Monday, December 21, 2015

What is this image selling?

It wouldn't do to have a lingerie ad at the top of the blog over Christmas, so let's consider this image.

I'm guessing that's New York City and that it was taken by a highly skilled photographer, probably a professional. Someone, somewhere, probably owns the rights to this. It showed up in my Facebook feed courtesy of a group called Do Something. Perhaps it is their photo. More than 29 thousand people had liked it by the time it showed up in my feed.

It's nicely composed. Most of us, I know I would, would try to compose the picture so as not to have the reflection of the city and the passing person in the shot. The genius of this shot is that this person is in and that they are anonymous. You can tell nothing about them.

But what is it selling? Normally, I'd be cynical. As near as I can tell, Do Something are the business of helping people to feel morally superior without doing much to earn it. But there are hidden depths here.

Let's start with the Gospel.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked an gave you clothing. And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Matthew 25: 37-39)
As one of my favourite Dominicans likes to remind us, this teaching precludes all instrumentality. The people whom the King welcomes into his kingdom are just as surprised to be included as the people whom he will later reject are surprised to learn that they rejected him. That means that you can't know who to befriend if you want to befriend Jesus. It may seem perfectly obvious that the starving kid in Africa is  the person you should comfort but perhaps it's actually comfortably well-off co-worker you don't much like who is having a bad day for reasons you believe are entirely his fault. That means, as the Gospel so often reminds us, that you can't earn your way into heaven.

So what can you do?

I'd start by going back to that photo and quibbling about the word. Character is not a way of acting but a way of being. How you treat those who can do nothing for you is a sign of character; it is a marker for character. But it is not character. Character is something you are. Or, to be more honest, it is something I am trying to become.

You can't treat others well in order to be a become a better person. If you try that, you will be used, exploited and abandoned. No, to acquire character, you have to believe that you could be something better. And what that something is was revealed in its fullest character beginning some 2019 and years ago when a child was born.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What is this image selling?

Well, lingerie obviously but it is rather interesting that it uses being the object of voyeurism as the hook. This from a Chantelle page that you can see here. Chantelle make very good lingerie (much better than anything you'll find at Victoria's Secret) at the price point that you should expect to go with very good.

The line of lingerie being pushed here is called Idole and, because it's black, this particular set is called Idole Noir. It's probably just an accident that "Noir' conjures up film noir but this image and the others in the series all fit that accidental conjunction terribly well. The girl herself is very white. Her lips are the only thing in the photograph that are neither black nor white. I can make it into a black and white image and it won't look jarringly different

I put it to you that the single most significant thing about that photo, and this is surprising, given that it is a lingerie ad, is that the most erotic thing in it is the woman's face. Her body is surprisingly normal with healthy body fact both on her stomach and on her face. But notice that neither her pubic hair not her nipples are showing and she is wearing sheer lace! In real life, both would show quite prominently through this underwear. The entire erotic interest is her face and what makes you interested in her, whether you are a man or a woman looking at her, is what this woman is feeling.

We cannot make any generalizations based on this. Chantelle obviously are very good at delivering what some women want. "Some" meaning enough for them to make a whole lot of money in a very competitive field. If we can draw one conclusion from ads like this with absolute confidence and that is that there are a lot of women who want feel the feeling the facial expression on the woman in the picture corresponds to. And I don't have to explain what that feeling is to you do I?

I'll tell you why I think neither pubic hair nor nipples ever show through sheer lingerie in ads. It's because the thing a woman wants to know about is not what it feels like to be seen in her underwear but what it feels like to be wearing this underwear under her clothing. It's not the creep who peers through windows that interests her but the men who look at her when she is fully clothed in public spaces. That is why the erotic interest is directed at her face. The value of the lingerie is not what it will look like when she is partly clothed but in what it can make her feel when she is fully clothed.

As I say, not all women want this. I suspect that most women don't. But enough do to make lingerie a multi-billion dollar industry and this ad is for those women.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Things to say "no" to: other people's feelings

I was discussing passive-aggressive behaviour yesterday and said that the way out of it was to be bluntly aggressive and say "no" more often. One of the big reasons we end up saying "yes" to things we don't want to do is because we worry about the effect it would have on other people's feelings if we refused.

Repeat after me: "I don't care about your feelings."

That may sound like the sort of thing a real jerk would say. It isn't. In any case, it rarely or never needs to be said out loud. It's useful to say to yourself though as it will help you keep focused on what you should be focused on. And that is actual behaviour. It's either acceptable or it isn't. Other people's feelings, on the other hand, are their responsibility alone.

They tell you about their feelings for a number of bad reasons. They tell you because the advice columns tell them not to criticize others' actions but instead tell people how they feel about them. "When you do X it mades me feel ... ." Why is that wrong? It's wrong for two reasons. It's wrong because talking about your feelings will lead others to take you less seriously. If they agree to stop doing X because of your feelings they will begin to see you as a tender little flower who needs to be protected. It's also wrong because there is no necessary connection between a particular feeling and the actions it is responding to. Or, to put it another way, "I feel threatened" does not mean "you threatened me". I might simply be over-reacting.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Passive aggression

I know, it's supposed to be "passive-aggressive" and not "passive aggression".

But here's the thing: the easiest person in the world to lie to is yourself. That's counter-intuitive because you know you're lying when you lie to yourself so you should be able to catch it. You don't catch it, however, because you are co-operating with the liar. The fact that you and the liar are the same person makes that co-operation ridiculously easy.

That is why we all mess up on passive-aggressive even though we know what it means.

It doesn't help that words tend to have different volumes. "Passive" is a rather passive word that meekly fades into the background and "aggressive" makes a lot of noise. When we use the expression, we hear the following:
And all we can we think about is the aggression. I think we can get a better grasp on it if we think of passive as modifying the aggression.

The mistake is to think that passive-aggressive means to put up with a lot of nonsense until you can't stand it anymore and then you lash out irrationally. That's not actually what it means. Of course, that is something that we all do. And that kind of explosion is always preceded by genuinely passive-aggressive behaviour. But genuine passive-aggressive behaviour usually doesn't produce that sort of explosion. It's analogous to the relationship between reckless driving and accidents—you could drive recklessly for years without having an accident.

And for most of us, it certainly is for me, the real problem is not the explosions that rarely but occasionally happen but the stuff we do all the time without any serious consequences.

If you think of "passive" as modifying "aggression" you get a better image. Now, that passive is shrinking that aggression rather than meekly disappearing in front of it. For that is what passive-aggressive behaviour really is. It's the habit—all virtues and vices are ingrained habits—of saying "yes" when you really mean "no". And then you start failing. You forget to do stuff, you do it poorly, you procrastinate. None of this seems aggressive because it's all so passive.

And the solution, perverse as this will seem, is to stop being passively aggressive and become bluntly aggressive. The solution to being passive-aggressive is to start saying "no" much more often.

More to come ...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Does that brain study really prove what we think it proves? Or, the long arm of Descartes strikes again?

You may have read that having a male brain will earn you more money. Or maybe that female brains are better at multitasking. But there is no such thing as a female or male brain, according to the first search for sex differences across the entire human brain. It reveals that most people have a mix of male and female brain features. And it also supports the idea that gender is non-binary, and that gender classifications in many situations are meaningless.
First thing to consider is that this study may or may not be right. We won't know for certain until a whole lot of checking and challenging is done and that will take, at a minimum, the better part of a decade.

But, just for the purposes of argument, let's take it as read that the study is right. That there are no significant differences between male brains and female brains. What would that prove? And, What wouldn't it prove?

Just this morning, while walking my Schnauzer, I saw a game of Quidditch. It's a pretty silly game played by pretty silly people but, that's okay, because playing games is largely about being silly. Quidditch is kind of like the game in the Harry Potter books except that there is no magic involved, which, come to think of it, means that it's completely unlike the game in the books. But it is a game and an athletic game at that.

It was being played by both men and women and the men were, with one exception, how to put this kindly, not very athletic. All except the one were pathetic, unfit slobs to be honest. The women were in better shape and I would guess that they all go to exercise classes and eat healthy food. I'm reasonably confident in this judgment as the women were wearing skin tight clothing that made it rather easy to assess their bodies. They also ran quickly and smoothly without fatiguing. They were pretty fit. For women. And there's the rub for the men completely dominated the game. And nobody playing seemed surprised or dismayed that this was the case.

What has this to do with brains? Well, did you notice how the above study has a strong rationalist bias embedded in it? The whole argument is framed in a way that the only possible way to define "gender" is in terms of brains. You couldn't say it assumes that our brains do or do not define gender because that wouldn't be nearly strong enough to define the way the study has been framed. The question is set forward in terms that no other conclusion is possible. It does the equivalent of asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

But let's try another question: If the brain is not determining gender, could something else be doing the work? Something like, here's a crazy idea, your body maybe? Want to know if you're a man or a woman? Lift the waistband of your pants or skirt and look down.

That runs against one idea of freedom. It was an idea my parents were very fond of. "You can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind to it." Or, "set your brain to it", if you're more physically minded (and this should strike us, there is something decidedly unphysical about wanting to speak in terms of "minds" or "brains" to begin with). But your brain may be irrelevant. You can take the same engine and put it in a car or a school bus and it won't make the car able to carry forty students and it won't make the school bus as fast as the car. You may think that gender is a social construct but you aren't going to make most girls as good at Quidditch as most boys will be.

If we accept the possibility that the same brain may end up functioning in very different ways then we might consider the possibility that it will be very different when we put it into a body with lots of muscle, that is flooded with testosterone and has a penis and testicles as compared to a body that has less muscle, a completely different hormone profile and a vagina and ovaries.

It occurs to just about everyone to wonder, at some point in our lives, what it would be like to inhabit another person's body. What would it be like to "be inside" a body with different sex organs. But notice the move you quietly made without acknowledging it simply by wondering about this "possibility" that is currently impossible and may never be possible. You have assumed that the "you" in this story is something other than your body. You're talking as if your identity was something like the driver of a car and that you could simply get out of one and into another.

The assumption here is that your mind, and not your brain, "mind" meaning the things you experience, believe and remember, is what makes you who you are. But there is no particular reason to conclude that. It might well be that putting your brain in another body would force you to change who you are completely by forcing you to experience, believe and remember completely differently than you now do.

If that's true, and I think it is, then the moral questions arising from gender differences are as simple as figuring out your sex—male or female— and then trying to be as good at being a man or as good at being a woman as you can be.

Come back with me to grade school a moment and let's ask a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys what it would be like to "be" inside a girl's body for a change. One of the boys will inevitably make a joke about how the first thing he would do would be to take his/her clothes off and check out a naked girl. One good thing about it, thinks the heterosexual male, is that you could spend all the time you wanted looking at and touching a girl body. And that may be one of the neat things about being a girl for some girls (have unlimited access to touch a boy's body is a bigger part of the thrill of being a boy than most boys would like to admit). But what if you don't like what you see? As a boy, what you see is a big part of what you like about girl's bodies and some bodies thrill you more than others and some not at all. And, while the average boy or man thinks it's pretty cool to touch breasts, it's different to touch yourself than it is to touch someone else. You're still going to want to touch other people and, well, that's going to take some working out isn't it. And, eventually, you're going to get around to thinking that it would be nice to have other people touch you and there are going to be a lot more boys stepping forward to offer than girls and you just may not find any of the few girls who do step forward appeal to you. And when you're finished working all that out, you might stop being a boy brain in a girl's body and just be a girl al the way through.

Or, you could make yourself miserable and unhappy for the rest of your life by fighting against it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Aggression and vulnerability

Aggression doesn't get much love.

There has to be more to it than that. We (and hundreds of other species) wouldn't have evolved to display aggression if it didn't accomplish something useful.

It's primarily a defensive tactic. Acting in an aggressive manner is sort is like waving a gun around without meaning to use it. We hope that it will deter others without our having to follow through. Thus, aggression often makes us weaker. The only person aggression works for is the person who intends to follow through. In gun safety classes, they tell you never to pull a gun out unless you intend to shoot someone. That applies to aggression as well.

I recently had to deal with an unacceptably aggressive man and, unlike what I usually do, I thought through all the above. The first thing I did was to determine that he could not hurt me. Or, to put it another way, that should he do his worst, I could live with the consequences. Once I was satisfied that I had more moral and physical strength, I worked out my response. My strategy was threefold: 1) Forget about him and what he wants and relentlessly focus on my desired outcome; 2) Remember that while the aggressive actor needs an immediate response it is not in my interest to give it to him; 3) Stand up for what I wanted in a quiet but unshakeable way. It was a little unnerving how completely he caved.

Hiding your vulnerabilities isn't exactly the same thing as aggression but it is driven by similar motives. If, like me, you come from a family where people who were supposed to support you instead used your vulnerabilities to manipulate you, you will have learned that it's a bad idea to let unsafe people know where your vulnerabilities are.

And you will have learned the further lesson that just because someone loves you doesn't mean they are can be trusted. But it also doesn't follow that once you've located someone who can be trusted that they will love you or continue to love you. That's something we just have to live with. There is nothing you, or anyone else, can do about it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Asking for love

Yesterday, I was talking about love being something you don't have to ask for. Okay, but what can we do with that knowledge?

Weird leap: research tells us that the submissive partner in a love relationship is more vocal than the dominant one. Are you vocal during sex? Are you more vocal than she is? Vocal here means both words and sounds you make. The take home point is that if you keep talking about what you want with the woman in your life you're sending her a very clear signal that you are the submissive partner in this relationship.

And there is this helpless little boy inside us who wants to blurt out that he needs love and, damn it, this is what he'll do what he needs to to get it.

In the end, she may not love you. Or, she may love you for a while and then stop. Or, she may intend to love you but just doesn't know how to love a man and has no intention of figuring out how to fix that. And the whiney little boy inside you probably can't change that. And even if he succeeds, it comes at a price you shouldn't want to pay.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

If you have to ask for it, it's not love

There is, of course, a necessary qualification: there will be things that the person you love can't guess. Sometimes you may have to tell them what you like and don't like.

But if it doesn't happen if you don't ask, she doesn't really love you.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Jealousy is often really about you

I was listening to an interesting podcast at The Art of Charm about retroactive jealousy. That is when you get jealous of your girlfriend's or wife's past partner.* If you have any reason to believe that that applies to you, check out the podcast.

What interests me here, however, is how the case of retroactive jealousy allows us to see in particularly clear light that a large component of all jealousy it is really about you. It stands out in this case because you don't typically know much about this person you're jealous about. In some cases, you've never met them and, even if you did, it was probably a limited and strained conversation. So the jealousy you feel about this person is mostly your insecurities projected onto them.

It's perfectly normal to feel a little doubt at the start of a relationship but that should fade over time. But if you still feel jealous about someone's ex months or years into a relationship there is a problem. When that happens, it is your insecurity, your sense of being an impostor that is at work. And the solution is to work on yourself. Self-love is crucial. Yes, it can be overdone but I am convinced that there are far more people who are suffering from a lack of self-love than an excess of it in this world. You cannot love anyone else, not even God, if you cannot love yourself.

In a small number of cases you can be consumed with jealousy and unable to see it because it feels like you have lots of objective evidence to confirm it. The jealousy you feel, instead of the anger you ought to feel, is really driven by your fear of leaving her. You think there is something wrong with you, that you only lucked into getting this woman to be with you, that you'll be all alone forever if you dump her. And that is blinding you. You can't see that she is the problem and that the sooner you get rid of this selfish jerk who is sucking all the energy out you, the happier you will be.

* I'm a man and unapologetically write as one. You can always reverse this and apply it the other way if you are a woman or gay or lesbian. That would require some adjustments because there are huge differences between men and women. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Another image: What are they selling?

 Okay, this may seem obvious. They're selling a birthday card.

But what is the woman who buys this card selling?

It doesn't help to know that the inside is a cheap joke about calling Chicken Delight because they have the best legs around. Ha ha.

But step back and consider the larger message. It's suggestive and slutty on the outside and cold-hearted denial on the inside. That's pretty much the exact opposite of what a man wants in a relationship. And, for an added bonus, she's mocking you for wanting what you want.

Why would that be appealing? Why would you want to get into or stay in a relationship with a woman who is sending you that message?

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I was asked to comment about an exhortation directed to Catholic men by the Thomas J Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix. These opening words give you a good sense of what it's about:
I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.
My short answer is that there is a lot of good in the piece and that it's well worth your time to read it.

My longer answer is to wonder about the word "ethos". It has two meanings. In one sense it is a place, a cultural place, where you truly fit. If you were a sports coach who cared little for weddings and you go to wedding planners convention, you would be out of your ethos. If you went to a clinic about coaching young athletes, you'd be in your ethos. You'd walk into the room and you'd fel at home. And that would be true even if you were a neophyte coach and you were quite certain everyone else in the room was more qualified than you because, even then, you'd know you had a place. But it can also mean proving you have the right to be in the place you are. When I stand up in front of a group of young Catholics to discuss marriage and their plans for marriage, I need to show them that I'm worth listening to.

So the question is, in which of those two senses is "the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture and even in our own homes" at risk? Is the problem that safe Christian spaces are being undermined from within and without. It certainly feels that way sometimes. And there are people, one of my nephews for example, who would like to see Christians driven from the public square, seeing us as no better than con artists. But it behooves us to ask the question from the other side as well: Has Christianity lost its credibility to speak to the larger culture and is that what's really making the assault Bishop Olmsted worries about so successful? And here, I'm afraid, we must answer in the positive.

It's interesting, in that regard, that Bishop Olmsted, is appealing to lay men for help. For what motivates this exhortation is a belief that the health of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, would be improved if Catholic laymen manned up.
For decades now, a model for manhood has been fashioned in the fictional British spy character named James Bond. Various actors have taken turns portraying this man who, in several adventures, has proposed what it means to be “manly,” yet Bond remains an enigma. Like the women that he uses in the films, the ones who watch him find themselves wanting to know him. He is never a father, nor does he accept responsibility for or love one woman. In him, we see a man whose relationships are shallow and purely utilitarian. Indeed, “James Bond is a male character whose name is the height of irony. He is 40 years old and has no bonds. He is actually pathetic.”
I don't disagree with that but, whatever else you might say about him, James Bond has ethos in the second sense. Sure, it's fantasy ethos and there is something no-quite-grown-up about it but Bond, like all action-heroes and superheroes speaks to a real desire that men have. That so many men seek it in such a ridiculously fake form as James Bond tells us a lot about how hard it is for them to believe in this in real life. It's not just that Bond is fiction as that he couldn't be anything but fiction. Outside of a tiny percentage of certifiable nut cases, every male Bond fan knows that he is embracing a  whacky fantasy. That so many have given up on finding any real hope for ethos in the real world is telling.

And that is the question I have for the Catholic church: what opportunity for ethos does it offer lay men? I ask because I don't think Catholic lay men will come riding to the rescue of a church where they don't feel they are in their ethos and where they feel that their credibility as men is constantly undercut. If all we have to offer such men is a long list of responsibilities that they shoudl man up and fill, they won' be coming to help us any time soon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Women who won't sit facing backwards on the train

You meet a lot of women, and even a few men, who think that making a fuss about sitting facing backwards on the train is a reasonable thing to do.

If you challenge them, they won't even try to pretend that their position is reasonable (because it isn't) but neither will they waver. The final authority is their feelings. They will admit the arguments for why they should get over it but will insist that they just don't feel comfortable. And that is where the reasonable person (meaning you) gives up.

But here's the thing: it's easy to get over the feelings of discomfort. You just force yourself to do it and the feeling of discomfort goes away—we all train ourselves to get used to far more difficult things. You know this and you know that she also knows (or should know) and that is why it irritates you when she makes a fuss. In the end, though, it's just another discomfort to put up with so ypu give in.

But do you make a judgment about her? I think men generally don't consciously reach judgments about women in our lives at moments like this and I think we should. Judge but don't condemn. Notice it and add it to your file on her.

What this tells you is that she is scared of being out of control but, rather than directly confronting this problem, she likes to play little games that allow her to maintain the illusion of being in control even when she isn't. And now, having established the principle, it's a matter of determining degree. How much of this sort of game-playing does she indulge in? In the long run, that is a far more important consideration than how hot her body is.

Of course, there is also the beam in our own eye. I also play games rather than accept that I can't control what life is going to throw at me. And yes, I should do something about it. But, if I do, that not only entitles me to make judgments about others, it obliges me to because that is what it takes to love others as yourself.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What's really behind the Man Rules

I think something interesting is going on in male culture right now. And it isn’t what it appears to be. The men driving the renewal often speak of what they are doing as something that has never been seen before but I think what they are doing is more of a renaissance of manliness. They are rediscovering something that was lost.

I caught an interesting example of this on a podcast at The Art of Charm that I listened to yesterday. It was posted on July 29 of this year and is called The  Man Rules and featured a sociologist named Dan Griffin. Griffin argues that there are a series of socially derived rules for being a man that we have all internalized and that these have positive and negative aspects about them. In order to not be sabotaged by them, a man needs to know about the rules and to be conscious of the ways they affect his life. So far so good.

You can guess a lot about where Griffin is going to go with this just in the language he uses. Note, for example, how he uses negative and positive formulations of the same rules. He didn’t intend to set these up as vice-virtue pairs but I’m going to do that for him and, when I do, you will be able to see that Griffin has accidentally uncovered some ancient wisdom.

There are two things going on here. The first, as is obvious when we look at the chart above, is that Griffin has rediscovered virtue ethics without realizing it. The second is something that Robert Glover showed us in No More Mr, Nice Guy years ago: that hiding your vulnerabilities is no way to be a man—that concealing your weakness is no way to be strong. To be a man is to accept that there are risks and that there are no safe ways to live if you want to have meaningful relationships.

That second point is not obvious from the above chart alone for it shows only binary pairs. To get it, we need to consider that there are two extremes for each vice. If you are swept up by everything that provokes an emotional response in you, that will destroy your integrity. You'' be able to tell one woman that you love and treasure her and then go across town and say the same things to another lover. So you have to know how to control your emotions in order to have integrity. Paradoxically, you also have to nurture your emotions to have integrity. If aren't afraid of losing someone, you'll never value her in your actions and you'll betray her not by cheating on her but by failing to love her adequately. Your claim of love will be an empty sham.

Griffin, interestingly, takes the manly values, beginning with the ones listed in the chart above, to be socially given, “from your parents, from the schoolyard". And that they certainly are but they are also built on a solid biological foundation. A powerful hint that this is so can be found in Griffin’s saying that the man rules are universal; that while there are local variations, you find these in every culture. And that ought to give us pause because the odds against every culture throwing up more or less the same set of gender rules are very high. These aren’t gender rules, they are sex rules. These are the rules that derive from your having both an X and  Y chromosome and all that follows from that.

And that jumps right out at us when Griffin and Art-of-Charm host Jordan Harbinger discuss sex. Griffin lays it out as categorically as he can:
You can take all the rules of sex and you can condense them into one sentence: have as much sex as possible, whenever possible with as many hot women as possible.
He’s wrong. There is a second sentence he doesn’t know about and I’ll get to that in a minute. The important thing to grasp is that what Griffin treats as a cultural determination is a biological fact. For men, there are two successful evolutionary strategies and one of them is the sower strategy, which is to attempt to impregnate as man women as possible so as to created better odds of your genes being passed on. And that is Griffin’s one sentence.

The second sentence, the one he doesn’t know about, is:
Form a solid and lasting bond with one woman, protect and feed her and help her raise the children you produce together.
That also improves the odds of your passing on your genes because any children you and this woman have will have a better chance of surviving.

Civilizations tend to be built on the latter of the two options. When civilizations crumble, the first will reassert itself. But the first never goes away. When things start to get unsettled—because social norms are abandoned, because the economy collapses or because the culture is put in danger because of war or disease—you see the first come back with a vengeance. Because it never goes away, all civilizations attempt to regulate and, where it can’t be regulated, accommodate these drives. Thus we have marriage and divorce laws, child support payments, prostitution, pornography and so forth.

One of the reasons these things never go away is that women have complimentary drives. The best way for a woman to get pregnant is to have sex with as many men as possible. On the other hand, the best way for her to ensure she has a partner to raise her child, and thereby increase the chance of their survival, is for her to be monogamous. The temptation to pretend to do the second while actually doing the first is always present. (The central sexual myth of our culture is not a false belief about masculinity but a false belief about the supposed moral superiority of women when it comes to sexual behaviour.) If you were to do a thorough-going genetic analysis of your family going back a few generations, you would almost certainly find a man in your family tree who was there in name only.

And I’ll end for now on a very MacIntyre note. What if there was a cataclysm in our culture and we didn’t notice it? Suppose that economic prosperity and peace concealed from us the fact that our moral culture was severely wounded. Perhaps what someone like Griffin is doing is not, as he thinks it is, a process of cultural criticism but an attempt to rebuild a manly culture out of the ruins.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Yes, strength is a virtue. And this is especially true for men.

Someone commented on an old post about strength being a virtue and asked if I still thought so and if I had any further thoughts on the subject. The answer is yes on both counts.

One of the perennial questions about virtues is whether you can have them in isolation. Now, that may sound dry and academic and it certainly can be dry and academic but it needed be. Think about the police. Are you glad we have a police force? You shouldn't have to think about that. The only correct answer to that question is yes. But you also worry about abuse of police power. And you worry even though you know it's pretty rare.

Strength is like the police. It's unquestionably a good thing and yet you know that strength can be misused. Strength is scary. When I first started squatting I was shocked at how quickly I got up to weights that really scared me. The potential for damage was huge. To have strength is good but you need to figure out how to use it and you need to figure out how to develop it in a balanced way. Getting stronger is part of being better in every way but it isn't a guarantee of anything.

Learning how to use it

First, a massive qualification: My experience is that weak, snivelling little shits do a lot more damage in this world than strong men do. You will probably be a better man in every way if you get stronger. Probably. I say that because having  physical strength is going to force you to think about moral issues that you've been ducking until now.

When I started lifting many years ago, two huge moral/psychological changes followed. The first was that I started standing up to people. When I saw some jerk pick on someone, I started speaking up. I'm six foot one and I'm big. And, without really thinking about it, I started using that size and the strength I'd gained. If someone crowded me on the bus, I'd stand up tall. It seems like a little thing but I realized that for years I'd been backing away or contorting myself to accommodate pushy people and, now that I was strong, I stopped doing it.

I did the same socially. And some people got really upset. I had one woman I'd known for years start yelling at me and threatening me simply because I no longer put up with her verbal bullying. She soon made it clear that either I was going to revert to my former ways or lose her friendship. I chose to let it go. And that hurt her. It hurt her a lot. And I had to think that through. It wasn't my fault that she was unreasonable but she was pretty stuck in her ways and it was unlikely that she would change. I felt that I was just finally standing up for what was reasonable all these years but I quickly figured out that doing so was going to be devastating for her. In the end, I decided that my standing up for myself was more important than her feelings and did so even though I knew she'd go through some psychological suffering.

Strength forces you to think seriously about hurting people. You still hurt people when you don't have strength but it's easier to dodge responsibility. Once your strong, you know you can do it. You may think, that doesn't apply to me because I'm never going to be strong like an MMA expert. And that's true, but MMA fighters are in the top two percent in terms of their ability to inflict pain. Only an idiot would challenge a guy like that. But most men aren't like that. Most men are weak and pathetic and four months in the gym will make you stronger than most men. And if you do that, you have to start thinking seriously about violence and what you might do with it.

The second moral challenge was sex. Your testosterone goes way up and so does your sex drive. And so do your opportunities for sex. Women become more interested in you. In fact, any man in his twenties or early thirties who takes the trouble to be strong, get a good job and learn to be be socially adept will soon find the number of potential sexual partners available to him to be a little staggering. And then you suddenly find yourself faced with moral challenges about sex in a way that you never were before.


If you start getting stronger, one of the brutal truths you will soon be forced to face is that some other men are lot stronger than you are. That may seem obvious but our narcissism plays tricks on us. Before we try, we know that we aren't strong but part of us believes that we could be as good as anyone else if we tried and that isn't even close to true. Yeah, somebody has to be the strongest guy in the gym and it might be you but it almost certainly won't be. More likely, you'll be working out someday and some relatively ordinary looking guy who weighs 60 pounds less than you is going to come in and lift a hundred and fifty pounds more than you. And, no, you're never going to catch up to him.

Getting stronger should teach you lessons about yourself and you should use those lessons to become a better person. Not the best man there is but the best man you can be. One of the most important lessons is about reasonable limits. If  you've never worked out, you'll make huge gains at first. And then that will taper off and then the question becomes how do I manage myself now. For me, physical training was the first time I had to ask that question.

Now that I'm getting older—some stores now give me a seniors' discount—I've had to start facing getting weaker. No matter how much I train, I get a little weaker every year. That's true of people who don't train but they can hide it with self denial. You can't do that with weights: you can either move them or you can't.

Now, it doesn't follow that being forced to face this stuff will lead to wisdom. I meet people in the gym who do really stupid shit fairly regularly. Virtues don't exist in isolation. But the thing about virtues is that you don't get any of them if you don't work at them. You may still fail at becoming a man if you get strong but you will almost certainly fail if you don't.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Don Draper's Emmy

They've finally given an Emmy to Jon Hamm. With it comes an "explanation" of why it took so long, "explanation" here meaning "theory".
The Emmys’ revised rules permit a broader, less informed voting pool, and whispers of it being “Hamm’s time” likely secured his victory. The result was an award that felt more like an apology than an ode to craft. Which prompts the question: Why did it take this long to recognize the star of the decade’s most praised series? And what is it that made Hamm’s performance as Draper so antithetical to awards?
I'm not sure it feels like an apology so much as if feels like fan service.

And is Jon Hamm such a good actor? I don't know and I suspect you don't either. I've never heard of him doing any other roles terribly well. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he hasn't. I can't help but wonder at the "broader, less informed voting pool". Perhaps professional actors aren't so impressed at Hamm as we fans are at Don Draper. Or, to put it another way, was it Jon Hamm's acting that made the show or was it the role he had to play?

There is a big clue hidden in the Slate article I quote above. The article makes passing mention of a "notorious pan" of the show by Daniel Mendelsohn. You can read it here but, if, like me, you're a big fan of the show, you won't like it much. You won't like it because so much of what Mendelsohn has to say is right on the mark. There is a lot about Mad Men that was simply awful. There are entire episodes that are so badly conceived and written that they should never have been filmed never mind inflicted on the public.

But it's even worse than that. Mendelsohn sums up the shows appeal towards the end of the article and comes very close to getting it right.
This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Menis made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.
That's what the show tried to be. But it failed. Much like The Preppy Handbook, of decades ago, the unintended effect of the show was to make the culture it meant to criticize seem like something to emulate.

In creating Don Draper, Jon Hamm and the shows writers created a sort of character that we don't see any more; they created a character of the sort that John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Gary Cooper used to play. Those actors always played a sort of ideal male and they always played the same ideal role.

And that sort of acting is not currently in style, which is what makes it so hard to say whether or not it good enough for an Emmy. You apply a completely different set of criteria when judging such acting and a big part of that judgment is of the character himself.

That, by the way, may have a lot to do with why it took so long for Hamm to win. Awarding him the Emmy while the series was still running would have amounted to an endorsement of the character. We could all see that Weiner et al were trying very hard to deconstruct Don Draper but the fan reaction showed it wasn't working. It never did but the show being over has dispelled the magic. Don can't come back now. Not as Don Draper anyway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mother figures in fiction for boys

"We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering iof another woman is really the answer we need."
One place you can get a glimpse of how feminized our society has become is in the way mothers are presented in children's fiction today as compared to a century ago. Mothers have very rarely been criticized in children's fiction; they have always been almost sacred figures for reasons that ought to be obvious. But there are ways to criticize mothers in fiction without tackling them directly and it used to be much more common than it is today. The most famous example of this is the evil stepmother.

For boys and girls adoption fantasies, and that the evil stepmother is just one of variety of adoption fantasies, are very powerful because they help prepare us to break up with our mother. Despite a lot of talk about patriarchy, our mother is the person we come out of and she holds a powerful sway over us. She is often the one who gives us most of our earliest moral lessons. If it is not our mother, it is typically other women, such as nannies or daycare workers, who give us these lessons.

For much of human history, we got handed off from women to men beyond a certain point in our upbringing. That, as Tyler Durden observes in the quote I put at the top of this post, is no longer the case. Nowadays, a boy can go from one female teacher to another all the way to adulthood and, even then, choose a lover who is really just another teacher.

It didn't used to be that way and one way that fiction prepared us for that was by belittling our mothers. That shocks us, of course, but we should ask ourselves why it bothers us so little that fathers are constantly belittled by the modern entertainment industry.

The novel Jim Davis by John Masefield provides an interesting example of this. The eponymous hero of the novel is an orphan. He ends up in the care of not one but two women: his aunt and a Mrs. Cottier who is deserted by her drunken husband and comes to live with Jim's aunt and uncle. The uncle, like many fathers, is a distant authority figure.

Before going on, I want to pause and tell you how this novel was understood by the wider culture when it was published in 1911. The copy I have was part of a collection authorized by the Boy Scouts and called Every Boy's Library. Here is how the foreword describes it:
Tempting boys to be what they should be—giving them in wholesome form what they want—that is the purpose and power of Scouting. To help parents and leaders of youth secure books that boys like best that are also best for boys, the Boy Scouts of America organized Every Boy's Library.
The word I want you to notice more than any other in that paragraph is "wholesome". I want you to notice it because the way Jim learns all the important lessons of life is by falling in with outlaws.

And then there is the way the novel deals with mother figures. In one early adventure with the outlaw who befriends them, Jim and his friend Hugh are hiding in the woods when Jim's aunt and Mrs. Cottier coming looking for them. They ignore the women's calls. Later, they confess to having done this and the following ensues:
My aunt said something about 'giving a lot of trouble' and 'being very thoughtless for others', but we had heard similar lectures many times before and did not mind them much.
Think about that for a while. Here is a book representing the establishment views of the era that told boys to just ignore their mothers when they went on about some kinds of moral responsibilities that women might want to impose on boys. You could not do that today, even though it is very good advice.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Critical thinking

I keep thinking about our reaction to this Syrian boy drowning. Tragedies happen everyday. Why does this one seize our collective imagination? And why do facts matter so little? We now know, or should know, that most of the "facts" originally reported were not terribly factual. The answer to both questions seems painfully obvious: presented with a compelling photo, we stopped thinking.

But did we? I think we did think about it. The problem was not that our judgment was turned off by the photo but rather that it was turned on.  We suddenly started reaching conclusion and deciding that action had to be taken about things we already knew about before we saw the photo. The problem is not that our brains were turned off by a photo but that they were turned on and we started making judgments we didn't need to be making.

I have started putting together a list of critical thinking questions to ask myself in cases like this. It's nothing new, I've been informally using some of these for years now. I want to become more disciplined about asking them though. This list is not final.

  1. Is my reaction based on a photograph or video? If yes, turn off judgment and just gather experience. The moment we make a judgment, we stop paying attention to our experience and focus instead on our judgment.
  2. How did the camera get there? The other day, someone shared a post with me about the pope's surprise visit to an Italian slum. The video at the post showed news footage of the event. It was a tripod shot over the heads of thousands of people who were already standing there when the pope's vehicle pulled up. How can this be a surprise event if a news team had time to get assigned to drive across town and set up a camera before the pope arrived? Likewise, how did the crowd get there? Nothing against the pope, all politicians use orchestrated media events but the rest of us need to be more critical.
  3. Why was this shot selected? The Syrian boy can't have been the first refugee to die trying to get out of that hellhole of a country. Is there good reason to believe that a news editor chose this shot for its emotional impact. If yes, see question 1.
  4. Does this photograph change my understanding? I already knew before I saw it that there are desperate refugees all over the world trying to get out of their countries. I already knew that some of them die making the attempt. I do not have a single new fact as a result of seeing this photo. Actually, it's worse than that: an explosion of false information accompanied this photo.
  5. Are the things I am tempted to say after seeing this photograph or video new? Am I saying or thinking anything I wouldn't have said or thought yesterday? If the only thing that is different is the intensity that I feel them—"Something must be done!"— I should just stop talking and see how I feel 48 hours from now. (Actually, this is true of most news stories. It's reasonable to act immediately to a storm warning but just about everything else can wait until the day after tomorrow and then the decision will most likely be to do nothing new.)
  6. Are my judgments really about the situation or are they about me? Photos like this trigger massive public response and the temptation to engage in virtue signalling—that is narcissistically demonstrating my virtue by showing everyone how outraged I can get about something.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Good advice: extract the greatest experience

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. I don't think you'd quite want to generalize it for reasons that most adults should be able to figure out for themselves.

But one thing I think we should do is to apply it to a lot of moral judgments about experiences. There is a tendency to make judgments about the moral worth of some activities very early in the game and, when we do that, we stop noticing the activity and pay attention to our moral judgment to our detriment.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Good Advice: peace or chaos?

I got this one from Waller Newell in his book The Code of Man.

It's really a question but it's a very important question to ask yourself: What is the natural state of human life? Is it peace or is it chaos?

If you think it's peace, then you'll be inclined to blame all evil on human action. You'll be inclined to believe that things would be just fine if people didn't keep messing them up. If you think it's chaos, you'll be inclined to think that it is only constant human effort that creates and maintains order.

These two views are not moral outputs. That is to say, they don't come about because of moral reasoning. They are, instead, assumptions that moral arguments are built on.

Many of us start of believing in the former. I'm not entirely sure why. Part of the answer is our mothers. Our mothers want us to behave so they convince us that our peace and happiness depend on our cooperating with them. If we don't upset mummy, we can have a trouble-free life.  Eventually, this gets expanded to include the belief that we can have a trouble-free life only if other people don't upset mummy either.

We also get a lot of it from popular culture. Star Trek's prime directive being a classic example. You'd also see it in the cynicism of M*A*S*H which had us believe that a couple on uncommitted layabouts could do more good by doing less evil. Both shows reveal that it doesn't really work by cheating all over the place. On Star Trek the prime directive is little more than a plot complication hauled forth when useful much like Captain Renault shutting down Rick's place for gambling. On M*A*S*H, the cheat was that the two cynical layabouts just happen to be brilliant surgeons who can rush in and save lives whenever it might otherwise become obvious that the whole show is a fantasy for men who never want to grow up. (If you read the books it was based on, BTW, you'll see that is exactly what it was to begin with.)

By now, you're probably thinking that you can guess how I'd answer the question and you're right. But go ahead and answer it for yourself—I'm sure you're mature enough not to be influenced by my thinking. (Once you have your answer, think about political theories and ask yourself which side they fit on. Some are obvious: Locke, Marx and Rawls are obviously on the peace side. Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli are obviously on the chaos side. But what of Hobbes? At first he seems obviously to be on the chaos side but his solution to his own problem seems so easy that I suspect he really was a peace man.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Good advice: Blow up your relationship with your mother

The word "idolatry" conjures up images of funny little carvings of misshapen gods from distant, exotic places like Africa, India or the Pacific Islands. In truth, idolatry is something far closer to home. It looks like this:

Okay, Suzanne Somers is a twinkie who believes some utterly crazy shit so who cares that she decided to share this sentimental crap? Well, a lot of people apparently. Someone I know shared that on Facebook on the anniversary of her mother's death. She's in her eighties and she thinks of her mother as some sort of pantheistic presence.

That isn't healthy. It's a refusal to grow up.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog castigating those who give bad moral advice and not enough on the good advice. Today, I'm going to begin what I hope will be an ongoing series highlighting some of the good advice I've found out there. Beginning with this gem: Blow up your relationship with your and get one step closer to being the man you want to be.

That's good advice even if your mother is dead.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TOMS shoes, virtue and virtue signalling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Some thoughts about narcissism

1. Is narcissism too useful for explaining moral failure?

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

2. To analyze is to take apart

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

3. Narcissism is a syndrome

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

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

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

4. Moral emotions

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

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

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

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

5. Anticipatory shame

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

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

6. Was I a narcissist then?

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

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

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

7. Conscience is mostly an anterior phenomenon

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The missing part of the Ashley Madison scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

2. Dialogue?

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

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

3. Demythologize the papacy?

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

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

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

4. Male pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

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

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

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

Related to this morning's post

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

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

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

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

Innate rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. "Good sensible stuff"

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

3. Whose culture?

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

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

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

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

4. When your culture is for sale

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

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

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

5. The challenges or really being 

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

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

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

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

6. Which brings me to dignity

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

I agree with Thomas. Dignity comes from inside.

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

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

7. Aloha

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

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

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

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