Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TOMS shoes, virtue and virtue signalling

Here's an argument for your consideration:
I want to be very clear here: A desire to help people in need is a good thing. Paying a little more for a pair of shoes or a messenger bag because you want your purchase to help people is commendable. If that’s you, well done! 
But TOMS and the many other companies like it are the charitable equivalents of yes men. They’re telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want (for you to purchase trendy, pricey accessories), not what you need to hear in order to do what you want (to have your purchase to do as much good in the world as it can) 
TOMS tells you that you that making the world a better place is all about you: that you know best how to help poor people, and that you are so powerful that it will take barely any effort on your part to make a huge difference in the world. 
This is hardly a message that’s limited to TOMS.
Why don't you donate both your kidneys? Sure, you'd die, but you'd help two other people live; perhaps you'd even save two other lives. You'd be dying for a good cause!

As I've said before, we tend to evaluate moral arguments entirely in terms of outputs. That's what, Amanda Taub, the writer of the Vox piece above is doing. She asks, quite reasonably, how much does buying a pair of TOMS shoes really do to help poor people, especially when compared to other things you might do, and figures out that the answer is "not much". That's a good thing I suppose, although I'd be more inclined to wonder why Vox readers get university educations if they still need to have this explained to them after graduating. No one should need more than thirty seconds to figure out that these campaigns are all relatively ineffective. That includes, by the way, the food banks you give to at the checkout of your local grocery store.

But what if we're asking the wrong questions. We start with a simplistic assumption that being good is selfless (that's the input end of a type of moral argument). We move from that to an assessment that says a morally good action is the one that has nothing in it for me while helping others in the most effective way possible. Therefore, don't buy any shoes at all and donate the money you'd spend to a real charity.

It seems to me that TOMS are playing on two things.

  1. TOMS shoes aren't exactly practical. The number of pairs of shoes you really need is probably one. The number of TOMS shoes you really need is zero. If you could only afford one pair of shoes, you'd never buy TOMS. There's a guy who is always outside the local liquor store whose figured this out. You feel guilty about the self indulgence when you by booze instead of simply staying home and drinking water so you're an easy mark.
  2. They are selling you a way of virtue signalling—buying the shoes is a way of telling everyone that you stand for what is good, never mind that what is "good" here shows a kindergarten-level understanding of morality. Adult: What did you learn at school today little boy? Little boy: Sharing is good! The little boy isn't stupid. He knows what answer is going to get him approval. But the little boy also knows that it's all a con. Do you? 
Let's be honest with ourselves and ask what would happen if TOMS shoes weren't doing this charity giveaway? Then we'd just be buying a pair of shoes for ourselves. Be honest, not only do you not consider not buying shoes and giving the money to charity, you don't even go looking for bargains so you'll have more left over for charity when shoe shopping. Sure, there are better ways to help but what if the most likely alternative is doing nothing at all?

The real problem here is not on the doing good end. Sure, there are lots of things you might do to help the poor but you're not going to quit your job, get medical training and go to work in an African hospital—you've already determined to keep leading your life pretty much as it is.

Here's an alternative: be honest about the inputs and your moral decision making will improve. You have no intention of being selfless. Every good and meaningful moral decision you have ever made was driven by your desire to improve yourself. Yes, you care about others but you do so because you want to make something beautiful and good of yourself. Be honest enough to admit that and you should be able to see that buying TOMS shoes is a pretty poor investment not only for the people who need help but they are also a poor investment for your project of making yourself into something beautiful and good when compared to simply living a good life and being a good friend, a good spouse, a good man or woman and a good citizen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Some thoughts about narcissism

1. Is narcissism too useful for explaining moral failure?

Any time we find something that is really good at explaining human behaviour (or physics or biology for that matter) we should get suspicious. If it seems like a really good explainer, it just might be too good to be true.

2. To analyze is to take apart

Human behaviour is individual and varied and we diminish other people by slotting them into a category like narcissism. A human being is a rich and varied creature who should not be reduced to a bundle of motives and tendencies. 

3. Narcissism is a syndrome

That is to say, it is a group of characteristics that go together. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic narcissism is:
I think that list could use some editing as it seems repetitive to me. 

In any case, any honest person, never mind narcissists, should reasonably worry that some of those apply to them.

I go with the Last Psychiatrist school that links narcissism with an inability to experience guilt, a lack of respect for others boundaries and a tendency to see yourself as the star with everyone else a bit player. I think you need all three but the most important is the inability to experience guilt.

4. Moral emotions

While many emotions are linked to morality, the two most important are shame and guilt. Shame is the primary moral emotion, the one that we learn first. As children we feel shame when our mother is unhappy with us and this is the beginning of our moral development. 

To develop guilt we must first develop an internal moral compass, more commonly known as a conscience. Guilt, while often maligned, is our friend. This chart, which I've used before, gives a good idea why.

Where guilt and shame are at odds are the corners where we need guilt. Consider the top right corner where I believe I did a morally bad thing but others don't. Imagine how much worse you would be if you didn't have guilt. Guilt, like any emotion, can be misplaced but you'd never question your actions except when there was a chance of getting caught if you were incapable of feeling guilt.

The lower left corner is even worse. To live there is to live in a personal hell. That said, it happens to everyone at some point in their life. And think how much worse it would be if you were incapable of experiencing guilt because you had a poorly developed conscience. Then you'd only feel shame and you'd be forever at the mercy of what others thought or at what you feared others might be thinking.

5. Anticipatory shame

It took me a long time to develop a proper moral compass. One of the reasons I was attracted to, and later married, the Lemon Girl is that she does have a strong moral compass. Watching her when we first worked together, I could see that, contrary to what I'd believed all my life, her well-developed conscience gave her greater moral freedom than I had.

I thought a conscience was a burden, a thing that would constantly hem you in. I thought that because, not having much of one, I was using anticipatory shame to do the work that guilt would do. I never really examined my conscience but instead scared myself straight by imagining how awful it would be if others knew the worst about me. That way of thinking really was imprisoning.

6. Was I a narcissist then?

I considered the possibility very seriously. For a narcissist, shame is something to be deflected, thrown back at others, and few things could be as shameful as confronting your own narcissism. I forced myself to consider that I might be. In the end, I think I'm what Dr. Robert Glover called a nice guy. 

Why? Because of the nature of my problem with boundaries. Narcissists have a problem in that they fail to respect other people's boundaries. Instead, I failed to defend my own. I didn't stand up for myself. Far from lacking respect for other people's boundaries, I was letting them build them halfway up what was, metaphorically speaking, my own front lawn.

And that is why I propose to stop talking about narcissism. Looking forward at my own moral development, it has no use. 

7. Conscience is mostly an anterior phenomenon

We think of conscience as something that comes after the fact; we think of it as that niggling sense of guilt or, just as likely, anticipatory shame that comes after we've done something. And that is certainly one thing conscience does. The problem is that we think of it as the main thing.

The rest of the time, we think of conscience as the right to hold or express our most cherished beliefs.

The primary job of conscience is to keep you from doing wrong in the first place. That's why "moral compass" is such an apt expression—it directs towards what is right and away from what is wrong. In fact, even the part of conscience we imagine to be after the fact is really a before. Guilt, the stuff of conscience, of a real moral compass, is a call to do something. If you are guilty, you need to seek redemption by apologizing, doing what you can to right the situation and seeking reconciliation with God. Shame, on the other hand, is entirely out of your hands.

The way to start developing our conscience, I believe, is to ask ourselves the following question: Why be a moral being in the first place? That's next week's topic.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The missing part of the Ashley Madison scandal

Update: The recent revelations that a) women weren't being charged to use the service by AM and b) very few women were using it tends, I think, to reinforce my suspicion that, to the extent that there was anything going on here at all, this was essentially a sugar daddy operation, which is to say a low-level form of prostitution. Not prostitution in the strictly legal sense but definitely in the moral sense. Furthermore, the fact that AM seems to have cared very little about whether their clients got any value out of the product is in line with the ethics of someone who would aid and abet prostitution.

I take it no one is feeling a lot of empathy for Ashley Madison or its subscribers? It's not a business model I want to defend. And yet, there is something rather troubling about the recent threats against the company. To be precise, there are two troubling things about it. Those two things are related.

Here is an interesting line from the statement the hackers released:
Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.
That's an astonishingly puritanical statement. It's a long, long way from "hate the sin but pity the sinner". And who appointed these hackers as the moral referees? What if they came after you? 

It's not okay to destroy somebody's life because they did something bad or because they have hateful opinions. The increasingly common belief that it is is a very troubling sign about the state of our culture.

The second issue you may have already guessed: "those men?" The inescapable fact about any heterosexual affair is that you need one man and one woman to manage it. Do a little on-line research and you'll quickly discover blogs by women who discovered their husband was cheating. For example, A Year After the Affair. The woman who runs that blog shared an e-card 

Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us that any morality has an implied sociology. The hackers above have an implied sociology that says that certain kinds of men are evil (I'll get to which kind below). There is also an entire line of feminist thought, starting with Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, that argues that the other woman should never be blamed because, again, men are evil. And some people perhaps even believe that. I doubt that most of the people who claim to actually do.

The people who run Ashley Madison have another site called Established Men. It's a sugar daddy connector. Men pay for that service. Women get on for free. I suspect that, while pretending to be something else, most of the Ashley Madison business is the same. The women attracted to both are probably single.

And they're probably younger and more attractive than you'd like to think. "Ashley Madison" conjures up an image. That's not for the men. The men already know what they want and wouldn't be put off by having to sift through a "selection" to get what they want. If anything, that's a plus as it would make finding the woman whose picture gets our guy excited feel all the more special if he had to go through a certain number of "duds" to find her. No, the image "Ashley Madison" conjures up is meant for the women (and girls) who go to the site. It tells them what they are supposed to be like. 

There is a female character in a Len Deighton novel who says that infidelity is ninety-five percent opportunity and five percent motivation. For a cheating woman, that's usually true. There is always someone pursuing her—what she needs to make it happen is a situation that makes it easy and safe enough to follow through. She's alone at the cottage mid-week and there is no one else on the lake except her old friend from college whom she's always been curious about and bang, it happens. Quick, easy, no involvement, no elaborate ruse or cover up needed. Most men can only dream of such a thing. What Ashley Madison sells them is the fantasy that they could cheat like a woman.

But for Ashley Madison to work at all you need a whole lot of mercenary women willing to sell sex in order to get money and clothing and good times but who don't want to think of themselves as prostitutes. If I had to guess, I bet there are whole lot more men who fantasize about a ninety-five-percent-opportunity-and-five-percent-motivation affair than there are women willing to be stigma-free sex workers. That said, there must be enough women in that category for sites like Ashley Madison to work at all. 

I'd further bet that you could probably put together an image of the kind of guys the site worked best for. They're fairly wealthy and fairly good-looking with weak social skills. Why weak social skills? Because if a guy with money, looks and strong social skills is stuck in a sexless marriage and wants to cheat he wouldn't need any help finding a partner. On Ashley Madison, a guy wouldn't need to actually be wealthy so much as clearly willing to spend a lot of money. Why does he have to be good looking? So the woman won't have to feel like a prostitute. If she's with an unattractive guy she'll be painfully aware of the status hit she is taking be being seen with him. She feels shame, not guilt, at the thought of being a hooker. What she dreads is someone else in the bar seeing ugly guy spending a lot of money to be with hot woman. 

But angry puritanical hackers and the rest of us being self righteous on social media aren't interested in shaming her? No we aren't but you probably wouldn't want to think about what it is about you that makes you like that for too long. The implied sociology of your moral beliefs would be too depressing and so might the conclusions you'd reach about yourself.

Friday, July 17, 2015


ADDED: I wrote this post a little too quickly because I was tired and see all sorts of typos and missing logical steps by the light of day (even more than usual) that I will have to fix as best I can now.

1. Problem? I'd say more like the saving grace

This is a problem even with some official statements of Catholic social teaching. You don’t know what to do with them. I know something about theology and something about politics and I haven’t a clue.
Catholic social teaching is a mess and it's an outdated mess at that. The only reason most Catholics aren't clamouring for church leaders to do something about this is their, probably well-founded, fear that it could only get worse.

Monday morning afterthought: It strikes me that David Mills, the writer I quote above, real concern is that Catholic social teaching does not and cannot be made to endorse a specific set of policies that he endorses. I can understand his frustration but it is a good thing that Catholic social teaching cannot be made to fit social policy. It is a moral teaching. Its primary concern is with the morality of political and economic choices and not with systems.

I believe democratic republics with free-market capitalism are the best way to protect the freedom and dignity of human beings. Socialism, on the other hand, has a long record of mass oppression and debasement of human beings and sometimes I wish that the church would recognize this. But that's not the church's job.

2. Dialogue?

“I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I must begin studying these criticisms, no?” he said. “Then we shall dialogue about them.”
The "he" in question is Pope Francis. He's either sincere about this or he isn't. We'll know soon enough. I'd say the entire future of his papacy depends on his being sincere and open-minded.

I'd add, that I don't think a meaningful dialogue would be possible during his fall visit. The most he can do is to promise to begin such a dialogue. If the Pope is hoping to come here and settle the issue and then go home, he'll fail.

3. Demythologize the papacy?

At Lourdes, Mary is reported to have said, "I am the Immaculate Conception". The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was still being debated at the time and that statement pretty much settled that. Well, okay ...

... okay, but this has created an unfortunate tendency within the church to settle matters by appeal to authority. Far too many people are keen to create doctrine and to be able to order their opponents shut up.

Francis's efforts to demythologize the papacy are healthy corrective for this. Many will object that there are far too many abuses and that we need a strong hand in the Vatican to stop them. That's a nice idea in theory but it calls for a perfect being in the chair and we don't have that. 

4. Male pride

Humorists have produced a lot of scathing parodies of male pride over the years. When I was a university student, this guy was a favourite.

Reportedly based on a guy that Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed hated in real life. Steve Dallas was officially mocked but secretly loved on my campus. More than a few young men found that women gravitated to them when they stopped trying to be what women claimed they wanted in a man and just did what Steve would do. 

While officially mocked right, left and centre, male pride is a highly attractive quality even in an otherwise morally dubious package.

5. As long as the ref doesn't see me

Alice Goffman has gotten plenty criticism, and deserves every bit of it, for her academic work. You can read about it here. But even beyond that, she provides tons evidence of her own moral emptiness.
“Later, the detectives came in: three white guys in plain clothes. Hearing that I hadn’t been at the scene when Chuck was shot, they rolled right past me,” Goffman writes. “By this time I didn’t know exactly who’d killed Chuck, but I had a pretty good idea. We’d spent much of every day together in the months before he’d been shot, and I’d also been around for the previous war. I was thinking I certainly could’ve helped narrow it down for the police, if they’d bothered to ask me. But they didn’t.”
You see this attitude in young hockey players all the time: the fact that he slashed another player across the face is only a moral issue if the ref saw it. What Goffman should have done, what any moral person would do, is to have approached the police and told them that she had information that could help.

Notice also, that Goffman is terribly race conscious. Why doe we need to be told that the police officers are white?

Caveat: It's entirely possible she didn't really have any information that would be useful to the police but likes to believe that she did and so has convinced herself that she did.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Smooth Song of the Day: "innocence" hidden in plain sight

Not much needs to be said about this one. It's a love song and it would be one giant cliché from beginning to end except that it's about an adulterous affair. Mrs. Jones is a married woman. You listen to it and it all sounds so innocent. And you know it isn't. And yet ...

It's  Gamble and Huff tune and the production values are magnificent. Billy Paul sings it well, with, if you listen closely, a very slight lisp. It's a good performance but not inimitable as Michael Bublé had no trouble matching his performance. Compare that with Beyoncé's attempt at matching Etta James: Beyoncé has the pipes but not the soul. Bublé, surprisingly enough, does have the soul and you can make of that what you will, both versions are below.

Related to this morning's post

Thorpe admits that there’s something unnerving about having learned, subconsciously, to adopt a stereotype. Did he choose to sound gay or did sounding gay choose him? A friend from childhood tells him that, when he came out in college, his inflections suddenly changed, and part of her still hears the voice of an “imposter” when he talks. It reminded me of a straight friend who once told me, soon after I came out, that I was starting to sound “essy.” (The gay “lisp” is a bit of a misnomer, usually referring to a sibilant “S.”) Was I finding my true voice, or just reprogramming myself to conform to a different group?
The phrase that jumps out at me here is "when he came out at college". Years ago I commented on the tendency of gay men I've known to become much more gay in behaviour after coming out. In a sense, the reason for this is obvious: now that you're out you want to be identifiable by potential partners. Given that gay men make up less than five percent of the male population by even the most liberal estimates, that's going to be a challenge and, thus, the shock of "unconsciously" adopting a stereotype. 

I put the scare quotes around "unconsciously" for there is nothing at all unconscious about it. Wittgenstein talks somewhere about how we can imitate a facial expression without looking in the mirror. In a sense that is odd and yet it is the most familiar thing in the world. Everyone has a sense of the range of behaviours that are manly, womanly and gay and we can and will adopt these where it seems appropriate. We don't need to study ourselves to adopt mannerisms, we just do it—but it is very much each of us who makes these choices and we know what we are doing.

Our innate sense of "who we really are" depends entirely on how well we can carry that self off in public. No mater how strongly Thorpe may feel he is gay and ready to come out, his success or failure depends entirely on other gay men recognizing him as gay. "Was I finding my true voice, or just reprogramming myself to conform to a different group?" Hiding behind that is a notion of authenticity; the belief that once I know what I really am, I can simply let what I am shine forth. But what you are is always something you have to earn; you cannot be anything at all unless you make yourself that person.

And the real rub here is for heterosexuals. You may think you "know" you are a man with XY chromosomes or a woman with XX chromosomes but you are nothing until you can convince others to accept you as that. We tell ourselves a lot of nonsense about being a man or a woman "on my own terms" but everyone knows this isn't true even if we pretend otherwise.

Innate rights

1. "Perhaps happier people just happen to have more sex."

Happier people do, in fact, have more sex. And that raises the obvious hope we might all be happier if we started having sex more often. What are the habits of highly happy people? Well, if sex is one of them it may be possible to make sad people happier by simply convincing them to have more sex.

Turns out that it doesn't work. Having more sex won't make you happier.

What really struck me about the study, however, was the great lengths the researchers and journalists writing about the research are willing to go to to not consider the opposite conclusion: that being happier will cause you to have more sex. You can see it in the quote above: "Perhaps happier people just happen to have more sex." But where does the "just happen to" come from?

My grandmother's generation used to say, "Some people are just determined to be unhappy". They aren't happy to be unhappy as that involves an obvious contradiction; they are determined to be unhappy. You can see how such a person would respond to the researchers request that they double the amount of sex they have: "Okay, I'll do it but I know I won't like it".

If, on the other hand, you go into sex (or exercise, or work, or reading) on the assumption that there is a reward to be had here, you will get more out of it. Being happy will get you more and better sex.
For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)

2. "Good sensible stuff"

A man I used to respect a lot more than I now do once said that about the Letter from James. There was a dismissiveness in his tone; the implication being that there was nothing in it that you couldn't figure out for yourself. In a sense, that's true. It's a collection of reminders.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and once forgets what he was like. James 1: 22-23 
Yes, you could figure it all out for yourself but you don't. That's why we need the reminders. Perhaps it takes more genius to write a series of reminders than we credit.

3. Whose culture?

Here is an interesting transcript:
If you are not Kanaka Maoli or a person from the Hawaiian Islands, you do not get to spread the message of aloha through your product because it is not yours. It is not yours for appropriation or profit or even a Rachel McAdams rom-com.**
What makes it interesting is that the words in bold and underlined aren't actually in the video it is a transcript of. There is nothing wrong with that. Janet Mock obviously had second thoughts about what she'd said and wanted to amend it. Good for her.

She explains he reasons for the addition here:
**My target of this editorial is Hollywood and mainstream media. The video piece is titled “Hollywood’s appropriation of Hawaiian culture” which is addressing an entire system that more often than not silences Native voices, rather truly includes Native voices. I am also aware that though I am centering Native Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli voices, I do not wish to erase the presence of the people *of* Hawaii, who may not be Native, but who have contributed to local Hawaii culture which also embraces the concept of Aloha.
That's all to the good. Without the addition, her message was racially exclusionary.

Making that move, however, raises another question for you'd still want to have a way of distinguishing between those who adopt a culture in good faith and those who don't. If enough people move in, they can completely transform the culture. In fact, they almost inevitably will and a good argument could be made that has happened in Hawaii. In any case, future generations could modify completely a culture as happened in most of North American through the 1960s and 1970s. What distinguishes good adoption from bad?

ADDED: Does Hollywood "silence" native voices or does it present an alternative that most people find more attractive?

4. When your culture is for sale

I lived in Quebec City for a stretch and people there are very sensitive about who is a really from there. If you moved there permanently tomorrow, you'd be remembered as person from away for the rest of your life. Any children you might have would be thought of as not really 100 percent from there. Your grandchildren, provided the dressed, talked and acted like people from la vieille capitale, would be thought of as really from there but they might be reminded from time to time that they are descended from people from away. The same thing happens in Prince Edward Island and in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick.

What these places all have in common with one another and with Hawaii is that they see a lot of tourist traffic and their culture, as a consequence, is for sale. And it's not just for sale, it's for sale to tourists; it's for sale to people who aren't very committed to it. If you live somewhere, you can love your culture or you can hate it but, either way, you're really invested in it and you are going to develop defence mechanisms to deal with the tourists if you start getting a lot of them.

And all of that strikes me as legitimate and fair. But I suspect that the people who scream loudest about cultural appropriation are unconsciously infected with a Marxist argument. You can see its shadow in Mock's language above where she seeks to distinguish between people "who have contributed to local Hawaii culture" and those who have not. You can see the lingering traces of the Marxist distinction between workers who deserve to profit from their production and capitalists who supposedly do not.

5. The challenges or really being 

I didn't realize, when I first watched the video, that Janet Mock is a trans person. In fact, if I hadn't clicked on a link that included this fact while researching this post, I don't think I would ever had realized. It's probably the height of political incorrectness for me to even have thought this, never mind saying it, but she is the first really convincing trans person I've ever seen. Despite all the talk about Caitlyn Jenner's beauty, I'm sorry but that Vanity Fair photo is a man trying to look womanly. The same is true of Laverne Cox's photos in Time and elsewhere. But Janet Mock simply looks and sounds so womanly that it never occurs to you to think otherwise.

Just putting it that way would offend many. I can easily imagine a trans person saying to me, "I don't have to convince you that I am what I am". And yet ... if you want to be a woman or a man, even if you were born with XX or XY chromosomes, it seems to me that you have to earn it.

Now that trans people are so much more visible, I suspect that we will see an increasing number of people who will be inclined to be trans tourists. It will become just a place they visit while on vacation from their normal lives. And they will do this with varying degrees of seriousness. As I've said before, I am certain that some voyeurs are already playing at being trans so they can get into the women's change room at the pool or gym. Others will do so for reasons that aren't quite so crass and exploitive but there will be a struggle to prove legitimacy.

Ironically, I suspect that the effect of this will be to reinforce traditional gender roles. That Janet Mock is so completely convincing is a reflection of the seriousness and dedication she puts into being Janet Mock. Women with two X chromosomes will feel pressure from Janet Mock.

6. Which brings me to dignity

 There was an explosion of Internet outrage aimed at Clarence Thomas for his remarks about the dignity of slaves that, even by the low standards of Internet outrage, was appallingly ignorant. Clarence's argument was that dignity is innate and, therefore, a legal argument that dignity depends on the state being the source of the right to dignity is illegitimate. Many might disagree with that but what he said was in agreement with the beliefs the USA was founded on so to say it is ludicrous for him to make the argument is just wrong.

I agree with Thomas. Dignity comes from inside.

What he didn't say, and I would be inclined to add, that while we have a God-given right to dignity that cannot, and should not, be taken as something bestowed by the state, dignity remains something we struggle for. The founders believed that God (aka the Creator) has bestowed these rights on us and that the state is obliged to protect them or else lose it's legitimacy as a state. People can lose that struggle and do so daily. You have dignity in the same sense that you are a man or a woman and that right automatically carries responsibilities with it.

Current liberals/progressives are very keen to eliminate any sense of responsibility that goes with rights. That's why they speak of some groups as having rights and others as having privilege. To make that move is a one-way ticket to fascism.

7. Aloha

Most who invoke the term aloha do not know its true meaning. Aloha actually comes from two Hawaiian words: Alo – which means the front of a person, the part of our bodies that we share and take in people. And Ha, which is our breath. When we are in each other’s presence with the front of our bodies, we are exchanging the breath of life. That’s Aloha.
That's true and it's beautiful and good and Janet Mock is quite right to say that much use of the term tends to dilute and cheapen it. I've even seen people talk about the "spirit of Aloha" which is redundant and, as I will argue below, reduces both words to meaninglessness. 

But what the meaning of Aloha isn't is unique to Hawaii. The word is but that sense of sharing the breath of life is not. It is, in fact, exactly what Saint Paul meant when he talked about being in the spirit and not in the flesh. "Spirit" is a word that derives from breath just as "Ha" does. And that notion has been cheapened over the centuries by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. 

"Spirit" for Paul was a physical thing just as "Ha" is for Hawaiians. Ironically, Christians trying to maintain the purity of the term have literally purified it out of existence. In the mouth of a typical Christian preacher "Spirit" and "Spirituality" mean nothing at all; they turn the new testament into a particularly wordy Hallmark card. The distinction between exploitive and non-exploitive use isn't helpful here.

What could help keep life in the spirit and Aloha alive would be to really live them.
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ. It is he who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. Ephesians 2:13

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Another image: What are they selling?

We shouldn't necessarily blame Alice Walker for this.  There are hundreds of quotes floating around the Internet that are attributed to be people who'd be surprised to find they'd ever said such a thing. What matters is not what she did or didn't say but that someone thought it was worth making into this graphic and then many thousands of people, including a "friend" of mine, thought it was worth sharing on Facebook.

Let's start with a hypothetical. Suppose someone owed you money or wanted to buy something from you. Under what conditions would you accept payment in activism as opposed to cash? That's not intended as snark; there might be conditions under which you would. Here in Ottawa, unions provide free meals to get unemployed residents of downtown to take part in protests. They've done this for decades. There might well be a case under which you'd take someone's activism as payment.

It would have to be a cause you believed in. So, who is accepting the payment in activism  implied under the scenario presented above? You pay to "the planet". This is a religious notion (we may as well say the goddess Gaia") And it's a pretty tight circle: you pay to "the planet"in return for "living on the planet".  Notice how casually the practitioners of this religion assume they know what the planet wants. Or is it what the planet needs? Who exactly is the god or goddess here? Who is the humble giver and who is the benevolent deity? It should trouble people a lot more than it does that the distance between the two vanishes the moment you actually ask the question.

This sort of religion should also requires purity for it would necessarily taint the whole thing if, in addition to giving to Gaia, you were also collecting actual cash for your activism. And yet everyone knows, or should know, that the most prominent activists and celebrities are collecting money or other considerations such as publicity from various foundations, charities or unions for their activism. We comfort ourselves with the notion that even if the organizers of a protest are collecting paycheques, the people in the streets on the day of the protest are not. And perhaps we imagine that, while they are paid, the organizers and celebrities aren't as well paid as they would be for a real job. In some cases that comfort is genuine but there are enough cases of people getting wealth and fame out of their activism to give us pause.

The religious aspect also allows activists to mask a certain blunt reality about being an activist from themselves and others. For to be an activist is really just to be a protestor. The activist always imagines that someone else—either an existing or future government—will actually pay the bills and do the work necessary to make the desired goodness a reality. In the final analysis, activists don't actually do anything except be activists. Why they don't simply become politicians, set up a charity or just go out into the world and do good? If you actually want to make things change, that is the way to do it. The answer to those questions is that all activism is really a confession of impotence. To be an activist, contrary to all surface claims, is really an acknowledgement that you don't have the ability to change things and that the best you can do is to cajole or pressure other people into doing it for you (and the fact that it's really "for you" is why it's so handy to have an idol like "the planet" to keep it looking quite as selfish as it actually is). Activism is also a confession of political impotence—that most people don't support your cause—for the hoped-for effect of having "all those people" out in the streets protesting is to convince the many more who don't care so much that there is an active social movement that had better be mollified before there is social unrest. Finally, activism is also a confession of intellectual impotence for a good argument doesn't need a mass of protestors to have effect.

Is the image above, then, selling nothing at all? Yes. For the nebulous claim that "activism" has worth, that it pays the rent, is a form of justification. It's purely self-justification but put the way it is above, it feels like it isn't. Well, it shouldn't. The only person who could be convinced by such an argument is a narcissist.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Smooth song of the day: "innocence" the esoteric messages edition

I pause this week to remember Laura Antonelli who died on June 22. She was the Italian sex symbol of the 1970s and was very much a part of the "innocence" of that era.

Don't just take my word for it, here is the New York Times on the subject,
And Vincent Canby, citing what he described as some of her best films, among them “Wifemistress,” “Till Marriage Do Us Part” and “The Innocent,” wrote in The New York Times in 1979: “To those of us of a certain age Miss Antonelli, I suspect, recalls an earlier, more innocent era, before there were porn parlors in virtually every American city, when movie sex was more suggestive, being soft-core, and when European actresses (Bardot, Lollobrigida, Loren) promised more wanton delights than we were allowed in native American films. Miss Antonelli reminds us of our lost movie innocence.”
Laura Antonelli's parents made her study gymnastics in the hopes that would make her graceful. She became a gym teacher and then a model. From there it was a hop, skip and jump into the worst sort of crass sex comedies. Her first starring role was a spy movie parody called, I'm not making this up, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, also starring a very down on his luck Vincent Price.

In every single one of her movies, you watched Laura Antonelli being pursued for sex, and often successfully, by male actors instead of pursuing her yourself which, for the sake of politeness, we'll pretend is what you really want to do. Notice the contradiction: this woman is desired by you and yet, perversely,  the big thrill you get is watching another man with her. 

If that were all there was to Laura Antonelli, she'd be a footnote in film history. Through hard work and willingness to take her clothes off while the camera was running, a much rarer quality then than now, she managed to win the attention of directors of art films and she starred in a whole slew of Italian cinema classics. There she was portrayed on a knife edge of innocence and perversity.

Now, let's pause to consider one of the most famous passages from CS Lewis.
So far from being a channel for this new kind of love, marriage was rather a drab background against which that love stood out in all the contrast of its new tenderness and delicacy. The situation is indeed a very simple one, and not particular to the middle ages. Any idealization of sexual love, in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by being an idealization of adultery.
He goes on to say,
A nineteenth century Englishman felt that same passion—romantic love—could be either virtuous or vicious according as it was directed towards marriage or not. But according to the medieval view passionate love itself was wicked and did not cease to be wicked if the object of it were your wife. If a man once yielded to this emotion he had no choice between “guilty” and “innocent” love before him: he had only the choice, either of repentance, or else of different forms of guilt.
I think Lewis has it rather backwards here. The problem was not what men of different eras did or did not feel comfortable about feeling towards women—there were a lot of brothels in Medieval Europe—but rather the sexual emotions they weren't comfortable seeing in nice girls. That was what what the innocence of the 1970s played on. Look at that sweet, beautiful woman and, oh my, look what she's doing now!

Back to CS Lewis:
Any idealization of sexual love, in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by being an idealization of adultery.
But what is effect of that adultery on the voyeur sitting in the dark in the sixth row of the movie theatre? He isn't participating but watching. One way to draw than out is to give him a counterpart in the movie. How about the husband? That's what the great Italian film directors did with Antonelli. Read this paragraph from Wikipedia describing what many consider her most successful movie l'Innocenti and tell me what is the effect of the adultery of Antonelli's character Giuliana.
The story is set in the late nineteenth century. Tullio Hermil, a wealthy Roman aristocrat married to Giuliana lives his sexual life with a possessive aristocratic mistress, Teresa. However, his interest in his wife Guliana is rekindled when he sees Guliana's happiness after she has begun a love affair with a novelist, Filippo d'Aborio.
In her next movie Mogliamnate (which means wife/lover), a man has to go into hiding because he has been falsely accused of murder. He ends up hiding in the attic of a cousin's grocery store from where he can see into his house and watch his wife have a sexual and political awakening.

Here's a bit of opera that was used on the soundtrack of l'Innocente. It's from an opera in which a man goes on an underground mission to rescue his lover but must resist the temptation of looking at her, that is of feeling emotion for her.

Social emotions

I've been thinking about emotions a lot lately. The the thing that got me started is a great audiobook from the Great Courses people where the late Robert Solomon talks about emotions. Like all good philosophers, he gets you thinking for yourself.

1. The social media mob

I read a great comment elsewhere about social media attacks. The person, cleverly, likens these attacks to someone putting their hand in their pocket and pretending to have a gun to rob you. So long as you believe they have a gun, they have power over you. The claim is that the social media mob, like the fake gunman, has no real power and will evaporate if you call their bluff. I suspect that's true but it would take some considerable intestinal fortitude to do so.

But I think there is more than fear in our emotional response to attacks on social media. I think we are also genuinely shamed when it happens.

Years ago I was working at a home where a number of mentally handicapped young people lived. One boy, about seventeen, loved dogs. I had a dog and got permission to bring him in. Everything went wonderfully. The boy loved the dog and played with him for hours. One day, however, the boy was angry about something else and, when the I showed up, took his anger out on my dog. I was able to stop the boy before he did any real harm but I still remember the dog's reaction. He was suddenly being attacked by someone he expected love from and he didn't know how to process this. The dog reacted not angrily, he easily could have defeated the boy had he counter-attacked, but with shame, as if he had done something wrong.

A sudden attack on social media does that to us. Someone wears a shirt he wears all the time with his coworkers for a TV interview and suddenly he is being attacked by millions. He wasn't expecting the attack. We are all, like my dog, programmed to think that perhaps we really did do something wrong when that happens.

2. The terror of public shaming

I was talking to a friend of mine who is a psychologist last year about the fear of public speaking and he explained it to me in a very helpful way . I think I've written about this here before but here goes again:

For most of human history being ostracized from a group meant death. A slow terrible and inevitable death. You'd be left to wander in a wilderness slowly starving until some predator got you. Not surprisingly, we all have deep-seated fear of social failure. The consequences aren't as high as they used to be. If you get ostracized from one group now, you can go and find another; the worst you have to fear is that the new group might not have as high a status in your perception as the old one did.

However minor the threat is to us, we are still psychologically programmed by the many centuries of previous human experience and that is why we feel shame when attacked publicly even if we aren't at fault and why people attacked by social media tend to cave immediately. It's like being threatened with death!

3. Network versus community

The best thing I've read on the Internet this week is this article contrasting communities and networks at the Art of Manliness. Read the whole thing!

At first glance, you might think that communities are obviously preferable. I'd say that you definitely want to be part of one community but I don't think you'd want to be part of many communities. I don't think you could.

I also see advantages to being part of networks.

It seems to me the real point of the article is to fully grasp which is which. You don't want to mistake the people you work with for a community because one day they'll get rid of you and then where will you be.

4. Self-deception about networks

If you have 500 friends on Facebook, you're obviously using it as a network. There is nothing wrong with that but where is your actual community? One thing about networks is that you can use them to hide from yourself the nasty truth that you have no community.

There are a lot of people who put more effort into the network of people they work with than they put into their marriage. It's easy to see how this gets started. Your spouse will probably continue to love you even if you neglect her or him but your employer is far more likely to treat you differently if you fail to deliver; you'll get less cooperation from coworkers, you'll be passed over for interesting assignments or promotions and you might even get fired.

Most employers realize this and even manipulatively exploit this by telling you that you're joining a team or even a "family" when you work for them but your just an easily replaceable cog in the mechanism.  One day, you'll retire or get fired and then who do you turn to?

5. Do they want me or do they want my membership?

One way to tell if your being offered entry into a network or a community is to ask if what you are really being offered is just a membership. Membership will be phrased entirely in terms of obligations and benefits; meet the obligations and you can have the benefits. A real community is a place where you are appreciated for being just as you are. That's not without limits: if you persist in being a criminal, you won't be able to belong to any community. Nothing is more of a network and less of a community than a "prison community" and you might say that all networks become prisons if we mistake them for communities.

Those limits aside, a community is a place where you have a place even if you slip on your obligations. It's a group that holds you close just as you are. One of the hard truths I've had to accept lately is that my my mother, whom I had always imagined loving me, was only interested in me as a member of her family. Her "love" for me was always subject to conditions and that has had a huge impact on the way I've connected with others as an adult.

6. Sexual networking

Every once in a while, an old post I had thought dormant will suddenly get a lot of pageviews and show up in my stats. Sometimes it's puzzling when this happens, sometimes it's creepy and sometimes it's gratifying. This week, an old post that I think is one of the best things I've written got a little boomlet. ("Little" being the operative word here as this blog does not attract and does not seek to attract a large audience.)

The gist of the post is that a woman who cheats on her husband really began to cheat on him long before she actually had sex with anyone else because she had locked him out of her intimate life. Here's the key paragraph from the article I was commenting on:
One of the challenges Sheila hadn't expected was where to hide her sexy lingerie. 'I went out and spent a fortune at Myla on gorgeous transparent bras and G-strings – things I'd stopped wearing for my husband, Peter, even before we were married. 
And that got me thinking about fantasies.

One of the things about sexual fantasies is that they are never just fantasies. Part of you always wants to really do it even if your more sensible self keeps you from carrying it through (no fantasy could appeal to you if there wasn't some possibility, however remote, of it actually happening to you someday). Now, there are obvious risks to most fantasies but the real risk in carrying them out is that others will be just playing along and not really connecting with you. That's fine if you already have a solid connection with the person based on common beliefs, shared interests and a similar approach to life. It's a stupid way to make a connection in the first place because you'll just be networking and never really connect with another human being this way.

What occurred to me this week is that they are also a way of dealing with a partner who doesn't want you anymore. To return to Sheila again:
'I love Peter dearly,' Sheila says. 'He's a good husband, and father. I like cooking with him and gossiping about the neighbours. He's my pal and I'd never want to lose that. Sex with Michael is a purely separate thing; it's about erotic abandonment, being seen as just a woman rather than as Peter's wife, or "the doctor" or a mum. Any working mother will know what I mean. Every woman needs something that is hers alone. Some of my friends ride, some sing in choirs, I have Michael.' 
My suspicion is that all cuckold fantasies start as coping strategies for men who are in Peter's place—men who are strongly attracted to a woman who isn't sexually interested in them or isn't sexually interested in them anymore—it's a way of having an erotic interaction with an echo chamber. Like all fantasies it becomes more than that, a subject I'll return to with the smooth song of the day this evening.

But imagine with me that Peter, unbeknownst to Sheila has cuckold fantasies about her. Imagine that, far from being something he would get angry about, finding about her affair would actually be the fulfillment of his wildest dreams. Would that work out? Almost certainly not because she is cheating on him and she'd resent him wanting to know about it and shut him out because, "Every woman needs something that is hers alone."

7. Sex fantasies are dumb strategies for finding a partner

Everyone has fantasies because everyone spent a few years thinking about sexual bonding without doing it. Well, some people had early sex instead but that is a really bad idea. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that every healthy, normally functioning sexual adult has embedded sexual fantasies. You have scenarios you will go to to get aroused and you will have scenarios that will pop into your head when you are already aroused for other reasons. You can't help this, it just is. You sewed invasive crops in all your sexual fields when you were thirteen and you're stuck with them for your entire adult sex life.

The thing is, not only are your embedded fantasies projections, they are projections from a  time when real sex was impossible. They were inspired by whatever was in the air at the time you were going through puberty: ways people dressed, things you saw in romantic movies, things you saw in porn or even utterly random human interactions that you completely misinterpreted so you could use them as fodder for your erotic imagination.

You can see why teenage girls and cuckold fantasies are the two most common male fantasies and why rape fantasies and groups of men having sex with a woman are the two most common female fantasies. Many boys first fantasize about unattainable teenage girls because they are surrounded by unattainable teenage girls when they themselves were teenagers first starting to think about sex. Other boys fantasize about women they know will never have sex with them (that hot woman who teaches them history and, therefore, he is not only are allowed to but is expected to look at for 45 minutes a day) but possibly might be having sex with other men who have a status that an awkward student could never have (for example, the gym teacher). Rape fantasies allow a girl to think the unthinkable. Finally, the wrought up girl on the bus can imagine what might happen if all the men on the bus somehow magically knew how wrought up she was. These fantasies don't so much clear social constraints out of the way so as to allow for sex as they turn those social constraints into erotic props for a private fantasy.

The thing that should be obvious, but often isn't, is that, while it may make sense to share these fantasies with someone you have already bonded with in the normal way, it's a really dumb way to try to connect with someone you don't know yet. And it remains a really dumb idea even if you hit the jackpot and manage to recount your fantasy to someone who already has the matching opposite fantasy.

We live in a narcissistic age, however, and there is a huge variety of songs, books and video out there that treat the pursuit of the person with matching sexual proclivities as what love is all about. Find someone whose fantasies match yours and you don't have to work so hard at it. ("Dumpy person with poor grooming skills and completely lacking in social skills looking for statuesque beauty with social graces and money who is into losers who couldn't be bothered to try like me.")

I'll finish with a  weird leap. Over the years, enough women I've known have told me of unwanted, conversations they've had with married men that I suspect it's universal or nearly so: every woman is subjected to this and every married man probably does this at some point.. The conversation consists of the man revealing that his wife has lost interest in their sex life and that they have not had sex in weeks, months or years.

And the reverse? That doesn't happen so much. The reason should be obvious: because a woman who told a male friend that her husband had lost interest in her sexually would be all too clearly asking for sex and, worse, doing so in a pathetic way. Think about it: she'd be telling you that another man didn't find her attractive in the hopes that you would.

So why do men keep doing this? For that is what a man is doing when he tells his wife's best girlfriend that his wife has lost interest in him sexually. He does it because it's all just a projection. "I'm not getting it, you're here, wouldn't it be cool if sex just, you know, happened?" It doesn't cross his mind that the fact that he isn't getting any, however compelling that is for him, isn't much of selling point. And why is he saying this to his wife's best girlfriend?

Of course, that is somewhat the point. Part of him wants the strategy to fail. And part of him realizes that, even if this crazy strategy succeeds, it would be so improbable that he and the best girlfriend could treat it as something that just happened to them both as opposed to something they were morally responsible for: "We were sitting their drinking that awful white wine while she was out walking the dog and the next thing either of us knew, we were kissing" feels a lot less intentional than putting a profile up on some website.

We laugh at this when it's spelled out that bluntly, but the truth is that our culture increasingly treats that as a reasonable way for adults to connect.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


I'm on a kick about emotions lately. And so, pride!

Brandon Steiner, who seems to be famous and successful and that's all I know about him, says that pride is bad because it stops a man from making three kinds of statements that he needs to be able to make in order to thrive.

  1. “I made a mistake” 
  2. “I need help”
  3. “I don’t know” 

That's good stuff. (I say kinds of statements because these three examples stand for a wide variety of possible statements.) You need to be able to make those sorts of statements, although you need to exercise some care about whom you say them to (I'll get back to this). But is it really pride that stops us from saying these things?

If we start, as we tend to do in the Christian/post-Christian west, with the belief that pride is not only a bad emotion but the very worst emotion, that makes it easy to see pride as the cause of bad things. If we further make a point of contrasting pride with humility, then it seems only too obvious that pride would prevent us from making those three kinds of statements.

But there are other ways of thinking of pride. If we think of pride as the opposite of self-hatred, then we can begin to see a way to another approach. Now, we might object that the person seething with self-hatred, whatever their other faults, would be only too ready to tell us they have made mistakes, need help or don't know. That is true, but I think it opens the door to considering something else, for the person seething with self hatred lacks shame and I think it's shame that prevents us from making those sorts of statements and not pride.

We can easily imagine the person who knows full well that they don't know something or that they made a mistake and is unable to admit because they are terrified at the thought of others thinking they are stupid or weak. And that isn't pride. Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that the proud person is precisely the one who could admit not knowing something, needing help or having made a mistake because they don't fear being diminished in the eyes of others. The proud man knows that knows many things so admitting that he doesn't know what, for example, a circuit breaker is will be easy for him. Perhaps he's never had to deal with one before, a not unlikely scenario.

At the same time, I'd argue that we need sufficient pride to reveal things to safe people. Not everyone has your best interests at heart and there are some kinds of weaknesses that could be used against you to shame you publicly and the list of people willing to do that is very long indeed.