Friday, June 30, 2017

First Things

This is a grab from the First Things web page taken today, June 30, 2017.

What struck me about it, and why I grabbed the image, was "Lena Dunham". Of the tags affixed to articles at the magazine's website, "Lena Dunham", the shallow creator of a show that approximately one-quarter-of-one-percent of Americans watched, is the ninth most popular. That's a sign that something has gone deeply wrong at First Things.

It's a white thing cont'd

I've listened to four episodes of "Seeing White" now. A lot of it is really good. I recommend it.

The question the program has us focus on is, "What is whiteness?" The question comes up in an odd way. Originally, people were more interested in categorizing those whom they wanted to oppress. To begin with, this wasn't much of a problem but, at least in the case of the United States, it becomes a problem.

Others are others. We categorize people as being part of or not part of certain groups them and we typically don't have trouble identifying these groups. Yes, you can make mistakes. But how much do you want to make of that? When travelling, I sometimes wake up in the morning not certain of where I am. If I've been in four or five different bedrooms in a  row I will often wake up before sunrise in my own bedroom on returning home and spend a little while not knowing where I am or thinking I am in another bedroom altogether. It's a disorienting experience but I would not begin to wonder whether I'm really sitting at my office desk right now as a consequence. Likewise, I have had experiences where people I thought were friends turned out to be enemies (I can't think of a single example of the reverse alas) but I don't throw the concept of enemy out the door.

Of course, we're not talking about enemies here but rather of an oppressed group. The key part of that term is not "oppressed" but "group". Suppose Jim's father swindled me out of my life's savings. How am I going to treat Jim? Let's make it more distant and suppose Jim's grandfather did me a nasty turn. How does that affect relations between us?

If we're honest, we'll admit that the less we know about others, the easier it is to hate them. If, in the example I've given above, I knew Jim for a while before I realized he is the son of the man who swindled me out of my life's savings it's going to be harder to hate him than if the only thing I know about Jim is that he's a part of the category "family of the man who swindled me".  That category move makes it a lot easier to oppress someone. The people who so casually oppressed people for so long did so because they categorized them based on ... well, what?

But the reverse is also true. If I am sitting next to someone on the plane and discover in the course of conversation that she is a cousin of mine, that will draw a closer bond between us even though I don't know much about her character. It's not the fact of the category distinction but the purpose for which we draw it that is important.

What is a category?

Where "Seeing White" goes wrong is that it repeats certain liberal or progressive platitudes (we might as easily say "clichés") instead of really dealing with the issue at hand. One of the lines repeated over and over again is that race is a construct. That's absolutely true. But the category "planets" is also a construct. As are the categories city, neighbourhood, human, bush, tree, bird and, in fact, every category that you could think of.

A category is just a grouping together of "things" for some purpose. I've put "things" in scare quotes because things only become things by virtue of being categorized. It's only when brains like ours start organizing the world that they acquire the status of thing. Their real enough—I don't have to acknowledge the existence of the meteorite that kills me in order for it to exist—but things become particular types of things when human beings categorize them for some purpose.

Black people became black people when they were enslaved. Until that moment, darker or lighter skin meant no more than blonde or brunette. "Seeing White" is very good on this point and does a very good job in showing us that while we human beings have always been determined to see people other than our own group as inferior, the practice of making the distinction on race as opposed to family, tribe or ethnicity didn't get going until slavery in the Americas.

Well, not quite. Saying "slavery in the Americas" is my touch. The show focuses almost exclusively on what happened in the United States of America. That is a blind spot I may come back to in a future post.

To return to the liberal cliché the show deals in. The argument is that there is no genetic basis for race. That's true but, unfortunately, it doesn't get us where we want to go. Or as Suzanne Plihcik is Associate Director of the Racial Equity Institute and one of the contributors to the show says:
Anthropologists finally say, and it is way past due, that race is anthropological nonsense. Is that the same thing as saying it's not real? No. Because it's real. It is powerfully real, it is politically and socially real. So we need to know how did we get it and what we say is, we constructed it.
And that is where it's going to get tricky. Not because it isn't true that race is a construct but because every category is a construct.

To make a category, you need three things. The first two are a purpose and a grouping. The third is that you need other people to go along with you. If I have a handful of marbles that I want to group some out as belonging to a group, I need to get others to see the difference. If no one else can see the difference, my "category" doesn't exist. I might try and prove my category is real by asking you to mix the marbles into the a pile of other marbles and then showing you I can separate them but that won't work because it will be the same to you if I pulled out marbles at random if you can't see the distinction I wish to make. If, on the other hand, I say I'm going to pull out all the red marbles, that is a category you can understand and will most likely accept even if there are a few in the mix where the line between red and pink is hard to draw.

Consider the following text that I've transcribed from Episode 2 of the podcast. Most of the text is Suzanne Plihcik speaking at an anti-racism workshop and the text in parentheses are voice over comments by host John Biewen to help us understand better because we only have audio.
It is statistically likely that I am closer to you genetically (Suzanne, who is white, points at a black man) than I am to you (and then a white woman).
See the problem? Biewen distinguishes based on race. He casually uses these categories in the course of a podcast whose theme is that the distinction doesn't exist.

If we want to rid ourselves of racism, we need to stop spouting the same platitudes that my good liberal parents taught me fifty years ago. The problem of racism is not an education problem. It is not a matter of, as Biewen describes the activities of the Racial Equity Institute, "dropping a whole lot of knowledge" on people. And it isn't a matter of dispensing with the category of race. As in the quote above, the show uses the distinction of race over and over again. Biewen identifies himself as "white", whatever that means, and others as "black", whatever that means.

The change has to take place somewhere else.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

It's a white thing, you wouldn't understand

There has been a lot of chatter here in Canada lately about whether white people can write about non-white characters. Imagine my surprise at discovering that white people are also incapable of writing about white people.
I enlisted Chenjerai, as an African-American intellectual and a friend, to help me unpack the stories we’re telling in the series and, frankly, to give me backup—to check me. I don’t quite trust myself as a white man to see whiteness plainly and fully.
That's from the teaser for a series of podcasts on "whiteness".

Obviously, I'm sceptical. Despite that, I'm going to try and give it an open-minded listen. The teaser, although it includes a few lines that make me wonder, is actually written in clear, coherent language and that is a lot more than you can say for most of current "whiteness scholarship".

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Letter from Bret Rensselaer

"Forget what happened. You are off on a new adventure. Like Kim about to leave his father for the Grand Trunk Road, or Huck Finn starting his journey down the Mississippi or Jim Hawkins being invited to sail to the Spanish Caribbean, you are starting all over again. Put the past behind you, this time it will all be different, provided you tackle it that way."
The narrator of the book promptly describes the literary references as clichés, and fair enough, yet there is something about that. letter that speaks to me.

Bret Rensselaer is a character who appears in a number of Len Deighton novels. The quote above is from Faith, which I am maybe halfway through now and enjoying immensely. I turned back to find it as what Bret means to communicate to the hero, Bernard Samson, seems like it might be much more important than I first thought given later events in the novel.

There is an odd contradiction in it in that Bret has just finished telling Bernard not to leave his wife while all the examples suggest leaving all family ties behind. The spy story this is wrapped in all seems more or less a MacGuffin now. The real issue is what do you do when you are bound by marriage, mutually shared history, your children and your career to a woman who lied to you and betrayed you?

Indigenous Peoples?

I sympathize with the people who want to replace "aboriginal" with "indigenous".
This perspective is not a unique one. Often members of a Nation prefer to be called by their self-chosen names, but respecting self-identification becomes complicated when naming a Canada-wide celebration – like National Aboriginal History Month, for example. It poses a challenge because these country-wide celebrations need to be dedicated to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We can’t call it “Inuit History Month” or “Anishinabek History Month” because then the celebration would only recognize these specific communities. But at the same time, using “Aboriginal” falls short in recognizing all Nations in a respectful way. So, what do we do?
On the other hand, if we have to keep revising our vocabulary and definitions that should be a powerful hint to us that it is our thinking that is muddled in the first place. And why do these terms always get capitalized? Does "Indigenous Peoples" mean something that "indigenous peoples" does not?

To put it bluntly, what people are looking for is a blanket term to describe a number of groups who have not much in common. They want this term to bring all the members together while respecting their individuality. And, just in case that isn't daunting enough, they want to leave the people they are describing with this term completely free to define themselves while simultaneously insisting that whatever definition they come up with must be a group definition and not an individualistic one.

Oh yeah, the term also has to be exclusionary in that Quebecois people don't qualify but Metis kinda do.

Is there any reason to believe this trick can be done?

Your identity, whatever you take it to be, should be enabling. It should allow you opportunities to flourish. The people who shifted from "Indian" to "Native", then from "Native" to "Aboriginal", and now are attempting to move us from "Aboriginal" to "Indigenous"are building traps for the people they claim to want to help. (The same problem applies to the shift from "sex" to "gender".)

Monday, June 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

PS: I was intentionally vague in this post so as to keep the relationship in question a secret. It occurs to me rereading it this morning that this discretion on my part might have the unintended effect of making it seem like I'm discussing my marriage. I'm not.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Was the defining message of the era just stupid?

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

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

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

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

In the end it amounted to ...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A question

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Singing la la la

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why express your feelings?

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

Under pressure

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

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

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

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

Real, true, authentic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The god inside me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Toxic masculinity" isn't completely crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emotional foils

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three foils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Intellectual integrity test

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On self esteem

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

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

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

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

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

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

We've entire generations on this.

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

And it's all based on bogus science.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Coffee house wimps: It was even worse than I suspected

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

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

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

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

Let's pick out the nice guy tropes

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

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

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

Confession time

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Coffee House wimps

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

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

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

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

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

I came home thinking it was time for a change.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Father figure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Impostor syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Moral equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lying and memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

New name and look?

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

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

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