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: 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.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Disillusionment

Can a state of disillusionment ever be coherent?

As a feeling, it is difficult to experience as anything but painful. It seems defined with the bad: it is a poignant sorrow, arrived at only when one realizes that a previous pleasure--or a previously pleasant part of one's life--has passed, and can only be partially recaptured at the expense of intellectual or moral honesty.

Yet such honesty itself requires us to appreciate being set free from an illusion. We cannot but feel, after such an experience, that having seen that illusion from both in front of and behind the curtain, we are now competent judges, in John Stuart Mill's sense. Knowing both sides, we have moved beyond an immature stage. This is progress, and it is to be celebrated.

Aside from such vague dissonance, however, disillusionment occasions a new problem, when we encounter those who have not yet seen behind the curtain: do we attempt to rip it aside, or not?

If we are at our best in such moments, we want to help, to offer the benefit of our experience to others. Yet this is a path--well, not really a path at all. It is a wall topped with razor wire, and it's not clear what's on the other side.

To tell a story of one's disillusionment is, very likely, to tell a story of one's failures. (For I have sworn thee fair, after all, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.) Such a story is a gracious offering. At the beginning of his essay on discussion, Montaigne notes that he learns better "by counter-example than example," and offers his own reflections on his imperfections in hopes that he "may teach someone how to fear them." But he also, too truly, notes that "when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are."

More importantly, life in front of the curtain feels comfortable for those who are living there. Efforts to tear it away can fail, and they can fail badly. One attempting the operation may well do more harm than good.

I struggle with this every once in awhile, particularly since my job and other aspects of my life bring me often into contact with young adults--many of whom have and are about to act on the same illusions I once had and once acted upon. And I don't have any great ideas about how to handle such situations, but here is a proposal for three rules of thumb. I truly welcome additional suggestions:

1.) Do your best to know your own motives. In these situations, I know mine are often mixed. The thing about which I am disillusioned, after all, is something or someone who has hurt me. That means that I might be making a little speech to myself about looking out for this young person's good, when in fact I want the pathetic revenge that comes from trash-talking a perceived enemy. If that's the dominant feeling, everything else I'm trying to do is suspect. Good advice, it seems to me, is more likely to come from a soul at peace with itself.

2.) In addition to suspecting your motives, suspect your experience at both the widest and narrowest margins. Your disillusionment about something as broad as, say, marriage, is unlikely to provide good guidance to anyone in a particular situation that does not resemble yours in numerous respects. (In other words, it's probably silly to be disillusioned about something this broad.) Likewise, your disillusionment about a single person may really be about your problems, or your problems in that relationship, rather than the other person's. (Remember this is a rule of thumb; I do not mean this to apply to anyone's disillusionment with any genuine abuser or other social monster.) Disillusionment about cliques of people, or institutions of various sizes, on the other hand, may well be instructive.

3.) If you really know that the "illusioned" person cannot hear you, or if this is really the kind of lesson one must learn for oneself, it is probably best to curtail the attempt. I think we probably know this more often than we like to admit, because we like to believe that we have more power over people than we do. But if you just met someone, and she has stars in her eyes over some institution that is woven into the fabric of her life, chances are that you cannot help. And if you know that the person you're advising has little respect for your opinion, chances are that you cannot help. And if you've offered the same caution before, and it has fallen on deaf ears, chances are . . . .

But it is difficult. Because at least sometimes, one really wants to help.