understand the other. Although quite debilitating in important ways. Same for non-white folks. I am more reluctant to speculate about those things because of their history as popular notions ("women and blacks are retarded"), and the fact that I have no direct experience of it. I experience my own developmental delays all the time and I'm a white man.

And I agree with you there are many negatives to manhood and masculinity, many positives to womanhood. I don't see that as contradicting my theory.


When people say "he/she looks ethnic", they don't mean white. This is a common colloquialism. He doesn't mean that white isn't an ethnicity -- he means that it's the default setting in the US. The poster is not defining this in a way nobody else does; to the contrary, they are defining it in a ubiquitous way.

"Whiteness" as a tacit non-ethnicity is very much an accepted understanding.

I would argue that whiteness's non-ethnicity is a learned and enforced behavior in society.

It's accepted/understood because it's an intentional outcome of an intentional policy.

There USED to be a white culture, white ethnicity, white everything. (One only needs to experience American history to understand the centuries long history of white identity in America).

But due to heritage of political white supremacy, we decided to destroy ALL white identity, ALL white culture, ALL white "ethnicity", as a "baby with the bath water" approach to ending white supremacy.

I think this is why people have this disconnect between "ethnicity" and "whiteness". In this thread.

OF COURSE there is a white ethnicity, but, we Americans destroyed white identity intentionally to destroy white supremacy.

Was there?

My Cajun / German great grandparents had a lot more in common with local black families than white Germans from New York. Whiteness to them was just an artificial way to segregate people.

There has never been a "white culture" in an enduring and stable way. Something resembling a multi-ethnic white monoculture developed during the 1950s, resulting from the social mixing of whites in WW2 service. But that's very new and not very robust -- certainly lacking deep roots.

There have been a lot of very distinct cultures held by white people -- German, Irish, Finnish, etc -- but they were all quite different.

What's your opinion then on such white identity speeches like the Confederate Corner Stone speech, delivered by the Vice President of the Confederacy?


"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

It seems that even a century earlier than your 1950's monoculture, the white people of America were not just calling themselves white, but in fact, were creating political philosophy centered around their white identity.

Not their polish, German, Irish, Finnish identity.

Their WHITE identity.

What's my opinion on the speech? That it's true that people conceptualized of a "white race" prior to the 1950s, but it doesn't contradict my claim that an inclusive white identity lacks long historical precedent, historical pre-eminence or robustness. If it were robust and pre-eminent, the KKK wouldn't have targeted white Catholics or Jews. If it were robust and pre-eminent, Irish Americans wouldn't have been treated poorly in much of the US. If it were robust and pre-eminent, "race scientists" of the late 19th and early 20th century would not have divided whites into distinct sub-races with purportedly unique characteristics. Ethnic balkanization among whites in the US persisted throughout the first half of the 20th century – think of the distinct ethnic mobs and tensions that characterized NYC – and mass conscription during WW2 substantially changed this.

If it were robust and pre-eminent, white people wouldn't have seceded from the country to create a white country, a literal ethno-state.

Oh wait!

Is what it is, you clearly already have your conclusion.

P.S. northern chinese make fun of southern chinese (cantonese), does that preclude their ethnicity and culture? I fail to see how targeting Irish means anything. Chinese target their own sub-ethnicities all day long. As does every other ethnic group.

He's being pretty clear, and your response is a little obtuse.

He's not saying that nobody called themselves "white" before 1950.

He's saying that the demographics of "whiteness" in the mid-1800s are different than the demographics of "whiteness" now, and so the term is arbitrary.

I'd hazard a guess that most people don't differentiate between race and ethnicity.

I'm not sure why you'd conflate the two, to be honest—understanding your race is fairly necessary to understand how you're viewed in the US, and how you might be expected to behave. Understanding your ethnicity is an entirely different thing—e.g. legally, nobody cared if a person was french, german, or english if the question was 'black or white'. But you might care.

Why not say not specified or none as opposed to white? It seems needlessly confusing.

"White" = "Power" = "Must be Smashed".

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