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.