Monday, November 20, 2017

Information and affirmation and our fact-free society

Language use gives us both affirmation and information. If I call an old friend from college up and ask her for contact information of another friend, common decency requires that I spend some time with her asking how she is doing and explaining myself. She knows full well that the only reason I called her is to get in touch with another woman and yet she rightly expects to be affirmed. There are few conversations that don't include both elements.

A conversation can be mainly about one or mainly about the other. If I am calling my old friend mainly to get information from her I may well be lying when I give her affirmation and she may well be peeved about this after the conversation no matter how polite and affirming we both pretend to be. I might also call her up simply to talk. Facts will come up in that conversation too but they will serve as a pretext for the affirmation I seek just as my feigned interest in her can be only a pretext for my real interest in getting information about another woman.

The word "pretext" and its etymology are interesting here. There are necessary formalities that cannot be dispensed with. I call Mary and ask how she is feeling and how her life is going before asking for Karen's number because it is Karen I really want a relationship with. But I can also call Mary and ask her if she knows what Karen is up to as a way to re-establish contact with Mary because it is Mary I really want a relationship with.

And here we find a seemingly trivial point that has huge implications: When I am interested in information the quality of that information matters but when, as in the second case, I am calling Mary to see if she values me enough to kindle a possible relationship, the information I use as a pretext to this affirmation matters little. It can be an outright lie. I can call and say, "Do you remember that woman, I think her name was Karen, who did some outrageous thing in second year? I don't know why but I thought of her and wondered how she turned out and thought you might know." The truth is that I only picked Karen because she was someone I knew Mary would remember while the real reason for my call is that someone told me that Mary and Jim divorced a year ago and I'd like to ask her out and "chat about old times".

There is nothing particularly sinister about this. That said, no child raised on Sesame Street or Barney and Friends is going to place a lot of value on facts. Being affirming is going to trump being accurate every time. This is what happens when you take competition and struggle out of children's lives. It feels like a "nice" thing to do because it seems as if no one's feelings get hurt.

But people's feelings do get hurt in a society that values affirmation. People will notice right away who gets the most affirmation and who gets the most sincere affirmation. Any five-year-old child will figure out who the kindergarten teacher really likes most no matter how much the teacher pretends to love all her charges. You can get affirmation wrong just as you can get information wrong. I can call Mary and talk about Karen and what a wild and irresponsible woman Karen was meaning to flatter Mary and make her feel good about herself hoping to reestablish the friendship we cemented over coffee and moral discussion at university and maybe move on to something amorous. What I don't know is that the divorce from Jim has left Mary feeling very bitter. She regrets being so sensible and settling down so quickly and feels like she cheated herself out of a lot of good life experience. She politely declines my invitation and then calls Karen herself and says, "There is a bar here that has a Burlesque night and I thought of you because you're the only woman I know who'd have the courage to go to such a thing." And the two of them go out and have a great time drinking Jack Daniels and establish a great friendship based on letting loose a little that becomes central to both their lives.

A society that values affirmation would be one that cares little about information. At the same time, it would not be a society where people lived in peace and harmony. To the contrary, it would be a society that competed for affirmation and one that punished people for not affirming us even though they don't know us. It would be a society where gay men sought out bakers who didn't want to decorate cakes for gay weddings even though they had no desire to buy a cake from this particular baker in the first place. It would be a society where people are forced to use made-up pronouns. It would be a society where people harshly condemned all men as rapists while shamelessly exempting a real rapist because he was a candidate for the political party they support. It would, in short, be the society we live in.

A society that values information more than affirmation can easily tolerate different truth claims. A society that values affirmation more than information cannot.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Be Greek!

"The words, you are good with the words man."

Roy says that to Don in "The Hobo Code" the 8th episode of the first season of Mad Men. It is the best episode of the entire series and one of the most important. Here the most important themes are established.

Don's answer is, "Well put." So he wins the battle. Roy isn't good with words.

Who wins the war is an open question.

It's not entirely clear that what Don said in the first place to inspire Roy's criticism in the first place was any good. He compares his experience with marijuana, apparently his first, to Dorothy going over the rainbow and everything being in colour. It's powerful language in service of not terribly profound thought.

I got wondering about Isocrates yesterday. I'm doing research on Erasmus and have taken to comparing him with Ignatius of Loyola. It's an edifying comparison that has worked mainly to the advantage of Ignatius. Anyway, I was reading specifically about how humanism influenced Ignatian spirituality and Isocrates came up. Despite an extensive education in philosophy, I don't know much about Isocrates. He was a target of Plato and, as often happened with targets of Plato, the damage was long lasting. Pascal's pointed criticism had a similar impact on the Jesuits; they too won the battle but have not won the war even today.

And the battle carries on with Don versus Roy, Don in the place of Isocrates and Roy in the place of Plato. Except that Roy is a clown and Plato was a genius. Roy wasn't just bad with words, he didn't have anything important to sat either. How would Don have fared if he had come up with someone who is as "good with the words" as he was? We'll never know. Plato, however, was better with words than anyone he came up against.

That said, was he right? Did he have something to say? I know, that's an impertinent question.

He was obviously right about a lot of individual issues and wrong about a lot of individual issues. The question is whether he was right as a hedgehog and not as a fox: was the one big thing Plato cared about right? I think the answer to that is no.

And that's enough of that for a Friday morning.

I started my research with Wikipedia. Yeah, I admit it, I always start with Wikipedia. And I found this fascinating quote:
Our city has so far surpassed other men in thought and speech that students of Athens have become the teachers of others, and the city has made the name “Greek” seem to be not that of a people but of a way of thinking; and people are called Greeks because they share in our education (paideusis) rather than in our birth.
Isocrates point, again relying on Wikipedia, was not that everyone should be Greek. He meant, rather, to warn the Greeks that their culture was available to others and that they had to educate themselves to protect their freedoms. His intention, however, is beside the point. There is an idea of freedom here that is worth acquiring and the way to do that is humanism,

Also from that Wikipedia page:
He promoted the Greek ideals of freedom, self-control, and virtue; in this he influenced several Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero and Quintilian, and influenced the core concepts of liberal arts education.
Another person who shared these ideals was Saint Paul.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK and now Al Franken and the problem with the "toxic masculinity" charge

Here is a thought experiment for heterosexual men. Imagine you have an opportunity to have sex with a female celebrity you feel a strong erotic attraction to.  You can keep who it is to yourself. Imagine that the good witch of the north suddenly appears and tells you that all you have to do is click your heels together and think of ... whatever it is you desire.

Is the first thought comes to your mind that this celebrity would watch you masturbate? Me neither. There is something juvenile about these men, they are like petulant little boys acting out because they can't get women to take them seriously as sexual beings.

And now, Al Franken, whose excuse is that he thought it was funny. Franken gives the game away. This is all about acting out instead of growing up.

What it isn't is "toxic masculinity".

Go back to that thought experiment I started with. It's narcissistic. Why do I say that? Because the woman's desires and hopes never enter into it.

What we have here is not an excess of masculinity but a masculinity deficit.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The cost of maintaining our illusions

An institution I do volunteer work for made provision for the needs of people who were "gluten-intolerant" some five years ago now. Today, we get virtually nobody. We might see one person a week. That's .06 percent of our clientele. We'd made provision for 3 percent on the assumption that need would eventually grow beyond that. Instead, the opposite happened.

Something similar happened with nut allergies. We never see anyone with a nut allergy anymore. Of course, nut allergies became a big concern many years ago. Give it another decade and I would not be surprised if we have not a single person with gluten intolerance.

There are of course, some people who really can't eat gluten and there are others who really can't eat nuts but they make up a very tiny percentage of the population. Most of the people who decided just 3 to 5 years ago that they were gluten intolerant were just imagining things.

It fascinate me to watch people shift. One woman just up and admitted that she realized she'd been fooling herself. Others, however, are obviously counting on the rest of us not remembering how emphatically they'd insisted that their gluten intolerance was real.

There may be some people who genuinely have non-Celiac gluten intolerance but it's always been clear that many of the self-diagnosed cases were nonsense. I suspect that there was more than placebo affect, which is the usual cause of false self-diagnosis, at work here. I suspect many people genuinely improved their health by cutting out gluten for the simple reason that this forced them to cut their carbohydrate consumption way back. But that's not all. I think the other thing at work was the need to feel special.

There is a power trip that goes with making other people accommodate your "needs". It feels good to see the person who has invited you to a dinner party prepare a special menu. It even feels good to spend extra money to by special, gluten-free products or to refuse meals and treats. There is a price for all this too. In the case of gluten-free products it's a literal price. But there are other kinds of costs as well. People don't want to exclude you but the extra trouble involved in feeding you leads them to sometimes just leave you off the list. Even something as simple as passing up those chocolate chip cookies someone brought into the office has a certain cost.

On the other side of the ledger, the feeling of being special also declines. When gluten intolerance was new and exciting, there was a certain kick that came with being able to declare that you had it. Eventually it gets to be old news though and there is a point where people start meaning it when they say they feel sorry for you. Once upon a time they were keen to hang onto your every word as you explained what it was like. Now they just act as if you have some sort of defect.

Meanwhile, you're still paying for those expensive gluten-free products. Worse, there are fewer options than there were when gluten intolerance was new and exciting. You're also going to fewer dinner parties. Finally, there is a lot of great food you just don't get to eat anymore.

The deeper problem is that you most people genuinely believe they have a problem. These are illusions not fantasies. But once the cash value of maintaining an illusion exceeds the gains it brings, things start to shift around. Now the psychological need is on the other side pushing against this illusion. One day you're going to just go ahead and eat something you've been telling yourself and others is bad for you. And nothing horrible is going to happen when you do. And then you'll gradually slide away from your gluten-free diet. If you're lucky, none of your friends will say anything about it.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Who is really clinging to the past?

Someone I was reading this morning linked to an old Atlantic article that complained, "Why Is a Music Genre Called 'Americana' So Overwhelmingly White and Male?"

The key thing to remember when confronted with this sort of argument is that the terms "white" and "male" here don't refer to race or sex. These terms stand for everything urban Democratic Party supporters detest, supporters who themselves are, ironically, very white and male.

This irony is lost/not-lost on people like Giovanni Russonello when they write pieces like this. He has to know what is going on but denial is a powerful emotion. So out come the clichés.
Before it became a term for a musical genre, "Americana" was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store -- things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. 
What's so "comforting" about this stuff?  There is an argument hiding way in the background here and we can all fill it in. It goes something like the following: "This music, like nostalgia-inducing items purchased at an antique store, is like a security blanket that people cling to rather than acknowledge that America has changed."

I'll tell you the problem with that argument.  Giovanni Russonello doesn't believe it. For starters, does anyone really worry about people who nostalgically cling to a past that has been left behind? The threat here, the thing that Russonello can't be honest with himself above, is that this past is very much present. Americana is popular and that popularity indicates that the world is not changing in the ways he wants to believe it should be changing.

This is even more clear if we look at his conclusion:
... if an art form is going to name itself after this country, it should probably stop weatherproofing itself against America's present-day developments
If you click on the link he provides you get a story that begins, "There is a strange dichotomy occurring in 21st-century America: The country is becoming more diverse and less equal."  It backs this claim up,
Federal Reserve data and Bureau of Labor statistics show that although the nation is becoming less white, wealth is being disproportionately allocated into white hands. Wealth and income gaps continue to widen along racial lines, with whites earning $2 for every $1 earned by African Americans and Hispanics. That gap has remained consistent for 30 years -- despite affirmative action policies of the 1970s and early '80s. According to research by the Urban Institute, white households held four times the wealth of black households before the Great Recession, and that factor managed to increase to six times by 2010.
Meanwhile, the face of poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination in employment and criminal justice remains overwhelmingly black and brown. The recent census data and court challenges to programs aimed at creating an egalitarian, racially integrated society force the question of whether America is prepared to reconcile the harsh realities of its tortured past with the potential progress of its multiracial future.
 I don't doubt that the actual facts in those two paragraphs are correct. What I would like you to be skeptical about is the way the language spins the facts to support an ideology. Notice, for example, "wealth is being disproportionately allocated into white hand" (emphasis added). "Allocated" says this is an intentional act. That implies that somebody, or a group of somebodies, is handing out the money and they are doing so in a  racist manner. That goes way beyond saying that the system is biased in a way that disfavors some racial groups. And then notice the "harsh realities of its tortured past". Okay, no one can dispute that there were harsh realities but the language here implies that that tortured past, and only that tortured past, explains growing inequality today.

There is a whole boatload of questions being suppressed here. The "programs aimed at creating an egalitarian, racially integrated society", that are supposedly in danger, for example. These statistics tell us that these programs have achieved the exact opposite of what they were supposed to do. Why then is it so important to save them?

It's reasonable to ask who is really clinging to the past here. I'd argue that we are seeing the children of baby boomers everywhere in the world are desperately clinging to the illusions their parents fed them. Russonello writes,
Five years later, Dylan had left folk behind. He was already being called "the voice of his generation," but to merit that title he couldn't just keep writing about revolt -- he had to make sizzling, mercurial music that actually sounded like mutiny.
The events he is describing here happened more than 50 years ago. Take a listen to a revolution in music that was as far in the past in 1967 as Dylan going electric is now.

Try to imagine someone coming along in 1967 and not only saying this is what real revolution sounds like but simultaneously claiming that people who liked rock music with electric guitars were clinging to the past. The level of self deception at work here is mind boggling.

Back to Russonello one more time:
By implying that bands like Dawes encompass some omni-American ideal, the Americana genre doesn't just reify the notion that a white male perspective defines the American experience. It runs the risk of confusing oldness with authenticity.
That was plausible in 1967.  Since then, we've seen a lot of revolutionary ideas come and nothing much has changed. Today, it is just as plausible to ask if maybe there are some things about the human condition that just don't change come what may. That we tend to struggle with pretty much the same challenges and, therefore, the wisdom of the past is still worth listening to. They didn't know how to change the human condition but they knew how to live with it.

Dawes uses some pretty newfangled jargon here but what he is talking about is as old as humanity.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On being punched in the face

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." Mike Tyson
You may cringe at the source but there is deep wisdom in that quote. Plans seem deeply reliable to the people making them but they are easily disrupted. You may think that punching people in the face is a brutish, unthinking persons way of solving problems and that civilized, rational people make plans. And you'd be absolutely right to think that. And that's your problem right there. For not only is life full of brutal, unthinking persons, far more important, nature is brutal and unthinking. Any nasty jerk who wants to can derail your plans and it could happen any time but even pull of the extremely unlikely feat of avoiding brutal jerks all your life, life itself will punch you in the face.

There are probably a number of corollary principles that follow from that but the one that occurs to me is this: A person who has never been punched in the face will tend to put too much faith in plans.  That probably explains a lot of millennial angst—a generation that was raised in a very structured, protected fashion is getting punched in the face for the first time and they really don't like it. The correct lesson to take when life punches you in the face is to learn to roll with the punches. Millennials aren't doing that. For now, they are doubling down on plans. They still have time to learn.

In case you're asking, I have been punched in the face, both literally and figuratively.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Is this escapism or stoicism?

The following is a rambling and very personal post that just trails off instead of reaching a conclusion.
This carnivalesque portrait of provincial Italy during the fascist period, the most personal film by Federico Fellini, satirizes the director’s youth and turns daily life into a circus of social rituals, adolescent desires, male fantasies, and political subterfuge, all set to Nino Rota’s classic, nostalgia-tinged score. The Academy Award–winning Amarcord remains one of cinema’s enduring treasures.
I've been listening to a couple of podcasts that could nicely be summed up as  "a circus of social rituals, adolescent desires, male fantasies, and political subterfuge". The podcasts in question are called Creek of the Week and Beyond Yacht Rock. Both are light and amusing and really funny provided you have a very high tolerance for sophomoric and vulgar male humour. I, as my wife would insist, pretty much have to have a very high tolerance for sophomoric and vulgar male humour. If I didn't I'd have to hate myself.

That will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me only through this blog as I don't engage in much of it here. There is some but not a lot. You could read that two ways. Either 1) I am a deeply conflicted person who puts on a false front for public consumption or 2) I'm a person who strongly believes that the public and private spheres should be kept separate. I tend to favour the second but I can understand why others might go with the first. I believe they are wrong but, the problem is, they have access to exactly the same set of facts as I do—that facts are not in dispute, only the interpretation of those facts.

And I'll just leave that there.

Back to the podcasts, while I laugh very hard at both, I'm feeling a bit uneasy about it. There is something ineffectual and wimpy about this. Both podcasts are also nostalgic, something that isn't necessarily a problem but can be.

Closely related to that, both podcasts are deeply political and partisan. The partisan side of it—mostly blind, irrational rage at Donald Trump—I don't share. That actually makes it more troubling as I can recognize something of myself in their rage even though I don't share their particular set of paranoid concerns. I have my own set of paranoid concerns. The similarity I recognize is a way of not-really-dealing with reality.

And I'll just leave that there too.