Society is no comfort to one not sociable

The curse of modern society may be our need to discover patterns. Our need to explain everything could be an honest atavism, but the reasons we find may be way off the mark. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a common fallback position that is often useful when the gun is not smoking -or when there’s no gun.

I suppose societies have always faced threats, though. And whether from without or within, they have always looked for remediable causes; the death of a society means the termination of shared customs at the very least, and shared loyalties just as probably -the sense of an us pitted against an implacable them who do not understand us.

Just as frightening, however, is an adversary who does not share our basic humanity. In an interesting article written by Nabeelah Jaffer, who is a former associate editor at Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism  she discusses ‘the inner dialogue’ which the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘We speak in two voices.’ Jaffer says of Arendt’s ideas. ‘It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other.  You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience.’

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’, as Arendt says. ‘It was loneliness, Arendt argued, that helped Eichmann and countless others … to give themselves over to totalitarian ideologies and charismatic strongmen. These totalitarian ideologies are designed to appeal to those who struggle with the internal moral dialogue that Arendt valued as the highest form of thought … Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant.’ So is the inner dialogue.

This got me wondering about what I see when I wander the streets of my city, and what I read and hear as people attempt to explain seemingly senseless crimes -especially violent ones- and attribute motive, usually in retrospect, to so-called ‘loners’. Not to loneliness, you understand, but to loners, an ostensibly different, more malignant, and ‘I should have guessed’ variety of human who does things of which you and I could barely conceive. But, I don’t know that the average person understands the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘loner’ -or even thinks it might be important.

As sometimes happens, I emptied the change in my pocket into a hat lying on the sidewalk in front of a young man. He was sitting quietly, eyes closed, in torn jeans and a dirty grey sweatshirt on a busy corner with his dog. The roughly printed sign by the hat merely said ‘We Are Hungry! Will You Help?’

He must have sensed someone stopping in front of him because he opened his eyes and smiled as I put the change in his hat. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me to ask about the ‘We’ in the sign. I don’t know why it mattered, to tell the truth; I suppose I was just trying to be friendly.

“Where’s the ‘We’?” I asked, trying not to sound too nosey.

His smile grew as he pointed to the sleeping dog at his side. I think I blushed at the naïveté of my question, but he didn’t seem at all surprised. “When the sign just said ‘I’m Hungry’ most people only walked by and pretended they didn’t see either me or Jason. I was only another runaway kid trying to get money for drugs, or something…” He shrugged resignedly, as if this was just life on the streets. “But they had no idea what it’s like -and even worse, they didn’t care.”

He reached over and patted the dog -a black lab, I think- and received a couple of tail wags for his effort. “I thought maybe letting them know I had a dog to feed might help…”

He wasn’t a menacing-looking boy -his auburn hair looked clean and combed, and although his face was definitely in need of a little soap, his expression was friendly and, well, innocent.

“And did changing the sign help?”

He seemed to think about it for a while, then nodded, and his eyes sought mine for a moment. “Well, you stopped to talk to me…”

That caught me by surprise. “Doesn’t anybody usually talk to you?” I felt foolish saying it, but the words tumbled out before I had time to think about them.

The expression on his face answered for him: ‘Are you kidding?’ it said. But I could tell he felt he should explain it to me. “I’m a beggar on the street -an eyesore for most people- so I spend my days in silence, just trying not to look frustrated. Trying not to annoy…”

He studied my face for a minute, obviously wondering whether or not it was worthwhile discussing it any further. Whether I would listen. “But I have Jason,” -he patted the dog again- “And he has me, so neither of us is lonely.”

For a moment, I felt I had entered his world. “And what about at night? Do you stay with friends, or…”

He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s just Jason and me. I’ve really never needed much more.”

I could tell by his face that he felt I was discouraging others from contributing to his hat, so I smiled and wished him good luck. But as I turned to walk away he looked up at me again, his eyes fluttered around me like little sparrows looking for a branch, and wondering if they should perch. “Loners are humans, too,” he said, and his face lit up with the joy of an inner dialogue he simply could not disguise. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, mister,” he added, just before he closed his eyes again to wait in daylong silence. But I was left with the impression that our words, as much as my money, were important in his world. And I couldn’t help wondering what those who never stopped to talk would think of him.

For that matter, I wonder what Arendt would have thought.

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Thy wish was father to that thought

I’ve been waiting for something like this -expecting it, in fact, although not holding my breath: an exploration of the neurochemistry of fatherhood. I mean, it seemed obvious to me -a man, a father, and also an emeritus obstetrician- obvious that there are changes in many, if not most fathers with the birth of their child. And obvious that there must be some advantages to this.

Somewhere around 10% of mammals provide regular paternal care to their young, and this apparently leads to larger litter sizes, with shorter lactation and hence more frequent breeding opportunities. The issue is arousing increasing interest, as reported in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine -albeit with a lot of emphasis on the process in bat-eared foxes and clownfish, for some reason. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/neurochemistry-fatherhood-180969635

As for the foxes, ‘These furry fathers play a role in nearly every aspect of child-rearing: grooming cubs’ silky fur, engaging them in play and teaching them to stalk terrestrial insects with their bat-wing-shaped ears… And this commitment pays off: The amount of time bat-eared fox fathers spend monitoring their young is an even bigger predictor of pup survival than maternal investment or food availability.’

‘What drives fathering behavior in the first place? It turns out that, even without pregnancy and childbirth to prime them, the brains of new mammalian fathers undergo many of the same changes as their female mates’. Some of this may be triggered by being exposed to maternal behaviors and hormones even before the arrival of offspring. In other cases, the birth of an infant can stimulate the brains of new fathers via touch, smell or sight… These changes include increases in a few hormones that have massive effects on the brain: oxytocin, estrogen, prolactin and vasopressin… [T]he male body will actually repurpose some of its existing resources to achieve these attentive effects. Testosterone, which occurs in abundance in most male bodies, can be converted to estrogen through the actions of an enzyme called aromatase. During their mates’ pregnancies and in the months after birth, the testosterone levels of new fathers—including humans—will actually plummet as estrogen builds up in its stead, encouraging fathers to nurture their young… Mammalian fathers who pack on “sympathy” pounds, collecting extra fat in their bellies and breasts, may actually be pumping out prolactin themselves.’

And, turning to fish, ‘It’s true that most fish don’t parent their young, which are typically liberated into the vast wilderness at the egg stage, but of the 20 percent of species that do, less than a third exhibit female-only care. A whopping 50 percent of parenting fish are raised by single dads—including the clownfish of Finding Nemo fame… After a female clownfish lays a clutch of eggs, her partner takes over the majority of the workload… [T]he male clownfish spends most of his day meticulously fanning and nipping at the eggs to keep them clean. Meanwhile, the larger, more aggressive mom circles their anemone home, defending against potential invaders and predators.’

Of course, it has been hundreds of millions of years since there was a common ancestor of both fish and mammals, ‘But much of that original brain chemistry is still pretty much intact, according to Rhodes [a biologist and clownfish expert], and the brain-behavior connections in clownfish likely have enormous bearing on our own evolution.’

Interestingly, ‘Nearly 60 percent of mammals who choose long-term mates have shown evidence of males caring for young.’ And, ‘In several mammals, male investment increases offspring litter size, survival and sociability. Fatherhood may not be ubiquitous, but it appears to have evolved independently in many different lineages, lending credence to its importance in the diverse communities it pervades.’

This all takes me back to something I remember from my days as an obstetrician -probably because it seemed unusual, even for the time.

I’d been on call for several of my colleagues and was asked to attend the delivery of a young mother who had just recently been admitted to the ward. It was deep into the early hours before dawn, and I had been awakened from a brief and fitful sleep after another accouchement just down the hall. The lights in this delivery room were thankfully low, however -the mother, and her mother were obviously trying to set the mood, and an honest attempt was being made to keep things peaceful. Only a single narrow light was focussed on her perineum, and all else was dark.

At first, I thought that only the nurse, the patient, and her mother were present, but when my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see a young man almost huddled in a dark corner on the opposite side of the room to the bed. Except for the nervous movement of his face when I entered, he could have been a duffel bag thrown on a chair. Only he and the nurse seemed to want him to sit beside his partner, but other two seemed oblivious. The nurse introduced everybody -including Brian, the father-to-be in the corner- but both the Linda, the young woman in labour, and her mother were far too preoccupied to notice, I think.

I’m not certain whether words had been spoken before I arrived, but only his eyes were allowed at her side -and except for my entrance, they never left his wife. Not once. ‘This is woman’s work’, the shadows seemed to whisper; even I felt a little out of place.

I wondered whether or not this had been an accidental pregnancy -a welcome, but unintended consequence of a meeting of strangers. And yet, he looked far from uninvolved -not at all like someone who was attending the delivery out of a sense of duty. I could see eager anticipation in those eyes. Wonder. Love.

Maybe I was reading too much from a distance; maybe I was projecting my own passion for my job, my own awe at the miracle of birth, but those eyes convinced me otherwise, and I just had to speak up.

“Would it be okay if Brian sat a little closer?” I asked.

His eyes suddenly blinked hopefully, and he leaned further forward.

“He said he was too afraid of blood,” Linda explained, “But sure… If he wants to come closer,” she added, a little doubtfully.

Suddenly, before I could say anything more, he was there at the bedside, clasping her hand like he would protect her from whatever ensued. And her mother backed off politely, her cheeks now wrinkled by a huge smile.

Another delivery called me from the room once their healthy, screaming baby had been born, but I did see them both later in the morning before I went off call.

Neither of them noticed me at first. The mother had gone home, and both Brian and Linda were lying on the bed staring at the now sleeping bundle between them.

I think it was Linda who saw me first, and tugged at Brian’s sleeve for him to look up from the baby.

“Thank you doctor,” Linda said, with a soft, tired smile on her face. “It was easier than I thought…” But her face belied her words.

She reached over the baby and tenderly stroked Brian’s arm for a moment. “But you know what helped the most?” She glanced lovingly at her partner, then blinked in my direction. “It was Brian…”

I could see her sigh, as her lips brushed the baby lightly. “Fathers are so important, you know.”

It was my turn to sigh, and I smiled and left the room. Yes, fathers are important…!

Good wine needs no bush

I try not to become embroiled in oenophilic arguments -as a person who long ago switched to Rivaners or Rieslings with their reduced alcohol contents, I usually just smile and nod if the issue arises of whether the grape or the soil is the principle determinant of flavour. Both make sense, I guess, but my money would be on the grape -after all it is the thing being fermented, not the dirt that its roots scrabble around in; it is the grapes that provide the carbohydrate, the fibre, and the aromatic hydrocarbons when they are crushed.

Still, the vines take up water from the soil which contains important nutrients as well.

Fortunately, I came across an article in the BBC Future series by Alex Maltman that tackled this very controversy:  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180628-why-wine-geology-may-be-a-myth He is perhaps not a completely unbiased source, though, having written a book Vineyards, Rocks and Soils in which, as the introductory bio explains ‘[he] points out many of the geological errors, misconceptions and misunderstandings rife in wine literature and descriptions.’

Nevertheless, ‘The idea that a vineyard’s ground is important for wine took hold in the Middle Ages when, legend has it, Burgundian monks tasted the soils to find which would give the best tasting wine.’ Unsurprisingly, the idea didn’t really catch on until relatively recently, however, and even now, the weight of evidence still favours the grape. And, ‘[…] most vineyards are routinely gouged, fertilised and irrigated. With this amount of artificial manipulation, is this new preoccupation with the natural geology justified… The fact is that the claims largely are based on anecdote: the scientific justification is slender.

‘That’s not to say the ground isn’t relevant. It governs how roots obtain water, in a pattern that is pivotal to how grapes swell and ripen. We know of 14 elements that are essential for the vine to grow, and almost all of them originate in the ground. Some may make it through to the finished wine, in minuscule amounts that can’t be tasted, though in some cases they can influence how we perceive flavours.’

Also, ‘there recently has been excitement in scientific circles about the possible importance of microbiology in the vineyard because new technologies have revealed distinct fungal and bacterial communities at different sites. [Even though] It’s not clear what effect this has on wine taste.’

I suspect that the final word has not yet been written on the subject of what determines the characteristics of a wine.

Written, or spoken. Jacob doesn’t know one wine from another, I’m sure of it, and yet he has a variety of opinions, depending on his mood or -more likely- the amount of wine he has consumed. A wine’s qualities have always been known to be contextual, of course -the character of some wines seems to be contingent on the food, and in others on the company they keep, the milieu they inhabit.

Jacob has never committed to any particular favourites. Like the books he leaves open and scattered about his house as if he’d just put them down when the doorbell rang, he prefers to keep his options open in the event he’s losing an argument. But he is usually more relaxed with me -like Socrates, I know that I don’t know, so I can only ask questions.

I saw Jacob on a ferry to Vancouver Island the other day. I almost didn’t recognize him in his Tilley hat, light canvas jacket and khaki Bermuda shorts -or whatever you call those pants that end just past the knees and are garnished with long white socks. He was sitting by himself at the window, immersed, not in the scenery, but in sleep or, to be charitable, inward reflection -I couldn’t tell which. At any rate, there was a page open to a picture of a bottle of red wine on his lap, so he obviously meant well. The hour and a half trip wears heavily on the ferry, even with an exciting book.

I decided to sit beside him.

“Saw you coming,” he said and opened one eye as soon as he felt the cushion deform beside him.

He sighed and blinked a couple of times in the sunlight. “I was thinking,” he said, and glanced out the window at the whitecaps that seemed to be racing for the boat under the clear blue skies. “I’ve never been to any of the wineries over there,” he added, nodding in the direction of the hazy specs of land in the distance. “So I decided to have a look at their terroir.

He thought the word would impress me, I suppose. It did -especially his unsuccessful attempt at giving it a French accent. “What’s a terroir, Jacob?” I asked, but mainly to be polite.

He rolled his eyes, as if he thought everybody knew what it was. Then he mounted a condescending little shrug and sighed again. “A terroir is the environment in which a wine is grown -so it includes, soil, topography, climate, farming practices…” He glanced at me to see if I recognized it now, but when the look on my face betrayed not the slightest hint of recollection -or interest, for that matter- he shrugged again, but this time more disdainfully. “Think of a terroir” -I could almost see the italics- “as contributing to a wine’s characteristics as much as the grape.” He allowed a faint smile to besmirch his face, and lowered his head as if he wanted to peer over the top of his glasses like a professor giving a lecture. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t wear glasses, so it looked rather silly, I thought. “The district and the soil, matter almost as much as the grape, you see…”

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t really.

He sat back in the seat, still smiling. “I want to tour the area to check a few things…” He paused for a moment to allow me to ask about it, but when I didn’t, he repeated his sigh and rolled his eyes condescendingly. “I want to ask the various owners if their soils have been tested…” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously and glanced at me. “In other words, do they actually contain any slaty para-gneiss and amphibolite, or maybe mica in them?” he added smugly, sure that I would wonder, too, and allowed his smile to linger.

But I remembered the fustian description of an Austrian Riesling wine I’d read in that BBC article. The words he used were just too familiar -too similar to be coincidental- and I allowed my own smile to linger as well…

The Centre Cannot Hold

Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…  Remember that poem by Yeats? I thought he was exaggerating. Using poetic licence to make a point. But sometimes things can feel like that. Sometimes the world turns on its head and the expected order is reversed.

I dread the tidal bore of malls, the rushing mass of strangers pushing and shoving, strutting and fretting their times upon their internal stages; I hate the food ‘courts’ in malls even more, though. I’m not sure if it’s the smell of cheap food, or the Brownian movement of those who treat the ceremony of meals with disdain -but, like some parts of the city, they are places in extremis. Waypoints for some, perhaps -abrasions for others…

And yet, when all the usual shopping center seats for tired old men in the busy causeway are occupied, the courts are a form of sanctuary, if not salvation, I suppose. At any rate, the other day, exhausted by an already hard swim against an increasingly turbulent current of shoppers as noon approached, I found myself beached on the shores of a particularly chaotic food court.

I tried not to examine it too closely -I was only seeking temporary refuge, after all- but it is difficult not to be drawn into the drama constantly evolving all around it. Like the old woman with the grocery bag precariously balanced on the seat of the walker she had wrapped in front of her like a shield. She pushed it in little steps, presumably intent on threading her way through the roiling masses to one of the food stalls, but with little progress through the flotsam that surrounded her. People all around her waded past, seemingly blind or just indifferent to her distress, and I could see the frustration on her face as she made it beyond the boundaries of my seat.

Dressed in purple pleated slacks, and a white frilly blouse, she had draped a long black coat over a portion of the walker near her groceries. I imagine she was hot, because I could see little beads of sweat glistening on her forehead but her short silvered hair was still neatly combed and barely disturbed, and she continued pushing her way through the crowd with arms of steel.

I was about to offer her my seat, when an unexpected space materialized in front of her and she jogged into it like being sucked into a vacuum. Suddenly, someone else with the same idea knocked the groceries off the walker and the contents rolled onto the floor in all directions. A few feet noticed and hands picked up an apple here, or an onion there, but by and large, things disappeared like mice in a forest. The person who’d caused it, a middle-aged woman with in jeans, and a soiled grey sweat-shirt, was clearly embarrassed at blundering into a frail old lady in a walker and dropped to her knees to retrieve what she could, apologizing profusely.

The table right beside mine cleared, and the two of them sat down at it as the older lady restocked her bag and the younger scanned the floor for remnants.

Still concerned that she might have injured the elderly woman, she blushed and seemed uncertain how to make amends. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I…” she stammered.

“Leslie,” the older lady interrupted. “It’s Leslie, and thank you for your help. Some of these walkers have design flaws, don’t you think?”

“Mine’s Denise,” the other woman responded, obviously relieved. Then she looked at the walker and laughed. “I’ve never really seen one of these up close,” she added. “Quite the invention, eh?”

Leslie glanced at her new friend and smiled. “The physios put you in one of these if you break your hip and they figure you’re too old for crutches. They think everybody over eighty has balance problems… Anyway, I only use it when I come to the mall.”

Denise looked at her with new respect. “You broke your hip?”

Leslie shrugged. “Stuff happens, eh?”

“Look, you stay right here and I’ll get you something at the counter.” She rummaged around in her pocket with a worried look on her face. “What do you want?”

Leslie smiled, guessing her friend was probably between pay cheques. “Oh thank you,” she said, in obvious appreciation. “I was just going to have a cup of tea,” she said and pulled a $20 bill out of the little purse hanging from her shoulder. “And you get yourself something, too, Denise.”

I watched Denise thread herself expertly through the tumultuous crowd like an otter weaving through storm-tossed seaweed. I thought Leslie was being a bit too trusting, but then again, I was interested to see what Denise might buy for herself -if she returned.

She did return, though, and she made it back to the table in record time, balancing a cup of tea with its little tale tell string hanging from the lip, a soft drink and two huge slices of pizza on a tray. Impressive really.

Leslie reacted to her arrival as if there’d never been any question of return. As if she’d merely sent a friend on a mission.

“Thanks, Denise,” she said as the tray arrived.

“I… I didn’t know whether you liked pizza…” She looked down at the two slices, and handed Leslie the change. “I got two different kinds, so you could choose,” she said hopefully.

The smile on Leslie’s face grew. “Thank you dear. That was sweet of you, but I had a big breakfast this morning before I left. You go ahead and eat them both if you’d like.”

Denise was obviously hungry, but I could tell she was trying to pretend she wasn’t. She gulped down the soft drink, though -as if she couldn’t really help herself.

Leslie sipped her tea, pretending not to notice her friend’s discomfort. “Please eat. Don’t mind me. I’m just enjoying my little rest.”

A little hesitantly Denise chose the lumpy slice, but once it neared her mouth, she couldn’t restrain herself, and it quickly disappeared. She was about to repeat the performance when she suddenly gasped and her face began to turn blue. Her eyes looked as if they might even leave their sockets as she fought to take a breath.

Leslie was on her feet in a moment, and dragged Denise upright from behind. She reached around her waist, compressed her abdomen just below the ribs and squeezed. Denise coughed once and took a deep, stertorous breath.

By now, people had gathered around them, not certain what to think, but it was a classic, perfectly executed Heimlich maneuver. I could see the onlookers glance at each other in admiration.

When Denise had recovered enough to breathe normally, and the people had dispersed, she stared at what she had thought was a frail old woman with a surprised look on her face. “What did…?”

“Once a nurse, always a nurse, Denise” she interrupted, as if it didn’t really require an explanation.

“But…”

Leslie stopped the question with a smile. “She hath borne herself beyond the promise of her age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.”

“What…?”

Denise seemed confused, but Leslie merely shrugged and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Never mind me, dear -I’m just misquoting a line from Shakespeare…”

Denise thought about it for a moment, and then a smile suddenly appeared on her face.  “It’s from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, isn’t it…?”

The two of them giggled like little girls.

I couldn’t help but chuckle with them, and I remembered another line from that poem of Yeats: the ceremony of innocence is drowned

Is Everybody a Petard?

Sociology is certainly interesting; it turns out that none of us are normal -well, perhaps more revealingly, there is no normal ‘us’. We are, at best, data points spread out on a rather amorphous Bell curve, vaguely generalizable depending on the homogeneity of the group chosen, but often unrepresentative of populations further afield.

And yet, why should that be a surprise to anybody who has vacationed in a different hemisphere -or, for that matter, simply walked through a poorer section of their own town? Or mingled with members of another ethnic community? Or even talked to a different age group…?

We seem enamoured with reducing people to numbers -statistics- as if by accumulating and analyzing them appropriately, we have proven something… Undoubtedly we have demonstrated something, but what? And how applicable is it over time and culture?

I have to admit that I have long felt that the generalizations were overdone, and in the current era of rapid dissemination of ideas that seem as stable as clothes in a washing machine, not terribly relevant. But the idea was reintroduced to me in an essay in Aeon.com by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-happens-to-cognitive-diversity-when-everyone-is-more-weird

His contention was that ‘On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling… This marks a major change of course for our species. For tens of thousands of years, as we fanned out across the globe, we adapted to radically different niches, and created new types of societies; in the process, we developed new practices, frameworks, technologies and conceptual systems. But then, some time in the past few centuries, we reached an inflection point. A peculiar cognitive toolkit that had been consolidated in the industrialising West began to gain global traction. Other tools were abandoned. Diversity started to ebb.’

The toolkit he is referencing is the use of WEIRD -an acronym meaning the use of Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic students as fodder for the studies that were being published in the sociological literature. He references a famous paper published in 2010 led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia entitled ‘The Weirdest people in the World?’ https://aeon.co/essays/american-undergrads-are-too-weird-to-stand-for-all-humanity

And in that paper, Henrich claimed, ‘researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.’ They were definitely not representative of the world at large, and yet since this type of group was being referenced constantly, the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, felt it might be how otherwise disparate groups were beginning to see themselves; where he found cross-cultural differences, ‘they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging.’

One example, as I have mentioned, is our obsession with numbers to quantify and measure things. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and yet it does represent a unique weltanschauung that ignores other, no less valid, ways of engaging with everyday reality.

Another might be our fixation on Time -that artificial construct we append to every action, whether actual or impending. Again, for those of us who are tied to schedules it seems not only appropriate, but also necessary. How else could we survive and prosper in the life in which we are enmeshed?

There are other examples of the stamp our culture has had on far flung peoples, but the one that intrigues me the most is language. The currently evolving Lingua Franca (a strikingly ironic oxymoron) could reasonably be argued to be English. And why might that be important? ‘English is an egocentric language whereas most others are allocentric: English-speakers describe objects’ location in relation to themselves or other people, and not to other objects (for example, ‘the bike is five metres to my left’ rather than ‘the bike is next to the fire hydrant’).’

I had never thought of my language like that, I must admit, but if the contention is valid, the ramifications are interesting and it affects the kinds of studies that are carried out. ‘Our cultural bias means that not only do we ignore concepts that might be important in other countries – such as face, caste or honour – but that you often end up testing for an English-language concept (‘shame’, for example) which might have no direct equivalent in another society, or have different connotations.’

Henrich argued that ‘what we think of as science is all too often ‘WEIRD’ science… Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of experimental volunteers in the leading psychology journals were WEIRD; 68 per cent of papers relied exclusively on US subjects; and in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 per cent of total subjects were US psychology students. ‘Many fields have a model organism that they study… A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.’ Perhaps things have changed since those statistics were collated, and yet, I’m sure fiscal constraints still limit both the amount of diversity attainable and the ability to replicate and validate whatever conclusions were obtained.

But, apart from paring off a few charming idiosyncrasies, and allowing -forcing?- strangers to adapt to how we in the WEIRD west view the world, is there any harm done? It’s still valuable information, right?

All information is no doubt valuable, but is it useful? Cooperrider summarizes his concern at the end: ‘For much of human history, one of our most distinctive traits as a species has been our sheer diversity.’ So, is that something we can afford to lose?

Not that I have any realistic say in the matter, but now that I understand the trend, I have to ask myself if I really want to live in a vanilla ice-cream world -one with no lumps in it. No mysterious colours, no fireside tales of how each of us came to be.

Are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?

Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine:  https://aeon.co/ideas/should-you-shield-yourself-from-others-abhorrent-beliefs It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.

Understanding as…

There is so much stuff out there that I don’t know -things that I hadn’t even thought of as knowledge. Things that I just accepted as ‘givens’.  You know, take the ability to understand something like, say, an arrangement of numbers as a series rather than a bunch of numbers, or the ability to extract meaning from some sounds -for example words spoken in English- and yet not others in a different language.

And, perhaps equally mysterious is the moment when that epiphany strikes. What suddenly changes those numbers into a series? Is it similar to what makes figure-ground alterations flip back and forth in my head: aspect perception? Is it analogous to the assignation of meaning to things -or, indeed, picking them out of the chaos of background and recognizing them as somehow special in the first place? Is it what Plato meant when he referred to the Forms –‘chairness’ or ‘tableness’ for example- abstractions that allow us to identify either, no matter how varied the shapes or sizes -the true essence of what things really are?

I suppose I’m becoming rather opaque -or is it obtuse?- but the whole idea of aspect perception, of ‘seeing as’, is an exciting, yet labyrinthine terra incognita, don’t you think? I’m afraid that what started it all was an essay in the online Aeon publication: https://aeon.co/ideas/do-you-see-a-duck-or-a-rabbit-just-what-is-aspect-perception

It was the edited version of an essay written by Stephen Law, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He begins by discussing some of the figure-ground changes found in, say Necker cubes whose sides keep flipping back and forth (a type of aspect perception) and then suggests that ‘A[nother] reason why changes in aspect perception might be thought philosophically significant is that they draw our attention to the fact that we see aspects all the time, though we don’t usually notice we’re doing so… For example, when I see a pair of scissors, I don’t see them as a mere physical thing – I immediately grasp that this is a tool with which I can do various things.’

Another example might be ‘…our ability to suddenly ‘get’ a tune or a rule, so we are then able to carry on ourselves.’ Or, how about religion? ‘The idea of ‘seeing as’ also crops up in religious thinking. Some religious folk suggest that belief in God doesn’t consist in signing up to a certain hypothesis, but rather in a way of seeing things.’ But then the caveat: ‘Seeing something as a so-and-so doesn’t guarantee that it is a so-and-so. I might see a pile of clothes in the shadows at the end of my bed as a monster. But of course, if I believe it’s a monster, then I’m very much mistaken.’

I have always loved wandering around bookstores. Maybe it’s an asylum -a refuge from the noisy street, or a spiritual sanctuary in a chaotic mall -but it’s more likely that the range and choice of books allows me to exercise an epiphanic region of my brain, and to practice ‘seeing as’ to my heart’s content. I’d never thought of bookstores as exercise before, of course, but I suppose the seed of ‘understanding as’ was sown by that article… or maybe it was the little girl.

Shortly after reading the essay, I found myself wandering blissfully through the quiet aisles of a rather large bookstore that seemed otologically removed from the noisy mall in which it hid. Coloured titles greeted me like silent hawkers in a park, the ones that sat dislodged from their otherwise tidy rows, sometimes reaching out to me with greater promise: curiosity, as to why someone might have dislodged them, perhaps. But nonetheless, I also found myself amused at their choices: book shops are catholic in the selection they proffer and I relish the opportunity to switch my perspectives… and expand my Weltanschauung, as the Philosophy section into which I had meandered might have put it when the thought occurred.

Of course, unexpected concepts like that are one of the delights of a bookstore -turn a corner into a different aisle and the world changes. It’s where I met the little girl talking to her mother about something in a book she was holding.

No more than four or five years old, she was wearing what I suppose was a pink Princess costume, and trying to be very… mature. Her mother, on the other hand, was dressed for the mall: black baseball cap, jeans, sneakers, and a grey sweatshirt with a yellow mustard stain on the front. Maybe they’d just come from a party, or, more likely, the Food Court, but the mother was trying to explain something in the book to her little daughter. The aisle wasn’t in the children’s section, but seemed to have a lot of titles about puzzles, and illusions, so maybe they’d wandered into it for something different: for surprises.

As I pretended to examine some books nearby, I noticed a Necker’s cube prominently displayed on the page the girl was holding open.

“Why does it do that, mommy?” Even as she spoke the perspective of the cube was flipping back and forth, with one face, then another seeming to be closer.

The mother smiled at this obvious teaching moment.

“It’s a great idea, anyway,” the daughter continued, before she got an answer.

“Idea…?” the mother said, with a patient look on her face. “What’s the idea, Angie?”

Angie scrunched her forehead and gave her mother a rather condescending look. “It’s an exercise book, remember?”

That apparently caught the mother by surprise. “It’s a book of puzzles and magic, sweetheart. I didn’t see any exercises.”

Angie rolled her eyes at her mother’s obvious obtuseness. “The nexercise cube, mommy…!”

Necker’s cube, sweetie,” she responded, trying to suppress a giggle. “It’s not an exercise cube.”

But Angie was having none of that, and stared at her like a teacher with a slow pupil. “It keeps making my mind move, mommy!” She shook her head in an obviously disappointed rebuke. “That’s exercise.”

I slipped back around the corner, unnoticed by them both I think. I felt I’d intruded on a very intimate moment and I didn’t want to trespass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Angie had come far closer to understanding Plato’s Forms than her mother or I could ever hope to.