Gedankenexperimentophobia

It’s fun to play with thoughts, to riffle through ideas, don’t you agree? Take ‘thought experiments’ for example -think up a problem, set some parameters to confine it and see what your brain, unconstrained by external reality, comes up with. It’s almost akin to the Scientific Method some would argue: ask a question; form a hypothesis about it; make a prediction based on the theory; test the prediction; and finally, come to some conclusion. But is it? Can a mind sitting quietly by itself in an armchair, circumvent the need for external reality?

Ever since I first heard it, I have felt uncomfortable with ‘the Trolley Problem’. There have been several iterations of it over the years, but by and large it consists of a runaway coach on a track that is approaching a switch. Down one track is a single person, whereas down another are several people. The coach cannot be stopped, the person (or people) cannot get out of the way, but the switch can be thrown to direct which track is used. The question, of course, is which track to use -either track will result in death.

What does the choice of one track or the other say about the person who has to decide? About their morality? About ethics? About anything, really? It seems far too monochromal for my liking. And, unlike its real-life cousin, by definition a thought experiment cannot really be subjected to any rigorous objective analysis. It’s more like an experiment done in a lab where all parameters are carefully controlled, unlike what would happen in the real world.

But for years I’ve wondered whether my discomfort was misplaced. After all, Einstein used thought experiments. My concerns, like an unused city lot, lay fallow until I wandered into an essay by James Wilson, a professor of philosophy at University College London: https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-problem-with-ethical-trolley-problems

As he writes, thought experiments are ‘short hypothetical scenarios designed to probe or persuade on a point of ethical principle. Such scenarios are nearly always presented context-free, and are often wildly different from the everyday contexts in which ethical sensibilities are formed and exercised… Even when scenarios are highly unrealistic, judgments about them are thought to have wide-ranging implications for what should be done in the real world. The assumption is that, if you can show that a point of ethical principle holds in one artfully designed case, however bizarre, then this tells us something significant.’

Sometimes, however, when considered as things that might happen in the real world, we can envisage other conditions that would invalidate, or at least complicate, any conclusions drawn in the thought experiment. We know too much, as it were. ‘Thought-experiment designers often attempt to finesse the problem through an omniscient authorial voice that… is able to say clearly and concisely what each of the thought experiment’s actors is able to do, their psychological states and intentions. The authorial voice will often stipulate that choices must be made from a short predefined menu, with no ability to alter the terms of the problem. For example, the reader might be presented with only two choices, as in the classic trolley problem: pull a lever, or don’t pull it.’ Exactly.

So constraining the choices limits the possibility of novel approaches to the stated problem. ‘Imaginative ethical thinkers look beyond the small menu of obvious options to uncover novel approaches that better allow competing values to be reconciled. The more contextual knowledge and experience a thinker has, the more they have to draw on in coming to a wise decision.’

But there are at least two other difficult challenges with thought experiments: internal and external validity. ‘Internal validity relates to the extent to which an experiment succeeds in providing an unbiased test of the variable or hypothesis in question. External validity relates to the extent to which the results in the controlled environment translate to other contexts…[but] the very features that make an environment controlled and suitable to obtain internal validity often make it problematically different from the uncontrolled environments in which interventions need to be applied.’ In other words, the world just doesn’t work like that.

I remember trying out the Trolley Problem on the guys who meet for coffee some mornings in the food court. I wondered if they felt the same unease with it as I did.

“So, which track are you going to switch the trolley onto?” I asked, after giving them a brief summary of the thought experiment.

Burt put his doughnut back on the paper plate, and wiped some sugar off his cheek. “It’s so obvious, G -I’d ring the bell. All trollies have bells, eh?”

“But what if the workers on the track don’t hear it…?”

Burt rolled his eyes, as he brushed a lock of his paper-white hair off his forehead. “I’d keep ringing it. The workers would hear it when it got closer…”

“But suppose the workers are tied to the track.”

Burt glared at me for a moment. “You didn’t say that. And anyway, why would they be tied to the track? That’s a bit Little Orphan Annieish, don’t you think?”

I decided to relent a little to make it more -what?- real worldy. “Okay, let’s say they’re just deaf…”

Burt was clearly unmoved by my compromise. “Still…”

Jason, who had been quietly munching on a bagel put his hand up.

Burt sneered at the hand. “You’re not in school, Jas…”

Jason blinked and lowered his hand, and then glared at Burt. “Whatever. Anyway G, you said they were working on the track. They’d be able to feel the vibrations on the rails from a moving trolley, so that would warn them to get out of the way.”

I had to sigh; the guys were not really getting into the spirit of the ethical problem I’d offered. “I don’t know how much warning that would give, but let’s say they weren’t actually standing on the rails…” I had to think quickly here. “Let’s say they were on the ties between the rails then.”

Arthur, who had been teacher before he retired, sighed loudly and shook his head. “You folks are missing the point.”

Burt took a big bite from his doughnut. “The point being…?” It was hard to distinguish word from doughnut, but Arthur ignored the sounds.

“It seems to me the problem is bimodal.”

I smiled and nodded my head at him -finally somebody understood the ethics at stake. “Correct,” I interrupted, “There are two choices: the left track or the right track -several deaths, or one death. Which one would you choose, Art?”

He glanced at me quizzically. “I didn’t say there were two choices; I said bimodal: values occurring most frequently in the data set we were given…”

Jason, Burt and I stared at him, but it was Burt that summed it up. “You had too many cookies, Art…?”

It was Arthur’s turn to roll his eyes. “What I mean is that we have to consider two data streams that affect the choice of track…”

“Too much sugar in his coffee,” Jason whispered to Burt.

Arthur ignored them. “First of all, there’s the trolley driver. He would be ringing the bell, of course, but presumably to be allowed to drive the trolley, he’d have been expected to know about things like the switch signs that indicated which track was open.” He stared at me. “Would that not be the case?”

I shrugged, but I had to agree with him.

Then a wry smile appeared to hover tentatively along his lips. “And then there is the person whose responsibility it is to work the switches.” His smile softened briefly. “A very important job, as you can imagine.”

None of us disagreed. I was more interested in where this was leading, though.

“So,” he continued, “We can assume that the switch person knows that the driver has to have some expertise in reading the switch signs…” He looked at each of us for a second to see if we were following him. Nobody moved. “Therefore, the switchman flags the approaching trolley to let the driver know he understands the trolley is out of control, and then sets the switch only at the halfway position. The driver would see this as an uncompleted switch and realizes it will derail the trolley, so he jumps clear.”

Arthur sat back in his chair this time with a big sloppy grin on his face. “So, nobody dies. Problem solved…”

I suddenly remembered that scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I wonder if Hamlet could have resolved the Trolley Problem as quickly as Arthur, though.

Historiognosis

When I was in school, history was just a series of strange and unfamiliar stories -some interesting, most forgettable. Of course, I recognize the irony in describing the effects of teaching methods that are now, themselves, historical, but I still wonder how decisions were made about which facts to focus on. The date of a battle, or the names of the generals who were killed are easily agreed upon, and yet what about things like the beginning of the Enlightenment, or when the Little Ice Age began and ended? They are surely more approximations -opinions- than known ‘facts’.

Again, when I was much younger and my leaves were still green and tender, it seemed that most, if not all, of the important historical figures were male, and by and large, European. Females, if they were mentioned at all, were like adjectives that added colour to their male nouns. There were, of course, exceptions -Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Abbess, polymath, and musical composer of sacred monophony is my favourite, I think- but only relatively recently have more historically important females been  ‘discovered’. Heaven only knows how many more lie patiently awaiting exhumation.

And, let’s face it, even when I was in high school, Columbus was still felt to have ‘discovered’ America, much to the amused astonishment of the original inhabitants, no doubt. And Africa had never been considered to have hosted any civilizations worthy of the name, let alone exhibited any philosophical thinking, or theological profundities.

I suppose, for an interested but no doubt naïve amateur, it has always been the arbitrariness of the choices about what happened in the past, and often, the seemingly limited perspectives of the almost infinite number of  possibilities available, that trouble me.

And yes, I understand that the sources from which conclusions are drawn may be unreliable, or reflect the biases of their creators (or historians), and I can imagine that even where the written documents may be clearly worded, their meanings are not fixed for all times. Societal norms, and expectations also no doubt influence what was felt to be important to record. So, although I am intrigued by History, I am wary of any lessons it might purport to offer those of us alive today.

Still, I continue to be attracted to new analyses, and I remain curious about novel ways of approaching and evaluating the Past. So, it was with a frisson of excitement that I embarked upon the exploration of a rather complex essay that suggested there may be a more objective way of appraising history -a mathematical approach that is no doubt old-hat to professional historians, but new to uncredentialled and only part-time acolytes like myself. Amanda Rees, a historian of science in the department of sociology at the University of York, surveyed attempts to objectivize History, and bring it more in line with the Natural Sciences with their use of statistical analyses and the like: https://aeon.co/essays/if-history-was-more-like-science-would-it-predict-the-future

Rees, ends her first paragraph with a question: ‘If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past?’ There have been several unsuccessful attempts to try something like this. For example, ‘In the 19th century, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle used a broad-brush approach to the past in an effort to identify ‘natural laws’ that governed society… Buckle’s contemporary, the French positivist Auguste Comte, had earlier proposed his ‘law of three stages’ which styled human society as passing through ‘theological’ and ‘metaphysical’ stages, before arriving at a scientific self-understanding through which to build a better society.’

And then there was ‘the more elaborate social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. These views were an attempt to marry the organic nature of evolution to history, but unfortunately, became embedded in the Zeitgeist of the time and seem to us nowadays as distinctly racist.

Rees, however, spends considerable time explaining the views of Peter Turchin, who in 2010 was an ecologist in the  University of Connecticut. ‘Why, Turchin wanted to know, were the efforts in medicine and environmental science to produce healthy bodies and ecologies not mirrored by interventions to create stable societies? Surely it was time ‘for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science’… he proposed a new discipline: ‘theoretical historical social science’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – the science of history.’

Of course, unlike objective attributes such as, say, temperature or infective processes, ‘‘historical facts’ are not discrete items that exist independently, awaiting scholars who will hunt them down, gather them up and catalogue them safely. They need to be created and interpreted. Textual archives might seem relatively easy to reproduce, for example, but, just as with archaeological digs, the physical context in which documents are found is essential to their interpretation: what groups, or items, or experiences did past generations value and record… What do the marginalia tell us about how the meanings of words have changed?’

A good example perhaps: ‘is it really possible to gauge subjective happiness by counting how many times words such as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ occur in the more than 8 million books digitised by Google?’ Or another: ‘a quantitative study of American slavery, in which Fogel [Robert Fogel, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economic history] used plantation records to show that slavery was an economically efficient means of production, and to suggest that Southern slaves were better off than many Northern wage-earners.’ And yet, ‘plantation records didn’t fully capture the nature of slavery. How could they, when they were created by one group of humans at the expense of another?’

It is for this reason, among others, that ‘a positivist language of science – of testing hypotheses against data – sits uncomfortably with the practice of history.’ Are historical facts (a debatable term at best) really ‘things’? Turchin seemed to think so.  ‘Inspired by the work of the American sociologist Jack Goldstone, who in the 1990s had tried to translate Alexis de Tocqueville’s philosophy into mathematical equations, Turchin began to relate population size to economic output (and, critically, levels of economic inequality) as well as social and political instability… Social structure, for example, could be treated as a product of health and wealth inequality – but to measure either, you need to choose approximate and appropriate proxies. The process was further complicated by the fact that, when you’re working with a chronology that spans millennia, these proxies must change over time. The texture of that change might be qualitative as well as quantitative.’ You get the idea: apples and oranges.

And anyway, what makes anybody believe that the Natural Sciences (which Turchin was trying to emulate) are actually capable of producing ‘objective knowledge’? ‘Half a century of research in the history of science has shown that this perspective is deeply flawed. The sciences have their own history – as indeed does the notion of objectivity – and that history is deeply entwined with power, politics and, importantly, the naturalisation of social inequality by reference to biological inferiority. No programme for understanding human behaviour through the mathematical modelling of evolutionary theory can afford to ignore this point… meta-analyses and abstract mathematical models depend, by necessity, on manipulating data gathered by other scholars, and a key criticism of their programme is that cliodynamicists are not sensitive to the nuances and limitations of that data.’

By this stage in the essay, I was not only confused, I was also disappointed. But, could I really expect an answer to the arbitrariness of historical data when even my brother and I, in describing an event from our shared childhood, can never agree on what really happened? It’s all perspective in the end; as Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’

And anyway, my brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about…

Why is Wonder?

Sometimes I am accosted by the strangest questions; they remind me of the unanswerable ‘why’ questions that so often bubble out of 3 year olds -the only difference, I suppose, is that I would no longer be satisfied with the unadorned ‘just because’ answers I’m sure I used to get from my frustrated parents.

But it seems to me that once I retired from the practice of Medicine and was no longer required to answer other people’s questions, it was inevitable that I would have to ask some tricky ones of my own -questions I would be forced to answer for my self. And then I realized that I was no longer the authority figure I once thought I was because the questions I ended up asking were more abstract. Less likely to admit of an easy solution.

Perhaps that’s what Retirement is designed for, though: imponderables. It is close to the denouement of a life and any loose threads of the clothes you once wore are carefully trimmed away and cleaned in preparation for the final scene.

My most recent attempt at cutting away loose strands concerned wonder. Why is wonder? I asked myself one evening, as I sat on a beach watching the cooling sun slowly sinking into the ocean. But when no answers surfaced and I turned to leave, a rim of clouds still glowed orange on the horizon like embers on a dying campfire and I found I couldn’t move. Why did I find myself so filled with awe, so taken with a scene I must have admired in countless versions in magazines or coffee-table books? Why did the experience stop time? Why did I hold my breath? And, what purpose could it possibly serve?

Different from mere beauty, which is shallow in comparison, wonder seems more spiritual -more intense– and less describable in words. It is a feeling, a wordless experience of awe. And yet, ineffable as it may be, is it just a curiosity, or more like an emergent phenomenon: a synergism of factors each of which, taken by itself, is not at all unique? And if so, why would their collective presence have such a major effect on me?

I am far from a religious person, but I am reminded of an idea I found somewhere in the writings of the philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich, years ago. I was wondering what prayer was, apart from an attempt to request a favour from whatever deity you had been taught was in charge. It seemed to me unlikely that words alone could establish any real communication with the god; more was required to make prayers feel like they were being heard. If I understood Tillich, he seemed to imply that prayer was -or should be- like the ephemeral, but almost overwhelming sense of awe felt on seeing, say, the array of burning clouds that could still bathe in the sun setting behind a now-silhouetted mountain. An unknitted communion…

Is that, then, what wonder is: an unintended prayer…? An unasked question? I happened across an essay by Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, who attempted an examination of wonder, and felt that it shared much in common with Science, Religion, and even Art: https://aeon.co/essays/why-wonder-is-the-most-human-of-all-emotions

The experience of wonder, he writes, seems to be associated with certain bodily sensations which ‘point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes… The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled… Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration.’

That may be the ‘what’ of wonder -its component parts- but not the ‘why’; his explanation seemed more of a Bayeux Tapestry chronicling events, not why they existed in the first place. I dug deeper into the essay.

Prinz goes on to mention the ‘French philosopher René Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method (1637) described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigate rainbows and other strange phenomena.’ Their investigations, in turn produce knowledge. ‘Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel. Without science, we are stuck with the drab world of appearances.’ Fair enough -Science can not only be motivated by wonder, it also contributes to it.

‘In this respect,’ Prinz writes, ‘science shares much with religion… like science, religion has a striking capacity to make us feel simultaneously insignificant and elevated.’ Awe, an intense form of wonder, makes people feel physically smaller than they are. ‘It is no accident that places of worship often exaggerate these feelings. Temples have grand, looming columns, dazzling stained glass windows, vaulting ceilings, and intricately decorated surfaces.’

Art, too, began to partake of the sublime, especially when it parted company from religion in the 18th century. ‘Artists began to be described as ‘creative’ individuals, whereas the power of creation had formerly been reserved for God alone.’ Artists also started to sign their paintings. ‘A signature showed that this was no longer the product of an anonymous craftsman, and drew attention to the occult powers of the maker, who converted humble oils and pigments into objects of captivating beauty, and brought imaginary worlds to life.’

Interestingly, then, ‘science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits.’ Mere survival does not require any of these, and yet they exist. ‘Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself… For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit. Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species.’

‘For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.’

Maybe, then, that is the answer to the ‘why’ of wonder. Perhaps it’s a fortunate -some might say providential- byproduct of who we are. Not inevitable, by any means, and not meant for any particular purpose, and yet, however accidental, it was the spur that pricked the sides of our dreams, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I’m not so sure it’s even that complicated, though. It seems to me that wonder is more of an acknowledgement, than anything else: an acknowledgment that we are indeed a part of the world around us; a tiny thread in a larger pattern. And every once in a while, when we step back, we catch a glimpse of the motif and marvel at its complexity. It is, then, an acknowledgment of gratitude that we are even a small part of it all… Yes, a prayer, if you will.

Am I anybody’s keeper?

Is it possible to understand the world as if you were another person? Or, no matter the effort, would you still be imprisoned within yourself -feeling what you assume you would feel if you were in the same circumstance as her? That what you manage to sample of her condition is inevitably filtered through your own experience is far from profound, of course, but it is often buried within the empathy you think you are expressing. Empathy is not really how you feel about something; it is about how the other person feels.

But of course you are not the other person, nor have you lived the same life as her. Perhaps, in fact, it is the other way around: the more she has experienced similar things to you -the more like you she is- the more you can empathize with her feelings. Still, this merely reduces empathy to a set of feelings; I suspect there is more to it than this, however. An integral component of empathy is understanding. Much like the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, surely the central question for empathy would be to ask what it would be like to be the person in question -not just how to feel like her. It seems to me there must be a cognitive, as well as emotional side to empathy.

I found an insightful essay on this multimodal requirement as exemplified in the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. She felt that Holmes seemed to be able to put himself in the victim’s mind, if not necessarily in their heart. https://aeon.co/essays/empathy-depends-on-a-cool-head-as-much-as-a-warm-heart

As she observes, according to Holmes ‘whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things… It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities… The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.’

But, how can that be? For Holmes, his ability to understand the problem is based on his creative imagination. ‘In fact, his success stems from the very non-linearity and imaginative nature of his thinking, his ability to engage the hypothetical just as he might the physical here-and-now… So Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place – seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalising and considering that state.’ But not just that.

An emotional lack may permit a relative freedom from prejudice. ‘[R]ecent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it… Even when we know that someone’s background is different from our own, and that we should be wary of assuming we can understand their situation as though it were our own, we still can’t shake off our own preconceptions in judging them. The more cognitively strained we are (the more we have going on mentally), the worse we become at adjusting our egocentric views to fit someone else’s picture of the world… Our neural networks might be mirroring another’s suffering, but largely because we worry how it would feel for us. Not so Holmes. Because he has worked hard to dampen his initial emotional reactions to people, he becomes more complete in his adjustment, more able to imagine reality from an alternative perspective.’

So, in a way, sometimes it’s actually their difference from us that allows us to judge what the other person is going through more accurately. ‘Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.’

In fact, ‘The ability to see the world from another set of eyes, to experience things vicariously, at multiple levels, is training ground for such feats of imagination and reason that allow a Holmes to solve almost any crime, an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be.’ Imagination, and emotion; there’s a commonality: ‘to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view… The emotional element in empathy is itself a limited one. It is selective and often prejudicial – we tend to empathise more with people whom we know or perceive to be like us.’

I was talking to a friend in a grocery store lineup the other day, masked and socially distanced of course, when an elderly  man with his mask hanging from his chin moved into the space ahead of her. He made no apology, nor did he seem to understand the need for distancing in a line. He’d merely seen a space and moved into it.

“The poor old dear,” I muttered, my voice muffled by my mask. I’m not sure if she heard my words, but my friend’s eyes first saucered in surprise at my reaction, and then narrowed into an angry scowl at the intrusion as she turned to glare at him.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, addressing the old man, ‘The line starts back there…” And she pointed past a number of people standing behind her.

He turned his head slowly and stared at her for a moment. “There was a space in front of you, though…”

“As there is supposed to be,” she interrupted before he could finish his sentence. She sounded angry –righteously angry.

The only indication that he had understood her anger was to shrug and turn his head away again.

“And you are not wearing your mask, sir,” she continued, her anger obviously unsated.

His response was to turn and point to the mask hanging from his chin and smile. “I can’t breathe very well through it,” he said in a soft, firm voice.

I risked a step forward. “He’s just an old man, Janice,” I said, trying to talk softly, but the sound was no doubt further muffled by the thick mask I was wearing. “He’s probably a little confused. Let it go…”

Janice stared at me for a moment. “Then he shouldn’t be shopping on his own, G,” she said, shaking her head as if she couldn’t understand why I would be defending him. “These are dangerous times…”

I blinked, similarly wondering why she was so adamant.

“There are rules, G!” I could see by the movement of her mask that she had sighed. “We can’t just bend the rules because we feel sorry for someone.”

“Maybe not, but it would create less of a fuss for people in the line if we just let him proceed.” I looked at the line behind me and nobody else seemed upset by his action -if they had even noticed. “And he doesn’t seem bothered by them either…”

She continued to stare at me -blankly at first, uncomprehendingly.

Then, when I smiled behind my mask, I think she saw the wrinkles from my eyes because her aggressive posture seemed to relax. “Well, maybe just this once, eh?” she said, and shrugged.

Empathy in action…

I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

Are you really my friend?

There was something that Albert Camus, the Algerian-French philosopher, once wrote that has continued to inspire me since I first read it, so many years ago: “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend

Friendship is a magical thing that is hard to define; it is like St. Thomas Aquinas’ view of Time: you know what it is until someone asks. Poets, perhaps, with their metaphors come closest to capturing it -Shakespeare for example:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

Or, the wisdom of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet: ‘Friend, our closeness is this: anywhere you put your foot, feel me in the firmness under you.’

And even the humour of Oscar Wilde:A good friend will always stab you in the front‘.

And yet, despite the feeling that its essence remains just at the tip of our tongues, there has always been an abiding faith in friendships, a trust that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, ‘I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends’. In more modern times, however, the concept of ‘friend’ has undergone a not-so-subtle shift -everything from ‘friending’ people on social media, to online bullying, to trolling individuals for their putative beliefs, to unintended disclosure of confidences in internet postings.

So should a friend always bear his friend’s infirmities, as Cassius asked Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? There was a time when the answer seemed obvious; now I am not so sure.

Quite by chance, I came across an essay by Leah Plunkett, an associate dean at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law which raised the question of whether friendship should be policed. Whether it should remain a simple state of loyalty or, if declared, entail a legal obligation -like, say, marriage.   https://aeon.co/ideas/friendship-is-about-loyalty-not-laws-should-it-be-policed

The concept caught me totally by surprise. ‘Friendship is the most lawless of our close relationships,’ she writes. Somehow, the idea that there might even be a need of a legal framework for friendship seemed dystopian to me, so I read on.

‘Friends are tied to each other through emotions, customs and norms – not through a legally defined relationship, such as marriage or parenting, that imposes obligations. Anybody can become friends, we believe…  But with the advent of the digital domain, friendship has become more fraught. Online and off, we can share information about our friends without their permission and without legal restriction (except for slander and libel).’ But, of course, that means that ‘Information shared between friends can wind up being seen by people outside the friendship network who are not the intended audience…  confidences can inadvertently find their way to the public domain; all it takes is one careless email or the wrong privacy setting on a Facebook post.’

And there may even be legal consequences to what we or our friends have posted. ‘Digital social networks are already used to detain people trying to cross into the United States when statements by friends in their network are deemed by border agents to be suspicious or threatening.’ And, although most of us are aware that most social media platforms are collecting and selling our information, ‘Fewer recognise the third-party companies typically behind the scenes of our interactions, often using our information in unknown and uncontrollable ways in pursuit of their own goals.’

And yet, ‘Amid all this chaos, friendship itself remains unregulated. You don’t need a licence to become someone’s friend, like you do to get married. You don’t assume legal obligations when you become someone’s friend, like you do when you have a child. You don’t enter into any sort of contract, written or implied, like you do when you buy something.’ There’s no legal definition of ‘friend’, either.

But, Plunkett has an interesting idea: some U.S. states (like New Hampshire, her own) have definitions of bullying: the state’s Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act (2000) for students in primary and secondary school defines what bullying would entail. She wonders if it might be possible to apply its converse to define friendship. So, instead of saying you can’t harm somebody, a friend should need to support a peer or their property; cause emotional comfort, and so on. And, ‘To engage in cyberfriendship, this behaviour would need to take place electronically.’ Interesting idea.

But, although promoting friendship -online or in person- is worthwhile, one clearly has to be careful about how rigorously it is applied. ‘If you could be punished for not being a friend rather than for being a bully, that would undermine the lawlessness that makes friendship so generative.’

And Plunkett feels one has to be particularly careful about this lawlessness. ‘As friendship becomes less lawless, [and] more guarded by cybersurveillance… it might also become less about loyalty, affinity and trust, and more about strategy, currency and a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts (‘I won’t reveal what I know about you if you don’t reveal it about me’).’

It seems to me, she is correct in suggesting that we would be unwise to imprison friendship in too tight a definition -we might find ourselves confined to stocks for punishment and public humiliation like misbehaving villagers in the 16th and 17th centuries.  So, ‘Let’s keep paying our respects to those bonds of friendship that are lawless at heart, opening new frontiers within ourselves.’

And listen to the words of poets like Kahlil Gibran:

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught
.’

If only…

Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

Sine fide, sine amicis

Have you ever wondered whether or not you could trust someone? Or wondered what that would mean for the person you’re thinking about; what it might mean for you; what it could mean for the very idea of trust itself? These are difficult issues -uncertainty itself is difficult. But, the fact there is even a question suggests that there are reasonable doubts about the reliability of other person -because if there were no doubts about them, would you still be wondering if you could trust them?

Trust risks betrayal, but it also builds something; if it turns out to be justified (when it might not have been), something valuable has been gained, even if it is only belief in the other person. Let’s face it, most of what we know about the world is because of the contributions of other people; some things -like, say, the the advice you receive from your doctor, or the knowledge that it is possible to recharge your cell phone- you are unlikely going to be able to work out for yourself from first principles. So, there are some things you are probably better off to take on trust. Some are far less clear cut, however; there are fewer guideposts. Therein lie our doubts.

There is another reason for trusting, however: the informational asymmetry between trusting and not trusting. I happened upon a brief essay by the French evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier from the CNRS (Institut Jean Nicod) in Paris. I suppose it was the title that initially attracted me: ‘The Smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting’. https://aeon.co/ideas/the-smart-move-we-learn-more-by-trusting-than-by-not-trusting

In a way, that sounds counterintuitive; surely it’s the other way around -the lesson is more strident if our trust is discovered to be unwarranted. It makes one wary of doing it again; it is not easily forgotten. Then again, whatever one learns from trusting -whether good or bad- is important, too. Trusting advice -solicited or not- often tests more than just the individual giving it. As Mercier points out, ‘when we trust, we learn not only about specific individuals, we learn more generally about the type of situations in which we should or shouldn’t trust. We get better at trusting… People who trust the media more are more knowledgeable about politics and the news. The more people trust science, the more scientifically literate they are.’ Uhmm, I didn’t just make that up…

But there is more to it than that. ‘When our trust is disappointed – when we trust someone we shouldn’t have – the costs are salient, and our reaction ranges from annoyance all the way to fury and despair. The benefit – what we’ve learnt from our mistake – is easy to overlook. By contrast, the costs of not trusting someone we could have trusted are, as a rule, all but invisible. We don’t know about the friendship we could have struck… We don’t realise how useful some advice would have been… We don’t trust enough because the costs of mistaken trust are all too obvious, while the (learning) benefits of mistaken trust, as well as the costs of mistaken mistrust, are largely hidden. We should consider these hidden costs and benefits: think of what we learn by trusting, the people whom we can befriend, the knowledge that we can gain.’

I admit that Mercier doesn’t make his case about the informational asymmetry as strongly as I would have liked, but although he hasn’t convinced me, the idea is an interesting one, and something which had not occurred to me before. Still, trusting someone you know is different from trusting a bot that sends you an Email, or a voice that tries to interest you in something on the phone. And nowadays, with the economy still reeling from the pandemic, there seem to be a lot of entreaties on a lot of venues trying to get you to trust what they say -of course, they’re often simply trying to survive…

I do not have a land line phone -I gave that up once I had retired; I rely on my cell phone on which the name of the caller is displayed if they are on my list of contacts, or at least the phone number if they are not. I mention that because I seldom answer the call if I don’t recognize the caller -or at least the number on the screen.

 A few days ago, however, I did answer without full compos mentis -I had been snoozing if you must know, and I am never at my best when I initially awaken; my croaky voice gives me away, I fear. The caller’s initial confusion at its huskiness usually allows me time to collect my wits, so I see it as a plus, really. And anyway, that day I couldn’t understand the message I was being given. The voice spoke with an accent and a rush of syllables that baffled me, although the caller did know my name and used it to suggest there was a reason I should listen to what he had to say. The slowness of my response worked in my favour, however, and it only increased my advantage when I asked the caller -a gentle sounding man, from what I could tell- to repeat the purpose of his call.

He did, of course, but although I still couldn’t make out the name of the company he represented, I could tell my hesitation was having an effect on him. I gathered he was advertising some online teaching course, and that he, in turn, was beginning to hesitate. But there was patience in his voice, and the softness in his words softened mine.

Normally, if I think I am being unfairly solicited, I either end the call, or become quite rude. For some reason, though, his voice was one which, under different circumstances, I would be inclined to trust. I just couldn’t hang up on him -it would have been impolite, I thought.

“No, I’m not interested.” I added after his second repetition, but the yawning silence that ensued made me feel I had disappointed him, or something. I quickly reconsidered my response. “But, while perhaps I should be interested in your product,” I continued, searching for an excuse to end the call politely, “As you can tell by my voice, I am rather old…” It suddenly occurred to me that I was now playing the ‘elder’ card. “I’m not sure my brain still works the way it used to at University,” I chuckled. “I don’t really want to have to confront that though… My kids would have me in the Senior’s Home in no time if they found out.” He laughed at that. My god, I was actually having a conversation with the man -befriending him almost.

The tenor of his voice changed and he apologized for bothering me -I don’t think that has ever happened to me before on one of those crank calls. And then he thanked me for being so polite over the phone. “You’ve been very patient with me sir,” he said, almost as if he was talking to his aged father. “And I’m going to take your phone number off our call list, so we don’t bother you again.”

I was beginning to like the guy, and without even hesitating, said “I really appreciate that, you know. Thank you!”

“You take care, G,” he said, using my first name.

“And you as well,” I added as I ended the call, feeling a little sad that I hadn’t asked for his name.

You know, Mercier may be on to something – there really is something to be gained by trusting…

A spur to prick the sides of my intent

Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.

And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.

Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.

But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary. https://aeon.co/essays/in-genetics-as-in-philosophy-existence-precedes-essence?

She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’

On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.

And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.

Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.

I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?

At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective.  Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.

“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.

“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.

“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.

Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”

His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”

“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”

He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”

“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”

“Well, no…”

“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.

Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.

“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”

“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”

“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”

He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”

She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”

He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”

Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”

He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”

Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”

I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”

I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…

“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”

He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…

The raven himself is hoarse

There was a time when I thought I finally had a handle on gender: it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not defined by biology or chromosomes -it’s how you think, how you feel, who you are. It should not merely be assigned, it should be assumed. And just when I thought I was escaping from the biases of another era, and beginning to see the wisdom in Bell Curve thinking, I found myself wandering in yet another labyrinth. It was only a matter of time before I met the Minotaur, I suppose.

But it all made sense: we are what we feel inside, no matter our outward assignation. And, let’s face it, none of us is always the same person -we evolve both in time and place; who we are at work, or in public, may not be the same as who we are at home and with friends. I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman confesses in his Leaves of Grass.

I am old now, and have never felt the urge to leave my tent; I do not feel imprisoned, nor deprived, and yet I can understand that others may wish to leave the flap unfastened. My own multitudes are those of ideas, not identities -sexual or otherwise- but as I say, we are all different and I have no problem with that.

Still, I enjoy opinions and ideas that trespass on Shibboleths, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay about the gender spectrum by the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, from the University of Warwick: ‘https://aeon.co/essays/the-idea-that-gender-is-a-spectrum-is-a-new-gender-prison

As she writes, ‘The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.’

And, in what Reilly-Cooper sees as the radical feminist view, ‘[G]ender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.’ That view, by the way -although I have difficulty with it- is the one which I had finally come to understand: imposed gender is a caste system, a hierarchical one in which males occupy the highest rank, and socialization proceeds accordingly. ‘So, for the radical feminist, the aim is to abolish gender altogether.’

The author, however discusses another view of gender -the queer feminist view- that  ‘what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.’ The choice isn’t simply a binary one -gender is a spectrum.

But now Reilly-Cooper’s training as a philosopher enters. ‘If’, she posits, ‘gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.’ Even the binary of Tall/Short is relative, because nobody is absolutely tall -it is merely a comparison between that individual and the average height in whatever population we are considering.

And, ‘If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender. Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.’

An interesting conclusion, especially if you expand the concept. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I think of myself as a man, and yet someone is likely to be further along the spectrum towards manhood, and would therefore be more of a man than me… Whoaa.

The author takes it further, of course: ‘In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary.’ Or, if you want to ‘identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on the spectrum? All at the same time?’ And if you don’t ‘accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission… whatever you come up with, they are going to represent opposites of one another.’

I love the way philosophers approach things, don’t you? The next question she asks is ‘how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?’ Her answer: ‘7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet… But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’… The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not simply a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are. Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function.  Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture?’ Bravo!

So, should the default then, be ‘cis’ (i.e. personal identity conforms with birth sex)? She has an answer to that one, too: A ‘desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’… Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender.’

And remember, ‘To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless… The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like. You do not need to show that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to enjoy cosmetics, cookery and crafting.’ Amen.

Somehow, I feel that Reilly-Cooper has allowed me to peek under the canvass just a little -sort of like what I used to do when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I’m sure it did not go unnoticed, but nobody seemed to mind that I was fascinated with what was going on, and that I wanted to know how it all worked -and maybe even be invited in to ask some questions.

After all, curiosity is what leads to understanding -and isn’t it better to be interested than indifferent? Or worse, intolerant?