Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's A Stilettos/Teva World

This post is about shoes, but it is only metaphorically about shoes.  Style-shy people, bear with me.

If you've shopped for women's shoes in the last, oh, seven years, you've maybe noticed something funny.

Super-sexy shoes?  Check. There are outrageous heels all over the place, usually with delicate straps for maximum impracticability.

"Comfortable walking shoes"?  Check.  I guess "Tevas" are so 1990s, but Birkenstocks are still around, and companies like Nike are all over this market.  Oh right - it's CLARKS now:

But if you want something in-between -- I mean, something kind of comfortable and kind of stylish -- you're pretty much SOL. 

Amazingly, when it comes to women's shoes, you're more likely to find UNCOMFORTABLE casual shows than you are to find comfortable dressy ones.  Have you noticed this?  Style trends like the narrow-but-wedge-shaped heel and the open-no-strap-concept both make shoes less dressy and less sexy and at the same time less sturdy and less comfortable.

Wedge heel: discomfort without the high style.

No backstrap and wedge heel together!
To me this is like full-calorie beer that sucks. "Tastes bad!"  "No, it's more filling!"

So this thing about shoes has been driving me crazy for years.  Luckily I have a few pairs of shoes that have moderate but shapely heels and nice elegant straps and I just bring those to the shoe guy to get fixed over and over and over and over.

But it was only today that it struck me, that this isn't just a problem with women's shoes, it's the same problem with everything in modern life.

It's like there are only two ways to live:  total loser and Jay Gatsby. 

If you don't have a job, you can sleep on your parents' sofa and drink beer and complain, and you can daydream about and plan for the day when you become the big cheese.  Then when you go to work you have to find that ticket to the top.  Then if, god forbid, you lose your job, it's like you're catapulted back from aspirational-land to loser-land.

People in aspirational-land are devastated to be sent back to loser-land, and rightly so.  But it didn't have to be like this.  If you lose your job as some kind of cubicle management guy, and you need money to feed your kids, you might consider working at something else, like a waiter, or sales-clerk, or -- god forbid, janitor or something.  But in the modern world, those jobs suck.  So doing them is a kind of super-double-demotion.

Those jobs suck because we've made them this way, steadily eroding the protections, the money, and the respect that made those jobs -- and could make them again -- completely reasonable respectable jobs. 

I feel like a person who loses an office job should be thinking to himself, Jeez, why are all the ordinary jobs so crappy?  and why does a person who does them get so little respect?  But no one seems to think that.  They just all freak out at being in what they take to be loser-land instead of aspirational-land.

It's the same thing with people owning and renting houses.  I mean, it's sad if you lose your house because you can't afford it, but honestly, it's not the end of the world.  You can rent an apartment, just like lots of people.  I did this for years and you know what?  It's totally fine.  It's only because we've set up home-ownership as some kind of sine-qua-non for American middle class life that this feels like some kind of caste-lowering tragedy.

You can be a Stiletto in this world, or an ugly comfort shoe, but I'm sorry, there's nothing in between.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kantians Vs. Humeans: What If It Were Real?

Maybe you know something about Immanuel Kant and David Hume.  Two towering figures, with completely different ways of seeing the world -- especially when it comes to the nature of reason and desire. 

Immanuel Kant
In the imaginary comic book version of western philosophy, Kant is a big, well-groomed, guy wearing a big letter sweater with an R on it for Reason and Rationality.  Kant thought that reason alone could tell you how to act:  it doesn't matter whether you want to lie, or whether you care about the consequences of lying, or who you're lying to, reason tells you that lying is wrong. 

The details are complicated.  But what I'm interested in here isn't so much the morality part as the choosing to act part.  In Kantian philosophy, the idea is that because we are free and can reflect, we can only act when we have rationally endorsed the law, or principle, of our action.  So, for instance, suppose you have a desire to eat bacon.  That desire does not give you a reason to act, all alone.  Instead, because you are able to think about your decision, you have to ask yourself whether to endorse this desire -- do you have a policy of eating bacon whenever you feel like it?  Or a policy of only sometimes eating bacon when you feel like it?  Or never?  You have to reason about whether to act on the desire.  So ultimately rationality sanctions your choice and you cannot act directly on a desire, even if you wanted to.

A cat doesn't face these choices because it can't reflect:  the desire goes straight to the action -- unless, of course, there are competing factors like a person who sprays water in the cat's face to keep it away from breakfast.  But those are just further desires -- in that case not to get wet -- and not reasons.

So, humans, unlike cats, have to act for a reason.  Kant used this set up to show that, as in the example of not lying, you could have reasons for acting that were based on no desires at all.  And thus we have morality and cats don't.

David Hume
Hume's idea was basically the opposite.  In the imaginary comic book version of western philosophy, Hume is a kind of a mischief maker, massively intelligent but also incredibly good-natured.  Hume is the "passions" guy.  This makes him sound like some kind of free love guy but it's not that at all -- this means passions in the sense of any kind of feeling you have for or against something. 

Hume said that "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions."  That is, reason can never be a source of information about what one ought to do -- except in the trivial sense that if you want something you might use reason to get it.  Like, if you want bacon, you might use reason to figure out how to get to the store to get some and cook it up nicely. 

In Hume's version of human behavior, if you don't act on your desire it's not because you didn't endorse it as in the Kantian version -- it's instead because, just like the cat, you had some competing desire.  So if you love pigs, you might decide never to eat bacon.  But the reason doesn't come out of nowhere, it has to be based on a desire.

This sounds complicated -- and it kind of is -- but the part I'm interested in is this.  For Kantianism, the difference between you and your cat is -- or ought to be -- profound, because while your cat is all about desire, you are all about reason and rationality.  For Hume, the difference between you and your cat is ... details details.  You're basically the same:  wanting stuff and trying to get it.  The difference is just you can talk and think effectively about the future.  If your cat had access to these abilities you guys would be the same. 

Now there are a lot of philosophical questions about which I have no strong intuitive feeling.  But this isn't one of them

Because I am with Hume.  I am so with Hume on this question I have trouble making the other side sound good.  You tell me I'm a bundle of competing desires who uses reason to try to figure out what best to want, you tell me that when I act like a nice moral person instead of a moral monster, it's because I basically care about other people, you tell me that while it might be perverse to want what is bad for me overall, it is not irrational, and I'm like, Yes, That Is Me.  That is how I experience the world.

It's normal in philosophy to think of these two views as competing theories about what we all are like.

But I have this peculiar and frightening daydream in which it's not two theories about the same group of people, but instead that there are two kinds of people in the world:  people who actually act on reason alone -- the Kantians -- and people who are just animals who also happen to have speech centers, day planners and the internet -- the Humeans.

I figure the way it happened is like this.  Evolution gave us early humanoids, who became Humeans, and who gradually evolved the cognitive abilities that allow us to plant crops, play backgammon, and write Lolita

Then at some point, long long ago, aliens came.  These aliens were super-Kantians -- which means they not only could act on reason alone, but always did so.  Temptation, lust, gluttony, the love of addictive drugs -- these things were totally unknown to them.  Valuing rational nature, which they had, they did what they had to do to perpetuate it. 

At this point the details are a little foggy.  Did the Kantians have to mate with the Humeans to ensure the propagation of their species?  Did the Humeans trick them into having sex with them?  Not clear.  But whatever happened, the Kantians passed on their rationality to some descendants, who are some of us.  And now here we all are, driving each other crazy.

At the very least, there's an element of fear.  If you're a Kantian, I imagine the image of humans as driven by desire is very scary.  I mean, it's one thing if the desires are for peaceful harmonious living and so on.  But there are also desires for mayhem and violence.  What's to stop us from killing each other?  Just the contingent fact that we generally like peaceful co-existence?  That sounds so flimsy!

But if you're a Humean, the image of humans as driven by reason is also scary.  Because if the question is what's to stop us from killing each other, and the answer is "it would be irrational," that hardly seems any better.  It almost seems worse.  Because it invites the reply, So What?  The mental image of a world of people who refrain from hurting me not because they desire peaceful coexistence and care about others, but because reason requires them to do so -- well, that is a cold, cold world.

I hope we can manage our mutual suspicion without any big show-down.  Because you can see how the fight would be deathly in its being so evenly-matched:  knowing one's behavior is based in reason gives a person tremendous confidence that he is doing the Right Thing, a confidence that overrides all kinds of human impulses.  But, of course, we all know that feeling and desire, when they're strong enough, override everything.

In my Humean way I'm all for peaceful coexistence.  If you're a Humean too, you're already with me.  If you're a Kantian, try to remember:  we Humeans may be more variable and less predictable than you, but we have our good qualities, and most importantly, we care about you

Friday, April 1, 2011

Better Living Through Self-Absorption

One thing that's always bothered me about the self-help and therapy establishment is how often the techniques for feeling better seem like they're really techniques for becoming more of an asshole.

Now, now, not always of course.  And obviously, there are many people in the world for whom the actual right treatment probably is to become more of an asshole.  I mean, if your problem is no self-esteem, and you hate yourself or feel guilty all the time, learning to care less about other people is probably just what you need.  I'm the last person to begrudge you that.

But it's a mode that seems to me more widespread than I'd have thought was warranted.

For one thing, there's this huge emphasis on individualism.  Like, it's really important to be happy on your own terms and not need anyone else.  But this strikes me as really peculiar.  What kind of relationship can you have with someone who really, when it comes down to it, can take it or leave it?  Being dependent on other people is a natural state of affairs, and being dependent on the people closest to you is a good way to organize your life.  I wrote about this before, so it must be true.

What we need isn't lessons on being independent.  What we need is lessons on how to be a person who functions well in interdependent relationships.   As in, how to be yourself, and still be part of a partnership, at the same time.  As far as I can tell, you'll learn more about that from L. M. Montgomery than you will from anywhere else.

Then there's believing all these good things about yourself.  I bought this self-help book that is based on cognitive therapy.  One of the things it instructs you to do is to look for alternate beliefs from the ones that are making you feel bad, and to seek out evidence for those alternate beliefs.  If you think your colleagues is giving you a dirty look because she's mad you took the last doughnut and thinks you're a greedy slob, you might form a new belief -- that she's just got a funny look on her face because she's having a bad day.  Then you might look for evidence, like she was reprimanded for being late or something and that's why she's having a bad day and that's why she's upset.

I know I'm being hopelessly reality-based, but it really bothered me that there was no exploration of the possibility that your original beliefs are true.  In the ordinary world seeking evidence to support a belief you've just decided to hold is considered just bad reasoning -- it's a way of just being wrong about the way the world is.

Isn't it strange that to feel better about yourself you should willfully ignore evidence that you're making other people unhappy?

There was an excellent New Yorker article recently about an inventive So Cal therapist who treats actors, writers, agents ... all the Hollywood types.  He teaches his clients techniques like "Dust" -- in which you imagine all the other people are covered in a thick layer of dust like they've been sitting there inert for years and years -- and "Fuck You" in which you imagine all your critics and you imagine screaming "Fuck you" at them over and over.

It's not surprising to me that you can feel happier and more successful by systematically downplaying the importance of other people, by pretending they're not real, or not people, or by practicing telling them to fuck off.  But unless you're starting off at empathy 400 percent, how is this not going to make you just another successful asshole?

Confidence makes everyone feel good.  But confidence without self-doubt is a recipe for disaster.