Category Archives: Philosophy

The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

Political Tool.003

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

– Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

– Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

Political Tool.004

The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

[NOTE: the information below, updated on 11/14/15, contains both what we knew at the time this post was published and updated information (from the DOJ report) to match the ensuing investigation (big thanks to a commenter on Twitter for pointing out the discrepancies).  Strikethroughs and bold italics indicate changes.]

– Brown was shot at least six times.  He was unarmed.

Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has seems to have corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

– The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon.  Forensic evidence confirms that Brown was first shot in the hand while involved in a struggle in the car, though it’s not clear how the struggle began. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

Anonymous police sources have originally claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police did not originally provide have not provided independent verification of the injuries.  It was confirmed later, however, that there was “bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

– Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.  Wilson’s radio transmissions confirm that he received a dispatch call about the robbery and had a description of Brown when he first encountered him.

– Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

– The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

– Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

– Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostlywhite juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

– The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

– There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

– The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store and the forensic evidence indicating a struggle with Wilson, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown and Wilson were engaged in a physical struggle before the fatal shot robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot at least six times, but Wilson had clear alternatives.  Even though there was a struggle and it’s unclear how it began, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  Tthe police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown executed very poorly and without explanation, which led many people to fairly believe that the police department wasseems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, and both the robbery and the physical harm he sustained are definitely relevant information to consider during the trial, but police behavior has made it harder to trust even the final account of events.that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

Political Tool.005

Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

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Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

A Person Among Machines

34justice’s first guest author is David Fischer, a student at Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute medical research fellow.  In this piece, David discusses how physicians navigate “the gray zone between life and death” when they interact with patients on life support.  David studies the effects of noninvasive brain stimulation on movement and cognition and has authored several articles pertaining to neuroscience research, philosophy, and medicine. He has a B.S. from Haverford College, where he studied psychology and philosophy.

David Fischer

David Fischer

The attending physician sat at the foot of the patient’s bed, while I stood watching. He was smiling, but the look in his eyes conveyed far more kindness than his mouth or words could. He reached for the patient’s hand, which was contorted into a strained position, and took it in his. “You’re a lovely gentleman,” the doctor said, his voice quiet but firm. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.” The patient turned his eyes to meet the doctor’s gaze, his neck twisted and cocked at a sharp angle. The patient said nothing, and could say nothing, but kept his eyes fixed on the doctor’s. Several moments passed in silence, punctuated only by the mechanical sighs of the patient’s ventilator and the rhythmic beeping of nearby monitors. The doctor gave the patient’s hand a final squeeze, smiled, and led me from the room.

There was something remarkable about this encounter. It was, in some sense, a mundane scenario: a physician evaluating a patient with spastic paralysis, altered level of consciousness and dependence upon a ventilator. So what made the doctor’s attitude towards the patient so striking?

Treating patients with diminished consciousness and dependence upon life-sustaining technology poses unique challenges to the cultivation of humanity in patient care. In many areas of medicine, the distinction between life and death is roughly dichotomous. When alive, patients can often interact, remember past experiences, and demonstrate their personality. Following a fatal event, the transition between life and death, from a person to a body, often occurs quickly, save for relatively brief alterations in mentation. However, the technology that has permitted modern life-sustaining treatment, such as mechanical ventilation, has complicated this distinction. Following a severe neurologic insult, patients such as the one we encountered can remain in this transition for prolonged periods of time. Patients with disorders of consciousness or severe dementia may appear to lack the memories and personality that made them who they were in life. Yet, by mechanically preserving basic physiologic functions, we can ward off death. In this way, these technologies, though undoubtedly important, can suspend patients in a gray zone between life and death.

For physicians who care for patients in this gray zone, the encounters can be uncomfortable. The ability to interact with people, a skillset developed through years of human experience, is difficult to apply in these circumstances. The moments alone with such patients can be haunting, as one greets the patient by name and then awaits a response. As the silence lengthens, the patient may seem neither alive nor dead, like a ghost of his or her formal self. When the expectant silence is broken only by the mechanical sounds of equipment, technology can feel like the only presence.

Doctors who regularly encounter experiences such as these may come to treat these patients like bodies, like sets of physiologic processes as inanimate as the technology the patients rely upon. This is not to say that such patients are not treated with respect, but that the respect is similar to that paid to a body in a funeral home. This is an approach that protects the doctor’s psyche in several ways. For one, the doctor must often purposefully inflict pain on patients in order to gauge the extent of neurologic impairment. To summon the strength to deliberately injure a fellow, vulnerable person requires a forceful violation of empathy in what can be an emotionally harrowing task.  To do so to a human body – to transform the ‘experience of pain’ into a ‘noxious stimulus’ – is much more manageable. Moreover, the prognosis in disorders of consciousness can often be poor, and the range of therapeutic options is often limited, rendering the physician largely powerless. With patients viewed as bodies, however, the physician is afforded emotional distance from these tragedies, and the instances of clinical improvement are all the more gratifying. Ultimately, for many physicians, eliminating humanism from these interactions is emotionally protective in the care of these patients.

This context is what made the encounter between the doctor and his patient so powerful. It was not merely that the doctor sat at the patient’s side, was polite, or maintained eye contact. We have all learned to do these things. What was striking was the attitude that appeared to underlie these behaviors: despite the patient’s altered level of consciousness and dependence upon life-sustaining technology, the doctor treated the patient like a full person. The doctor, with no expectation of reciprocation or gratitude, was willing to take the time to speak to and hold hands with a person who may not have understood these gestures. The doctor’s time, however, was the least of his sacrifices; by approaching the patient as a person, he rendered himself vulnerable to the emotional hazards of care, from the discomfort of inflicting pain to the powerlessness associated with management.

In addition to emotional fortitude, the doctor’s willingness to treat the patient as a person reflected a poignant wisdom. Much of the discomfort associated with treating patients in this state stems from confronting the gray zone between life and death. Our binary concepts of life and death provide us comfort, distancing us from the thought of mortality. However, life-sustaining technologies challenge this dichotomy, and threaten the view that the line between ourselves and death is a sharp one. In such cases, it can be easier to circumvent these existential discomforts by treating these patients as bodies, dedicating more attention to the monitors and ventilation settings than to the person before us. This doctor, however, was able and willing to appreciate the spectrum between life and death, and in doing so could comfortably recognize, within that spectrum, an ill person in need of compassion. He could recognize someone who was more than the mechanics upon which he relied. This wisdom ultimately empowered him to accept the emotional sacrifices of care and, as was clear to me in that room, allowed him to see a person when few else dared to see more than machines.

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Filed under Health Care and Medicine, Philosophy

Feb 17 – Mar 1: Azienda Agricola Mauro Iob, Vetralla

After staying with Bridget in Tuscany, my next stop was in the province of Viterbo, in the small medieval town of Vetralla, littered with waterfalls and caves. When I arrived, Rita had trouble finding me at the train station, but I’m not sure why, as there are several obvious reasons why I’d be not so difficult to spot.

the directions that I never used

the directions that I never used

Rita and Mauro are probably some of the nicest people I know; it’s surprising how at home you can feel while moving into the home of a random middle-aged couple in central Italy.

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Their daughter and her friend arrived that night for an excellent welcome dinner. And when I go to bed after the first night, I find these two quotes carved into my room wall:

ogni uomo doverebbe conoscere i propri limiti
(every man should know the proper limits)… but I ask limits for what, set by who, and how?

la vita ti chiede ciò che sei in grado di affrontare
(life asks only what you can bear)

Rita was also a huge fan of Siddartha by Hermann Hesse (of which my attempt to read in Italian was an utter failure), while Mauro likes Per Una Vita Migliore Ovvero il Libro della Autosufficienza (the English translation that is used is ‘The Guide to Self-sufficiency’) by John Seymour,

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…so from these alone, we had some interesting springboards for conversation — not to mention the vertiginous times where we had entirely too much wine and dipped into slippery squabbles, about the unintended byproducts of cheap labor, or how Italy is becoming the ape of America in some way through adoption of ‘gym culture’.

The work

Their main business is an agritourismo, doubling as a small hotel and a farm, and they hold courses on beekeeping for children.

Spring was not yet arrived, so the work was very preparatory in nature: clearing the garden, hauling manure, which is mainly why they keep the donkeys — which we mostly put in the asparagus garden, which is more fun than you might think. Before hauling, you have to make sure it’s not too damp or else it’s too heavy, but you also don’t want it to dry out — so it’s a delicate balance. But you collect it in one place and let it rot down for about 1-2 months, to let all the bacteria and germs do their thing. Hauling manure downhill is not easy, and as the maggots and beetle larvae multiply, the load can get quite heavy and intimate. (I’ve learned quite a lot about manure at this point, but I’ll save it for my time in Cherni Kamuk, Bulgaria) I bet the donkeys don’t know or care what we do with their manure. While I slave to haul their dung, they lazily graze by the wayside, and the dog chases them occasionally, playing, ducking.

There is also fencing to keep the donkeys out of the asparagus garden, not because they eat the asparagus, but because they trample over them. Generally, they eat grasses (but trees and bushes, if they are desperate) they can see or reach, and whenever we come near them, they expect us to have a handful of grass or hazelnuts. They wait for about 2 minutes, then if they get nothing, walk away. In the summer, during the day, they stay in nearby caves for shade, and feed at night, as Italian summers can be very hot and dry.

The donkeys were actually one of my favorite parts; watching them graze is quite peaceful. I think they already know how to live in the present without being taught. But I doubt such a thing can be taught, but only realized — in the same way that poets don’t live their experiences, but are merely swept up by them, buoyed up onto the crashing waves of surrealism. I try not to transform or meddle with the experience, but surrender myself to it.

they're easy to love

they’re easy to love

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We dig up the weeds — ‘waste not, want not’, we feed them to the donkeys instead of discarding them — which are unwanted plants in the garden, but it wasn’t for vegetables or herbs, but so we could plant specific flowers that Mauro wanted for the bees, of which one of my favorites was rosemary.

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up close and personal

up close and personal

 

spring sent us an early gift

spring sent us an early gift: cherry blossom

As soon as I get my hands in the dirt, I feel so much life. Spiders, worms, millipedes, ants, bees, aphids, everything else, there is so much life all around us, that we never see. As soon as we are truly aware of life, the reaper smirks with eyes twinkling: dying leaves signal autumn; clothes were plants once, as was paper. Every time we eat, a life is being extinguished so another life can continue. Aren’t plants alive, too, vegetarians? Life lives on life. We are all murderers or conspirators with murderers — either way, we roam at large.

Worker bees can only sting once, and die shortly afterwards. The male honeybee dies as soon as he mates with the queen: his mission is finished! I mean, aren’t insects are the most varied and probably most important species on earth? So many things that crawl have been doused with bad press: spiders, cockroaches, flies, and other “pests”. Many agricultural pests are just nature’s way of dealing with overgrown monocultures. Insects should be allowed to write opinion pieces in our papers if we truly had “freedom of the press” — But then again, their views are written all over the earth, only in a language that we neither understand nor respect.

 

***

There are many types of honey in Italy listed here (le miele da castagne is chestnut honey, spicy and pungent) being the most expensive, and the type of honey is whatever flower the bees are pollinating. Most honey in American stores is clover honey or miele millefiori (multi-flower honey), the latter meaning that the keepers don’t care which flowers the bees are visiting. Funnily enough, what the flower smells like is totally unrelated, and sometimes completely opposite, to what the honey tastes like. Mauro likes to tell of this one flower that everyone was raving about, but when they tasted the honey the bees made from it, it was awful.

Also, the worker bees generally make more honey than they themselves need, and we just take the surplus. The other part of the work, which was really time-consuming but worth it, was shelling hazelnuts to make butter, which is the base ingredient for gnutella (but I doubt gnutella in the store uses real hazelnuts). We made massive amounts of delicious butter, and the oil naturally rises to the top, so you know it’s the real thing.

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As a parting gift, they gave me a jar of honey and butter, which I am (unsuccessfully) trying to send home, along with the oil I got from my very first farm in Monteleone Sabino.

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They also use their honey, instead of cane sugar, to make jams, which is healthier and tastier. Sugar is added more for preservation than sweetening, because without added sugar, most marmalades won’t last past a few days, as the fruit ferments quickly. And most fruits are cooked and then sugar is added, and both of these processes harm the intrinsic vitamins — so the less sugar you can add, the better.

i basically drunk half of this

i basically drunk half of this

Luckily, these hazelnut trees were on the land when he purchased it, so all he has to do is pick them. The “first come, first serve” harvest is in September, and you have to wait for the nuts to drop from the tree and race to get them, before the squirrels do — and squirrels wake up at 4-5am.

***
Rita and Mauro have agreed to speak only in Italian with me from now on, which is great, because I feel like there is no true cultural exchange without making an attempt to learn the language. Which is why I despise common tourism, because it makes no attempt to actually talk to a person, or suggest that you might have a conversation with a local beyond how to greet and ask for things, but merely insists on teaching you “standard phrases” so you can “get around” and get exactly what information that you need. Yes, the locals may be pleased that you can say basic things, but you cannot actually engage any further with a person unless they speak a little of your language. And since the whole ‘civilized world’ is on the fast track to English fluency… motivation is not widespread among Americans to learn another language.

I like to help my hosts improve their English; obviously they express themselves much better in Italian. I see them suffer and grasp for words in English, and I picture myself doing the same thing in Italian, and the epiphany comes: either they stumble and fall, sometimes succeeding, while trying to speak my native language, or I do the same while trying to speak theirs (invalid in cases where one person is fluent in both languages). The least I can do is meet them halfway, and we can split the embarrassment evenly.

 

What’s most disturbing about this is how we judge intelligence by articulation and pronunciation: if someone doesn’t enunciate correctly or spell words right, we count them uneducated and look askance at them in amusement or pity — and conversely, if someone articulates very well, they are assumed smarter. (Because if you sound smart, you are halfway there. Appearances appear to be more important, so they are.) And sometimes, however wrong and absurd, this is the first thought I have if this person stumbles over basic things in my language, as the ancient Greeks thought that every foreigner was somehow subhuman. The Greek barbaros, from which barbarian was derived, literally means ‘foreign’, which essentially means anyone with different speech and customs. Although now, we take the word to mean primitive and uncivilized, which are very loaded concepts — that ultimately are relative, and objectively, mean nothing, in and of themselves. — And Montaigne’s references are pointed (Book I, Ch. IX, “Of Liars”)–

An ancient father says “that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand.”

Ut externus alieno pene non sit hominis vice.

[“As a foreigner cannot be said to supply us the place of a man.”
—Pliny, Nat. Hist. vii. I]

No matter where we go in the world, if we speak the language, we are automatically more human to the local people than someone who doesn’t.

I think language is the first way people identify with others, “OK, this person is one of us.” — or for immigrants who speak the language — “This person is trying to be like me, like us. Let me help them assimilate.” — and perhaps all other ways (race, class, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) we have used to limit and divide ourselves are only as influential as the words that buttress them. — Word choice, and the subtler use(s) of silence, is the most important choice, the bane of our existence, but Solomon was more poetic, for,

“death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” Proverbs 18:21

…and how do we know if there is any truth in the words we choose, or even how and why we choose them?

“Words lie in our way! — Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is! — they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution. — Now with every piece of knowledge, one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.” The Dawn, Nietzsche, s. 47

or from the spacey and ethereal view, a wee Wilde, from The Portrait of Dorian Gray,

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

Language is the original philosophical problem, to which all others succumb, but which all happy religions must overcome.

***
Wine consumption here is so indulgent (I hear, there are some 350 varieties of grapes in Italy): we have at least a bottle or two with every meal, because, — well, why not? Mauro claims it’s because he’s from Trentino (a northern region of Italy) where they drink in much larger quantities, and Rita is from Umbria — Every time, Mauro takes a 5-10 minute break from working to roll some tobacco, he occasionally drinks a glass of wine also — it seems to prepare his palate for the ensuing never-ending Italian meal? 🙂
And we have the typical vino, formaggio, salumi con il pranzo e qualche volta la cena se non siamo troppo pieno

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

And we actually get some massive (decent) boxed wine for 10 euros that’s fairly excellent, beside which is some home-brewed hazelnut liqeur.

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And we even listened to opera or (squabbling about Italian politics), and Mauro mentioned once when it was in German instead of Italian. So picture listening to opera while gorging yourself on wine, cheese and oil, then entering a half-serious debate on whether opera should really be sung in languages other than Italian, then realizing you are drunk and need to take a nap… but there is donkey manure to be shoveled later that day!

Olive oil and wine are considered ‘high-brow’ things in the US, which just shows there really is no true culture for either in the states. (Mauro is an official olive oil taster, so we had had some excessively detailed conversations about oil.) In the US, to be a wine connoisseur is deemed a plea for sophistication. If you care excessively about olive oil, you are so rare and so faux-European, that you can probably can afford to care. It’s funny to me how America looks up to Europe (esp. France and Italy) in terms of food and wine. Even so, at all the ‘serious’ culinary schools in America, French cuisine has yet to be dethroned from her lofty, contemptuous stance. And because of the way the US looks up to these countries, in our quest to produce olive oil and wine, we are merely trying to imitate the best oils in Italy and the best of French and Italian wines — just as many artists and writers can be obsequious disciples of their greatest influences. What a pity that so many seek mastery by imitating previous masters, when true mastery lies in the honest and unbridled attempt at originality. ‘But’, we think to ourselves, ‘tis better to be a copy of a renowned original, than to be an original.’ — And the whole world approves by honoring our pursuit only of what posterity has deemed great. Because others are more likely to recognize and praise the copy of a famous iconoclast, than someone who is unique on their own terms, in spite of the dominant prejudices of their time. It is not so difficult to be original, as to avoid imitating past originals. An acute historical sense is both rare and costly: if you are too filled up with your education and what you have been taught to know and cherish, then how can you give to your contemporaries what is really you? A refined and cautious ignorance has its uses. ‘Tis better to peek, sigh, and glance at what is commonly revered in history — and not try to surpass them, but merely seek to be different — but beware that the world only respects certain flavors of ambition.

Is a path that can be followed worth following? Can we only go farthest when we don’t know where we are going? The competitive urge often defeats its very purpose: we want to conquer this one game in this one field, and forget that there are a thousand fields, each with a thousand games, right over there. We want to be better by setting other’s achievements as our goal, surpassing them, and then looking around at the world and saying, “Hey, look at me! I beat them!”, while it has always been more admirable to simply differ — to stop comparing oneself to past, present, or future greats. How can I have peace until I stop comparing myself to others? Money, status, prestige is only one type of rat race — there are a million others (re: the so-called ‘hipster’ culture) in which people are doing nothing but comparing themselves [to death] with others on the same path. Every ladder of comparison has infinite rungs, each of an infinite length…

And some rainbows have pots of dung at the end, not gold, and maggots churning, no leprechauns.

***

After morning work, we stop for a 1 hour lunch at 12 or 1, and afterwards take a 1 hour riposo (literally: repose) in the Italian style (Spain is apparently well-known for its afternoon siestas, where the shops close and everyone naps — or does whatever they want except work — after lunch). There are whole towns that essentially “go to sleep” in the afternoon here, especially in the summer.

Isn’t it obvious you definitely shouldn’t go back to work right after eating? — for digestive reasons, and also because meals should never be rushed for stress purposes (it’s not like we have to guard our food from predators or vultures) — but that is what most do in America. Whether you are on the clock or on salary, to take “too long” of a lunch break consistently may get you fired — you may be seen as lazy and unproductive, abusing the system, etc. I’m not saying that Americans should have a 5-course meal like Italians and the French, but just that we enjoy our food, slowly, succulently, whenever we eat. Gratitude never rushes: some African proverb says, “A man in a hurry is already dead”. I joke here that if I had wine with lunch every day in the US, eyebrows would be raised, suspicions of borderline alcoholism would be in the air. And even so, my American brain is having trouble adjusting… wait? you mean we just nap in the middle of the day, every day, no matter what? Even if we didn’t work that hard in the morning, we still deserve a bottle of wine for lunch, then an hour’s rest? And don’t confuse siesta with a “power nap”, those hideous progenies of time management. Why can’t a siesta be an end in itself? Why must a rest be a means for more work? I think vacations and retreats have that function: if some people didn’t need to rejuvenate to go back to work, they wouldn’t even go on vacations, because they only see time off as a means to perform better at work. Leisure should be an end in itself; I think we, especially Americans, work entirely too hard — I once confused someone by saying, “my most idle moments have also been my happiest” — and forgot to add that ennui is the mother of art,

Quiet fruitfulness. The born aristocrats of the spirit are not overeager; their creations blossom and fall from the trees on a quiet autumn evening, being neither rashly desired, not hastened on, nor supplanted by new things. The wish to create incessantly is vulgar, betraying jealousy, envy, and ambition. If one is some­thing, one does not actually need to do anything–and neverthe­less does a great deal. There is a type higher than the “produc­tive” man. Human All-Too-Human I, Nietzsche, s. 210

***
They let me borrow a bike, to roam through the meandering Viterbese countryside

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….

We say bon appetito: they share a kiss before every meal, and Rita always sits on the right of Mauro… so it’s essential that I don’t accidentally sit on his right, or else he’ll go in to kiss me, simply out of habit. [I should have tested this theory]

Mauro left home when he was 18, he told his parents he wanted to travel alone, without them, and they were vaguely offended and horrified: but one night, he planned a trip to travel with his parents, but later that night packed his bags, snuck out alone, left for the south of italy, and his parents called the police, and they said something like “Well, he is 18, there is nothing we can do, he is his own man now”… So he came back after spending the whole summer hitchhiking in Italy, penniless — and being a young traveler, strangers invited him back to their homes and was curious to know who he was and his story. (You can’t make this stuff up)

Mauro hates cell phones, hates being connected all the time, and is OK with people waiting for him at the landline if he is not available at the moment. He thinks people work too much to buy things they don’t need or things they think they need because everyone else has them (and he counts a cell phone among those superfluous things). Living is only as difficult as we make it and we probably don’t need to work as hard as we do. — And the concept of merit in the work we do is vastly overrated: to deny the role of chance is hubris; pride and gratitude divorced when Lucifer fell. One could almost say that people can be less grateful for things they feel they deserve, in the case of relationships and friendships especially — because they feel they are entitled to them. The concept of debt has always ran rampant in friendship and love, for,

If our friends do us a favor, we think that because they are called friends they owe it to us, and it never occurs to us that they do not owe us their friendship. – Vauvenargues

.. and what is this “You are entitled to your opinion”? This actually gives others license to defend their opinions with little to no argument, for few defend what they feel they are entitled to — why should they?

We work hard and so think we deserve only good outcomes, so because we expect to be duly compensated, we forget that chance is often a more powerful force than merit… so are we more likely to be grateful if we give credit to chance instead of merit? Is believing “I deserve this” incompatible with humility? The earth is indifferent to my wishes, as it is towards those of the human race — so, why should the human race be any less indifferent towards me, and the things I deem worthy in this life?

***

But anyway, they read ‘Il Fatto Quotidiano’ (the everyday facts), one of the few independent newspapers in Italy, that is not supported by public funds, which of course means that it can say whatever it wants, while the other newspapers are beholden to the opinions of public officials, the shareholders of this thing we call ‘the world’ — or are ‘we, the people’ the shareholders? Not quite sure how this whole capitalism thing is supposed to work.

Funnily, another part of the cultural exchange is watching American romantic comedies dubbed in Italian — foreign films and tv shows are always dubbed in Italy — with English subtitles (if the film happens to have them).

awful

awful

I would never have watched “P.S. I Love You” or “A Cry of the Heart (or whatever it was called)” in the US. The reach of American pop culture is, unfortunately, very far. But I learned vast amounts of vocabulary like un stronzo, “a piece of shit”, and “ti voglio bene”, which is how to say “I love you” to family or relatives, as “te amo” is usually reserved for romantic situations only.

**

Lastly, Rita made some awesome food, which I would be remiss to talk about.

We had two types of very tasty octopus, with fennel, oregano, and red pepper.

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and of course, pasta

and of course, pasta

Slow-roasted artichokes with potatoes, rosemary, olive oil and parsley, and cauliflower baked with gorgonzola (or pecorino, I forget?)

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cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

Rita’s brother came down from Umbria (we talked and listened to blues and soul for a bit), bringing some prosecco.

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the Franks rage

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the French rage

They trade some of their honey for good homemade sausage; also, we get a nice cut of pork to butcher up ourselves.

a successful barter

a successful barter

 

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

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And last, but not least, Mauro understood and appreciated my addiction to olive oil, so I could indulge myself freely :-O

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The Problem with Outcome-Oriented Evaluations

Imagine I observe two poker players playing two tournaments each. During their first tournaments, Player A makes $1200 and Player B loses $800. During her second tournament, Player A pockets another $1000. Player B, on the other hand, loses $1100 more during her second tournament. Would it be a good decision for me to sit down at a table and model my play after Player A?

For many people the answer to this question – no – is counterintuitive. I watched Player A and Player B play two tournaments each and their results were very different – haven’t I seen enough to conclude that Player A is the better poker player? Yet poker involves a considerable amount of luck and there are numerous possible short- and longer-term outcomes for skilled and unskilled players. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise, I could monitor each player’s winnings during a year of their full-time play and still not know whether either of them was any good at poker. It would be fully plausible for a “very good limit hold ‘em player” to “have lost $35,000” during that time. Instead of focusing on the desired outcome of their play – making money – I should mimic the player who uses strategies that will, over time, increase the likelihood of future winnings. As Silver writes,

When we play poker, we control our decision-making process but not how the cards come down. If you correctly detect an opponent’s bluff, but he gets a lucky card and wins the hand anyway, you should be pleased rather than angry, because you played the hand as well as you could. The irony is that by being less focused on your results, you may achieve better ones.

As Silver recommends for poker and Teach For America recommends to corps members, we should always focus on our “locus of control.” For example, I have frequently criticized Barack Obama for his approach to the Affordable Care Act. While I am unhappy that the health care bill did not include a public option, I couldn’t blame Obama if he had actually tried to pass such a bill and failed because of an obstinate Congress. My critique lies instead with the President’s deceptive work against a more progressive bill – while politicians don’t always control policy outcomes, they do control their actions. As another example, college applicants should not judge their success on whether or not colleges accept them. They should evaluate themselves on what they control – the work they put into high school and their applications. Likewise, great football coaches recognize that they should judge their teams not on their won-loss records, but on each player’s successful execution of assigned responsibilities. Smart decisions and strong performance do not always beget good results; the more factors in-between our actions and the desired outcome, the less predictive power the outcome can give us.

Most education reformers and policymakers, unfortunately, still fail to recognize this basic tenet of probabilistic reasoning, a fact underscored in recent conversations between Jack Schneider (a current professor and one of the best high school teachers I’ve ever had) and Michelle Rhee. We implement teacher and school accountability metrics that focus heavily on student outcomes without realizing that this approach is invalid. As the American Statistical Association’s (ASA’s) recent statement on value-added modeling (VAM) clearly states, “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in [student] test scores” and “[e]ffects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.” Paul Bruno astutely notes that the ASA’s statement is an indictment of the way VAM is used, not the idea of VAM itself, yet little correlation currently exists between VAM results and effective teaching. As I’ve mentioned before, research on both student and teacher incentives suggests that rewards and consequences based on outcomes don’t work. When we use student outcome data to assign credit or blame to educators, we may close good schools, demoralize and dismiss good teachers, and ultimately undermine the likelihood of achieving the student outcomes we want.

Better policy would focus on school and teacher inputs. For example, we should agree on a set of clear and specific best teaching practices (with the caveat that they’d have to be sufficiently flexible to allow for different teaching styles) on which to base teacher evaluations. Similarly, college counselors should provide college applicants with guidance about the components of good applications. Football coaches should likewise focus on their players’ decision-making and execution of blocking, tackling, route-running, and other techniques.

Input Output Graphic

When we evaluate schools on student outcomes, we reward (and punish) them for factors they don’t directly control.  A more intelligent and fair approach would evaluate the actions schools take in pursuit of better student outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Outcomes are incredibly important to monitor and consider when selecting effective inputs, of course. Mathematicians use outcomes in a process called Bayesian analysis to constantly update our assessments of whether or not our strategies are working. If we observe little correlation between successful implementation of our identified best teaching practices and student growth for five consecutive years, for instance, we may want to revisit our definition of best practices. A college counselor whose top students are consistently rejected from Ivy League schools should begin to reconsider the advice he gives his students on their applications. Relatedly, if a football team suffers through losing season after losing season despite players’ successful completion of their assigned responsibilities, the team should probably overhaul its strategy.

The current use of student outcome data to make high-stakes decisions in education, however, flies in the face of these principles. Until we shift our measures of school and teacher performance from student outputs to school and teacher inputs, we will unfortunately continue to make bad policy decisions that simultaneously alienate educators and undermine the very outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Update: A version of this piece appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column in The Washington Post on Sunday, May 25.

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Aphorisms and a short story

I have a collection of aphorisms to present that I’ve been working on. The art of the maxim has gone out of style somewhat, lamentably. The less we say, the more others hear — if we say it well. It is so easy to rant on the Internet or in private with our friends, but more rewarding to first organize our thoughts first and distill what we have to say. Brevity is the soul of wit, they say, but if the brief is unnecessary, the wit is superfluous. Though we are loathe to admit, Twitter has its advantages; constraint demands creativity. By limiting ourselves, the eternal can be reached, through finite means. Isn’t this the whole purpose of art? — to explain the utter chaos of the human condition in dense, honest flavor?

Ok, back to the point. I hail from the tradition of Nietzsche, La Rouchefoucauld, Chamfort, Chateaubriand, Vauvenargues, Heraclitus, the comments section of the NYT, ATCQ, Nasir, squirrels, and the most plump of bumblebees. Below are some of my original aphorisms. Enjoy, if you can. Think, if you enjoy. Scoff, if you think.

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The poor who want wealth redistribution will change their mind if they are rich, as will the rich who are against it if they are poor.

Few are nice enough to be your harshest critic.

Those who can’t handle criticism don’t deserve praise.

Price is set high to obscure quality.

To know wants from needs, and adjust expectations accordingly.

The love of money is always unrequited, yet its lovers abound. Fame, too.

Confidence concerns character; arrogance concerns reputation.

Conviction suffocates intellect.

We spend more time convincing others we are happy than being happy; happiness is its own pursuit.

We despise bragging for fear of its accuracy.

We mistrust praise — and yet desire it — because of our insecurity.

We are not afraid of heights, but only afraid of falling.

To know who you envy, who envies you, the cause and effect of both: a rare wisdom.

We are most insecure when we abuse love and love abuse.

The worst type of guilt is feeling guilty for not feeling guilty.

Politicians begin as sophists and end as demagogues.

A politician’s success depends on how well he can fool two parties: the people and himself.

Every god gets the atheists it deserves.

You want to be unique? So does everyone else. Join the crowd!

We hate being misunderstood, unless we are also admired.

The stylish are simply following the trends. And concern with being ‘stylish’ is a trend many follow.

Give unexpectedly without expectations.

High expectations and low patience: quick to marry, quicker to divorce.

***

finally, a short story on the power of excuses:

Every day, Jerome was stoned to death by his excuses. Yet the very next day, he always got back up, like the little train that could, worshipping at the altar of “Lights, Camera, Inaction!” His excuses gave him great comfort — something had to fluff his pillows at night, putting his fear in words made him feel invincible; as long as his excuses could find no obvious detractors, they were the only eulogists that he would ever need. Besides, excuses were renowned for their jealousy; they forbade other idols and gifted brimstone to those who doubted their omnipotence.

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A Conversation with John Stuart Mill

If you haven’t read J.S. Mill’s classic work, I highly recommend it for 1 main reason: it is a keen and succulent defense of individual rights. The book changed my life, in a very painful and liberating way, because it forced me to be extra critical of the rules and customs that society imposes — which is uncomfortable not only for my friends, but for my conscience. I’ll go through one of my favorite excerpts below, with commentary interspersed.

Disclaimer: This is really just an excuse for you to read one of my favorite books. Victorian prose can be exacting and meticulous, though brisk and subtle, and Mill proceeds very logically and methodically. It is no Jane Austen in style, but it is in truth.

Taken from Chapter 2: “On Liberty of Thought and Discussion”

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Really? No matter how offensive or ignorant the opinion is? Wow, this is an unbelievably high standard for entertaining the opinions of others. No one believes this would work out in practice, but it’s worth noting in theory, because if you were that ONE person who differed from the rest of the world, then it would matter immensely to you, and you would want the world to listen, no matter how ‘crazy’ you were. For what is a ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ person but one who disagrees too greatly with the rest of the species? Life is a basketball court; an insane person is just someone who steps out of bounds too often, or ignores the out-of-bounds marker completely.

Let’s see how Mill justifies this ridiculously high standard.

“Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.”

Ah! Brilliant! Silencing anyone’s opinion isn’t necessarily bad because of insulting that person, but rather, it is “robbing the human race”. It’s hindering the thought process of “those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it”. To silence the opinion of anyone arrests the progress of everyone. (This takes on a whole new meaning, of course, with the advent of trolling, on websites and in real life.)

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The latent assumption here is that we know the difference between right and wrong in whatever is being discussed. And if we don’t know the difference, will we admit it to ourselves — and to others? Rarely do we admit to themselves privately, and are often too proud to admit to others. But if we do admit it to everyone, how do we proceed from here? So many places we can go astray here.

“… We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

We only suppress what we believe to be wrong or too uncomfortable, but that assumes our opinion, and the motives from which it arose, are both flawless. How can we be so arrogant as to decide what everyone else should believe about a certain topic, and also decide their reasons for believing it? And then we get mad if they don’t believe what we want them to. We blame them for failing to understand or agree with us, as if it was their fault for not agreeing entirely with what we think is ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’. “If only they could see MY point of view! If they could see it, they would be sure to agree!” Often when people talk of ‘changing the world’, they really want to make the world over in their own image.

“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age.”

“Absolute prince” is just another way of saying “asshole”. But those more ‘happily situated’, i.e. the rest of us, we who believe with utmost confidence only those opinions we share with others, or to those whom we ‘habitually defer’: family, co-workers, managers, law enforcers, spouses/partners, etc

We lack confidence in our own judgement, so we trust ‘the world’. I love how he puts ‘the world’ in quotes, because ‘the world’ is different for every person, as he lists the many micro-worlds we are a part of: religion, culture, political party, socioeconomic class, gender, age group, sexual orientation, “race”. All of us are a part of many small cults. Wow, we have made life is so complicated, so intricately organized without even realizing it. — I rarely get out of my own little micro-worlds every day, and somehow feel, that coming from such a limited and narrow perspective, I can get the truth of the human perspective in general. Ridiculous!

He goes on to describe our oblivion to these implications:

“Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin.”

We know, but rarely experience, how different other “micro-worlds” are from our own, not just in the past societies, but societies right now — and “mere accident” has decided which of these worlds we are set into: our native country, native language, religion, sex, height, weight. Yes, height is a world too. Taller people see the world differently than shorter, as they are treated differently by others. Something as arbitrary as height, imagine that! How much more arbitrary, then, are the rest of these worlds that we feel make up our character? Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance comes to mind here in creating a just society: ‘If you were to enter society at a random position without knowing what advantages that position would give you, where would you choose to go and why?’

But the last sentence is my favorite:

“Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”

How could we are better than our ancestors simply because we are the most recent version? and how are our descendants possibly better than us for the same reason? We assume both all the time.  This is arrogant because many things we take as truth now may be thoroughly debunked in the future. Every age (and person) is furthest from recognizing its own follies and successes. You could say the same about every politician.

A present success may be a future folly, as a past folly, if practiced today, can be a present success. Progress is not linear. Time does not heal all, but only what it is allowed to, and in some cases, worsens things that are swept under the rug or misinterpreted.

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On Time, Pt. 1

This is a first of a series on time, apparently. Time is great. Time is.

If you ask most people what their time is worth, they’ll think it’s an absurd question. Obviously, you can’t put a value on their time. Who do you think you are? Just like most progressive and morally upright human beings will say that a human life is also priceless. Yet we all act as if the reverse of this is true. We sell our time to our companies, jobs, and “the market” every day. We sign the job offer (that we are lucky enough to get), to serve the company, till death or dissatisfaction do us part, to have and to hold etc. (But in the fine print, there’s this sketchy thing called “at-will” employment. Which basically means the company doesn’t need a solid reason to fire you. Or if they do just so happen to have a reason, they’re not obligated to tell you. “Don’t take it personal. It’s just business. You understand, don’t you??” As if firing could be anything but a personal affair!) Life consists of time, so if we sell our time, we sell our life. Our life has a price, because we act like it does.

There is a fine economic irony which shows that sometimes our jobs cause ennui, a sort of physical and intellectual restlessness. How absurd. People get restless when they are bored, when they aren’t actually engaged even though they’re busy. It turns out you can be bored and busy when you know you aren’t really doing anything worthwhile anyway — or doing something that you literally could not care less about. And yet, you do care about it, because you are hired to care. Salaries for many jobs almost function as bribes. As in, many job positions would simply never be filled if they weren’t prestigious or didn’t pay so well. But isn’t bribery a form of corruption?

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“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” – Paul Graham

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What is a job but auctioning off your time to the highest bidder, or at least the most aggressive or persuasive bidder? Of course, people who do what they enjoy have avoided this bidding war; for them, the perks of the job are the job.

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But my biggest realization about time has been this: the weekend is an social construct. As in, there is nothing special about Saturday or Sunday. The fact that we chose them as weekend days is totally artificial. Tuesday is Saturday, and Sunday is Wednesday — according to the universe. It’s just another day. The 5 day week/2day weekend is just the contract we’ve all signed to conform to this hullabaloo called “society”. This has bugged me because many people are literally “living for the weekend”. The existence of TGIF is problematic in itself. It’s good to ask yourself, Are you saying TGIF because it’s been an especially stressful week or if you say it every single week because you don’t like your job? And then people have to work to “earn” vacation time. IMHO, this is a lack of trust on the company’s part to trust their employees to use vacation time responsibly and maturely and not abuse it. It’s almost as if they hired kids and not adults. Sure, some discretion on the part of the employee is valid, but you shouldn’t have to work 52 weeks in America to get 2.5 weeks of vacation.

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There is a reason people ask “What do you do?” when they first meet you. Because, deep down, they are asking, “What are you willing to sell your time for?” They want to know what you are guaranteed to do every weekday, besides sleeping and eating. From a holistic point of view, we are not our jobs. We are much more, lovers, friends, thinkers, artists. But strictly speaking, we are. We spend 8-12 hours every day with the people we work with and what our job actually entails. EIGHT HOURS. Surely, something this time-consuming cannot be relegated as a “means to an end”. Time is one of the few nonrenewable natural resources.

Our whole lives are organized around the concept of ‘work’ and the time and energy we give to it. Our whole lives.

(I know there are plenty of people who have to work jobs they despise for very practical and pressing reasons.)

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“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ― Heraclitus, Fragments

“They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price” – Kahlil Gibran

Here is a piece from The Gay Science by Nietzsche that sets a very high standard for work worth doing.

“Work and boredom. — Looking for work in order to be paid; in civilized countries today almost all men are at one in doing that. For all of them work is a means and not an end in itself. Hence they are not very refined in their choice of work, if only it pays well. But there are, if only rarely, men who would rather perish than work without any pleasure in their work. They are choosy, hard to satisfy, and do not care for ample rewards. Artists and contemplative men of all kinds belong to this rare breed, but so do even those men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, or in love affairs and adventures. All of these desire work and misery if only it is associated with pleasure, and the hardest, most difficult work if necessary. Otherwise, their idleness is resolute, even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure…”

Check out what these three have to say on The choice of a Profession:

Paul Graham
William Deresiewicz
Robert Louis Stevenson
Henry David Thoreau

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A bit on Ignorance

I’m fascinated by ignorance for several reasons:

1. Few people completely understand it because few spend actual time acknowledging their ignorance, understanding why it’s there, and what it actually means. Can I identify something if I don’t understand it? Is ignorance a bad thing? If so, why? Everyone takes it as a given that ignorance is something that must be extinguished at all costs. The ability to discern why certain things are worth knowing and others aren’t is underrated. Discretion is the better part of knowledge as well as valor.

2. Many conversations rarely enter into the realm of actual knowledge, much less wisdom. I’m of the opinion that when we talk, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about, especially when we are talking about ourselves. There are many ways in which we lie to ourselves, to reify the self-image we deem most palatable, and to reinforce the image of the world that makes us look most congenial and intelligent. If you look into the world, and don’t like what you see, why blame the world? The world is a mirror — also, a mirage.

3. Everyone thinks they know what ignorance is for any given topic, and they’ve defined it such that their definition doesn’t describe them. What if there are different types of ignorance? It’s quite remarkable that we can be scared to death of a state of mind as natural as ignorance. If you don’t know something, you just don’t know — it’s OK. Feynman knew that it was inevitable, and almost glorious, to live and NOT know — this was part of his genius.

4. Ignorance is not the culprit, our attitude toward it is. We despise others for their ignorance about certain things[1], for example: American whites being ignorant about black history (conveniently forgetting that many Americans *in general* are ignorant about such), men being ignorant about feminist history (same argument as above). Generally, conversations along the lines of race, sex, or class discrimination tend to disparage and denigrate those who are ignorant, crying, “Oh my god, how could you NOT know about all this discrimination inherent in the system! You’re so ignorant! You’re such a bad person and so self-absorbed!” The rage comes to a boiling point and the person with “privilege” is made to feel as if they are despicable scum who walks around with rose-colored glasses. And yet we are all products of the same society, although we see it through different lens. I imagine if this rage was handled more delicately and respectfully when faced with the blinding glare of someone’s ignorance, conversations about social justice could actually be productive — instead of revolting and polarizing. More often though, people seek to educate and remedy the ignorance of others, instead of understanding the perspective of the other person and honestly asking themselves if they do not sleep in the same bed of ignorance.

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Here are a few of my vignettes on ignorance and knowledge:

* Those who know much, realizing knowledge is gained from personal experience, advise little. Those who know little, assuming experience rises from knowledge, advise much. Beware of penguins that advise you how to fly.

* The most common type of ignorance is not knowing the many masks ignorance cowers behind. And yet, given enough wine and enough time, can we not figure them all out? — or, at the very least, die laughing at ourselves in the process?

* Everything is difficult when you don’t understand it – and only when you do understand, is its difficulty most completely realized.

* (Below presupposes knowledge of The Fall in Genesis. I highly, HIGHLY encourage you to read it again, here.)

Taking pride in what we know, the main barrier to further knowledge, is our original sin. This is the real reason God was upset with the couple’s fall in the Garden. The serpent enticed Eve with the “knowledge of good and evil” — it was clearly an offer she couldn’t refuse. After the couple admits they know they’re naked, God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” – interpreted – “Who gave you knowledge – and why are you proud of it? Who would do such a thing?”

Today, nothing has changed; behind every conversation and argument is “What do you know?” or “What do you want to know, and why don’t you know it yet?”: both of these can be summarized as “Where does your pride lie?” It is fashionable for an educated person to talk of “love of learning” as the most admirable trait in the world.[2] And yet, is this rarely love of knowledge, but rather, love of pride in knowledge – and pride always goes before a fall.[3] For the more proud we are of learning and accomplishments, the less we are able to question it.

* Everyone asks to find out what they don’t know – but shouldn’t we ask to refine what we already do know? I need other people’s interpretations to counter and refine yours. [It is smart to ask questions about what I think I know — in conjunction with what I know I don’t know.]

And finally,

These are the lyrics to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. It’s a great critique of our views on ignorance and knowledge, and how both fit in our pursuit of happiness.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage?

[1] Yet, we are rarely this hard on ourselves for being ignorant.

[2] They are so desperate to know. They panic and wither without their certainty and credentials.

[3] Proverbs 16:18

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On Intellectual Honesty

Below is an incomplete list of what intellectual honesty means to me. Let me know what I missed, or if I’m wrong. Please comment if you have any thoughts at all; I want to hear from you. Yeah, you.

1. Admit you could be wrong.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” – Nietzsche

This is a basis for all intellectual honesty: to not have a higher opinion of someone simply because they agree with you, to not base your opinion of someone on agreement at all, but on how well they can explain what and why they believe; in short, if they can prove they think for themselves.[1] Since most people assume they are right, it makes sense to have a higher opinion of someone who confirms their belief.

So the first principle of being honest is the implicit conclusion to everything you say or believe: “I could be wrong.” Or the stronger, more courageous conclusion: “I am wrong”. Embrace the possibility of someone disagreeing with you; you’ll probably learn something, and they’ll appreciate that you are listening, instead of arguing. Even if I already agree with people, often I act like I don’t. Most people will not explain themselves if you too readily agree with them. Dissent forces them to reconsider their position, if only briefly: “Am I really right? Does being right or wrong even matter?” And it forces people to give reasons for what they believe, a great way of getting to know them.

Before I can stomach others disagreeing with me on my most precious beliefs, I have to learn how to attack myself, to disregard my feelings, and have it out with everything I hold dear. Nietzsche has a good point here:  “A very popular error – having the courage of one’s convictions: Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s convictions!”  I have to be my harshest critic. No one is nice enough to do it for me.

Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite of what everyone is taught to think. We rarely critique ourselves and generally find very amiable those we agree with. Unconsciously, our parents teach us to be like them, to be better people than they are, but only they get to decide what “better” means. (Of course, many parents do this consciously, and have no guilty conscience afterwards about how they dominated and saturated their child’s entire worldview[2]) Implicitly, most parents believe that whatever they taught you is right is also right for everyone else. The worst of these say, “If only everyone could teach their kids the values and standards that I have taught mine! If only everyone knew what I knew!” Even more, I find when I ask people why they believe what they do, few can defend themselves quite well, but most merely regurgitate one of four things: the status quo, what their parents taught them, what their peers think, what their company thinks. (Yes, some people are that indoctrinated by their companies — or more precisely, their paycheck.) Some just make up lies on the spot, because they realize they never had a good reason to believe in the first place. The most courageous act is always the same: to think for yourself. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Follow your thoughts to their logical conclusions.

It is such a tragedy that free spirits are, and always have been, so rare; but maybe there are many of them, who think differently, but never do differently. Only the brave and educated mind can — and will — follow all of its thoughts to their logical conclusions. Most people are great thinkers, and see where their thoughts are going, but they always stop short of the conclusion, because it doesn’t fit the model of the society they hold so dear or it disagrees with someone they admire or respect. And yet, they probably secretly despise the society they live in, but continually put up with it, because they believe they have no other choice. Nietzsche is funny here: “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” Every party, group, or organization has a tendency to wallow and languish in groupthink, so thinking yourself out of the party usually doesn’t take much thinking at all.

3. If you don’t know, say “I DON’T KNOW” or be silent.

It is a sign of strength to own one’s insecurity and vulnerability. Not knowing is insecure, it’s scary, the great void of ignorance. If I don’t know, I should act like it. Admitting you don’t know something means you respect yourself because you have high standards for knowledge, and that you respect others because you won’t deceive them by acting like you know. Respect is the ultimate currency.

Besides, conviction suffocates intellect. The best part about being a skeptic is that you feel agile and free; beliefs and convictions can weigh us down if we let them, especially if they are sloppily obtained. Minimalism of the mind is healthy. Comfort with uncertainty and love of the unknown are habits worth cultivating.

4. Strive for understanding, not agreement. Discuss more, argue less.

“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.” – G.K. Chesterton

It is not whether we agree or disagree, but whether we understand each other. The lack of desire to understand another’s opinion because we find it offensive or foreign is unproductive. Sometimes, we even purposely misconstrue other’s opinions to build our own case. This most commonly happens in political discussions along party lines, such as presidential debates.

I find that when I disagree with someone, they generally ignore me. As in, they’ll listen to what I have to say, but they already assume I’m wrong because they disagree with me. They aren’t trying to understand me or where I am coming from, but are merely looking for ways to convince me that they are right. Understanding never crosses some people’s minds; the need to persuade others they are right is so overwhelming. Even if people happen to agree, each should still give their reasons; two perspectives with the same conclusions often have totally different premises for their beliefs. How can this be? Because each person’s worldview is constructed separately, in their own mind.

All arguing starts with the need to convince. If we drop the need to convince, assume we might be wrong, that is a phenomenal step towards understanding and valuing the opinions of others. You have to understand the context, content and tone of what someone is saying before you can agree with them. But usually, it is the other way around: people ask themselves first “Do I agree?” and only seldom, if ever, do they seriously ask “Do I understand?”

5. Resist the urge to be intoxicated by great writing and oratory.

It’s great to appreciate the beauty in a well-crafted sentence, but it’s even better to hone in on what is actually being said.

Montaigne goes on, “In debates and discussions we should not immediately be impressed by what we take to be a man’s own bons mots [Fr. “good word”]. Most men are rich with other men’s abilities. It may well be that such-and-such a man makes a fine remark, a good reply or a pithy saying, advancing it without realizing its power. That we do not grasp everything we borrow can doubtless be proved from my own case. We should not always give way, no matter what beauty or truth it may have. We should either seriously attack it or else, under pretense of not understanding it, retreat a little so as to probe it thoroughly and to discover how it is lodged in its author.”

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Intellectual honesty is incredible hard to achieve, mostly because we can’t even get past our own biases and prejudices. Indeed, apparently — and this is a very strong apparently — studies have shown that being aware of your own cognitive biases doesn’t make you any less susceptible to them.  At most, this is depressing; at least, it is very humorous.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Everything that we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grown-up he might be otherwise.” – Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human, 630

“We cheat ourselves of what is rightly useful to us in order to conform our appearances to the common opinion. We are not so much concerned with what the actual nature of our being is within us, as with how it is perceived by the public. Even wisdom and the good things of the mind seem fruitless to us if we enjoy them by ourselves, if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of others.” – Michel de Montaigne, Essais, “On Vanity”

“Never maintain an argument with heat or clamor, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinions modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and, if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good-humor, “We shall hardly convince one another; nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.” – Lord Chesterfield, Letter to His Son

Further reading:

Tim Krieder’s essay in the NYTimes, The power of I don’t know
first paragaph of Nietzsche’s essay on “The Need to be Alone”

Walden by Thoreau
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

[1] I’m not saying despise people who don’t think for themselves, but, if anyone, those who do think for themselves are the ones to hold in higher esteem.

[2] I know parenting is more complex than this, and I don’t see all parents as authoritarians, but some parents literally do want to dominate their child’s worldview. And they get very angry when the child strays from the path.

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Objectivity and Credibility

Most of the people reading this post will be friends and family who have received my political emails for the past five years.  If you don’t fall into that category, however, you have most likely stumbled across this blog by accident.  Maybe 34 is your favorite number and your dog’s name Justice; you wanted to find out what hooligans had stolen your rightful domain name.  Or perhaps you conducted the same Google image search that I did last week, looking for a banner featuring Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez (I still think it’s awesome that we found one).  Whatever the reason, you’re here, and I figure it’s incumbent upon me to tell you a little bit about the perspective from which I’ll be writing.

I don’t believe any writing is “objective.”  I have held that view since tenth grade, when Mike Levy and Jack Schneider decided to use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as my history textbook.  I highly recommend Zinn’s entire first chapter, but I’ve tried to capture in the following excerpt the argument that fundamentally altered how I read anything from that point forward:

…The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders…My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different…The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people…not to be on the side of the executioners.

…[T]his book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.’

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

What I continue to find so striking and compelling about what Zinn writes is not that I agree with his perspective.  I do – I love the idea that it is the job of thinking people to adopt the perspective of the disadvantaged as much as possible – but what I really respect about Zinn is that he states his opinions upfront.  That meant I could agree or disagree with his conclusions based on the merits of the case he presented.  I didn’t need to try and discern his biases and agenda because he told me what they were.  That chapter, to me, instantly made Howard Zinn the most credible writer I had ever encountered.  It also made me skeptical of anyone claiming to deliver an objective assessment of facts.  Whether we’re aware of them or not, our values and assumptions dictate what we say and when we say it.

Right after Glenn Greenwald broke his first story on the NSA, articles popped up asking whether Greenwald could be called a journalist.  They argued that Greenwald’s espoused views on civil liberties and Edward Snowden make him different from traditional reporters engaged in “the dispassionate reporting of facts.”  It is precisely those reporters who proclaim they are dispassionately reporting facts that we should view with skepticism, however.  As Matt Taibbi writes, “journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.”

NYU professor Jay Rosen is more forgiving of journalists who try to report objective truth, calling their brand of journalism “politics: none.”  But he calls Greenwald’s brand of reporting, in which the writer’s perspectives are clearly stated for the reader, “politics: some,” and writes that, “if you’re persuaded that transparency is the better route to trust, politics: some is the better choice.”  So, to be fully transparent, here is my brief overview of the perspective I will be writing from in all my posts on this blog:

I believe a just society is one in which all its members have all basic needs met and equal opportunity to succeed.  The current state of the US and the world is incredibly far away from this ideal, and as Chris Hayes argued in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, equality of opportunity will never be achieved while we allow a gross inequality in outcomes. Correct policy lies not somewhere in the middle of two opposing points of view, but in whatever measures will help us achieve this ideal.

That is my approach to political issues.  I hope that’s helpful as you read this blog.

Update (9/8):
Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting article on Syria that examines press objectivity.

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