Sunday, July 31, 2011

On Virtue and Intention

Montaigne's essay "Of Cruelty" speaks more to virtue than evil. He's sorting out what it means to be virtuous.  In a nutshell he says, "What I have in me of good, I have by chance."  Being virtuous has to be more than just the good we do that we would have done even if it wasn't considered good.  Virtuous acts are those that take a bit of struggle.

I like to think of myself as moral by choice - by the sheer strength of my willpower to resist temptation. But lately I've decided it's just my dumb luck that I tend to do things that seem virtuous at this time and place.

I have allergies to fragrances. I go on and on about the harm caused by phthalates, but truth be told, I couldn't wear perfume or make-up if I wanted to. I can't even walk down the detergent aisle at the grocery store. I'm a canary in a coal-mine. My irritations make me seem a good feminist and a good environmentalist.

And I'm oblivious to details. My mom had significant facial hair, but I didn't notice that was unusual until I was 12 when a friend's dad made fun of it. A few years back I met up with an old boyfriend on the street. He thanked me for having dated him in high school. I was hot for him and baffled by the gratitude.

"I used to be really overweight."

"Oh, I don't think so."

"No really. I've lost 150 pounds since then."

I didn't notice a difference. I didn't say that because it might be taken as an insult. I'm just kinda spacey about that kind of stuff. But instead of getting called on being a basket-case, I seem non-judgmental and open-minded and accepting and all those other nice things.

The smell of cars makes me sick, and I also get horrible motion-sickness. So, of course, I'm a strong cycling advocate. I'm good for the planet not because of my moral fiber, but because cars make me barf.

And I'm left to wonder, if I wasn't such an easily-sickened space-cadet, would I be as virtuous? And since my virtue seems personality-dependent, or just my inclination, can I take any credit for it?

According to Montaigne:  nope.

Virtue is "other and nobler than the inclinations toward goodness that are born in us." A virtuous act requires some measure of vice to work against and overcome.  Virtue requires a struggle for goodness.  We're virtuous, I take it, when we act against our desires, not with them.  Good acts are still good I suppose, but not nearly as commendable as virtuous acts.  I can buy that.  It's easy for me to live without a car, so it's not as praiseworthy as if I gave up a car I loved for the sake of the environment.  And if I seek praise for such an easy act, then I'm being kind of slimy.

He goes on, 
"For this reason it is that, when we judge of a particular action, we are to consider the circumstances, and the whole man by whom it is performed, before we give it a name. 
To instance in myself: I have sometimes known my friends call that prudence in me, which was merely fortune; and repute that courage and patience, which was judgment and opinion; and attribute to me one title for another, sometimes to my advantage and sometimes otherwise."
I'm pretty honest which is sometimes a virtue, but I'm often unaware of the affect my words and actions will have on others. Years ago when I brought my newborn baby to work for a visit, I immediately handed it off to a colleague who loves babies.  Later another colleague told me that that was so incredibly nice of me.  The guy holding my baby has schizophrenia.  But I didn't see him as someone with a disorder then make a moral decisions to do the right thing.  I just saw him as a person who loves babies, and I didn't hesitate to hand mine over.  It was an act of innocence, not virtue.

But honesty works against me too.  Again at work, I once casually mentioned that I wouldn't be caught dead in a blazer, and apparently offended a whole room of blazer-wearers.  They thought I was so cruel to say such a thing. But that wasn't my intention, only the effect.  So, if I take no praise in the first case, then I should take no blame in the latter either, right?  I apologized anyway.

In both instances I was being honest and oblivious, but neither kind nor cruel.  If we consider the whole person before we cast judgment, that suggests that intention matters more than effect.  But we still have to take responsibility for the effect we have on others.  It seems to come down to getting the blame but not the praise.  Montaigne doesn't actually suggest we get no praise for our goodness, just not as much as for our virtuousness.

I have had perhaps a few moments of virtuousness.  When I was first pregnant with no desire to marry, several people advised me to abort.  They didn't typically use those words though (although a few did).  The words were closer to, "You can't be pregnant and single and teach in a high school, and you can't marry the dad, so...."  Then they'd trail off for me to come to my own conclusions.  I'm pro-choice, but not for my own convenience.   It was clear to me the right thing to do was defy public opinion and custom and have the baby.  I stood up to the masses and did the right thing.  BUT it's also what I wanted to do, so I think it was actually a good act, but not a virtuous act even though there was significant internal struggle involved.

I'm down to only one really clear example of virtue.  This past March I wanted to sell a rental property.  I asked around if anyone wanted it, and I offered $320,000 as the price - a very reasonable estimate given the area and a realtor assessment done the previous fall.  A neighbour jumped at it the day before I was about to give up and have realtors look at it.  He couldn't have an offer ready for a few days.  I wanted to go ahead with the realtors in case he couldn't get the money together, but I promised him that my word was good, that I'd take $320,000 regardless what the realtors said.  They said $450,000.


I sucked it up and accepted the neighbour's offer.   It was virtuous in that I had to struggle with it, and the right answer was not the easy answer, not what I desired by a long shot.   BUT, I will be left to wonder, would I have been so virtuous if it wasn't a neighbour that I had to see regularly.  AND since it's the case that if I had raised my price by 100,000, I would have felt sick every time I walked past his house, isn't it still an inclination to act that way?  That I would be internally tormented if I hadn't done it seems to suggest it was an act more natural than intentional.  I think the struggle and the ill feeling I also have when I think of the lost cash means it was actually indeed a virtuous act.

Can I feel virtuous now?!

Finally Montaigne gets to the cruelty bit of his title.  He, like most of us, has "naturally a horror for most vices."  It makes us uncomfortable to watch people in pain.  Most of us have empathy, and he doesn't understand people who don't.  He says,
I could hardly persuade myself, before I saw it with my eyes, that there could be found souls so cruel and fell, who, for the sole pleasure of murder, would commit it; would hack and lop off the limbs of others; sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of death, without hatred, without profit, and for no other end but only to enjoy the pleasant spectacle of the gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish. For this is the utmost point to which cruelty can arrive:  "That a man should kill a man, not being angry, not in fear, only for the sake of the spectacle." (Seneca)
That he despises cruelty by inclination makes it an act of goodness or innocence, not virtue.  But, does it follow then that people without such an inclination are merely bad, and not evil?  The effect is the most evil acts ever committed, but the intention may be merely to clean up the neighbourhood.

And I also wonder, if Montaigne was a guard in Zimbardo's experiment, where random students were assigned to be guards or prisoners for six days and nights in a wing of the university, would he have tormented the prisoners until they were rocking in a corner like the other guards did?  This would be a perfect event necessary for the expression of virtue:  going against the crowd and inclination in order to do the right thing.  But would he have done it?

Would I?

On Evil

Elizabeth Renzetti interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen on his new book The Science of Evil in the Globe and Mail today.  If you picture Borat when you hear that name, you're not alone.  They're cousins.  Anyway, from the article, having not read the book, it's striking how common most of the theories he posits are.

He's got his bit about the amygdala lighting up when we judge emotions from seeing only a person's eyes.  But the rest is straight out of a grade 12 course I teach:  Empathy is on a spectrum within each of us.  It's partly from our genes and parenting and partly from environmental factors.  Some people are naturally closer to zero empathy - typically people with anti-social personality disorder (called psychotic in the article).  People with aspergers often have poor ability to judge emotions from a person's face, but their love of rules keeps them in line.  People in groups, like the Nazis, collectively lose empathy by believing, or being trained to believe, that another group of people is not like them.  I call this "othering"; Baron-Cohen refers to in-group, out-group models.  Even chimpanzees, like Bonobos, display empathy.  I was hoping for an exciting new book on scientific theories of evil, but, judging from this article, I don't think this is it.

For the past forty years or so, the studies to talk about when it comes to understanding loss of empathy in a group have been the ones conducted by Milgram and Zimbardo which suggest that almost any one of us could be made to harm others given the right environmental circumstances.  They aren't mentioned in the paper, but I'd be surprised they aren't in the book.  It makes me think I should turn my course into a book.  But I'd feel remiss because I wouldn't actually be saying anything new.  It's just a collection of studies that have been around for years.  It's exciting to 17-year-olds who have never heard of them though.  And I guess there's a lot of people who haven't taken social psych courses and might love the book.  But I keep looking for new material and keep finding the same stuff being repeated.

Is this the final answer then?  

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Hillside


I'm totally spent after a few days of dancing in the hot sun and then biking home.  I'm struck by a few things I want to share while it's all fresh.  Unfortunately I took pics with a buddy's camera, so all my photos here are pilfered from other places.

The very best part:  When they put two bands together and have them jam when often they've never ever heard each other play!  The audience gets to see the creative process in the works.  Some of the musicians were obviously a bit uncomfortable at the beginning of the set trying to mesh with a totally different sound, and a few commented that they didn't understand that they'd be playing with someone else.  Even better, I think.  They always find that common ground by the end of the set.  And it's an amazing process to watch.
Two sets in particular stand out:  GANGA GiRi and Kim Churchill playing together.  They're both from Australia, but worlds apart.  GANGA GiRi was one of my favourites; they had a hip hop didgeridoo thing going on. Another reason I love when they mix bands is that I went to this one to see Kim Churchill after everyone raved about him.  I never expected I'd like didgeridoo music!  I would never have seen GANGA GiRi if they hadn't played together - nor opened my mind to yet another sound.

The most amazing set, hands down, was Graveyard Train and Les Tireux d'Roches.  Sometimes when they merge bands, only a few members of each play.  These bands both have six members, and they all came!  I went to see Graveyard Train, also from Australia, after seeing them the day before.  The band has an assortment of instruments, including chains and a hammer, and a vocalist with a voice to rival Tom Waits.  They're at the Horseshoe tonight (but I'm toast).  On their site they said, "Just played one of the most bananas gigs we've ever done - we got the Canadians crowd surfing!!!"  It's true.  The really crazy thing is this merged set was at one of the smaller stages with a mosh pit about 8' deep before you hit picnic tables - a little awkward for crowd surfing, but where there's a will...

Les Tireux d'Roches is a Quebec folklore band, and every song felt like it came from a different country.  Together they were phenomenal.  Their set-up and soundcheck took a long time, and they weren't allowed to go late, and did the crowd ever feel ripped-off!!  Just one more song.  Really, who's it going to hurt?  Because the thing is, that will never happen again. I am so thriilled to have been there for it!

Would they have minded if I had videotaped it???  I would have except once Ani Difranco flipped out at someone videotaping her show a few years back.  Maybe next time I'll ask just in case it's possible.

The bad part about Hillside is all the choices means inevitably missing something good.  During that Les Tireux de la Graveyard thing, I opted to dance two feet from the stage.   My friends, however, watched from a distance but with Kim Churchill and GANGA GiRi!  There's also many bands I missed out on because they were at the same time as something else.  I needed Hermiones' time turner necklace for this weekend for sure.

Other highlights:  Fred Penner.  That was something else.  I was hanging out there looking for a quiet space to re-charge, next thing I know, the place was packed, and not with kids, either!  And the line-up for autographs and pictures afterwards was crazy!  He got all the grown-ups singing along, and he invited other performers to play too.  It was actually a highlight of the weekend!

Also, I really loved Dan Mangan (particularly when he got everyone involved and how happy he was about it), Dala, The Stanfields, Emmanuel Jal, Dave Clark, and, of course, Mother Mother.
AND I'm always blown away by how truly environmentally on-the-ball the place is. Sorted trash, on-site compost (not green binned), reusable everything, free unbottled water...  Unbelievable.

But, you know what I hated?  I really, with a passion verging on murderous, hate cigars.  I mean, I really hate cigarettes, and cigars are multitudes worse.  They seem to be a new trend for the late teen set, and I don't get it.  I especially don't get why they need to smoke a cigar while standing in front of the stage for a 45 minute set.  People everywhere can make it for 45 minutes without a cigarette.  Why anyone has to smoke anything in the mosh pit absolutely baffles me.  It's only the Main Stage at Hillside that has this problem.  I suggested on their survey that 20' from the stage should be a no smoking zone.  If you want to smoke, you can't stand right in front of the stage.  It's just bad concert etiquette, kids.  Do we really have to tell you that?  AND, I must say, a few people are going to ruin it for the rest if they don't learn the art of discretion.

Next year I'm bringing a squirt gun for offenders.  Watch out!

Friday, July 22, 2011

On Eckhart Tolle and Mindfulness

I've never liked Eckhart Tolle. My primary arguments have been that he stole from other places without giving credit, and that the people he stole from were better writers and thinkers in the first place.

On the first concern:  Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, but I'm all about primary sources.  Yet don't we all steal from one another, re-work it a bit, then call it our own?  I'm not sure it's really that big a deal that the ideas he espouses aren't at all new.  Maybe it bothers me just because I've done the work of reading the original sources, and I feel like people are cheating by relying on Tolle.  But maybe that's a bad argument.

On the second concern:  This one has more merit.  Years ago I found a site comparing Tolle quotations to a philosophers - but I can't remember the philosopher (Aristotle? Plato? Lao Tzu?), and I can't find that site.  But suffice it to say that in a quote-to-quote comparison, Tolle falls short by a mile.  His axioms are pithy and often of little substantial meaning.  And he falls into a few serious fallacy traps.  Essentially, he presents information not in a way that we can contemplate and deliberate, but in a way that makes it impossible to disagree.  One blogger called this the "three cards 'mindfuck' trick." I can't find the originally author (anon), but I found the following here:
"(1) The Higher Level Card (i.e. Sorry, it's just over your head). Sorry, but you're just not smart enough to realize I am smarter than you, because you're on a lower (less divine) level.
(2) The Projection Card (i.e., I know you are, but what am I). By criticizing me, you are really just criticizing yourself, because any problem you see in me is just a projection of a problem in yourself.
(3) The Skillful Means Card (i.e., it's all your own fault, dickhead). The most potent card of all! It's not abuse; it's not pathetic or ridiculous or wrong; it's a crazy-wise teaching. You know, like Zen stuff. So when I call you a dickhead, it's not because I'm a dickhead, it's because you have a dickhead-complex that you need to evolve past, and I'm here to help you see that. 
They are designed to end all discussion, and they are used only when folks know the actual substance of their beliefs has run, or is running, dry....

In other words, these 'cards' are used to create a situation where actual problem solving, critical thinking and good philsophizing... cannot be done."
From comments on many Tolle-philic sites, it appears he suggests we all work towards enlightenment, but doesn't say how.  If you can't do it, you're doing it wrong, but he won't say what's wrong.  Maybe it's just not in you right now to do it.

The thing is, in other writings written hundreds of years earlier, there are specific techniques you can use to have a happier, more peaceful life, the type of like Tolle suggests you could have by reading his books.  Check out what Montaigne has to say:

* Try to stay in the present (cultivate mindfulness) by maintaining an amazement at each instant of experience both outside and inside yourself. He did this by writing, in detail, about everything around him and contemplating his thoughts.  Writing forced him to pay attention, but anything that keeps you involved in what's happening right now will work.  Some people need to be hit with a stick from time to time.  Whatever works.  He says,
"When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me."
* Don't let the world bring you down.  If you're upset, keep in mind how much worse it could be.  If your kids are irritating, imagine you just got a call that they all died in a tragic accident in order to shift your perspective so that you're suddenly grateful for their annoying little lives.  If you're tired of your stuff, imagine having nothing, and how happy you'd be to have it all after contemplating losing it all in a fire.  If the kids complain about dinner, remind them of how bad it would be if they lived in an impoverished country.  They should be overjoyed to be eating spaghetti yet again.  These are old tricks my parents taught me, but Montaigne suggests them too.  You can talk this further to imagine that this is the last hour of your life.  What really matters, and what can you brush off now?

* Keep in mind how insignificant you and your problems are compared to the grand scheme of things.  Seneca said,
"Place before your mind's eye the vast spread of time's abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity."
Another advocate of this view in the Monty Python organ donor skit (starting at 3:45 in particular):

* A lot of Montaigne (and Tolle) is reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching, particularly when he suggests we would be better off contemplating ideas than memorizing facts.  This one is a real relief in an age where there just seems too much to know.  Montaigne says, "Forget much of what you learn." And Lao Tzu says, "The more you know, the less you understand."  Facts aren't as firm as we give them credit for being.  Suspend judgment on all these facts thrown at us.  Who knows what's real.

* To keep me in mind of morality, my mom always said, "Don't do anything you wouldn't want published on the front of the newspaper."  Seneca and Epicurus and Montaigne all suggest finding someone admirable and acting always as if that person is watching us.

* Distract yourself from what bothers you, particularly what you're unable to control.  If that jerk at work makes you nuts, don't carry the annoyance home, but leave work with a mind to do something entertaining that will help you forget your troubles.  This is a welcome break from the idea that if someone bothers us, we should delve deep into why it's such a problem for us, often going back into family of origin crap to determine if we're projecting our stuff on him, until the jerkiness is no longer so bothersome to us.  Whew!  I like that distraction idea much better.

Montaigne, and several older philosophers, say that generally, the secret to happiness is not to let your emotions get the better of you.  These are ways to help you do that:  Pay attention to right now, compare yourself to those worse off to feel better, keep the big picture in mind, don't obsess over details, act as if your idol was watching you, and distract yourself if you start losing it.  The trick is, these are things to think about not just one or twice, but all the time.  But, it is inevitable we will be sucked back into the drama of human desire and suffering surrounding us.  That's okay.  Just get back into it next time you remember and you'll feel much better.

You can't do the pure-being-ball-thing all day (from I (Heart) Huckabees):


Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Friendship

"Because it was he.  Because it was I." - Montaigne on how he chose his one true friend.

It's curious to me how we qualify what counts as a friend. Since the invention of Facebook, this has been discussed at length, mostly focusing on the inauthenticity of the one-click relationship. This actually has a long history of being a topic of debate.

Seneca (pictured here) advised that "a wise man should be so good at making new friends that he can replace an old one without skipping a beat" (Bakewell, 107).  But Montaigne spent half his life looking for a friend that could match the connection he had with La Boetie, who died of the plague with Montaigne at his bedside when he was only 30.

In "Of Friendship," Montaigne compares Seneca's notion of easy friendship with what he once had and finds it lacking,
"For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined."
Montaigne had one friend his whole life, and only for a short time, yet he talks of lengthy conversations with many people throughout his essays. None of those people count.

I can relate to that, yet I question the wisdom of it. Years ago, I had a group of three friends that I did everything with for about a decade. We laughed at the same things and could talk and debate into the wee hours regularly. From time to time a few of us lived together. We could support one another when needed, and never ran into Montaigne’s concern with having more than one true friend: that one friend might need something that harms another.

Unlike La Boetie, they didn’t die; we all just changed and grew apart. We let romantic relationships get in the way of our friendship I suppose. And if we try to reconnect, it’s not the same. The people we were don’t exist anymore.

Any friendship since pales by comparison. But it seems foolish to compare at all. If we say someone’s not a friend unless our souls are entwined, then many of us will live our lives friendless. This is where, I think, philosophy does itself a disservice. It may be more accurate to think that friendship is a rare occurrence, but is it useful?

There’s a different perspective discussed by James Conlon a few years back (in an essay that, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be on-line): perhaps all friendships, instead of lying on a hierarchy from completely entwined to completely utility-driven, lie in a mosaic of different but equal. Perhaps comparing relationships is more like comparing a poem with an essay than it is comparing $50 with $100.

The demarcation of friendship is useful only to honour what once was, to clarify to self and others that it was special. Beyond that, comparing a potential friend to another person or to a set standard is offensive and just closes us off to new experiences. Not to harp on Happy Days, but remember when Fonzie had a list of all the qualities a girlfriend should have, and he ditched the perfect girl because she was a stripper? The hope of an ideal made his life worse, not better.  (The sound's a bit rough, and deconstructing the sexism needs a post of its own, but I still laughed!)

It’s not to say we should have no standards for burgeoning friendships, but that it’s better for us if our standards are less rigid and more encompassing. We can connect briefly over a shared interest without the necessity of merging souls. Every connection has some value.

I do agree, however, that if a friendship is utility-driven, then it’s something else altogether. We all sense that, but don’t always name it when it happens. Friends see us as an end, not a means. People who use us as a means to an end are opportunists or ladder-climbers or slimebags or just plain lazy.

Although I disagree with Montaigne on the wisdom of elevating one friend above all others, I also disagree with Seneca. There has to be some significant connection to call someone a friend. Just anyone won’t do.

Perhaps it's the case that these relationships made expediently aren't superficial, for utility or for the status of having lots of friends, but that people like Seneca are capable of developing substantial connections with myriad people. That seems beneficial to all if it's possible.

But is it possible? What's the number of friends we can have before they're not really worthy of the title?

Aristotle tackled this one too. He suggests there is a range of the number of friends we can have with a maximum set at the number of people we can comfortably live with. He points out similar problems of too many friends: we're pulled in too many directions, and that it can be tricky if one is sad and the other happy. How do you share both emotions at once? Furthermore, "those who have many friends... are thought to be no one's friend." So, a few is a good guess.

Aristotle's last line is a good point. The more friends someone has, the more we believe each relationship to be watered down as if our capacity for loving and caring for others is finite. Practically, if someone has 1,000 friends, they could only meet for a meal once a year if they're treating all friends equally. But, that assumes they have to meet one-on-one. Facebook is actually the ultimate friendship-equalizer. We can talk to all friends at once now and share the same information and pictures and links we like to everyone simultaneously. So, maybe it's the case that back in the day it was only possible to have one or a few real friends, but now we can have a limitless number.

A recent study suggested that 150 is the perfect number of friends. However, the article discusses the benefits of friends including a rise in income with an increase in friends in university. Now we're back to utility, not the kind of friendship Montaigne's on about. And I think what we have on Facebook doesn't fit the bill either. So I'm back to: Is it impossible to have a profound connection with more than a handful of people?

I think it’s possible for some people, those who can always fine a way to connect to almost anyone they meet. But I’m not one of them.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Kindness

Anne Jacobson at Feminist Philosophers has an intriguing post up about Hume on kindness to others.

She doesn't quote Hume, but here's some relevant words from A Treatise of Human Nature:
We partake of [victims of injustice’s] uneasiness by sympathy; and as every thing, which gives uneasiness in human actions, upon the general survey, is called Vice, and whatever produces satisfaction, in the same manner, is denominated Virtue.... [S]ympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation, which attends that virtue" (II.ii)
It hurts us to see others in pain, so we decide that intentionally bringing harm to others is a bad thing. This ability to feel bad for others is how we determine right and wrong for society. One could conclude, then, that empathy is necessary for moral determination. However, I think you could come to the same place using pure reason most of the time, a clear but unlikely exception being the case of killing one innocent person to save many. Reasonably, this one murder could be argued to be a very good thing, but with empathy in the mix, we'd stop ourselves from pulling the trigger. In fact then, empathy, feeling the pain of others, can sometimes prevent a correct moral action. But most of the time it's bang on, so I'll continue as if empathy is a good thing.

Okay, just a brief further digression. I watched Temple Grandin last night - a tear-jerker about a woman who made a success of herself despite (actually because of) her autism. She created safe and efficient ways to slaughter cows, and I wondered as I watched it if her condition allowed her to divorce her sentiment from her reason enough to get the benefits of the reason without being clouded by sentiment. Hume would say that we never make decisions without being guided by sentiment - that it's just not possible even when we really really think we're being purely reasonable, but I think it's possible for some people. Often unfortunately so.

Anyway, Jacobson questions how "benevolence zones" appear. Why is it that in some circumstances people will flock to help others, when in many others this isn't the case. She sites a cancer centre as her example of a place where extraordinary acts of compassion happen. Then the question becomes: Why can't we make that happen everywhere?

I commented there,
I think the zone of benevolence might not create the kindness, but merely allow it. Many people would be kinder if it wasn’t a sign of weakness or weirdness. If there’s an area where kindness is permissible, where you can still look cool, and it’s unlikely you’ll be accused of an ulterior motive, then perhaps people would jump to help one another. Helping someone often translates to, “You owe me” which is an uncomfortable place to be. To build a benevolence zone, then, would require a foundational belief that we can give without expectation of receiving.
I'm very lucky to work in a profession where I get to be kind all day long without looking like a loser for being so nice, so I get all the benefits of that dopamine rush without the punishment of losing ground in the social hierarchy. In the teacher-student relationship, it's entirely uni-directional, so helping a student doesn't leave them with a sense of necessary compensation which can lead to hating the helper for foisting on them the burden of pay-back.

I was thinking of Fonzie when I commented on the post. I loved Happy Days until Fonzie became nice and started wearing glasses and went back to school, and then... well, we all know about the shark jumping incident. Attaching loser items to a person previously established as cool can go two ways.

In the case of Fonzie, it totally brought him down. Fonzie became a nerd, and it was painful to watch. But it doesn't always happen like that.

In the final episode of Freaks and Geeks, one of the cools guys (James Franco no less) accepts an invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons with some geeks - and he likes it. He wants to play again. The geeks wonder: does this make him a geek too, or does it make us cool? They decide to put their faith in the latter option. And, at our school this year, a curious mix of kids played Dungeons and Dragons weekly, without fail, and it became cool by association.
(But nothing tops Community's D&D episode.)

I think which direction this goes depends on the strength of the coolness previously established and currently maintained in the people involved. When Fonzie's mantra became "school is cool" he didn't just get a pair of glasses, he donned a new persona. His behaviours, voice, gestures, and posture changed. He didn't have a gaggle of girls hanging around him anymore, and he didn't act cool. He got too excited about school, and enthusiasm is the antithesis of cool. James Franco's character doesn't change. He just adds another activity to his day of hanging out with friends, getting it on with his girlfriend, and cheating on tests.

I've recognized this association trick before, and tried to make it work to my advantage with environmental initiatives. I'm the enviro-nut at my school, but I recognize I don't have a high enough cool factor to make everyone want to reduce consumption. Instead of the environment getting cooler (ha), I just became perceived as even weirder. I tried to shift the job to a cooler teacher, but she was transferred. I'll try again in the fall.

But would it be enough to associate kindness with being cool? It's got a long history of dragging people to a lower status. There was a study done (which, unfortunately, I can't find) that explored when people stop being kind. Children love to help. That adds credence to the idea that it's an instinctive behaviour. If you drop something, a 2-year-old would love to pick it up for you. But by just 4 or 5, kids recognize that doing for others is for losers. If I drop my pencil and you jump up to pick it up for me, then I own you.

This is especially clear in one-way relationships where reciprocity isn't expected. Teachers and parents know that once they help a bit too much, there's a subtle shift in the balance of things and the kids start to look at us like slaves. It just takes them needing something and being denied to swing that back the other way. But it's a funny dance we do.

But even when it's tit for tat, the person who does less, dominates. This is all Nash's game theory stuff. To do well in games, business or life, be as agreeable as the person you're dealing with. If they agree to do something, then you agree next time, but if they disagree, then you disagree next time (even if you want to agree). It's a means to maintain a balance of power. If you disagree too much, they'll write you off as contrary or oppositional. But, worse, if you agree too much, you're a laughing stock.

But, gosh, wouldn't it be nice if we could just do nice things all the time without this power imbalance freaking us out! If it could happen in a cancer ward, why can't it happen in our schools, dammit?!

Because we're not dying - not noticeably anyway. Someone in a very vulnerable state is unlikely to rip us off or humiliate us for helping. If they're on death's door, then they'll never have the upper hand. They'll never own, so we can be free to help without any harm to our status.

It's like, in Freaks and Geeks, when Alan, the bully, said nice thing to Bill, the geek, only when he thought Bill might die (because of him). Once Bill started recovering, Alan reverted to his old taunts. Being nice is just too dangerous to our social ranking, and only a few can consistently rise above that.
But we can keep trying.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On Judging The Evilness of Others

This summer I'm having a tryst of sorts with Montaigne. I'm at the point in the relationship that I'm agreeing with everything he says and marvelling at his brilliance. He's quite a catch! Too bad he's dead. But he did seem pretty lazy when it came to maintaining his estate. Probably just as well.
Major Babe!

In "Inconsistency of Our Actions" he says,
"...a sound intellect will refuse to judge men simply by their outward actions; we must probe the inside and discover what springs set men in motion" (lines 298-300)
That's old hat these days. People rarely follow this advice, but it's out there. And many times I've tried to ignore the chatter and get to know someone that others condemn only to find the gossip more accurate than I had hoped. But what I want to ask for clarification on is this: If we probe the inside and discover evilness, then what do we do with that knowledge?

I have a friend of dubious morality. It's not my place to judge his actions, so I actively refrained and continued the friendship rationalizing at length to the voice at the back of my head. I figure I can't tell the consequence of the perceived lack of ethics, so I can't really condemn it. And I don't know the whole story, so there could be many other factors that come into play that affect whether or not the action is truly unethical in the first place.

But then one day I heard the intention of the action straight from the horse's mouth: a deliberate intention to harm the innocent, and even a celebration of the ability to cause harm!
So now what? Do we continue a friendship with someone we know to willingly cause others harm, condemn the person publicly, or just wander off and try to forget the whole thing? It's been bothering me enough to wake me up at night. I don't believe anything I say could change his belief about the necessity of his actions. The Stoics suggest that we can be happiest if we can figure out what we have control over and what we don't, and only try to act on what's within our control. But accepting what we can't control is the challenge.

What if my continued friendship inadvertently supports his actions and therefore makes me an accessory to the pain caused to people being harmed, kind of like the way shopping at Wal-Mart allows for further abuses of low-wage employees?

The end of Montaigne's paragraph might help a bit:
"But since this is an arduous and hazardous undertaking, I wish fewer people would meddle with it" (lines 300-302).
It is a hazardous undertaking to know the motivations of other people. This is one area where perhaps it really is better to remain ignorant because once you know, you can't un-know. And then you can't help but look at them a bit funny when they walk into a room.

Some useful words on the necessity of remaining sceptical from "It Is Folly to Measure the True and False by Our Own Capacity":
"Why do we not remember how much contradiction we sense even in our own judgment? How many things were articles of faith to us yesterday, which are fables to us today? Vainglory and curiosity are the two scourges of our soul. The latter leads us to thrust our noses into everything, and the former forbids us to leave anything unresolved and undecided" (lines 170-178).
So, perhaps it's the case that in time I'll realize that this intention isn't as bad as I thought? I actually worry a bit that I'm becoming more prudish with age. I'm still on the outer edges, but I sense a moving inwards that I'm not pleased with. I'm getting weary of novelty and beginning to enjoy tradition more than I thought I could. If it's the case that ten years ago I would have been entertained by such a situation, maybe in another ten year's time, I'll laugh again.

In this case, I don't think so. But one never knows.

When Montaigne's best friend died, he coped by distracting himself by thinking of other things whenever grief crept up again. But it's harder to do when you're trying to distract your thought from someone still living who wants to go for a beer with you from time to time. I think it best to go the forgiveness route of JC and see this entire episode of my life as a means to better learn acceptance and understanding and a reminder of human fallibility. As Tolstoy advises in "The Godson," we can't stop evil in the world, we can only try to stop ourselves from adding evilness to the world.

With a nod to original sin, Montaigne writes,
" seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve."
But why I adore him so is that this line isn't a condemnation, but a reminder that we're silly creatures just muddling about trying to make the best of our situation. And we're all in this together, eh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Post, the First

I have three four other blogs. Project Earth is all about the environment, what we're doing politically to save it and/or destroy it, and what my school is doing to try to help in what little ways we can. Snyder's Symposium is all about education and primarily about my struggles with learning some new computer programs as I'm dragged kicking and screaming into the present. Part of that challenge was to create a blog on Wordpress, so there it is. The third blog is all secret with a secret title and pseudonym. That's where I share my innermost thoughts about life with a bunch of, mainly, American bloggers - my "invisible friends." It occurred to me that many posts there could be made public without incriminating anyone, particularly myself. So here's yet another time-suck venue to soak up the overflow from my brain.  ETA: And a fourth blog, Random Thoughts on Film, holds on my many comments about movies I love or hate.

I had to run through a list of blog names that were taken before I decided on "A Puff of Absurdity." I like that it can be read in different ways. It's from a line from a book I'm reading on Montaigne, in explanation of how to reach happiness through the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously if one holds an attitude that turns principles in on themselves leaving only, wait for it, a puff of absurdity. But the title could also provoke an image of someone smoking, inhaling just a puff of the weirdness that is life.

The funny think is, when I was searching available titles, all having something to do with absurdity, each one produced a blog without any posts! That's hilarious! Well, all except my first choice. I wanted to call it Epekho, an old greek term which loosely means "suspending judgment." I chuckled at the illusion the word holds of a shockingly large prostitute (in stature or ability). But someone of a religious bent owns it. Then I tried Ataraxia, How Absurd, and Absurdity, all of which are post-less blogs, perhaps aborted attempts at making sense of it all.

I hold no delusions of that possibility.