He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Other Side: The Philosopher Pig's Dilemma

I was recently reading a piece from Sam Harris entitled, "I'm Not the Sexist Pig You're Looking For" in which he describes an encounter with someone determined to see his remarks as bigotry and unwilling to grant that he might simply be operating out of a different and legitimate mode of dealing with issues of gender.

I have had very similar encounters, and not just on the topic of gender or sex, but on any topic that has emotional gravity, and with both men and women.  I like that Sam Harris doesn't just blame feminism for the problem like plenty of others do, probably because he is a feminist and understands the problems with how we treat women individually and as a society.  So why would a man who has previously pointed out those problems and shaped his political beliefs around what would be empowering for women be on the receiving end of an accusation of anti-woman bigotry?

As I've mentioned before, men and women tend to reason differently on average because of how we have needed to evaluate risk for the sake of our survival.  These are trends driven by the somewhat different physiological characteristics of men and women and how human beings have adapted to surviving with those differences over the course of millenia.  It's really not a matter of men being stupid or women being stupid.  We're just employing somewhat different risk management heuristics in many cases, though we can and should certainly learn about other approaches.

But telling someone that, much like Sam Harris explaining that he was talking about general tendencies and facts rather than outlandishly suggesting that men couldn't be just as nurturing as women or that women can't think just as critically as men (the straw men his interlocutor allegedly used), simply isn't persuasive or helpful.  Why? 

Most people really aren't that interested in critically examining every proposition.  They are more interested in knowing who their allies are and who their enemies are; particularly when it comes to an issue of emotional significance, we are very likely to pay close attention to which people are on "our side" and which people are on "the other side" for what are perhaps obvious reasons when we understand that our survival has long depended on knowing friend from foe.

What happened in this case is that someone let Sam Harris know that she believed he was on "the other side" when he ought to be on "our side".  And when this situation is brought to his attention, he has two options from the interlocutor's standpoint.  He can apologize and come over to "our side" by submitting himself to her judgment that he's got all this unexamined bigotry or he can do absolutely anything else and ratify her view that he is an unknowing enemy of all things good and feminist.

The first option is unlikely to be the choice of a guy who spends a lot of time in self-examination and bias self-checks who probably really does have a bias in favor of women's empowerment as far as I can tell.  Which leaves him to do something other than the first option and cement himself in her eyes as an enemy.  As one of my young friends observed, "There's no way to win."  If winning means being seen as a friend rather than a foe, then he's absolutely correct.  When the options are to accept a lie about one's self and make a false apology or to stick with the truth and gain an enemy, you aren't going to have it all.

It might seem unfair to lump people into categories in which either they are either with us or against us, and maybe it is, but it's also quite sensible as an approach to managing risk with regard to relationships with other human beings.  It is much safer to assume that someone who seems unaffected and cool towards us (or our concerns) is hostile than it is to assume that the person is a friend.  We lose a great deal if we are wrong about them being a friend, and we have very little certainty about what we might gain if they are in fact a friend.

Of course, my defense of her behavior as an exercise in perfectly normal human rational risk management doesn't sound sufficiently warm and friendly, so I would probably get put in "the other side" category pretty promptly right along with Sam Harris despite my strong disagreements with him.  And maybe that is fair.  After all, my purpose here was to explore the truth of the situation rather than to make friends.  So why should I be surprised when it doesn't make friends? 

I'm not surprised at all that it doesn't make friends, but I can understand why it might be cause for Sam Harris to be disappointed that it breaks down the understanding that he wants very much to cultivate.  There will always be a disjunction created when those whose primary concern is finding truth and those whose primary concern is finding out who cares about them very strongly find themselves trying to use those very different approaches to communicate with each other.

I hope that some day the latter can understand that a sexist pig is not at all the same as a philosopher pig and that those of us who are in the former group can understand that it's a legitimate choice to care more about determining who our friends are than about pondering the mysteries of the universe when they have more immediately pressing issues to address in their lives.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Euthanizing Truth

I've been considering over the past few months what I see as one of the major prevailing problems with contemporary cultural thought and political discourse, namely that many of my contemporaries (whether older or younger in age) have an understanding of what it is to be human that is profoundly impoverished and astoundingly incoherent with the facts available to us through scientific study specifically and empirical observation generally.

Today I was looking through the latest posts from bloggers I follow and stumbled upon a quite enjoyable and scathing critique of a film critic expressing his mixed feelings about what he describes as the Death of Adulthood in American Culture.  After reading A.O. Scott's article, I am left feeling that he has correctly identified a problem while misidentifying the evidence for it and diagnosing the cause incorrectly.

In particular, I tend to agree with the always entertaining author at The Belle Jar that the piece has the following problems:

  1. The author proposed no useful or coherent definition of adulthood.  His understanding of adulthood seems to be best exemplified by the most superficial aspects of human behavior like what styles of clothing we wear or whether or not we purchase books from the young adult fiction section of Barnes & Noble.  Despite the fact that my book purchases run heavily to the very philosophical and intellectual side and my clothing choices are well in line with plain old "adult" attire for a 50 year old man despite the fact that I've recently turned 30 years old, I have no sense that my choices in these areas are indicative of my adulthood so much as my practical desire to find clothing easily.  Or perhaps that my rebellious bent has typically been to change myself radically internally rather than in an external fashion.
  2. The author suggested that "the patriarchy" was dead, which I can only assume is predicated on an understanding of patriarchy that most contemporary feminist writers do not share.  From what I can glean from The Belle Jar and many other feminist publications, their understanding is that patriarchy will exist until there are no longer any disciplines or types of leadership roles in which alpha males are the majority and no longer any areas of life in which men on average have more power than women.  So once we have moved beyond our biology and stopped being a primate species in which males and females tend to employ very different risk management strategies, patriarchy as understood by many contemporary feminists might be rightly declared dead.  But we're a long way from that reality.
  3. The author asks us to look at cultural feminism as a cause of the death of adulthood and a move toward continuing our youthful hobbies and fandoms in spite of our increasing age, correlating this with the freer societies born of a rebellious spirit of the age that sought to tear down the old social structures with very little thought about how to replace those structures beyond, "Let's all be nice to each other, dude."  It's a disturbingly common move to blame current negative societal trends on feminism, and typically this move is a failure to properly distinguish correlation from causation aggravated by the fact that feminism is a convenient scapegoat because it is one of the rallying cries for those who imagine themselves to be radically in contradiction of the dominant culture, a culture that has not actually been dominant since the generation of their aged parents or grandparents.

As much as I sympathize with A.O. Scott's general sense that we are losing something important and useful in our grand American cultural shift while gaining other important things, I think that he has missed the mark entirely in understanding the cause of and evidence for the loss.  This is likely because he shares the values of those who propose a juvenile anthropology and seek to support us in living down to the standard of being man-babies who fill the space in our lives with leisure because advertising executives have thoroughly convinced us that it's the best thing for us, far better than that nonsense about creating a loving household or raising virtuous human beings into adulthood or selflessly doing good work for the poor and vulnerable.  He strongly sympathizes with a desire to tear down the old order and leave an unhealthy vacuum in its place, but recognizes the problems that inevitably result from doing just that when he writes:

"The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment."

The difficulty here is that he does not understand the connection between his own juvenile anthropology which proposes that social order does not require authority (as it does in fact for most individuals) and the inevitable result of applying it to human societies as described above.  And it's even worse than what he describes. Every individual's inarguable likes and dislikes are not simply elevated over formal critical discourse; they are taken to be valid as a form of critical discourse.  The two quite different things are conflated so that there is no longer any such thing as formal critical discourse.  The content of the phrase is supplanted by a mewling egotistical cry to not go around challenging the person so that they can wallow in their mediocrity.  Formal critical discourse is re-imagined as a process of validating the existing opinions and behaviors of everyone we engage in intellectual discussion; it becomes the vehicle by which we enforce the non-existence of the truth we had previously sought by using formal critical discourse as a method.

In a delicious bit of irony, our youth-obsessed commercialized culture of reckless agreeableness helps us quite compassionately put to death the very thing we so often claim to have an interest in finding: the truth that is out there waiting for us to find it with the help of our fellow human beings.