Monday, July 26, 2010

Types of Freedom

Here’s a link about financial reform before the recent bill was passed, along with my commentary.

The first thing to notice is that the author is straightforward about literally wanting the banks to have less money. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, how do you democratically and morally take money away from banks in a way that evidence shows does the most good? It’s a hard question. I mean, certainly the idea that too much money = too much control over democracy certainly seems to make sense, both a priori and in looking at the state of this country. A recent conversation with a libertarian friend had him declaring that if government interfered less, businesses would have far less incentive to interfere at all. There are several problems with that, starting with the fact that special interest groups exist in order to ask for benefits even without precedent, and that businesses would always have incentives to buy out senators.

But, if we take that as a philosophical idea, here are my thoughts.

There are many types of freedoms. For example: economic, political and individual freedom. I thought, as a civil libertarian and socialist, I'd come to the conclusion that economic freedom is just different, it can be excluded in a way that the others can't. Perhaps because money breeds money, because the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, not shrinking, because without money people live on the streets and starve and die or because money has an undue influence on democracy.

But thinking about it now, that's not how it is. It's exactly the same as the others. In some cases you need negative freedoms, that is, the freedom to not be taxed to death, to not have to purchase something in particular from some place in particular, just as you need to be able to not be stopped from going where you like and saying what you like. But you also need positive freedoms, like the right to go vote, the positive participation in democracy. In economic terms, that might mean freedom from want, freedom from the fear and undue stress that comes from abject and even not so abject poverty.

Some things I've been reading recently have made me rethink my stance on what can be learned from the ever-feared socialist and otherwise repressive governments of the 20th century and their (I argue tenuous) connections to FDR and New Deal-style democracy. What role does economic freedom play? Is it that individual freedoms are great but must be put in the context of society? Is economic freedom fundamentally different? Si Kahn, famous community organizer during the civil rights movement, whose book, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, I think, really said it when he noted that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from the vast amount of totalitarian oppression and restriction of freedom in the 20th century. We learned that government was scary and bad. What we should have learned was that lots of things are scary and bad (Chomsky and Brandeis would say that big things are scary and bad) and that maybe we should look at what those are exactly and what institutions and resources we have in place at our disposal.

So we know that poverty and death and segregation and concentration camps and lack of security are bad. So we have corporations, who sometimes aid and fund all those things (if you think that I'm exaggerating, look at for-profit prisons), that we can ostensibly control using our money and our free choices. And we have governments, which often do all of those things, that we can supposedly control through the democratic process. We also know that when properly used, both can be forces for good. And what's really cool about being progressive, and thus following a consequentialist ethic in how we get to a freer, more egalitarian society, is you can say, well great, let's play these massive, ineradicable forces off against each other. So let's put in some laws that protect people (like FDIC and the Fed's emergency funds) but be sure that there are strict regulations (like Glass-Steagal/Volcker or all the regulation that Dick Cheney took away from oil drilling).

Then the corporations have less power and money to screw with democracy and hurt us. Because democracy is good, it's a positive right we have. And we, the people, are good, and ought not to be hurt. And then when government fails us, as it often does, and we note that democracy is standing in the way of democracy, then we do something else, maybe in the private sector, maybe through community organizing maybe through moving our money from big banks to community ones. Remember that the progressive way is to use things as a means to an end. Everyone, especially libertarians and tea partiers, learned the wrong lessons. Government really can work for us, and the political process is really important. But also, we can force big forces to work for us.

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions."
- Noam Chomsky

Or something like that.

Comprehending Cat-Calling

So, I just wrote partly about objectification in my last post, but a fairly interesting idea came to me a few days ago and I kind of wanted to discuss it. As a premise, I feel that fashion, like so many other things, is a language. It speaks both to the public at large and to the wearer, sometimes in the same way, and sometimes in entirely different ways. For example, I was once at a frat party in order to keep a friend, who was collecting money, company. I had no intention of going inside, I wasn’t in a frat party mood, and I had come from elsewhere, so I was wearing a skirt to my knees and a long sleeved T-shirt. That said to the world something along the lines of, “I don’t really belong here.” Or, “I’m not like you.” Which I suppose is a step up from what my fashion choices usually say, which is “I don’t really care about fashion, I just wear clothes because they serve certain practical purposes.” Anyway, that’s fine that that’s what they said, but to me, they had an entirely different message. They communicated, “Chana, you are a beautiful girl who could easily, with the right motivation or desire, feel sexy dressing the way these girls do, and that would be fine. But you feel sexy now, wearing this, and that is very cool.”

Anyway, back to the story.
So, I was in a not entirely good mood, and I wanted to dress in a way that said, “I am beautiful and wonderful and here I am.” So I put on a skirt and T-shirt or whatever and walked to class. On the way, I had a few interactions that I really enjoyed, talking and saying hi to strangers. And then, at some point, a car full of guys drove by and whistled or made some comment. I don’t exactly remember. But I didn’t mind, much, which is unusual for me. Interestingly, a twitterer I follow, named feministhulk (who is great, by the way), said something recently about this exact phenomenon. The twitter account releases impassioned statements in all caps, and this one said, “HULK TRY TO OPEN MIND, SMASH EPISTEMOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS WHICH LIMIT HULK'S THOUGHT, BUT HULK WILL NEVER GET CAT-CALLING.”

So my original thoughts on cat-calling were not particularly well-defined. I thought that, in general, it created a hostile environment and was fairly skeevy and an all-around bad way of telling someone you find them attractive. It makes women feel like they’re always, constantly being judged, and even if that’s true, there’s no reason why it has to be obnoxiously nailed into their heads in such an obvious and crude manner. I had little respect for men who took part in such activities, especially because it seemed more like frat-boy male bonding than anything else, and at the expense of someone’s ease and comfort in their environment. At the same time, I was aware that as I physically matured, there was an element of excitement and appreciation for a no-commitment positive commentary on my appearance. A cheap and superficial route to validation, to be sure, but not necessarily inherently evil. The general principle I derived was that to seek to be sexually appealing in order to draw compliments in order to boost self-esteem or something similar is fairly disgusting. However, the general act of wanting to be seen as sexually attractive is not. That’s a perfectly legitimate message to send, though one should certainly be aware of it. So I sort of understand cat-calling.

Anyway, much more interestingly, this new idea I had struck me as I thought about whether or not, in this instance, I’d been objectified. My answer was, well, I don’t feel particularly objectified, and those guys drove off so quickly that they weren’t able to make me feel trapped in a hostile environment, so maybe not. I mean, I’m clearly inhabiting my body, I am a subject, and so, in this case, I’ll say no. But as I went through this line of reasoning, I realized I wasn’t thinking of the guys as people; in fact, they had become part of my environment. I had sent a message to the environment, and it had responded in a way I was not only not uncomfortable with, in this case I had liked. Which is fine, I suppose, but note that those men had, unwittingly, objectified themselves.

So why is objectification bad? Not just for the obvious reasons. But because it objectifies you. In calling out anonymously, cravenly, you become part of the environment rather than a person in your own right.

Confession: Once I was walking around the streets of northern Chicago with some girlfriends, and we’d been hollered at incessantly for the better part of an hour. So when I saw a van full of teenage boys drive by, I yelled, “Looking good, boys!” which at the time, I thought was hilarious. I realized some inconsistency, but they’d seemed to appreciate it. But now I realize, that not only does that sort of behavior continue the cycle of objectification, it doesn’t do me any favors. Two arguments better than one?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Objectification and Sexism on the Interwebs

So, the atheo-scientific-feminist-liberal blogosphere sort of exploded over the last few weeks about a post I can’t link to because it’s been taken down over at Common Sense Atheism. The blogger decided to create a list of 15 Sexy Scientists, which was composed of both professional looking pictures and photos clearly intended to have some kind of sexual value (such as a woman in a bikini or some such). This has been discussed to an extent I couldn’t hope to match in all of the places mentioned here . As a result, I won’t be commenting a great deal on whether what he did was ethical or not, but rather some general lessons to be learned from the experience.

Lesson 1: Women are different from men

Don’t misinterpret: I think that gender ought to be completely abstracted out from sex, that the dichotomy of gender identity is harmful and obsolete, that gender is clearly a spectrum rather than a duality, and that placing people into two categories that they have little control over and making judgments and decisions based on those classifications is a major problem and leads to a great deal of misunderstandings at best and highly unethical actions at worst. Regardless of these opinions, which I might discuss another time, the fact remains that we do not live in a genderless society. We may never live in such a utopia, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that, at this moment, despite the fact that based on the criteria you choose, I might be much better categorized with female-bodied people who identify male, or male-bodied people who identify as male or any possible combination you can think of, there are things I have in common with female-identified people that I do not have with male identified people. And I mean this in the societally-identified way, not the self-identified way. We are a political minority. In many ways, we are marginalized, harassed, mistreated, oppressed and discriminated against. It is hard to be a woman.

It should be eminently clear from this lesson that therefore, arguments like, “well, it was ok when we did it to men. You feminists are all about equality, right? So this must be ok. Shut up” simply do not hold water. Making a list of sexy men is different from making a list of sexy women. They are seen differently, treated differently, and the ramifications are vastly different for the people involved. More later.

Lesson 2: The actions of individuals have implications for the culture as a whole, whether they are intended to or not

This list perpetuates the notion that women are always first female, then scientists, first to be judged based on attractiveness, then on quality of work. For the women in the photos, they have been sexualized, perhaps without their desire, in a way that is simply impossible for men. For those not in the photos, they simply didn’t make it. Their unattractiveness makes them invisible to the world of the internet, and there’s really nothing they can do about it. For all women, especially women in science, it sends the message that their work, their vocation, is secondary to the ratios of their nose to the length of their face and other such meaningless qualities.

The post also just made science feel that much less appealing for women. Whatever the intent of the blogger, it felt skeevy and creepy. I heard the argument, online and from a male friend, that because the photos were on the internet, it was no longer up to the women to decide what was done with them. To some extent, that’s true, but we can still criticize the way in which they were used. For the professional looking pictures, it’s like women who go out in public and are ogled by strangers. Of course they’re in a public place, of course it’s legal, but it can still create a culture of discomfort no matter what a woman is doing or wearing. For the sexier pictures, it implies that women aren’t allowed to organize their lives the way they see fit. If they were ever a model, or have ever publicly demonstrated that they like to be found attractive, from then on, the professional work they do will be colored by that fact. For example, see Olivia Munn from the Daily Show.

I realize that emotion-based morality is not particularly tenable, but in this case, it’s relevant. If women feel that in the male-dominated world of science (or atheism or whatever), all of the same rules apply about proper conduct that make it very difficult to be a woman, to be female, to be visible, it will almost certainly make science a less appealing prospect. And that’s really a shame. The ratios in math, physics and other disciplines are skewed enough as it is. Let’s not waste more talent through poorly thought out jokes.

Lesson 3: What does objectification mean?

Ok, there are a lot of spectrums in many dimensions to get a hold of here. What should women look like? According to whom? What should they wear? In what contexts? Should they do what works for them or pay attention to the messages they’re sending? Can we compartmentalize? Essentially, what does it mean to be a woman?

My basic analysis looks something like this. Women should feel comfortable going about their daily lives. In one sense, that means they should wear what makes them feel comfortable, whether that means sweatpants because they don’t give a damn what people think, pencil skirt and heels because they feel like powerful professional women who matter, jeans and a T-shirt because who gives a damn what you wear to the lab, or a hot dress because dammit, they’re a sexual being comfortable with their attractiveness and sexuality, and that’s what’s up. All of that is important. What makes it ok for them to do such things and not as ok for men to comment or ogle or catcall or make judgments is that when the women take actions they are comfortable with, they are subjects, active conscious participants in their own lives. When men comment in disparaging or sexist ways, they are objects, sexual or otherwise. And therein lies the difference. There are some other subtleties that go along with this, too. For example, I would find it inappropriate for a girl to wear very sexual or revealing clothing to class, because she would be perpetuating the culture of women being perceived first as sex objects, then as, in this example, intellectuals, which would reflect negatively and make things harder for me. But in general, the lesson is that it’s very important to understand objectification and how it works in society.

Lesson 4: Sexism is not only perpetuated by sexists

The blogger at common sense atheism is not sexist. He seems to be an intelligent, deep thinking intellectual who values ethical conduct. He had a mature and appropriate response, and sought to learn from the process and in general reach a better understanding of the topics at hand. Even so, he screwed up. We need to learn then, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and make sure that while they realize their error, they are not thrown to the gutter in an instant. Feminist men are great; let’s not alienate them. At the same time, just because a man feels he is not sexist does not mean he can use that as a defense. In fact, he should work to maintain that classification by remaining sensitive and keeping his judgments mutable.

I think these are sort of the broad ideas that should be explored in further depth if we are to reach a consensus on appropriate, respectful, community-oriented behavior online, IRL, and in general.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Importance of Stories, Part II: Groups and Communities

Now I want to connect the idea of stories back to my post on the Texas schoolbook issue. My last post ended up focusing on individual stories, which are very important, but neglected group stories. Political campaigns, concepts of nationhood, genealogies: these are all about stories, lived, and narratives, constructed and imposed. Leftist radical groups, royal monarchies, families, religions, any sort of community. They have stories and narratives. Sometimes those stories are fraught with atrocities, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with both. They can be long or short, monotonous or conflicted. They give people focus and community, happiness and hope. They deeply affect the way that people think about themselves and they way they act in relation to each other. So when we talk about understanding humanity, we need to understand stories.

Just to preface, I don’t have nearly the reverence for group stories that I do for individual stories. I think they are just as important in many respects, which I will discuss later, but groups are just less inherently valuable than individuals, and in fact their main source of significance is the way in which they affect individuals, rather than the way in which they interact in the group space.

Right, ok, so, the importance of group narratives:

I mean, where to start?

Anyone who’s at all interested in what it means to be human should care. Philosophically, our connection to the people around us, and the communities we belong to, and how those interact with our ‘selves’, should those exist, is a vitally important question. It’s essentially what defines a Rawlsian liberal versus a communitarian. What defines you? Environment, genes, soul, beliefs, values, self?

That tends to matter politically, too, when we investigate things like social engineering and policies that affect groups rather than individuals. Staunch individualists have one view of human nature, other people have many others. If we ever want to come to any sort of agreement or consensus or merely a better understanding, looking at groups and communities is probably a good place to start. The narratives imposed on groups also matters a lot in foreign policy. What does nationhood mean? What does it mean to be part of a people? Nationalism, terrorism, radicalism, it’s all in there, it’s all composed of stories. Maybe it would be a good idea to understand that others feel as strongly a part of their peoples’ stories as we feel of ours.
Of course, this all matters very much to academia. Sociologically, anthropologically, biologically, psychologically, groups matter. How do individual stories coalesce to make group stories? How much does it matter to people to feel part of a group? How have we evolved as social animals? What does that mean evolutionarily or morally? Studying how the stories that groups tell themselves and each other is vitally important in understanding these things, those elements they have in common and those in which they differ.

Both anthropologically and political, the notion of the family is very important. Families are repositories of stories and arbiters of group involvement in a way that few others are. Their genealogies, pedigrees, albums and trees are testament to the importance of stories.

And now we come to history, the academic discipline completely consumed with the telling and retelling of stories:

As I said up above, I have a far more skeptical attitude toward group stories than I do towards individual stories. After all, individuals matter more. But I mean something very subtle by this, which is that while every individual story demands respect (though perhaps some are more inspiring or interesting than others), not every group story does. They are all important in order to learn more about ourselves as humans, individually and otherwise, philosophically, personally and academically, but they are not all as important to learn. By this I do not mean that we should only focus on those groups that made the ‘largest impact’ on current events. That same filter could be applied to individual stories and it would be just as nonsensical, given that importance is largely decided solely by those individuals or groups with the ‘largest impact’ or at least the most highly ingrained power structure within a given society.

No, what I mean is that some stories, while intellectually engaging, are dangerous. The story that nations sometimes tell, or races tell, that they are Divinely chosen, better, smarter, stronger, more valuable. Individuals tell those, too, but it wreaks nowhere near the immense damage. It might damage by tolerant cred, but I declare here and now that those stories are, if not worthless, meaningless. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from stories, it’s how many of them are valuable, and any story predicated on the extirpation of others can be philosophically, if not historically, ignored.

Unfortunately, those stories are repeated across the world regardless. And this is where the proper teaching of history becomes very important. The way we teach history is, essentially, the narrative our society is creating, and we want it to be a good and accurate one. That means including the stories of those groups that aren’t us, that will never be us, that failed, in some way, to be us. It means avoiding Euro- and ethno-centrism. It means working hard to locate the stories which are the most telling and instructional, as well as inherently meaningful or inspiring, wherever they come from. It means deciding, as a society, how we are going to best learn from the stories that have been told in order to create better stories going forward.

And that’s why the Texas textbook issue needs, desperately, to be paid attention to and rectified.

The Importance of Stories, Part I: The Individual

Disclaimer: This is somewhat incoherent. There is so much to say about this approach to humanity and knowledge, and this alternate approach to truth. The implications are wide-ranging and somewhat radical. It would take me years to fully flesh this out. But here’s the germ of an idea.

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stories and how they relate to truth and understanding. Stories are everywhere. Everyone has one; they spend their entire lives living out stories, as a matter of fact. I would never claim that objective truth could be arrived at based on some kind of abstract averaging of all the different stories. But there’s a different kind of truth that is based on stories, that it based on looking at humans as inherently valuable and thus placing value in their stories. Those stories are vast – repositories of knowledge, memories, hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions. About themselves, about other people, their families, their communities, their histories. They’re beautiful, too, and their individual beauty along with the diversity they exhibit, is reason enough to maintain them, pass them on. Which is why we protect ancient cultures and traditions, even as we march onward to a brighter future. Which is why we bother to listen to people without power, without elite intellectual or financial status. Because they have stories to tell. We are a community of learners, knowers and we communicate this by being also a community of story tellers. It would be a grave misfortune, a travesty, if that aspect of our humanity were to be lost.

The implications of this value are immense. It means that despite our own biases, prejudices, opinions, preferences and aesthetic desires, we simply cannot write off other people as useless or worthless. We don’t have to respect their ideas, or spend our time getting to know them, but we have to acknowledge their power as storytellers.

This has clear consequences for our systems of morality. For example, personhood might be defined as having a story. That’s not an entirely well-formed idea, but I kind of like it. Humanistic morality might benefit from approaching self-actualization in this new light. We help people live out the stories they would want to later tell, stories that are fulfilling, that can help and inform and inspire future generations of storytellers. We have no right to write the stories of others, or to tell them how to make their stories more like ours. Also, everyone should have the chance to tell their stories, both for their sake and the value that can be transferred to the community at large that can benefit from it. That allows us to pursue the value of tolerance without relinquishing our ability to note where harm is being done, stories and being censored and humanity is being lost.

If one prefers, they might reconceptualize this idea as placing the value of knowledge above all else. I’ve already discussed here and elsewhere that the stories people tell are extremely valuable sources of knowledge. This could inform our views on language extinction (see here and here) and biological diversity (over here and yonder). There’s no need to posit objective values when we understand that valuing knowledge and understanding is a human value we can all support, and we can achieve those through a variety of methods. Some are biological, scientific, what have you. But some are stories, those sets of experiences that seem so meaningless on an individual scale. Why bother listening to what people have already done when there is so much more to do? I counter that not only do those stories provide a treasure trove of knowledge relating to history, politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more, but they also help us see what the future holds. Most importantly, they help connect us to our fellow humans, in a way that can only be mutually and communally beneficial.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Public Reason and the Treatment of Knowledge

Sounds like a book title, doesn't it?

Anyway, the previous post is important by itself, but it brings us to a larger issue of public reason and the way decisions that affect government policy are made.

Certainly, as a first principle, decisions about textbooks and anything like them should, by any means necessary not be left in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in getting their point of view across, evidence be damned. This is dangerous if we care at all about our children, their education, and in general the route that knowledge takes to get through this country. Knowledge is valuable, it is a gift, and it should be treated with reverence. We need to be sure that we are teaching the best we have available, along with the appropriate critical thinking skills that will allow the next generation to improve on what we have.

One way to do both of these things is to teach several sides, which will not only expand on the knowledge we are imparting to students, but also allow them to see how many sides there really are, and how they are all important and inform what might be mistaken for a coherent body of knowledge without dispute or dissent.

If you want to teach the controversy, teach something that’s actually instructively controversial, like the validity of evolutionary psychology as a field, or FDR’s reactionary attitudes towards immigration, or the value in having both militant and diplomatic groups within any political movement in order to shift debate. These things are interesting, instructive and important, and set the stage for vastly more inclusive studies and approaches to learning. Also, keeping the decision making within the field allows experts to take over. Because at the end of the day, there are people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of knowledge, and their expertise, in a given field as well as in the instruction of knowledge generally should be brought to bear.

Basically, my rationalism leads me to the obvious conclusion that once goal-related decisions are made, the path should be charted essentially by the experts. The goals are difficult to ascertain, true, but that’s not the issue at hand. Depending on the topic, they might be decided by the people, derived from first principles or empirically obtained. At that point, however, consequentialist ethics demand that the best way to attain the decided-upon goals must be put into place, and in cases like this, experts are definitely called for. What do I mean by ‘cases like this’? Well, it regards facts (in this case historical) that are studied and ascertained by experts. The disputes within the field must be analyzed and a conclusion arrived at by experts who well understand the arguments for and against any particular analysis of history. The right mix of experts, too, can ensure a diversity of approach and opinion. Political stances certainly come into play even in expert analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that for another post. Nonetheless, any difference of opinion can be treated as an academic exercise and thus analyzed properly, within its directed field. Any assertions must be backed up with sufficient evidence and be subject to criticism from the academic community.
The same applies, not only to the subject at hand, but to the subject of education generally. People who work in education and who understand cognitive development and neurobiology probably ought to be in on this. They have the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how children learn, what methods might be the most effective in getting across the information, and where the line might be drawn between instruction and indoctrination. We may worry that children will be taught only one side, or that no matter how many sides we try to teach we will still not be teaching what it means to go after the truth, wholeheartedly, with an open mind and the tools of rationality required. These are valid concerns. However, while it might be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to discuss these topics in a casual setting, when the time comes for real decisions to be made, the only people who ought to be at the table are people who actually know what they’re talking about. They might be able to add to the debate instructively, informing the masses, for example, at what age children can begin to be taught abstraction rather than fact, or which should come first at all.

This is important in history, where children must be taught to understand that objective truth may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, in science, where they must be taught to understand that the scientific process is an arduous one characteristically marked by a great deal of failure, in math, where abstractions are as important as formulas and any other subject that might come up in a textbook.

These are actually really important discussions, of the type that most people, even those who enjoy entering philosophical or intellectual debates, might never realize are the most crucial. And at this level, once the goals are enumerated, it really needs to be left to the experts in the relevant fields. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Which fields are included, who is asked to join, how those individuals happen to interact – these are all variables that range from needing to be tested by the most rudimentary method of try-and-see to the generally unforeseeable. It also might be the case that eventually you just have too many people at the table, and that creates problems in and of itself.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Firstly, because that will give us knowledge of its own kind, and secondly, because it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

And we fight, because knowledge, the way we treat it and the way we pass it on – these things are that important.

The Nature of History

So this is fairly late in terms of when the news broke and outcry erupted across the interwebs, but this is something I wrote at the time, and I want to use it as a basis for talking about something else.
You all know, I’m sure, about Texas and the textbooks. A recap: every year, the textbook curriculum standards for a different discipline are reviewed and changed. Last year, science was on the table, and that was also highly contested. This year, the stakes were generally thought to be higher because California, the largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation, put a moratorium on purchases for budgetary reasons, meaning that Texas, the second largest purchaser, has an inordinate amount of influence. Things have changed since, and there was lots of controversy and lots of things to talk about, but there’s something I think people missed.

The liberal/progressive blogosphere was freaking out about Texas and the textbooks, specifically talking about the closing of the gap between church and state. But what I'm much more worried about is the scope of minority influence on America that's being diminished. Maybe I'm just a Howard Zinn fangirl, but when you stop talking about blacks, latinos, women, nineteenth century catholics, native americans and their contributions and interactions with the mainstream American culture, you are perverting history. You are allowing history to be a one-sided account written by the winners. I know in many ways it already is, but if we know that, we can work to change it, to allow ourselves to be informed by the vast amounts of information and stories that are often ignored.

If you hope to ever be considered a well-informed intellectual, or a well-researched social scientist or a well-instructed student, you need to be very careful about allowing your view of history to be constructed solely out of mainstream history/culture. I’m not one to have a knee-jerk reaction to the ‘mainstream media’, but pretty much by definition, some stories are going to be left out. And no matter how you perceive this country, whether through the lens of American exceptionalism or as a nation of immigrants or whatever, you need to learn about Castro, not just as evil, but as having improved the literacy rates in Cuba to above ours. And not just Rosa Parks or MLK Jr, but the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey and Mumia and blacks now, in this country now, having median earnings ten times less than those of whites and maybe never being able to achieve parity, even with an African-American president. And how immigrants to this country looking for freedom from religious persecution turned around and persecuted others and how the temperance movement was targeted against Irish, Polish and Italian Catholics and how Muslims in this country are marginalized and pushed aside and are not. all. terrorists and how violence in the middle east might be a backlash against American actions.

Political affiliation aside, if you don’t understand history as more than a series of events, as a history of people and movements and ideas that need to be studied from the point of view of both the culture in which they existed, and often were submerged in and fought against and the point of view of that movement and they way they saw themselves, you are missing something. Something big. And you may always be missing something, I suppose. What did the Jews think of the anti-war hippies, for example? But missing the massively obvious question of what at least one other side thought is a fairly egregious error, and it will send you to Social Science Hell. Willful ignorance tends to do that.

If you don't care to read the whole post, though it's one of my shorter ones, just check out this comic.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Intensity of Interaction: What does it mean to connect?

Ok, I’m done with those worldview posts, thank goodness. They’re interesting as far as they go, but I think about that sort of thing all the time and have for years, so I want to move on to something else.

Human interactions are complex. They’re often difficult to manage or understand, and there’s always room for more misunderstanding. One of the least understood aspects, in my opinion, is what the point is. This struck me in particular when I was spending time with some friends and opened a completely unrelated story with my definition of the purpose of language. I had said communication, which didn’t seem to me a particular contentious opinion, but they instantly disagreed with me. Granted, I have very opinionated friends, but it was certainly interesting. The same applies to conversations. What is the point? To argue? To be right? To convince, persuade? To agitate? To connect? To understand? To have fun? Obviously, there’s no right answer except that the answer is different under different circumstances, and this becomes an issue.

I am a fairly contentious sort of person. I have interests I hold very dear to my heart, and I delve into them with a great deal of energy. As such, I get loud and excited when talking about things I’m interested in, and I can be sort of aggressive with the information I have at my disposal. I feel that my opinionated nature is justifiable, given all the effort I’ve put into deeply understanding that which is important to me and the importance I place on making my judgments subject to change as new arguments and evidence come forth. When I’m with other people like that, there’s no problem. We all get completely enraptured by an engaging conversation, and trade data, arguments, quips and witty banter as if it were our job. That kind of experience is a greatly rewarding one, that blend of learning, teaching, understanding and taking sheer joy in the feeling of doing so together.

However, not everyone is like that, which is, of course, fine. Because I have no intention of writing those people off, though, I face some challenges. Do I argue my point as eloquently as I can? Do I tone myself down in order to place the making of a connection over winning the argument? Putting the latter question this way makes the answer seem clear, but in point of fact it’s not at all. Allowing myself to not declare my opinions or arguments can feel intellectually dishonest, like I’m not contributing to the conversation the way the social contract might demand. I am in some way portraying myself as other than I am in order to learn from and about someone, something that could be described as respectful or a form of information extraction. I wish I could just state my opinion, get it out there, and then have us have our conversation, but it’s not always that simple. That declaration can change the entire nature of the conversation, and make it impossible to be as meaningful as I would otherwise like it to be. Also, I don’t always like to argue from “my side.” In fact, I happen to greatly enjoy suspending my opinions and taking on an entirely new set of assumptions to see where they lead.

I recently got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, “Develop some flexibility in your point of view.” It’s one of those things that sounds perfect and sensible but is so much more complicated than that. If I try to be flexible, humble, to learn from everyone, then I am only taking rather than giving. And if I give of myself, I risk giving my opinion and teachings where they’re not wanted. Simply declaring that one must be on the lookout to understand what is appropriate when is not rigorous enough for me. I’m still figuring it out, especially because I don’t think that being an assertive person who likes to learn is in any way a bad thing, but here’s one idea:

First, there’s this, for the common sense approach:

My one addendum is that even with all this, even with the concern and tolerance and respect due other people, even if all the information is out there, intellectual honesty accounted for, I think it is a good thing to Take Up Space, to be a powerful force, in the world and in a room. Obviously, that doesn't mean steamrollering, and it doesn't mean that other people shouldn't, or that more than one person in a room can't do that. In fact, exactly the opposite. It means valuing it and appreciating it in other people and turning that shared power into a powerful connection. Which brings us back to the original point, which is, what about the people who aren't that way, who you can't form that sort of a connection with? In that case, I think the answer is, and this is very very subtle, to not make yourself less, less powerful, less meaningful, less intense, but rather to have that manifest not as an imposing, intimidating presence, but as a quiet force to be reckoned with. It's the difference between 'bothering', 'deigning' to talk to someone about their religious/political/athletic/gastronomic beliefs and employing the intensity of your feelings about it to really, powerfully, intensely listen. Because if there's one thing I can do, it's be intense about things. And that should mean not limiting those things to talking.

I’ve noticed in other people how great of a solution this is. Sometimes, when I’ve been complaining to someone close to me about what they’re doing I can watch the gears shift in their head as they consciously decide not to yell or scream or walk out, but to sit down, look me in the eye and ask me what's up. And I'll admit that it's not a perfect solution, because sometimes they’re still intimidating and frightening when they do that, but I think that's good. I think it's a good thing to live life intensely, and this is a great way to do it. When they do that, I know they're really listening.

In some ways, bothering to argue, to engage, is a way of respecting that person's beliefs, especially because you're putting your ideas out there to be criticized as well. But that doesn't always come across, and if it doesn't, it defeats the purpose of that communiqué, if you will, of that attempt at a connection. So instead I want to tell them I’m listening and then do it, and listen hard.

What’s also great is that it's entirely possible that this intense, intimidating form of listening will force people to really listen to themselves, too, to their own arguments, and make them better, think about them more, more than arguing would.

Caveat 1: There's a point at which intelligent, interesting, engaged, awesome people will always be intimidating, and I fail to see the issue here.

Caveat 2: I think that in this exploration of the issue we should be careful not to imagine that there is one way of being (whether assertive or not) that is objectively better. Beyond the fact that different attitudes are appropriate at different times, caveat 1 comes into play when we think about the fact that different people have different roles to play, and they are all important, and perhaps equally so. Or not, depending.

Confession: Maybe one reason I like blogging to much is it doesn’t require listening to other people’s opinions, although of course the only way I come to these conclusions is by bouncing my ideas off of people, among other techniques. Which is like information extraction? And now we’ve come full circle.

Secular humanism

You know what’s a good feeling? The feeling of coming to a conclusion of a difficult or sticky or contradictory philosophical or political conundrum. You know what another good feeling is? Realizing that, in some ways, you had it right all along. I’ve been talking to a friend recently about Randian philosophy. For backstory, note that I began Atlas Shrugged, and found it so impenetrably dense that I could not continue. So I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. Nonetheless, from reading I’d done about her, I had come to the conclusion that she was completely off her rocker. I don’t even feel that objectivism is all that problematic; the focus on the individual I found fairly easy to grasp given my knowledge of libertarianism (also mostly achieved through a mix of research and conversations with a friend, proving for me the importance of conversations many feel are pointless). It was the inescapable incompleteness of the philosophy that struck me. To hold the individual up as the highest value is one thing. To deny the vastly complex interactions between the individual and the environment and society is myopic to an incomprehensible degree. It’s not just overly convenient for her philosophy to be based on what she finds important and to ignore what she finds unimportant or evil. It’s also just wrong. People are shaped and informed by their environments. To what extent depends on many factors, which are themselves interesting and studyable. It’s pretty much lunacy to categorically state that sociobiology, biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology are unimportant disciplines, that the existence of rationality and consciousness (which, by the way, we don’t as yet understand) in and of themselves obviate the need or the usefulness for systematic studies of human behavior.

However, I have recently come to feel that there are some aspects of the philosophy which I have already accepted. The supreme importance of rationality. The beauty in human achievement and expression. The sanctity of the individual. Feeling that I am the most important person in my life. So then I began to feel a little uneasy. Despite being a rational liberal, I’ve always felt that at some level, there’s a spectrum that ranges from the cold clarity of reason to the warm compassion of humanism. I know that pretty much everyone is able to combine these somehow, but it’s really always bothered me, especially because this somewhat abstract political issue comes up eerily frequently in my personal life. What do I want? Why do I want it? How am I going to get it? How will that affect people around me? How much should that affect my decision? How can my community help me, and I them?

I was all set to come up with a vibrant hybrid/amalgamation and see where it led me, and then, something happened. One of the aspects I was going to bring to bear on this analysis was secular humanism, a philosophy to which I am fairly keenly devoted. I’ve read the affirmations, explanations and declarations many times, and yet, I seem to have forgotten this key point: that the fundamental value in this worldview is its hybrid nature. I really can’t express it better than the Center for Inquiry/Wikipedia do, so here are some key features.

1. That while you could in principle separate out the rationalist/individualist aspects from the empathetic/humanistic ones, not only would that be difficult, but it would be missing the point. In terms of ethics, for example, the search for universalizable, justifiable principles of moral conduct is a task for rationalists who seek to apply reason to the ultimate goals of encouraging human well-being, in the individual and global sense, and in that way to create a better world.

2. As Tom Flynn says, “secular humanism’s unique selling proposition is rooted in the balance it strikes between cognitive and emotional/affective commitments.” And “Secular humanism is invigorated by the best that atheism and religious humanism have to offer—thoroughly naturalistic, yet infused by an inspiring value system. It offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing truly humane lives. This is the fulfillment of secularism as George Jacob Holyoake imagined it: the successful quest for the good life, intellectually, ethically, emotionally rich, and without any reliance on religious faith.”

It may sound like a cop-out, but as a matter of fact, I was entirely willing to undergo the mental exercise of figuring out how to reconcile what seemed to be contradictory elements of my worldview, but serendipitously, this set of ideas I already felt I subscribed to did a fantastic job. So why do I have all those posts about worldview when I have multitudinous Wikipedia articles and other websites I could link to? Well, for one, that is intellectually lazy. And secondly, everything in secular humanism follows from my core ideas. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important; the ramifications of one’s worldview can be more difficult to figure out than the essential tenets themselves.

So that’s who I am and what I believe.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The World and Humanity: A Fangirl's Approach

This post sort of came out of nowhere. I was writing about something completely different and then realized I was describing more of my worldview, so I guess I ought to post it as is.

I’m a humanist. I place my trust and value in the ability of rational persons to achieve great things. I happen to believe that people have more similarities than differences, and as such that those similarities can and should be taken advantage of. I also respect people’s differences and may even seek to maintain them in order to avoid losing vast repositories of human knowledge and experience. I do, however, maintain the right to employ my own powers of reason and my own experiences to make judgments, moral and factual, among others, and to declare others mistaken if I feel that their ideas are a detriment to the advancement of human expression. Knowing when I have enough evidence to take this kind of position is a difficult balancing act, and all of my judgments remain mutable. They are not, however, any weaker for this. In fact, because I know that despite the fact that they could be changed at any moment and yet, these are the ones that have withstood the onslaught of critical thought, makes me trust more in my opinions.

This understanding of humanity, combined with my knowledge-based worldview means that I have a fairly broad definition of human knowledge and expression. As such, I have a deep respect for a wide variety of human activities, and multifarious interests corresponding to those activities I would like to make contributions to. This gets very intimidating. I can study hyperbolic geometry, twentieth century feminism and sociobiology all I want, but I’ll never know everything, or even close, within those fields. I might have an interest in something as broad as physics or as specific as scav (Go SCAV!!) but I’ll never learn enough. And that’s what’s so great about living in a time when the vast magnitude of past human achievement can be really appreciated and brought to bear on future endeavors. Big things, like the Human Genome Project. Medium things like being a famous videoblogger. Small things, like geochacheing. Did you know what that was? I only recently found out. Small things that become big, like community organizing.

It’s all so fantastically cool I really just can’t get a handle on it. I’ve had at least three existential crises relating to times I realized I’d never know anything/everything. It makes me anxious, nervous and scared. But it also makes me excited, proud and optimistic. It’s this sense of the world I call humanism, and this willingness to learn I call being an intellectual. I wrote a whole college essay fangirling out on the meaning of mind-boggling. Because that’s what this world is, and it’s pretty excellent.

So what to do if I can’t learn everything? First, learn to respect this fact, because in and of itself, it’s very important. Secondly, talk to people. People know things, and you can learn from them like you’d never believe. My version of humanism supports this in multiple ways. Firstly, people are all due a measure of dignity and respect, by being people. Secondly, one type of knowledge is knowledge about one’s self, and it can be unbelievably mind expanding to try to get into someone’s head, see what they see, feel what they feel. Thirdly, another type of knowledge I try to acquire is about people in general, and that sort of thing is pretty much impossible to access a priori. If you want to learn about people, and come to conclusions about their differences and similarities, you should probably go talk to them. It has helped me both achieve more confidence in my ideas - because I know that they survive in my head not only because I believe them to make sense but also because the knowledge and ideas of others has added to them and made them stronger – and also more flexibility in my point of view – because it has become commonplace for my essential notions about humanity and the universe to be changed or monumentally reshaped by a single conversation. Finally, a reverence for human achievement is incomplete without an equal amount of respect for the importance of collaboration, for all that humans have done together, in groups, to reach higher and higher goals than any alone. Human community is an invaluable resource, not to be squandered, and fostering such communities through your own actions tends to be deeply meaningful.

Caveats: To be perfectly honest, I’m not actually sure that this is what humanism means to me. It’s really difficult to put a handle on. Respect for human achievement certainly is humanistic, but I haven’t yet touched on the political, global, moral, justice-oriented or religious sides of humanism. And the aspects that deal with learning and ambition are in some ways what it means to be an intellectual, or a nerd, or something else. And the appreciation for the passion and excitement that goes into the most niche of activities might define being a geek. The vast reverence I have for it all I might call, if I were an entirely different sort of person, a kind of spirituality. So I’m not really sure what to call this sort of thing. I’m sure I’ll expand on it another time.

For other humanist ideas, check out these links:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Naturalism is a Badass Worldview

So, in the last post, I talked about naturalism more as a philosophy (an epistemology and an ontology) than as a worldview, so I was never able to put in this mini-paragraph, and I liked it so much I felt like I had to put it somewhere.

So, ecco qua:

My worldview isn’t entirely based on naturalism, but if it were, I’d have to say I wouldn’t mind all that much. This is a fully functional system with values of intellectual integrity, and basing ideas and opinions on physical, observable, replicable evidence which manifests itself in a shared search for knowledge if you're being lofty and a badass scientific method that has spanned centuries and advanced society in uncountable ways if you're not, and even that's still pretty grandiose. And it can boast centuries of almost unmitigated success.

Secularism and Naturalism: Where the Wild Worldviews Are

In a recent Free Inquiry (a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism) issue, the idea that four separate bases for worldviews (atheism, naturalism, secularism and humanism) are interconnected and ought to work together for the advancement of humanity came up. The interplay among them is certainly complex, and while I agree in principle that they should be combined in order to create a very powerful tool, in practice, these often come into conflict, and in different circumstances, I tend to prioritize some over others.

In my last post, I discussed atheism as a topic for discourse and its uses. I came to the conclusion that it’s potentially fruitful ground for personal conversations that focus on frank discussions about belief and understanding where a person is “coming from.” It can also be useful on the national or global stage in order to spark the growth of any and all movements associated with atheism and to foster this growing community.

On to secularism! It's not the same as atheism, not by a long shot, but they're often confused. Secularism refers to “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” It can also be described, in a more rigid sense, as the separation of religion from the nonreligious, the private declaration of faith from the public daily interactions. That train of thought generally leads to the concept of being free from religion in public life, France-style, but because I tend to prioritize freedom of speech above this sort of thing, the more important definition regards public decision making. This version of secularism simply indicates that while religion can inhabit the public sphere, it has no jurisdiction there.

Secularism is extremely important when dealing with the interaction of the private and the public. From a practical standpoint, in this day and age, one simply cannot depend on all the members of a community being religious in order to form a consensus or come to any agreement on important issues. Contrary to the belief of one George Herbert Walker Bush, atheists are citizens too. The connections that are necessary for public and political life simply can no longer be relegated to the religious realm. From a more philosophical view, even if everyone in a given polis were religious, religion would still be a terrible justification or source of any arguments or points put forward. At its best, religion is a manifestation of a much more fundamental human propensity to attempt to make sense of the world around us and to form tightly-knit communities. Bonding over these and other shared aspects of our humanity is a more useful and noble endeavor than trying to use one twig on the tree of human flourishing in order to bring people together. For these reasons, as well as the fact that faith happens to be a supremely untenable epistemology, any purely religious reasoning for something that affects the community as a whole can and must be thrown out forthwith. This is not to say that religious people have nothing to add to public discussion. On the contrary, there are many religious secularists. There are also many famous philosophers (Kant, Locke and Descartes come to mind) who were religious, derived much of their ethics from religion and who were nonetheless able to come up with well reasoned secular arguments for their position. Arguments must be subject to public scrutiny, and as such it would be in their favor, were they to survive the onslaught of critical thinking, to be based on empirical evidence and reasoned logic, and here lies the basis of the importance of public reason.

Then there’s naturalism, which can be both an epistemology and an ontology. As an epistemology, it tells us that the most practical method for understanding the natural world is observing it in systematic, rigorous ways. Useful knowledge can be arrived at by a thoughtful application of methods such as creation of hypotheses and constructions of experiments designed to test them. It lets our knowledge of reality be defined and informed by, well, reality. And lest it be assumed that naturalism is inherently flawed by its reliance on potentially flawed methods of collecting empirical data, note that well-designed, replicable experiments to test well-constructed, falsifiable hypotheses are intrinsic to the system. (This might be a good place to posit my completely ridiculous mathematical conceptual framework, which involves thinking of scientific evidence as the rational numbers and the real world as the real numbers, which are compact. If you’re a fan of the dreamer problem or similar philosophical conundrums, think of reality as isomorphic to what we see.) And, as can be seen in the history of knowledge, science and technology, naturalism has worked spectacularly well.

Well enough, in fact, that one could extrapolate from the epistemology to the ontology. If that method of collecting and advancing knowledge about the world, why might we not begin to discount and discredit any unfalsifiable or un-truth-apt statements or hypotheses when it comes to making truth claims? In that case, we would start to think of the world as limited in some ways, limited to that which can be observed and studied, in which case one might come to the conclusion that nature is all there is, and all there is is nature. If you’re not comfortable with that, I would suggest accepting that there might be forms of knowledge and reality not accounted for in this framework, but given that there is no way of rigorously investigating the matter, and the nonmaterial generally has little or no effect on the material, such forms may as well not exist. Which of course brings up the question of what it means to exist, but I think I’m using a pretty intuitive, common-sense definition I might formulate more rigorously another time.

So I think it follows pretty clearly here that naturalism is best prioritized at times when the accumulation of knowledge is paramount. If one wanted to take a holistic view, one might notice that naturalism can give us the sorts of information that are best suited to public discourse within the realm of secularism. If these two systems are practiced in a certain way, they’re likely to result in atheism, and raising the visibility of that particular minority might well bring voice to these other issues. How all of this affects humans and how humans interact with each other will wait until Humanism: The Gripping Finale You’ve All Been Waiting For!