A postmodern listicle

After watching the latest Idea Channel, about the positive sides of listicles, I started thinking: Listicles are a pretty rigid format, based on a predetermined claim to authority. Would it be possible to write something that's still recognizably a listicle, but also unambiguously a postmodern use of the form? Not just a listicle about postmodernism, but one that is a postmodern work itself?

I mean, like, yes, probably, but I'm not sure if it can be done well. A listicle seeks to communicate the answer to the question asked or implied by its title, so a postmodern listicle would have to, like, not do that? But that would be boring. So it would have to answer it, but in an unexpected way? Or ask a question that, by answering it in list form, dismantles the legitimacy of the question itself?

My first thought when I had this idea was "That'd probably be easy," then I thought about it for about five minutes and came to the conclusion that it would actually be super hard. Everybody: Let me know if you find any good examples of people trying this and pulling it off.

Disorganized thoughts, with no satisfying conclusion, on gaze

Okay so this is an extremely rough thought I had this morning, and I'm hoping that at worst it's just wrong, but since I'm going to be talking about social justice stuff there's a chance that I'm saying something unthinkingly awful. If that's the case, please let me know. Contextual disclosure: I'm a nonbinary bisexual white person who's generally misgendered as male.

I was thinking this morning about the existentialist idea of the other, and the gaze of the other, and how it relates to the feminist concept of the male gaze, and the larger social justice concept of othering and privilege. 

The existentialist idea of the gaze of the other is roughly that when you know other people are paying attention, or even when you're reminded of the possibility that other people could theoretically pay attention, it drastically alters your behavior and forces you to reflexively think of yourself as an object within their narrative of the world, not just as the subject of your own narrative.

In social justice, the idea of the gaze is used very similarly, but with specific attention to the way different classes exercise that force on each other: the male gaze is the experience that many people* have of being objectified specifically under the pressure of gender roles and feminization;  Black people in America have extensively documented the objectification of their bodies as primarily objects of violence; at the intersections, women of color from many communities have pointed out the hypersexualization of their bodies.

I think it's clear that different people experience meaningfully different amounts of gaze, not just the same amount with different qualities. Speaking as a white person, I rarely feel like I'm being noticed as being white, that there are a set of behaviors expected of me for my whiteness. People certainly do have those expectations -- whether people of color expecting me to harm or disappoint them, or other white people expecting me to validate their racism -- but the point is that I don't feel it, and the feeling part is the gaze, not the actual thoughts in anyone else's heads.

I do strongly feel a pressure towards masculinity in that way, but that's because I'm not a man. (I do think there are also many men who feel that pressure: is there a phrase for that? Toxic masculine gaze?)

I have nowhere else to go with these thoughts. I'm probably covering really well-covered territory. I just noticed a really weird-feeling difference between the hyper-individual and homogeneous idea of gaze in existentialism and the categorical and class-varied idea of gaze in social justice discourse.

*I'm trying to figure out more inclusive language than "women," but I'm having trouble sorting through a coherent list of who is and isn't affected by the male gaze. As a nonbinary person who's generally misread as male, I have no significant firsthand experience with male gaze, in the traditional sense, so I've settled on "many people" so that I can finish writing this post. If you've got any more insight than I have into who is subject to different kinds of dominant class gaze, I'm very interested to hear it.

Flow: the word and the concept (Materialist hipster yells at cloud)

I don't like the word "flow" very much, in terms of the concept in psychology. I also don't like the other version of the concept, being "In the zone." I'm uncomfortable with the degree to which that kind of language seems to spiritualize or mysticize the concept.

I realize that many people are perfectly comfortable with that kind of construction, but it doesn't fit neatly into my internal monologue, and for totally unjustified reasons it bugs me that the scientific term for the concept, "Flow," isn't something more, like, y'know, clinical. 

I want to be able to think the sentence "I arrange my working time and space like this in order to achieve a state of [BLANK]," and I want the word I put in that blank to sound, like, sciencey, you know? Like, "Persisting engagement," or "Somatic focus," or "Csíkszentmihályi's state."

But when you put "Flow" in that blank, it sounds like I should be having some kind of religious experience, or that my emotional state at the time is the primary point of focus. And it's not. Flow is a lot of fun, I definitely enjoy the state, but I don't like thinking of it as a kind of meditation or spirituality. I don't want it to be about the process, I want it to be about the product. For me, focusing on process is something else. That's practice. It's a much more intentional, much less flow-like state. And if I'm going to meditate, I'd rather just meditate. 

I don't have any kind of point here. I don't actually want to enforce a certain kind of presentation of formal labeling in the social sciences. This just happens to be one of the areas where my prejudices and insecurities intersect a kind of postmodernity in a way that puts me on the conservative side of the discomfort.

Abjectionism

A while back I wrote a post jokingly suggesting a political party organized around the concept of abjection -- the fear triggered by confrontation with the vagueness of boundary between self and other. (My favorite example is that of a severed hand -- a thing that was once somehow human and is now a mere object. Another example is the phrase "abject poverty" -- the state of being so poor that people with money stop seeing you as really human.) With the election year coming up I've been thinking about it again, and I was talking to my datemate about it today so I thought I'd link back to it: The Abjectionist Party

Estimating the size of global problems

I wrote a comment on Tumblr a couple days ago, on a thread about the lack of media coverage of Bernie Sanders. Here's the whole thread, but there's a point at the bottom that I've been thinking about all day, and I want to expand on it.

There probably/definitely is some conspiring going on in parts of the industry, but I’m betting most of [the poor coverage of Bernie Sanders] is the organic consequence of the culture of journalism today and the awareness or fear that those conspiracies exist and might threaten one’s credibility, employability, and livelihood.

This is an important point to me because I think it’s important to stay aware that the media, like many industries, is full of potentially-good people reacting to threats and pressures, meaning some effective top-level reforms could free them to be the reporters they once imagined they could be.

I.

It's really incredibly easy to think of people as being good or bad, for us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. And that's not always a terrible way to look at things -- the last one, especially, highlights the reality that we're all living with unconscious prejudices we have to identify and unlearn. But this point, about people afraid to act, is one I've been thinking about a lot as an activist.

There are people -- I believe a huge number of people -- who have a solid internal moral compass, and know what they'd prefer to choose to do, ethically. But every day, to protect their livelihoods, they make a different choice, and do things they'd rather not do, because starvation and imprisonment doesn't sound like a good time.

I believe that all those people have a tipping point. For some, it's a tiny nudge, for others it might be a complete re-configuring of society. Some people may just need to feel confident they can pay off their student loans. Others may be willfully resisting becoming aware of truths that might make them hate themselves for doing the work they do. But I believe that for most people, the choice not to fight for social justice is not about real ideological disagreement; it's about fear of the consequences.

If you want to discuss the minutiae of ideological disagreement I'd be happy to get into it, but the broad point is nobody wants to see everybody suffer if they can avoid it. Even hardcore Ayn Rand devoted objectivists justify their "Screw you, I've got mine" approach not on the basis that other people's wellbeing actually doesn't matter, but the belief that a socialist approach to human wellbeing is doomed to fail. That's fear. Fear that trying to make things better is bound to make them worse.

II.

The way the mind naturally flows to passively viewing these folks is with a certain amount of contempt. If you're an activist, and you're thinking of someone who does less activism than you, I expect you probably think it through and respond kindly and with understanding, but when you do the quick mental math that happens in the corner of your brain where you're not really looking right now, what you get is

My activism - their activism = positive sum; Therefore me > them

This shorthand is super-easy to resist when that's the only problem you're trying to solve. "Am I better than this person? No, obviously not. Human worth is not calculable in terms of measures of perceived activism."

But I think it sneaks in sometimes when we think about bigger problems. When we think of the unimaginable scale of problems like climate change, racism, misogyny, worker exploitation, and we try and wrap our heads around it --

I'm going to stop saying "we" now, because I'm not reading your mind.

When think about problems of that scale, what usually happens is my brain makes a rough calculation of how hard it's going to be. It goes something like

(People in favor) * (institutions supporting reform) - (people opposed) * (institutions supporting status quo) = an extraordinarily large negative number that reflects the degree of resistance I expect the movement to meet

But when that equation is spread out, the (people in favor) ... - (people opposed) part is the same equation as above, and it suggests that the majority of the people in the world are actually committed to, or at least are perfectly indifferent to, human suffering, and need to be convinced individually that, on whatever individual issue, the wellbeing of the relevant people matters.

Obviously, that's not really true. A lot of people may not realize there's a problem, and will turn their behavior around as soon as they see it and work to support the wellbeing of others whatever way they can, and a lot of other people may just be waiting for the ethical option to be made safe enough that they can take it without risking their livelihoods.

III.

It's hard work coming up with a mental shorthand that gives me an approximate impression of how difficult any given social justice movement should be, given the expectation that people are basically not evil. I think it'd have to be different for each separate thing. Like, the equation for raising the minimum wage to a living wage should probably turn out something really simple, because most people are convinced as soon as they really understand just how little $7.25/hr is. The equation for ending factory farming might be a lot closer to the first approximation, because not everyone is quite as prepped to extend empathy to animals as well as humans. But maybe I'm totally wrong about that. Maybe it's the opposite.

What I've come to understand and believe is that it's not worth trying to do the math. Huge, global problems seem unfathomably hard. It's my general impression that they're pretty much always a lot easier to solve than they look, and that there's a lot of support just waiting for better weather.

Instead, I think it's worthwhile to just assume that every big problem is solvable within my lifetime, and act accordingly. The worst case scenario there is that I'll accidentally help chip away at some problems that would have seemed too scary to even look at if my projections were more refined.

Whales' Footprints

One time, when I was young, I went on a whale-watching trip with my family. We did see a few whales, though that I remember only vaguely. The thing I most clearly remember about the trip is the guide explaining whale footprints.

Photo by Jerry Kirkhart, released on Flickr in 2009 under CC BY 2.0

A whale footprint is a circle of smooth water left behind after a whale comes up for air and then dives back down. It fascinated me at the time, and has remained a potent image my whole life since.  Looking out on an impenetrable blue field, you can find circles of water where nothing is happening -- waters even calmer, smoother, more unremarkable than the rest of the surface of a calm ocean. And from looking at that disc, a small spot of quiet where there should be noise, you can infer the presence of an almost unimaginably large creature, somewhere very close.

In my mind this is a metaphor for almost every kind of knowing. It's what it means to learn by observation. It's how difficult problems are solved. The use of spectrometers to determine the chemical compositions of stars, Thomas Picketty's use of French and British literature to chart economic histories, quantum physics, critical theory, and so on, and so on, and so on. They're all whale footprints. Finding quiet where there should be noise, noise where there should be signal.

Even the most elusive of phenomena leave strange shapes behind them in their path, and those shapes render the unknown, in some way, knowable.

Solarpunk midterm for Philosophy of Happiness

This is my Philosophy of Happiness midterm. It's about Solarpunk. I wrote big chunks of it this morning before turning it in (extremely late), so I don't feel too guilty about not writing about it a ton here. Especially since it's 11:15. (I did just get the notification that it's been the requisite 2 months since the last time I skipped a day, but I figure I should save that for later. Also, I'm thinking about revising the skip rules and I want to do that before I skip any more.)

Philosophy of Happiness final excerpt

Like I said yesterday, I've got a lot going on right now. I am, again, going to be at work until after midnight. So, here's an excerpt from my final paper for Philosophy of Happiness, "Capitalism vs. Happiness: 21st century capitalism is incompatible with happiness as a human right." This part is on how capitalism conflicts with the pursuit of happiness as defined by various schools of thought that argue that the path to happiness is living virtuously. Capitalism versus happiness through virtue

Aristotle argued that individual virtue was a prerequisite for both happiness and personal success. He lists four cardinal virtues: Prudence, temperance, courage and justice.

Seligman argues for six specific categories of virtue, which he argues are key to pursuing happiness: Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence.

Taoism's approach to happiness is virtue-based, too -- of particular relevance are the Three Treasures: mercy, economy and humility.

In all of these contexts, complete personal failure is incompatible with success in capitalism. But complete, or even just uncommon, success in virtue is also incompatible with the most substantial forms of success within capitalism. At best, the extremely virtuous compromise their own access to comfort routinely to avoid more direct violence at the hands of the system; at worst, they are injured, imprisoned or killed.

It's not that capitalism privileges vice, exactly -- the system just as eagerly imprisons the exceptionally immoral as the exceptionally moral -- in general, capitalism privileges market stability, and so it privileges a collection of median states. Prosocial but not socialist; neither debilitated with addictions nor totally sober; physically functional but not healthy; ambitious and hopeful but not happy.

Many of the virtues listed above can be directly contradicted by the basic values of capitalism. For example:

Prudence (Aristotle) or Economy (Taoism): Markets thrive on the continuous movement of money. Careful decision making about responsible money use on the part of the majority of the population would completely disintegrate some markets, and substantially harm all of them.

Temperance (Aristotle and Seligman) or Mercy (Taoism): This one reminds me of the Jeff Bezos quote: "Your margin is my opportunity." That is, it's a fundamental capitalist advantage to exploit other people's limitations, to push them up to and over their ability to cope and function, to push even yourself beyond realms of normal human coping.

Mercy and temperance aren't fundamentally opposed to a capitalist market, but they are fundamentally opposed to the capitalist market that exists, and they will naturally be eradicated over time from any market. Markets will escalate in violence until they reach a Nash Equilibrium -- a state in which no player has any advantage to be gained by changing strategy. That can only occur when there are no available mercies left to abandon.

Justice (Aristotle, Seligman):  Justice undermines hypocrisy as a basic tool of functional capitalism; a system optimized for justice is by definition not optimized for the well-being of individuals in correspondence to their access to capital.

Humanity (Seligman): Humanity suggests an implicit intention to guarantee the well-being of all members of a civilization. Capitalism relies on the ability to threaten its participants with withholding resources for non-cooperation.

So -- it's clear that one of the fundamental virtues under capitalism is hypocrisy. But while a well-developed skill in hypocrisy makes a person well-equipped to navigate the world insofar as it consists of marketplaces, it makes a person profoundly unlikely to successfully navigate the world insofar as it consists of other humans, and of meaningful relationships.

If we take meaningful relationships to be important for happiness, then that, too, suggests that being good at capitalism is inconsistent with being happy.

Philosophy Bites: Meira Levinson on the Aims of Education

This episode of Philosophy Bites is about the philosophical goals of education -- the guest, Meira Levinson, has taught in public schools in Atlanta and Boston, often working with children of color living in poverty. Near the end of the podcast, she raises a problem with the educational narrative taught to these children about escaping poverty:

Insofar as my aim was to help each of my students achieve power over their lives, I also had to help the achieve power as a collective. ... We could not establish a goal of having each individual child escape his or her circumstances -- that that was a profoundly limiting goal, because it meant ... that the child was taught that in order to succeed, he or she had to leave his or her community behind. And so that experience transformed my thinking from just thinking about the individual to how I could help young people learn to work together to transform the communities in which they lived.

I answered a question a while ago about what Solarpunk education would be like -- my answer was basically the long-form version of “I don’t know.”  But this seems like a vivid example: Solarpunk education is about teaching kids about community, support, and building resistance to systematic adversity; it rejects the narrative that the oppressed should seek to relieve their suffering by pursuing unlikely accomplishments with the intent to leave their community behind them.

I can only talk so much on this topic, being a white person who grew up in a suburb, before I’m pretty hugely out of my depth, but I wanted to bring this podcast, and this idea, into the conversation.

(Philosophy Bites is a podcast featuring 15-20 minute interviews with contemporary philosophers dipping into very specific questions. I think it’s really accessible, if you’re looking to check out a philosophy podcast.)

Thoreau inspired art

My Philosophy of Happiness class went on a field trip today.[1. Honors courses at my school are required to have a field trip. The professor took a very long time to figure out what kind of place we could visit to get across the idea of happiness -- and I have to say, I'm not even a little bit a Thoreau fan so I expected that to be a bad call, but I had a delightful day. So, I guess, well done.] We visited deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, Mass., where there is currently an exhibit of art inspired by the work of Henry David Thoreau. The art inside, which made up the exhibit, was mostly pretty boring. For the stuff that wasn't boring, what I liked about it were the ways that it implied direct contradictions to Thoreau's points.

But outside was great. The weather today was wonderful, and -- I don't know if you know this, but -- Sculpture Parks are SO COOL. There was a giant head and an upside-down lamp post and an otter with a human face and a tree that looked like Groot.

I recommend deCordova.  I have no clue what it costs, since I went with a school group, but if it's cheap and you live nearby it's totally worth checking out.

What happiness is

I'm taking a class on the philosophy of happiness this semester, and I just finished the first reading, so obviously I'm totally equipped to answer the question "What is happiness?" So I'm going to do that now. At first I thought the definition of happiness was necessarily circular -- happiness is happiness. It's the state of being happy. That's the way dictionaries generally define it. (Seriously. Google "Define happiness.") But I think that misses a certain point about what kind of word 'happiness' is.

The word 'happiness' isn't related to the qualities of happiness, the way the word 'water' is related to the qualities of water, or the word 'pain' is related to the qualities of pain. The word 'happiness' is a marker of conceptual territory. I've been turning it over in my head and the best set of words I can come up with that point to the same territory is

The maximally desirable continuous state of existence in an entity capable of experience.

The problem I started to see with the definitions of happiness that philosophers were defending was that they all try to smuggle in other philosophical conclusions. There's a difference between the question 'what is happiness' and 'how do I achieve happiness' that gets skipped.

A thought I keep having is that the word 'happiness' is like the word 'Vermont.'

It's not circular to define Vermont as "The territory in the United States of America that's west of New Hampshire, north of Massachusetts, east of New York, and south of Canada." And it's not accurate -- or at least not universally helpful -- to say Vermont is "North on Route 93."

But philosophers seem pretty thoroughly interested in giving the latter kind of description and dismissing the former as uninformative nonsense.

Maybe an even better analogy would be to say they're trying to define the word "Destination" by saying "North on 93," and that if you're going somewhere else then you're using the word 'destination' wrong.

So, happiness is the maximally desirable continuous state. I'd also like to add that it can necessarily be conceptualized by proximity -- there's such a thing as more happy or less happy -- without making the claim that it can necessarily be evaluated in terms of that proximity.

After that, you've got a whole bunch of other philosophical questions to answer before you can even circle back to drawing a map for yourself. There are epistemological questions: how do you evaluate information to approach an understanding? Can you rely entirely on your own internal experience? Can you trust external information? On what terms?

There are ethical questions: does the maximally desirable state necessarily overlap with optimized ethics? Does it overlap somewhere along the line of compromised ethics? If the latter, which branch do you choose? (And then, metaphysical questions -- is there an afterlife? Does compromising your happiness in this life grant you access to effort-free happiness in another life?)

And there's practical questions: where are you starting? North on 93 may be technically, pedantically valid advice no matter what, but it's actually really shitty directions to give someone who's leaving from Schenectady. Similarly, letting go of attachment to material things might be an important part of the process of approaching the maximally desirable state, but it's seriously not helpful advice to give to someone living in poverty, for whom the pursuit of material things includes a routine struggle to keep eating.

So maybe a set of philosophical instructions for happiness should look more like a flow chart -- literally, a conceptual map.

I have more thoughts but this class will last all semester so I'll save some for later.

I think maybe the nuclear family is going away

alright I'm tired and I'm having trouble thinking things through, so this is just going to be an incoherent blast of stuff I've been thinking about: The nuclear family as a social unit emerged in response to industrialization; after farming stopped being 80 percent of the jobs, and employment started becoming specialized, it became normal for people to move in order to take a job in some new destination. Obviously people don't want to leave their families behind, and also-obviously people can't take their whole extended families with them to their new job in Cleveland.

That was reinforced by the federally subsidized process of installing suburbs around the country -- housing units specifically optimized for the nuclear family.

And it's supposed to work like cells -- the family grows, then it gets big enough that it splits, and the new second family-cell goes away and starts growing somewhere else. That worked because there were other jobs out there, and because the government was subsidizing everyone's[1. Read: white people's.] house-getting.

The government doesn't subsidize the suburban class anymore. When the housing bubble burst, they didn't bail out the homeowners, they bailed out the banks. So that's half the arrangement gone.

And the jobs are going away. Human employability is on the decline, and anyways we've been in a post-industrial economy for a while now. Most of the particularly skilled labor is internet-based, which means employees could telecommute. A company certainly doesn't need to consolidate all its vital staff in one city anymore. Plus, there's less motive to move across the country for a job in an economic climate where you expect to swap not just jobs but whole careers at least a few times in your adulthood.

This decline in the availability of housing, and in the availability of jobs, for the latest generation of nuclear family spawn has coincided with a trend of twenty-somethings living at home a lot longer than they did ten, twenty, thirty or forty years ago.

And we're generally given to understand this as a recent and unique downward trend in the functionality of the youth.

When really it looks to me like it's a return to the way families worked pre-industrially,

and is a byproduct of the disintegration of an artificial version of 'family' that's no longer sustainable now that the corporations don't need it.

The Abjectionist Party

I remembered today that they pay representatives in the state House of Representatives, and that I need money and couldn't possibly do worse than our government does now, so I spent some time daydreaming about what it might have been like if I had attempted to run for state office in New Hampshire. It turns out, actually, that NH House Representatives make $200 per term.

I imagined coming up with my own party for the campaign: the Abjectionist Party. And I wrote a short campaign speech:

Abjection is the fear and disgust we experience at the sight of something that was once a part of us, and has been made separate. Alien. blood on a steering wheel. A severed hand. The phrase "Abject poverty" refers to the state of someone being so inhumanely poor that those of us with means enough have trouble seeing them as a person.

Our government is in a state of abjection. This vast, tendrilous thing, that takes us up into it, affects everything, touches everything, and is still here, living with us, and was once part of us -- Of the people, by the people, for the people -- but it isn't, any longer.

The abjection party stands for recognizing and processing that as a reality of America's collective psyche. We don't know whether the thing can be surgically reattached or whether it needs to be cut clean and disposed of, but we are here to say: this thing, this government, in which we still see ourselves, is severed, and is rotting.

In review, I'd want to spend some time figuring out how to make it more clear that I'm not saying the poor should be severed and disposed of -- I would see proper care for the homeless and impoverished of America as being one of the major goals of the Abjectionist Party -- but for something that took 15 minutes to write, I kinda like it.

Also, campaign slogan: "Turn your ballot into something alien and warped -- vote Abjectionist!"

Presented without context

Once you know something, it becomes almost impossible to really comprehend that other people DON'T know it.You can know that they don't, believe that they don't, act as though they don't, even, with effort, imagine what it must be like to experience that not-knowing. But with few exceptions, you can't really internalize. What is seen cannot be un-seen.

I think this is a big deal with vocabulary. Because words are such a fundamental part of the way we interact with the world, it's hard to imagine that people don't know the words that you know -- and more importantly, that people can't easily be made to understand the full depth of context that comes with a word.

I have this problem in a lot of conversations -- like, I know that people don't really know what I mean when I say post-modern or deconstruction. But I find myself regularly, repeatedly making the mistake of believing that all I have to do is explain, briefly, and then the conversation can continue from there.

Even though I spent years in school learning about what those words mean. Even though I know that, in my mind, an explanation of those words entails an explanation of the life stories of several philosophers, a handful of well-known anecdotes and media sources, as well as the associated commentary, and a reasonably solid footing in modernism.

I feel bad about that sometimes.

Poorly distributed complexity: stuff isn't fair

You know the phrase 'life isn't fair?' That's true, but it's an incredibly hard thing to wrap your head around. The universe isn't set up to serve the interests of living things. The ecosystem isn't set up to serve the interests of humans. Human institutions aren't set up to serve the interests of all humans equally. Even personal, individual relationships aren't always set up to optimize for the well-being of all parties.

Comic: a whale has been struck by a harpoon, another whale says "It's okay, Hank. I just read that the goal of ethics is to maximize human flourishing." SOURCE: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, comic number 3420

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about un-fairness as a founding principle of understanding life. I want things to be more fair -- and I think that's a goal that can be pursued with meaningful success.

I could do a whole series on this,[1. Other examples: it's not fair that purchasing goods and services can lead to supporting anything other than the existence of those goods and services; it's not fair that there's no way to choose political neutrality without siding by default with the current power structure; it's not fair that Western culture on the whole systematically misrepresents adulthood to children to make adults feel good about their idealized notions of the world; it's not fair that it's impossible to use language to communicate ideas clearly without leaving out important details.] but one of the unfair things that bothers me most, and most frequently, is that there is absolutely no set of relationships between:

  • How important it is to understand something,
  • How easy that thing is to understand,
  • How easy it is to get help in understanding that thing.

Like, the United States legal system is literally so complicated that it takes an advanced degree to be able to deal with it with a significant level of competency, but that degree is very expensive, the ideas that you have to learn in getting it are complex, often contradictory, and usually counter-intuitive, and everyone in the US is nonetheless required to behave in a way that corresponds in a certain way to those ideas.

Or, understanding the suffering of a marginalized group requires accepting that they face a constant barrage of microagressions, but any attempt a marginalized person makes to testify to those experiences sounds very much like cherry-picking and can rhetorically be neutralized by actually cherry-picked experiences that a privileged person has had.

Or, we're taught to understand money in terms of a static value -- a millionaire is a person who has a million dollars, you can get rich by winning the lottery and being given a big pile of money -- when the actual functionality of money is more like a rate of flow -- a million dollars is 20 thousand a year if you want it to last 50 years, which is like having an extra household member with a poverty-level job, not like being a millionaire at all.

And, importantly, to all three of those examples you could criticize my summary by pointing out that it's actually way more complicated than that. Which is my point.

Stuff like this reminds me why stuff like Voltaire's famous quote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good," is so important. These problems are all fundamentally un-solvable, because the universe is unfair and we've got brains shaped by evolution and there are lots of people who stand to keep a lot of money and power if these ideas stay confusing.

But knowing we can't solve these problems doesn't mean trying would be bad. The difference between any of them being 0% solved or 10% solved or whatever[2. And calculating percentage-solvedness of these problems is another impossible thing that is nonetheless useful.] and being 50% or 80% solved is a difference of a huge amount of suffering or well-being. Even individual actions by individual people contain a degree of significance that is both trivial and meaningful.

Which is a confusing idea that seems complicated or self-refuting and is hard to express using language, but it's also really important.

Being mean isn't the same as the ad hominem fallacy

I had an argument on the internet a while ago. In fact, I've had dozens of arguments on the internet. Usually, the arguments I get into relate to things in which I have an emotional investment, so occasionally, I indulge in pointing out that arguing the contrary point, because you think it's fun, makes you an asshole. I want to explain, now, why that's not committing an informal fallacy.

An ad hominem attack is when you attempt to persuade others that someone else's claim must be false, because they posses damning character flaws. Here's an example of an ad hominem argument:

Person A, who's wearing a peach tank top and listening to a playlist of Blink-182 and the Pixies: I think X is true.

Person B, who has a strong personal investment of the audience believing X is false: Well, you obviously can't be trusted because nobody who wears that kind of shirt and listens to those bands is worth listening to.

Large segments of the internet, however, seem to have become persuaded that an ad hominem attack is just any argument at all in which one's feelings get hurt.

In all of these examples, person B is not employing an ad hominem attack:

Person A: I think X is true.

Person B: I disagree. Here are reasons why. Also, you're an ass face.

Person A: Calling me an ass face is ad hominem.

Person A: I think X is true.

Person B: You have been being rude to me during this conversation, so I'm no longer interested in engaging with you.

Person A: You can't call me rude! That's an ad hominem attack, and it means you're wrong.

Person A: I think X is true.

Person B: Fuck off.

Person A: That's not fair -- you have to be nice to me, we're having an argument. It's ad hominem.

Person A: I think X is true.

Person B: X is not true. Here are reasons why. Defending X is, in fact, directly harmful to groups Y, Z and F. Here are explanations why. In my estimation, your persistence in defending X makes you an asshole.

Person A: Ha! You used a bad word! That means I win. Ad hominem!

In fact, in these cases, person A is engaging in the ad hominem fallacy -- they're attempting to undermine B's position, or bolster their own position, by framing B's expression of frustration, their desire to leave the conversation, or even the actual, defended position of their argument as being an attack on A's credibility.

I'll probably be linking people to this in the future, so here's a PSA for anyone who's here because we're arguing and you're trying to call me out on something I'm not doing:

MESSAGE TO PEOPLE I'M ARGUING WITH: the informal fallacies aren't a system of rules by which you can win an argument on a technicality. They're a vocabulary with which other people can discuss the merits of our conversation.

If you think I'm not playing fair, feel free to tell me where my argument is flawed. If you feel personally hurt by my position, understand that it's entirely valid for my position to be that you're a bad person, and I don't care if that makes you uncomfortable.

And if you think that a sarcastic, dismissive, or angry tone is a reason that you don't have to pay attention to the content of a conversation, then you should think hard about whether your goal is to defend challenges to your ideas, or to collect a bunch of effort tokens that you can show off when folks accuse you of not considering the opposing view.

You're allowed to walk away from a conversation that's making you upset. I'm sure as hell not going to keep trying to engage with you if you ask me to stop.

But if you walk away from a conversation and tell people that you were right because I was mean, you're committing the ad hominem fallacy.

And you're an asshole.

 

I have more thoughts on characters that read as intelligent

I have more thoughts on characters that read as intelligent. (First post yesterday.) Yesterday I wrote mostly about morally positive, or at least neutral, intelligent characters, and characters who lack the described qualities, and are consequently morally flawed. But super-intelligent villains is a major way that intelligence plays out in fiction. The podcast I was responding to yesterday[1. I did finish it, and they did not ultimately end up talking about intelligence as a way culturally read certain constellations of values.] (Warning for casual ableism) spent more time on evil smart people than good smart people -- and they spent a lot of time on what qualities other than intelligence can provide a hero with a moral advantage and greater sympathy.

So I want to spend a little time on qualities that characters can have, that make them read as intelligent, and also make them read as awful people.

Manipulativeness: Evil or morally complicated[2. Somebody remind me to blog later about my feelings about the word 'complicated.'] intelligent characters often show this quality by arranging circumstances such that other people make pseudo-informed choices that benefit the villain, rather than the person making the choice.

Gaslighting: This is manipulativeness on a more long-term scale. Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person routinely and persistently arranges for another person to doubt their perception of reality and ability to make judgments.

I'm pretty sure this is less common among actual villains than among protagonist antiheroes who are meant to seem morally gray but ultimately justified. Which is awful. The reason I don't think it's common in antagonists is that the goal is to diminish a person's agency, and if the antagonist is doing that to the protagonist, they're undermining the writer's ability to progress the story.

I'm not sure about that, though. This is something I'll be keeping an eye out for -- who gaslights in popular media, and how is it portrayed: awful? clever? darkly romantic and edgy?

Performance of intellectual status: This would be hard to make obvious in fiction, I think, but the assholes I know in real life who prefer to be seen as intelligent routinely browbeat other people into agreeing with them; brag early and often about when they're right about things, and explain away or ignore the times they're wrong; make stuff up if they don't know the answer to a question; and pick fights about technicalities and peripheral details so that they can 'win arguments' without engaging with meaningful, provable central points.

Pandering: Characters can score a lot of points within the story by agreeing with and rationalizing for popular prejudices; those who are supposed to come off as intelligent can be shown disagreeing with the prejudice when away from the cameras.

Just generally lying: Everything above so far has been basically this -- the main application of cleverness for evil is lying early, often, and elaborately. There's one more, though, below, that isn't just a form of lying.

Modernist rational certainty: A lot of really dark, horrible, evil things happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. (This stuff is all still happening, but if you go back more than 60 years more people agree about which stuff is the evil stuff.) There were a huge variety of genocides, systematic exploitation of labor, the deliberate erasure of cultures, advances in weapons technology that created a whole generation of nihilists, increasingly comprehensive surveillance apparatuses in every state.

And the people who organized these efforts were intelligent, pretty much in the textbook European standard way. They enacted extraordinary crimes against humanity, knowingly. On purpose. And probably at least as often as not, they thought they were doing the right thing.

It was a common belief in early US history that taking land from the native peoples was the morally right thing to do, because Europeans believed they were failing to use that land efficiently. The scientific institution -- the real one, the one we're still using today -- categorized humans into separate classes, inventing race as we know it and ranking them by intelligence. White Europeans and Americans used populations of people of color and other marginalized groups in non-consensual, harmful medical experiments, rationalized as being a worthwhile sacrifice for the greater good. The Tuskegee Experiment is a vivid example, but it is very much not the only one.

My point is, there is a very strong and very much still alive tradition in Western culture of believing that there is a single, morally correct path of progress towards the 'greater good,' a path that necessarily entails accelerated industrialization and the sacrifice (read: genocide) of human lives, especially marginalized human lives. And the heroic figure of that narrative, the champion of it, is, basically by definition, an avatar of the Western notion of intelligence.

Yesterday I wrote a post that suggested that 'intelligent' is necessarily the same as 'morally good.' I want to make it very clear that (a.) that is not what I believe, and (b.) people who do believe that are a very good candidate for the role of evil intelligent antagonist in stories.

Thoughts on writing intelligence

I was listening to the latest episode of the writing craft podcast Hide and Create on the way home from work today -- the episode is about writing characters who are smarter than the person writing them. Here's the link -- content warning for casual ableism. I have thoughts on this topic, and I was going to write them a response, but I just realized there are 15 minutes left in the episode and I wanted to write it now, so I'm going to write this as an independent post instead, in case the rest of the episode covers exactly these points.

I think that intelligence -- in the sense that they discuss in the podcast, the fancy, mystery-solving, quick-witted, Sherlock kind of intelligence -- isn't a matter of any innate biological or developmental quality. I think it's a matter of values.

First of all, obviously, some characters value having good information more than others. Beyond that, though, some characters value different systems of information gathering than others. Most characters believe they're generally right about things, but if your character's system for verifying information is "That sounds about right" or "It stands to reason' or "My buddy Matt says so," their information is probably going to be wrong more often than someone whose system is "I've read about it from multiple sources" or "Hang on, I'm not sure. Let me check."

I think an important thing to know about your character is, if they encounter a situation they're unfamiliar with, and then have sixteen hours off-screen, when they come back, have they looked it up on Wikipedia? One of my favorite smart-person lines is in the Avengers, when someone asks Stark when he suddenly became an expert on gamma radiation, and he said, "Last night -- am I the only one who did the reading?"

The cast of Hide and Create struggled a bit to figure out how to discuss the other end of the spectrum. I think that the other end of the spectrum -- if the literary manifestation of conventional intelligence is values -- is prejudice and willful ignorance.

Characters who consistently act on false presumptions about the way the world works, about how other people feel or behave, are going to find things working out in ways they didn't plan for, and are going to look like asses while they do it.

Other values -- like pride, preventing someone from admitting they're wrong to correct their behavior -- can also contribute to a character's failure to represent the conventional ideal of intelligence.

Where I left off listening, they were taking the idea of a character who is not intelligent in different directions -- comic characters, like Joey from Friends, or virtuous but not intelligent characters, like Sam from Lord of the Rings. But I think that both of those characters' relationship to intelligence, perceptiveness, curiosity and openness can be better evaluated in terms of their values than in terms of some kind of innate INT stat.

It's been a while since I've either seen the movies or read the books, but if I recall correctly, Sam knew a ton of stuff.  Joey's priorities didn't line up with the markers of conventional intelligence in Friends, like Ross's did (I hate Ross so much don't even get me started) but he was perceptive of his friends' emotions and caring towards them, like Ross definitely wasn't.  I don't think that difference is a matter of different qualities of brain, I think it's a matter of different value systems.

Maybe there's some amount of talent and innate preference involved in what a person's strengths are, but I think that influence is much, much smaller than what kind of values a character holds and how they apply them to their everyday practice of life.

Disorganized thoughts on place

Yesterday I had one of those moments where you notice something obvious and it feels like a mind-blowing revelation. I was hanging out in my friend's office, thinking about whether to leave and go to Barnes & Noble for a little bit, not really wanting to be there anymore, or be in my car, or go back to my house, which is 20 minutes away from there and is unpleasant to be at, when I realized all of a sudden that I literally always have to be in some particular physical place. Like, going from A to B? Gotta be in all the places that constitute the path between them. Going to sleep? My body literally stays there, just laying around, for like eight hours. Don't want to be where I am right now? Got to pick a whole nother place to go and be, instead.

I've been thinking about the sensation off and on all day. It reminds me of my depression, years ago, when I was unmedicated and in a more hostile environment. There were times where the feeling that I was feeling was "I don't want to be here," but there was no possible solution to it -- like, I couldn't imagine that there was any place in existence that I would want to just go and be.

Topics surrounding this theme have bothered me for a long time. Like, my home town doesn't have any places in it that are public property. There are some parks, sure, but they all close at sundown, and they're full of nature, and exposed to the elements. Every other public-ish space is owned by a company, and you're only allowed in it under the condition that you at least feign an active interest in giving the place money.

And I think about it when I'm reading a lot, too. I'm pretty sure the thing in a story that can make me feel the most awful without causing me to put down the book is when it opens with establishing that a disenfranchised character has some kind of safe, loving, protected home, and then at the end of chapter one it's destroyed, and they spend the rest of the book both homeless and mourning the loss of their home.

I don't have any kind of point I'm building to, here, and I'm almost out of time before I have to clock in at work. So, here are some other topics I'm just going to throw out in case I get the chance to pick up this thread again later:

  • How do spaces online differ from physical spaces? How can I discuss this difference without collapsing into digital dualism?
  • What do I actually want in a public space, apart from "They aren't constantly trying to get you to spend money?"
  • Vague prompt: the relationship between this concept of 'space' and the concept of 'property.' Maybe look into Georgism.

Voting with our dollars is a terrible premise

Lately I've been more and more frustrated when I hear people responding to their distaste for problematic organizations by refusing to spend their money there.  I mean -- it's fine if you don't want to shop at Walmart.  That choice in itself isn't, I think, particularly harmful.  But it bugs the hell out of me when people think that's an effective, or especially a sufficient, form of protest. There's a premise in Libertarian capitalism that, since people are basically smart, given a totally free market we'll gravitate towards the best choices for our future.  The premise is that we'll vote with our dollars to elect the best available collection of resource providers, for our own well-being, the well-being of the economy, and the well-being of the world.

There are a few reasons that this premise is horribly, horribly wrong.

Nobody's perfect

There's something hugely problematic about the idea that intelligent people necessarily make good decisions, or that making bad decisions necessarily implies that you're less than normally capable of evaluating situations.  It's very well established that there are situations in which people reliably make bad decisions -- because of the way the choice is presented to them, because of how we think of priorities, because we don't have all the information or don't have the time to invest in fully exploring the implications of every decision we make.

Successful institutions know that.  They at least are capable of looking on Wikipedia (same link as above), and often can afford to hire their own psychologists to construct experiences designed to lead consumers to make decisions that benefit the institution as often as possible.  Unless we live in a world in which literally everyone's interest in every context all the time are exactly the same, that means institutions actively work to get people to make choices against their interests.

So on the biggest possible scale, if everyone were doing "Vote with your dollars," it would fail miserably.

It's not really collective action

Dollar voting gets its appeal because it resembles some successful forms of collective action:  strikes, protests, and, most blatantly, democratic voting and boycotts.  But "Vote with your dollars" doesn't really ask people to join together and make a conscious, deliberate effort to affect a specific problem.  It suggests that, if everybody keeps in mind that they should probably sometimes not spend money at certain places or on certain things, collective action will just happen.

I've seen people pull together collective action campaigns, and it's damn hard.  Somewhere in every successful collective action campaign, there are a handful of people doing a huge amount of work to keep the effort focused, pointed, and coherent.  That's because collective action that seeks to change something is necessarily pushing for some specific change in normal behavior.  The kind of collective action that emerges naturally without any strong central organization -- like the harassment of women who create online content (trigger warning: depictions of physical violence) -- is collective action to resist change and enforce the status quo.

Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with choosing not to shop somewhere, or buy something, that you have a problem with.  But believing it serves as a meaningful form of protest -- and, especially, deciding it's enough protest -- means the idea of dollar voting is neutralizing the efforts of people who might otherwise contribute to change.

It derails/overrides discussion about real problem-solving mechanisms

Dollar voting, and its close relative "If people didn't want it, they wouldn't buy it," are incompatible with legislation as a form of problem solving.  The easiest way for a large body of people to make a change in the marketplace is to make use of democratic government, an institution that is literally designed to do that.  In America, writing a letter to your congressperson about a problem you see is significantly more effective than deciding not to buy a thing you might otherwise have bought.  It's even more effective to try and organize in your community to let your government know exactly what you expect of them.

Dollar voting creates a weird attitude, like "We don't have to get the authorities involved in this," which is not a good attitude for individuals to have in approaching problems with institutions.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of good reasons not to call the cops if I'm having an argument with someone that involves something technically illegal.  There would be even more good reasons if I weren't white, didn't pass as male,[1. I'm nongender, but assigned male at birth.] etc.

But for three very important reasons, responding to corporations and other institutions by involving the government is not the same.

  1. If you call them, they don't show up at your house with guns.
  2. They know that their job, specifically theirs, depends on enough people like you thinking they should be allowed to keep it.
  3. You have no power to control the way corporations behave -- or, insofar as you have any such power, you have that power through the mechanism of the government.

This part is my biggest problem with dollar voting.  It encourages activist-minded people to bypass institutions in our society that are, theoretically, there for us to exercise control over the way things are done.

There are other big problems -- like the fact that most brands with a strong moral identity are owned by institutions that control brands of a huge variety of moral identities, which sets all of those institutions up to mitigate the shock caused by a sudden, brief period of strong disapproval.

And that's all voting with your dollars can really be -- a sudden, brief response to a powerful piece of news, that most people are going to forget about within a month or two.  And if that effort had been channeled into (a.) setting up a core activist group and (b.) pushing for change through the government, which, again, is for exactly that, the burst might have some meaningful effect.

But it's great news for a brand facing bad press if the main response is "Everybody stop buying it," because all that means is some people stop buying it, for maybe a month or two, and a bunch of other people feel a warm, fuzzy sense of activism when they continue to not buy the thing they already weren't buying.