More than kin and less than kind

Am I really the me I think I am -the cogito ergo sum I have been led to believe? Or have I been naïve all these years in assuming my identity rests solely inside somewhere -in the uniqueness of my brain, maybe, or in the peculiarities of my experiences that no one else could ever hope to share in the same intimate fashion? Am I, in other words, a self-portrait?

I was raised in a society that values self-fulfillment as if were a birthright. Even the motto of my high school was ad maiora natus sum –‘I was born for better things’. Not we, you understand but I… me. And, of course, my teachers were only too happy to inculcate the values of independence and self-reliance in each and every one of us. Competitions on the sports field, and gradations in our marks, only heightened the feeling that each of us was separate, and in charge of our ranking, somehow. It seemed only natural -to some of us, at any rate- to see ourselves as nascent statues seeking our own pedestals.

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that as I grew older and gained more experience, I began to realize that I was not alone. Much like my shadow that followed me everywhere, so did the world. Indeed, everything I did, and much of what I thought, was influenced by others -either by assimilation, or unwitting imitation. The opinion of others, although sometimes shunned, was more often modified and subsequently integrated as if by disguising it, I became the author. And yet, deep down, I realized that the parthenogenesis of ideas was largely fictive. I was swimming in the same waters as everyone else…

But it was not as traumatic as I might have predicted in my tutored youth. In fact, on reflection, it has been more affirming than repudiating, more reassuring than discouraging -almost as if I had finally been accepted as a member of something I had unconsciously coveted all along. I had not capitulated to something I had struggled against, but, instead of staring through its windows like a bewildered shopper, I was welcomed through the door.

But why? Why the initial reluctance to accept my membership in something to which I had always belonged? Some of the answers emerged in an online publication, Aeon, from an essay by Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science student at University College Dublin. https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons

‘We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues… Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.’

‘The 17th-century French philosopher [René Descartes] believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.’ The only thing I can say for certain is that I am, because I am the entity able to conceptualize it. The rest of the world could be a dream -but not the dreamer… So this leaves the effects of anything else on us in a sort of limbo.

Of course others have tried to get around the problem: the 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin ‘believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity… Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.’

I love that. It suggests that we derive our identity -our very existence as that identity- through our interactions, recognition and validation by others. Think of people in solitary confinement in prisons. ‘studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.’

And it’s not just in prisons we can disappear. I met her at a bus stop -or, rather, she met me. I  happened to be the first person in a lengthy, but orderly queue waiting in the rain for a long overdue bus.

“I was actually first,” she said, staring at me defiantly. She was well dressed in a grey skirt and I could just see a frilly white blouse under her upmarket raincoat. Her short, dark hair was barely mussed in the wind and rain it was now enduring. “I was waiting over there… Out of the rain,” she added, as if to prove her point.

I smiled pleasantly at her as the bus pulled up. “I should have done the same,” I said, furling my embarrassingly inadequate umbrella.

“I didn’t want you to think I just came along, you know,” she persisted. “Sometimes people get really upset when they’ve been waiting in line…”

The way she said it made me think this probably wasn’t the first time she’d crashed a queue. “No, please go in front of me,” I said, trying to show I was not upset. “It’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella.”

She promptly boarded the already crowded bus, then signalled me to sit beside her on one of the only remaining seats. “Do you live in the city?” she asked as soon as I was settled. She looked anxious.

I nodded politely, thinking she was just looking for a way to start a conversation.

“A house…?”

I nodded again, but her eyes immediately landed painfully on my face.

“Landlord, or renter?”

“Excuse me?” It seemed like a trick question, and I was immediately wary.

“You live in a house,” she said slowly and carefully, as if I was hard of hearing.

I nodded, carefully.

“Are you renting it?”

This was getting uncomfortable. “Why do you ask?”

Her eyes scratched at my face for a moment, before flying off again. “Because the city is trying to institute rent controls.” She frowned as she said it.

I brushed her cheek with a quick glance before I stared at my lap. I still wasn’t sure why she was asking. “Do you think that’s a good thing…?” I asked, trying to seem tentative.

“Oh yes!” she hurried to answer. I could almost feel the exclamation mark hovering between us. “Landlords shouldn’t be able to take advantage of their tenants.”

“So, I take it you are a renter?” I said kindly.

“Of course! I’m a single woman now. I’ll never be able to buy a house…”

“Do you like the place you rent?” I asked, trying to change the subject a bit.

She blinked at me, probably wondering if I was trying to trap her, but she relaxed a little. “It’s a bit of a hovel, really. The fridge makes a noise and only one of the burners on the stove works. The walls need some paint, and the rug is frayed…” She sighed and fiddled with a button on her coat. “But it’s the only place I could find.” She looked at the person sitting in front of her for a moment. “I thought it had promise when I first saw it, though…”

I had obviously unleashed something.

“The landlord says he wants to fix it up.”

“Certainly sounds like it could use some work,” I said, smiling.

She glared at me for a moment, and then softened her expression. “That’s exactly what he said.” She glanced out of the window at the rain. “But then he said he would have to raise the rent to pay for it.”

“Do you think that’s fair,” I asked.

I could see she was about to say ‘no’, but she changed her mind and turned her head to look out of the window again. Finally, she shrugged. “We’re both caught, aren’t we? On the one hand, I don’t want to pay more, but on the other, I’d love to see the place fixed up.”

“But if rent controls come into effect, he’s also in a bind, isn’t he?”

She nodded sombrely. “I mean, they’re probably a good idea, but…”

“But they don’t work for you or your landlord…”

She sighed again, and then shrugged.

“Of course there is a way out, isn’t there?” I said, thinking I was just stating the obvious.

She nodded. “Let him fix the place, and pay more rent.”

“Could you not come to a fair compromise with him about the price? Or maybe agree to a gradual increase over, say, a year, or something?” I smiled conspiratorially at her. “After all, rent controls only kick in if you complain.”

I could see her eyes widen as she thought about it. She nodded her head, slowly, and a smile quietly spread over her face. “He’s actually a decent guy…” Suddenly she reached for the pull cord. “My goodness, we’ve been talking so much I almost missed my stop,” she said as she stood and squeezed past me. And then she turned to face me as she struggled through the people standing in the aisle. “I’m so glad I talked to you,” she said. “Thank you,” was the last I heard from her as she disappeared through the sea of dripping coats.

Sometimes it’s good to talk about your problems, I thought and smiled to myself, glad that I might have helped her. ‘A person is a person through other persons’ -wasn’t that the Zulu phrase Abeba Birhane had quoted in that article…?

Here’s ado to lock up honesty

Sometimes I think we want to simplify things too much; we crave bichromality: on or off, yes or no. We want certainty, not a spectrum. An answer, not another question -a decision, in other words. And yet if we stop to look around, it seems obvious that things are seldom black or white -there are colours everywhere.

Relationships are no different -how could they be when two unique individuals are involved? When evaluated over any period of time, they are in constant flux. Contingent. Their often turbulent waters involve negotiation -one might even say navigation. There are no reliable maps -and unless there is local knowledge, ‘Here be dragons’ like those drawn on medieval charts in areas where there was insufficient information to avoid dangers.

Even initial reassurance may require sudden modification depending upon the conditions -we cannot always know in advance how things will work out. Indeed, the very fragility of the substrate is one of the important reasons why we are so enamoured with fine porcelain, with delicate lacework, with Trust.

But relationships, except in a legal and sometimes transactional sense, are seldom maintained by official written contracts -it’s more of an understanding, verbal or otherwise. This is fine, of course, but susceptible to misunderstanding or deliberate deception. Vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in either partner. Difficulties in effective communication…

Words, words, words,’ says Hamlet to Polonius. It almost doesn’t need an explanation, does it? Similar to his ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ -although admittedly in a different context. But the meaning is clear: one can hide behind a curtain of sound, or a reassuring appearance, so that what is being conveyed may be confusing -purposely, or accidentally.

The problem, I suppose, is in knowing the intent of either one of the participants and its effects on the other. This is especially important in sexual matters where effective communication often lags behind the actions, and frequently is restricted to vague, initial permission followed by hormonal dictates.

It is a subject that people often feel reluctant to talk much about beforehand. Meanings of words and actions can change in the heat of battle, making prior negotiation -setting ground rules, and such- important. Sexual dialogue is not something taught particularly well in School Health Classes, so I was pleased to find an article in Aeon that was willing to tackle it head on. https://aeon.co/essays/consent-and-refusal-are-not-the-only-talking-points-in-sex

The author, Rebecca Kukla, is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She explores the language of sexual negotiation. ‘Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean.’ She writes that, ‘all speech acts are governed by what philosophers call ‘felicity norms’ and ‘propriety norms’. Felicity norms are the norms that make a certain speech act a coherent possibility… I can’t name someone else’s baby just because I feel like it, by shouting a name at it. These would be infelicitous speech acts. ‘Propriety norms are norms that make a speech act situationally appropriate. So, although I have the authority to order my son to clean his room, it would be a massive norm violation for me to walk into his classroom at school and shout at him to clean his room in the middle of class.’

‘In public discussions about the ethics of sexual communication, we have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech when it comes to ethical sex… Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you. Paradigmatically, consent (or refusal of consent) is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position. And in practice, given cultural realities, our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her.’

And yet, ‘Autonomous, willing participation is necessary for ethical sex, but it is not sufficient. We can autonomously consent to all sorts of bad sex, for terrible reasons. I might agree to do something that I find degrading or unpleasantly painful, for instance, perhaps because I would rather have bad sex than no sex at all, or because my partner isn’t interested in finding out what would give me pleasure.’

‘Usually, when all goes well, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests… But when I’m trying to establish intimacy with someone as I am getting to know them, an invitation is more typical and likely more conducive to good, flourishing sex than a request… Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter.’ An invitation to dinner, for example. And ‘An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.’

‘A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding… Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.’

Kukla goes on to talk about when and if invitations are appropriate, and then about such issues as ‘gifts’ of sex in long-term relationships, as well as the sociology of gifting. But her discussion of ‘safe words’ I think is one of the most important topics she covers. So, ‘Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously (for instance, by accepting an invitation), we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely. Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity.’

‘Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing (although they can also be used when there has been a transgression)… One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral… We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context.’

And, as she suggests, ‘Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily.’ But, of course, ‘safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity – all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well.’

Unfortunately, the ‘strong social tendency to focus our discussions of sexual negotiation on consent and refusal has resulted in a narrowed and distorted view of the pragmatics of sexual communication. Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent.’ Kukla feels that ‘sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication – including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.’

There is so much more to communication than words, isn’t there -and so much more to words than meets the ear?  Hamlet again: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’

Lying down in green pastures

I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.

And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.

In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.

Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.

The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that  obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-translation-obscured-the-music-and-wordplay-of-the-bible

‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’

So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’

For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’

The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.

But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable-  and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…

Is your wisdom consumed in confidence?

How do we know what we know? It’s a question I used to think was obvious: if we cannot investigate the answer ourselves, we turn to others –somebody will know. Even the polymaths of old relied on other people for the groundwork on which they built. Nobody can know everything -knowledge is a jigsaw puzzle, the integral pieces of which make little sense on their own. We have to know what fits, and where.

But how do we know who to trust? How do we know who knows? If the foundation on which we construct is badly planned -or worse, wrong– the building will not last. Think of Ptolemy and his epicycles that became hopelessly complicated in a vain attempt to explain celestial movements and maintain earth as the center of the universe.

And it’s not as if Scientists are always reliable anyway. Consider the disappointment of Fleischmann-Pons’ claims that they had produced ‘cold fusion’ -a nuclear reaction occurring at room temperature? More ominous by far, however, was Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that claimed that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) caused autism. The paper was retracted by the journal in 2004, but by then, the damage had been done.

My point is that if we are not careful about the source -the reputation- of our information we may be led astray. It’s an almost trite observation, perhaps, but in this era of ‘Fake News’, one best kept in mind. I was again reminded of the importance of this in an essay by Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher, and a tenured senior researcher at CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris. She was writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/say-goodbye-to-the-information-age-its-all-about-reputation-now

As she observes, ‘[T]he greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced … we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others … reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know … In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out ‘truths’ from false hypotheses and complete ‘bullshit’ about nature. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels that endorse a political view which supports scientific research to summarise its findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice-removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.’

So how do we ever know whether we are building on sand or rock? Let’s face it, few of us are competent to judge the raw data of a scientific study, let alone repeat the experiment to verify the results. And how many of us would be inclined to repeat it even if we could? No, some things we simply have to take on trust.

Even so, Origgi offers us another option: ‘What a mature citizen of the digital age should be competent at is not spotting and confirming the veracity of the news. Rather, she should be competent at reconstructing the reputational path of the piece of information in question, evaluating the intentions of those who circulated it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility.’ As the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist and political philosopher wrote, ‘civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’

I’m trying to learn from Origgi, though. I’m trying to pick my filters carefully. Figure out their agendas. Sometimes you can even do that by listening.

I was sitting in my favourite dark corner of Starbucks the other day when two women sat down at the table next to me. I’m not sure they even noticed my ears in the shadows because they seemed to be in the middle of a conversation about technology as they each held their phones in front of them like crucifixes warding off the devil.

“I got a new running app, Fran,” said a tall thin woman with short curly dark hair and attired in expensive looking running gear.

“Which app you using, Dor?” her friend responded, equally attired and reaching for Dor’s phone.

“It’s a new one,” Dor said, holding it out of Fran’s reach. “Supposed to be the best at approximating calorie expenditure. Takes account of your weight, leg length, and then adds in changes in altitude on the run, as well as the time taken.” She looked at it again. “Even asks for a picture so you can post.”

Fran smiled benevolently. “Your IP address and Email, too?”

“Huh?”

“Privacy, Dor. Privacy.”

Dor stared at her quizzically for a moment. “I just figured they were being thorough, eh? More accurate… Anyway, they know all that other stuff nowadays.”

Fran stared back, and then sighed. “I suppose they do, but I refuse to make it easy for them… Sometimes you’re so naïve, my friend.”

“But…”

Fran shook her head. “I’ve just got a simple running app. And they didn’t ask for my picture.”

Dor blinked -rather provocatively I thought. “The more info, the more accurate the assessment, don’t you think?”

Fran rolled her eyes. “Well, we’ve just run together this morning -let’s see if the calorie count is the same.” She glanced at her screen. “I’ve got 725 cals. And 5K. for distance. How about you?”

“1100… and 4.85 K” Dor smiled. “I like mine better.”

Fran leaned across the table and peeked at the other screen. “Your app looks pretty well the same as mine… Yours play music?” Dor nodded. “And give verbal encouragement?”

“Uhmm, well I don’t turn on all the audio stuff… But I had to pay to download this one so it probably does.” She started tapping and then turned the screen so Fran could see it. “See? It won some sort of award for excellence.”

Fran sat back in her seat, her expression unreadable. “You paid? Mine’s free…” She began a similar tapping frenzy. “Mine won an award, too… Who makes yours?”

Dor started scrolling down her screen and then turned it towards Fran again. “Can’t pronounce it, but here…”

Fran showed her own screen. “It’s the same company, Dor!”

They were both silent for a moment. Then Dor smiled contentedly. “You get what you pay for, I guess, eh?”

I smiled to myself, still hidden in the shadows, and wondered what Origgi would make of the effort of these two mature citizens of the digital age. At least they were trying -and after all, they had pretty well figured out the intentions and agendas of their source…

Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/beyond-reason-the-mathematical-equation-for-unconditional-love

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.

 

 

 

All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.