Friday, January 16, 2015

Affirmative Action

Talking about affirmative action in this country is an easy way to have an angry debate. Just come out against it, and a whole bunch of (usually) liberals will jump down your throat and call you a racist. The problem is that the current system of affirmative action, and certainly all the simple, easy ways of doing it, are racist.

The first problem with affirmative action is that it is usually trying to fix the problem far too late. College admissions should be based entirely on merit and what the student can bring to the campus. It is certainly possible that the traditional measures of merit are fundamentally flawed, and should be reworked. This, however, is a problem with the measures of merit being inaccurate, not necessarily discriminatory. Rather than 'fix' the problem right before college, it would make a lot more sense to fix the problems with the education system before college. This way, the students who 'need' affirmative action now will be able to get in on their own merits. 

It is also certainly possible that the admissions departments are biased, but there are other ways to get around this, rather than have a selection directly based on race. One would be to have all evaluations of the candidate take place without the name or any other identity markers (gender, for example). This can't solve discrimination at interviews, but it might help isolate the type of discrimination, and show how much is due to race and gender, and how much is due to merit. 

One of the problems that those in favor of affirmative action tend to ignore is an effect later on, that changes the perceptions regarding the group benefiting from the discrimination. If people know that an institution practices affirmative action, then the people in the group receiving the benefits will be perceived by some as marginal. The phrase of 'You only got in because of ...' is something that friends of mine have heard, and part of the problem is that institutions publicize that they practice admitting traditionally lower qualified applicants based on race or gender. This sheds doubt on every member of the group that is benefiting from the affirmative action, as any of them could be below the requirements of what it would take a candidate who did not benefit from affirmative action. This hurts both those in the group who benefited from affirmative action who could have gotten in, and those who would have gotten if they were not displaced. 

When affirmative action is done wrong, it can also have an even worse problem, by perpetuating the stereotypes that the program was supposed to oppose. If no candidates from the traditionally dominant group are admitted, and the traditional measures of merit are accurate, then what will tend to happen will be that the group that benefited from affirmative action will tend to be at the bottom of the class, rather than dispersed more evenly throughout the class. This will mean that the experiences of the students will generally be that the traditionally dominant group is better at academics than the group that benefited from affirmative action, leading to a perpetuation of racist or sexist stereotypes. 

As I said before, this requires that the traditional measures of merit are accurate, and it is certainly possible that they are not. But I think it is highly unlikely that the measures of merit are completely wrong, or have no value, otherwise schools that didn't use them would be just as good as those that didn't, and I don't know of any school with an admissions policy that doesn't use at least some of the traditional measures of merit (GPA, SAT, ACT etc.). What makes more sense than adding something like race to the admissions would be to attempt to reform the traditional measures of merit so that they can more accurately measure the attributes that they intend.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Villains of Korra

I recently marathoned the last two seasons of the Legend of Korra. While I understand that it is a kids show on Nickelodeon, I still think that some of the ideas could have been explored better. There is not enough time given to develop the ideas of the villains, or examine what makes the villains wrong, either in their methods or ideology. If you want to watch the series, this contains some spoilers, so I would recommend not reading.

I personally didn't think that much of the first two seasons. The second was so disappointing that I stopped watching, until I heard that the last two seasons were much better. Well, I think one of the reasons that I found the second season so lackluster was that the villain in it had no reasonable justification, or at least as one that I picked up.

The political side of this is that in the first, third, and fourth seasons showcase different political ideals. The first season tries to explore the idea of equality. The equality movement ends up going too far, but the political questions that they raise are not really answered satisfactorily. They end up discrediting the movement by revealing that the leader of the equalists is actually a bender, and therefore a hypocrite. This is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, the first of which, for me, is that it doesn't remove the objections that were raised by other characters.

The equalists do bring up valid points about being ruled by benders, and how benders have power over them, but they cross the line by taking away peoples bending by force. It should certainly be acceptable to resist benders who try to impose their will on non-benders. This aspect is something that I don't think is explored quite enough, since they end up spending time on rushed romance and pro-bending. One thing that was not mentioned that the benders were getting less relevant in terms of actually using bending in day to day activities. Technology was gradually replacing benders in that respect. The modern civilization also limits what benders can legally do, since it is easy for them to destroy property, which is expensive and has to be fixed.

If people are unequal because of birth, whether it is elemental bending, wealth, good genetics, or any other factors, it doesn't give other people the right to take that away, whatever that is. It is not okay for one group to impose their will through violence or threats of violence, regardless of which side of the have and have-nots they are on. If we take away the abilities that make people extraordinary, all that we are left with is a poorer world.

Skipping ahead to the third season, we have anarchists who are trying to free people from oppressive governments. I find that I can agree with them on some things, but definitely not the way that they go about it. I think that part of the problem is that when they espouse the downfall of governments, they don't make a distinction between government and law or cultural practice. This is a common mistake, but they anarchy that they propose is what is usually thought of as the Hobbesian state of nature.

The fourth season is in some sense the flip side of the anarchist argument, though it is not really portrayed that way. The villain in this season showcases what I would consider some of the dangers of Nationalism. There is some value in a united country as opposed to a fractured one, but for it not to be oppressive, it requires the consent of the governed. Unification through force is not only oppressive, but is also causes war, which is one of the worst things that people can do. Nationalists place the nation as more important than the individuals in the nation. The national interest is used as the excuse, but it is just what the leaders view as the most important.

I would have liked it more if Legend of Korra had expanded a little more on the philosophy of the villains, since for three of the seasons, the villains had philosophy that can't be dismissed out of hand, and even for a kids show, we should try to show that ideas could still be good, even if the way that the villains went about it was definitely wrong.