Thursday, August 31, 2017

Modernity and Catholicism

"Modernity can be defined in many ways:
  1. the rise of capitalist democracies in the eighteenth century,
  2. the scientific revolution,
  3. the divisions of Church and state,
  4. the primacy of subjective consciousness (Descartes),
  5. skepticism about ultimate metaphysical explanations coupled with 
  6. an ethics of autonomy that gives rise to liberal secular culture (Kant),
  7. the use of historical studies to relativize all absolute truth claims."
That comes from an interview with Thomas Joseph White o.p. at First Things. I've made it into a numbered list. I've further messed with it by splitting one of his points into two in numbers 5 and 6 above.

The kind of approach Father White thinks Catholics should take to modernity is made clear in something he says immediately after providing these definitions.
What makes these three works modern is that they take seriously and engage directly with the modern problematization of knowledge of absolutes, whether that problematization is metaphysical, historical, or religious. 
The three works he refers to are John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange's Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, and Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. They all do indeed "engage" the modern problematization of knowledge. That said, I don't think Garrigou-Lagrange's work belongs with the other two. He doesn't so much engage modern thought as attempt to obliterate it with a Thomistic hammer. Thomas remains an interesting and important thinker, particularly for what he says about ethics, but his writing on the nature of "reality" is interesting only for historical reasons. The sooner Catholic thinkers stop trying to use his thoughts on "being" the better.

That is a subject for another day perhaps. Others have already dealt with it and I doubt I have anything new to add to the matter. What interests me is that anti-modernist Catholics have felt the need to resist at least some of those seven items listed above ever since the late 19th century. The word "modernism" was coined by Catholics to describe those who would accommodate the faith to some or all of those elements of modernity. Many, many Catholics still carry on the fight.

And we can see an interesting unity that exists between some supposed arch-enemies within the church. We might think, for example, that readers of the National Catholic Reporter and hard-core traditionalist Catholics who read Lifesite News would have nothing in common but both are terrified by the notion that market forces might shape the culture. As a consequence both arch-liberal and arch-traditionalist Catholics tend to want to regulate markets more and more, resist democracy, distrust science*, and want to limit individual autonomy.

I tend to think that Catholicism should accommodate itself to most things on that list. The really problematic issue are #4 and #6 but even they, if properly understood, are different kind of a problems than they initially seem.

One thing I am fairly certain of is that defining "knowledge" is not the solution.

* Liberal Catholics, like liberals in general, will tell you they support science, by which they mean they like to cite it when it supports their beliefs about matters such as climate change. Ask them about evolutionary psychology,  for example, and you'll hear a different tune.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sexual polarity

I picked up a new pair of glasses this week. For those of you who don't wear glasses, putting on glasses with an updated prescription is an amazing experience. You suddenly see things with a crisp, clear focus you didn't realize had been missing. By accident, it happened that the first thing I saw when I put mine on was the swelling top of a young woman's breasts.

She had come into the shop as I was putting my new glasses on for the first time and I had not noticed her because I was looking at the glasses as I put them on. Glasses are expensive and you wear them every day. For me anyway, putting a new pair of glasses for the first time is a very tense experience for I always fear I've made a bad choice that I will now have to live with for a few years. I put them on and my focus shifted to what I was looking at—an attractive young woman in a little black dress with a square-cut neckline that was chosen, and well-chosen, to highlight her very nice B-cup breasts. I looked for only a second but I was looking directly at her breasts. When I realized what I had done, looked up at her face a little guiltily. And she gave me a warm appreciative smile.

Things like that don't happen to me every single day but they happen regularly enough that I tend to think that those feminists who write about "the male gaze" as if it were some sort of oppression are deluded. I am quite certain that they are genuinely offended by it. I don't think they are deluded about their very real discomfort at the male gaze. That's real. What they are deluded about is their sense that they share this experience with other women.

Feminists recognize that other women actively seek the male gaze. Some initially tried to explain this away by saying that these women have been conditioned into accepting male dominated society. That position has become impossible to maintain, however, because more and more women have sought to  obtain the male gaze as they gained freedom and they have done so in more and more overt ways.

What is happening here is an increased sexual polarity—meaning women are consciously striving to be good at being a woman—and this is surprising. It is surprising in the same way that Donald Trump's election victory was surprising. All the people who like to think of themselves as smart were quite certain the opposite would happen. I will cheerfully admit that I never could have predicted this. If you had a time machine and you took photos of the way many women dress today back to my university in the early 1980s and showed them to men and women and said this was how women would dress in the future, people would laugh in your face for being so stupid and sexist as to think anyone would believe such a thing.

It's worthy of note that we have not seen any reciprocation on the part of men. Yes, there are some men who work very hard at being good at being a man but for every man like that there are a half dozen pathetic wimps. It's just not a cultural movement. I suspect that most women would gratefully accept it if more men tried harder to be good at being a man and I suspect that those men who do strive to be more manly are much happier than the pathetic wimps but it isn't happening.

It isn't about approval

You might think, and some feminists do think, that the women who strive to be better at being a woman are desperately seeking male approval. It doesn't work that way because it couldn't.

Here's the problem with seeking the male gaze—it's not a kind of power. When you have power, you get to decide how to apply it. If I have a huge amount of money, I get to spend it on what I want. A woman has no such choice. When she presents herself as a woman, as a sexual being, everyone benefits from what she is putting out. She can't direct it at only the man or woman from whom she seeks approval. (In any case, you don't get approval by dressing to attract the gaze of others, you get approval by dressing as a sidekick. Look at how the heroine's best friend is dressed in a romantic comedy: everything she does will say, "Don't look at me"; that is how pathetic, approval seeking women dress.)

Can you identify the sidekick in this photo?

If you watch women when they make the effort, you will notice that it rarely has much to do with seeking approval of men they actually know. Women will often tone it down when dealing with men whose approval means the most to them. Dressing very sexually for a man you seek a relationship doesn't send the message that you want his approval, it sends the message that you want sex. Indeed, it is one of the quirks of the modern world that women will sometimes dress up more for the woman boss. My wife occasionally does work in an office where the senior management positions are held primarily by women and she puts noticeably more effort into presenting herself as good at being woman when she does so. Almost every man I know has had similar experiences and more than a few woman have admitted to me that they do this.

And no matter how much effort a woman puts into self presentation, she cannot expect approval. The world is full of nasty people and there will always be men and other women who will attempt to cut her down in various ways. These people are in the minority but there are enough of them that every woman will encounter them. Contrary to what you might guess, the more attractive a woman is, the more of this attempted cutting down she gets. It takes much more courage to be Taylor Swift than it does to be an ordinary woman making the best of what she's got. That said, every woman faces some nasty attempts to cut her down every month of her life. The women who makes these efforts don't do so to get approval but rather in spite of the fact that others will try and cut her down. It's a rebellious, defiant act not conformity to strive to be good at being a woman.

So why so many women do it? I think the reason so many women do this is because they get a charge from being looked at.

Feminist critics of "the male gaze" complain that art portrays men looking at women and women looking at how they are being looked at. I don't think they are wrong about what is happening. That is exactly what happens in these paintings, photographs and movies. But it's also what happens in real life. Go to a public place and watch men and women looking at women and the way women react. Not all but a lot of women will respond just as they are portrayed in art—they watch themselves being watched.

I think what is going on here is analogous to what happens with extroverts. Both extroverts and introverts socialize for the simple reason that it's a necessary condition of existence. The difference is that extroverts get charged by the experience and introverts get drained by it.  So too with the male gaze (and the other-female gaze). All women have to deal with it every time they walk out the door but some women get a charge from it and others get drained.

Contrary to what you might guess, a lot of feminist women clearly get charged rather than drained by the male gaze and you can clearly see this when you interact with them. Feminists are not motivated by self interest. Most feminists are genuinely concerned about other women and those who thrive from the male and female gaze are well aware that other women suffer and they are motivated by genuine concern for those other women. And good on them.

Here's the problem though, the male and female gaze is not going away. And the efforts of women who seek the male and female gaze is intensifying as women gain more power in our culture. Some people will suffer because of this.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

More on the effects of approval seeking

 I got some well-argued pushback in the comments to my post "The insidious effects of approval seeking." I can't do the argument against my claim full justice here so please read the original comment thread for more context. For the time being, I will focus on this remark:
If we recognise that we have inadvertently caused suffering, then it is possible to offer a sincere and unreserved apology without engaging in approval-seeking.
When is it reasonable to apologize for having inadvertently caused suffering.

Apologies should be sincere. If someone keeps attacking me and I want them to stop I can reasonably take steps to make them stop. If, for example, my sister starts huge fights every time I visit her I might stop visiting. That will stop the fighting but may also cause her pain. Do I apologize for that? I might, especially if I later decide my response inflicted more suffering than was warranted. Maybe I will think that, because I love my sister, I should endure her ongoing rudeness for the sake of family unity. Then again, maybe not. I may decide that her behaviour is simply unacceptable and that I'm justified ion no longer seeing her. It's a complex decision. The important thing is that it is a decision we can make and I should feel free to make according to my best judgment, right or wrong, and not according to her feelings.

Something odd happens when we conclude that we should not make such decisions because someone might get hurt. There is a difference between A) apologizing for making a decision that caused pain because we later decide that decision was unwarranted and B) apologizing for making a decision simply because that decision caused pain and no other reason. If Sharon elects not to get married and that causes her mother severe pain because she had placed a lot of hope in her daughter getting married and having grandchildren it does not necessarily follow that she should apologize. If she later decides that her mother was right and that it was only rebelliousness that led her to take this stand she now regrets then she should apologize. She should not apologize simply because her mother is hurt. To do so would be to submit to a tyranny of feelings where little fascist bullies could stop anything they didn't like by simply failing to learn how to manage their feelings. (And something like that is happening on some university campuses now.)

It seems to me that we might apologize for inadvertently causing suffering when two conditions are met: 1. I could and reasonably should have anticipated that my actions would cause others pain and 2. my actions were not justified. There might also be cases where I am going to do something that I believe justified that I know or should know will cause others pain and where I could reasonably help them prepare for this so as to lessen their pain. But merely apologizing because others are upset seems wrong to me.

A further thought. My interlocutor also said,
That's excluding the nervous tic ersatz apologies I issue when I catch someone's gaze in the street or have to engage in any negotiation of personal space.
Sometimes it's useful to use apologetic language out of decency and respect or others. Someone might say, "I'm terribly sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to move," in order to smooth over a potentially tense situation. The person who is saying this is sort of apologizing but not really as signified by the words "I'm going to have to," meaning "you're moving whether it causes you distress or not". We also say, I'm sorry it has to be this way." That's related to other kinds of apologies the way a soother is related to a mother's breast; it calms and comforts without providing any real substance.

That said, there is something odd but important about what my interlocutor perceptively describes as "nervous tic ersatz apologies". I must admit I am guilty of these. These may sometimes smooth things over but more often it strikes me as unnecessary. By issuing such apologies we train ourselves to walk on eggshells worrying about other peoples' feelings rather than expecting those people to grow up and learn to control their feelings.

Final thought: It is impossible to live without making some decisions that will cause others pain.

First love

Warning: this is pure self-indulgence.

In the fall of 1978, I met my first real girlfriend. No, I will not define what "real" means in this context. I was nineteen years old.

This was a big song for her:

It's from a horrible movie. The  character singing the song is supposed to feel uncertain when she performs this and Jessica Harper plays her part well. Ironically, that makes for a less than inspiring performance when considered in isolation. It's more impressive when you have only the audio.

Ellen was wearing a white lab coat doing Chemistry demonstrations at an open house for high school students visiting the CEGEP when I first saw her. I'd met her once before when a friend had brought her, still a high school student herself at the time, to the end of year pub the previous year. I only vaguely remembered that. It didn't last, of course. It couldn't have. I was torn apart when it ended. My but it was all wonderful though.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Real hermeneutics of suspicion

The phrase "hermeneutics of suspicion" was coined by Paul Ricœur in an attempt to yoke together three schools of thought: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. To paraphrase Sesame Street, all of these things are not like the others. Why yoke them together then? It was a desperate attempt to save modernism. These three are taken to be the foundation of modernism.

Not always exactly these three. Before World War 2  Wagner was often included in the place now occupied by Nietzsche but Wagner was a nasty bit of work who simply cannot be redeemed no matter how beautiful his music. Sometimes Darwin is proposed as a replacement for Nietzsche but that would be a bit problematic as Darwin tends to undercut both Marx and Freud in ways that liberals and progressives fear so they're stuck with Nietzsche.

That, however, leaves a huge problem in that none of these schools of thought has much in common. You can tell a plausible but not actually verifiable story that they helped change the world. But, as I think I've said before, to what did they change it as they don't share common goals? ARe they causes or just symptoms? Ricœur's attempted answer is that they all shared a hermeneutics of suspicion, that is they all argued that the language we use conceals a far less flattering account of ourselves than what we like to believe. A deep study of this language (usually referred to as a "text" or "discourse") will reveal inconsistencies. That, however, is not enough. To understand what is really going on we need to bravely face that what really drives human beings is one of the following: 1) brutal economics, 2) the pursuit of sex and power, or 3) a slave morality that entails the submission of all that is noble and good in humanity by weak sheeple driven by resentment.

I'll tell you where there is a real hermeneutics of suspicion though—in popular culture. Just yesterday I saw a story claiming that dogs and cats have a large carbon footprint and immediately thought, "This is a lie." Millions of us no longer trust the experts. We don't believe the press, we don't believe the bureaucrats, we don't believe the professors, we don't believe environmentalists and we don't believe activists and do-gooders of any kind.