Sunday, August 20, 2017

Speaking Truths to Ourselves--On Charlottesville

I have hardly been able to look at the images from my home state this last week. I grieve for what we have become, and I don’t understand how we have gotten here. I could tell a story about that path, but there are too many stories, and this is not a moment to get lost in the multiplication of complexities. Fifty years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, we have somehow reached a place where the ugliest ideas of the past centuries have a renewed following that we can no longer ignore.

W.E.B. DuBois once described Atlanta as “south of the north, yet north of the south.” This has seemed to me an apt description of Virginia, especially Richmond, where I was born and raised. I have grown tired of explaining to people that it had never occurred to me to think of myself as anything other than a Southerner. This was the milk on which I was nursed, the roots that I could never deny, however my sentiments shifted about them over the years. Behind all of my ambivalence, I fear there was always a kind of pride. I was taught that there was a Southern ethos, a delicacy, something lilting in our mode of life that put Yankees to shame. But we did not, natives of the Commonwealth, share in the distaste for learning or the scorn for nobler things that we saw portrayed in caricatures of Southerners in national media. Southerner I always was; redneck or Bible Belter, never.

It took me far too long to see that the stories of heritage were at best self-deception and at worst downright lies. That you cannot separate a flag that waved over those who fought for their right to trample on the rights of others from that ugly history, that disposition to tyranny. That no matter what ideals individual people might associate with that flag, black Americans could not but associate it with fear, hatred, and centuries of being treated as subhuman. No person’s heritage or ideal could possibly make up for so much pain. It is an insult to even place it in the balance.   

I fear that the pictures of angry, pathetic white men brandishing torches are distracting us from some difficult truths. This is not aberration. It is an extreme version of something that some of us can usually ignore from day to day: the ongoing, systematic oppression of a whole group of people whom we categorize by the myth of separate races. It is an oppression that has been carefully documented with statistics and powerfully portrayed in film. But its counterpart, perhaps its source, lies within the breast of many individual people, most of whom would swear that they are not racists.

Moral indignation at being accused of racism is the order of the day among a certain set. Ironically, there is considerable overlap between this set and those who make fun of others for being offended by vulgar stereotypes and the languages of shame. In response, others have tried to point out that one can very well be racist in subtle ways, and that we may have racist attitudes and not even be aware of them.

The indignant often respond with questioning the testing, about which there are some real scientific problems, that seeks to quantify this “implicit bias.” These same problems do not affect numerous other data sets that show, for instance, that you can change an applicant’s interview chances simply by changing the name at the top of a resume to something that sounds like it might refer to a non-white person. But I don’t need implicit bias tests anyhow. All I need to frighten myself about my own attitudes is an old-fashioned—indeed, ancient—method. It is the method of self-reflection, part of the way in which some of us try to obey the adage to know ourselves.

In implementing this method, I have caught myself with passing sentiments of frustration based on the race of the person before me. I have seen myself noticing “patterns” that the wiser, more scientifically-minded part of myself knows are not there. We are not natively good at noticing patterns. We see them too quickly, and we infer things from them with far, far too little warrant.

This self-reflection is a tiny, pathetic first step. It is nothing by itself, except a caution against hubris. But it is an absolutely necessary first step for those who are quite sure that they are not racist.

There is a deeper level of reflection that is called for, which asks questions about our explanations for real patterns. We know that there is a socio-economic gap between the races: how do we explain this? Do we think it’s likely that “biological differences” explain this gap? Then we are racist, because we believe that one race is naturally inferior to another. Those who like the biological difference explanation may well throw John Stuart Mill at me and demand that I exercise my mental capacities by considering every possible argument, however disgusting I may find it. But as much as I admire Mill, I fear this ideal fails to take some important factors into consideration.

Our commitment to freedom of speech demands that we not imprison people for considering such arguments, or even for defending them vociferously. But it does not demand that we take all arguments equally seriously. That first step of self-reflection ought to teach us that we are likely to find some arguments more attractive than others. They serve our lower needs better. Why have I been so fortunate while others have languished? Because I have worked hard and they are lazy/incompetent/not quite as smart? It is such a beguiling answer. And precisely because of this, we ought to work as hard as we can to find another. Plenty of alternative answers are readily available, each too simple to explain the whole. But when we are engaged in this search, it is a moment for multiplying complexities.

But there is another level of mendacity here, more brazen than the squirrely self-deception involved in never paying attention to fleeting racist thoughts or reaching for the most flattering explanation for social inequalities. And here is where I must return to that bizarre world in which I was raised, south of the north, yet north of the south.

As I child, I heard many adults tell me that they were not racist, and even that racism was wrong. And then they told me what sort of people to avoid, and why it was still unwise for nice white girls to date black boys. They made jokes using the n-word and wrung their hands when black families moved into their neighborhoods. In the Southern world, people have long known what they could get away with saying in public and what they could say among themselves. Not all of my Southern friends and family were like this. Some were as disgusted by it as I should have been then and now am. And many of those who were like this were also capable of loving-kindness and noble acts; some even fought for civil rights for all. But their privately-public racism was the edge of an angry cancer. We are now seeing that cancer break out of its previously-contained bonds. What happened in Charlottesville is not only a Southern problem; would it be wrong to wish it were? But we lie to ourselves again if we pretend that we Southerners have not nourished that problem with our own special food for many, many years.


And so I grieve for my state, for the university I didn’t attend but always admired, and for the raw wounds that all of this inflicts on so many who are so much more affected by it than I am. This is a time, above all, to speak truth to power—to tell our children and our fellow citizens that there is no moral equivalence between Nazi ideology or white supremacy and the ideals of Heather Heyer and her brave partners in protest. But is also a time to speak truths to ourselves. We can no longer afford not to.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Some Thoughts about Anger and Oppression

"Male and female stand opposed within a primordial Mitsein, and woman has not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible." (Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction to The Second Sex)

Lately, a few unrelated causes have made me think about gender issues in the academy and the workplace in general. Beauvoir makes the above claim to explain why women have, for millennia, not rebelled against oppression. As I understand her, she is not advocating that we attempt to break the community between men and women, or even lamenting that such a cleavage is impossible. She is simply observing that some of the means available to other oppressed groups have not been available to women.


I agree, but I am worried today about a less dramatic cleavage--the cleavage that might occur when women (or members of any underrepresented group) become frustrated, angry, and finally exasperated at the barriers they still face working on equal footing with men. Let me be very clear from the beginning: I believe anger can be a healthy, appropriate response to injustice, and I have zero interest in denying the validity of such anger.


That said, I also worry about anger, for three reasons. First, expressing it can hurt our cause. It is, unfortunately, still true that women who express anger in the workplace are more likely than men who do so to be perceived as emotionally overreactive and irrational. (And yes, that is infuriating. You see the difficulty here.) Second, anger takes a toll on the person bearing it. People have different tolerances for negativity, and I can't speak for others. But my own tolerance is pretty low. I don't like how I feel or act when I'm angry. After the fact, the expression rarely seems to have been worth it. Finally, anger distorts. It narrows our vision and primes us for confirmation bias, which means that when we are angry, we risk being unjust ourselves. Raw skin inflames at even a gentle touch.


So what can we do? I suggest the following strategies, but I'd love to hear others' ideas for more.

   We can try to remember that we are guilty too. Oppression is about power, and anyone in a position of power over anyone else is in danger of abusing it. Nietzsche was probably right, moreover, that people who feel weaker than others can be particularly aggressive when the tables are turned. I want to become more aware of any tendencies I have to lord power over my students, for example. Moreover, men are not uniquely guilty of bias against women. How many women undermine all of us by tearing down other women? And even if we avoid such explicit expression, we may still have sexist (or racist) attitudes of which we are unaware. (Harvard's implicit bias tests can be a helpful exercise in self-knowledge: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.) Any part of our anger mixed with self-righteousness should probably not survive self-exploration.

   We can direct our energy to helping others who experience discrimination. We can mentor our juniors, search with hope for young people who need encouragement, and support their efforts with enthusiasm. Here we may be able to counteract the negativity I spoke of above with one of the best kinds of pleasure.

   We can speak publicly, calmly, and generally about the real problems still facing underrepresented groups. If we feel destructive anger taking over and becoming bitterness, it might be that we have been holding in too much. Of course, oppression makes one afraid of speaking truth to power. But we can overcome some of this fear by remembering, again, that many men (and women) are simply unaware of these issues as they play out in day-to-day life and would by no means want to contribute to the problem if they were aware. Since no one likes to feel attacked or accused, general and public statements may be more effective than private conversations. If someone brings a problem to my attention in a public forum, I feel much freer to consider whether or not I am among the sources of that problem than if that same person accuses me individually.

Again, these strategies may be too little in some cases, and I cannot speak for what might work for minority groups or people in different environments. Nothing I say here seems to have any relevance for people whose safely or lives are in danger because of their race, gender, or religion. 


In other situations, however, women are surrounded by both men and women who sincerely want to nurture Mitsein--that "being-with" that means that we cannot deny that our own flourishing is inseparable from that of others with whom we live and work. They may still be completely clueless about how to promote that flourishing, and again, that can be infuriating. Sometimes anger is all we have, and it can be powerful. Given its potential dangers, however, I want to be very cautious about drawing the conclusion that any particular moment is one of those times.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can we be sad anymore?

"Sorrow is the ultimate type both in Life and Art. Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask."  (Oscar Wilde, De Profundis)

I am wondering--in this cold, comforting winter evening--if we know how to be sad anymore. A strange question, that. Are we not a nation, a people, a world--in the grip of an epidemic of depressive disorders? Have we not stared into the face of existential angst and grinned, spat, screamed, and run away? Do we not have a severely over-taxed social services system trying and failing to deal with the sadness of millions and their consequent "coping" behaviors?

But I am not talking about clinical depression or philosophical anxiety. I am talking about being sad--sadness that is not floating free but is a direct and reasonable response to loss, disappointment, or wounding. This is a passion, among the many passions we flash all over social media, that seems shameful. We hide it; we sublimate it; and we joke about it. Thus, those "coping" behaviors are actually evidence that I am onto something.

I have no studies to cite nor even explanations to offer. I only notice that the Hebrew Bible saw fit to include a book of Lamentations, perhaps so that people had some words in which to address their sorrow to the Divine, amongst their fellow sorrowers. And we have Facebook. I see far more people joking about needing another drink, or a weapon, than I see people honestly saying, "I am sad." Speaking out of the ugly roots of my own experience, I fear that this is how we deal with sadness now. Perhaps we seek medication or therapy, or perhaps we medicate ourselves. Or perhaps we stuff it all down into the narrow little pressure cooker that is anger. The first solution can be appropriate, in certain contexts and for certain disorders. Sorrow, however, as a response to a reasonable cause, is no disorder. Yet even of this sorrow, I fear, we run away in fear.

Spinoza defined sadness as the passion by which the mind passes to a lesser perfection. When we are sad, he believed, we feel our power of acting decreased. This is undoubtedly true: to be sad is to feel weak and vulnerable, as if the hard shell of armor one has spent a lifetime building has been ripped away by violence. Here, perhaps, is an explanation of our fear. But if the armor can be ripped off--and this must be possible if one is to be human--then it was really illusory to begin with. Sadness therefore shows us something profound and true about ourselves, and about those other people we have been protecting ourselves against. Invulnerability in human life is a lie, and its sentimental accoutrements are more often than not cruel. In embracing sorrow, we embrace an emotion that the youngest children and oldest survivors share. Mass hiding of a feeling does not make it disappear. So, passing through sorrow--feeling its wounding, crippling attack--might actually increase our power of acting in the long run, insofar as it brings us closer to that most helpful of creatures--other human beings.

I take it this was part of Wilde's point. "Clergymen," he says, "and people who use phrases without wisdom, sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation. One discerns things that one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. What one had felt dimly through instinct, about Art, is intellectually and emotionally realized with perfect clearness of vision and absolute intensity of apprehension."

Such apprehension is precious. Perhaps we ought to resist the urge to flee from it. It is not really so frightening. Sorrow has a natural lifespan. As Montaigne says, "evils have their life and limits, their sickness and their health." Should sorrow attempt to usurp the time of our whole lives, that is when to seek help of a different kind. But it is not in itself an illness, and it will not alone destroy us. It may be time to step out of costume, and let ourselves feel an emotion that wears no mask.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Exquisite Contradiction

“He burns with spiritual intensity—and he desperately wants to be something in the eyes of the world. An exquisite contradiction, because what lurks near the center of his spiritual life, but without actually living there, is the thought that he should desire and expect to be nobody and nothing to the world.”

In my experience, this quotation fits nearly everyone* who teaches at a church-related university, or preaches to a public, or posts about faith on Facebook, or blogs about it.  I make no exception for myself.

Fellow teachers, preachers, posters, and bloggers, I would love to know what you think.  If you're moved to post in the comments here, or on your own preferred forum, you will have my admiration—and I do not mean that ironically.



*There is a class whom the quotation does not describe.  This is the cynical "pragmatist" who burns with no spiritual intensity at all.  But he has learned that if he simulates such a person, playing a role, he can acquire power for himself by exploiting those who do feel the contradiction.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Speaking in Code

I recount to you a fable, told me lately by a friend.

The meeting had been called to discuss a Technique. Strictly speaking, techniques serve external ends, and this was no exception. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in 1981 that participants in the dominant culture avoid evaluating ends, knowing only how to reason about means. Over Three decades later, we have overcome such thinking, having now figured out how to avoid evaluating means as well. It is so simple. We just designate them "best practices." Like any good candidate for a term with mesmeric force, this one has long outlived its roots, which no doubt fed in a soil of rigor, scientific study, and dedication to efficiency.

So, the people came together to discuss the Technique, which they were sure was a Best Practice, well designed to achieve its Ends. But it turns out that the attendees also had ends of their own.

After long discussion, a young woman offered a contribution. She was frustrated with the Technique, she said. She had never been wholly satisfied with her attempts to implement it, and she felt that perhaps it did not serve its Ends very well. 

An older man volunteered a reply, in a congenial tone. "Do not worry, Young Woman. After years of implementing the Technique, I too have had frustrations. You must have confidence that, in time, and with practice, your use of the Technique will improve."

The young woman failed to switch codes. As a result, two people did not achieve their ends.

Hers included: (1) arguing that the Technique should itself be questioned, or perhaps even abandoned, and (2) accomplishing (1) without offending her colleagues.  She succeeded with the second part of (2) but only at the expense of failing completely with (1). Although she had said that the Technique might not serve its ends, her senior colleague had fixated on her expressions of frustration and humility, and he had assumed that she was in distress, asking for help.

His ends included (1) helping a junior colleague in an empathetic way, and, presumably, (2) not sounding condescending. His is the tragic case: he failed in both.

It was at some point in graduate school that I realized that I spoke in a code that my male peers did not understand. Any expression of self-doubt, or hesitation, or polite demurring--they took to be expressions of incompetence or ignorance. Few of these men were jerks. They just had never learned the code that women use so naturally (though it be our second nature) with one another. And to be fair, we didn't know their code either. We assumed that their expressions of self-confidence were signs of insufferable arrogance, when they were more likely just moves in an intricate game.

At the peak of my frustration over the obstacles meeting women in a male-dominated field, I was advised repeatedly not to write about such things--at least not yet. And I sympathized with the advice. Not only did I see the ways in which such writing might keep me from being "taken seriously," I agreed with Simone de Beauvoir that the topic of women can be irritating, especially to women.

But watching interactions that resemble my friend's familiar fable have convinced me: charity requires speaking out about such things. Otherwise these poor people will never understand, will remain forever blind, will never achieve even the noblest of ends.

If women are to play the game with those who cannot hear us, we must, at least in limited contexts, learn to codeswitch, even if I much prefer the gentler tenor of our own code. But many men can and truly want to hear us. To effect this end, the codes cannot remain secret, and women cannot remain silent about themselves. Understanding silence, after all, itself requires immersion in the most advanced of codes. It is often too much to ask.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Quantified Self: Some Thoughts from the 17th Century


We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.

First, let me be clear: tracking information about the self certainly has its benefits and its place. Self-monitoring makes us aware of habits we would love to ignore, which is invaluable if we have a habit we need to overcome. And it can reward us for overcoming: there is something bizarrely satisfying about writing down a success, however small. Some of us are not above writing things on a to-do list that we've already done, just for the pleasure of checking it off.

But notice the funny mixture of reason and absurdity here: we may reasonably track our exercise habits, for instance, to serve an important and attainable health goal. But we are not above playing silly tricks on ourselves to encourage this reasonable enterprise.

When I started running, I put gold stars on a calendar every time I made it out the door for a run.

I was an adult.

Thus we come to Pascal, expert on dualities of reason and absurdity. Lest we think that we have finally invented something new under the Sun, it is worth noting that a contrary Frenchman diagnosed all of the central problems with self-quantification in the 17th century. To wit:

Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).

Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.

Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).

Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .

Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).

Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.

One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Little Story About Humility

Not long ago, while visiting a friend in Denver, I came across this charming anecdote in Goethe's Italian Journey. It's stuck with me, so I thought I would post it. "Neri" is St. Filippo Neri (1515-1595), founder of the Oratorians.

[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”

Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787

(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)