Sunday, June 25, 2017

Was the defining message of the era just stupid?

Lennon turned his doodle into one of the crown jewels of the Beatles’ entire repertoire, one that stands as a defining message of the era: “All You Need Is Love.”
Fifty years ago today apparently.

It was very much the defining message of the era. It hardly originated with John Lennon though. A year before the song was written a now-deservedly-forgotten writer named Jospeh Fletcher published a book called Situation Ethics whose message was all you need is love to make moral decisions. Fletcher was one of the lesser products of a school of Protestant theology that placed a lot of emphasis on the notion that "God is love".

The message travelled from liberal Protestant theology into the general culture of the time and then was reflected back at people in lyrics that, even by John Lennon standards, are a banal series of non sequiturs. And people ate it up so we can hardly blame John Lennon. The culture was awash in this trite optimism.

My mother told me that she and my father got all of their children out of bed to watch the television broadcast when the song was unveiled. She believed it was an historic occasion. The writers at the Los Angeles Times still do.

In the end it amounted to ...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A question

One additional issue arising from yesterday's post: how much time and energy do we spend supporting bad relationships?

We all have connections, family connections, home-town connections, school connections, business connections that we maintain. But what should "maintain" mean here? I can think of quite a few in my life where all the maintenance has come from my side and nothing but impositions and exploitation has come from the other side. This is especially true in my case of family relationships.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Singing la la la

Like a lot of people, I mocked him when this photo first appeared four years ago. I did this on FaceBook and an overly sensitive cousin of mine got very angry with me. That was neither interesting nor educational in itself. That an overly sensitive person would be overly sensitive is not news.

What was interesting was that I got a barrage of back-channel messages from some people I've known for a long time, one male, one female. They both wanted me to apologize to the little snowflake and they threatened to break off relations if I didn't. I was shaken by that. These were people I had been very close to and I didn't want our relationship to be disrupted. On the other hand, I knew I had done nothing wrong and I didn't want to apologize just because someone else was upset.

That, was a big epiphany. I've remarked before that turning points sneak up on you. In retrospect, that was a turning point in my life but it just felt like two weeks of anxiety at the time. I spent several days feeling awful as these two threatened to break off relations if I didn't apologize. In the end, I didn't give in and they just moved on.

Then there was a second epiphany. In my family there is a tendency to appease women. Men in my family, including me, were raised to seek the approval of women and, therefore, to cave completely when a woman got angry. It didn't matter whether that anger was justified or not. I grew up with the odd notion that being a gentleman meant cravenly seeking the approval of women.

The funny thing is that my relationships with the two people in question never were the same again but not for the reason I expected. They, as I say above,  didn't break off the relationship. They just went back to normal. And that was the third epiphany: all their anger turned out to be a bluff. The only time approval or disapproval matters is when it comes from a person who has authority over you. Otherwise, it's just an empty threat. I, on the other hand, stopped taking them seriously and my life was richer for that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why express your feelings?

I see advice repeated over and over again without clear justification for why we should behave this way. A classic example is the advice to express your feelings. I'm not saying this is bad advice. I suspect that there is something there but that we aren't given any compelling reasons for it.

Under pressure

I'll start with an example of really bad reasons. I've discussed this here before. In the 19th century and in the early part of the twentieth people often thought of the brain on analogy to a hydraulic system driven by steam power. They did that for the same reason that a lot of people imagine the brain working like a computer now. It was new technology and you could do some pretty amazing stuff with it.

One consequence of thinking that way is that pressure has to go somewhere. If your whole system is driven by steam power and you allow that steam power to keep building up it will eventually explode. If feelings drive our psychology the way steam drives a hydraulic system, then we need a pressure valve to blow off our feelings or else we'll explode.

The problem is that there is no evidence to support this. To the contrary, people who "depressurize" by blowing off their feelings actually get worse and worse at controlling them.

This bad thinking still lingers in the background when experts tells us that we should express our feelings.

Real, true, authentic?

Being in touch with your feelings will make you a better person as well as a better parent and partner. Being true to your emotions can’t help but make you feel better about yourself, for you’re able to be authentic.
That's Barton Goldsmith Ph.D. writing at Psychology Today. The old conclusion is still there—Goldsmith warns us not to "bury" are feelings because, he claims, bad things will happen when we do—he talks about "toxic energies", a concept that is more akin to the sort of pseudo science yoga instructors flog than anything someone with Ph.D should be talking about. Along with the old, bad argument, however, something new has slipped in.

Exactly what this new argument consists in is hard to decipher, not just for us but for Goldsmith himself.
When you express how you really feel (in an appropriate manner), problems get solved, relationship issues get resolved, and life is easier. In addition, you will like your life better because you’re not holding on to unhealed or confusing feelings.  
When you express how you REALLY feel. Okay. That makes a certain sense. You might say things that aren't true. Marie tells Aiden that she thinks he's a really sweet guy that she's sure someone will find attractive but she's not ready for a relationship right now when the truth is that she thinks he's a pathetic, spineless wimp. That's a good example of not expressing what you really feel except that, uh oh, it implicitly accepts that there might be good reasons to sometimes not express your feelings.

Goldsmith accepts this and argues there are times when feelings should not be expressed and that there are ways they should not be expressed. "The purpose of expressing your emotions is to convey your true feelings, and to be open and honest, not to embarrass or blast another human being."

And we're back to the idea of something "real" or "true" that is, well, where exactly? Inside us? Yes, apparently. Goldsmith writes about "what’s truly going on inside your head." Again, this is undefined. And what if these true feelings might hurt? It might well be that telling Aiden the truth will motivate him to change.

Oddly, Goldsmith also thinks that there good stuff and bad stuff going on inside your head that needs to be balanced. He argues that we need to get to be as good as expressing the good stuff as the bad. But if our feelings are what is "really" inside us, what difference does it make whether we express them or not? Are our feelings somehow invisible to us until we express them?

Actually, that sounds plausible to me although I doubt Goldsmith would agree. We use metaphors such as "what's really going on inside your head" but you can't look inside your head. Just try it if you don't believe me. All we have is thoughts and thoughts are just expressions. You can say "I feel sad" out loud or you can say it in your head just as you can read this sentence out loud or say it in your head. You can say it whether it's true or not.

If you take the time to read the whole article you'll find a confused jumble of ideas.

  1. Feelings are natural things that spring up from some source inside me.
  2. Expressing my sadness will help me get over it.
  3. Learning to get as good at expressing positive feelings as negative ones will give us emotional balance.

The god inside me

A bad reason to express your feelings would be to manipulate other people into treating us in certain ways. No one else is responsible for your feelings. We could argue that we shouldn't hurt other people by saying things that will give them negative feelings and that is true in some cases. But it's not your job to make me happy when I'm feeling miserable.

Why do we even need to say this? Because of the assumption Goldsmith (and many others) operate on that feelings are natural, that sadness, joy, anger, relief, and so forth are things that just spring up inside us. Because they are natural, they can't be questioned. We can reasonably argue that people shouldn't shit in the kitchen but not that they shouldn't shit at all. The same logic has to apply to negative emotions if they are natural. That said, unless you did something to directly cause someone else's anger or pain, you aren't responsible to do anything about them and you have a right to expect them to only express these feelings in appropriate ways at appropriate times.

At the same time, expressing feelings is a huge part of what we human beings do.

I could go on circling like this for ever so I'll get off the merry-go-round. There is no natural source of feelings inside me. Every feeling entails a judgment, a judgment not about what is inside me but what is outside me.

Let's go back to Marie and Aiden. Why does she not tell him the real reason she doesn't want to enter into some sort of sexual relationship with him? There are a number of possibilities.

  • She doesn't want to hurt him and she believes he is easily hurt.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but she doesn't think he'd listen to her.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but thinks it is up to him to figure this out for himself.
  • She just wants to get away from him and this cringe-making conversation as fast as possible so she is brushing him off.

Marie need not be aware of which of these apply as she refuses Aiden. Anyone one of them or, indeed, all of them may apply. Or there may be some other reason such as that she'd actually settle for Aiden because she just wants sex right now but she's convinced a better option will be available at the party tonight if she can ditch Aiden now. The point is that the real reason is not something inside her but a choice she is going to have to make and live with.

And if that's rue, and I think it is, the key lesson about feelings is not to express them but to actually have them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Toxic masculinity" isn't completely crazy

"Toxic masculinity" is a term that has been around for a while. This article says it's been around since the 1980s and that matches my experience. it goes on to say that the term does not originate in any academic work but is simply a derogatory term that became common in grassroots feminism of a certain kind.

Important digression: If you set out to create a movement to ban music-playing ice cream trucks you'd attract some people with serious arguments and some people who just hate children. Man-hating feminists are real. No, not all feminists but some of them. "Toxic masculinity" was probably the product of feminists who just hated men at its origin.

In addition, it's a stupid term. Much like the equally odious "testosterone poisoning" it was originally used to suggest that maleness and masculinity are problems to be fixed. You see that attitude everywhere. Contrast the horrid Good Men Project with the very good Art of Manliness. And you'll get some notion of what I mean.

The term "toxic masculinity" should be abolished. And yet, somewhere along the line, there was an attempt to put some meaningful content to concept. Again, from the article I began by quoting:
For example, one book that seeks to raise awareness of issues that men face, titled “Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity” (1994), highlighted one of the earliest examples of toxic masculinity in the literature. 
“Without a “father in residence,” [men] may go through life striving towards an ideal of exaggerated, even toxic, masculinity” the author of the book, Frank Pittman, said on the topic of young men without fathers.
Pittman chose his words badly. He should said, "Without a “father in residence,” [men] may go through life striving towards a parody of masculinity." For that is a very real problem. Boys without strong men as role models tend to seek role models in other boys or in superhero fiction. And there is something toxic about that. Think of the Crips for example.

Perhaps not so obvious, though, is that there are other parodies of masculinity out there. Far more pervasive than the the dominant, woman-hating variety is the parody of manliness you get when men turn to women to help them define their masculinity instead of other men. Again, I refer you to The Good Man Project.

A question for you to ponder: Is there a tension between what women you know say masculinity should be and what they actually respond to in real life? Or, if you are a woman, is there a tension between what you admire in the abstract and what you respond to in your life? I'm not saying that one side of this tension is all wrong and the other side is all right. Just notice that it's there and ponder it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emotional foils

There's an easy answer to figuring out what virtue is. That perhaps too easy way is to find two distinct groups of idiots—one group that does too much of something and another that does too little of something—and place yourself in the middle. That's not quite Aristotle's answer. He believed you could think about abstract notions such as "timidity" and "foolhardiness"  and then figure out where courage is because it must be somewhere in between the two.

The problem is that you can only figure out what "timidity" and "foolhardiness" are from experience,; that is, you can only figure out what they are from making judgments about other people's behaviour.

Which brings me to Pamela. Pamela is the first English Novel. It's not the first novel written in English nor is it the first novel written by an English person. It's the first novel to have a set of characteristics that are typical of English novels. A group of Scottish people could make a rye whiskey in Scotland using ingredients that are all from Scotland and it wouldn't be Scotch. The English Novel is like that. Someone from Quebec could, and it has been done, write a perfectly good English novel in French and set it in Montreal.

In Pamela the a man, always called Mr. B, pursues a sexual relationship with the heroine, Pamela. She, returns the feeling but wants it to be a particular kind of sexual relationship, which is to say marriage. The novel is very frank and open about what is at stake.

The English Novel is a perennial favourite and every few generations its charms are rediscovered. And so are its less attractive features. The four movies Doris Day and Rock Hudson made together were witty and daring and yet, at the same time, there was something about them that people found unsatisfactory. It seemed as if the heroine was using her virtue to manipulate the and into marriage. People said the same thing about Pamela.

There was a brilliant update of Pamela a few years ago. To keep it with the times, it began with a  woman who was already in a sexual relationship with a man who was always referred to as "Big" but who wants more from him, which is to say, she wants marriage. Lots of people, mostly women, found this very satisfying. Others found it less so, not because they saw Carrie as manipulative but because they wanted her to seek satisfaction in something other than marriage. Oh well, you can't please everyone.

Three foils

One of the very clever devices the new Pamela used was to have three foils for Carrie. To bring it back to Aristotle, Carrie had three friends who were all too "something". Miranda was too willing to submerge her femininity to other goals in life. Charlotte was too girly, that is to say she was too willing to be feminine in a nonsexual way such that her sexuality was always a factor in everything she did. And Samantha was too slutty, that is to say she was too willing to be feminine in a sexual way such that her sexuality was always a factor in everything she did.

And we should stop here to note the central, feminist value at work in Sex and the City: a woman's sexuality should never define but, at the same time, a woman must fully explore and experience her sexuality. You may sneer but SATC, like Pamela before it, was a show about feminine virtue. And it defined what was feminine virtue socially, again, just like Pamela had done before. The difference was, in an era that prides itself on being "non-judgmental", it couldn't point to abstract notions. It has to point at people.

In one particularly famous episode, Carrie asks, "Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?" The (infamous for some) answer the show gives to that is that Carrie is not a slut because she isn't Samantha.  In the end, Samantha reaches a sort of fulfillment by bravely facing breast cancer. That made a lot of people uncomfortable. But, within the context of the show, that was the only way it could work out.

One thing that should stop us from being too dismissive was the ease with which women watching the show identified with Carrie and classified their friends as Mirandas, Charlottes or Samanthas. A woman I knew back in the 1980s, before Sex and the City, always had a Samantha in her life—three of them: Janet, who was the Samantha from her high school days, Nancy-Jane who was the Samantha from her university days and Sharon who was the Samantha from the early part of her career. Any time my friend was faced with the question, "Am I just being a slut?" the answer was found by contrasting herself with whichever of these three women was in her life.

The irony is that I've since discovered that at least two of those women saw my friend as the Samantha in their lives and they did so with considerably more justice, which is why my friend is the only one not named here. The important lesson is that contrasting myself with others is no help if all I do is narcissistically project my faults onto them. Not doing that is difficult for everyone's natural starting point is egoism. Learning to see others as different requires life-long learning.

For the TV show, indeed for all of us, the problem is not "being a slut". Indeed, given the way SATC defined feminine virtue, it would be a major failing for a woman not be sometimes be a slut. Indeed, she should do so proudly and defiantly in the face of the odious and unfair standards society puts on women. I should disclose that I think the show is absolutely correct about this.

As the show saw it, virtue lay in how much a woman allowed her sexuality to define her. The three foils are all women who allowed it to define them either too little or too much. She needed to be able to turn the slut switch  on so as to defy social convention but also to be able to turn it off when it was likely to get in her way. That seemed right to me. What dismayed a lot of people was that, just like Pamela, before it, SATC operated on the assumption that a woman failing to learn how to control her slut switch could be a barrier to romance. Miranda was too practical about it, Charlotte too scared to turn it on and Samantha too unrestrained about turning it on.

I'm sure everyone can work out their own answers to the questions that raises.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Intellectual integrity test

As many others have already pointed out, what was (mostly incorrectly) alleged of the Gabby Giffords shooting is actually true of the Steve Scalise shooting. This presents us with an interesting challenge to our intellectual integrity. Either we take substantially the same position now as we did back then or we seriously revise our thinking.