Monday, October 27, 2014

World Citizenship And Its Discontents

I feel like there's an idea out there that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world and that somehow the internet, by connecting us all up together, is part of making that happen.

Whether a person lives on your block or lives halfway across the world, no matter: with the click of a mouse you can find out what they had for breakfast or whether they're being shafted by their local city council or law enforcement or what their views are on the latest celebrity sex scandal.

It's a nice idea, and when you're looking at one of those pictures taken from space of the whole earth it's easy to get into that "big blue marble" mood. . 

But honestly it's not really working out for me.

For one thing, I can only care about a pretty limited number of people at a given time. I care a lot about the people in my actual life. I'm sad when they're sad and I'm happy when they're happy and I'm worried when they're in trouble. But I can only do that for so many people.

The rest of the world? Sorry, no. The truth is, when I read about the sadnesses, thrills, and troubles of strangers I often feel overwhelmed, annoyed, envious or impatient. And then I feel like a cold, surly, heartless son of a bitch. It's not good.

Also, I'm tired of hearing so many opinions. Why is so much of what people have to say to one another their opinions about things? "Cats are mean and destroy wildlife." "No, cats are cute but you must keep them inside." "Person X is a hateful monster." "No, person X is doing the best they could, is so much better than person Y." "X is bad." "No, people who criticize X are bad."

I have nothing against opinions per se. They're often very important. But I can only handle a few at a time. A lot of opinions send my brain into overdrive, because I don't know the backstory, or because I know part of the backstory and have to suddenly decide whether I should be learning more of the backstory which causes me to have to think about the sources of my information, or because I do know the backstory and I don't really agree and I have to think about why that is.

Worse, being a citizen of the world often seems to require having a lot of opinions. Once you've heard a bunch of things about what happened and then you've heard a bunch of opinions, you're often then asked to have an opinion. Again, nothing against opinions. I have lots. But I can only handle a few at a time. For me, forming a bunch of new ones can be a serious drain on my mental energy.

Before I started studying philosophy I studied math. And one of the things I loved about studying math was how few opinions I was called on to form. Mostly I just learned mathematical concepts and struggled to prove some things from some other things. I could go days without hearing or forming opinions.

One of the few things I heard my math professors express opinions about was the relative difficulty and merit of different kinds of math. The topology people thought that category theory was stupid and easy, or the algebra people thought analysis was dry, or someone thought the "best years" of set theory were over. It's a narrow range, and, especially as a student, it was easy to just let it go in one ear and out the other.

Once I started studying philosophy and hanging out with humanities people, I was stunned by the number of opinions I was expected to have right off the bat. "What'd you think about that article?" "What'd you think of the talk?" " What do you think about so-and-so?" "What do you think?" "What's your view on things?" "What's your take?" "We want your opinion!" Phew.

World citizenship means you can have opinions on anything, anywhere, happening in any context. It's exhausting.

But honestly, I think one of the biggest discontents of world citizenship for a lot of people is the way it constantly hammers home at you that you are a tiny speck in a gigantic world.

If you think of yourself as part of a smaller community unit, and you use that unit as a comparison class, it's likely you can achieve something great relative to that group of people. Maybe you're smart or accomplished, or maybe you're just really funny or nice, or maybe you make really great potato salad or something.

When you're a citizen of the world, you see everyone's eyes on someone else, twenty-four seven. You're either super brilliant world famous amazing person, or you've got something viral, or else ... or else you're nobody: just some fruit fly in the banquet of life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things

Here at TKIN we pride ourselves on our highly developed advance planning skills. But even the best planner sometimes can't get it all together -- especially when it's grading season. I didn't have time to write a post -- so I thought I'd post some photos for your week's amusement.

This was the attribution plaque for an LGBT-themed mural near my home. I assume that's a self-portrait by the artist, and every time I walked by it made me happy. I like the way the rainbow theme is worked in, but mostly I like the expression on the artist's face. After a month or so someone put a stupid sticker in the middle of it, advertizing some dumb thing, and the whole sign got taken down and replaced with something drab and informational : (

I go to Buffalo a lot, and this was taken at the public library downtown.  They must have had some Wizard of Oz-themed event. I have no idea what it's about, but I like it.

Wine at the LCBO.

I've always been crazy about color swatches and paint samples. Generally anything where there's a bunch of things that are similar but different knocks me out. So I love this mannequin that I saw at The Bay last summer. I also love how the other mannequin is like "Stick with me, sweety, and I'll show you a good time!"

I think this picture speaks for itself.

I commute on a Greyhound bus, which means I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the Toronto bus terminal, which is where I took this photo. I've been looking at this excess comma for about nine years, yet it still has the power to drive me f*&#ing crazy on a daily basis.

 A few years ago I spent some time in Ann Arbor from January to April and I joined the local Y to work out. They had FIVE different locker rooms: women with children; women, no children; men with children; men, no children; and families. I understand this sign is meant simply to convey "women, no children," but somehow I always found the image of a child with a red slash through it kind of disturbing.

It was a cold winter that winter, and I had kind of a boring lonely walk from my apartment to the Y. But that walk always took me past this window, where someone had placed this Gumby-like figure. It always made me smile:

Happy autumn everyone and I'll see you next week!

Monday, October 13, 2014


Thilafushi: garbage island

Like everyone here in the pre-apocalypse, I have a fraught relationship with stuff. It's not that I have too much stuff. On the contrary. I live in a small one-bedroom condo and if you walked in you'd probably start rolling your eyes and muttering that I seem like one of those annoying people who keeps their stuff under control, doesn't abide clutter, and alphabetizes their books (after sorting them into appropriate categories, natch). And yes -- I am that person.

One reason I don't have too much stuff is that I have issues with stuff. This weekend I was cleaning out a few things, and at first I found some things I hadn't used and wanted to get rid of. Wordpress for Dummies. A skirt that I hadn't worn since Bush administration. A jacket that is now older than my students. Unwanted gifts that had passed their statue of limitations for how long I felt obligated to keep them around. It felt good. Constructive. Sensible.

But things quickly began to get a little out of control. I started to wonder why I wasn't getting rid of more stuff. I started to freak out about all the stuff I do have and why it's here haunting me. Why won't it leave me alone and free? What if I had to go somewhere in a hurry? What do you think, stuff, you can just anchor me here just by existing? I'll show you.

As I pondered throwing a way a perfectly good pack of envelopes and some printer paper, I suddenly remembered my father, a man whose issues with stuff were legendary and whose manic purges of stuff surely played a role in my current relations with stuff. My father hated stuff so much that back in the day, when I was a kid, he would throw away the pages of the TV Guide that were no longer relevant: since the midpoint staples came on the schedule for Monday, every night after that my father would remove the pages for that day, 'til come Friday, there were just a few pieces of paper flittering around.

Caught up in his anti-stuff mania, my father would throw away half-used pads of paper, as he vocalized his mantra over and over -- "If in doubt, throw it out!" -- and silenced his critics by pointing out that "we can always buy another one." As a kid I was half scandalized and half-thrilled at this craziness. I understood that throwing away useful things was in some sense wrong. But I loved the feeling of it -- the freedom, the independence from the weight of the stuff, the sense that life could be lived on a whim: if you need paper at 4:00, you can get some at the store at 3:00!

As an adult I've experienced this drive to get rid of the stuff again and again. I've thrown away all  the paper notes from every phase of my academic life. I've thrown away all the diplomas I've ever earned. I've thrown away all my old letters -- letters on paper! written by a friend! to me!

As I was talking myself down this weekend and forcing myself not to throw away things I knew I'd want and need later, I reflected on why ordinary stuff feels to me like the end of the world.

One: stuff is about the inherent neediness and limitations of the human condition. You need bedding, and clothes, and pots and pans, and dishes, because you need to dress yourself and cook food to stay alive, and in the modern world you need stuff to do those things. If I threw away all my tights today, I'd have to go buy more tights tomorrow. Stuff is a reminder that if you want to wear crazy pink boots on Thursday, you have to procure and save those boots. They're not just conjurable out of thin air. In a very real sense, you are dependent on your stuff. That may not depress you, but it depresses me.

Two: stuff reminds us of the modern disappointingness of things. As consumers in a market society, it's our destiny to be disappointed, because it's the drive of the whole enterprise to make us want things we don't have. Mostly, stuff sucks. And in our particular consumer society, you can either be a normal person whose sucky stuff will last a few years at best, or you can be the kind of rich asshole who buys things intending that his great-grandchildren will use them. Either way, it's no good.

Three: stuff is death. I don't know what this means, exactly, but I think it's true. I don't know if you've read that book White Noise, by Don Delillo, but it's a book about death, and it takes place in a house full of stuff. After the Hitler scholar Jack Gladney has a conversation with his doctor about his impending death, he comes home and starts throwing things away:

"I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, highchairs and cribs, collapsible TV trays, beanbag chairs, broken turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationary, manuscripts of articles I'd written, galley proofs of the same articles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-out toasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took me well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn't want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me."

Why Star Trek needlepoints, old shelf paper, and umbrella stands say "death" to Jack Gladney I'm not really sure. But I'm with him 100 percent.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ganging Up On The Concept Of Justice

Justice. I don't know what this is or where it's from but I like it.
Wasn't it just recently that justice was considered one of the fundamental pillars of modern western society? Wasn't it justice that was supposed to be the foundation for that whole human rights business? Wasn't justice what we were honoring with all those statues with the blindfolds and scales and all that? Wasn't "fighting injustice" how people described their activities when they were trying to make the world a better place?

So isn't it weird to hear so many enemies of justice lately dismissing justice as a phantom value, something that doesn't really exist?

One of the enemies of the concept of justice is found in the forces of efficiency. The forces of efficiency are those who think that what's valuable can be measured in terms of overall effects. The more ambitious front of the efficiency forces (like some philosophical utilitarians) might aim for maximizing well-being, which you can at least see how it might make sense as an overall value.

But more economically minded efficiency forces have known all along that going down that road means that poorer people should get more stuff. So they redirected toward "Pareto efficiency" which just means you can't make one person better off without making another worse off -- which let's face it is about the lowest bar you could possibly set for a measurement of how things should be. It's like you're deciding how to share some food and you say "well, don't throw any away.' Yeah -- thanks for that insight!

The economically minded efficiency forces are the ones you always hear talking about "growth" whenever some inconvenient issue arises. Why are workers being mistreated? Uh, "growth." Why are government services being dismantled? "We're growing the economy." Why can't everyone have health care? "This is better for growth." I feel like with growth people there's always this idea of "oh, once we grow the economy we can use the money any way we like and we could just give it to the people who got shafted by the policy." Sure -- and then we can all go celebrate in Valhalla and eat magic apples and live forever.

For a few hundred years the efficiency forces have been telling us that justice is a kind of false value, that there's no such thing really, that what seems like "justice" is just people having some feelings.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you -- especially the doctrine's economic form. It's more efficient to let you keep your stuff and do what you want to do, so poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

Another enemy of the concept of justice can be found in the forces of liberty. The forces of liberty are those who say the only real value is respect for individuals' rights to do as they please. Other rights -- and other values -- well, you might have thought they sounded good, but really they're kind of a fake-out. The forces of liberty sometimes say they're all for justice, it's just that they know with their moral insight that true justice is about people getting to keep their property, as long as they got it justly-- leaving aside, I guess, the fact that everything any western hemisphere person has acquired was gotten through a chain  of events that includes land-stealing, slavery, etc. etc.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you. You get to keep what you have and do what you like. You don't even need the efficiency loop-around. Poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

When it comes to trying to say why, exactly, justice is a phantom value, the enemies of justice have various strategies.

Some utilitarian efficiency theorists, like Peter Singer, say that beliefs about what's just are a kind of evolutionary left-over, like it might have helped us survive to think that people ought to be treated fairly, but now that we can do "rational thinking" we know better.

I could go on and on about this -- and in fact I do go on and on, since this is the topic of a some scholarly work I'm doing. But basically, as I see it the problem is that you can't justify utilitarian obligations except by appeal to the same kind of intuitive moral thinking that would work just as well to justify justice-based obligations. There's nothing specially rational about maximizing preference satisfaction -- that's a moral idea just like justice ideas are. Even the idea that interests are things to be satisfied is a product of evolution. So I don't agree that maximizing preference satisfaction is specially rational in a way that justice isn't.

Some economic efficiency theorists say that attempts to be "fair" are really examples of "bounded-self-interest" -- and so are just another way that humans fail to be fully rational. You thought caring about fairness might be a good thing, but from this point of view it seems more like an unfounded prejudice which, in addition to being irrational, also probably hampers growth.

But as I see it, here too there's nothing morally neutral about measuring in terms of efficiency. Sure, "efficiency" might sound precise and scientific where justice sounds vague and ambiguous. But really, efficiency is vague and ambiguous as well. What are we measuring? Well-being? Preference-satisfaction? What if those aren't the same? How do you measure? Should you maximize or just meet the Pareto "low bar" of not throwing the food away?

From the liberty front, we also hear that justice is vague and intuitive. With all the disagreements about justice, who can really say? But again, liberty is vague and intuitive as well, and its nature is a topic of frequent debate.

In fact, when it comes to ambiguity and uncertainty, it should give the "efficiency" and "liberty" enemies of justice pause that although they agree about justice, they disagree about a ton of other stuff, including the basic values. So it's not like the other values are so obvious and crystal clear that they command universal agreement either.

Personally, I think most people care about efficiency, liberty, justice, and other values, all at the same time. Yes it's hard to prioritize and figure out how to honor all of them. But that is, I believe, our moral task.

One of the things I work on in philosophy is meta-ethics, which basically means the foundations of ethics and ethical reasoning, and I try to figure out what status our intuitive beliefs have, and what this tells us about the importance of various values and how they can be mutually honored.

And sometimes I'm like "WTF am I doing with this obscure topic?" And then I think about the enemies of the concept of justice, and I remember.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Vulnerability, Feminism, and Writing While Female

Recently, I was going to write a post that started with an anecdote that -- well, let's say it was an anecdote that showed me in a personally vulnerable light.

And at first I thought -- well, wtf, why not? Showing vulnerability can be a hallmark of good writing. When an author shows their weaknesses and self-doubt -- their insecurities and uncertainties, their neuroses and pain -- the reader connects with them, is drawn in, feels their own self-doubt and pain assuaged. One of the noblest functions of literature -- making us all feel less alone -- is thus attained.

And yet, in the end, I was like "Nah, I don't think so." Perhaps not surprising. You may have noticed that this blog often foregoes the narrative, introspective, personal, emotional style for one that is more declarative, outward-looking, and opinionated.

As I've said and I'll say again and again, this is not because I don't care for the narrative, introspective kind of writing. In fact I love it. But sometimes I don't do it, sometimes for reasons that I don't do it has to do with the whole problem of "writing while female."

Because I feel like when you're writing while female, things that might otherwise be read as "brave person opens up and lets us see his vulnerable side" instead get read as "weak woman reveals her weaknesses and and lets us see her weak side."

It's like what happens when women try to use self-deprecating humor. Instead of it being like "oh, funny, you were making fun of yourself!" people just take your remarks at face-value. You: deprecated. If a male professor says in a joking tone that Gee, despite having a PhD, they just can't keep their appointments sorted out -- oh ha ha. If a woman says it? People start falling all over themselves with suggestions for tweaks and improvement. So. irritating.

Recently the comedian Jen Kirkman has been brilliantly showcasing this effect by publicizing and responding to the inane and inappropriate responses that she gets to her stories and jokes. If she makes a joke about her romance situation, it's like "Don't worry! You're pretty! You'll find someone!" If she makes jokes about her modest popularity it's like "Don't worry! You'll make it! Fuck the haters!" To both of which she is like "People! They are jokes. I am a comedian. I am not asking for sympathy." As someone who listens obsessively to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast I can tell you: men making self-deprecating jokes do not elicit that kind of reaction.

And same thing too with hedging and uncertainty. A man who qualifies his statements by pointing out that it's not always so and there are exceptions and maybe I don't have the whole story sounds like a man who is confident enough to acknowledge that the truth is complex. But for some reason, when a woman qualifies her statements, it's like "Oh she's uncertain, must not know what she's talking about."

Ever since I encountered this dating advice for women from an expert (blogged previously here) I've been brooding about the way that at some deep level, men just like it if a woman hedges, and doesn't make too many declarative statements, and doesn't check her smartphone.

The way self-doubt and vulnerability, when expressed by women, prop up the attitudes certain people have, of women as self-doubting and vulnerable, and of wanting women to be self-doubting and vulnerable -- well, it makes me grouchy and combative.

It makes me want to put my game face on, and say what I think about things, and leave out the anguish and hurt feelings, and leave out the stories that make the reader picture me, metaphorically unclothed, with my vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see.

So that anecdote? Sorry: you'll never get to hear it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dreaming Of Other Worlds And The Garden-Variety Disappointingness Of Ordinary Life

At the Eaton Centre where I sometimes like to hang out, there's a giant ad set up for the Cirque du Soleil's new "Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities!" show. The theme is that you'll enter a portal to another world, a world of mysteries and surprises and interesting things.

Every time I see it I think about the depth of my attraction to the whole other worlds thing -- especially worlds like the ones they're suggesting that involve both flying through the air and cool clothes and how, because I can't cognitively enter in to the actual other worlds idea, I'm unable to see the spectacle for anything but a bunch of people doing acrobatics -- which, let's face it, appealing as it might be, is another kind of mood thing altogether and is actually among the most worldly thing out there.

It reminds me of this time when I was around eight years old and my parents bought me a fantastic Christmas present that came in a huge box. When I tore the box open, I found it was an oversize chess set, with oversize sculpted pieces, to be played on a large carpet with a chess board pattern on it. The pieces were about eight inches tall and weighted with sand, like weeble-wobbles, so they didn't fall over. And were shaped like for real. I mean, the castle was a castle -- or at least a turret-y thing -- with a staircase winding around it and a castle-y roof. The bishop was a man with a funny bishops hat and robes. The queen -- well, you get the idea. So cool.

I thought this was a great gift. But what I remember most vividly about the occasion of receiving it was not actually anything about the gift itself but rather what I felt when I came down and saw the very large box under the tree.

Because when I saw that box I had a set of feelings I had often as a child. These were a mix of something like "Ooooh, maybe that box contains a portal to another world!" and "Oh, Patricia, you know all that 'other world' stuff is all made up."

I was always somehow hoping there was something else.

This was not, let me emphasize, because there was anything wrong with my life or something making me unhappy. As a child I had a wonderful home life with doting parents and the whole nine yards. Sure, the other kids picked on me at school. But that had nothing to do with why I was daydreaming about another world. The reason I was daydreaming about another world was much more elemental. I just felt, "Really? Is this all there is?"

This world of apples and astronomy and TV sets and baseball games? This is it?

When it came to the box, I'm sure I was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, which "tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, decides to drive through it in his toy car."

Milo has all kinds of surreal adventures that involve funny plays on words and his other world is vivid and fascinating and full of interesting characters. I remember thinking how fun it would be to be Milo, and how I hoped I would someday that I too would receive the gift of a tollbooth portal to hilarity, even though I knew it was impossible. I remember also what a fake-out I thought it was when Milo woke up the next day and the tollbooth was gone but instead of being disappointed he was all "Oh, there's so much that's interesting here!" Hmph.

Incidentally, what I did not remember, and just learned from Wikipedia, is that Milo's quest involves rescuing princesses, which I believe speaks to the depth to which I identified with Milo and not with any of the girls or women in the story, something that seems to have been characteristic of me as a young reader and which probably had profound effects on the development of my personality. But that's another post for another day.

Anyway, as I got older and started to became the rational-minded person I can't help but be today, I lost the easy ability to entertain the idea of the other worlds, and I stopped thinking of magic shows and the tooth fairy and large boxes as possible sites for escaping the everyday.

But I never lost the melancholy of being stuck here in this world that seems, relative to my imagination anyway, kind of a drab and dull and a bit of a disappointment.

For a long time I assumed that I was quite unusual in my particular mix of ideas, because it seemed like a lot of people who knowingly experience my kind of alienation go on to do something about it: they get religion, or join a cult, or become a conspiracy theorist, or whatever -- outcomes that have never even remotely tempted me.

But as time goes on, I wonder how many people experience a feeling like mine without realizing it. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of people find staying satisfied with the basic good things in life is not always easy. How many people are successful, with a lovely family, yada yada yada, and find themselves just unable to enjoy themselves?

I feel like when this happens it's almost always chalked up to something very particular. It's modern life -- so stressful. It's modern relationships. It's the new social media FOMO whatever. It's all the fault of someone's parents or something that happened to them as a kid. It's not being able to live out your real dreams.

But maybe those aren't always the reasons. Maybe just being a human in this world is just not so great, and therefore often leaves us feeling disenchanted, dissatisfied, left with the feeling I had at age eight when I encountered my chess set box and had to grapple with the realization that there was no way that box had a phantom tollbooth in it because a phantom tollbooth is not a real thing.

My point being that, contra what you've been told by the twenty-first century entreprenurial positive thinking establishment, you don't need a special explanation for the garden-variety disappointingness of life. It's there because life is garden-variety disappointing.

So, when someone's feeling bad, instead of looking for reasons and causes and explanations etc. etc. etc. maybe we could just be more like "Yeah, I know, huh? Here, have a cookie."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is Reading So, Like, Nineteenth Century?

Don Quixote in the Library, Adolf_Schrödter, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Every September we go back to school and every September I go over the idea that to be successful in your philosophy class you have to read some difficult texts and every September the students get a little glazy-eyed and there are are questions having to do with the point of reading for class.

And every September I try to explain, in a brilliant impersonation of a movie-land Boring Professor, why being able to read things for yourself really matters in terms of forming your own opinion and not just being spoon-fed ideas from people who are actually trying to talk you into something. Every September I try to talk about how if you're not already skilled at reading difficult things, part of the point is to help you read difficult things. Every September, yada yada yada.

Every September I get vaguely irritated thinking about the range of forces that work together to make students think that the point of education is "efficient knowledge transfer" -- a range that weirdly includes sci-fi and pop culture but also certain educational administrative entities and ignorant news-y education pundits and know-it-alls.

Every September I ponder the obvious implicit question: if that's what knowledge is, what the hell are we doing reading anything at all? Hey, Prof, the 1850s called -- they want their learning methods back.

Every September I reflect on the fact that even if university classes are sometimes about efficient knowledge transfers, humanities courses are really about something else, and about how even if that something else is hard to pin down, at least it has something to do with learning how to think for yourself -- something that, contrary to widespread opinion, I'd like to affirm is actually very difficult, and something that seems to me to have something to do specifically with encountering words.

Every September, this prompts me to start thinking about what the deal is. Hey reading, you think you're so great. What makes you so special?

Every September, I think about how exchanging ideas works pretty well when you're using words -- and how once you're using words anyway, it's hard to see the point of presenting them in some ridiculous ephemeral form like a video when you can just, you know, write and read the words themselves instead.

Every September I think about the novels I've read and how I like to use them as examples in class and how this is a problem that just gets worse and worse. Every September I mention examples like "Orwell's book, 1984" and every September the students are, like, "What about that movie -- "The Dark Knight"? and I'm like "Sorry, I'm old and steeped in a culture of words. I'm sure I haven't seen it. Why don't you tell us what happens?

Every September I think about my commitment to the uncomfortable truth that encountering the Human Condition through movies is not like encountering the Human Condition through words -- which is obviously not to say Movies = Bad and Books = Good or anything like that.

And every September I think about the way that the drama of film is just not the same as the drama of word; I'm reminded yet again about how film has this tendency to glamorize, and I encounter the uncomfortable fact about myself that cruelty and violence, presented in the right way, are things I can enjoy watching, even when the same thing, described in words, would horrify.

Then every September when I think about these things I'm reminded of the book and the movie Gamorrah -- which if you don't know is an incredible non-fiction book about organized crime in Italy written by a young guy who sort of got to know people and then had to go into hiding -- and I remember how when I first saw the movie I was, yes, shocked at what it depicted but also, yes, kind of enthralled with the visual beauty of it, by the beauty of the crumbling slums, shot somehow in the sun to make them look like artwork, by the beauty of the kids, with their black hair and expressive faces, and even, yes, by the beauty of the scene in which some gangsters are all in a salon getting their nails done and they all get shot.

Every September I remember, with a shudder, how when I read the book I felt so chastened, by the way the same events described in words brought home the reality of poverty and violence, brought home the horror of having to choose between killing people for the mob and not having enough to eat or worse, brought home how an Italian slum where life is cheap is a place no one wants to be, brought home how sunlight and whatever have nothing to do with it.

And every September, this circles me back to the importance of reading, and I feel a burst of unapologetic fervor about it: yes, there's going to be reading; no, there's no shortcut, no, we're not going to watch a video.

And if that means I'm stuck in the nineteenth century - well, whatever. There are worse things to be.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Prestige Markets, Or, Explanatory Problems in Economics

Harvard. Prestige, we has it.
A few months ago I read the book Flash Boys, which is the Michael Lewis cowboy shoot-em-up story of the recent High Frequency Trading shenanigans. Early in the book, Lewis gets talking about the American Banker Lifestyle and its associated ecosystem, and how in that ecosystem it's REALLY important to work for the "right" bank.

And the "right" bank, it turns out, isn't the one that is the most successful financially or the one that has the best job amenities or whatever. The "right" bank is basically a matter of cool. Central to Lewis's narrative is how the Canadian outsider hero of his story comes to town and is a little mystified by the way the whole thing works -- and how the Canadian bank he works for, RBC, is never really in the running for cool, even when they start to make a gazillion dollars and come out on top of various official rankings and so on. Though you'd think money is the thing -- money isn't really the thing.

In banking, it seems hierarchy isn't about money. It's about ... something else, something associated with aggression and masculinity and something something I'm not clued into. When I read that I thought, "Wow, people are really motivated by ... something."

Then I a week or so ago I read this Washington Monthly article about how students at Harvard, who come in to university determined to something interesting or different or altruistic, and who have never even really heard of investment banking when they arrive, are nonetheless lining up like lemmings for the Wall Street jobs come senior year.

The article showcases how the banks have created a system on campus that attaches prestige to banking jobs and taps into the students' shared mania for competition. It's like the kids go, "Oh, that's the plum? Oh, OK -- look, I can get it!" with little sense of why this particular thing would be the thing at all or what the point is of any of it.

And I thought -- aha, that's it! It's "prestige" that is the word I was looking for, for what so often motivates people in surprising ways.

Once you think about prestige as itself a kind of consumer good, you can see some interesting things. Because it's a social value, it's entirely a matter of culture what does and does not grant prestige. And culture is, as always, fickle. Men can often get prestige through money and career achievement -- but not always. For women it's almost like "being hot" is a necessary -- but certainly not sufficient! -- condition for prestige. One of the effects of racism and other -isms is that some people can't get prestige, because no matter what, other people don't see their accomplishments with a prestige-oriented halo.

As the New York Times explained the other day, it's difficult to get men to want to be school teachers. One reason? It's a "status" thing. Low prestige.

I know it's not news that people are motivated to gain prestige. But these examples seem to suggest that people are not just "sort of" motivated to gain prestige, but that they're really motivated to gain prestige. And the Harvard example suggests that it's not all that hard, in certain contexts, to nudge people's perceptions about what does and doesn't count.

From the economic point of view, does the pursuit of prestige reflect an irrational obsession with status over "real goods" or does it reflect the rational pursuit of subjective, but proper, goal?

Actually, I think you could say either -- but in some ways both answers seem wrong to me. Many of the goods we pursue are social goods, and it would be most peculiar to set up a theory in which it's always irrational to pursue a social good at the cost of, say, material objects or other kinds of experiences. The whole idea of rational choice theory is that it's supposed to be neutral with respect to what is, actually good: so if what you want is status and prestige who is any theorist to tell you you're wrong?

On the other hand, it seems strange to say that a person who gave up a lucrative career they would otherwise have loved only because their friends made it seem appealing and they got all competitive about it had actually not lost anything at all. So that the prestige points -- even if they are fleeting and fade -- are just as good as the everything else points. Yet that is what we'd have to say if prestige is an ordinary good alongside others.

It seems to me to matter what the context is for the given preference and how the person came to have it. That's not a radical view: some theorists of preference have said it's essential, in using preferences, to pay attention to where the preference came from.

The thing about that, though, is that once you start talking not just about preferences but also about where those preferences come from, you're suddenly actually talking about "why people do what they do" -- which, in case you haven't noticed, is kind of a complicated humanistic contextual etc. etc. kind of question.

That is, it's not the kind of thing you can understand with economic models and axioms and stuff. You actually have to read some history and literature and philosophy and sociology and probably art and music theory and all kinds of other things.

If you do happen to want to learn those things I'm happy to tell you those departments still exist and we still get together and talk about stuff -- but with the way things are going, it might not be for long.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Encounters The Movie Snowpiercer

A few days ago I saw the movie Snowpiercer -- which, if you don't know, is nestled the tiny Venn diagram overlap area among the categories "South Korean science fiction action film," "based on a graphic novel by some French guys," and "enviro-dystopian stories that take place after an enormous geo-engineering catastrophe."

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you it's the story of what happens after an experiment to counter-act climate change goes horribly wrong and freezes the whole planet, or that it takes place on a very very very long train that was set in motion just before the freeze and that circles the whole earth once a year, busting through the snow and ice, or that the people on board the train are the only people alive, period.

At the time of the movie they've been on the train for seventeen years. I'm also not spoiling anything by telling you that as the details emerge, we learn that the train is divided into sections, with people at the front doing things like dining on steak and partying while people at the tail section are filthy and barely surviving on disgusting protein sludge and crammed into tiny spaces.

The tail people are constantly tormented by vicious representatives from the powers-that-be from the front of the train, who remind everyone over and over that life on the train can only continue if everyone stays in their proper place: front people chilling at the front, and tail people suffering and dying in the tail.

The movie has a lot of themes, but perhaps most obvious is the theme of social stratification and inequality: it's pretty much chance who got the front section tickets, who got crammed into the rear, and who was just left to die, but of course the front section people have elaborate justifications for why the tail people MUST stay in the tail and how they ought to be GRATEFUL to be on the train at all so the should SHUT UP and stay where they are and STOP COMPLAINING. Sound familiar?

What struck me as brilliant in a sneaky way was the idea was making it a TRAIN. The plot of the movie is the story of a tail section rebellion. Since it's a train, the rebellion has to move forward through all the sections. Which means that as our bedraggled tail rebels fight, they cannot avoid passing through classrooms and sushi bars and night clubs, past dentistry and gardening and a woman sipping a cup of tea and reading a book.

The physical linearity space of the train reminded me immediately of these "shot-gun" houses I encountered when I lived in New Orleans. The story behind those -- urban myth or truth, I don't know -- was that at one time houses there were taxed by width, so people started building these long long houses with all the rooms in a row. And the thing about a shot-gun house is the thing about a train: because of the linearity of it, everyone has to encounter everyone else.

This is a big deal in a movie with social themes. Because it means you can't mentally put yourself somewhere else. Usually if you see class struggle and fighting you see either everyone is fighting or you see one group is being violent while the others are being killed and hurt. And maybe you can imagine yourself doing something completely different. Like teaching class. Or gardening.

But because it's a train, no can do. The train brings everyone together. The effect of this is that after endless images of dirt and pain and fear and fighting you're suddenly face to face with what are plausibly ordinary scenes of your very own life: you're sipping tea, and reading a book -- or you're teaching your students. But then here are these other people, close to death, right at your feet. Because the cars are all in a line, the train implicates everyone.

I have to say also that during the first part of the movie I found myself frequently returning to the thought that, wow, it might be better to be outside dead in the snow than to be on that train.

that reminded me of a disturbing reading experience I had the other day. I was reading Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer's new book on Sidgwick, and in it they're talking about a potential objection to the utilitarian idea that we should evaluate options by comparing the overall consequences of our actions.

The example includes the following thought experiment asking us to evaluate three options:

1) Peace

2) A nuclear war that kills 99 percent of the population

3) A nuclear ware the kills 100 percent of the population

The authors say "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (1) and (3) would be worse than (2)" -- the potential problem being that (3) seems SO MUCH MORE worse than (2) than (2) is than (1), possibly tough for the utilitarian to explain.

When I was reading I was tired. I misread them as saying that "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (3) -- that is, that it would be best, if there's going to be a nuclear war, if everybody died. I found myself nodding along in agreement with this.

I thought that they were saying that a war that leaves a smallish bedgraggled group of people, alone on earth, to torment one another and fight over the remaining resources, in a horrible world shot through with radioactivity, would actually be worse than a world with no people, where the cockroaches or whatever would be left alone, to re-evolve, hopefully into creatures who were wiser and more peaceful than we're evidently able to be. Seemed right to me.

So it was a bit of a shock to realize this idea, which had struck me as kind of commonsensical, was actually the one they were saying was insane.

I'm sure it says more about me than about anything else that I think it'd be better for no one to be left on earth at all.

But mostly it probably means: when it comes to planning for the post-apocalypse, don't put the Accidental Philosopher in charge.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Philosophy 101, Fall 2064! Brought to you by RitBull™! The "Smarter" Energy Drink!

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Topic 1: Theism and the Problem of Evil

In this topic we're talking about the question that just won't go away: if God is so great, why does bad shit happen? Special focus on: does bad shit really happen, or does it just seem like bad shit is happening?

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Topic 2: Justice and Inequality

In this topic we get very current-eventsy, asking deep questions about whether it's "fair" that some people just inherit huge sums while others have to beg for food. Our discussion will center on the question, "Wait, 'fairness?' Is that really even a thing?"

NOTE: We're thrilled to be sponsored by the Liberty-FTW! Institute for presentation of this great topic! Thanks, liberty guys!

Topic 3: Philosophy of Science

Is science for realz? You may not know it, but for hundreds of years philosophers have been, like, OMG we're not sure! Special consideration of the question: Science after Hume: is it all just a matter of faith?

NOTE: A big shout out to our fantastic sponsor, the Center for a Happy, Healthy Climate. Check out their new video: Carbon Dioxide Is Your BFF!