Friday, May 19, 2017

To tell the truth

You know that game where a mommy smiles at her baby and the baby, after much struggle, smiles back? That sort of activity is the foundation of all human learning. Our brain's basic function is imitative/predictive. We learn to imitate patterns.
Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes, knees and toes.
Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes, knees and toes.
Eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
Mommy sings the words and makes the hand motions. Baby watches and, after an intensity of effort that would intimidate any adult, learns to make the right hand motions along with mommy. Later, the baby learns to sing the words along with mommy. The song includes patterns and variations. We might say, it includes patterns within a pattern. Eventually, the baby internalizes the patterns to the point that they get really good at being able to pick up new ones quickly. Every new song is sort of like the old ones only with variations. The song above, for example, uses the same tune as "London Bridge is Falling Down" (and many other children's songs) with different words.

The same goes for what we call the "meanings" of the word. At the very beginning, the child needs to know to move her hands the same way mommy does when mommy sings the song. Eventually, she will learn to move her hands at the sound of the words. Mommy plays a new game where she says, "baby knees" and her daughter touches her knees, "baby eyes" and she points at her eyes and so on. Learning this is a long process with much correction. The child isn't learning concepts. What the child is doing is imitating patterns and then learning how to predict patterns so she can act as is expected of her.

When we think about lying, we tend to imagine someone saying something she knows isn't true. And that description matches some lies. But it rapidly gets more complicated than that. Suppose Theresa borrowed her sister's ring without asking and then loses it. Her sister later wants to wear the ring asks Theresa if she knows where it is. Theresa says she doesn't know and that is, in a certain sense, the truth, for Theresa has no clue where it is. And yet Theresa is lying. Why do we feel so confident saying this?

Consider another example. When Elizabeth Warren claimed to be descended from indigenous peoples  it seems to me that she believed what she was saying. People inside her family had been telling her this since childhood. And yet, it is fair to call Warren a liar. Why do I say this? Because different standards of truth apply in different situations. You believe what your mother told you and you can repeat to others. Best, however, to hedge your bets; to not say, "I am part Cherokee "but rather say, "The family lore is that we're part Cherokee and it may be true, I hope it is, but I've never verified this."

What we call "truth telling" is a matter of the brains predictive function. My answer to your questions is based on my assurance that certain patterns will hold. If you ask me if I have an appendix, I will say I do have an appendix. I've never checked. If I had to justify my claim, I might say that I know of no operations, that there are no visible scars and that I've never heard of anyone being born without an appendix. It's not impossible, however, that I might not have one. There just isn't any reason to check.

I have, however, often heard of people who were told things about their ethnic heritage that turned out not to be true. There is every reason to check and not checking before filling out a form claiming minority status is lying.

Lying, and this is my main point, is very closely related to the notion of "what can you get away with". That makes us uncomfortable. We want lying to be more like following a rule. We want it to be something you can easily check.

When a man asks his wife if she loves him, she says, "yes," without even thinking about it. She may feel very much in love with him at the time but, more likely, she feels nothing at all. She's been married to the man for years now. She says, "yes," because that is the responsible answer. If she said "no" there would be serious and hurtful consequences. Assuming she's not an irresponsible jerk, saying "no" would be another way of saying, "I don't want to be married to you anymore." Either way, her answer is based on the predictive function of her brain. Her answer is based on what she senses the consequences of that answer will be.

When Elizabeth Warren grew up, she heard family lore about Cherokee and Delaware heritage. Repeating these stories inside the family had no negative consequences. No one called her a liar. So her brain got used to thinking this was safe pattern of behaviour. My guess is that Warren was probably surprised, even gobsmacked, when she was first accused of lying. She probably felt very strongly that she had not intended to deceive. But how would she know she wasn't lying to herself about this?

Bonaventure would say telling the truth requires us to meet two conditions:

  1. You have to believe what you are saying is true.
  2. What you are saying actually has to be true.

We tend to find that sort of assessment harsh because it's easy to imagine cases where people honestly believe things that aren't true. I'll come back to that in a moment, but first consider the consequences of shifting all our focus to the first. Catherine honestly believes that she loves and wants to marry John. When she decides to marry him, that decision is based entirely upon her sense of her own feelings. She's certain she isn't lying when she says, "all the days of my life." Five years later, she leaves him.

How could she have avoided that lie? Looking "deeper into herself" wasn't going to help.

It is true that there are many cases where we honestly believe things that aren't true. It's also true that some lies are a simple matter of sincerity. Learning to be honest, it seems to me, is more a matter of focusing on the second condition—making sure what we say is actually true—rather than questioning our own sincerity. Which is not to say that we don't all tell bold-faced lies from time to time. Of course we do but our problem in those cases isn't figuring out whether we're telling the truth or not. The question then becomes whether the lie is justified and I think, controversially, that some lies are justified. Again, though, attempting to justify deliberately misleading someone by examining my own sense of sincerity is of no help at all.

The fact that we won't be able to prove absolutely that what we want to say is true is a feature not a bug. It reminds us that truth telling is a predictive activity. The question isn't, "Do I believe this to be true?" The question is, "How certain can I be that my claims will hold up?"

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When the only cure for narrative is more narrative

"I read Claire Dederer’s latest memoir, Love and Trouble"
The expression "latest memoir" ought to evoke the same feelings as "my most recent divorce" or "not last since my last criminal conviction".  These are movements from unfortunate to carelessness.

That said, such memoirs at least gave a reviewer an excuse to talk about herself.
To hedge the accolade slightly, I suspect some portion of the pleasure was narcissistic on my part: I kept recognizing myself in these pages, especially in their evocations of middle-aged befuddlements, and of the surprisingly long half-life of adolescent inchoateness.
Notice, first, the tactic: by announcing she is being narcissistic, Laura Kipnis plans on having her cake and eating it too. That's a clever trick and it's one we all fall victim to so let's not beat her up for what is a near-universal human trait. At the same time, let's take her at face value and ignore the half-meant self-deprecation. Read literally, Kipnis tells us that she's not handling middle age well and that something she here calls "adolescent inchoateness" contributing to this failure. What does that mean?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May I validate your feelings?

A few years ago now I volunteered to visit people who are sick and shut in. In order to be able to do it I had to take (and pay for) a course. I did it without enthusiasm but did it seriously. The course taught us to validate people's feelings. No one in the course told us why this was required. We all meet people every day and manage to get along pretty well so why is it necessary to validate the feelings of people who are shut in?

When I made my first visit I discovered hat the answer to the question is that people who are very sick are often bitter about their experience. They can't do many of the things they used to and no one visits them. They respond to this with anger and sense of entitlement. They put up psychological barriers making it difficult to approach them and this makes their very real problems even worse. They make it impossible for you to reach them. Not every seriously ill person does this but enough do that if you were to sign up to do what I did it would be a virtual certainty that you'd encounter someone like that. People who respond to life's problems with patience, hope and love are a joy to visit so their friends and family tend to visit them. The people who need visits from volunteers aren't like that. Thus the course.

I tolerated the lectures and role-playing activities. As skeptical as I tried to be, though, I could see that this was a technique that would work in some cases. That turned out to be an understatement. It worked incredibly well. I found myself unconsciously slipping into validation mode any time I had to deal with a difficult person. The only time it doesn't "work" is when you're dealing with a difficult person who is in a position equal to your own. I mean, it works in the sense that it calms them down and reassures them but you can't go anywhere after that.

Let me explain what I mean by that. If you're sitting with someone who is bitter and angry about life because they're sick and they feel like no one cares you can diffuse a lot of their anger by saying that  you fully understand that they are angry. When they calm down you can ask them to talk about their life. Ninety percent of the time, simply doing that will lead them to find something good and meaningful about their lives and that will improve their outlook on life. In a very small number of cases you will have to help this process along with with a few gently leading questions. In a tiny number on instances this won't work and you'll have to go to the head of the program and they will assign a qualified therapist to see this person.

The technique "works" because the person in the bed needs human contact. At some level they are trying to earn your company. The bitterness and entitlement and counter-productive in the way that many human responses are counter-productive. When someone like me validates their feelings I give them away to get around this barrier and most people, not surprisingly, jump at that second chance. Most of us would do exactly the same thing in their position. And we'd do it because we'd be in a position of weakness. If this person visiting us doesn't come back we'll be stuck in this damn bed all alone again. Validating feelings is all about power.

And that started to trouble me.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day Special: Life will continue to hit you in the face but mommy won't always be there.

People I like and admire keep sharing well-meaning but dubious stuff on Facebook. To be blunt, my friend Lisa should probably have stopped herself as soon as she saw that the site she was sharing from is called "popsugar". She didn't for the simple reason that the site appeared to be backing up a view she already held. I'm not exactly immune to that weakness myself so I can't be too harsh with her. The article she shared is another matter.

Here is the argument.
This notion that boys can never hurt, that they can never feel, is so damaging to them long term. The belief that any signs or gestures of affection will somehow decrease their manhood — this pressure to always 'man up' follows them into adulthood where they struggle to fully experience the broad scope of love and affection. The only emotion they healthily learn to express is happiness and then we wonder why they are always chasing it.
Are boys actually taught this? The complaint is often made but I've yet to see much in the way of empirical evidence to back it up. But that's an argument for another day. What I want to do today is to apply one of my favourite analytic techniques to the text. That is to ask what actually happens. Let's strip away the analysis above and focus instead on what this mother tells us about what happened and what she did.

She was watching her 8-year-old play basketball and he got hit in the face. Here is what happens next.
I saw his eyes widen and then squint from the pain - he looked around trying to focus. I knew he was looking for me.
She knew he was looking for her! The article is ostensibly about what boys need but it's really about what this particular mommy needed.

Let's rewrite those two sentences without the narcissism.
His eyes widened and then he squinted from the pain—he looked around. I wanted to be close to him.
That may still not be accurate. I'm highly dubious that anyone would or could read and remember the exact facial expressions that way.

Here, according to her Facebook page, is what happened next.
"Max got hit in the face", I said to my husband as I instinctively jumped up from the bleachers. In that moment, I saw Max start to run around the court in my direction as the silent cry began. He couldn't catch his breath. My feet couldn't move fast enough. As soon as we connected, I got down on one knee. "Catch your breath buddy." He tilted his head back. "Max, breath. It's okay." He finally took a breath, and I wrapped my arms around him as he cried into my shoulder. A voice came from behind me - "You need to stop babying that kid."
Notice that it's (literally) all about her and what a great, loving mother she is up until the moment someone says something. And we might wonder about who says it and why. It's possible that this person is a complete stranger who spoke this comment in response to an isolated incident.  It's also possible that she's done this sort of thing before and that he was reacting to a pattern of behaviour.

The most important thing is this: no one, at any time in the incident as she describes it, told her or told her boy that boys aren't allowed to have feelings or that they aren't allowed to express them. All that was suggested here is that mommy needs to stop running to her child every time he gets hurt so he can learn to deal with it himself.

In the long run, this boy is going to start to hate his mother because she always has to be the centre of attention. He's also going to figure out that she is liar. Let's hope that he also learns how to deal with pain and embarrassment despite her.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The opposite of crazy is still crazy

In my experience this is very bad advice:

Can you see why this is insane? If not, ask yourself this question: why would your loving someone enable them to transform themselves? You're not God  so your love isn't that special or powerful. Nothing against you personally, no one's love is that.

And why would you want to be able to transform them? Isn't that manipulative?

But maybe this text wasn't written for people looking for someone to love. Maybe it was written for people looking for someone to love them. People who sit around and imagine that someone loving them will enable them to transform themselves. People who feel they've been cheated of love they deserved and have spent the rest of their lives waiting for other people to make the first move. They're not going to take a chance. They've been hurt before and they want someone else to stick their neck out first.

They've never thought any of this out. They just feel cheated and hurt and so they hold back. They don't need to be empowered to transform themselves. All they need to is to do it. It's not easy, of course. It would be bloody hard work. But they're the only ones who could do it. Believing that someone else needs to love them just as they are is just an excuse to avoid facing this.

Whatever you do, don't get into a relationship with someone like that.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"Feel your feelings"

That's a bit of advice I keep seeing. It's pretty good advice, to a point. In order for this advice to be any good to you, however , you need to know how to feel them.
Your goal is to extract the greatest experience of flavor from the rum, so don't be in a rush to decide whether you "like" a particular rum or not. Suspend judgment for as long as you can. The minute you decide that you "like" the rum (or not) you stop noticing the rum and start paying attention to your judgment. Your evaluation gets in the way of your perception and tasting is a game of sharpening perception. (from A Short Course in Rum by Lynn Hoffman)
That advice can be applied to a far-wider range of experiences than just tasting rum.

One place that definitely can be applied is to feeling your feelings. Start off by noticing them. Just sit, or stand, there and feel what you are feeling. Suspend judgment as to what these feelings mean, whether they are good or bad and what you have to do about them.

Since reading his book two years ago, I've come to think that Mr. Hoffman is correct in that if you start paying attention to your judgment you lose touch with thing you should be experiencing. He's too polite to say so but the further problem is that your judgment tends to become a performance. You want people to know what you think and you want them to be impressed that you have the sort of fine, discerning tastes that they should respect.

Feelings are no different. When I decide I'm feeling sad, or happy, or vindicated I don't just get stuck on that judgment, I start to behave in accord with it. My "feeling" becomes a performance. It's a way, I suppose, of paying attention to my judgment and it rapidly becomes a way of getting others to pay attention as well. I don't think it's healthy.

Sometimes understanding the lesson is a simple matter of paying close attention to the language used. Compare these two expressions:

  1. Feel your feelings
  2. Express your feelings

Those are two very different expressions and yet the second is often offered as a replacement for the first. We're often told that we should learn to express our feelings. That is good advice if there is some positive benefit to letting others know how we're feeling. Oftentimes, however, people tell us that expressing our feelings is a way of "getting them out", as if expressing them was a way of letting off steam that might otherwise cause our internal boiler to explode. If little boys, for example, aren't taught to express their feelings they will learn the habit of bottling them up and, boom, male suicide rates will spike.

And male suicide rates have risen so it all seems vindicated.

Except for one tiny problem and that is that male suicide rates have risen. They used to be lower back when men were taught not to express their feelings. That doesn't prove that expressing their feelings has made men more likely to commit suicide. There may be other factors at play. There almost certainly are. It does, however, cast serious doubt on the claim that rising suicide rates are proof that men need to "express" their feelings.

The thing about expressing feelings is that, as Hoffman tells us,  it tends to validate our judgments about them and, therefore, to amplify to replace our actual feelings with a need to validate our judgments. You can prove this for yourself with a simple experiment. Next time you're all alone, think of some past betrayal. Say out loud what happened and then say how angry it made you. Just keep talking about it, expressing your anger. It's a virtual certainty that your voice will rise and your feelings will get stronger and stronger. If you really let it go, you'll work yourself up into an intense rage. If we're honest with ourselves, we will realize that this will work even if our judgment about this past betrayal is wrong, even if we were not actually betrayed.

If you tell yourself you're sad, or angry, or jealous, you will start to feel that way even though, and this is the really important thing, you might be wrong about how you're feeling.

Far better to feel your feelings. Just spend sometime noticing yourself and what you're reactions are instead.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Liberty's liquor

"Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of "America's spirit," drink one of the most regulated spirits known. To be labelled bourbon, it has to be made with a certain percentage of corn and aged in a certain kind of barrel. But excessive regulation is not the spirit of America. Unrestricted experimentation is. Rum embodies America's laissez-faire attitude. It is whatever it wants to be. There have never been strict guidelines for making it. There's no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favourites. If sugarcane and its by-products are involved, you can call it rum. Rum is the melting pot of spirits—the only liquor available in clear, amber, or black variations."

And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Sex has a lot to do with it

This pirate, as opposed to the more famous one, is looking at 60. It's not here yet but it's close enough that I've started to make adjustments.

Anyway, I've been looking back at my life and the lives of people I've known along the way and one of the things I see is that there are a number of brutal truths about life that cannot be avoided. One of these is that sex matters if you want to be happy. Sex tends to determine who gets love and commitment and, more importantly, it determines which couples survive. If you aren't enthusiastic about sex to begin with, you will probably never find love. And if you lose your enthusiasm for sex with your partner, you will almost certainly lose that partner.

Trigger warning: it's a lot easier if you are what is now called cisgender heterosexual. Yes, I know there are people who aren't who are happy but there aren't many. And, yes, I know there is good reason to believe that some people simply have no choice in the matter. Maybe it would be a better world if life were fair but life isn't fair and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

There is an old joke in the real estate business that if you build your dream house, you will create a nightmare for the executor of your estate. The point being that the house that matches your dreams perfectly will not suit anyone else. The same is true of the supposedly liberating notion of gender. The more perfectly your gender suits you, the fewer potential partners you have. There are only two sexes but both offer far more possibilities. Trading sex for gender is like trading a complete set of utensils in for a spoon that suits you perfectly.

I live near a university and when I get on the train to head downtown I look at all the young people around me and ask myself whether they look comfortable being women or men. The honest answer is that most don't. Most try to hide behind frumpiness. About one fifth are like Sartre's waiter, busy playing at being women or men.

This doesn't sadden me at all. I was no different at their age. If I had to bet, I'd bet those busy playing at being women and men will be happy in the long run. Some will be miserable but most will succeed. The frumps, both female and male, will live lives of quiet desperation. If there is one lesson my life has taught me it's that not embracing your sexuality is like getting divorced—you might end happy anyway but the majority of people do not.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Addition to emotional awards

Negative emotions—and righteous indignation is familiar one these days—have a purpose in human life. Anytime we find ourselves faced with pop psychology telling us that we need to rid ourselves of some emotion—be it righteous indignation, or resentment, or jealousy—we should stop and remind ourselves that these have all survived tens-of-thousands of years of evolution. If there wasn't something positive about these negative emotions they would have been weeded out of humanity long ago.

But the gist of the advice against righteous indignation is good. It can a dead end and there is something addictive about it. The same can be said of alcohol mind you. That said, training ourselves to have a drink every time we wanted a lift is suicidal. Similarly, it would make no sense to train ourselves to be good at reacting with righteous indignation. And yet, that is exactly what much of the modern culture does.

I see it everyday of Facebook. Someone I know will share a link with a heading that reads something like, "See how X responded to trolls who ...". Click on the link and you'll get some supposedly searing putdown of these evil people. And you'll get to share in the feeling of smug moral superiority that comes from seeing evil people crushed like bugs.

On the other hand, that was what the "trolls" who picked on these people were seeking in the first place.

But it gets worse the more you think about it. Some celebrity, and quite likely some celebrity you'd never heard of until two minutes ago, gets a riff off at the expense of people you didn't know existed and you get a vicarious thrill out of sharing in it.

And we do this with our entertainment too. Think of how many times the hero of a movie or TV show triumphs in a moral argument by becoming self righteous. Shows such as  M*A*S*H and West Wing traded on nothing but self-righteous indignation season after season. What does it do to our moral character to work ourselves up into this state about fictions?

Righteous versus self-righteous

When righteous seems unjustified to us, we call it "self-righteous". That gets a bit tricky if we dismiss any sense of moral realism as the modern world has largely done. If I can't point at actual moral facts, as opposed to my sense of what is right or wrong, in a moral argument there is no longer any distinction between righteous indignation and self-righteous indignation; anyone who wants to bring about something I don't want will seem a fit target for my anger.

"Feel your feelings"

There is some very good advice about dealing with out tendency to become self-righteously indignant at this site. The whole thing is worth reading but one item in particular struck me:
3.  Feel your feelings.  How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior?  Superior?  Powerful?  Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?
There is an assumption of moral realism behind that. Kellen believes that you can tell the difference between when there is a real injustice and when we are just getting high on the reward our emotions give us (he calls them "feelings" rather than emotions).

If we go back to the first point I made about the usefulness of negative emotions, we can get a sense of this. What happens when we are subject to an attack? We either shrink or rise up. If powerful forces unite against us, we'll usually shrink because the alternative is being crushed. It's not a good idea starting fights you're guaranteed to lose. Okay, but what happens when the attack against us is unfair? That's when self-righteous indignation can give us an emotional payoff. I may not be able to do much about trolls but I can retreat to some safe place and vent about them to my friends and I get an emotional charge that makes me feel better. "Those trolls can't hurt me!"

So far, so good. But that emotional reward is a reward whether it's deserved or not. Like all emotional rewards, it can become addictive.

We tend to think we are very good at understanding our emotional states but we're usually only good at having them. We don't often stop and reflect on what is happening and why. That's why we need people like Kellen to help us sometimes.

Before leaving the subject, I should note that the opposite mistake is also possible. That is to say, I can train myself—or be trained by others—to discount my feelings. If you had a parent or parents who saw you as primarily a problem to be dealt with rather than someone to love, your greatest joys and greatest defeats will have seemed like intrusions on their lives rather than something to share. The parent who thinks this way, and there are a lot of them, will train you from an early age to react to strong feelings by distrusting them. If you're feeling hurt, you need to get over yourself. Feeling good about something you've done, you need to get over yourself. Internalize that and you'll think every case of righteous indignation is unjustified simply because it is a strong feeling.

I suspect that what happens here is simply an addiction to another kind of reward. Controlling your feelings is an important thing to do so our body fires up the endorphins when we realize we've managed it. Insert a parent into your life who sees all your feelings as inconvenient and you'll get really good at feeling that reward. Pretty soon you'll get good at suppressing even justified anger.

The (moral) truth is out there.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Redneck nation? Or Victorian?

This is from 14 years ago. It's from an interview with Michael Graham about his book Redneck Nation. Graham's argument, partly serious, partly comic, is that "Northern Liberals" (we'd say "Coastal Elites" nowadays) have picked up redneck attitudes.
When I talk about redneckery in Redneck Nation, I’m not talking about the Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. I’m writing about the ideology: What did a typical white southern “redneck” believe at the beginning of the civil-rights movement 50 years ago?
  • He believed that race mattered, that race was determinant.
  • He believed that free speech was dangerous, spread by “outside agitators” who never learned the southern speech code: “If you can’t say something nice…drink.”
  • He believed that all women were either delicate creatures in need of special social protections, or they were roadhouse trailer trash who would spank you and call you “Daddy.”
  • He believed that the more irrational and ridiculous your religion, the more fervently you believed in God.
  • He believed the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday night was to watch something get “blowed up real good.”
 I'm not convinced he really wants to avoid Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. If he did, he wouldn't talk about "roadhouse trailer trash" or about watching something get "blowed up real good". It's not that those things don't exist in the south. The problem is that they aren't, and never were, particular or definitive of the south. You can find trashy women, and trashy men, anywhere. Similarly, there are boys and men everywhere who like watching stuff get destroyed.

So let's strip that stuff out and see what's left. What's left is pretty much what any good, progressive thinker from the Victorian era believed:

  • Eugenics: the belief that people can't transcend their genetics and, consequently, the people at the top of the socio-economic ladder belong there.
  • That free speech is dangerous in the hands of people who don't know the rules.
  • That women need to be protected in order to flourish.
  • That the historical and rational basis of religion has been destroyed so all that is left is spirituality.

That is the real ideology of the contemporary left. And that explains this:
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for? 
If you're wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book. 
What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton. 
The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.
And they can no longer explain themselves because their real motives are exactly the ones above and they don't want to admit that, not even to themselves. As a consequence—and I'm hardly the first to say this—the contemporary left is reduced to saying whatever looks like it will win. They have no beliefs of their own they're willing to admit to so they can only viciously attack.

I'm not sure what anybody can do about it. Sometimes I think the best thing would be for the parties of the left to get blowed up real good. That prospect strikes all my lefty friends, and most of my friends are lefties, as terrifying. I'm sure it would be for a while. Very soon, however, I think they'd find it liberating.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Woody Allen has made some questionable decisions in his personal life, and his recent films have not been great. But I know of no modern filmmaker who would be so willing to indict himself as thoroughly as Allen does in Annie Hall.
I'll buy that. To a point.

Have you ever been around someone who lacerates themselves for their moral failings but smiles as they do it? I've seen it. I've done it myself.

The Last Psychiatrist talks about this somewhere. He talks about how easy it is to say, "I'm a narcissist." Unless you actually plan to do something about it, it's meaningless.

And, if you really mean to do something about it, why do you need to say it? Is declaring that you have a problem going to make you more accountable?

The answer to all those questions is easy: look how it worked out for Woody.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Other girls will judge them."

It's important to pay attention to what actually happens and to pay attention to what actually gets said. The quote above comes from a CBC story about a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends. Let me repeat that, "a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends"; a boy shared pictures she sent to him with other boys and yet the damaging consequence was that "other girls" judged her.

Isn't moral psychology interesting?

Here's the way the CBC sets up the story:
When she sent selfies of her partially naked body, she thought only her boyfriend would see the images. 
The teenager never imagined one of the sexually explicit photos would end up being shared with five other boys in a Dropbox account.
"Partially naked body" means she sent him a picture of her breasts. The CBC is worried you'll enjoy it too much if they're upfront (if you'll pardon the expression) about this.

Here's how she explains how the boy convinced her to send photos:
"Basically [he] threatened to break up with me if I didn't send him pictures. I was young and naive and just sent them, and then that's what he did with it," she said. "I just think he's a pig."
There's a lot of equivocation in that quote. "Basically" here means that he did things that she now interprets as manipulative threats. Just how explicit these threats were is not clear. We also don't know how she interpreted them at the time.

 Here's the moral lesson she has drawn from her experience:
"Other girls will judge them, make them feel bad about themselves, make them feel like a slut for sending the picture, for trusting the person. It hurts self-esteem and it makes it hard for people to trust each other."
She wants it to be possible for people "to trust each other." That is to say, she wants to live in a  world where it's safe for girls to send nude selfies. (By the way, we should notice that while her identity is kept from us, as it should be, one of the consequences of this case being reported in the media is that every single kid at her high school knows who she is. I suspect almost everybody in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia knows who she is. She has two choices: leave town or be stuck with the identity this has given her for the rest of her life. As offensive as this thought will be to some, she'd be better of if the five boys had gotten away with it. That's why kids don't tell their parents about things like this.)

Many (but not all) teenage girls fantasize about someone seeing them naked and a surprising number will arrange to have it happen. They want to have it happen but they don't want it to be their responsibility. Boys, meanwhile, will try to trick or pressure girls into letting them see them naked. The two desires tend to play into one another. The fact that the boys are trying to manipulate the girls into doing this makes it easier for the girls to believe it's not really their responsibility when this happens. It also makes it easier for everyone involved to limit how far things go—most teenagers want to play with fire.

That neither surprises nor depresses me. I still have fond memories of Barb who, at age 17, walked into the room where her brother and I were talking and accidentally-on-purpose let her terrycloth robe fall open. She did this not because she was interested in me; she probably held me in contempt. It would have felt like riding a roller coaster to her—like something that was calculated-to-scare-her-but-was-actually-very-safe. And it was.

If you want to get depressed, stop and think a bit about how this instinct that so many teenage girls have would have worked out for most of human history.

So, what's the lesson here? That we should stop trusting others? To some extent, yes, that is the lesson. That said, living in a world where there is no trust would be horrible. The better lesson is that trust is only possible within strict limits. To use the current jargon, you have to set boundaries. What that current jargon leaves out is that you have to set boundaries on yourself as well as others. To use the old and better jargon, good fences make good neighbours. My fence keeps your livestock away from my garden but it also keeps my livestock out of yours.

(If the only reason you set boundaries is to protect yourself from others, you're a narcissist. And if you advise others to set boundaries only as a way of protecting themselves by controlling others, you're teaching them to be narcissists. The boundary game only works if both sides have an interest in it.)

Notice that the girl quoted by the CBC doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her. She blames the boy, as she should. She doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her because she sees that as a consequence of his betrayal more than something that is the judging-girls' fault.

She may be just a naive teenager but she has a deep understanding of the praxis of high school life. Mean girls slut-shame girls who are willing to go further sexually than they are. She's willing to live with that and most other girls will also go along with the mean girls. It's a way girls can vote girls who threaten them by going too far off the island. The same thing happens to the most prudish girls on the other end of the scale. Every high school girl recognizes that there have to be limits and every high school girl also recognizes that no one is going to be able to have any fun at all if adults get to set the limits. At the same time, it takes someone brave and strong to step up into the role of setting limits and most high school students aren't brave and strong. The only people willing to do that are bullies, enter the mean girls. Crazy as it may seem to us, most teenagers trust bullies to make important moral decisions for them. (Note to busybodies: this is why anti-bullying campaigns will always fail.)

But this girl also wants something else. She wants a secret space she can sneak away to and interact with boys. She wasn't really surprised to find out this boy was, in her words, "a pig". She was counting on that. What really surprised her was that the shame of being such a pig as to ask her for these photos wasn't enough to make him keep the secret to himself. She thought of it as a secret they shared—the basis of the trust she sought was that both of them would be equally afraid of "their" secret getting out.

The key point here is that when she says she wants "people to trust each other" (for that is the implicit message she is sending), what she really wants is to have enclaves where the ordinary rules don't apply and yet remain safe; places where people can sneak away and do things that they will be so ashamed of they will keep these things forever secret. At heart, she's a Victorian.

What's taken that Victorian world away from her is that everyone now has a camera in their pocket. Before that, there was plausible deniability. If I'd been a heel and gone back to school the next day and told everyone that Barb had flashed me, she could have denied it and just about everyone would have believed her.

Notice the subject header again. It's dangerous in teen eyes because the whole world might find out. At the same time, the risk is what makes it fun. Every kid who ever jumped off a roof into a swimming pool knew it was dangerous but none of of them ever thought they were going to end up in a wheelchair. Let's not kid ourselves, tens of thousands of girls and women will send erotic selfies today. Most will never suffer any consequences. Most of those women are also smart enough to realize that it's a virtual certainty that other men and women than the person they sent it to will get to see those pictures.  They can live with that because the risk of being publicly shamed, that "other girls will judge them", is very small.

What to do about it? There is nothing you could do.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hmmm, is logic just a social construct now

Ann Althouse has a nice catch on hypocrisy at the New York Times. I particularly liked the contradictory thinking in this paragraph from the piece she is criticizing:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
I take it you see the problem? If "facts are made up" , then "evidence" is just something spoken from a particular standpoint.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

When members of the same family do not talk with each other

This came up in my Facebook feed yesterday.

As of now, more than 400 people have typed "yes" or clicked on "like", thereby revealing more about themselves than they realize.

Before we get to that, notice two things about that message. It uses every trick in the passive-aggressive handbook. It starts with something that looks like sorrow but very quickly changes gear to shame its target with the suggestion that "the children" are suffering because of you. Then it brands the conflict as imaginary. That alone is sufficient grounds to dismiss it. Some conflicts are imaginary but most are not. Most conflicts are real.

Some people do, of course, take offence for trivial or imagined reasons. A lot of others, however, don't stop talking to family members because of a conflict. It may happen after a conflict but it is not that conflict alone that causes someone to stop talking to their siblings, parents or children.

I was curious about the page that would share such things. When I visited it the top posting was this:

There is a certain tension in finding both those memes on the same page.

By responding positively to the first post, more than 400 people have outed themselves. They've told us that they have a family member not speaking to them. This clearly bothers them. So they've decided to respond by using passive aggression, by calling attention to a post on Facebook where they hope the person who is not speaking with them will see it. How very nice vile of them!

When a family member stops speaking with you they are telling you that they no longer believe your behaviour is acceptable. They may be right or wrong in this judgment but it is very unlikely that they are being impulsive. They're doing this not on the basis of one thing but on the basis of long-established behavioural traits of yours. They are not nurturing resentment about the last conflict so much as they are adjusting their behaviour based on their 100 certainty that there will be more such conflicts in the future if they maintain contact with you. As I say, they may be wrong; if, however, you were inclined to type "yes" in response to the message at the top of this post, you can be pretty certain that you, and not they, are the problem.

It's Easter today—the ultimate feast of reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is not simply a matter of getting together again. It requires making amends and attempting to sin no more. And sometimes, reconciliation is not possible in this life. Sometimes people feel they've been burned so often that they aren't willing to risk being burned again. If someone has decided to stop speaking with you there isn't much you can do about it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Not a religious song

A few years ago some poor Christian shared his love for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on some social media I was reading at the time. He was promptly shat upon by also sorts of people who assured him that the song was not a religious song but a love song.

I think they're wrong. I think it and many other Paul Simon's songs are religious songs. That's the key to his success—that he writes religious songs for an era that loves religious music but doesn't want this music to be too on the nose. Simon sometimes puts overt religion in the music while leaving ambivalence and existential angst in the lyrics. It works surprisingly well. When I was a kid and folk masses were in vogue his "Sounds of Silence" was a popular choice and it worked surprisingly well.

It worked because it has no theology about it. Leonard Cohen songs, as has been noted here previously, don't work in Christian liturgy precisely because they come with their own theology and that theology clashes with ours. But "Sound of Silence" doesn't has so little theology it may as well have none. It works like a psalm, expressing a yearning for something the singer himself doesn't grasp, probably because he doesn't, Simon's efforts to explain what the song is about are confused and confusing, little wonder that many people concluded it was a young person struggling to talk with God.

The purely musical "religion" in "Sound of Silence" consists in its being very hymn-like; it's in a minor key like many Jewish hymns and it has irresistible call to sing along. The musical connection is much more obvious in "Bridge Over Troubled Water, with its gospel influence, and "American Tune" above, which notoriously borrows its melody from Bach's famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. When I first figured this out as a teenager it got me wondering about the line, "We come in the age’s most uncertain hour." On the one hand, Paul Simon obviously didn't mean Christ's crucifixion when he wrote "the ages most uncertain hour." On the other hand, once you've made that connection, it's impossible not to hear it that way ever after.

So ... what?

Well, that's the nature, and the limitation, os so many pop songs. Robert Christgau wrote once about a teenage girl who thought that the Beatles song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," was about how life was an "eerie, perverted circus." He was quite certain that wasn't what it was about for the Beatles, and it wasn't, but who is to tell a teenage girl it isn't about life being an "eerie, perverted circus for her?

But here's a challenge, try thinking hard about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite". You can sorta see the "eerie, perverted circus" aspect of it in the music. You can see it most clearly in the weird circusy interlude, which is a straight steal from the Doors version of Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song", released just a few months before the Beatles began recording Sergeant Pepper. But what about the lyrics? What can you here in theme? As is the case with just about all John Lennon's lyrics, what you here is nothing at all. As others have noted before me, Lennon specialized in a kind of easy going nihilism. The more closely you pay attention to his lyrics, the less meaning they have.

That's not true of Paul Simon. Many of his songs walk up to the precipice of nihilism but there is a spiritual yearning in them, a craving for God that is there whether he means it to be or not. The teenager who heard an "eerie, perverted circus" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was just projecting teenage angst. Paul Simon was doing something more.

And it still resonates today. As a political ad, the following is empty. Literally empty. I defy you to find any coherent message in it.

But read it as a psalmist crying out for something lost, and you'll start to see possibilities. Possibilities that Bernie Sanders is scared to actually say out loud. For starters, this has to be the whitest political ad ever made. The first non-white person to appear in it is going down a line of white people giving them all the high five! As if the only reason they included her was so she could celebrate whiteness. The imagery, moreover, is all white America. The non-whites are there only to add colour. Bernie grasped, as Paul Simon grasped years before him, that White, Christian America was slipping away. Why? Big question. Too big for here. The important thing is that you could feel it toppling and people were forming sides between those who wanted to try and prop it up and those who wanted to rush around the other side and push it over faster.

If you're one of those who wants to try and save or regain America, and I'll come out of the closet as one myself, the thing you cannot escape is that there was a religious element to America. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Indifference is the greatest protector of our privacy

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
For my parents generation, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" was a great protest song. Anyone who takes the time to actually read the lyrics will see that it isn't. The point of the song is rather that the human condition never changes. Wealth is generated, diseases are cured, technology is developed but the we ourselves and the universe we live in remain mysteries.

Lately, that bitter impatience that led my parents' generation, also known as "the silent generation" to protest against the human condition has come back with a vengeance. One sign of this is the concern with privacy.

Here's the thing: you don't have any privacy. None. Research and writing has been a part of my job for forty some years now and if I took a whim to dig into you and your secrets, I could find out an immense amount about you. The only thing that saves most of us from having our most embarrassing secrets trotted out for our humiliation is that no one particularly cares. If you ever did something to motivate people against you—such as running for office or being charged with a crime—they'd find things that you think no one knows about and they'd use them to hurt you so fast it would stagger you.

And so could anyone else who really wanted to know your secrets.

The thing that saves you is that they don't care enough to bother.

You're just not that important. This has been said here before, but it's worth repeating, your purchasing habits, your web-surfacing history, your occasional porn-viewing habits are of no interest or value to corporations. Companies collecting data on online users don't care about you. There is no money in you. What's valuable to them is what large groups of people do. Knowing what value sets motivate women who care about fashion to self-select into identifiable taste groups is knowledge worth billions of dollars. Knowing that you have secrets is probably of no economic value to anyone.

There are nasty little people who would like to know your secrets, ranging from gossips to identity theft artists, but they aren't the ones people worry about. There is also very good reason not to want governments to collect a lot of information about their citizens but the people who pretend to worry about large corporations collecting data actually promote more and more government invasion of our privacy. (That's because "privacy" is just a smokescreen for their real interest which is more government control of the economy.)

There are also those people who shared your secrets and could, in theory, divulge them any time they took a dislike to you. Assuming they remember, which they probably don't as they neither love you nor hate you enough to remember these things for very long.

The bottom line, though, is that should anyone decide it was worth their while to ferret out your secrets they'd have a very good chance of succeeding. If powerful people in the press decided to do so, they'd have an even better chance. If your government ever turns on you, you're doomed.

Final thought: What about the secrets about yourself that you're keeping from yourself? There are some. And they're important secrets or else you wouldn't bother lying to yourself.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Disrupting the narrative

One of my better lents was two years ago. I had decided to construct a chronology of my life. That is to say, I had decided to go look for independently verifiable events from my life and set them down in chronological order. What I discovered, and what you'll discover too if you try it, is that some of the key events in my personal narrative happened a lot sooner than I thought they had, some had happened a lot later than I thought they had and some of them didn't happen at all.

Now just saying that raises a problem. For another way of saying things happened earlier or later or not at all "in my personal narrative" is to say that my personal narrative was just wrong, that it wasn't true. That, in case you're wondering, is what made it a lenten sacrifice. And I undertook the thing precisely because I knew that assembling such a chronology was going to blow up the narrative. I knew this because I knew that chronologies have a tendency to disrupt narratives. What I didn't know was exactly how it would do it.

I'm so addicted to narratives that I must have expected that I was going to jump from one narrative to another. Maybe from one narrative to its mirror image. I've been conditioned to think this way all my life (and so have you) by something called the hermeneutics of suspicion. That is a tendency to think that the narratives we tell ourselves hide dark secrets. That's a credible claim because sometimes they do. The problem with the hermeneutics of suspicion is that it operates on the assumption that there is always a dark and unflattering truth lingering behind the narrative.

When Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she meant that we tell ourselves stories in order to conceal bleak, horrible facts from ourselves. When I set out to do my chronology, I expected to find bleak, horrible facts about myself. I expected to find proof that I'd been telling myself a story to hide from myself the ugly truth that my life had been made up of chaotic and disconnected moments driven by my selfish drive for power and sex.

Before moving on, pause and notice that that too is a kind of narrative. "People tell themselves stories to hide from themselves just how meaningless and unflattering their lives really are," is a kind of narrative. Not only that but it's a brutally simplistic narrative that cannot be true. It's the sort of thing a narcissist would cling to as a last point of refuge so they didn't have to give up their belief that they are very special. If I can't be a very good person, I can be a complete failure. (There's a a theory that some murderers kill as away to bestow a kind of meaning on their lives after a long series of personal failures.)

What I found when I did my chronology was not an alternative narrative. I did indeed find that a lot of things I do were done in pursuit of sex. That's what men do and it isn't evil. More importantly, I found was that there were a number of cases where I'd believed I'd behaved badly when I'd actually behaved pretty well. And I discovered that there were certain people in my life who'd consistently told me things about myself that weren't true. These were people very close to me who'd told me over and over again that I was a bad person whose judgment was no good. They hadn't told me I was evil. What they'd told me over and over again was that I needed to be brought down a peg or two for my own good. As a consequence, I'd grown up to be a man who doubted his own instincts believing that these always concealed baser motives that I was hiding from myself.

Okay, but how do I know I've finally gotten it right? Couldn't all this be just another illusion? It might be but "might be" doesn't mean "is". To believe, as Joan Didion appears to believe a lot of the time, that we just shift from one false narrative to another is to embrace a profound form of skepticism with all that comes with that. If someone says, "You just think you've found the truth but this is just your irrational desires masking the dark truths you know to be true," the obvious response is, "How do you know that doesn't apply to what you've just said? How do you know that your persistent skepticism isn't a way of masking the dark truth that you aren't the smartest person in the room, that you aren't the only one who can see the bleak truth that everyone else is trying to avoid?"

Monday, April 3, 2017

A silly quiz gets it (sorta) right

You're subconsciously a dancing Jew! Deep down you're energetic, passionate and one of a kind. Your subconscious spirituality is rooted in experiencing the Divine in every day life. You're eternally the optimist with profound inner joy, no matter how much you've struggled and suffered in life.  
Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions. It's a monotheistic faith based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures.
The quiz promised to tell me what my "actual religion according to my subconscious" is.

Two qualifications:

  1. I struck out the second line because it's obvious flattery. The person whose Facebook post led me to the quiz had "Deep down, you're openminded, fair, principled and justice oriented" as the second line of his profile. I'm not going to take the time to check but I suspect that the second line of every single assessment is blatant flattery.
  2. I'm not a Jew, though it is an honour just to be nominated.

Otherwise it seems accurate enough to me. I'm not joking. If you don't experience the Divine in everyday life, you won't be able to experience it in church either.

And Catholic Christianity is also based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures. You might say it's not exclusively based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures, and you'd be right, but neither is any form of Judaism celebrated anywhere in the world the last 2000 years.

Okay, I hear someone saying, but this quiz is bullshit. Yes it is in the sense that the subconscious in the sense imagined here is nonsense. Yes, we do things unconsciously, but that doesn't imply that something called the subconscious exists. Freudianism is a pseudo religion. But there is a sense in which it is true because the truth or untruth of the claims above depends on my will. Truth and untruth applies to verifiable facts. It would not be true to say I'm wearing purple shoes because I'm not. Being an eternal optimist with profound inner joy is a choice that I can make. And that I have made.

I think of spoken here before of the choice I made at an early age to always find joy in the first snowfall. I did a chronology of my life a while ago and figured out that I must have made that vow either the year I was nine or the year I was ten. The fiftieth anniversary of that vow is coming. I'll have to find a way to commemorate it.

If you feel like being flattered by an algorithm, you can find the quiz here.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I am my gut

I know, that's asking for it. The nasty putdowns write themselves.

Actually, it was a cheap putdown that inspired me to write this. I saw this in Facebook the other day: "Don't trust your gut; it's literally full of shit." Ha ha. And then, not wanting to be humiliated by any more such wit, we abandon our views out of fear.

And, you may think, my gut instincts are often wrong. That's true but they are also often right. So, what do you do?

I'd suggest not thinking about the issue in terms of right and wrong. Think instead that you are your gut.

Good Cartesian dualists that we are, we tend to think of thought as something that happens in the brain. Many of our ancestors imagined thought happened in their bowels or in their chests. The Psalms were all written by people who imagined thought happened in the heart. (As a consequence, we misread them: when we read that we should keep the LORD in our hearts, we imagine that to call for an emotional commitment when it actually calls for an intellectual one.)

Let me give you a sports metaphor. A good male athlete can throw a feint with his shoulders or his hips. He can't throw a fake with is gut. Wherever his gut goes he has to go too. Our gut feelings are like that. They are the accumulation of a lifetime of emotional and mental development. That gut feeling you get tells you that a proposed action either is or is not in your comfort zone. If you feel a vague uneasiness about something, that is telling you that this isn't something you feel comfortable about. When people say, "Trust your gut," they mean that your instincts are a good indicator of what you should and shouldn't do.

I'll go out on a limb and say, without having any evidence, that even if it feels that your gut is often wrong that you would find, if you chose to keep a tally, you'd find your gut is right far more often than it's wrong.

And I'd go further and say, trust your gut because it's you. It's your moral centre of gravity.

Let's ask a different question. How do you get a better gut? Or, to put it another way, how do I get better moral instincts? And here, having put it the way we have, the answer becomes obvious: by developing a better character. Push yourself to improve in small ways that you can clearly see and your gut will get better.

We could turn that around: if it feel like your moral instincts are bad—which is how I felt fifteen years ago when I started this quest—the solution is not to stop trusting your moral instincts. They are, good or bad, the foundation of your moral life. What you need to do is to change what you do. You will become what you do.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

There's no such thing as society

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." Margaret Thatcher

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Punishment as kind of love

If we accept, as I argued yesterday, that it sometimes makes sense to treat failure as a sin, we should also accept that God will punish some our failures and that he will do so even when we don't reject him in failing. That he might punish us for failing when we are "doing our best".

Yesterday, I argued that the mother who punishes her child for failing does harm when she wrongly assesses the child's abilities and the challenges they are facing. You should be able to pass in Math and History but it is not reasonable to expect you to be the most popular kid in your class. That said, some kids could reasonably aspire to be the most popular in their class, in which case we would have to ask whether this is a good goal when it is achievable.

God, being God, would seem to be the one most qualified for punishing our failings for he could make these judgments correctly.

In the end, we have to trust that he loves us.
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (Benedict XVI)
Living morally, then, is a matter of establishing within ourselves the disposition that goes with that encounter.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Overly critical maternal superego

One of my favourite blogs is The Last Psychiatrist. He writes long posts and uses a style of analysis favoured by Wittgenstein that not everyone likes. What that means is that he tends to analyze by circling around and trying out different perspectives rather than dissecting the subject. I find he's worth reading and can almost always find a gem in his pieces.

Like this one:
... an "overly critical maternal superego" which is different than a paternal superego because it yells at you not when you sin but when you fail. This is the mom who doesn't want you to have premarital sex, of course, but a girl like you should be dating the captain of the football team.
We were discussing narcissistic parenting styles on Facebook the other day and I wish I had this quote at my fingertips at the time. I leave it to readers to decide if it sounds like anyone they know.

Here’s a puzzle: when is it reasonable to treat poor performance on a math exam as a moral failure Perhaps the relationship is not clear?

On one level, doing well at arithmetic is simply a matter of skills accumulated. You learn to do the mental math, which consists of memorizing addition from 1+1 to 9+9 and multiplication tables from 1x1 to 9x9. Then you learn a series of steps to follow when doing more complex operations in addition and multiplication. At the same time you learn how to do it backwards so you can do subtraction and division.

But it’s also a moral task because learning how to do these things is a matter of self discipline. Assuming you don’t have to deal with special mental challenges, it’s expected that you will “get” arithmetic. That’s a moral expectation and your mother and father will see it as a moral failure if you don’t.

This requires that they make accurate assessments of what it is reasonable to expect from you. At some point, after passing calculus and linear algebra in my case, you’re allowed to stop. No more is expected of you unless you really want to do it. If you decide you want to do more, then it is reasonable to expect that you do it well.

There is classic child-parent encounter on the front of “I can’t do any more”. It starts with a walk in the park perhaps and the three-year-old says, “I can’t go on” and the parent either picks them up and carries them or insist that they keep pushing. The parent has no strict calculus to make this determination. They simply judge the child based on their experience.

And the parent might well fail morally here. She might cruelly drive the child to the point of injury but that is extremely unlikely. The more common occurrence is she will think it easier to just give in and carry the child rather than help them develop self-discipline. And so children grow up to be weaklings.

And what of the failure of the mother in the example above? The problem is not that she criticizes her daughter for failure rather than sin for failure can be a sin. No, what she has done is to establish an unrealistic explanation. She has failed to assess the situation.

The captain of the senior football team gets sex from the girl he dates. Perhaps not at a strict Christian high school but any other high school he does and no sex means you aren’t his girlfriend. To expect a daughter to meet both conditions of no premarital sex and captain of the football team is impossible and the mother who pushes for such a thing is cruel and heartless.

You could put together a whole list of such statements:
“Just stand up to bully, he’ll back down.” 
“When I was your age I was slim without ever dieting or exercising.” 
“Your cousin Archibald plays the piano beautifully and he never took a lesson.”
A parent who’d say such things does incredible damage to her children.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

When your illusions are shattered ...

... the thing to remember is that they were your illusions. You didn't think of them yourself; you simply chose them from the available options. Maybe you didn't even find them yourself but had to wait out until some seemingly helpful person showed them to you. If so, that seemingly helpful person may even be the one who later shattered them. But they were your illusions because you embraced them.

File that under the heading of "advice I really could have used back in 1983".

What I'm wondering about now is revisiting them. The illusions. What was it that swept me up sometime in the 1970s and made me so vulnerable to those pedlars of illusions who were such a big part of my life. There is no point in blaming them—I think they were just as vulnerable to those illusions themselves, which is why they were so effective at selling them—but the illusions themselves should be scrutinized.

The final episode of Mad Men end with "I'd like to teach the world to sing". I'm three years younger than Bobby Draper and seven years older than Matthew Weiner. There was a recited word hit of a poem called Desiderata maybe a year or two later than the supposed end of Mad Men. It's the sort of thing you don't publicly admit to liking but it was in high rotation on all the radio stations the year I was twelve and that sort of thing can make a really deep impression on a boy.

I have reservations about it now but there is also some good advice in that poem. That said, even at twelve, I only turned it up when I was the only person in the room. But that kind of thinking was much in the air then. And that is the atmosphere that led Matthew Weiner to create this.

Okay, but is that an illusion? The temptation is to say yes but I think it's just a hope. Even the people who embrace stuff like this know the world isn't really like that.

This, on the other hand, is illusion. It's also much better art and I can't help but wish that the series had ended here instead of as above. More interestingly, for my purposes, it almost exactly mirrors the ending above only with a seemingly more cynical ending. I say seemingly because this is what illusions look like.

If you want to sell someone, like yourself, a whole boatload of illusions, the way to do it is to make it look like you're a cynic dismantling illusions. And that was the kind of illusion I grew up with: the illusion of being above illusions. One of the options on the table, I can't say whether it was the only one, but one of the things I was taught from an early age I was taught to cynically doubt not only other people's motives but also their hopes and dreams. As I say, I embraced these illusions so I don't blame others.

Monday, March 13, 2017

When people close to you attack you

Here's how Thomas Friedman began his column a little more than a year ago:
I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.  
Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)
Now, there is a tremendous problem with sloppy logic here. Donald Trump is running against pluralism? Not exactly. We wouldn't say that someone who opposes a certain kind of exercise is opposed to physical fitness. But there is a deeper problem than that and it's in the last line. Grover Norquist wants government to have much less influence over our lives and he used a colourful metaphor to describe that. Friedman wants Norquist to suffer.

And note that wanting smaller government is taken as being identical to wanting to shut down emergency services. Is Friedman actually so stupid as to believe that? Think carefully about your answer because if he isn't stupid then he is dishonest and manipulative.

I suspect that a big part of what motivates Friedman is fear. He can't imagine life without big government and so he engages in vicious and unfair attacks on people who think otherwise. A consequence of this way of thinking and behaving, however, is to shrink our sense of community. In Friedman's world there are good people who believe in big government (and Friedman can't imagine quality government being anything other than big government) and there are people he wishes would suffer because they have the wrong beliefs. That doesn't leave a lot of common ground.

Social psychologists have long known that we present different faces to different people. We do this based on the level of commitment. Friedman may well wish Norquist, whom he doesn't know or care about, dead for simply having the wrong opinions but he is unlikely (I hope) to think the same thing if his wife or one of his children became a libertarian. He might wish that they didn't think this way and may even have heated arguments with them about it. But he'd still love them. If, on the other hand, he meets someone on the bus and they express such a view, he might decide to change seats. The degree of commitment to the person matters.

For that reason, we can usually be more open with the people closest to us. We can say what we really think and not worry that they are suddenly going to start yelling and screaming at us or that they will stop speaking with us. But what if they do just that?

Facebook is a particularly interesting test case for this. You present more or less the same face to everyone on Facebook. What does it mean if people who are supposed to be in your core group of close friends and family respond to your opinions with anger and threats to cut you off while others calmly accept your right to have these opinions? It means they aren't really your close friends or family anymore. They may even be your enemies now. It's nothing you did. They chose this. You don't have to do anything about that. I'd argue that you shouldn't do anything about it. I mean, you shouldn't retaliate or try to convince them to change their minds.

Friday, March 10, 2017

On loving your enemies

The Office of Readings for today has a great reading on loving your enemies by Saint Aelred, abbot. I've always had great difficulty with the notion of loving your enemy.

As I was reading it, it suddenly hit me that two people I have lately had trouble with are, in fact, enemies. They are not enemies by my choice but by their choice. They have attacked me for years now and, a few months after each attack, come back and re-established "friendship". And I, like Charlie Brown when Lucy offers t hold the football, have cheerfully readmitted them. That won't happen again.

I'll forgive them and do my best to forget this latest affront. But I'll have nothing more to do with them. They aren't friends because they don't act like friends even when they aren't being jerks.

Not surprisingly, Aelred gives Jesus as the exemplar of how to love your enemies. I won't pretend to even come close to him in terms of forgiveness but it struck me as I read the piece that Jesus never made the mistake of thinking his enemies to be friends. He asked that they be forgiven and even suggested that they only did what they did because of a misunderstanding but nowhere in the gospels does he pretend they are his friends.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Temperance and courage

Temperance: curbing the passions Courage: strengthening the passions against fear.
Those are Thomistic definitions cribbed from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I'm an Aquinas neophyte so I can't vouch for how good they are (I'm inclined to trust the source though).

From the same source, chastity, sobriety and abstinence are parts of temperance, as you would expect. But so is humility along with meekness, clemency and studiousness. Studiousness!?

One of the big challenges reading Thomas and Aristotle is that so much of it seems so sensible that you can just read it and nod along because everything you see seems easy to accept. I find I need to stop myself and force myself to see the weirdness: Why is "studiousness" a form of temperance?

Here is a list that goes with courage: endurance, confidence, magnanimity, patience and perseverance. We need to not nod along but see how some of those are weird enough that we need to think how they fit in.
Occasionally, the difficulty in achieving or avoiding certain objects can give rise to various degrees of fear and, in turn, discourage us from adhering to reason’s instruction. In these cases we may refuse to endure the pain or discomfort required for achieving our proper human good. Note here that fear is not innately contrary to reason. After all, there are some things that we should fear, like an untimely death or a bad reputation. Only when fear prevents us from facing what we ought to endure does it become inimical to reason.
Sometimes, however, we should risk death or loss of reputation. It's not an easy calculation to determine what circumstances merit that.

As I've noted before, there is something masculine about courage. That isn't to say that there aren't courageous women or cowardly men but there is a natural link in the mind. Some would think me sexist for saying so but I don't think so.

Looking back on my life, I grew up in a female dominated household and studied at female-dominated schools. Of the four cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, courage and justice—the first two tended to get the most emphasis.

You see everywhere this in our culture. There are a whole lot of people out there who call themselves "social justice warriors" but they are really about controlling other people not about being just to other people. Their morality is the morality of the pack. And we can see this in how they stampede one way and then another. There is something pathetically cowardly about them, the way they shout down and attack in groups. It's really an attempt to shame others into conforming.

The problem here is not that they are "womanly" so much that there is a lack of balance. We need more courage and justice in our systems and our fathers didn't help us to acquire that. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jane Austen and fortitude

After yesterday's post, I think I am prepared to answer a question that has long puzzled me: Why did Jane Austen rate constancy so high? It was, for her, the supreme virtue. That is to say, of the virtues a human being could develop by themselves, constancy was the highest and the most important. It was the virtue that made all the other virtues work together.

That's worth lingering on for a moment to remind ourselves of a really basic point. Honesty and patience are both virtues but even a person possessed of these needs to have a higher virtue directing them to be virtuous in a general sense. It wouldn't do to be honest with Nazis nor does it make sense to be patient with them, except as a ruse to save your life right now and, ideally, set them up so you can defeat them in other ways later.

For Jane Austen then, constancy was the virtue that pulled the others into line. That is interesting in that it conflicts with the standard order which tends to place prudence and justice above constancy. For example,  the Catholic church, following Aquinas, prudence is the supreme virtue. Aquinas said that justice serves prudence because prudence was the greatest human virtue. Constancy was a product of fortitude and it, third on the list, served both justice and prudence. Now, there was no good reason for Austen to accept Catholic morality but she would not reject it out of hand either.

I think the way to answer the question is to approach it from another angle because it's a bit easier to figure out why she didn't simply take fortitude in preference to constancy. Fortitude or courage were too much associated with masculinity for Austen's purposes. Jane Austen was not a feminist, at least not in the modern sense, but she was very much concerned with women and that was a decidedly rebellious thing to do in her era. We might call her a more prudent rebel than, to pick the obvious example, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Austen was well aware that physical fortitude and moral fortitude (which is another way of saying constancy) were related and even knew that moral fortitude was impossible without physical fortitude. Fanny's success is very much a product of her physical fitness and Marianne Dashwood's near disaster is very much a product of her failing to take care of her body. But Austen saw physical fitness as something that was not wholly in a woman's ability to control herself. Fanny's fitness depends on Edmund Bertram standing up for her and making sure she gets opportunity to exercise.

Now we might condemn Austen for not being feminist enough on this point but her attitudes are probably the result of her recognizing the grim realities of her time. Women simply were dependent on men for protection to a degree that we find it hard to imagine.

The more difficult question is why Austen emphasized constancy while recognizing that physical fortitude was a necessary but not sufficient condition for it. Why not, as tradition had, embrace a more general virtue that included both physical and moral fortitude? The answer to that, I think, is that she did so precisely because a woman's physical health was not under her control, which is to say her body was not under her control. And, in the late 18th and early 19th century, it was not. That is hard for us to grasp because a woman's right to control her own body is the starting point for feminism.

And we can carry that logic on to see that prudence and justice were also matters that were largely outside a woman's control. In a rigidly controlled class structure such as existed at the time, what counted as justice would have been fixed items for most people. Likewise, being prudent is less important when most of your fate is contingent on matters you could not hope to control. The very richest would have been able to get away with things that others could not, and we see that reflected in a characters such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice but Austen grasped that for women of her class, that is to say, the lower gentry, "prudence" and "justice" meant no more than conforming to what was expected of you.

Constancy becomes the supreme virtue because it was the most important virtue that is mostly within a woman's control. It is there that a woman can succeed as a woman to the degree that success is possible. And we read Austen incorrectly if we fail to see how much of Elinor's, Elizabeth's and Fanny's fate is beyond their control; things could have gone very, very wrong for any of them even had they always behaved absolutely impeccably. In fact, we can see that Fanny had far less leeway than Elinor and Elinor had less than Elizabeth. Emma, on the other hand, is rich enough that she could be far stupider and still get away with it, as she did.

Austen's position on the virtues is, for the above reasons, very much like that of the Roman stoics. They were also writing in a rigid society where what counted as justice was largely given and where prudence was likely to be over-shadowed by reversals of fortune you could not hope to control. They, however, emphasized courage and believed that human beings should be indifferent to their emotions. Austen recognized that emotions could be channeled—that a moral life required us to bot nurture and control our feelings. That makes her one of the most important writers on morality of the modern era.

I think it also, and I'll come back to this, makes her worthy of being called not just romantic but the greatest of the romantics.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Some stuff I'm just working out

In theological parlance faith, hope and love are known as the theological virtues. Faith is especially related to the intellect and its pursuit of truth, hope to the memory and its experience of beauty and love to the will and its appetite for goodness. (from Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed)
Hope is related to memory and its experience of beauty! That is fascinating. I don't much about all this as the medieval accounts of the virtues are new to me.

The text goes on to say,
The theological virtues are also related to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit with wisdom, understanding and knowledge having a particular association with faith, fortitude with hope, and fear of the Lord and piety with love.
Why does fortitude go with hope?

Fortitude is a cardinal virtue. That means a lot of stuff but the thing that I'm thinking about now is that it is one of the virtues that you can cultivate on your own. That is unlike the theological virtues which only come with grace. On the other hand, how do "gifts of the Holy Spirit" work? Is the fortitude that comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit a special variety of fortitude that cannot be had through conscientious habit formation alone? Probably.

Fortitude, in Catholic moral thinking, is what gives us constancy. Is that constancy the same as what Jane Austen understood as constancy? It gets tricky here because the vocabulary is fluid.

In the medieval discussion of the virtues, "fortitude" replaces the classical virtue of "courage". Fortitude is understood to be more than courage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1809) says,
Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.
For Jane Austen, the supreme examples of Constancy are Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. We see it most impressively when Sir Thomas, irked at Fanny for refusing the marriage proposal of Henry Crawford, sends her home to endure the squalor of poverty in the hopes that this will make her change her mind. Fanny holds out even though it becomes painfully obvious to both her and us that she may live a horrible life as a price of her constancy. So, yes, I'd say that Austen means the same thing by constancy as the Catholic church does by fortitude.

And that's all I'll say for now.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Is narcissism really THE problem?

Up until a week ago, I would have said it was.

I've tended to buy into the claim that narcissism is the major problem in our culture but I've always had problems spelling it out. A while back, Amy asked me to spell out what I understood to be narcissism and why it was a social problem. Not for the first time, I found that what seemed clear when I didn't have to explain it, suddenly became murky when I did.

And then I saw a reworking of Waterhouse's painting of Echo and Narcissus. If you don't feel like going to the link, instead of staring down into the water, Narcissus is staring down into a smartphone whose screen is labelled "Instagram".  I saw it on Facebook and it struck me as shallow and stupid.

And then I had to figure out why I felt that way.

The painting has two figures: Echo and Narcissus. Who are we in this interaction? I'm sure we all agree that we're not Narcissus. So we're Echo then? What's she like?

I keep seeing these babe pictures on Facebook. Some woman desperate for attention posts a picture of herself in a bathing suit. We all see through the tricks she has used to make herself look better than she really does and yet all her friends click on "like". A few even write comments. And we privately call her a narcissist.

It strikes me as more like Echo and her problem is echoism, to coin a term. The person who does this desperately needs others to validate her worth. (In mythology, Echo distracted Hera with her lively chatter until Zeus and the nymphs he had been philandering with got away. Hera punished her by rendering her only capable of answering back the concluding words of what others had said to her. Those are the two poles of echoism: chattering to distract others so they don't figure out what we really are up to and feeding back what others give us.)

The true narcissist is the one who comments on her post, "Looking good".

Did you catch it? If you say, "Looking good", the flip side of that is an implication that she doesn't always look this good. The echoist reading that comment will feel happy then empty and will have to go back to the narcissist for more. When she does, the narcissist will make her earn it. The narcissist would be relatively harmless if we didn't have these weaknesses.

I think we have more to fear from the echoism than narcissism for the echoist enables the narcissist.

I had to deal with a narcissist for years. By herself, she was pathetic but her power and reach came from the forces she could draw on. She could draw on echoists, some of whom were in her own family, by simply threatening to withdraw her love, and they'd be her stormtroopers.

Today, the Prime Minister of Canada is a narcissist—a painfully shallow boy. The same was true of Obama. Neither is particularly intelligent in the normal sense of the term. What they have going for them is that they are geniuses at exploiting the weakness and insecurity of others. "Because it's 2015!" is a stupid and empty thing to say but Justin Trudeau could count on a whole lot of people cheering him for doing so because it made them feel like insiders. He knows that people will check their brains at the door for the chance to feel they are on the ride side of the joke.

There is no obvious cure for this problem. On one level it seems obvious: we need to be strong and stand up for ourselves but try spelling out what you mean by that and you run into trouble. Shouldn't you be standing up for others? Do you really want to find the meaning to your life inside yourself? Whatever that means.

In the story Ovid tells and Waterhouse painted (image above courtesy of Wikipedia), there are only two people. If Echo does not seek to fulfill her desperate need for love from Narcissus, the only person she has left to go to is herself. That isn't as crazy as it might seem. A well-regulated self love is essential to a virtuous life. But what regulates it? If the only measure of what is well-regulated is our own feedback, then we cease being Echo only to become Narcissus.

Social science only gets us so far. We need to be able to reference moral realities and not just psychological states or interpersonal relationships to get out of this trap.