Monday, March 26, 2012

"Have A Sense Of Perspective": Bad And Unnecessary Advice

This post is about yet another of those well-meaning but ultimately pointless and even pernicious pieces of modern wisdom.  This one goes:  "It's really important to have a sense of perspective."

This is generally intended as a reminder to be less caught up in your particular life dramas, less emotional about your particular circumstances, and less focused on the people around you.  It's the kind of thing you say to someone who is all upset because of annoying people at Starbucks to remind them that Hey, There Are People Starving in Africa, So Maybe You Should Just Chill.

I assume it is uncontroversial to point out the obvious:  that everyone has a perspective.  The teenager caught up in some Facebook drama clearly has a perspective on things:  they have a perspective that focuses on their friends as very important and ignores a lot of other stuff.  That's a perspective.  The modern wisdom isn't really about having a perspective, it's about having a certain kind of perspective:  the kind that represents "the long view" or "the point of view of the universe."

So:  what is so great about the long view?  Why should we take the point of view of the universe?  I guess the answer is supposed to be that the long view is a moral view, because it is "impartial" and doesn't introduce "arbitrary" distinctions between people.  If you care about X you should care about Y and Z and everyone else in the same way, and this means not being caught up in your own particular way of seeing things.

But as I see it -- and as philosophers like Bernard Williams have said before -- this just doesn't seem right.  The whole starting point of morality is that some things matter and some things don't, and some things matter more than others.  For most people there are lots of things that matter:  abstract things like truth and justice and generosity, but also particular things like family members and friends, projects like learning to play the piano, fun, art, literature .. the list goes on and on.

If the point of view of the universe means thinking about what matters in a way that has nothing to do with all these different and highly partial values, then how does it get off the ground?  How can you think about what matters and why without using, as a starting point, your own partial and particular beliefs about what matters and why? 

In response we might try something like the following:  we know what well-being is for each person, so from the point of view of the universe, we should do what brings about the most well-being overall, without distinguishing one person's well-being from another.  This would be "impartial."

Let me just say this:  this principle leads to a set of beliefs that is in some ways disturbing. The person who insists on killing one group of people -- or even one person -- in the name of the future well-being of another group of people is frequently thought of as a moral monster, not a moral visionary.  Those who can't love anyone specially because they love everyone equally are not those we admire and are not those we teach our children to emulate.

So:  it is not at all obvious -- I don't even think it's true, but passons -- that the long view, or the point of view of the universe is somehow better than the particular and partial view.

The real problem with most of us, I think, isn't that we have a perspective that is too narrow, but rather that we have multiple perspectives that take hold of us depending on our mood.  Here I think the philosopher Thomas Nagel basically nailed it when he said that because we can take on different perspectives on our lives, we value various and conflicting things.  Like, we value the collective good of everyone, and we value our particular projects and loved ones.  And the difficulty is trying to bring these various values together -- to incorporate them into some way of life. 

Because can be extremely distressing, for real, to find yourself feeling at one moment OMG there are people starving in Africa and feeling at the next moment that the biggest crisis of life is not being able to find a pair of comfortable summer sandals. 

But the answer to that problem is not to "have a sense of perspective."  If you have this feeling, you already have a sense of perspective.  The answer to that problem is to become a try to make a life that reflects the things you care about, by making plans to do things and then doing them and not always being carried away by the mania of the moment in your mind. 

But that's not having a sense of perspective.  That's trying to bring together a bunch of different, conflicting values -- some of which reflect the point of view of the universe, some of which reflect the point of view of a teacher, mother, employer, whatever, and some of which just reflect the point of view of you, alone.

Of course, some of us just don't care enough about other people, but these people don't need to be taught to have a sense of perspective.  They need to be taught to care about other people. 

So next time you're tempted to think or say "have a sense of perspective" to someone, try to back off.  It's an annoying thing to say anyway.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Being Versus Doing: A Plea For Being

A Dandy, by Georges Jacques Gatine (1773-1831), a painting by Carle Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was the kind of little kid who dreamed of becoming Miss America, or a fashion model, or at least a cheerleader.  My hero in life was Cher.  I dreamed of halter tops, hot pants, and crazy shoes.  I can't remember a time when I wasn't thinking about high heels.

When I was young my feminist mom taught me a few things about those particular dreams (thanks, Mom!).  She pointed out that girls are taught to want to be things -- pretty, fashionable, pleasing -- whereas guys are taught to want to do things.  The message was clear:  you too should want to do things.

Of course, I already did want to do things.  I was also the kind of little kid who liked to do puzzles and make stuff, a nerd who was into math, and music, and school, and all that.  Focusing on the Doing rather than the Being came naturally. 

The advice was, of course, excellent.  But why was it excellent?

It's sometimes thought that this kind of advice is good because Doing is somehow better than Being.  But I've come to think the whole Being versus Doing thing is not so clear cut.  Because Being is pretty great.  And Doing -- it's maybe a little overrated.  Here in the Last Days of Western Civilization, we've become so Doing Doing Doing.  It's wearing me out.  What about Being?

What is it about fashion and beauty that make them seem like Being rather than Doing?  I take it the answer is something like:  they're Being because even though they are activities, they are activities that are focused on the responses of others.  Doing is supposed to be somehow independent of those responses.  You invent something, you play your best, you climb some stupid mountain, and those things are supposed to matter regardless of whether you look good doing them and regardless if anyone cares.  And that kind of Doing is supposed to be better. 

If you put the distinction that way, though, you get this question:  what about art? 

Art is thought of as Doing.  But it's not independent of the responses of others.  It's all about the responses of others.  If you're trying to become a great painter or a great dancer or a great musician, you're trying to do something to which other people will respond to in a certain way. 

But that would make art less of a Doing than other activities, and if Doing is better, would make art less worthwhile than those other activities.  But surely art is as -- or more -- worthwhile than Doings like sports and hiking?

I think the answer is that Doing isn't really better than Being, because they're both good.  Of course people want others to respond to them in certain ways:  what could be more human?  A good life will have both kinds of activities -- those centered on the responses of others and those centered on the responses of one's self.

One reason we've gotten so screwed up about this is that sex and gender identities, especially historically, pressure women toward More Being and Less Doing.  And because we humans are kind of crude in our application of concepts, this means they also pressure men to become More Doing and Less Being.  This would explain the absurd connection in modern North American between masculinity and anti-art-ism.

So we've got an imbalance.  To right the imbalance, women should remember the importance of Doing and not give in the pressures for Being.  Feminism correctly reminds us of this, and that's why my mother's advice was good.  But this has nothing to do with Being being somehow inherently less good than Doing.

It follows from this that men should remember the importance of Being and not give into the pressures for Doing.  Norms of modern masculinity sanction a few limited forms of Being, like owning a fancy car.  But the range is pretty impoverished, and the cultural pressures from the gender police are crazy.  A guy can't even shop for a nice shirt these days without people getting all wound up about it. 

If men could enjoy fashion, beauty, and being pleasing to others, like the dandy in the painting above, we'd all be better off.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What Do Men Want When They Pay For Sex?

Toulouse Lautrec, Reine de Joie, via Wikimedia Commons here.

What do men want when they pay for sex?  I thought I sort of knew the answer to this question, and I thought it was something like this:  men want the experience of having sex, with the ability to have some control over what their partners are like, without the difficulties of attracting other people, and without the difficulties of being nice to those other people during the times they're not actually having sex.  This answer would apply in the same way to hetero- and same-sex paid sex. 

But there are men out there who aren't interested in paying for sex at all.  I mean, there are men who say that the whole point of having sex with a person instead of masturbating is to experience the desire or somehow the general subjectivity of the other person.  Without those, there's pretty much no point to sex over masturbation.  And of course, the experience of another's genuine desire or subjectivity is, in a way, just what you have some trouble obtaining if you're paying for sex, because presumably showing certain patterns of desire or feeling is part of what the person you're paying is being paid to do. 

From this point of view, and for men like this, it does seem that seeking out a sex worker would make less sense than, say, attentive masturbating with really high quality pornography.  I mean, you can recreate many of the relevant physical sensations  -- can't you? -- and even in the best circumstances setting up an appointment with a sex worker is going to cost time and money.

But of course there are plenty of men who do seek out sex workers.  What makes it worth it for them?  I mean, masturbation technologies ... haven't they gotten pretty good?  If you can replicate the physical sensations pretty well by masturbating, and if you're not in it for the desire and subjectivity of the other person, what are you in it for?

Maybe the answer is something like this:  there's some kind of vagueness and haziness in "desire" and "subjectivity," and there's some kind of mental state between credulity and skepticism that allows the fiction of mutual desire or interest or whatever subjectivity you're interested in to be maintained in the moment.  So you pay to have sex, and the sex worker is genuinely in the moment in some way, and is acting in some other way, but because of the nature of the interaction, it's possible for the client to be momentarily pleasantly deceived that there is mutual desire or interest or whatever subjectivity you're hoping to have in your sex partner.   

That is, I believe, a kind of answer that makes sex work seem, on the face of it, like it could be an OK thing -- assuming, of course, that sex workers are all in control of their activities and being treated with respect and all that.  It's also roughly consistent with my original answer.  We might call it the "pleasant fiction" answer. 

But my thinking on this subject was cast into some doubt by reading Chester Brown's excellent recent graphic novel, Paying For It, which is about Brown's years of having sex with sex workers after his relationship ends and he decides an actual girlfriend is too much trouble.

Part of what surprised and even distressed me was how fussy Brown gets about the physical appearance of the women he has sex with.  I mean, in the beginning he's nervous and grateful when things go well, but as time goes on he becomes more and more attentive to the physical attractiveness-dollar ratio, along predictable dimensions.

That's his right, I guess.  But it felt so ... ungenerous somehow.  Maybe this is the girly-girl in me coming out, but I think to myself, Hey, this person is having sex with you; sure you're paying her, but she's giving you this very intimate thing.  Can't you be a little nicer, or warmer, or more grateful about that, Mister Critical?  It's true that Brown is respectful and kind.  But that doesn't quite make him warm or generous. 

There's also a grim moment in which a sex worker does something particularly erotic, and instead of thinking, "Wow, Sexy," Brown just thinks about how she's just doing that so he'll have his orgasm faster and get out of there.  He feels manipulated and annoyed, and he responds by acting like a grouch.  It surprised me to see that sort of gesture take on such an opposite valence from what it usually has. 

Both of these things, it seems to me, kind of challenge the "pleasant fiction" interpretation.  Because they both highlight the differences rather than the similarities between sex with the sex worker and sex with some person you happened to like who happened to like you. 

They're both the approach of the consumer, not the lover.

But that makes my original question seem somewhat more puzzling.  If a guy's not in it for the experience, in some sense, even for a few minutes, of playing the lover -- and of course I don't mean "lover" as in the sense of "in love," but just in the sense of having sex out of desire and attraction -- then what is he in it for?

I found myself wondering what Chester Brown was getting out of these visits that he couldn't get more cheaply and easily from a few toys and a good broadband connection.