Sapere audi

Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?

Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.

An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago: https://aeon.co/ideas/if-anyone-can-see-the-morally-unthinkable-online-what-then

‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’

Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’

As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’

In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?

I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.

A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.

I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.

But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.

The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.

But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.

In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…

Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.

Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.

Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.

Death, Thou shalt Die

Just when you think that Age has afforded you a full panoply of experience, another one comes along that you are forced to fit into the bookcase. It may be sufficiently unique as to require an entirely new shelf, but more likely, it will be something so obvious that you’re embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before, and can squeeze it in beside another thing you’ve already read.

The internet does stuff like that -to me anyway. Permutations and combinations of issues I had always believed were immutably fixed in time and space unravel at warp speed making me question the wisdom of any assumptions it was thought safe to trust when I was growing up.

Like Death, for example. It used to be that after someone died, all that remained were memories, and perhaps a few of their possessions. ‘Dead and gone’ was a relatively intuitive reality in those days; ‘Dead and present’ was an oxymoron. Now, most of us have digital feet that continue to walk the screen no matter our corporeal substance. And, apart from the nuisance algorithms that track me from app to app, I had not given those footfalls much thought -until, that is, I came across an article in the Conversation on digital grieving by Jo Bell, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull: https://theconversation.com/how-the-internet-is-changing-the-way-we-grieve-100134

She writes that ‘These days the dead are now forever present online and digital encounters with someone who has passed away are becoming a common experience. […] Each one of us has a digital footprint – the accumulation of our online activity that chronicles a life lived online through blogs, pictures, games, web sites, networks, shared stories and experiences. When a person dies, their “virtual selves” remain out there for people to see and interact with. These virtual selves exist in the same online spaces that many people use every day.’

When I first thought about this -the idea of inadvertently coming across someone, or something from whoever had died- I worried about the effect, and how I would react. But, as the author reports, ‘Yet for some, these spaces have become a valuable tool – especially so for the bereaved. An emerging body of research is now looking at the ways the internet, including social media and memorial websites, are enabling new ways of grieving – that transcend traditional notions of “letting go” and “moving on”.’

I was, of course, aware of the concept and probable value of memorials, but I have to confess that I hadn’t thought of them in terms of lasting online tributes. To be sure, I was weaned in another epoch when, apart from an obituary notice in the local paper, or flowers on a tombstone, there were precious few options to show that you remembered someone. But, of course, people today use the modalities they are used to.

Suicide is a devastating act, not only for the victim, but especially for those who are left behind. It makes sense that the friends would need to process the act as best they could. ‘For many mourners, the most important motivating factor seems to be the need to stay connected to the deceased and to “keep them alive”. And keeping a Facebook page going by actively maintaining the “in life” profile of the deceased, or creating a new “in memorial” profile, allows users to send private or public messages to the deceased and to publicly express their grief. […] The use of social media in this way goes some way towards answering the question of where to put one’s feelings – such as love, grief, guilt – after a death. And many people turn to the same sites to promote awareness raising and fund raising for various charities in memory of their loved ones.’

‘Unlike sentimental objects, social media pages and online spaces allow people to explore grief with others from the comfort of their own home. Talking to people online can also help to free up some of the inhibitions that are otherwise felt when talking about loss – it enables forms of uncensored self-expression that are not comparable with face-to-face conversations.’ Indeed, as they evolve, perhaps ‘online memorial sites and social networking spaces help the bereaved to see how events in the past can continue to have value and meaning in the present and the future.’

I was sitting in a dark corner of my usual Starbucks a few weeks ago thinking more of shadows than of death, when a couple of middle aged women sat down at the next table. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid them much heed, but one of them, a rather buxom lady was wearing a loose white turtle neck sweater that kept snagging one of her hoop earrings. Still waiting for my sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich to cool, I have to admit I was searching for a divertissement, and her ear seemed as good as any.

‘I visited Krissy again today, Helen,” she said matter-of-factly to her similarly attired and equally Rubenesque friend.

Helen looked up from her still steaming espresso macchiato “That’s nice, dear. Anything new?”

Her friend shrugged and cuddled her cinnamon dolce latte in two serviettes folded to dissipate the heat, I suppose. “Well, a few others must have visited her earlier, because I saw some collars, and a milk bone…”

Helen nodded, but she sat back a little in her chair and left the macchiato to cool in front of her. I could see her staring at her friend, even in the dim light. “Julie, it’s been, what, two months since…”

“Seventy-eight days,” Julie interrupted her with an intensity that made me wonder if her latte had just burned through the napkins.

Helen nodded sympathetically and reached over the table to stroke Julie’s free hand. “I know dear… but…”

“But Krissy loves the attention, don’t you think?” Julie sighed at the thought.

“Loved, Julie. Loved…” Helen corrected her gently, and I could see her begin to stroke her friend’s wrist.

Julie’s face suddenly winced as her earring grappled with her sweater once again.

Helen seemed to think it was more than a simple entanglement. “There comes a time when you have to let her pass, dear,” she said, and squeezed Julie’s hand before letting it go.

“You mean take it down, don’t you…?” There was a look of desperation in Julie’s eyes, although in the shadows it was difficult to be sure. “But people are still leaving bones…” She was almost pleading now.

Helen smiled and reached across the table again, but Julie was already standing up.

“I… I need some air, Helen,” she said stiffly and began to walk away.

Helen shook her head slowly, gulped down her macchiato, and rose to follow her out of the door.

My breakfast sandwich seemed pleasantly warm in the sudden silence, so I took an experimental bite and sat back in my chair to enjoy it. For some things, I realized as I chewed contentedly, memory is enough. I felt no need to Facebook the disappearing sausage and egg…