Category Archives: Ethics

Betrayal of liberalism in the name of liberalism

This passage from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1997) helps me pinpoint the shift from a predominant liberalism to illiberalism in the popular left:

The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of these surviving reformists. But it retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.

“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.

To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.

Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer­park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.

This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi­ consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.

The key phrase is “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century.” This resonates with my own understanding, and I believe that actually was the left’s mission until fairly recently. We were supposed to oppose the humiliation of other people, and most of all, from humiliating others on the basic of categories we have ourselves have assigned them.

But what I am seeing now is a very strong desire for the humiliated to finally get their turn to humiliate.

Most folks on the popular left see this counter-humiliation in terms of a financial metaphor — as a sort of “social capital” account, debited when praised, honored or granted of privileges, and withdrawn against when criticized, scorned or penalized.

I’m a little skeptical that many have even questioned this metaphor, which functions as a Kuhnian paradigm among subscribers of the left worldview, and which unconsciously guide all their thinking, judgments and even their perceptions. I have also seen little evidence many of them have questioned the either the scientific or moral validity of the sweeping generalizations they make and their applications of these generalizations to individuals to whom they assign to categories. This practice was once condemned by all liberals as as prejudice, but prejudice has been redefined to allow encourage people of certain disprivileged categories to vent their resentments on individuals of other categories.

I don’t believe privilege functions like one fund that can be transferred to another through inflicting humiliation. Yes, there does seem to be short-term influx of visceral pleasure on one side at the apparent “expense” of the other, but the pleasure gains soon evaporate, while the anger of the humiliated lingers and festers, and ultimately the sum of the transaction is a red negative. In fact, there was no transaction, only an abusive interaction performed for the sake of getting to be the abuser — in other words, sadistic pleasure.

I also don’t believe individuals automatically get to draw from cultural capital held in common by social categories. There is no such thing as a quantity of “white male heterosexual” prestige anyone of that category can access and use or spend wherever they wish. Social capital just doesn’t work that way. Treating categories constructed on resemblances one has observed as realities capable of intention, moral agency, practical effectiveness is reification, a confusion of what a subject views as true and the reality beyond what a subject imagines. (And of course, the social or legal imposition of one’s own reifications upon real individuals who do not share one’s beliefs about the reality or the properties or the theoretical justifications of these categories, however much one is convinced of their validy, is one of the traditional core prohibitions of liberalism.)

And, finally, I don’t think people who lash out at various categories of person are actually motivated by a desire to improve the world, however much they pose as champions of the oppressed and however much they justify their attitudes and actions with social scientistic arguments, one-mindedness with everyone who matters, and memories of tearful moments of insight cuddled up with their favorite novels on Sunday afternoons.

All these highminded concepts, proud unanimity and empathetic sentiments are prettifying rationalizations for enjoying what liberalism has always forbidden on principle: hatred of the Other.

And they are most definitely not, as they claim, “punching up”. It is only their refusal to factor class into their assessments of relative privilege that permit this delusion of “speaking truth to power”. As Thomas Frank persuasively pointed out, they’re actually “speaking truth to weakness” from a position of superior class (remember class, fellow liberals?) and generating enormous resentment in a group that is becoming dangerously sick of being scolded. Pay attention to the actual educational pedigree, income bracket, actual, individual institutional position and relative vulnerabilities of who is doing the judgmental confrontation and who is being judged, and you’ll certainly find a power differential, but not the one doing the judging sees or wants you to see.

Everyone outside the ideological sphere of the pop-left and radical academic left sees it though, plain as day. And this number includes not only the awful elements of the right. It also includes leftists who still believe in liberalism, Moderate libertarians and most centrists. To us, this looks very bad, not only practically, but ethically. It is not only a matter of electoral consequences, it is a matter of where we stand on the most important matters, whether we can actually count people who carry on this way as allies at all.

If liberals do not renounce casual infliction of humiliation on despised categories of people, bad things are definitely going to happen, and those things will happen as a direct result of indulging prejudice, hate and sadism. There is no honor in such calamities, only disgrace and discredit.

Once again, I will quote one of America’s greatest liberals, Martin Luther King.

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.

Liberals need to get back to the morality that alone justifies us, and we need to return to practicing what we preach. We mist stand up to prejudice, hatred and humiliation of all our fellow Americans, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the target, and whatever the rationalization.

Master of the Golden Rule

Imagine a man sitting down and pondering the Golden Rule. He thinks through what he knows to be true, what he loves and desires, and what practices have served him well in his life. Then he imagines a world where everyone is required to think, feel and do what he knows to be best. He asks himself if he would like someone to impose these norms upon him. Yes he would. So he does unto others as he would like done unto himself.

Every person should be heard

Just because a person shouldn’t be believed, it doesn’t mean that person shouldn’t be listened to.

It is dehumanizing for a person to be judged as not worth listening to, and it is inhumanizing to make oneself the judge of whose voice is heard and whose is silenced.

*

People are astonished when I say nobody should always automatically be believed about anything, but that all people should always automatically be heard.

What? The right to a trial is a fundamental principle of liberalism!

And people want to give even more emphasis to STEM disciplines. As if the main problems of humankind are technical problems. As if even more technology will save us from our social problems.

When the goal of educating citizens is lost, and education becomes training employees for industry, or worse, credentialing employees for employment, this is what happens.

Suffering about suffering

When painless pleasurable existence is assumed to be the normal state of life, and pain and displeasure to be abnormal, pain and displeasure are compounded with metapain and metadispleasure — suffering — at the fact of pain and displeasure: something is happening that should not be happening.

If it is assumed that normality is natural and abnormality is artificial the question of agent automatically arises: who caused this suffering?

And unless we work hard to understand otherwise, we will naturally view all suffering in terms of the suffering we have suffered. We will look around and see some fellow-sufferers and many non-sufferers.

We can also look into history and find other non-sufferers of suffering as we know it.

My kind live like I do and suffer as I do.

“Others created and continue to create my abnormal conditions of suffering. Worse, they pretend that they, too, suffer, even though they do not know what suffering is.”

*

My view: existence itself causes suffering.

We diminish suffering and generate pleasure through collaborative effort.

Sustained diminishment of suffering is a miracle of human ingenuity — a glorious artificiality — which requires vast collaborative effort to sustain, much less expand.

The greatest threat to the continuation of this effort is the loss of understanding that our considerable (albeit imperfect) state of comfort is an accomplishment of centuries of collaboration, and the relapse into the imbecilic resentment of assigning blame to others in the present and in the past for the suffering one experiences and the failure to recognize the universality of suffering.

Instead of the compassion, solidarity and collaboration we live in a world of suffering collective solipsists glaring resentfully at those who do not suffer and who seem the likely culprits and beneficiaries of our suffering, my suffering, the only suffering that exists as far as I can tell.

Density of soul

“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

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It seems to me that few people agree with me on what a philosophy is. It is not that they disagree, but rather that they have done so little philosophy themselves that they lack any capacity to agree or disagree. They have not developed a capacity to understand what philosophy is as I understand it.

They have not even developed a capacity to look into why they ought to hear me out on how I think of it, not only for the sake of understanding something new, but for the sake of friendship.

*

Here is how I understand philosophy:

Philosophies are not reducible to assertions. Philosophies are not even reducible to language.

Language and assertions belong to the praxis of a philosophy. Yet a philosophy is not even reducible to its praxis.

Philosophies produce praxis, but they are “behind” praxis, moving and shaping perceptions and conceptions, values and emotions, recognitions and responses. Or let’s say they stand-under these things as capacities for conception, action and feeling: a repertoire of possibilities of understanding the world which activate long before we find words for them, because these capacities are who find our words for us. These capacities are what constitute our soul.

*

But don’t we primarily read or hear philosophy? — Yes, but we do not receive it the way people expect to receive ideas. The normal priority of comprehension is reversed. Normally, when we struggle to understand difficult material, we do so in order to grasp factual content. With philosophy, we struggle to grasp the factual content in order to gain new ways to understand.

Engaging philosophical writing is a mimetic linguistic activity intended to expand our repertoire of understandings, which enriches our awareness of and capacity for pluralism, which I call pluralistic sense.

*

Finite truths overlap in reality’s infinitude. The myriad finite truths are one part of reality. Our pluralistic sense permits us to relate to this overlap with sublime irony. Each of us is a soul among souls, overlapping with souls, swimming in souls, but each of us only gets one. Or at least only one at a time.

*

Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.

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For nearly ten years, I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological term “horizon”. I think it is because this metaphor suggests that what we cannot see is invisible because it is distant.

The metaphor is not without merits. I like the implications that distant things are obscured by the curvature of the very land upon which we stand. I like that the pragmatic consequence of a horizon is a requirement to get peripatetic. Stand up and move and view things from some other perspective.

But as a young adult I spent too many hours seated in meditation, mining the sensations in my body and mind for insight into being to believe ignorance is primarily a distant thing.

And I have suffered too many ocular migraines, and far too often “seen” the blindspots in my eyes burst into bloom and cover my entire field of vision with nothingness, which is not black. Black is something that marks something missing. Blindness is nothing, including nothing being there but also nothing missing.

Too much we don’t know is close to us and in us. I think much of our ignorance takes the form of insufficient density, not only in our factual knowledge but in our capacities to know.

*

Our souls can lose density if we do not strain them. They can become inflexible, osteoporotic and brittle. We move only one way and see only one way. Trying to move and see other ways is uncomfortable and feels wrong. So we fend off enemies, and refuse to hear any validity in what they say. And as we become brittler, our enemies increase. We begin to discover unacceptable beliefs in our friends. We cling to fondness, but we can no longer converse without fear that words will break our bones.

*

One of my fundamental beliefs is that most misunderstandings are misunderstood as factual disagreements, when in fact the disagreements are artifacts of different modes of understanding. So some of my friends pore over sociological and psychological studies, because sociology gives us substantial scientific evidence for belief, unlike philosophy which only speculates and doesn’t provide enough factual meat. It takes philosophical thought to see what is dangerously ignorant about this kind of epistemology which says philosophy is “too abstract”. Other friends like to bravely entertain forbidden facts — facts which, if properly weighted and thoroughly considered, would wake us up to an imminent emergency requiring immediate action. The facts all point to ominous actors we cannot see directly, but a thorough connecting of dots leaves a lacuna the shape of  diabolical intention.

I think the imminent emergency is that everyone already knows everything, at least in outline, including the obvious fact that their enemies know nothing. No need to listen — there is no point. In fact, listening is folly. Force is the only suitable response. Both sides think they have the numbers to force their will if things go to plan, and if they don’t… well, truth is on their side and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

*

We have failed to teach our children to be citizens in a liberal democracy. Now there is too little tolerance and no willingness to fight for a fellow citizen’s right to disagree with us.

And we have failed to teach our public intellectuals philosophy. There is desperately little pluralistic sense in the upper reaches of our culture. What is known as Political Correctness systematically cultivates brittleness in our elite class by prohibiting all discomfort of pluralism. We are manufacturing narrow ideologues who experience disagreement as life-threatening.

Leftist Identitarianism is an identity

(The following is a rant inspired by the recent debate between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein.)

Leftist Identitarianism is itself an identity, one with more real-world reality and salience than any of the canonical identities it recognizes and focuses upon.

Where people habitually list their identities before speaking — “speaking as an x, y and z…” — they should say “speaking as a Leftist Identitarian who identifies as x, y and z…”

Once you recognize that in academia and most popular culture Leftist Identitarianism exercises hegemonic power to 1) define which canonical identities are really real and which are fanciful inventions, 2) what moralities are truly fair and moral and which are subjective interests disguised as objective principle, 3) which opinions are uncomfortable truths that must never be silenced and which are harmful prejudices that must be deplatformed, 4) what is an unjust privilege and what is a qualification for claiming superior insight, 5) what is righteous indignation at being told what you can and can’t do because of the color of your skin (or your sex or who you love, etc.)  and what is merely rage of the dominant identity when it feels its sovereignty being challenged — you can see why members of alleged dominant identities are lining up around the block to check their privileges: the advantages of the canonical identities are positively dwarfed by the privileges gained through membership in the Leftist Identitarian identity.

*

Let’s go back through the five privileges I listed above, but apply them to Leftist Identitarianism viewed as a hegemonic power.

1) Leftist Identitarians believe they know the true identities, and understand them so well they can precisely calculate their effects in order to counter-balance them. But the possibility that they maybe they have defined identities in a way that conveniently removes their core identity from similar calculations and counter-balancing is unconsciously excluded from consideration. 2) For all their talk of combatting privilege, Leftist Identitarians privilege their own convictions and calculations concerning who is overprivileged and to what degree, and who ought to be granted more privilege, how much they should be given. Leftist Identitarians even privilege the perceptions and judgments of people from marginal groups — who then ditto the truths of Leftist Identitarianism, while white, male, straight Leftist Identitarians piously shut up and “let other people’s voices be heard”. 3) Leftist Identitarians have unilaterally imposed purely demographic ad hominem criteria on whose anger is hate and whose is frustration. Under Leftist Identitarian redefinition of racism, based on the color of your skin, not only are you allowed to judge other people by the color of their skin, you might even be celebrated for doing so if you support it with socio-poetic eloquence that move white Leftist Identitarians to tears. 4) Leftist Identitarians see their own class privileges as deserved qualifications and proof their knowledge is more objective, their judgments more circumspect and their altruism purer. A degree from an Ivy League school is evidence a person is better educated, better informed and more insightful on social issues — and not a token of superior social class that entitles them to scold, lecture and behave dismissively toward their social inferiors. Knowing the best people, eating the best food, drinking the best wine, wearing the best clothes, reading the best books, having the best health habits, displaying the most natural, graceful manners, being up on the latest everything — these are simply evidence of subtle discernment, not open flaunting of class. Whenever unfairness is assessed, the massive material differences and social advantages of class are presented as givens built into the human condition, unfortunate but unavoidable, but the differences among the canonical identities within classes are presented as unconscionable crimes. Where are the cries for removing institutional class prejudices? Who’s demanding the removal of alma maters from resumes? from preventing the well-connected from using their connections to get ahead of those who have not been given access to exclusive social network? from using excellent breeding to signal upper-class membership? 5) No person likes to be treated with contempt. No person of any race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, or any other categorization wants to be told that their perceptions and beliefs are just symptoms of social pathology and that their opinions can be summarily diagnosed away and dismissed. Anyone in a position of weakness who tries to make appeals to someone in a position of strength but is not given a fair hearing because the strong can dictate terms and those terms exclude the validity of the appeal. Hegemony bestows the luxury of dominating the question of justice, defining the terms of the debate and decreeing who is the hegemonic self-deluded and who is the righteous defender of the oppressed, marginalized and silenced.

To use Ezra Klein’s words: “That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you… when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, ‘God he’s right. That is just identity politics.’ They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it.”

Until Ezra Klein and his fellow Leftist Identitarians start applying their own principles symmetrically, and start shutting up and really listening to the voices of people who do not look like members of their in-group and who speak from a different perspective and out of different experiences than their members — those systematically excluded outsiders will continue to say “This is my experience and you don’t understand it.” They will continue to elect right-wing illiberals who at least give them the illusion of being heard and considered.

Why you should be mad about Lean Startup

Lean Startup externalizes usability costs to users.

To combat this practice, if I find a usability issue I call tech support and have them walk me through the interaction. These calls cost a company a significant amount of money and makes it less profitable for them to skip the user-centered design steps that ensure a decent experience for users.

I urge everyone who cares about design to do the same. Stop wasting your time and energy trying figure out how bad designs are supposed to work, and start wasting the company’s resources instead.

 

The long story on Lean Startup:

Before Lean Startup, companies invested in user centered design processes, including usability testing, to ensure customer’s tools always worked well. The highest priority was given to protecting customers from design mistakes that inflicted frustration and interfered with their lives. Software was released only when the flaws were fixed and the software was ready for human use.

Lean Startup changed all that. It advises companies to not invest money in design and research, but instead to release the software sooner, even though this is likely to expose customers to usability errors, frustration and confusion. Rapid release cycles enable the problems to be spotted in analytics and quickly corrected. This enables the company to accelerate software improvements and outpace competitors.

With Lean Startup, it’s all about competing to be the best product first. It’s all about the company’s product surpassing the competitor’s product — not about the customer’s tools working as they should and providing a great experience. It’s all about how good the company’s software gets, not how bad their customers feel while using untested, hastily hacked-together interfaces.

 

George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.

 

 

Naive moralism

A naive moralist cannot discern the difference between his own moral views and justice, which adjudicates precisely between conflicting moral views, assuming the ultimate validity of none. Justice does not “privilege” any moralism over any other, but this view requires a capacity to put one’s own morality in pluralistic perspective, which is much harder than it sounds.

Naive moralism is not incompatible with hyper-awareness of naive realism — in fact, they might even belong together. A person who scoffs at self-evident facts, who knows the canon of cognitive biases by heart, is entirely capable of wholehearted belief in self-evident moral principles, for instance, fairness.

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Most talk of “privileging” privileges its own knowledge of what privilege is, how it works, who is and is not privileged, and what ought to be done to whom to redistribute unfairness and to establish justice. And it does so with privilege’s oldest trick:unconsciously privileging the assumptions and arguments it uses to demonstrate the objective truth of its claims.

Coalition of opposites

One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.

The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.

The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.

What is the injustice?

For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.

For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.

When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.

The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.

The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.

Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.

In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.

When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.

The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.

The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.

Political Platonism

When one person commits a crime against another, a liberal habitually sees an individual criminal and an individual victim. You can conceptually thematize the parties involved in the crime and the nature of the crime itself in myriad ways, but ultimately it is an individual responsible for the action. Liberalism views the world in terms of responsible agents with specific rights, not as examples of categories.

Whenever I hear illiberals describe crimes, I hear something very different. An example of a category has done something bad to another example of a category, and it seems that the crime is viscerally felt as a manifestation of an enduring crime of one category against another. It seems to be some sort of political Platonism where what happens on Earth is just a reflection of the real events in Heaven acted out by archetypes who are the real villains and victims who matter.

Even our differences in choice of Heavenly ideals is the action of archetypes.

When a Liberal (in the popular vulgar sense) sees a crime of White against Black or Man against Woman, a Conservative sees Liberalism once again committing its crime against America. When a Conservative sees a crime of Foreigner against American or Muslim against Christian, a Liberal sees Conservatism once again committing its crime against equality.

Very few people feel individuality anymore. What we feel far more intensely is categories and concepts.

A literary friend of mine tells me that even our novels are no longer centered on individuality. Readers want moving tales about instances of categories suffering as their categories at the hands of instances of other categories.

And increasingly we see ourselves as manifestations of categories and concepts, and we take aggressive exception to anyone who does not.

Most of us have lost our taste for individuality — and we’re too busy, scattered and degraded to notice.

 

America’s new religion is Antiracism

John McWhorter has observed that America’s new religion is Antiracism:

…they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

For the most part, I agree with him, but, being a disagreeable type of person, of course I am compelled to split some hairs: What McWhorter describes in his article is not a religion, but a fundamentalism. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I consider fundamentalisms to be pseudo-religions that work against the purpose of religion. It would be more accurate to call fundamentalism an anti-religion.

This morning, talking with Susan about a paper on diversity and multiculturalism she is writing for one of her ESOL certification courses, I had an insight. I could never understand why, despite my efforts to study, wrestle with and actually practice pluralism in my daily life, the adherents of Antiracism I’ve known have rarely been interested in what I’ve learned or what I have to say on the subject of alterity. They usually just avoid conversation, but when I do engage them, they condescendingly speak to me as someone who doesn’t yet understand what they just know, without any trace of recognition that their assumption of epistemological privilege is both odd and unsupportable. I have put many hundreds more hours of work into understanding these issues than they have. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least entertain the possibility that these hundred hours produced something worthwhile? And given the difference in motivation to learn, can they really claim to care more than I do?

But now McWhorter has helped me see what is going on: this is a religion vs. fundamentalism conflict. This is how it always goes: There are the religious people who live their religion with their whole being — feel it, love it, breathe it, and allow it to soak into their lives and to transform them. And there are those who adopt and enforce the conventional opinions, customs, language, symbols, rituals and behavioral norms of the religion and assume all deviations from these conventions must be symptoms of defective faith, or even heresy. My genuine religious faith in Pluralism looks like heresy to Antiracist Fundamentalists.

And really, I see no less irony in the puritanical, inflexibility and intolerance toward doctrinal otherness of today’s multicultural monolith than I do in the hostile insularity most Christians make of Jesus’s teachings of transcendent love.

The questions of suffering

Suffering, more than anything else, demands answers.

But what kind of question does suffering want us to ask? And what is the answer meant to do?

You’ll get very different kind of answers, practical responses and even dispositions toward life itself depending on your angle of approach to the question of suffering. It might even be useful to construct a personality typology on the basis of the person’s (or group’s) habitual question to suffering.

Let’s use a list of interrogative pronouns as a compass for taxonomizing angles of approach to our question.

  • What? The question of Object/Idea/Action
  • When? The question of Time
  • Where? The question of Place
  • How? The question of Manner
  • Why? The question of Reason
  • Whose? The question of Possession
  • Which? The question of Specific subject
  • Whither? The question of Goal
  • Whence? The question of Source

I definitely have some strong preferences on which angles of inquiry produce superior questions, answers, responses and life dispositions. For instance asking “who caused my suffering?” tends to lead into resentment and desire for retribution; where “why is there suffering?” or “how should I suffer?” or “how should I approach suffering” leads (or can lead) discover meaning in suffering; and “what causes suffering” leads toward discovering practical strategies for reducing suffering.

To choose, we must see the choices in the first place, and this means noticing which questions we habitually ask, which questions we to neglect, and most importantly of all, which questions we have never conceived, the questions and possibilities to which we are blind.

This freedom of inquiry might be our very best freedom. All too often we start the answer we want to believe and then ask  ourselves and others leading questions that induce that answer. This strategy produces tension between belief and truth, then fear of truth and finally hostility toward reality.

We do not get to choose what we believe. Nor do we get to choose what we disbelieve or doubt, as C. S. Peirce famously observed.

But we can ask whatever questions we are able to conceive. This is not to say that we can ask any question we want as a live question. The experience of asking is part of the answer we receive. If we ask a question and feel no urgency in the asking and no longing to hear the answer, that is itself a kind of answer.

To use an optical analogy (a disgraced but still useful class of analogies): We can choose to look wherever we wish, but we cannot choose what we see. But if we do not see anything we want to see where we look, we can choose to keep looking, and this is the freedom that goes by the name philosophy. This suggests a further question: when can we stop looking? That is a complex moral problem too tangled to go into right now.

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.

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I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Bernard Loomer

From Bernard Loomer’s “Two Conceptions of Power”:

The world of the individual who can be influenced by another without losing his or her identity or freedom is larger than the world of the individual who fears being influenced. The former can include ranges and depths of complexity and contrast to a degree that is not possible for the latter. The stature of the individual who can let another exist in his or her own creative freedom is larger than the size of the individual who insists that others must conform to his own purposes and understandings.

Under the relational conception of power what is truly for the good of any one or all of the relational partners is not a preconceived good. The true good is not a function of controlling or dominating influence. The true good is an emergent from deeply mutual relationships.

Perfect. I’m going to read as much Loomer as I can.

This concept of linear/unilateral power and relational power is going to be valuable.

The pain of non-response

When I attempt to communicate with people and get no response, I find it intensely painful.

Maybe I’ve just gotten sensitive about it and notice it more, but until a few years ago I do not recall speaking to people and being ignored, as if I hadn’t spoken. Now it happens frequently. By my understanding of manners this is appallingly rude, not only according to rules of etiquette but by universal human standards.

I have also noticed an increase in leaving electronic communications unacknowledged and unanswered. I don’t mean ignoring group emails or forwards or links. I mean ignoring personal messages.

I have been told many times by multiple people that this should not be taken personally and that in today’s world this is not an offensive behavior. Cultural norms change and hand-wringing only makes you bitter and keeps you stuck in the past. While I understand this argument, I find it unpersuasive and even depressing. Common behaviors that begin to feel familiar, then acceptable, then normal, then expected do not automatically become good. The belief that what has become common also becomes good encourages us to abdicate our moral judgment. And really, aren’t we selective in our passivity? There is judgment smuggled in when we accept former rudenesses as benign or as progress. We don’t accept all change this way.

I feel an urgent need to explain this pain, not only because pain by its nature seems to demand investigation into its causes, but, it appears to me that I find non-response more painful than most other people do, and I probably need to be able to explain why this is the case to others as well as myself. And maybe my explanation will inspire others to change their behaviors and their expectations of how others behave toward them.

This is my attempt at an explanation:

I think the pain of on-response is rooted in its deep moral ambiguity: it can mean many things, across a broad range of significance.

It can be purely accidental and insignificant. The attempt to communicate was not perceived. Or it can be a mostly innocent postponement or forgetting to respond, due to other more pressing things are going on. It can be an incapacity to respond, for reasons having nothing to do with the communication.

But crossing into the personal side of the spectrum of meanings, it can mean that the communication just isn’t seen as important enough to warrant a response. Or it can be an inability or unwillingness to respond for personal reasons, for instance feelings about the anticipated exchange. Or the silence might signal anger.

Or, worse, the non-response could be a sign of contempt. The contempt might be minor, for instance, a disregard for subjects or themes deemed unimportant. Or the contempt might be more serious: the speaker deserves no response. Or the contempt might be profoundly personal: the speaker is not worth the effort of a response.

The more the non-response is a pattern, the more likely the meaning of the silence falls somewhere on the contempt end of the spectrum. This is why non-response is offensive.

One of the key functions of manners is to keep alienating questions of these kinds from arising. Manners have us 1) signal our respect, and 2) offer explanations for behaviors that could be misinterpreted as disrespectful.

I do not believe the behavioral changes in response to the social media and rampant addiction to mobile devices are creating new norms of etiquette. I believe they are destroying manners and weakening human relationships. I believe general decay of manners (and in general of honoring social obligation) contributes to what some are calling a loneliness epidemic.

Respect is a fundamental human need, rooted in the affirmation that our existence is acknowledged and valued by the people around us. Social norms that allow us to disrespect others (even when that disrespect is not intended or felt as an emotion by the disrespectful) is creating a world that denies these fundamental human needs.

Rude tools

In my last post I promised that my next post would be “a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user.” and that I thought the issue of “‘ownership’ of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.”

This is that post.

My belief in the importance of resolving the issue of tool ownership hinges on a theory which I experience as true: Extended Cognition. According to wikipedia “Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.” The example offered to me by my friend Zach, who introduced this concept to me, was of doing addition with your fingers. Viewed through the lens of Extended Cognition the movement of the hand is part of the thinking that produces the result.

Where I experience this as most true is when I use tools that I’ve learned to use skillfully. That is, I’ve mastered them so fully that they more or less disappear as I use them. If we know how to use a pen, we no more need to think about using that pen while we are using it than we need to think about our hand. It becomes part of us, and it allows us to focus our attention on the thing we are doing, and to become absorbed in our activity.

This is true also of software tools — or at least well-designed ones. I am able to just concentrate on the content of our activity rather than the actions we I am trying to perform to reach my goal. Often I can’t even tell anyone how I do what my hands just know how to do. I have to demonstrate it.

How many times have you told someone you can show them how to do something on their computer of phone, but if you can just get your hands on the device you can show them what to do? Sometimes it’s not enough to see the screen. There must be concrete interaction.

This kind of knowing that seems to exist just in the body is known as tacit knowledge. I like to call the part of UI design that harnesses this tacit knowledge “the tacit layer.” Back when designers still liked to talk about “intuitive design” this awareness was much more prevalent. But I think this way of thinking about design is in decline.

Tools used largely in a tacit mode to develop ideas become an extensions of the user’s own being. To change a tool so that it stops functioning this way changes a person’s being. It literally prevents a person from thinking — it robs them of a piece of their own mind.

When we look at software in that light, doesn’t it seem like a norm that a company owns software, and that users pay a licensing fee for the right to use it offers far too little protection to the user? Shouldn’t users have more control over what is done to them?

I’m not suggesting a change in IP law or anything like that. I do think the software industry needs some different licensing arrangements, though.