Monday, June 26, 2017

The strange, empty feeling that comes with leaving a bad relationship behind

It's very hard to leave people behind. No matter how much neglect or even outright bad treatment was involved in what was supposed to be a close relationship, the decision to move on produces an odd feeling of emptiness.

You'd think that finally moving on from someone who held you back for years would produce  a feeling of joyous liberation. It doesn't. It leaves you empty and lonely.

The solution, of course, is to move on, to fill the vacuum. But even though you can see that ..,

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Was the defining message of the era just stupid?

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

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

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

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

In the end it amounted to ...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A question

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Singing la la la

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why express your feelings?

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

Under pressure

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

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

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

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

Real, true, authentic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The god inside me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Toxic masculinity" isn't completely crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emotional foils

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three foils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Intellectual integrity test

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On self esteem

When I was a teenager, I read a story by another teenager. I don't remember who it was or even if they were male or female. It must have been someone famous or well-connected because ordinary people didn't get their stories published in those days. She, we'll say "she" although I don't remember, she was reading and found out about the Holocaust. No one had told her anything about it and then she found out about it.

In this, she was a lot like me and, I suspect, many other teenagers. The Holocaust was within living memory but it wasn't talked about for the same reason we didn't talk about Uncle Nick's suicide or Aunt Jane's affair; it wasn't talked about because it was horrible. This girl was also unlike me because she was Jewish. She'd been living a normal teenager's life and she then she found out that millions of people were killed for being what she was. And her life was never the same again after that.

I remember trying to imagine what that must have felt like. Today, we'd say I tried to empathize. And I realized I couldn't do it. In retrospect, I think that was one of the most important decisions of my life. It wasn't turning point. A whole lot of things must have been building up to it.

These days, there is a movement to protect kids from bad feelings that come from being attacked verbally or being exposed to hate. We want to protect kids from the realization that others hate them and that some of these others who hate them don't even know they exist and yet hate them just for being what they are. We try to eliminate language, movies, and language that might hurt them by making them aware of these hatreds.

But what about the Holocaust? It's a blunt fact that shouldn't be hidden. And even if you managed that trick, and there are some people who would if they could, there are other blunt facts waiting to surprise you. "Reality is the thing that won't go away if you ignore it." And reality is full of hate.

But now we call kids who say hurtful things "bullies' as if being made aware that others mock, disdain or hate you is just as bad as being punched in the face.

We've entire generations on this.

We've tried to protect them from experiences that are inevitable. In the process, we've given them the impression that they can get outraged when they have these experiences, experiences that almost everyone who ever lived has had to deal with.

And it's all based on bogus science.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Coffee house wimps: It was even worse than I suspected

Here's a lyric that Elizabeth kindly called my attention to in a comment:
Relationships I don't know why
They never work out and they make you cry
But the guy that says goodbye to you
Is out of his mind
You can read the whole song here. Like lots of pop songs, there is no context. The songwriter (his name is Griffin House) is speaking to someone but we don't know who. A single woman is a fair surmise; I don't think someone would say relationships never work out for you to someone you were in a relationship with.

As often is the case, Mr. House is telling us a lot more about this woman (and himself) than he perhaps realizes. He is telling us that this woman has repeatedly failed at relationships. Now, it's entirely possible that she's had the bad luck to be involved with a series of jerks. Then again, what does it say about her judgment that she hasn't learned to make better choices based on past experience?

The top-rated comment on the YouTube page for the song right now is, "This got to be the most lovely song in the world! <3" That's from Anna Teixeira who, if she looks anything like her photo, shouldn't have any trouble attracting relationship-minded guys. And then we get three or four very pathetic boys who wish they could be so eloquent, including Scott who hopes his ex will listen to the song and take him back. (Ooh, man of steel! If she happens to be reading this, Don't!) We finally get some healthy cynicism from Joseph Scott and Elizabeth Pound who think the song's lyrics are just a succession of pick up lines. Which they are.

I wish we could say they're bad pickup lines but House's success suggests otherwise.

Let's pick out the nice guy tropes

First up validating her feelings. That's what's going on in the verse above. Things have gone badly in all her relations, repeat, in ALL her relationships, but Griffin-boy is here to assure her that her feeling that it isn't her fault is valid. Why? Because she's "one of a kind", which, to be fair is also true of Karla Homolka and was true of Aileen Wuornos. Feeling better yet? Also because, according to Griffin, a guy would have to be crazy to dump her.

Second, is that old classic the covert contract. This support he's offering her isn't for free. There is a quid pro quo as the very next words out of his mouth are:
Well, I've been down and I need your help
I've been feelin' sorry for myself
Don't hesitate to boost my confidence
Does that sound like a guy a woman could count on? If you answered yes to that, you need to find a therapist right away.

Third, he offers his neediness. That's already clear from the previous verse but you have to keep reading to appreciate the appalling depths this man-boy sinks to:
Well, I've been lost and I need direction
I could use a little love protection
What do you say, honey? Come to my defense
Come to his defense? That was supposed to be what he was offering. Just words; that's all he has to offer.

Confession time

I mock now but there was a time in my life when I said things like that. I used to be a nice guy. I was very good at it. Women I had relationships told me I was very good at compliments. To be honest, I think I was a lot better than Griffin.

Of course, the compliments game is all a covert contract. Complements aren't complementary. They come with a price tag: You want more of this? Put out for it.

Why do we do things like that instead of working on ourselves? Why not develop real virtues and then let them speak for us?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Coffee House wimps

I picked up a rental car to go to my father's funeral this May. It came with Sirius xm. I worked my way around the dial listening to various stations.

At one point I landed on The Coffee House, which plays music by singer songwriters interspersed with acoustic covers of big pop hits. We were coming home at that point after what, as I'm sure you can imagine, was an emotional rollercoaster week back home. I found the station in the morning as we pulled out of our hotel to drive along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence, a bit of geography that has heavy associations with my father. For about 40 minutes, the station was perfect.

And then it began to grate. The problem was the, for lack of a better word, men. There was nothing new about them or the songs they were singing. It was hearing them all at the same time that hit me. They say that film noir was discovered by French film critics after the war when they were suddenly exposed to several years worth of American film after a long drought. They saw similarities in a group of films that caused them to recognize a new genre. I had a similar experience listening to this radio station.

I'm not sure how you'd classify the genre I heard that morning expect maybe as nice-guy music. These guys were obviously very appreciative of women but their praise came from a position of weakness. And it was all very sincere, sickeningly so. Some of it was music I'd heard before and some even stuff that I rather liked up until that morning. That is to say, I recognized the sentiments expressed as something I'd felt myself from time to time. It never struck me how utterly nauseating it was until I heard a whole bunch of it together.

The funny thing is that it's not terribly reverent music. It wasn't as pathetic as, for example, the horrible "She's so high (above me)". No, it was worse because it was all wrapped up in transgressive attitude like children acting out, as if these guys thought that women were going to want to be part of their little games. (The awful thing is they're probably right.)

I came home thinking it was time for a change.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Father figure

I know, here I just changed the name from "Studiously Uncool" and I'm writing about a show that ended two years ago.

Rewatching episodes, the thing that really jumps out is how few good ones there are. Compare Mad Men or Breaking Bad or any of the other boutique shows with The Good Wife and it will hit you in the face. There are no bad episodes of The Good Wife. They made twice as many episodes and there isn't a bad one in the lot. On average, there are three-to-five good episodes in a season of Mad Men. And some of the bad ones really really bad. "Tea Leaves" from Season 5 was so cringe-making that I gave up on it.

What's painfully obvious in retrospect is that the show succeeded in spite of itself. They had something but they didn't know what it was. What they had was a husband with a bad wife. Two bad wives as Megan is no step up. That's the real story.

Why they didn't realize it is also obvious. Our culture can't stand a real male figure.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking of all the examples where Don behaves like a jerk. I'd suggest two things. First, the show had it out for him and for masculinity in general so those things are exaggerated. But I'd also suggest that a lot of that stuff is just what comes with the package. We tolerate a certain amount of sheer cussedness from female characters but we've lost our tolerance for the same from male ones. Or, t be more accurate, we've been taught to hate them.

The bottom line, though, is that the only reason to watch the show was Don Draper.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Impostor syndrome

I occasionally go back and rewatch old episodes of Mad Men and I think about all that was said about the show here and elsewhere. With hindsight it seems increasingly obvious to me that the show was really about impostor syndrome. That is to say, it is about impostor syndrome to the extent that it was about anything. The only thing a show has to be about is a being a show. Once viewers have been convinced of that, the creators' work is done. Most episodes just filled space in the schedule but the show always came back to questions of impostor syndrome.

A TV show, any TV show, will have a lot of creators, each of whom will be busy pulling the blanket their way. Jon Hamm wanted it to be about alcoholism because Jon Hamm struggles with alcohol addiction. Other people, a lot of other people, wanted the show to be about feminism. Most critics wanted the show to be about an antihero but Matt Weiner, who had more say than anyone, insisted it wasn't.

The obvious objection to my claim that the show is really about impostor syndrome is to say that Don Draper really is an impostor. And you're not?

In any case, Don Draper is an odd sort of impostor. He may be a Dick pretending to be a Don but he isn't pretending to be the real Don Draper. That Don Draper was an engineer, a man who'd been to college and our Don Draper didn't pretend to be either of those things. He was shockingly honest about revealing who he really was. In the second episode he unhesitatingly tells Betty that his family were too poor to have a nanny.

To the extent he is pretending anything, he is pretending not to be Dick Whitman. He's pretending not to be the person his mother told him he was. Don't get tied up about the fact that his mother wasn't really his mother. The only evidence we have of this is Dick Whitman's flashbacks and those include events he couldn't possibly have experienced such as his conception.

That makes him no different from anyone else. We're all told we're the products of our parents. Even an adopted child is told something. We're all told stories about our childhood so often that we internalize them to the point that we think we remember having experienced them. I, as I suspect most people do, took these stories as a solid foundation until just a couple of years ago.

Don Draper shakes us because he says that, no matter where you came from, all that really matters in the end is your ability to perform. That's what it takes not to be an impostor.

Unfortunately, the show doesn't have much to say about this. Don Draper continues to survive because he continues to be able to pull-off creative masterpieces, the last of which is the famous Hilltop ad. Here, however, it breaks the rules for we know (or we can look up) how the Hilltop ad was created and it is nothing like the version represented in the show.

Weiner broke the Bugs Bunny/Christopher Columbus rule: when you put a fictional character at the heart of historical events, you must make sure he or she she never does anything that would require us to rewrite the history books. The Hilltop ad requires that.

Worse, though, it accomplishes nothing. What does Don do in that episode that "solves" his problems? The answer to that is nothing, unless you think a whole bunch of appalling narcissistic bullshit about "how does that make you feel" has enabled him to find himself.

In the end the show had nothing to offer except a fascinating character. A character whom a whole lot of people admired despite the show's creators' best efforts to make us sneer at him. Successfully being Don Draper was a major achievement. Stop being the person you hate by becoming someone you can admire.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Moral equality

I wanted to pick up on a line from my last post:
This runs against what we tell ourselves about truth telling. We want to believe that it is a simple matter to tell the truth. You just say what you believe to be true.
One thing we desperately want to believe about morality is that it is equally open to everyone to be moral. Anybody can be a moral person (or "ethical" if you want to be snooty about it). This seems for inclusive and democratic to us. I don't think it is either.

I'll probably come back to those issues in future posts but I want to make a blunt and possibly disturbing claim here and it necessarily follows from a correct understanding of virtue that is that some people are just better at being moral than others.

The ancient Greeks understood this and that is why they praised people we would not as virtuous. They understood that virtue is the ability to perform. 

We intellectualize virtue. We say things such as, "the right choice is the one that the virtuous person would make." That misses the point. Yes, there are times when morality consists of making complex decisions but, most of the time, we know the right thing to do. The challenge is actually doing it. We couldn't admire virtuous people if this weren't the case because we couldn't judge their actions. Virtue is the ability to perform and that's why you'd want Achilles on your side.

I'd prefer Hector on even if that meant losing because I'm a Christian and Jesus was not an egalitarian. He was firmly convinced that the poor would always be with us. More importantly, he said this:
Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him whom men commit much they will be given more. [Luke 12: 48]
We see hierarchical distinctions like that in the Gospel and we assume it is solely socio-economic hierarchy. I think Jesus meant much more than that. I think he meant virtue hierarchy as well. Indeed, the culture of the time didn't think of economic disparity in the narrow terms we do. They assumed that wealth reflected the blessing of God. The apostles are gobsmacked when Jesus tells them it will be difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. These people weren't stupid; they knew full well that some greedy people became wealthy. They also knew, however, that success tended to go to the good, that is to say, the virtuous.

One of the really subversive things that Jesus does is to remind us that this is not God's way. That human virtue is not the ultimate goal. He does not judge as we judge. The holy men and women we revere might be judged harshly in heaven and others we hold in low esteem will be praised. Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter heaven before you. 

This comes back to a favourite point of Benedict XVI's: morality is not the point. We are not called to be virtuous to earn our way into heaven. Instead, God has loved us and thereby ennobled us in ways we couldn't imagine and striving to be virtuous is the appropriate response to such an incredible gift.

Think of it on analogy to music. God has loved you and making music in response is an appropriate response to that. Some people, however, are much better singers than others. That doesn't mean their gratitude is better than that of poor singers.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lying and memory

Somewhere the great historian Frederick William Maitland likened doing history to predicting the past. He couldn't have known but brain science has come to support that view. What our brain does is two things: it predicts a pattern and it watches for variances on that pattern. When you first open your eyes in the morning, your brain is already prepared for what it expects to see. It will calmly register nothing if nothing is unusual. If anything is out of place, it will focus on that and you will spend a few conscious moments determining that the dark blob in the middle of the floor is a sock and not a rat. And then you'll go back to normal.

Our entire memory of the past is what our brain expects to be there. That is to say, we only remember anything because our brain has been trained to be ready to respond to possible challenges. You remember your name, your birthplace and birth date, what schools you went to and whatever else you remember because you expect to be asked about these things and the only reason you expect to be asked is because you've been trained to expect to be asked by people asking you. It was important to remember who you had for math in Grade 10 and so your brain got good at storing that detail. And you might continue to remember it long after it ceases to be useful.

Most of the time, being able to answer "correctly" means being able to perform successfully. It means being able to give and sustain an answer. I'm asked who my teacher is and I give an answer that others will accept. We forget how scary that can be in Grades 1 and 2. You go to recess on the first day and kids you know ask you "Who you got?" If you can't pull up a credible answer, you'll be mocked and shunned. That's pure terror at that age.

A lie is a kind of performance. It's an attempt to sustain an answer. Forget about dictionary definitions about "false statements" because both "false" and "statement" very sophisticated notions that you learn years after you're expected to know what "lying" and "telling the truth" are.

From your brain's perspective lying has a lot more in common with telling the truth than we like to admit. Your brain predicts a pattern of response and most of the time you try to give the answer that will sustain that pattern. Very early on in life you will encounter bullies who will teach you in no uncertain terms that answering questions is a high-risk activity. For our brains, the "right answer" and the "safe answer" are just two ways of saying the same thing.

Lying is like picking your nose, masturbating or putting things in your mouth. That is to say, these are things that every child will naturally do unless and until they are taught not to. You do these things because they feel safe and good and the only way your parents and other authority figures have to make you stop is to make these things feel unsafe. Explaining to you why you shouldn't do these things isn't going to be enough. You have to think they are unsafe and the best way adults have of conveying that message is to actually make it unsafe for you to do them. At which point the difference between your mommy and the schoolyard bully can get a bit blurry.

There is a good reason why the theological virtues are faith, hope and love and not loyalty, trust and obedience. A good gang member can have all of the second set while being a drug dealer, pimp and murderer. And yet, mommy and all your elementary school teachers spent more time trying to teach you the latter three virtues.

Don't blame them for this. You can't really teach faith, hope and love. You can "model" them to a point but we only use ugly jargon like that when we're lying to ourselves.

Any time we answer a question, including questions about the past, our brain is scanning for signs that something is going wrong. This happens on two levels. The first level is to monitor responses from other people. We get tense during conversations that are going badly long before we are consciously aware that another person is challenging us. At the same time, our brains also monitor ourselves. But not by "looking inside". For our brain, our bodies are just another data source. Heart rate, sweating, hesitant voice patterns, these are just data that our brain monitors and then evaluates based on the context.

Once we start operating at a very sophisticated level—which is to say after years an years of social training—we get to the point where we start monitoring our answers not only to see if they are safe performances in this particular context but also to see what impact they might have on other predictable contexts. The girl in the schoolyard asks you a question and you consider not only what is safe to say right now but also whether that will continue to be safe if she goes straight to the teacher or her mother and repeats what she said. Included in that calculation will be an assessment of how likely she is to do that.

And part of that is considering what you've said in other contexts. When we learn the right answer we are also taught that the right answer will be consistent with other things we say. Again, bullies are some of our most important teachers in this regard.

It's often said that liars have to have good memories but that is nonsense. Everyone who answers questions has to have a good memory in order to figure out what performance to give in response. The only reason to develop a memory in the first place is to be able to perform successfully. When tiger kittens play with one another, they are developing memories of moves that will eventually help them pull down and kill prey.

Human beings accumulate and process memories on a very sophisticated level. It's odd that we attribute more sophistication in doing so to liars—for when we say "liars have to have good memories" we are really praising an odd figure we might call "a good liar". But stop a minute and consider when we use that expression. It's always when we've caught a liar. We're effectively telling them that they had better become better performers if they want to try pulling that off again.

What gets missed in all this is that truth-telling is actually a sophisticated performance of its own. It requires us to assess our answer-performance not just in terms of what will happen right now but also in terms of what might happen given a whole lot of of other possibilities.

This is why your girlfriend or wife will almost always lie to you about her some sexual issues. Stone-faced denials will almost always be the safest answer. She can easily imagine ways that telling you the truth will lead to disaster whereas the odds of your being able to determine what she really thinks or really has done are vanishingly small.

And that is important because she will, in other contexts, insist that it is important to tell the truth and perhaps even insist that being a truth teller is part of who she is. The second the man in her life asks certain questions, she is just like that scared little girl confronting the bully in grade school and the only answer that will ever come out of her mouth is what she judges to be the safest one.

This runs against what we tell ourselves about truth telling. We want to believe that it is a simple matter to tell the truth. You just say what you believe to be true.

It can't be to say what you know to be the truth. Think of our school kid on day one being asked who his teacher is. "I don't remember," is not a safe answer. You're supposed to know. The same is true during a math test. We're taught very early on that giving the right answer is not to say what you know and believe but to say what you are supposed to know and believe.

What kind of sadist looms over a small child and tells her that it's simple to tell the truth? It's far more effective to tell the child that its brave to tell the truth. That said, there is something manipulative about both these behaviours.

To lie is "to knowingly make a false statement". When is a child asked to make a statement? Statements are what you make to the police. No child is asked to make a statement to the teacher, principal or to mommy. She is asked to make a particular kind of performance in a particular context.

In order for a child to learn how to tell the truth, her parents need to know when it is acceptable to ask for the truth. You need a good reason to ask questions. Not just because it isn't fair to ask, although it sometimes isn't, but because the child needs to learn that there are good reasons to tell the truth in certain contexts. She needs to learn that telling the truth can be the loving thing to do. And she's not stupid, she's going to figure out early on that a lot of people will ask her for the truth because they want to hurt her and others.

Okay, but what about the title for this post. What does truth have to do with memory? Telling the truth reinforces memory. If we keep repeating the truth to others, we get better and better at remembering it. In some contexts that is a very good thing to do.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

New name and look?

I've been thinking about changing the name and look of the blog. This post is here so that regular readers will know it might happen so that they won't be shaken if it does happen. Nothing else will change: just the appearance and name. I may do it in stages the way some gas stations rebranded when I was a kid.

UPDATE: The new name is up. Why? Because it's more assertive!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Changes completed. Why did I do this? I wanted something more assertive, more masculine.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Still life with Plato


There’s a difference between debate and dialectic. Debate means you are trying to win. Dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I am not interested in debate. I am only interested in dialectic, which does mean I listen to you, and you listen to me.
That's Professor Bret Weinstein speaking to students. It didn't work. They weren't interested in listening to him.
We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms—on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.
They want him fired or even physically assaulted.

One of the more intriguing philosophical puzzles is why nobody has been able to write philosophical dialogues as well as Plato did. The Greeks didn't single-handedly create western civilization but they did raise it to a height that has inspired many people to try to equal or surpass them ever since. As intimidating as the Greeks can be, the task has not proven impossible. Some, albeit a very small number, people have been able to write poetry as good as ancient Greek poetry. Likewise with sculpture and drama. The staggering exception is philosophical dialogues. It is now roughly 2364 years since Plato's death and no one has written a philosophical dialogue that comes close to equalling his.

And Plato was prolific. Not every single dialogue was a masterpiece but he produced at least as many great masterpieces as Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Caravaggio did.

Oddly enough, part of the reason for this may be that his own culture didn't value his written dialogues as much as we do. They admired them but they valued actual dialogue more.

Still lives

Here's a still life selected more or less at random from the Wikipedia page on the subject.

Imagine you lived in a culture where groups of people came together with various elements typically found in a still life—the host brought a vase of flowers, one guest a jug of wine, others bowls of fruit, yet another a musical instrument and perhaps another a dead animal. The host begins the process by placing the flowers on the table. Then the guests each advance in turn and placed their offering. The process is long and drawn out with everyone walking around and looking at the arrangement from different angles and discussing the individual and collective achievement.

Now imagine that some resulting still lives (still lifes?) are so compelling that people record them by sketching, painting or photographing them. Initially, this is done to help remember the moment or perhaps as an aid to teaching people how to do the activity. Over time, however, people begin to notice that the representations themselves are often compelling. Next, it gets meta. We can easily imagine a sort of activity developing where people gather and look at slides of still lives and discuss them. Perhaps they even start producing videos of the process of creating a still life. Eventually, the art of table arrangement is lost or is devalued while still life paintings are regarded as high art.

I don't think that is actually what happened. Yet, the impetus for a long time the painting a still life was an appreciation for the beauty of arrangements of objects. A garden is a sort of still life. A good artist teaches us how to see things.

Plato seems to have written, at least initially, out of admiration for Socrates. Socrates "wins" to use Professor Weinstein's terminology, a significant number of his encounters. He doesn't win them all however and some of his victories are odd ones, drinking poison Hemlock being the most striking of his odd victories. Sometimes Socrates loses or other times, nobody wins—a few of the dialogues are decidedly unresolved.

There is a long-standing theory that the dialogues are really advertisements for Plato's Academy. Roughly forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, one of my professors outlined this for us. He said that the dialogues were intentionally vague with esoteric truths hidden or hinted at within to entice students to come to the Academy and be taught these things directly. I find that unlikely. My guess is that the dialogues were first meant to give readers a notion of what it was like to be part of a discussion with the great Socrates himself and later to give a sense of what it would be like to attend the Academy. The promise was not answers but dialogue. Just as some people believed, and some still do believe, in table arrangement as an end in itself, Plato and his students believed that the activity was valuable even if the results were not, Plato really believed in dialogue as dialectic.


A good argument could be made that the novel is a possible rival to Plato. People come together representing different views and we see how that works out. Philosophers would probably object that no novel, not even a novel of ideas, goes into sufficient technical detail to count as philosophy. On the other hand, very little philosophy is worth reading as art and Plato is.

A while ago I was at a talk called Forgotten Philosophies by William Sweet. Professor Sweet argued that the history of philosophy, as it currently is taught, leaves certain voices out. I think that is a good point but worry that Professor Sweet's real goal is not encouraging the inclusion of many voices so much as promoting scholastic philosophy in particular. What made the talk fascinating for me was that Thrasymachus made an appearance during the question period.

Thrasymachus (not his real name) advanced the postmodern argument that it's all about power. That the people who get included in classes on the history of philosophy are the ones chosen by people with power and that was all there was to be said about it. Professor Sweet explained why he didn't think that was the case. Before another person could ask a question, Thrasymachus repeated his original argument in different words spoken more loudly. Again, Professor Sweet attempted to answer. We don't know if his second attempt was going to be any different or better than the first because Thasymachus cut him off and repeated his original argument even louder still. He spoke as someone who was certain he was right and who couldn't see why Sweet stubbornly refused to concede the point. Sweet looked not afraid but a little intimidated at this aggression, and who wouldn't. The discussion ended when the MC interceded.

What Plato saw, and modern philosophy has tended to forget, is that ideas are connected to character. Anyone who believed what Thrasymachus believes is likely to reflect it in his character. He might be a buffoon. He might also be a defeatist. He might fluctuate between the two depending on whether he thinks he has the upper hand in terms of strength.

We haven't completely lost that sense but we tend to be very binary about it. We demonize Thrasymachus. Plato knew better. Those students who confronted Professor Weinstein are evil demons. They are what all of us would be if we weren't properly educated. We shouldn't even get outraged at the contemporary academic world for the sort of nonsense has long been a fact of university life. Ideally, the students who did this should be expelled and the professors who encourage and support this sort of extremism should be fired. That seems unlikely to happen. All that we have left to us is to rediscover dialectic for ourselves, to conduct ourselves accordingly.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"filosofia della proclamazione dell'essere, il canto in onore dell'esistente"

There was just as much analysis of Joseph Ratzinger's choice on Benedict as there was about Jorge Mario Bergoglio's choice of Francis. The popular press, however, took little notice of the possible reasons for "Benedict" as it was too busy vilifying Ratzinger. (As always, the most serious press bias is not in reporting incorrectly but in what they choose to ignore.)

There is an interesting tension in the choice of the name.

The most obvious possibility for the inspiration of the name is Saint Benedict whose Benedictine rule is believed by many, including me, to have played a major role in the creation of the new European civilization out of the remnants of late antiquity. Pope Benedict XVI's speculation that God was perhaps going to prune the church so that it could grow aligns with this. He drew on a motto found at the frequently destroyed Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, "Succisa Virescit", which means, roughly, "cut down, she grows back".

Politically, we could interpret that as advice for how those in the church should respond to a larger culture that attacks them. We might, as the Benedict option popularized by Rod Dreher would have us do, form separate communities within the greater civilization. These wouldn't be completely cut off, indeed it would be impossible that they could be. Rather, the point would be that they would be little communities where certain core values were embodied such that they could sprout forth and grow when the larger civilization around them calms down.

A less obvious connection to make with the name Benedict is with Pope Benedict XV. At first glance, we might be tempted to think this comparison would only reinforce the first. Benedict XVI's papacy coincided with the First World War and we might think this just another instance of church institutions preserving culture while the culture outside committed suicide. But Benedict XVI did not recommend any withdrawal from the larger culture. Instead he emphasized the need to focus on basics by remaining neutral in political struggles, promoting peace and, when war breaks out as it inevitably must, the ease of suffering.

I wonder if there isn't, behind Benedict XV and Benedict XVI, a subtle shift in attitudes towards Thomism. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII, there was a tendency to emphasize the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae. That section of the text focuses on the virtue of justice and is the source of the Church's social teaching. Leo XIII did much to promote the revival of Thomism for this purpose. However, Thomism was redirected towards epistemology so as to provide a counterfoil to modernism under the Papacy of Pius X. Benedict XVI, without directly opposing his predecessor Pius X, emphasized the concern for justice that had inspired Leo XIII.

And Benedict XVI? I think he may have intended to de-emphasize some of the work of his predecessor John Paul II, now Saint John Paul II, without directly contradicting him. He was very close to John Paul and loved him dearly but, I suspect, was also aware of certain shortcomings. He sought to de-emphasize certain aspects of John Paul's legacy without directly contradicting the man he revered.

If I am right, we can see subtle corrections of John Paul II is some of Benedict XVI's acts. Deus caritas est, then is a redirection away from the theology of the body. I think that, like John Paul II, Benedict saw Humanae Vitae as a "catechetical disaster" but also recognized that it would be a pastoral disaster to rescind it. The theology of the body was John Paul's attempt to salvage what could be salvaged and then refocus attention in a more useful direction. If I am right, and base my arguments only on intuition at this point, Benedict XVI revisits the issue in Deus caritas est. The redirection here is not in what is said but in what isn't said. Benedict makes his arguments about eros without talking of any theology of the body as a subtle way of letting us know that he doesn't think such a move is necessary or helpful.

I also think that something similar happens with Caritas in Veritate. Again, John Paul II and Benedict were left cleaning up the missteps of Paul VI. This time the offending encyclical is Populorum progressio. It also is a catechetical failure. John Paul II sought to redirect matters by rethinking and attempting to improve our understanding of development in his encyclical Solicitudo rei socialis. Benedict XVI, while sympathetic,  believed that any discussion of development or progress will necessarily force to the Church support specific political initiatives to her possible detriment. Again, the correction of his predecessor is not in what he chooses to say in Caritas in Veritate but in what he chooses not to say. The more abstract arguments we see in Benedict's encyclical are a deliberate drawing back from what he does not wish us to conclude.

Underneath all this may be a claim about what Thomism should and should not be. John Paul II emphasized the philosophy of Thomas as a philosophy of being, "whose transcendental value paves the most direct way to rise to the knowledge of subsisting Being and Pure Act, namely to God". The heading for this post is the Italian of what he goes on to say, "we can even call this philosophy the philosophy of the proclamation of being, a chant in praise of what exists". Fergus Kerr, whom I draw heavily on here, notes that the phrase is even more beautiful in Italian.

Beautiful it is but I think Benedict XVI thought it was just wrong to think that Thomas's philosophy of being was sustainable. To emphasize being, which is to say the ontology of Thomas, was to make a mistake parallel to that Pius X made in emphasizing his epistemology. Benedict XVI thought that 20th century philosophers, principally Heidegger, had issued a challenge that the ahistorical notions of being that we find in Thomas simply could not answer. He thought that focusing on Thomas as a philosopher of being was a foolish and naive project pursued by an otherwise brilliant pope. I think that is right.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The privilege that Ben Carson and I share

Carson is getting a lot of abuse, I think unfairly,  for saying this [NYT link]:
“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview that was released on Wednesday. “You take somebody that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.” 
He added that helping people may not better their lives. 
“You take somebody with the wrong mind-set, you can give them everything in the world — they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom,” Mr. Carson said.
He expressed himself poorly. The expression "state of mind" suggests that poverty is just in people's minds. But the larger context makes it clear that isn't what he meant so, while we might wish he'd picked his words more carefully, those criticizing him are being unfair.

What Carson is actually talking about is a kind of privilege. We might think, for example, that a child born to upper-middle class people with university education is more privileged than someone born to poor, uneducated people who make their living in ways that are sometimes illegal. On average, it would be good bet to say that the former child is more likely to succeed than the latter. But you couldn't say it with certainty. The first set of parents might exploit the cushion their financial and social security to live dissolute lives with a lot of recreational drug use and emotional instability. They could further hamper their child's chances by teaching her that life is unfair and that there is no connection between hard work and discipline on the one hand and success in life on the latter. The child of the second set of parents might decide to break the pattern of her family and live a life of discipline and hard work and succeed. In fact, she did for the profile I give above is my maternal grandmother.

By any objective definition my grandmother was a victim but she refused to see herself that way. And she taught my mother likewise and she then taught me. Ben Carson's mother was like that too.
“If everybody had a mother like mine, nobody would be in poverty,” Mr. Carson said. “She was a person who absolutely would not accept the status of victim.”
I have mixed feelings bout my mother but there is no denying that she refused to let me think of myself as a victim and that has been a huge advantage for me in my life. That is a kind of privilege.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Late capitalism"

I remember noticing some of my lefty friends and family members using the expression starting a couple of years ago. Now, The Atlantic and the New Yorker are using it.

Here is an attempt to explain the term.
Rather, it was Marxist thinkers that came up with it to describe the industrialized economies they saw around them. A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”
There is a lot of projection in that. Socialists are the ones who want there to be an international system. But this isn't any kind of socialism, it's boring old Marxism once again. We can see this in the assumption that capitalism suffers from internal contradictions that will cause it to become increasingly unstable such that socialists will be able to seize the day and foment revolution.

It has to be foment revolution rather than lead a revolution. In Marxist theory the socialists can never lead or cause revolution; they believe the revolution will come from the oppressed members of the working class suddenly seeing they have common interests and uniting to seize control. The most socialists can do is instigate but, they think, that's okay because they believe the working class is a powder keg ready to go off.

And yet it never seems to go off. Which leads us to this:
“Late capitalism” took on a darker connotation in the works of the 20th-century critical theorists, who borrowed from and critiqued and built on Marx and the Marxists. Members of the Frankfurt School, reeling from the horrors of World War II, saw in it excessive social control on the part of big government and big business. Theodor Adorno argued that “late capitalism” might lead not to socialism, but away from it, by blunting the proletariat’s potential for revolution. “The economic process continues to perpetuate domination over human beings,” he said in a speech on late capitalism in 1968. (If only he could have seen the Jenner-Pepsi ad.)
The question to ask here is whether "control" and "influence" are the same thing. Big business has certainly had a lot of influence on popular culture. If you read that as the same thing as control, then everything Adorno has to say follows.

If you take big slab of raw salmon and walk up to a black bear, that salmon will give you considerable influence on the bear. It won't give you much control, and this to the point that your death is a likely outcome of such an action. A skilled animal trainer working with a trained bear would likely have more luck. And yet, skilled animal trainers are killed from time to time.

Notice, however, the polar nature of the Marxist response. Sometimes their sympathies are with the bear, which is to say the working class, and other times they can barely conceal their contempt for the gullibility of the little people who are endlessly fooled by a culture propagated by big business.

And wasn't the Jenner-Pepsi ad supposed to be a failure?

Feudalism didn't collapse under its own contradictions. It was replaced by more efficient political and economic practices. It took centuries for that transition to take place. There are third-world countries that still run on patronage-based command and control systems, which is what feudalism is when you strip it of it's pomp and circumstance, today. It is an extremely resilient system, something that shouldn't surprise is given that it lasted centuries. Capitalism, likewise, is extremely resilient. Until someone comes up with a more efficient system, there is little danger of it tumbling. As of today, no one has.

Meanwhile, our socialist friends keep on repeating the same old clichés.

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.