Dead Links and the Dirty Ground

As part of my Blogging Renaissance* I decided to update my blogroll.  Hoo boy.  The link rot is real.

Apparently I haven’t actually gone through and removed dead links from my sidebar since sometime in 2012.  That makes sense, since my son was born at the end of 2012, and my life became somewhat busier accordingly.  Of course the real nail in the coffin of this blog was going from teaching in Georgian public schools to private schools with an International Baccalaureate curriculum.  I’ve promised to talk a little bit about what that’s like – and believe me, I have *many opinions* about the IB that I’d like to share – but that’s for another time and post.  Suffice it to say that IB schools come with an… enhanced workload.

So my link pruning process is simple.  I go through all my links and check if they still link to anything.  If they don’t I delete them – a few former Georgia bloggers have deleted their blogs entirely, so those links aren’t really worth keeping (I suppose I could try searching them in the Internet Archive, but maybe it’s better to just let some things go).  If the link is still alive, I review the content and make sure it’s still in the right category. For example, if it’s a blog that hasn’t had a post since 2012 (there were a surprising number of these), I move the link from “Georgia Blogs” to “Inactive Georgia Blogs”.  If it’s an active blog, but the person no longer writes about Georgia, the link goes to “Former Georgia Blogs”.

That process has taken me on a fun little trip down memory lane.  I stalked caught up with some old friends.  I read some stories about people’s flights out of the country at end of the 2011-2012 school year (that was the last year that TLG was trying to be huge; for the next year they downsized 75% of their teachers, which probably accounts for the surprising number of blogs that cut off abruptly in 2012).   I thought about some of the friends I’ve made who have come and gone.  It’s bittersweet.

But the whole process got me thinking about how the English-speaking Georgia-focused internet has changed since I came here.  When I was researching Georgia in summer 2010, I found maybe three blogs about Georgia, none of which were still active.  Then TLG brought hundreds of foreigners in, and maybe ten percent of us blogged, which really resulted in a sort of Georgia blog explosion, so by 2012 my Georgia blogroll alone was like 40 entries long.  But then something else happened.  Georgian Wanderers took off, Georgia started getting more press coverage in travel sections of newspapers throughout the Western world, and the government’s efforts to transition from Russian to English as Georgia’s second language started to bear some serious fruit.  TripAdvisor and Google Maps set up shop in Georgia.  Suddenly you didn’t need to wade through some random blogger’s personal anecdotes to find the information you wanted.  Georgia became more legible.

In a way this mirrors the process of the transition between Georgia as a country with three fast food restaurants – all of them McDonald’s – to a country with a fairly well-developed market in Western amenities, including a selection of fast food restaurants, shopping malls, foreign clothing brands, etc.  It’s very obvious how much the country has changed every time I take a ride down Chavchavadze in Tbilisi and think back to the first time I saw it, seven years ago.  For people who left in 2012 and came back after 2015 or so, the change can be jarring.

I personally really like the direction that Georgia is heading.  I like being able to find information quickly on the internet.  I like Google Maps.  I like Wendy’s.  I especially like the plethora of non-smoking restaurants and the burgeoning craft beer scene in Tbilisi, which I promise to talk about more in my Hamburger Revolution post.  But recognizing the difference between Georgia 2017 and Georgia 2012 means I have to recognize that this blog has a new purpose.  I can no longer reasonably expect to be one of the few reasonably comprehensive sources of information about the country available in English.  There is less value in “this is what it’s like in Georgia” style posts, partially because there are now so many of them and partially because “what it’s like in Georgia” is less relevant to expats than it used to be, given the large number of Western-style accommodations and resources.

But, you know, things are still happening, so I’ll talk about them.  I’ll aim to do some restaurant reviews.  Like I said before I’ll do some education posts.  I’ll try to update my blogroll with modern links to the various media agencies that now cover Georgia in English.  And every once in a while I’ll try to stir up some trouble, just to keep things interesting.

So anyway.  Enjoy my new blogroll!

*i.e. my three-week-long plan to procrastinate from the pile of work I have to do this Winter Break

[video: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground – The White Stripes]
Posted in Administrative, Changes | Leave a comment

A Blogging Renaissance

First of all, Merry Christmas!  Even though the day is over here in Georgia, it’s still Christmas back in the States.  Of course in Georgia it’s just another Monday, which I realized when I got stuck in traffic trying to go to a friend’s house at 5pm.  Yeah, traffic in Tbilisi has become highly problematic.

I’ve decided to kick my blog into high gear.  Get back on the horse, as it were.  That means more posts, which means widened scope.  I’m going to resolve to do three posts per week.  Can I keep this up?  I have no idea!  But I’m going to try, because I am crazy.

I intended this blog as a travelogue.  When I left the US I planned to use Georgia as a jumping-off point and move on to teaching in Asia and then the Middle East, which apparently pays the best.  I thought I would write about a different country every year or so.  Somewhere along the way I became sort of addicted to Georgia, so I can no longer reasonably claim to be “peripatetic”, which is fine because people don’t really know what that word means anyway.  But I am still a “pedagogue”, which means “teacher”.  So I figure I can write about teaching instead of/in addition to travel, and that will probably give me a bunch of interesting topics to explore so it isn’t just me posting once every five months.

Conveniently I am doing a Master’s in Education.  That should give me plenty of interesting things to complain write about.  I am also now teaching Global Politics.  So perhaps writing about issues that pertain to Global Politics would be okay.  We’ll see!

Topics I’d like to cover in the next few posts:

  • Approaches to behavior in Georgian schools
  • Differentiation in teaching
  • Fabrika, The Tbilisi Burger Revolution, and how things have changed in seven years
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • etc.

So stay tuned! (#deadmetaphor)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Victim-Blaming in Georgia (or, stop telling women not to be “too friendly”)

Recently, a woman posted on a Georgian expat facebook community that she had been sexually harassed on three separate occasions during her brief vacation in Georgia.  Surprisingly, most of the comments were sympathetic and supportive.  Predictably, there were also a few cultural narcissists who criticized her for failing to acknowledge all of the men she met who didn’t harass her (the #NotAllMen argument) or for focusing too much on the negative aspects of what otherwise must have been a fantastic vacation (the “Mrs. Lincoln” argument, aka “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”).

But in this post I’d like to focus on the third group of responses – those which contained advice on how to avoid being sexually harassed/assaulted in Georgia.  This is problematic, for reasons I’ll explain below.  Notably, it seemed to be mostly expats dishing out this advice, although I have seen similar comments from Georgians in the past.

On the one hand, realistic advice about how to travel safely is good and helpful.  I regularly seek out such advice when I travel to a new country, and I think it is valuable for people to provide this advice.  On the other hand, when this advice is a) directed only towards women, and never men, and b) sets unreasonable expectations, like “never smile”, it really starts to smell less like advice and more like victim-blaming.

Here’s some advice I’ve seen given to women visiting Georgia on how to avoid sexual harassment/assault:

  • don’t smile
  • don’t be “too friendly”
  • don’t be “too chatty”
  • don’t drink alcohol in public
  • don’t smoke cigarettes in public
  • don’t travel alone
  • don’t sit in the front seat of a taxi
  • dress conservatively
  • buy a fake wedding ring for 5 lari and wear it every time you go out
  • have a male chaperone at all times

Sounds like a great vacation.

Note that I’m not necessarily questioning the accuracy of this advice.  Some of these things will definitely decrease (but not eliminate) a woman’s chance of being sexually harassed.  Having a male chaperone at all times is probably the most effective, but I wouldn’t even count on that.  I once had a taxi driver hit on my wife, in front of me, because he thought that she was a tour guide and I was her “guest”.

What I am questioning, however, is whether this advice is crossing the line into victim-blaming.  Men are never told any of these things, so it fails test a).  I think pretty much all of it also sets unreasonable expectations.  Who wants to go on a vacation and not smile, not meet locals, not drink, and have a male chaperone every time you go out in public?  There’s a reason why people aren’t flocking to spend their holidays in Saudi Arabia.  And as all of this advice inevitably shows up in response to a woman complaining about a case of harassment, it definitely has the air of “your harassment could have been prevented if you’d just done a few things differently”.  Which, I’d like to add, might not even be true, because as I said, none of those preventative measures are 100% effective.

This may be obvious, but it bears repeating: when a woman is sexually harassed, the problem is not with her behavior.  The problem is with the behavior of the person who harassed her.  All of the advice about how to behave to avoid sexual harassment may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it is not addressing the actual problem.

And a consequence of that is that victim-blaming tends to take energy and focus away from solving the problem of sexual harassment and the underlying dynamics of power and sexism that produce harassment.  Victim-blaming deflects the kind of criticism that is needed to effectively address the cultural and social factors that lead to harassment.  Victim-blaming perpetuates and reinforces the idea that harassment is women’s fault and that men are justified in harassing women who “step out of line” or behave in a certain way.  Victim-blaming tells men “you can harass women and no one will do anything about it and some people will even defend you”.

Viewed in that light, advice like “don’t be too friendly” is not just bad advice – it’s harmful advice.  It’s not just the fact that it’s deeply unfair to tell women not to make friends with locals when they go to another country.  It’s also the fact that it tells men that if they see a woman who is “too friendly” – whatever that means – she’s fair game for sexual harassment or assault.  It’s also the fact that it tells Georgians that they don’t need to try to change their own culture’s attitudes towards women, because the problem isn’t in their culture, it’s that some women just don’t know how to behave.

I think that Georgia has made progress in dealing with sexual harassment and assault in the seven years that I’ve been here.  The problem certainly has a lot more public recognition.  I was gratified to see that not a single comment accused the victim of lying or inventing the story (although one guy tried to imply that she may have just misconstrued normal, friendly actions as harassment), and a large proportion of the Georgians on the thread acknowledged that there is a problem.  The discourse around sexual harassment has definitely improved.

I would like to see it improve further, though, and I think that the next step is to get past this culture of victim-blaming.  I think it’s fair to warn women about the possibility and likelihood of sexual harassment in Georgia.  I don’t think it’s fair to advise women to try conform to vague, unreasonable standards like “don’t be too friendly”.

I would like my daughter to grow up in a society that rewards friendliness, rather than punishing it.  I would like my son to grow up in a society that doesn’t tell women that they need to be guarded and suspicious around him just because he is male.  We only get that society by teaching men not to harass – not by teaching women not to be friendly.

Posted in Sex and Gender | 1 Comment

Zaza Pachulia: Why Georgians Ruined NBA Voting

From 1974 until 2016, American basketball fans were able to vote for the starting lineup of the NBA’s All-Star game, so that the players in this exhibition game were actually the most popular players in the league, as determined by fan votes.

Last month, however, the NBA announced that the fan vote would be discounted by 50%, and the other 50% of the vote would be made up of superdelegates current players and select members of the basketball media.  Fans were disenfranchised in this way because last year, they screwed up the vote by almost putting Zaza Pachulia in the All-Star Game.

I don’t watch basketball and I have nothing against Zaza Pachulia, but the perplexed reaction of sports commentators tells me that he does not merit inclusion in the game.  He is not one of the league’s best or most popular players.  He will not draw the interest of fans who will spend money to buy tickets to the NBA’s All-Star Weekend.  The only reason Pachulia is punching above his weight in the NBA vote totals is that a sizeable number (but probably not a large percentage*) of Georgians – most of whom live in Georgia and many of whom do not even watch NBA games – are voting for him because they think it would be cool to have a Georgian in the All-Star Game.

So it is literally true that the NBA had to change its voting rules to disenfranchise fans because some Georgians disrupted the integrity of the process to inflate their own national egos.  And this year, they are doing it again.

Again, I don’t watch basketball, and the integrity of the NBA All-Star team vote is not particularly important to me per se.  However, I think it is interesting that Georgians seem to be completely oblivious to the ethical dimension of this situation.  Georgians are very proudly, publicly promoting Pachulia on social media and on the online English-language Georgian propaganda mill  I think they wouldn’t do this if they understood that many would consider this behavior to be unethical, boorish, and narcissistic.

An NBA fan complains about Georgians voting Pachulia

Giorgi’s response shows zero understanding of Mirza’s complaint, or of how to translate invective from Georgian to English

I think the article on Pachulia demonstrates this obliviousness well.  Agenda points out that the voting rules change will make it much harder for Pachulia to make the All-Star team, but not that the voting rules change was specifically done to prevent Pachulia from making the All-Star team.  The article also implies that Pachulia was good enough to have belonged on the All-Star team last year, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one who is not Georgian seems to believe that and the NBA disbelieved it so hard that they changed the voting system to stop Pachulia from getting on the All-Star team this year.

I think this is obvious to most Americans, but let me just lay out the ethical argument, briefly.  It is unethical to participate in a fan vote if you are not a fan.  Even if you are a fan, it is unethical to vote for a player with no particular star quality to join the All-Star team.  There is an implicit understanding that non-fans should not vote, and fans should vote for the best players according to their honest judgment.  For a large group of outsiders to come in and disrupt this understanding is not fair to fans who vote in good faith, or to players who deserve to have their genuine achievements recognized appropriately (and the NBA recognizes that, which is why they have changed the voting rules).

I come from the most populous city in the United States – New York City – and we have two basketball teams which, from what I understand, are mediocre.  If New Yorkers acted like Georgians, the entire Eastern Conference All-Star team would presumably consist entirely of players from these two mediocre teams, and would itself be mediocre, and would play a mediocre All-Star game.  This is a consequence that no one wants, and so very few people are willing to deliberately vote for a mediocre All-Star lineup because of local or regional prejudice.

But New Yorkers do not act like Georgians with respect to the NBA vote.  Those of us who do not care about or watch basketball do not vote in fan votes.  Those of us who do care do not blindly vote for members of our tribe, but instead vote for the best players, so that the conference can form the best team and the league can stage the best exhibition game.  Through this process, fans are rewarded for investing their time and energy into the NBA by seeing their favorite stars in the league play an excellent game.

I’m sure that many Georgians truly believe that Pachulia deserves a spot on the All-Star team.  However, I think they believe this because of cultural narcissism and chauvinism, not because Pachulia is a star.  If Pachulia were not Georgian there is simply no way Georgians would flood the NBA vote with Pachulia votes.  But Georgians have a tendency to uncritically favor Georgian things and Georgian people (cf. Stalin) to a much greater extent than any other nationality I’ve ever encountered.

But I think that even recognizing that, many Georgians would still say that they are justified in voting Pachulia even though he has not earned the spot through merit.  There are still too many Georgians who smoke in parks in front of children, who park on sidewalks, who compulsively cut in line, who litter on public roads and in public building entrances, and who have generally not developed a sense of personal responsibility to the community – who will be very nice to you one-on-one, but will act with complete disregard for the interests of other people in the abstract.  None of those people care in the slightest what is fair to NBA fans in America – all they care about is what they can get away with.

And hey – this has gotten a ton of free press for Georgia.  It’s in the New York Times.  For narcissists, any attention is good attention.  From their perspective, there’s really no reason not to just do this every year.


*I don’t want to imply that all Georgians, or even most Georgians, are cultural narcissists.  Really, we’re talking about a small, vocal minority – a group which is probably in the single-digits, percentage-wise.  Pachulia got about 440,000 votes in a week, which means it could be as few as 63,000 voters voting for him every day, which is less than 2% of Georgia’s population.  Also, because of how the NBA counts twitter votes, he also has some unknown number of votes that come from people inadvertently voting for him – for instance, if I complained on twitter “Zaza Pachulia does not belong in the All-Star Game #NBAVote” that would be counted as a vote for Pachulia by the NBA’s twitter-scraping algorithm.  Retweets are also counted as votes, so, for example, this prankster managed to rustle up at least 148 votes for Pachulia, some unknown number of which may have actually thought they were opposing Pachulia.

A tweet tricking people into voting Pachulia

I see what you did there

So presumably many people are innocently retweeting Zaza Pachulia votes without realizing that they are voting or really thinking much about it at all.  But there wouldn’t be so many Pachulia votes to retweet if the small-but-devoted group of Pachulia-partisans hadn’t started the whole thing in the first place.  So despite the innocence of perhaps 99% of Georgians, it is still the case that a group of Georgians has effectively subverted the NBA All-Star vote, twice, and thus ruined it for everybody else.

Posted in Civics | Tagged , , | 66 Comments

“Love it or Leave it” – On Cultural Narcissism

A reader asks, “why in the hell are you still living in here when every post of yours involves amd critics Georgia and its people in there”.

I actually get this question a lot – this, or its imperative version (some variation on “if you don’t like it, leave”). My point of view is that this is, fundamentally, an expression of a sort of cultural narcissism, and therefore probably not really worth engaging. However, because it is such a common point of view, I thought I’d address it once and for all, so that at least if someone asks me I can point them here.

First of all, the premise is incorrect. The post this comment appeared on was not critical of Georgia at all, unless you count a passing reference to a previous critical post, which was only made to provide an example of how different approaches to social coordination might result in practical problems for individuals. In fact the question of whether students should be asked to remove their hats indoors is an international question, and American students are at least as likely to defy this rule as Georgian students. So I submit that if you read that 1200-word post investigating the importance of etiquette in education and your principal takeaway was “Georgian students don’t take their hats off” – a takeaway which is neither true nor justified based on the text of the post – then you probably just have a chip on your shoulder.

american flag love it or leave it caption

Done, and done

The shape of that chip can be inferred from the question “why do you live here if you have bad things to say about it?”. Whenever someone tells you to leave their country if you don’t like it, what they are really expressing is cultural narcissism. They have a feeling of grandiosity – “my country is the best” – coupled with the unavoidable reality that a lot of stuff about their country really sucks. This cognitive dissonance makes people feel anxious and uncomfortable and therefore they respond by trying to get rid of the people who are causing it – for example, by asking them to leave. Then they can go back to ignoring the problems in their country and enjoying their (unjustified) feelings of grandiosity.

For example, a certain kind of American used “love it or leave it” during the Vietnam War as a kind of rebuttal to anti-war protesters. Since the war was obviously an unjustified and indefensible failure and a waste of lives and resources, there was really no rational counterargument against the protesters. But if the protesters were right, that meant that America was doing something wrong. But America can’t do anything wrong, because America is the Greatest Nation in the History of the Universe. But the protesters… okay, you have to go away now, you stupid jerks! You sex-crazed drug-addled peacenik hippy commie assholes! Love it or leave it!

st george's flag with caption england love it or leave it

“Well, if you insist,” said America

Of course, any psychologically healthy person understands that you can love something and also criticize it. This is because psychological health is typically the result of having had loving parents who criticized you as a child, but did so lovingly and constructively and in a way that helped you grow and mature into a successful well-adjusted human adult. But for narcissists, who typically grew up with emotionally unavailable parents and/or parents who endlessly and hyperbolically praised them no matter what their actual level of achievement – for narcissists, any kind of criticism at all (even a perceived slight that wasn’t even intended as criticism) invokes feelings of deep anxiety and produces reactions designed to defend an unhealthy and fragile ego.

And so that’s why I call these people – people who can’t process criticism of some particular aspect of their culture or country – “cultural” narcissists. I think every country has them. I’m not picking on Georgia (although of course the cultural narcissists who happen to be Georgian will think that I am).

australia silhouette love it or leave it

Ironic slogan for a prison colony

I think it falls on me to address a few tangential points.

First, am I in fact issuing constructive criticism, from a place of love, with the intent of improving the subject of the criticism? My wife is Georgian and we have two children, who were both born in Georgia. Even putting aside my personal feelings, I want Georgia to be a better country for their sake. I would like my children to feel comfortable in their home country, and not feel compelled to leave – like so many young Georgians who dream of going to Europe or America feel compelled to leave Georgia, or like I felt compelled to leave America. And unlike America, which I think is heading downhill in many ways, I am actually still optimistic about Georgia’s future. So yes, I do love this country, I do want it to be better, and I do want my criticisms to be heard and understood for what they are.

Second, let me reiterate that I am not overly critical of Georgia. It’s very telling what a narcissist will interpret as a criticism. When I mean to criticize Georgia, I say something like “this is something I don’t like about Georgia” or “this is something I think Georgians need to change.” I very rarely say those things, either in person or on this blog. I am very aware that by the norms of Georgian culture I do not have standing to issue criticisms of Georgia, and so I do so sparingly and on issues of low importance.

However, my purpose with this blog has always been to present an honest assessment of Georgia with a particular eye towards identifying and analyzing differences between Georgia and the U.S., or things that might otherwise be noteworthy for someone who was planning to come live here. I am aware that that can look like criticism, and so over time I think I have gotten better at adopting a more clearly neutral viewpoint, and at issuing the cultural signals that let Georgians know that I do not intend criticism, which is why I have generated a lot less controversy since you-know-what even as I have taken on increasingly controversial topics, such as racism and homophobia in Georgia.

Unfortunately, no matter how many pains I take to avoid coming off as overly critical, there will always be some people who are waiting for the opportunity to be insulted so they can reinforce their self-image at the expense of others.

My point is, I do not criticize Georgia in every post – far from it – and I try very hard not to repeat the same critiques (rather, if I have occasion to refer to a previous critique, I will simply link to it rather than rehash it in a new post).

banner planet earth love it or leave it

Actually, this one I agree with

Finally, is it valid to tell someone to “love it or leave it”? Is that even good advice? It seems like that’s encouraging people to run away from their problems, rather than fix them. On the other hand, like most Americans of European descent, at some point in their history most of my ancestors decided to leave their birthplace and venture to a new land – as did I – and so there is certainly an argument to be made for leaving a place if it really sucks that much. So it is certainly conceivable that if you have a friend who seems to be stuck in an undesirable situation, the best advice for them might be to consider a change of scenery, to try moving somewhere else and starting a new life.

But internet strangers? You don’t know me that well. You don’t know the totality of my situation. You don’t know my daily life. You see what I choose to present to you – a choice which has a purpose which you clearly do not understand. To think that you know someone well enough, based on a few blog posts, to honestly advise them to up and move to a whole different country, and expect that they might actually benefit from this advice – if that isn’t narcissism, I don’t know what is.

So no, I can’t take seriously the idea that this might be genuine or well-intentioned advice from people who care about my well-being. It’s either advice from narcissists who think they can understand a stranger’s whole life better than the stranger himself based on a blog, or it’s bloviating, defensive flailing from narcissists who feel threatened by someone who doesn’t constantly acknowledge their imagined superiority.

Either way, this is the last time I’m going to address such a question or comment, so if you’re planning on asking or telling me some variation of “if you don’t like it, leave”, don’t bother: your comment will not make it out of my moderation queue.

Canadian flag love it or leaf it

Okay, I made this one up

Posted in Culture Shock! | 7 Comments

On “Hats Off”

What is the point of having students take their hats off when they come into the school building?

As far as I can tell, there is no educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat. It’s not like the hat is keeping the knowledge out.

Upon introspection, I came up with two related answers:
– Manners/etiquette/respect/politeness
– Tradition

Google seems to have similar answers. Note that I say that these are “related” answers because the first one is really dependent on the second, in that the reason that it is now considered polite to remove your hat is that it has traditionally been considered polite to remove your hat.

Some manners have what you might call practical purposes – some are related to health and hygiene, and many are related to coordinating group behaviors that would otherwise be chaotic (things like turn-taking, establishing the right of way, etc.) In cases of group coordination, manners are often arbitrary, but that does not diminish their importance. For example, it does not matter which side of the road you drive on – some countries choose the left side, others the right – but it is vitally important that everyone in a particular locale follow the same convention. Now you may not consider driving habits to be a subset of “manners”, but I would argue that they are close enough for comparison – and consider the parallel (but perhaps less vital) case of determining which glass is yours when seated at a round table on a formal occasion. Do you reach for the glass on your left or your right? Even one person who doesn’t know or observe the (arbitrary) rule could cause someone else to be left without a glass. Of course this situation is fairly simple to resolve and therefore the rule is not considered particularly important.

On the other hand, some manners do not seem to have any practical purposes at all, whether vital or trivial. For example, verbal politeness rules do not seem to have a practical purpose. Georgian and English have different verbal politeness rules (different words and different situations in which they apply) and Georgians often consider me to be strangely polite because I am forever trying to apply English politeness rules in the Georgian language, which is not an exact match. Socially, this can make some things a bit awkward, but it doesn’t seem to have any practical effects. For example, if I’m overly polite or indirect in asking a shopkeeper for some bread, I still get the bread even if it comes with a perplexed look. In contrast, Georgians’ different turn-taking etiquette has often caused me to have practical difficulties in making basic purchases or other transactions.

Hats are not a part of social organization or coordination scheme – they do not help us to resolve ambiguous situations in which everyone must make the same arbitrary decision. They do not facilitate the orderly conduct of commerce. In this regard, taking your hat off is more like an act of verbal politeness. At some point in the obscure, distant past, there may have been a practical reason to take off a hat indoors, or at least some relevant social significance beyond “because that’s what I was taught”. However, as my introspection and googling reveal, those reasons are essentially lost to us today. And so today the effective reason for taking your hat off in a building is “because it is polite”. And the question I asked earlier becomes “what is the point of politeness?” or perhaps “what is the point of requiring students to be polite?”

Now I’ve argued that politeness rules do not serve a practical purpose, but that doesn’t mean that politeness *itself* doesn’t serve a practical purpose. The forms that politeness can take are different from culture to culture, but the phenomenon of politeness (and its opposite, rudeness) would appear to be universal. So what does politeness actually do?

Well, it’s essentially a form of social signalling. By being polite, you are showing the people around you that you are prosocial – that you are willing to follow social norms, and to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of others. By engaging in politeness, you are proclaiming that you will also follow the more practical rules of etiquette and manners. This, in turn, allows others to feel comfortable interacting with you in hopes that you will make good on the implied promise to be an upstanding member of society.

I think that teenagers can relate to the concept of hats as signalling. By wearing a hat in school – a harmless but noticeable display of rule-breaking – you are clearly signalling. You are signalling that the school authority cannot control or regulate your self-expression (or to borrow a very outdated turn of phrase, that you are “too cool for school”). You are signalling that you are laid-back, and relaxed, and that strict rules of formality don’t concern you that much – and by doing so you are making some of your peers feel comfortable and relaxed around you as well. In some sense wearing a hat could be considered pro-social – that is, if the student in question wishes to firmly delineate students as a *separate* social group from teachers.

But you are also signalling to the adults in the building that you are anti-social, at least where they are concerned. You are telling us that you are not willing to regulate your own behavior for the benefit of the group. You are warning us to watch out for you because you do not follow the rules, and we generally take that warning seriously. Most teachers probably associate students who wear hats indoors with students who break other rules, who are often in trouble, and who do not perform well academically. When we see you with a hat inside we lower our expectations of you, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually end up hurting your education. And although we may consciously try not to discriminate against you, the social wiring which tells us to prefer members of the group to outsiders – a result of millions of years of evolution – basically ensures that we will fail. If you dress up like a problem student, we will see you as a problem student, and treat you as a problem student. Unconscious bias is hugely powerful. (And by the way, a benefit of school uniforms is that it helps to remove opportunities for that bias to manifest itself.)

And so to come back around to the question – what is the point of making students take off their hats – I think we can be very cynical and say that we have a rule against hats because we know that troublemakers will break the rule and then we will have a very obvious and easy way to identify them. Or, we can be more generous and say that the rule facilitates prosocial signalling among students and teachers, in order to improve educational outcomes by taking advantage of natural human tendencies to cooperate with members of the tribe in good standing and regard them more highly than outsiders or outcasts. So I have to revise my earlier, naive hypothesis: if we regard school education as a primarily social activity, there actually *is* educational benefit to be gained from removing your hat.


Posted in Education | 2 Comments

This is why we can’t have nice things

Perhaps you’ve already heard the news that’s prompted me to come out of retirement and get back on my high horse: a group of Georgian chauvinists decided to bust up a film screening at a vegan cafe, because these days just being a complete asshole apparently passes for a political statement.

Reportedly this group came in with sausages strung around their neck and wielding skewers of meat. Kiwi cafe is also a non-smoking restaurant, but not for this sausage party! They lit up, and when staff complained they became aggressive and physically violent, thus reinvigorating the term “meathead” for a new generation.

Then, the cops came and decided to investigate and detain the victims, because of their “alternative” appearance, because in Georgia having a mohawk is cause for suspicion but wearing a meat necklace is just another Sunday night on the town. I’ve remarked before that many Georgian men seem to smell like smoked sausages for some reason, but I never knew it was because they sometimes wear it as jewellery.

Jokes aside, this is a pretty disturbing attack. I mean, okay, I personally don’t really care about veganism per se – no hostility there, it’s just not my issue. But I do very much care about living in a society in which some very basic rights are respected. This country has seen attacks on freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Now we’re seeing an attack on the freedom to choose what kind of food to eat? The freedom to operate a non-smoking cafe and the freedom of patrons to choose to dine in such a cafe? I don’t think the Soviets even told people what to eat.

Now imagine if this group had attacked a Georgian restaurant during Orthodox fasting season and started throwing meat into people’s vegetarian meals. The people would have risen as one in defense of someone’s right to eat lobio for Jesus, and the attackers would have been mauled by the crowd. Police would have investigated zealously.

But of course the two situations are not remotely comparable. In Georgia the only freedom that is respected is the freedom to be like everybody else.


RFE/RL has an analysis of the attack in the context of current and historical trends in Georgia. It’s good, I recommend reading it, even if it is a tad glib about the severity of the attack itself.

The obvious takeaway from this analysis is that this can be seen as an anti-Western, anti-liberal attack and even grouped with anti-LGBT attacks in Georgia in that the attackers seemed at least partially motivated by the idea that being vegan is gay (I invite the reader to insert their own sausage joke here).

The less obvious takeaway is that the apparent rise in nationalist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric in Georgia, post-Saakashvili, is perhaps a regression to the mean from the relative liberalism of the Saakashvili regime. The RFE/RL piece suggests that this nationalist vein in Georgian culture played a role in the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What I don’t quite have a handle on is how strong and widespread this nationalism actually is. Most of the Georgians I interact with are more Western-leaning and cosmopolitan – but that is clearly a self-selected group. I would guess that the average Georgian doesn’t have much of a stake in the issue of veganism as a threat to the Georgian identity, and hasn’t deeply thought about the contradictions between the liberal democratic EU regime and the obligations of defending tradition and conformity. What I don’t know is how many Georgians are prone to be riled up, given the right circumstances, into nationalist violence, or into a pivot towards Russia.

Another question is whether this is an isolated incident or whether it will embolden other Georgians to take similar actions against nontraditional groups. Sometimes things like this are growing pains – an adjustment period of mutual fear and distrust that occurs when any new idea is introduced. Other times they’re a shot fired across the bow – a precursor to more frequent and dangerous attacks. If the Georgian government is concerned about the latter possibility, they’re certainly not showing it.

I wish I had more insight to offer here, but I don’t. I don’t think anyone knows – the situation is unpredictable and unstable. I was always broadly pro-Misha and so I have to take care not to exaggerate my criticisms of Georgian Dream or make dire predictions of doom because my guy lost an election. It’s hard to tell whether this is confirmation bias, but I’m left thinking that this wouldn’t have happened during Misha’s time, when rather than a vegan bar in that neighborhood there were actual gay bars which largely went unmolested. And I’m dead certain Misha’s police would have taken the matter seriously.

But on the other hand, there wasn’t a vegan cafe to attack in Misha’s time. It’s undeniable that Georgia is still making Westward progress under GD and that some of the anti-GD rhetoric has been overblown. There are also more non-smoking restaurants than ever. And of course that has to do with demand – people who run vegan cafes and American burger joints and whatnot understand that they are cooking for people who actually want to taste their food – that there is a sizeable market share for people who want a smoke-free dining experience. But GD has not done anything to impede this progress, so that’s something.

I guess I’m very concerned about the possibility of things on the anti-Western front getting worse before they get better, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Even if nationalists start winning elections, Georgians have tasted Dunkin Donuts and they’re not going to give them up. Globalization has worked its magic and an undeniable transformation has taken place in Tbilisi over the last six years (even though we still don’t have a damn Starbucks).

My other worry is that the most pro-Western Georgians will simply leave – especially if there is visa liberalization with the EU – and let the country go to the dogs. If you know you could feel safe in a vegan cafe in any European capital – I’d bet even in Moscow – why would you stick around here and wait for the brownshirts to come for you when they decide that your favorite digs don’t jibe with Georgian tradition?


Finally, I’ll just note that it’s hard for me as an American to even understand the mindset here. The freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are part of the fabric of American society. We’re attached to them sometimes to the point of irrationality. Some countries have a national religion – we have the Bill of Rights. And the right to choose your own diet is clearly reserved to the states and the people. Take our most unhealthy foods and drinks and the only debate permitted in the public sphere is whether or not the state can restrict the amount we are allowed to buy at once. I have trouble imagining it even occurring to an American to try to force someone to eat meat if they didn’t want to. I think I speak for most meat-eating Americans when I say “fine, don’t eat meat – more for me!”

Georgians clearly have a very different understanding of rights and freedoms – an understanding which strikes me as somewhat ad hoc, given that there’s no document or philosophy they can point to other than a vague understanding of what is “normal”.

I think that veganism poses a very clear problem for that mindset: veganism is clearly not “normal” by almost any definition of the word, and yet it is also clearly a personal choice which threatens no one. I get that if everyone became gay, making children would be a much more complicated affair, and so nationalists who want to advance the bloodline at least have a twisted rationale for their hatred. But if everyone became vegan? Oh no! We’d have to convert all our pastures to wheat fields! That could take days!

But of course, in any society, there is a group of people who believe that when something challenges your mindset, your best bet is to attack it. It’s just unfortunate that Georgian society doesn’t have any reasonable check on those sorts of people.

Posted in Civics, Politics | 6 Comments