Androids as Allegories: Analysing Asian/American and African/American Embodiment in Speculative Media

by Anonymous, February 15, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

This essay was written in 2018, before the HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft County aired. Both narratives are worth looking into for representations of Black bodies in the nexus of history, science fiction, and modernity.

Recent years have seen increased diversity in the American population. However,  entwined with its shining tradition of immigration, our country has a much murkier history of  oppression and outgroup aggression. From slavery to Manifest Destiny, immigration bans to  racial violence, the repeated and systematic dehumanization of large swathes of the population  has sparked countless campaigns for liberty and equality that continue into the present day. The  media has proven an excellent tool for and against different agendas, with media portrayals of  different populations shaping public opinion of the people that comprise those groups. This essay  looks at two different subgenres of speculative fiction (Techno-Orientalism and Afrofuturism)  that emerged in the twentieth century and their connection to real-world histories of oppression  through the lens of two recent productions, the 2015 film Ex Machina and the Metropolis concept album series.

I. History of Un/humanity

Throughout American history, people of color have been posited as less than human.  From the Three-Fourths Compromise in 1787 and immigration bans in 1882 and 1917, to modern stereotyping, the American legal system has worked in tandem with socioeconomic anxieties to portray people of color as unhuman “Others.” This has been accomplished by relegating the bodies of Black and Asian people to the “uncanny valley.”

Figure 1. Graph depicting the uncanny valley (Mori).

Coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes semi/sentient technological simulacra that are vaguely familiar, but at the same time discomfiting in their distinct inhumanness (Chu; Roh 78). Mori believed that people respond positively to simulacra (i.e. effigies, superficial or unreal representations of humanity), when they are less than 85% similar to actual humans (Mori 2012). The strength of the positive response then increases proportionally, albeit slowly, as the percentage similarity increases. Those that fall near the graphical valley at 85% are characterized by an existence in the liminal space between humanity and the mere simulation of it (Figure 1).

This percentage is determined by a combination of the simulacra’s vocalizations, physical embodiment, and responses to human engagement.  Considering the negative connotations associated with African American Vernacular English, black skin, epicanthic folds and “foreign” customs, representations of people in media can often  be examined through the idea of the uncanny valley. Though rather than having the ambiguous  “human” category as the baseline, much of contemporary American respectability and assimilation politics uses the unmarked category of “whiteness” as the baseline against which all other speech patterns, bodies, and behaviors are compared and evaluated for  familiarity/humanity. 

With this context, we can begin to consider how the characterizations of people of color  in media and contemporary fiction force them into this uncanny liminal space, an existence allegorized by the speculative fiction staple – the android. Exploring different manifestations of the android as allegory enables us to disentangle the heterogeneity and distinctions within the minority monolith, as well as providing us with a deeper understanding of the relevance of  speculative representations of marginalized groups.

II. Techno-Orientalism

In a 1902 campaign to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that Chinese laborers were capable of sustaining deprivations in safety and  sustenance that those of European descent could not (Gompers). The paper was termed “Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood vs. Asian Cooleism”. Its very title suggests that Asian Americans are something other than hu/man, some differential species known as “Coolie”. Despite their crucial role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and as laborers in the American West, the extent of Asian American humanity was routinely called into question. They were construed as literal machines, “cogs of hyperproduction”,  arriving overseas in bulk for use in constructing industrial modernity (Roh 5).

Techno-Orientalism is a direct byproduct of this paradigm shift. It is defined by Danielle  Wong as “A discourse that imagines Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in  order to secure the West’s dominance as architects of the future” (Wong 35).

Lacking a distinct cultural history, America seeks to compensate by imagining a distinct  cultural future, in the form of future-societies. A staple in speculative fiction, future-societies  have their roots in the industrial revolution, when increasing mechanization led to novels and  speculation on the integration of synthetic technology with organic humanity. In the wake of the  technological and arms dominance that emerged in the nineteenth century, the United States  constructed its identity on the basis of modernity. Its status as a relatively young nation and a  global superpower to boot fed into this ideal of futurism, where Western society, America in  particular, was seen as the embodiment of modernism. “If it was the West that created  modernity, it was also modernity that created the imaginary space and identity described as  Western” (Morley 153). 

Beginning in the 1980s, however, Asia has seen tremendous economic and technological  growth, outpacing the nations typically thought to constitute the West. As a result, the focus of American anxieties shifted to “fears of being colonized [and] mechanized…in its pursuit of  technological dominance” (Roh 4). Disoriented by the shift in technological innovation, the  Western society developed insecurities about European and American modernity, Watching  Asian nations outpace them in terms of GDP growth and technological innovation forces  Western society to recenter the locus of modernity, forcing them to recenter the very core of their  identities (CIA). This leads to further othering of Asian/American populations by white in order to retain their sense of identity, which is so inextricably entwined with the notion of  technological superiority.

This led to the rise of cyberpunk. Envisioning future-societies dominated by masculinized  white protagonists, cyberpunk allowed creators to reproduce the militarized, white, “rugged  masculinity” that they believed to be their birthright. White men cast in the “lone wolf”  archetype are shown as taking a stand against faceless corporations that are trying to elide  humanity in favor of impersonal, unfeeling mechanization. Defining pieces in the genre include  Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), both of which center on a lone white man in an  Orientalized environment, which despite being populated by Asian/Americans, rarely gives them  scope to be active subjects. Limited in their characterization, the presence of Asian/American  bodies is used as sentient set dressing, with the sentience often called into question.

III. Ex Machina’s Inheritance

The distinction between sentience and thought originated in eighteenth century  philosophy and has been historically connected to dehumanization and the justification for  oppression towards the racial and ethnic Other. Sentient beings are considered capable of  subjective interpretation, also known as emotions. Thinking beings, in contrast, are simply able  to rationalize; take objective data and spit out information, no more human than a computer  CPU. Thus, denying Asian/American characters of a full range of emotional expression  effectively reduces them to androids; unhuman mechanized bodies whose sole purpose for  existing is manual labor. By removing Asian/American subjectivity from Asian-coded  environments, the narratives deny them personhood. 

This phenomenon is observed in the 2015 film Ex Machina. Despite its rather hackneyed  deployment of racialized tropes, Ex Machina is lauded as a speculative milestone for its inclusion of bodies of color in a future-society. However, said bodies are routinely denied  subjectivity. 

Humans interpret a subject’s emotion through two methods; voice modulation and facial  expression. It is thus telling that both Asian androids in the film, Jade and Kyoko, have static  visual affect displays. Throughout the 150-minute film, we see no variation in either of their expressions.  Furthermore, their sole expression is neutral, suggesting that they lack any capacity for  subjective, emotional response. In this sense, the film constructs the Asian face as “too artificial,  too inorganic to pass for human” (Wong 40). The stereotype of the unfeeling, coldly logical  Asian is depicted in full force here. This is driven to a visual extreme in the case of Jade, who is  shown tearing herself apart in an effort to escape confinement. Her desperation literally destroys  her. She does not show sentience, repeating the phrase “let me out” in a monotonous tone as her  body breaks down. 

It is also necessary to consider historical precedent in the case of Kyoko, who has been  effectively muted by Nathan, the androids’ creator. Unable to utter a single sound, or to move in  ways contrary to his explicit commands, she is denied any means of self-expression, any way of  conveying the thoughts and feelings that would mark her as sentient.  

Even Kyoko’s sexuality is almost mechanical in its eerie semblance to a computer  responding only to user input. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs when Caleb is  looking for Nathan. Approaching Kyoko, he repeatedly asks her for Nathan’s location. As she  remains mute, staring at him with her unchanging expression, Caleb shouts the profanity “F**k”  as an expression of his growing frustration. It is this word that triggers Kyoko’s first action in  this interaction, namely, to begin unbuttoning her shirt. Unable to respond outside the parameters  and commands which Nathan has programmed nor express sentience, Kyoko is a trite character, 

in the tradition of cyberpunk’s “use of the passive techno-Orientalized female body” (Roh 159).  Kyoko is nothing more than sexual, sexualized technology. 

Contrast this to Ava, the white female android. Not only does her tone vary throughout  the film, depending on the emotions she experiences, we can also see changes in her facial  expression. Viewers are called to question Ava’s humanity based on whether they perceive her  expressions and voice modulations as either genuine expressions of feeling or calculated actions  with the aim of liberation. In either case, Ava is at least offered the option of humanity, her white  face allowing her to “pass’ in a way neither Asian android can.  

What is more telling is director Alex Garland’s response to questions of racial bias. The  director stated in an interview:

“the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around  the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian.”

(Garland)

This statement is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation of race. Race is not a biological  reality so much as a social construct, with the body “a kind of mediation of the processes by  which race becomes attached to physiology…racialization is neither a biological nor a cultural  descriptor” so much as one created to divide society on a system of baseless difference. Skin  color, like so many other identities that have been historically rendered objects, exists on a  spectrum, and the sheer arbitrariness can be seen in codification attempts such as the “one-drop  rule”, which has no biological substance. There is a historical tradition of configuring posthuman  subjects as white, and the lack of subjective action given to the non-white androids renders them  unhuman, rather than posthuman. 

While the movie features multiple female bodies of color, they are not complex  characters. Even Kyoko’s demonstrations of her inorganic nature are oddly fetishized; a naked Asian woman is literally peeling away her flesh in order to show a white man the extent to which  she is an “Other”. Had Garland limited the removal to her face, it might have proven less overtly  voyeuristic. Even in the supposedly “feminist” scene, where Kyoko stabs Nathan, it is important  to note that her transgression results in her immediate death via dismemberment. It is the white  gynoid who delivers the final thrusts, who escapes into the wider world, whose transgressions  result in her salvation, as opposed to her destruction. 

Bound by the “visions” of both Nathan as  their fictional creator, and Garland as their real creator, Jade and Kyoko exist as little more  “technological tools for the personal exploration” of white women and men, rather than active  subjects in their own right (Roh 161). In interrogating the portrayal of said bodies, it is possible  to understand the premise of multiculturalism and its contributions to the same dehumanization it  purports to counter, by arguing that mere inclusion of bodies of color does not inherently confer  subjectivity to said bodies.

IV. Similarities – Comparing Histories

It is also important to consider the portrayal of the black body in Ex Machina as another embodiment of this concept. “The disconnection of black body parts from black subjectivity in  the name of scientific progress” (Wong 41) is a common motif in cyberpunk, as well as real world history. There is a rich American tradition of scientific experimentation on black slaves,  which is paralleled by Jasmine’s lack of face and brain. This literal absence of signifiers of  thought, feeling, and sentience disturbingly parallels the deplorable treatment of black women’s  bodies by white men in the name of “scientific inquiry”.  

The case of Saartjie Baartman stands as a grim example. One of the Khoikoi people of  southwestern Africa, Saartjie was taken to England by a Dutch trader, who then sold her to an  exhibitionist who displayed her in a literal menagerie for public viewings. In a gross parody of empiricism, scientists and anatomists would come to poke and prod the poor woman, all in the  name of “research”. Even death was not to provide a release from these indignities, as her body was autopsied for “definitive evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization”  (Farrell 76). Her labia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Paris museum until the  1970s, when activists managed to force the items to be removed from display. But it was only in  2002 that her remains were repatriated to South Africa and given a formal burial. 

Saartjie’s experiences were part and parcel of nineteenth century western philosophy that  used bastardized biological precepts to justify the dehumanization of black and brown bodies.  These pseudoscientific armchair anthropologists wrote about Asians, Africans and Native  Americans as less evolved, then – in a staggering display of egoism and lack of integrity – used  their own writings as “evidence” to justify oppression, colonization, imperialism, and slavery  (Farrell 60). Such blatantly unscientific paradigms undergirded centuries of unethical  experimentation on Black bodies, beliefs that Black people are “less sensitive to pain”  (Washington; Hoffman et al). 

It is very difficult to divest Jasmine’s denuded, defaced form from such a sordid history.  It is also difficult to read the film’s cinematography as anything more than an underdeveloped,  cursory nod to this history. It is a glancing acknowledgement, not a remotely clever  interrogation. The film’s creators seem to fail to realize that the simple reproduction of a cliché  or visual injustice is not necessarily a critique of it. 

Afrofuturism seeks to counter this objectifying trend. While Techno-Orientalism is based  on restructuring future temporalities as “colorblind” or white-by-default, Afrofuturism  restructures past and present temporalities to acknowledge the existence and active subjectivity  of black bodies (Van Veen 11). A subset of Ethnofuturism, it contains the largest body of work compared to other ethnofuturistic lenses, such as Asian-futurism and chicano-futurism, which  focus on Asian and Latinx representations in speculative fiction, respectively. When considering  the android as allegory for the conditions of racial “Others’ in America, it is important to  consider “the nonequivalent co-construction of anti-Asian and antiblack racism” (Roh 183). 

In both cases, however, a problem arises in the indirectness of the android as allegory.  Using the struggles of mechanized simulacra as representations of real-world dehumanization  transfers experiences that remain, in reality, and unhuman condition” to a level of literary  abstraction. By representing the struggle of these androids, most of which are typically either  indistinct or rife with racial caricaturing, as representative of real-world human struggle, it  separates the viewer from the reality, the visceral suffering of flesh and blood humans. They can  construct these struggles as being unreal, existing only in fictional allegory and post-apocalyptic  or long past temporalities. It removes the immediacy. 

V. Afrofuturism as the Future

African/Americans face a similar struggle for nuanced representation in speculative  fiction. A study conducted as recently as 2008 found that Black people in America are routinely considered subhuman, represented in media as “ape-like” and more “primitive” (Goss et al.).  Unlike Asian/Americans, though, their unhumaness is tied to their lack of technology. Whether considering technologies of the flesh (intelligence), or disembodied technologies (access to the Internet, computer systems, smart devices), African/Americans have been portrayed as  possessing “less”. This construction of blackness as antithetical to technology-and therefore  limited in sociocultural-advancement is reinforced by “the digital divide…limited broadband in  inner-city communities, and the lack of computers in urban schools…racial surveillance and  profiling” (Womack 47).

Unlike Asian/Americans, contemporary dehumanization of black skin is posited on the  notion that they are “less evolved”, more closely resembling the prehuman apes as opposed to  posthuman androids. In this sense, depicting African/Americans as active technology-enhanced  subjects in speculative literature, rather than contributing to a history of caricatured oppression,  can serve as a counter to “militarist and masculinist white visions of 20th century antiseptic  science fictional futures” (Van Veen 20). By portraying black as integral to the narrative fabric  of posthuman future-societies, they subvert the white default in media, and reconstruct narratives  to provide less glamourized contexts for the reality of their condition. 

As a movement, Afrofuturism can be defined as aiming to “Fuse the shiny tomorrowland  of extraterrestrial beings, experimental technoculture and cybertronic robots with the self-esteem  politics of ‘black is beautiful’” (Nama 142). By generating narratives that examine the  African/American social condition while simultaneously imagining unconventional  African/American embodiments beyond those imposed through a history of white hegemony and  colonial trauma.

VII. ArchAndroid

The condition of robot laborers bears striking similarity to that of African/American  slaves. Both are constructed as unhuman, their commodification and enslavement justified by  questioning their capacity for sentience. In fact, the term “robot” comes from the novel  “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The author, Capek, takes the term directly from the Czech word  for “forced labor”, a descriptor evocative of slavery. In most depictions of androids as allegory  for this group,

“The figure of the excluded and racialized other had nonetheless been insidiously  included: the other had just been sanitized as metallic robota, ‘their’ troublesome  attributes of consciousness and demand for ‘human rights’ quietly erased through deferential reprogramming.”

(Van Veen 20)

This entire allegory is explored in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series. Chronicling  the narrative of a messianic female android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s work also uses a  working android as an allegory for the experience of individuals of color, but unlike the  voyeuristic distance of Ex Machina, Monáe’s Metropolis is populated by black androids, and  humans of different ethnicities. What is telling is that the android bodies, made and marked for  commodification, are those of black women. However, unlike the sustained male gaze present in  the creation of other cyberpunk and speculative fiction properties, e.g. Ex Machina, the album  series presents Cindi as a subject rather than object. Her face is hyper-expressive, switching  between expressions in a rapid, fully humanized manner, while her body is never denuded,  except for the album art in The Metropolis Suite. However, it is unskinned and unadorned,  explicitly showing wiring and cords spilling out of her, suggesting disassembly and un/making than a voyeuristic intrusion. Her unfinished body is tellingly depicted in a stark white metallic  shade, to convey how the embodiment of “blackness” as a race is purely social, with no natural  basis. The color of our skin is literally that of the elements we were created with, and not a  reflection of us as individuals.

Unlike Ex Machina, Metropolis is also consciously aware of the history it inherits, and  the rampant objectification of bodies of color in mainstream speculative fiction. A tongue-in cheek adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, it uses a female android as a catalyst for  societal change. While Lang’s film posited the gynoid Maria as an evil entity, whose  hypersexualized performances were responsible for fomenting what was essentially a communist  uprising that resulted in societal collapse and destruction, Monáe’s series posits Cindi  Mayweather as an androgynous, messianic entity whose performances encourage individual self expression and love. Rather than being coded as a mechanical Eve, responsible for the downfall of man, Mayweather relies on “the concept of prophecy, or speaking about hope to create a vision  of the future.” (Womack 41). Monáe also uses the concept of love as a measure of humanity, with viewer sympathy for Cindi stemming from her initial attraction to a human. But it is telling that her character is not marked solely by her actions in relation to men. While her attractions and affections catalyze her development as a messianic performer, it is her use of prophecy and calls to liberty that fully renders her a subject. In this case, the android is a beautiful allegory for enslavement, using music as a means of communication to call her people to freedom from an oppressive society that sees them as little more than objects. In fact, the use of the term ArchAndroid to describe Mayweather is reminiscent of the term “archangel”, suggesting that she  holds the key to all sentient salvation.

“Her inversion of Maria, the female android who is constructed to seduce and trick the  proletarian workers of Metropolis. In Monáe’s version, “slave cybergirl” #57821  becomes the ArchAndroid, the revolutionary mediator between the proles and the elites,  just as her Africanist embodiment reverses Maria’s whiteness to the ArchAndroid  blackness.”

(Van Veen 13)

Her frenzied audiences are also predominantly women of color, with men of color outnumbering white men. This defies the male gaze that is so pervasive in speculative fiction, increasing  Mayweather’s subjectivity, as opposed to objectification in the eyes of a male audience with  greater social power than herself. It makes it explicitly clear who her message is for, consciously aware that the messages of empowerment and control that manifest in depictions of future-societies are typically centered on white men. For Mayweather’s audience, self-worth and love for others in a future-society parallels that in contemporary society, acting as revolutionary forces that can counter a societal dynamic of dehumanization and objectification. Metropolis’s Cindi  Mayweather thus subverts the android trope in its entirety, offering a possible archetypal “happy ending”, rather than having the android punished for her subversiveness, as with Kyoko in Ex Machina

Monáe’s use of Egyptian motifs is also telling, hearkening back to a time when dark skinned cultures were heralded as advanced societies, producing technological knowledge that  shaped the world. They were the crux of technoscientific development, and as such were the loci of modernity. Rather than relying on trite, tired racialized imagery based solely on  dehumanization in the post-colonial context, the symbols employed by Monáe connote possibilities of power.

IX. Conclusion

It is important to understand that these issues are not restricted to the past and paper. The  insidious specters of systemic dehumanization continue to make their presence felt current  political rhetoric surrounding African and Asian societies. The distinction between Ex Machina and Monáe’s work is rooted in the use of an objectifying lens versus a subjective one. This  distinction serves to “complicate [the] assumption…that inclusion would remediate racism”.  While Ex Machina used racist cliches, it did nothing to dismantle the stereotypes or xenophobia that initially created them. Contrast this with Metropolis, which uses lyrics such as “I’m a slave  cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of man, I’m a product of the man)” to  cleverly subvert the notion that women of color are incapable of subjectivity and/or sentience.  The use of the first-person pronoun immediately acknowledges the speaker’s subjectivity and  self, even as the literal words imply that her nature is to be objectified. Unlike Ex Machina’s  brutalization of the literally brainless and faceless black female body (shockingly sensational, but  hardly original), Metropolis immediately follows this lyric with a chorus that drives home the  nature of that dehumanization. Cultures of inequity, just like robots, are products created by  (mostly) men, for the system of institutions and ideologies that privileges them over “Others.” Mayweather the android, her body and programming created by a man and commodified in the  future-society. is thus a parallel to the contemporary woman of color, whose gender and race are  the products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society that profits and has profited on the  commodification of their bodies.

As seen through the deconstruction of Ex Machina and Janelle Monáe’s use of colored  bodies, however, it is evident that inclusion itself does not progressive humanization make.  Rather, it is the complex context in which the human or androids act and react that truly makes  for positive representations. It is not enough to have the bodies without considering what they are  meant and made to embody. Afrofuturism offers a direct response to histories of inequity that  Techno-Orientalism only serves to reinforce.


Citations

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Bennett, M. (2016). Afrofuturism. Computer, 49(4), 92-93. 

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Coste, D., Moore, D., & Zarate, G. (2009). Plurilingual and pluricultural competence. Language Policy Division. Strasbourg: Council of Europe

Farrell, A. E. (2011). Fat shame: Stigma and the fat body in American culture. NYU Press. 

Garland, A. (2015, April 16). Interview with Alex Garland, Writer/Director of Ex Machina [Interview by C. Nash]. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from http://www.cinematicessential.com/interview-with-alex-garland-writerdirector-of-ex machina/ 

Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal  of personality and social psychology, 94(2), 292. 

Gompers, S., & Gutstadt, H. (1908). Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhhod Against Asiatic  Coolieism, which Shall Survive?. American Federation of Labor and printed as Senate  document 137 (1902); reprinted with intro. and appendices by Asiatic Exclusion League. 

Hoffman, K. M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J. R., & Oliver, M. N. (2016). Racial bias in pain  assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(16), 4296-4301. 

Lee, R. C. (2014). The exquisite corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, biosociality, and  posthuman ecologies. NYU Press.

Lee, R. C. (2014). The exquisite corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, biosociality, and  posthuman ecologies. NYU Press.

Malik, K. (2010, March 17). Multiculturalism undermines diversity. Retrieved March 30, 2017.

Mori, M., MacDorman, K. F., & Kageki, N. (2012). The uncanny valley [from the field]. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, 19(2), 98-100.

Morley, D., & Robins, K. (2002). Spaces of identity: Global media, electronic  landscapes and cultural boundaries. Routledge. 

Nama, A. (2009). Brave black worlds: black superheroes as science fiction ciphers. 15.

Roh, D. S., Huang, B., & Niu, G. A. (2015). Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press.

Van Veen, T. C. (2013). VESSELS OF TRANSFER: Allegories of Afrofuturism in Jeff  Mills and Janelle Monáe. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 5(2). 17.

Washington, H. A. (2006). Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical  experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Doubleday Books. 

Womack, Y. (2013). Afrofuturism: the world of Black sci-fi and fantasy culture. Chicago  Review Press. 19. Wong, D. (2017). Dismembered Asian/American Android Parts in Ex Machina as  ‘Inorganic’Critique. Transformations (14443775), (29).

The Micronesian Suicide Epidemic

by Brandon Chavez, January 25, 2021

Brandon Chavez is a Class of 2024 undergraduate majoring in History. He enjoys learning about social and political issues in other countries & places around the world. He also enjoys learning about the challenges faced by indigenous populations.

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

”Suicide rates since 1960 in Micronesia (the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands) have undergone an epidemic-like increase. This phenomenon is focussed narrowly within the 15-24-year male age-group”

(Rubinstein, 1983).

Family plays a quite significant role in Micronesian society. An individual’s self-esteem is very dependent on the acceptance and support of the family, more so than any other contributing factor. A firm place and role in the family is a source of self-esteem for an individual. The significance of familial relations and approvals are shown with one of Hezel’s statistics in his data: “Over 70 percent of all the suicides since 1960 were precipitated by conflicts within the consanguineal family” (Hezel, 55).

This phenomenon of high suicide rates among the male youth in Micronesia was first noticed by Reverend Francis Hezel, a Jesuit who was the director of Xavier High School in the Chuuk islands for nearly 18 years. Reverend Hezel wrote a magazine article about this phenomenon in 1977. Dr. Rubinstein, a researcher at Honolulu’s East-West Center, and Reverend Hazel later decided to research the issue further in the following years where they collected many facts about the situation but unfortunately did not come up with any solutions at the time. A later publication by Hezel in 1989 described the magnitude of the situation in Micronesia in comparison with the suicide rates of the United States: “The general suicide rate for Truk is 40 per 100,000. The rate for Trukese males between 15 and 25 is a startling 250 per 100,000. This is 20 times the youth rate in the United States” (Hezel, 1989).

Hezel observed that these suicides can be linked to small disputes between a young man and an older family member, like an older sibling or parent. Two examples were cited by Hezel to show his observation of the trend: one 13 year old boy hung himself after being scolded by his mother and a 16 year old boy also hung himself after his father refused to give him $1.

Another trend Hezel recognized was that the suicides would be clustered in groups; the death of one young man would often lead to suicides of others in the area. 

When thinking about possible causes for these trends, Hezel initially thought that the process of modernization and its pressures clashing with traditional island societies was responsible for this phenomenon. Hezel and Rubinstein looked further into the issue and found that poor family relations were a common pattern with their research. 

Hezel also described another insight into the issue that he gathered from his research: 

“Rather than an impulsive act, we found the suicides were often the result of a longterm intolerable situation”

(Hezel, 1983).

Reverend Hezel’s insight reveals that these suicides in Micronesia are not impulsive, but that there is a cultural aspect to the situation, regarding a traditional island defense mechanism taken to an extreme. The word “amwunumwun” is used by the Chuukese to describe the behavior of young men using withdrawal to express shame or anger. Refusing to eat or being silent are examples of actions that these young men engage in when showing this behavior. 

Reverend Hezel and Dr. Rubinstein believed that the strategy of amwunumwun became violent in the 1960s and 1970s where suicide might be considered the most extreme form of this behavior of bringing harm to oneself to save a relationship. A Chuukese suicide victim thought that being dead would repair more to a damaged relationship than if they were alive.In a later publication Reverend Hezel shed new insight on the suicide epidemic in the Chuuk islands (Hezel, 1989).

Figure 1

Note. Hezel found that anger was the leading cause of suicide in several islands in Micronesia (Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap), the Marshall Islands and Palau (Hezel, 1989, p. 49).

Hezel also sought to find out the significance of the types of interpersonal and familial relationships that lead to suicide in Micronesia. Below is the table of his recorded data:

Figure 2

(Hezel, 1989, p. 51)

The table revealed that a relational disruption or conflict between a young man and his parents was often the most common cause of relational disruption that led to suicide. Hezel notes that in suicide cases that were led by disruptions in nonfamily relationships, the victim might break off familial ties because of the shame that might be bringing to their family and fear of what their family members’ reactions woud be. The victim was ashamed of actions that could offend their family and feared a consequential disruption in familial relations.

In 2007,  Dr. Mao-Sheng Ran, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, reviewed pre-existing data on the characteristics of suicide in Micronesia. 

Dr. Ran’s research found another phenomena that highlights the effect of mental health on suicide in Micronesia the effect of mental health on suicide in Micronesia compared with another country such as the United States.

Figure 3

(Ran, 2007, p. 83).

The bar graph above reveals an interesting and peculiar observation about the correlation between mental illness and suicide victims in Micronesia. Only 10% of suicide victims in Micronesia had psychiatric disorders, while 90% of suicide victims in the United States had mental illness. Dr. Ran states that: “Mental illness did not appear to be an important factor in Micronesian suicides. Most of the victims have had no serious delinquency problems, psychological abnormality, or psychosis” (Ran, 83).

Dr. Ran noted that intergenerational conflict was the most common cause that led to suicide and most suicides occured because of a conflict, misunderstanding or argument between a young victim and their parents or older relative. 

The definition of anger in Hezel’s research is further explored in Dr. Ran’s review. Hezel’s publication in 1989 cited three distinct patterns of suicides which included anger suicides, shame suicides and psychotic suicides. It was previously mentioned in Hezel’s publication that anger suicides were the most prominent in Micronesian suicide cases, but this definition of anger adds a new understanding to the situation. Ran established that:”The definition of ‘anger’ was similar to the way Americans describe depression”(Ran, 2007, pg. 84). This definition of anger shows a cultural difference in how anger is defined in Micronesian society and American society. 

The review also included several aspects and social changes that may be responsible for the high suicide rate in Micronesia. The first change is the expansion of a cash economy in Micronesia and the decreasing reliance on subsistence production. The production may be responsible for weakening the significance of clan and lineage activities. The decline in clan and lineage activities narrows social support for teenagers, increases reliance and dependence on parents, and increases  parental-adolescent conflicts.The second change is the acceptance of suicide which can be attributed to this increase in suicide rates. As suicide becomes common among the youth, it became more acceptable and even expected.

According to Hezel, western solutions such as suicide prevention hotlines and counseling would not fully solve the suicide epidemic witnessed in Micronesia as the issue is not only psychological but also cultural. Dr. Ran offered several suggestions for future research to combat the issue. Ran suggests that there should be more surveillance on suicidal behavior in Micronesia, independent research on preventive and risk factors, and a longitudinal study on social and economic shifts affecting the male youth. Since there is not many mental health professionals available, Ran suggests that more individuals should be trained to counter the issue of suicide. 

The Micronesian suicide epidemic is quite unique as the root of the issue is concerned more with the inter-generational conflict and socio-cultural elements found within Micronesian society rather than mental illness. Solutions to the issue and research on the topic cannot be treated in a western approach, as the act of suicide has shown to be woven into the youth culture of Micronesian society. Future studies, research, and clinical approaches must consider the socio-cultural elements of Micronesian society & family to make progress in combating the Micronesian suicide epidemic.


References

Hezel, F. (1989). Suicide and the Micronesian family. The Contemporary Pacific, 1(1/2), 43–74. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23701892 

Micronesia’s male suicide rate defies solution. (1983, March 06). The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/06/us/micronesia-s-male-suicide-rate-defies-solution. html 

Ran, Mao-Sheng. (2007). Suicide in Micronesia: A systematic review. Primary Psychiatry, 14(11), 80–87. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262882325_Suicide_in_Micronesia_A_Systematic_Review

Rubinstein, D. H. (1983). Epidemic suicide among Micronesian adolescents. Social Science & Medicine, 17(10), 657–665. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(83)90372-6

AI – A Casual Overview

by Jeffrey Huang, January 21, 2021

Jeffrey is pursuing a B.A. in Psychology at Stony Brook. He enjoys technology and is always keeping up with the latest hardware releases.

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

Technology. Such a simple concept of scientific application can have many implications for our lives, history, and the world. When people talk about the dangers of technology, popular media has us thinking about robots, and by extension, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Media like The Matrix franchise, Person of Interest, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (either novel or film) highlight the potential that AI has in terms of changing our world through apocalyptic means, a dystopic society, etc. Would you believe me if I told you we were already, in some respects, in such a society today? For example, think of any time where you might have been discussing something in the open with a friend, but then see advertisements the next time you browse the web? Such was most likely the work of AI, or more specifically, Machine Learning (ML) Algorithms. The overhead of employing many human listeners would usually be too much, so such work would be mostly delegated to automation[1]. This essay is a culmination of what I’ve learned from Professor Brennan’s PSY 369, Psychology in the Age of Intelligent Machines, and what I know as a computer enthusiast.

The AI singularity seems like a technological milestone that humanity may never reach. However, despite less than ideal implementations of such technology in areas like human language translation[2], we have progressed significantly over the course of computing history. In terms of literal definitions, automated systems can pass the Turing Test, as it was written in the 1950s. Nobody uses the Turing Test in the way it was originally written; it is more of a thematic test of achieving near-human systems. I would recommend VSauce’s video here for reference (Stevens, 2017). Some key examples of AI efforts include major companies you’ve probably heard of. Tesla is one among many automobile manufacturers developing autonomous driving (“Autopilot AI”, 2020). Google, being the technological juggernaut it is, has general AI research and development along with custom computer chips (“Google AI”, 2020). Even Boston Dynamics is using AI, with some autonomous functionalities built into the Spot lineup of robots (“Spot®”, 2020).

Most prominently, AI is in the social media we use every day, through feed recommendations and those all-important corporate advertisements that provide these services to you. Most of these efforts are not usually made with malicious intent, but their implications may be anything but benevolent. Despite me writing this essay, the majority of users will not really notice AI as it slowly creeps into our lives. It’s like the rising sun; minute by minute, you don’t notice the incoming light. But, over time, if you were to compare your first minute to your last minute; assuming the sun is up, you notice this marked change. It’s a similar concept here. Slowly, technology and AI integrates itself into our lives until we don’t see its marked change before. For reference, ask older individuals what life was like before the internet, or the proliferation of accessible personal computing. We’ve advanced from expensive IBM compatibles to Chromebooks.

The issue with AI is not so much the underlying technology, nor the idea behind it. Like many concepts, it is a good idea on paper. In practice, nobody adheres to what might make it great. In the interest of expediency and cost-effectiveness, companies push forth half-baked implementations where we see more negative consequences. AI/ML algorithms are simply algorithms. They attempt to predict, with less precision than the real world, an approximation of what should be. It’s like walking through your house blindfolded. You probably won’t fall or seriously injure yourself, but seeing with your eyes is much better than relying on memory reconstructions. It’s similar with AI. However, instead of stumbling blindly in a controlled, familiar environment, such systems are thrown into the real world. Instead of being blindfolded in your house, you’re blindfolded and randomly placed on a football field. Imagine the disorientation – you would have no idea of where you were relative to the rest of the layout of said field.

AI’s implementations in the current justice system and in job selection are akin to these blind analogies. While you might think that this is due to evil programmers, this is not usually intentional. AI algorithms are mysterious in that regard. Given current frameworks and paradigms, how it generates results is unknown. Oftentimes, this is to shocking effect with its eerily accurate predictions, sometimes from scant data – privacy violations notwithstanding. Despite this, it’s sometimes claimed as a great innovation. Finally one can get “objective” judgements and predictions.

The truth is, though, there’s no such a thing as an objective algorithm. AI is only as good as the data that it’s fed, and in some cases, the wrong data leads to a perpetuation of broken systems. For instance, recidivism algorithms[3] are biased towards disadvantaged populations like people of color.

recidivism – a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, especially to relapse into criminal behavior

Merriam-Webster

In some cases, more privileged, Caucasian individuals are at an advantage given confounding lifestyle correlations tied to outcomes. For instance, an African-American who is considered high in recidivism risk will receive more scrutiny while on parole versus a Caucasian who is not. It’s ironic at times, as the end outcome can be that the African-American will obey the law and the Caucasian ends up back in prison. Despite these inconsistencies, such algorithms are pushed onto judges who don’t know any better, and innocent individuals can be caught in the crossfire (Angwin et al., 2016).

With that in mind, is there reason to panic, shout and protest? Yes and no. While it isn’t always great as I enumerated above, there are some benefits to these technologies, when used properly. An easy example of this duality is in nuclear technologies. It can be used to terrible effect, or used to generate power. AI has shown immense potential, as shown in various technology demos, or real-world implementations. For video games, AI can enable higher perceived visual fidelity with more realistic lighting or resolution upscaling, and such implementations are slowly being added to newer games and are present in next-generation consoles (“RTX. It’s On. Ultimate Ray Tracing and AI,” 2020; Battaglia, 2020). Outside of gaming, you have frame-interpolation for animations, where an algorithm attempts to make it smoother. Traditional animations like Pixar films may suffer visually from attempting this, as seen in this thread on Twitter:

For stop-motion, though, this changes the game completely. It’s much easier to just have an animation filmed at 15 fps than it is to use AI to enable a smoother, 30 fps final product (Boosting Stop-Motion to 60 fps using AI, 2020). And of course, there is the infinite comedic potential, especially with song generation or translations (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 2020). Outside of that, this has the capability to change the way we work literally. Imagine a richer world where AI assists in creative work, or the formulation of novel chemicals that could change lives (Conti, 2016; Hessler & Baringhaus, 2018). That’s also in the works, as well as the dystopic solutions above.

The key point of this essay is not so much to get you fired up one way or the other about AI, but to just be aware of these systems and changes in our society. Congress has tried, unsuccessfully, to consider it, and it’s our job as the greater public to be informed and act accordingly. Greater awareness can be detrimental, as seen with Brandolini’s Law[4]. However, given how unconscious these processes currently operate, it’s best to bring them to light.

Footnotes

[1] Additionally, you probably consented to such listening when agreeing to the arcane and long Terms of Service or End User License Agreement for things like Google services.

[2] As improved as translation services are like DeepL, it can still sound odd to native speakers, as I’ve learned in Chinese with my own family.

[3] Algorithms designed to predict re-offending inmates after being released on parole

[4] It takes more information and effort to correct misinformation, especially on the internet.


References

Angwin, J., Larson, J., Mattu, S., & Kirchner, L. (2016). Machine Bias. ProPublica. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing

Autopilot AI. Tesla.com. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.tesla.com/autopilotAI

Battaglia, A. (2020). PlayStation 5: what to expect from next-gen console ray tracing. Eurogamer.net. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-2020-playstation-5-ray-tracing-software-analysis

Boosting Stop-Motion to 60 fps using AI. (2020). [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFN9dzw0qH8

Crimson Mayhem. 2020, October 6. “You want to know why converting animation that were specifically made in 24 frames per second to 60 FPS…”. Twitter. https://twitter.com/Crimson_Mayhem_/status/1313562730977255426

Google AI. Google. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://ai.google/.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Recidivism. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/recidivism

Spot®. BostonDynamics.com. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.bostondynamics.com/spot

Stevens, Michael. (2017). Artificial Intelligence – Mind Field (Ep 4) [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXpgf8N6hs

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (2020). Google Translate Songs with Halsey [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRZ4zci_YUU

Debating the Electoral System of the United States

by Cassandra Skolnick and Sanjana Sankaran, December 16, 2020

To conduct this collaboration, the authors participated in a coin flip. Cassandra lost the coin flip and has been entrusted to debate in favor of the Electoral College. Sanjana, the winner of the coin flip, has been entrusted to debate in favor of Ranked Choice Voting. Both authors have agreed to suppress all personal opinion and bias for the purpose of this debate. To make things more interesting, this debate was conducted through text message.

DEBATE QUESTION

Which electoral system is better for the United States: the existing Electoral College or Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

Cassandra (Nov. 23, 2020 – 11:36 AM)

Opening Statement: I am disinclined to acknowledge this debate question as it is presented. The question is categorically wrong, deriving from the assumption that the Electoral College and ranked choice voting are mutually exclusive. Maine used ranked choice voting in the 2020 election, and the votes were then allocated to an elector in the Electoral College. So, your argument is still in favor of the Electoral College and there is no debate to be had.

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 5:30 PM)

Opening Statement: I believe that ranked choice voting is better for the United states. The Electoral College and RCV are not mutually exclusive, and that is shown in various countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, who use RCV for various elections, both major and local, without the use of an elector. RCV is the epitome of majority rules, the system we have now is plurality rules, where a majority of people who vote do not get the candidate of their choosing.  Benjamin Reilly, an electoral system design expert at the University of Western Australia, said at best, RCV serves as a “prophylactic against extremism,” something America sorely needs (Kambhampaty).

Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:01 PM)

Your opening argument calls for the implementation of a Ranked Choice Voting system because it is “…the epitome of majority rules” (Skolnick and Sankaran). An analysis conducted on Ranked Choice Voting in the journal Electoral Studies “…analyzed some 600,000 votes cast using RCV in four local elections in California and Washington” (Waxman). The conclusion from the analysis was that none of the elections resulted in the winner receiving a majority of the votes.

Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:30 PM)

Ranked Choice Voting is an attractive concept, and I am willing to concede that it may be entertaining to rank candidates based on who you like best and who you like least; but let me propose a question to you. You are a passionate American who wants to perform their civic duty and vote in an upcoming presidential election. The ballot is in front of you and you have a selection of five candidates. You think hard and rank your top three choices.

Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:34 PM)

When the polls close, your three candidates are eliminated and one of the remaining two is declared the winner. Did you have a say in who won the election? Did the majority of Americans have a say in who won the election? Instead of voting for one candidate or against another, you now have to ask Americans to think strategically to make sure that the worst-case scenario fails to emerge.

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:40 PM)

You say Americans have to prevent the worst case scenario, however many democrats believed Biden was the worst or last case scenario. There were many progressive candidates who had huge followings such as Warren and Sanders. Those democrats would argue that RCV would have given those people a fighting chance. Referencing your point about the elections in California, the paper that Waxman cites discusses the pros and cons of RCV, and says the candidate did not receive over 50% of the vote because of “voting exhaustion” (Waxman).

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:00 PM)

While I can agree this is a problem with the RCV system, it has not been a problem for Australia for the past century. In a majority of these cases candidates always get over 50 % of the votes after a certain amount of rounds, and might I add that voting exhaustion is only a problem when voting is made to be extremely difficult. Mail in ballots being sent back, lack of same day registration, voter intimidation and suppression all contribute to voter exhaustion, and not solely because of RCV.

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:04 PM)

In fact, according to many election result archives from the “Fair Vote,” places with RCV have increased voter turnout because candidates feel less guilty for voting for minority parties; additionally, because it is done in rounds, there is higher voter participation than the plurality system. Between 2006 and 2010 there was a 43% increase in voter turnout for the mayoral elections in Oakland, California (Richie and Hill).

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:22 PM)

According to Rob Richie, the Conservative and Labor party used RCV for electing a mayor in London and “The Conservatives elected a winner on the first count, while the Labor nominee earned 59% of the final round vote after securing 37% of first choices – with more than 99.9% valid ballots out of the nearly 90,000 ballots cast” (Richie).

Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:30 PM)

One of the main reasons why the current system is dangerous to democracy is because it enforces the concept of negative partisanship whereby people would rather vote against someone than for someone. We saw this in the 2016 election where many people were unhappy with both options so they abstained, or they were extremely unhappy with the democratic option so they voted against Clinton rather than for Trump. This in turn creates more division and a politicization of issues that should be bipartisan such as the COVID-19 pandemic (“We’re Doing Elections Wrong”).

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:40 PM)

This is the problem with proponents for RCV. There is a general understanding of RCV, but not the many parts that make the system up. For one, are you arguing for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or a Single Transferable Vote Proportional Representation (STV)? You brought up Australia but are you aware that Australia employs both of these RCV voting systems? I’m going to assume you have been thinking of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) since you keep speaking about the presidential election, so we will start there…

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:43 PM)

The problem in the United States with IRV is that the advantage it proposes is illusory at best (Minguo). Proponents believe that IRV is the solution needed to prevent supporters of minor parties from stealing votes from a major party and therefore benefiting the other major party in an election: the spoiler effect. That sounds fantastic, as long as the minor party has no chance of actually winning the election. Well, Sanjana, I propose this situation to you; what happens when a minor party gains traction and becomes a threatening major third party? Well, then supporters pose the same risk they pose in a plurality system. Let’s explore this…

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:50 PM)

Suppose that strong third party comes along. For the sake of argument, we will call this party the American Party. The party identifies as a politically centrist party, leaning left on issues involving social oppressions and environmental concerns. On November 3rd, your preference is the American candidate, and the Democratic candidate is naturally your second choice. After several rounds of counting, the American candidate is eliminated and your votes transfer to your second choice, the Democratic candidate. The Democrat ultimately wins the election. Great, you may be disappointed that the American candidate lost, but at least the Democratic candidate who shares a lot of your beliefs won.

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:54 PM)

Now, let’s throw a monkey wrench into your early celebration of the IRV system. What if the Democratic candidate is eliminated before the American candidate? Unless all of the votes transfer to the American candidate, which is unlikely, the Republican candidate would win the election. You just helped the Republican win the election by not ranking the Democrat first. Which puts you in a familiar situation that you are experiencing in the current plurality system if you vote your true preference (Minguo).

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:57 PM)

I understand your frustration with the Electoral College, but you are overlooking a fundamental flaw of IRV. The example that I described above fails to recognize one of your preferences in the election. By voting American and then Democrat, you increased the chances that the Democrat will be eliminated before the American. Once this happens, your preference for the Democrat over the Republican is essentially discarded or ignored. The only way that you can make sure that your vote is not wasted is to vote for one of the two major party candidates as your first choice (Minguo). Wait a minute, isn’t that what we’re doing already?

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 1:05 PM)

You keep speaking passionately about democratic majority rule and bringing up countries like Australia and New Zealand. To quote you directly, “RCV is the epitome of majority rules” (Skolnick and Sankaran). I want to counter by throwing out Athens and France, where democratic majority rule ultimately led to tyranny of the majority, “…the majority of the electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority factions” (Wikipedia, “Tyranny of the majority”). This is one of the pitfalls of democracy that our founding fathers feared when they established this country and why they created the Electoral College. It ultimately destroyed Ancient Athens. Now, you want to establish a voting system that could result in this precise dilemma.

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 1:08 PM)

Let’s take a moment to deliberate the case of Ancient Athens. During the 4th century BC, Athens suffered catastrophic democratic collapse amid “…crippling economic downturn, while politicians committed financial misdemeanors, sent its army to fight unpopular wars and struggled to cope with a surge in immigration” (Cambridge). What caused these horrific conditions? Two words… “mob rules” (Cambridge). Democratic majority cleared the way for demagogues and tyrants to seize power, ultimately destroying the city-state from the inside.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:09 PM)

The Electoral College may have been a solution back then when several Americans did not have access to education. However, with the advancement of technology, and increased education of American’s, the American government should recognize that we are capable of making informed decisions. Now I want to be extremely clear when discussing RCV I am specifically interested in applying that to primaries, and local elections rather than general elections. In the general election I believe that we should only go by popular vote.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:12 PM)

Within governmental systems RCV will be more beneficial, especially in a two party system because there are several candidates within each party you fall under various different umbrellas. You have the Tea party, Green party, Progressives, Moderates, and Libertarians. Because of the vast amount of choices that exist RCV would allow candidates to freely rank their candidates without the instance of a spoiler candidate or vote splitting. RCV will actively prevent extremists from either side of the spectrum from reaching the general election.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:15 PM)

On one side you have conservatives whose extremists are white nationalists or supremacists, and on the other side one may see extreme socialism or communism. RCV also results in less negative campaigning because if they want to be someone’s second choice or third choice they still have to appeal to a broader base and withhold divisive language that only leads to more polarization (Neal).

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:39 PM)

Now looking purely at the objections of this system, I will argue that these worries are unfounded. The first concern is that it will go against the concept of “one person, one vote”. Because of this, several lawmakers have tried to litigate this system as being unlawful and unconstitutional. However, several of these litigations have not succeeded because there is nothing in the constitution that proves RCV is considered to be unconstitutional. The second concern is that it may be too confusing for voters, and they will have to know all of the candidates policies, and how the whole voting process works. To this concern I say, “well, obviously.” In any voting system, every voter should be educated in the candidates’ policies in order to make a proper decision and then decide whether or not they want to support the candidate.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 3:00 PM)

In order to make an informed decision, voters need to be exposed to candidates from an unbiased perspective. As voters become more educated in the candidates’ policies, extremism will go down. Much of the reason that Trump rose to power was because of rampant misinformation spread by social media and sites such as Fox News. Lastly, many critics also argue that with a less negative campaign, a politician’s past will not be held accountable.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 3:07 PM)

To this, I argue that just because a campaign is less negative towards their opponent does not mean their past won’t be held accountable. It simply means that incendiary language and vitriol will be less prevalent. In the case of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, many Sanders supporters attacked Warren and her supporters online with truly hateful comments. I am not saying that RCV will completely eliminate the concept of the online bully, but it will tame the fires and create a sense of unity amongst the party (Neal).

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:10 PM)

While you have changed your stance significantly, I still find myself perplexed by your desire to support “tyranny of the majority.” Whether you are debating as an avid proponent of RCV or Popular Vote, you are still stacking the deck unfavorably against the minority. Do urban city Americans understand the needs of rural American farmers? No. That is an absurd and reckless thought. Then why should we rely on these same urban Americans to choose leaders to represent rural Americans?

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:12 PM)

You know the answer to that question… we shouldn’t! You then go on to argue, “…An election should not have to depend on the Electoral College outcome of two states, but rather the country as a whole” (Skolnick and Sankaran). I agree! You just argued in favor of the Electoral College, because it prevents two states from deciding the outcome of an entire election for the country. Your argument is against implementing a system based on the popular vote!

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:14 PM)

Arguing against only one of many reasons why the Electoral College was established is equally as reckless. As you stated, in a negative connotation, one of the reasons was that our founding fathers were concerned that not all voters were informed enough to choose a leader (Seigel). The Electoral College was also established to balance interests of majority and minority groups across state lines. Why was this important? Our nation had “…fought its way out from under a tyrannical king and overreaching colonial governors. They didn’t want another despot on their hands” (History). Why do you think it requires two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of states to ratify a constitutional amendment to append or abolish the Electoral College?

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:15 PM)

If you believe the Electoral College doesn’t represent the will of the people it represents, then pass a Constitutional Amendment to tie electors to their state’s popular vote. In other words, eliminate faithless electors. What concerns me is your reason for debating in favor of RCV or Popular Vote is not because you believe them to be better electoral systems, but because you believe the systems will favor one political ideology over another.

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:16 PM)

Whether we believe in particular political ideologies or not, barring actions that violate our natural rights, Americans have the right to celebrate political ideologies that are representative of who they are and how they believe. No electoral system should be established that eliminates political ideologies in favor of a single majority, because that is when democracy burns and tyranny reigns supreme.

Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:26 PM)

Closing Statement: As we stated at the beginning of this collaborative debate, we must remove our personal opinions and biases in order to effectively argue in favor of the electoral system we were assigned. There is a lot of fear, anger, and uncertainty dominating our nation presently. To blame an electoral system that has worked for over three hundred years because your ideologies have been oppressed is not the way to right the ship. I remain disinclined to agree with my friend’s argument in favor of Ranked Choice Voting and general elections decided by Popular Vote. This debate transcends to the heart and soul of a government that our founding fathers wanted to make immune from tyrannical oppression and domination that we fought desperately to escape. Overwhelmingly, the argument has been that Ranked Choice Voting and the Popular Vote would allow for the majority of Americans voices to be recognized. I contend that they already are. The Electoral College is far from perfect, but it gives each state the ability to cast votes in favor of a candidate that represents the will of their constituents.

Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:38 PM)

Closing Statement: I just would like to say that even though I find the Electoral College the source of many problems in the political sphere of America, abolishing it is only one part of the solution. Ranked choice voting and enabling the popular vote to decide the president-elect will allow for the will of the people to actually be heard. Ranked choice voting has been proven to also expand the two party system and allow for third party or minority party candidates to be heard as well, it is not necessarily in favor of one party over the other. RCV does have the ability to eliminate political extremism. RCV in practice has prevented spoiler candidates so voters will actually feel excited to vote for the candidate of their choosing. RCV in practice will reduce the polarization and political divide in this country.

CONCLUSION

The debate for the Electoral College vs. Ranked Choice Voting and the Popular Vote is one that is dominating headlines. The authors of this collaborative piece were given a limited number of exchanges in order to debate the opposing systems. We now ask you—as an unbiased reader—to decide who debated their assigned voting system better. Comment below with your thoughts, but please remember to be respectful.


Works Cited

“Historical Presidential Election Map Timeline.” 270toWin.Com, www.270towin.com/historical-presidential-elections/timeline/.

Kambhampaty, Anna Purna. “What Is Ranked-Choice Voting? Here’s How It Works.” Time, Time, 6 Nov. 2019, 5:45 PM, http://time.com/5718941/ranked-choice-voting/.

Neal, Jeff. “Ranked-Choice Voting, Explained.” Harvard Law Today, 26 Oct. 2020, http://today.law.harvard.edu/ranked-choice-voting-explained/

“The Problem with Instant Runoff Voting.” Minguo.info, http://minguo.info/election_methods/irv.

Richie, Rob. “New Zealand Holds National Election with Ranked Choice Voting.” FairVote, FairVote, 15 Dec. 2015, www.fairvote.org/new_zealand_holds_national_election_with_ranked_choice_voting

Richie, Rob, and Steven Hill. “FairVote.org: The Real Story on Ranked Choice Voting in Oakland’s Mayoral Election, 2010.” FairVote, 11 Nov. 2010, http://archive3.fairvote.org/press/oakland-rcv-response/.

Roos, Dave. “Why Was the Electoral College Created?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 July 2019, http://www.history.com/news/electoral-college-founding-fathers-constitutional-convention.

Seigel, Jillian. “The Electoral College and Popular Vote Explained.” RepresentUs, RepresentUs, http://act.represent.us/sign/electoral-college/.

Skolnick, Cassandra, and Sanjana Sankaran. “Debating the Electoral System of the United States.” SBU Brooklogue: Stony Brook University Undergraduate Journal for Humanities and Social Sciences, 16 Dec. 2020, https://sbubrooklogue.com/2020/12/16/debating-the-electoral-system-of-the-united-states/

“Tyranny of the Majority.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Nov. 2020, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranny_of_the_majority.

Waxman, Simon. “Ranked-Choice Voting Is Not the Solution.” Democracy Journal, Democracy Journal, 3 Nov. 2016, 3:03 PM, http://democracyjournal.org/arguments/ranked-choice-voting-is-not-the-solution/.

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LGBTQ* Info Sheet

by Joseph Eng, September 10, 2020

Joseph is a second-year student majoring in Psychology. His goal is to eventually complete his Bachelor’s degree and enter higher education for clinical psychology. Joseph currently works as a Resident Assistant on campus. His interests also lie within LGBTQ+ topics alongside the impact of mental health. In his free time, he enjoys photography, coffee drinking, and taking care of plants.