Friday, August 26, 2016

On embracing your own facts

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 
–Daniel Patrick Moynihan   
     Rational discourse—i.e., useful discussion—depends on several things. Among other things, it depends on people assigning the same meanings to the words they use. Society could not debate, say, the morality of abortion if people were allowed to use such words as “abortion,” “fetus,” “trimester,” and “life” in their own eccentric ways. All discussion would come to a standstill—or would simply become noise.
     To a certain extent, of course, some do use these words in eccentric, and even deceitful, ways. And useful discussion becomes that much harder.

* * *
     I'm reminded of a curious chapter in the anti-tax movement. Ronald Reagan, of course, is an anti-tax hero among Republicans. In fact, however, he did raise taxes.
     But he was inclined to deny this fact.
     Here's how Joseph J. Thorndike tells the story:
     The modern history of GOP linguistic gymnastics [re taxation] begins with Ronald Reagan, who famously began his presidency with a dramatic tax cut. The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 gave conservatives … a huge [anti-tax] victory.
     Before the ink was even dry on the bill, however, Reagan was floating plans for a tax increase. Except he wasn't calling it that. "The administration, carefully attempting to avoid any implication that it would raise taxes, described the proposals as an effort to 'curtail certain tax abuses and enhance tax revenues,'" explained The Washington Post.
     Reagan's attempt to rebrand his tax increases as "revenue enhancements" did not go unnoticed. "They've all sold out, every one of them," complained Jude Wanniski of Reagan's economic advisers….
. . .
     Many loyal Reaganites … embraced the new distinction. Taxes "are not revenue enhancers," declared Rep. Jack Kemp in a typical comment.
     Still, [the new term] … didn't fool most observers. "The Reagan Administration calls it 'revenue enhancement,' but the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. of upstate New York, calls it 'raising taxes' and says he is against it," reported the Times. (See Tax Analysts, 6/30/11)
     So, Reagan didn't raise taxes after all. He merely pursued revenue enhancements.
     No, he raised taxes.
. . . 
     Another necessary condition of rational discourse is the availability of facts upon which participants can agree. To think about and discuss an issue competently and usefully, one needs to have the truth, the facts. Given the facts, one can construct a position in terms of those facts. And, in the course of debate and discussion, the best view has a chance to emerge.
     How does one go about acquiring facts? In recent years, I've encountered people who immediately express a stark skepticism: "everyone knows that there are no facts; there's just different opinions, different ways of spinning reality."
     That, of course, is an absurd and unwarranted skepticism.
     The truth is that, in the case of most issues, one can discern the facts, or at least some of the facts, with information that is available. The budding critical thinker learns, for example, about the relatively objective nature of academia, the basis of academic reputations (evidence, stronger arguments), and reasons to be drawn to opinions there that achieve consensus standing. One learns about standards of reliability within healthy expert communities—refereed publishing, replication, attainment of consensus, etc. One learns about differences in professionalism between various sources, including news sources. One learns to read far and wide, comparing reports. One learns not to "cherry pick" evidence or expertise. With such skills at hand, participants in discussions can indeed discern "the facts" that serve as the necessary background.
     For the most part, public discourse in this country has proceeded against the backdrop of the availability of objective, uncontroversial facts. Admittedly, sometimes, it takes effort to find them. There's a certain amount of distracting noise, at least for a while. Still: Did Ronald Reagan raise taxes? Yes, he did. Was Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state? Well, yes, as it turns out, she wasDid Hillary Clinton keep classified information on the private server that she set up in her house? Facts is facts: yes, she did.
     What would happen if participants in discussions of issues had no way to discern these facts? Well, in that case, perhaps debate would never cease. The lack of a standard of truth or fact would mean that no view would ever come out on top and everyone would endlessly bray forth their position. It would be Babel.
     I recall the debate, more than thirty years ago, over whether one could be infected with HIV through casual contact. That debate quickly dissolved, of course, since, after a couple of years, the truth—the facts—eventually came into view, even for the staunchest of conservatives. At the time of our invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration's statements to the contrary, it was unclear whether Saddam Hussein was carrying on development of WMDs. But, when we invaded the country and commenced looking desperately for the evidence of WMD production that were the stated reason for the invasion, none was ever found, a fact numerous and various news sources duly reported.
     Among rationale observers, the debate ended: no, as a matter of fact, WMDs or programs for the development of WMDs were not found in Iraq. Bush was mistaken (was he deceptive? Well, that's a different issue). End of controversy.

* * *
     Oddly, however, many Americans continued to believe that, upon invading Iraq, WMDs were found. They also believe, falsely, that the nations of the world supported our invasion and that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attack and was in league with al-Qaeda—all demonstrably false or dubious claims.
     Here are the results of work done at the University of Maryland concerning the state of Americans' thinking in 2003:
     From January through September 2003, [Program on International Policy Attitudes] /Knowledge Networks conducted seven different polls that dealt with the conflict with Iraq. Among other things, PIPA/KN probed respondents for key perceptions and beliefs as well for their attitudes on what US policy should be. In the course of doing this, it was discovered that a substantial portion of the public had a number of misperceptions that were demonstrably false, or were at odds with the dominant view in the intelligence community.
     In the January poll it was discovered that a majority believed that Iraq played an important role in 9/11 and that a minority even expressed the belief that they had seen “conclusive evidence” of such involvement. The US intelligence community has said that there is not evidence to support the view that Iraq was directly involved in September 11 and there has clearly never been any observable “conclusive evidence.”
     In February, by providing more fine-grained response options it became clearer that only about one in five Americans believed that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11, but that a majority did believe that Iraq had given substantial support to al-Qaeda—both propositions unsupported by the US intelligence community. Other polls found even higher numbers responding positively to the idea that Iraq was involved in September 11 or had some type of close involvement with al-Qaeda. These perceptions of Iraq’s involvement with al-Qaeda and 9/11 persisted largely unchanged in numerous PIPA/KN polls through September 2003, despite continued disconfirmation by the community.
     More striking, in PIPA/KN polls conducted after the war—in May, July, and August- September—approximately half of the respondents expressed the belief that the US has actually found evidence in Iraq that Saddam was working closely with al-Qaeda. While administration figures have talked about a purported meeting in Prague between an al-Qaeda member and an Iraqi official, this does not constitute evidence that Saddam was working closely with al-Qaeda and, in any case, this purported meeting had been discredited by the US intelligence community during the period of these polls.
     One of the most striking developments in the postwar period was that once US forces arrived in Iraq, they failed to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been a major rationale for going to war with Iraq. Nonetheless, in PIPA/KN polls conducted May through September, a substantial minority of the public said they believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found. A substantial minority even believed that Iraq had used weapons of mass destruction in the war. Polls from other organizations repeated these questions and got similar results.
     In polls conducted throughout the world before and during the war, a very clear majority of world public opinion opposed the US going to war with Iraq without UN approval (see page 8 for details). However, PIPA/KN found in polls conducted during and after the war that only a minority of Americans were aware of this. A significant minority even believed that a majority of people in the world favored the US going to war with Iraq. Other perceptions of European public opinion and Islamic public opinion also contradicted numerous polls.
. . .
     The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from [the liberal] NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.
. . .
     An analysis of those who were asked all of the key three perception questions does reveal a remarkable level of variation in the presence of misperceptions according to news source. Standing out in the analysis are Fox and NPR/PBS--but for opposite reasons. Fox was the news source whose viewers had the most misperceptions. NPR/PBS are notable because their viewers and listeners consistently held fewer misperceptions than respondents who obtained their information from other news sources. (From Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, 10/2/03, Program on International Policy Attitudes [PIPA] [A joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland])
From the PIPA report
     It is not possible, of course, to carry on rational discourse about an issue—e.g., justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—if we cannot determine the actual facts about it. Despite the right's history of distaste for non-absolutist doctrines such as relativism and skepticism, many ordinary citizens on the right (i.e., conservatives) seem to have become firm skeptics* of news media or at least most news media which they take to be liberally biased (such as, say, PBS or NPR). Unfortunately, the dominant conservative news source of our time—Fox News—is notoriously unprofessional and unreliable compared to its many "liberal" alternatives. And so many conservative Americans, these curious new anti-absolutists, believe rubbish.
     For years, many of us have feared that the levels and commonness of media skepticism among the political right has reached a point that political discussion and debate with members of that group will soon cease to be possible. How do you argue with people who have, not only their own views and arguments, but their own—demonstrably erroneous—"facts"?
     You can't. You can only shake your head.

* * *
     Judging by the current presidential election race, this crisis is now upon us. Candidate Trump routinely utters demonstrable falsehoods that his followers, of which there seem to be many, unquestioningly accept. And given their views about liberal media bias, how might these Trumpsters ever appreciate their error? That can't.
     That a skeptical crisis—an immunity from facts among a certain range of "conservatives"—is upon us is being recognized even by some members of the right:
     Back in the early 2000s, right-wing talk radio was a juggernaut that influenced American politics so thoroughly that all mainstream GOP leaders genuflected to their power. Rush Limbaugh was, of course, the king, a man so powerful that he was given substantial credit for the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 with the freshman Republican class going so far as to award him an honorary membership in their caucus.

…After 9/11 the [right-wing talk radio] format exploded with new voices both nationally and locally. Combined with the ascendance of Fox News, Drudge and total Republican control of the government, right wing media completely dominated the political landscape.
     This phenomenon had a number of bedrock assumptions but the first, and most important, was the notion that the mainstream media suffered from a liberal bias so extreme that it was completely untrustworthy.… [I.e., one could not discover the facts by watching the news, unless it was right-wing news, i.e., Fox]
. . .
     There was even a famous quote from a Bush official to reporter Ron Suskind which perfectly characterized the prevailing right wing ethos of the period. He said that reporters like Suskind lived in the “reality based community” which was made up of people who believe “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” He and his cohorts on the right, however, were not constrained by such restrictions: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
. . .
     The right’s great noise machine just kept chugging along, however. And the rise of social media turned it into an even louder megaphone that simultaneously blocked out any competing information. It was this environment that has made it possible for Donald Trump to emerge. We know he is a twitter and Instagram addict and uses all social media more casually and more intimately than any presidential candidate in history....
     And today, for the first time, some conservatives in the #NeverTrump camp are seeing where their decades-long attacks on the mainstream media and the “reality based community” have led. Right-wing radio talk show host Charlie Sykes from Wisconsin gave an interview lamenting the situation with reporter Oliver Darcy who put up an excerpt on twitter. Sykes also appeared on MSNBC’s “All In” last night where he said this:
     Over the years conservative talk show hosts, and I’m certainly one of them, we’ve done a remarkable job of challenging and attacking the mainstream media. But perhaps what we did was also [to] destroy any sense of a standard. Where do you go to have any sense of the truth? You have Donald Trump come along and the man says things that are demonstrably untrue on a daily basis. My experience has been look, we live in an era when every drunk at the end of the bar has a Twitter account and maybe has a blog and when you try to point out “this is not true, this is a lie” and then you cite the Washington Post or the New York Times, their response is “oh that’s the mainstream media.” So we’ve done such a good job of discrediting them that there’s almost no place to go to be able to fact check.
     Welcome to the reality-based community. (The Danger of the Right's Noise Machine: Years of Misinformation Led to Trump's Rise, Salon, 8/16/16)

Why many Americans hold false beliefs about WMDs in Iraq and Obama's birth place (Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2015)
Although it has been proven false, more than four in ten Americans – and more than half of Republicans – still believe that the US found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After six years in office and the release of his long-form birth certificate confirming his Hawaii birth, one third of Republicans continue to believe President Barack Obama was born outside the US. . . . “People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion,” said Mr. Cassino [a professor of political science]. “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”….

*Well, they are skeptical about news media unless the news media tell them what they want to hear. Fox News, of course, is "fair and balanced."

According to, a relatively even-handed fact checker. (See here, here, and here.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sorting out what it is to be respectful and disrespectful (“The obvious”)

     I try to be careful about how I talk about people—I mean when they’re not present.
     I have a friend who seems truly to live by the rule of saying nothing about someone they aren’t willing to say to his face.
     I often think about that rule. Is it wise? If so, why?
     We live in a culture that is big on respecting others. The concept of “rights” has much to do with that, I suppose. We know to respect others—for instance by not interfering with their affairs, not taking what is theirs, and so on. Often, it is obvious what is demanded by respect for others.
     But not always. I think that, in the past, we made a greater effort to provide a kind of catechism of respect and politeness and morality. Children were taught how to behave, what to do and not do. The content of such teachings must have seemed arbitrary to children (often even to objective observers!), but much of it does make sense relative to the overriding idea that one is to respect others as having a kind of significant moral standing, requiring constraint on our behavior relative to them.

     (We can view the somewhat [or very] rigid package of dos and don’ts sometimes recognized in a culture as the product of an effort to arrive at a way of life that constitutes “respect for others,” among other things. [Here, the elements of right action are made meaningful by the goals or values that are expressed by them.] We might feel an obligation to honor every element of such a package, even knowing that the package, and many of its elements, is likely flawed, imperfect. [“We’ve got to stick to the plan,” says the general, in the face of mounting losses.])

     In the wild and wooly U.S., the land of never-ending unconscious social experimentation, much that is traditional is lost, including much of the kind of instruction referred to above.
     I often think about this.
     Parents, of course, are conscious of a responsibility to instill in their children a proper regard of others. They might even consciously suppose that many of the “dos and dont’s” taught to their children are aspects or manifestations of “respect for others.” That is, these details are in the service of that larger goal.
     We can imagine a society in which an ongoing “sorting out” of what it means to treat others with respect goes on. This would be sensible especially in a society that is accustomed to endlessly changing roles, practices, etc.
     In a society much more bound by tradition (especially in the interactions between persons) than our own, it might seem obvious that the traditional teachings are prima facie adequate to anything that might come along. There might not be a consciousness of the need to sort anything out. A respecter of persons might simply insist on doing things as we’ve always been taught to do them.
     That’s not our society.
     It seems obvious to me—though it is clearly not obvious to everyone—that respect of others demands that one tread carefully in discussing others’ lives, especially the lives of those one knows. Most of us, I think, recognize that “gossip” is vicious, though we might not conceptualize this in terms of respect. Freely speculating about others’ lives, even when it is not attended by schadenfreude or malice or envy, also strikes me as an obvious “sin” as regards the obligation to respect others. It is perhaps a natural extension of the notion of gossip understood as a vice.
     My dictionary defines gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” Other dictionaries seem to provide the same meaning.
     Gossiping is not just talk, but “idle” talk. After all, one might have a very good reason for discussing a rumor or delving into others’ affairs. (A psychologist, a parent, a spouse.) Such discussing and delving isn’t always objectionable.
     The gossip gossips because doing so is enjoyable, not because it is necessary. We want to say that gossips are enjoying themselves at others’ expense. And that’s wrong.
     “But I’m not saying it to them!” insist the gossip who is called out. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them!” they add.
     I’m not so sure about that. In any case such talk—behind someone’s back—feels like deception. It also seems to be an instance of using a person. One who discovers that they are the object of gossip is offended. When one finds out that others have gossiped about one, one feels disrespected. One is inclined to say of the gossipers that one’s affairs are none of their business.

* * *

     My family poses challenges for me with regard to gossip and related talk, for they talk about other people all the time. I have come to find such talk to be objectionable and disrespectful. I say that I have “come to” find it objectionable because I was raised by these people, and they freely—not quite unashamedly—gossiped about others routinely when I was growing up. I do not recall participating in it much, but I certainly heard quite a lot of it.

     (A few years ago, my cousin J moved to Kentucky after a divorce with her husband of many years. Her only child, a son, was 19 years old and seemingly on track to become a policeman. Given these facts, my folks immediately drew the conclusion that J had “abandoned her family.” It was not obvious to me that she had done any such thing. None of us really knew the details of J’s situation. It seemed to me that my folks had no basis for such a judgment. I said so, and that ruffled some feathers.
     (After a while, it became clear that J was living on a ranch there in Kentucky. There was some other woman around for a while. This fact immediately inspired my folks to speculate that J was “now a lesbian.” They would discuss J with knowing and disapproving looks.
     (“Good grief!” I said. “First of all, you have no basis for that conclusion, and second, why are you speculating about what goes on in her life? It’s none of your business.”
     (Let’s just say that my folks responded to my remark as though I had told them that they were fishwives. Naturally, they were offended.)

     My mom more or less gossips routinely. She also enjoys discussing the lives of famous people, people in the news, et al. (Is that gossip?) When she and I are alone, I usually respond to such blather with obvious indifference or with the remark, “I don’t want to talk about these people’s lives. Could we please talk about something else?”
     My father seems generally disinclined to participate in these discussions, but he does not object to them either.
     He has no compunction about criticizing people, including famous people, that he does not like. He is from Europe, and I suspect that there is an older and more settled practice of pontificating about politics and current events—typically at the dinner table—than exists in the U.S. In any case, one obviously attractive activity for many people is to spout off without reservation about the failings of famous and important people—while it is plain that the spouters make no effort to get their facts straight or even to know at all what they’re talking about.
     Perhaps owing to the influence of his children (?), my father has grown less crass in this regard, more likely to soften his judgments of politicians, et al., and to consider alternative views.
     My mother is not a political pontificator. On the other hand, she still gossips and discusses the lives of others (to be fair, she has never been what one might call a terrible gossip).

* * *

     My folks, and especially my father, have always seemed utterly uninhibited about noting others’ physical beauty or lack thereof. “God, she’s ugly,” my dad would say about the famous comedic actress on the screen. Anybody whose face might flash upon the TV would get an automatic attractiveness (especially an unattractiveness) assessment.  “Imagine waking up to that face!” my dad would announce. My mom would just smile. This is what people do, in their world.
     For whatever reason, they are less liable to do this now—possibly because of my years of pushback—but they clearly still feel no compunction about assessing people’s attractiveness in the world.
     Admittedly, this failing (if that is what it is) is very common. I have good friends—seriously decent people—who routinely note others’ physical beauty or ugliness. I always cringe. I rarely say anything. I’m always thinking, “Poor dear. He (or she) can’t help having the face that he has!”
     Why doesn’t that factoid inhibit people more? I hesitate to launch into a moral correction of my friends though.
     Somehow, with my folks, it’s different.

     Mostly, people are what they are. That is, their features are not really matters of choice. Isn’t that obvious? (Apparently not.) I am horrified to think that people are shunned or treated badly or “talked about behind their backs” owing to some feature provided by indifferent nature, something they had absolutely no say in. And, really, most of us pretty much are what we are. The notion that our moral and physical natures are “choices” strikes me as an ugly and stupid and deeply unfortunate fiction, a source of endless oppression.
     We are here to fight such things not to participate in them!

* * *

     Today, at lunch, my mom referred to a holiday postcard from an old couple my family knows but hasn’t seen for many years. The postcard had a photo on its cover. At one point, my mom, referring to the photo, mentioned that Mrs. X “seems sick, doesn’t she?” (It was a gossipy remark, not an expression of concern. –I could be wrong, I guess.)
     Well, first of all, Mrs. X is 88 years old, and my mother doesn’t often see pictures of her. So, likely, mom was struck by how old looking Mrs. X is compared to the last photo of her she saw.
     Second, everyone at the table was well aware that Mrs. X has been suffering various ailments that might make her look old and tired, etc.
     So just what was the point of mom’s remark?

     “Oh, come on!” I said. “Why do you have to say that?”
     “What? It’s true!” said mom.
     “She can’t help the way she looks, so why mention it?” I said.
     Mom sputtered forth some explanation.
     I walked over to the adjoining room, visiting with my cat, Teddy, who I had brought with me. My dad got up and said something pleasant about Teddy’s attitude. I said: “At least he doesn’t talk trash.”
     –This was meant to be lighter than it came out. I was pretty sure my mom heard me.
     Worried that mom misunderstood my remark (she’s an immigrant with a sometimes tenuous understanding of English) and that she might be offended and even hurt, I explained that “talking trash” refers to talking about other people.
     “I know what it means!” she said, obviously annoyed.
     Well, I know my mom. She is very inclined to take offense based on misunderstandings. Happens all the time. So I clarified my remark further. I said, “Saying that you’re talking trash doesn’t mean that you’re trash; it means that you are talking about other people, criticizing them. OK?”
     “That’s not what it means to me!” she roared. I knew then that I had lit the fires of inevitability. As I feared, she “understood” my remark to be implying that, in some sense, she is trash. But no, that’s not what I meant.
     It matters not.
     I said: “Listen, what matters is what I meant, and I meant what people normally mean by saying that somebody is talkin’ trash; I meant that they were putting down others. It in no way implies that the talker is trash. OK?”
     “I have my own meaning of the word!” roared my mother. “And that’s not what it means to me!”
     Good grief. I said: “You can’t have a private meaning for a word or phrase. I word means what people normally mean by it, not what some oddball hearer misunderstands it to mean.”
     “You’re just using your meaning, and I’m just using mine!” said mom.
     --Yes, yes, I know. I am an idiot. I should learn to walk away in silence, cut my losses. Obviously.
     I said: “No, I’m not using my meaning, I’m using the meaning of the phrase ‘talkin’ trash.’ It’s the meaning you’ll find in a dictionary.”
     It was plain that, to my mom, I was just pulling things out of my ass. Now, from my perspective, I was doing anything but that; from my perspective, it was as though I were saying, “the sky is blue.”
     By now, mom was disgusted. It was then that the wisdom of silence finally took control of me. I grabbed Teddy and headed home.
     But there’ll be hell to pay. “He has no respect of his own mother!” she’ll say. And there is nothing to do about that except to wait for time and events to wash away the whole business from mom’s or anyone else’s attention.

* * *

     Owing to my training and my profession, I think a lot about such things as respecting others and what that entails. I think about rules such as “never say anything about someone you’re not willing to say to their face.”
     So some things seem obvious to me.
     Often, they’re not so obvious to others.
     And so, once again, I’ve got my aged mother upset; I got her thinking that I have no respect for her. She feels that way because I tagged her yet again for her actions that, in my view, are disrespectful of others.
     I dunno.
     At one point today, I told mom, “I don’t think you understand how hard it is for me to hear this stuff you say all the time.”
     But, obviously, she can’t possible understand a remark like that. It is hard to listen to my folks say some of the things they say and to watch them do some of the things they do. But objections accomplish nothing.
     I understand that they are what they are—that they lived in a world very unlike my own that produced certain ways of being and acting and thinking and feeling.
     But some of this stuff—it just won’t do, will it?

* * *

     We should have an ongoing sorting out of the implications of our values. That would be a good thing.
     But we need to do it together.

     That’s not always possible.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Justice’s invisibility (the psyche's invisibility) [unfinished]

     Plato’s great dialogue, Republic*, is said to be about the virtue of justice—being just. The participants in the conversation—Socrates, along with Polemarchus, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the others—seek a definition. In Book I of Republic, the sophist Thracymachus angrily interrupts the conversation, providing his famous definition according to which just conduct is nothing more than “the interest of the stronger.” The view has been variously interrupted. I rather like the interpretation according to which, for Thracymachus, morality is the successful hoodwinking of the poor and weak by the strong and advantaged. (Very much like contemporary American society.)
     Socrates engages in dialogue with Thracymachus and, in the end, embarrasses the latter, who is made to acknowledge the failure of his definition, if that’s what it is. But some of the participants, especially Glaucon, are dissatisfied, and so they launch into an elaborate challenge to Socrates to reveal that “being just” is desirable to the just person, not only for its consequences—avoiding trouble, a good reputation, etc.—but especially in itself. That is, just as the joy one feels in hearing one’s favorite music or eating one’s favorite meal is desirable “in itself,” being just is thus desirable and to an extreme extent such that the tortured just man is better off than the unjust man with power and luxury and, somehow, a great and enjoyable reputation for being just.
     I want to draw attention to some assumptions in this discussion regarding the nature of justice and the psyche (soul). One might suppose that “being just” is a pattern of behavior, and, indeed, for much of the Republic’s discussion, it is. For instance, it is a pattern of behavior in the account of justice ascribed by Glaucon to the many, according to which justice is peaceful and respectful conduct agreed upon with all others, not because it is in any way attractive, but because, though unattractive, participation in the agreement is the only means of avoiding continual insecurity and harm.
     At the beginning of Book II, Socrates and the others do not seem to view justice as a pattern of behavior. What is “being just” if it is not a pattern of honest and respectful conduct? Well, it is that quality of self such that that conduct is natural to it. It is that feature of the psyche—an arrangement or configuration (or ?) reliably producing just conduct.
     Might this be an inclination or tendency and nothing more? –I have in mind here any state of affairs or condition of self—its nature is otherwise irrelevant—that yields this pattern. It would contrast with a “something” that alone produces this pattern of behavior, a something whose nature we keenly desire to understand—and this seems to be the thinking of Socrates’ crew.
     But why? What if the something were, say, an aversion to elderberries? If this is the end of the trail, then surely we have somehow lost our way.
     Perhaps one assumes here that the something is nothing like an aversion to elderberries. It is more like a formula or directive or notion that, once apprehended, is received with satisfaction and joy—an intellectual MacGuffin. Socrates’ MacGuffin—the three parts of the soul sticking to their proper work—strikes me as being about as satisfying as an aversion to elderberries. When I behold the spectacle of a person invariably conducting him- or herself with justice, I am impressed; when I behold the supposed spectacle of a soul whose parts work—well, I guess that could be like exploring a shiny, new Porsche, a thing that dazzles in its mechanistic elegance and perfection. But Socrates never opens the hood, as far as I’m concerned. What is “the reason” if it itself does not have desires and passions? How can “the reason” direct the soul unless it itself has desires and passions that yield goals?
     The Book II discussion of justice assumes that “being just” is a condition of the soul (psyche), and it is more than just the soul’s disposition to act justly. (It’s this elderberry/parts business.) The discussion also seems to assume that the soul is opaque to oneself—or at least hard to discern—and that is the assumption to which I now wish to draw attention:
[Glaucon tells Socrates:] Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been; but to my mind the nature of justice and injustice have not yet been made clear. Setting aside their rewards and results, I want to know what they are in themselves, and how they inwardly work in the soul….
. . .
[Adeimantus tells Socrates:] The cause of all this, Socrates, was indicated by us at the beginning of the argument, when my brother [Glaucon] and I told you how astonished we were to find that of all the professing panegyrists of justice … no one has ever blamed injustice or praised justice except with a view to the glories, honours, and benefits which flow from them. No one has ever adequately described either in verse or prose the true essential nature of either of them abiding in the soul, and invisible to any human or divine eye; or shown that of all the things of a man's soul which he has within him, justice is the greatest good, and injustice the greatest evil. … I speak in this vehement manner, as I must frankly confess to you, because I want to hear from you the opposite side; and I would ask you to show not only the superiority which justice has over injustice, but what effect they have on the possessor of them which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil to him. And please, as Glaucon requested of you, to exclude reputations…. Now as you have admitted that justice is one of that highest class of goods which are desired indeed for their results, but in a far greater degree for their own sakes—like sight or hearing or knowledge or health, or any other real and natural and not merely conventional good—I would ask you in your praise of justice to regard one point only: I mean the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them. Let others praise justice and censure injustice, magnifying the rewards and honours of the one and abusing the other…. And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.
     Socrates and the others are proceeding, it seems, on the assumption that, if “being just” is what it’s cracked up to be, it must be desirable, and very much so, in itself to he who “has” it (if that is how we should put it). But no one has ever identified that desirability. Why?
     The answer seems to be that justice, as a quality of soul, “is invisible to any human or divine eye….” –And that, I suppose, is because the soul itself is “invisible,” or largely so. Perhaps it is more obscured than invisible. I shall refer, then, to the assumption of the invisibility of the soul (IOS). Alternatively, we might refer instead to the assumption of the obscurity of the soul (OOS).
     When Socrates takes up the challenge, he seems to emphasize the obscurity/invisibility of the soul:
   I told them, what I really thought, that the enquiry would be of a serious nature, and would require very good eyes. Seeing then, I said, that we are no great wits, I think that we had better adopt a method which I may illustrate thus; suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by some one to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to some one else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger—if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser—this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune. Very true, said Adeimantus; but how does the illustration apply to our enquiry?
   I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our enquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.
   True, he replied.
   And is not a State larger than an individual?
   It is.
   Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible.
     The soul—or at least the soul qua just/unjust—is hard to discern. It is hard to discern somewhat like distant letters are hard to discern visually. And this, I suppose, is why no one has ever sung justice’s praises as a state of the soul; it has simply never been discerned.
     I’ve always been bothered by the “small letters/large letters” analogy. If one sought to read the distant letters and discovered that the same letters could be viewed more closely, why would one bother to attempt to read the distant letters again upon having read the closer ones? (The translations I have examined all seem to have Socrates portray an effort, in the end, to go back to trying to see those distant letters.)
     Perhaps I’m reading too much into the analogy.
     Problems arise, too, in making sense of the indirect State/Soul strategy that Socrates and the others agree to follow, for there is a prima facie problem with it. The group will construct the ideal State and then attempt to identify justice, the greatest virtue, there. Upon doing so, they are “fortunate,” as they now prepare to discern justice in the soul.
     But how are they fortunate?
     Well, one might suppose, they are fortunate because they have already discerned justice, and, having done so, they will more readily recognize it as they view the soul. But that would be to assume the correctness of their definition of State Justice. In fact, however, the participants to the conversation treat that definition of justice derived from their construction of the Republic as a hypothesis to be confirmed by turning, now, to another instance: the just soul. But, of course, confirmation can occur only if their examination of Soul Justice does not depend on their definition of State Justice, for otherwise they are caught in a circle. Isn’t there a contradiction in embracing a strategy of “confirmation” (confirming the definition of State Justice by finding Soul Justice) while embracing a strategy of “guidance,” as one seeks Soul Justice? Confirmation can only occur if finding Soul Justice does not depend on the previous definition of State Justice. But the whole point of constructing the ideal state was to make it easier to discern Soul Justice, and it can make that project easier only insofar as their definition of State Justice is correct—not a mere hypothesis to be confirmed.
     Now, in fact, Socrates and the others proceed into the soul to find justice there with what they regard as a hypothesis of the definition of justice. And then, when they seem to find that the soul, like the state, has three parts, they seem to feel that they have achieved confirmation…. [to be completed]

 Back to obscurity of the soul…. [Where I’m going with this is a point about the Free Will debate based on a point made by Plato and that we would seem to have to agree with….]

 *I’m using Jowett’s translation of The Republic.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Scenes from a mob movie (the absurd fire)

     In my Intro course lectures on Free Will, I sometimes imagine a world in which “action events” randomly occur, just as—or so I’m told—electrons suddenly and inexplicably change their energy states down there in atom land. “Why did that happen?”, we ask, only to be told “there is no why. “That’s just the way it is, universe-wise. Shuddup.”
     The point is that such actions, if they were to occur, wouldn’t be “free” any more than a coerced action (“Gimme your money or your life!”) would be free. These action events are absurd, not free.
     On the other hand, I kind of appreciate absurdity, at least up to a point.
     Lately, here at good ol’ IVC, it’s become the land of absurd fire—i.e., the land of getting fired—mysteriously, opaquely, and so on. Perhaps not for those who are actually getting fired—well, we just don’t know about them—but certainly for everyone else, looking and wondering WTF just happened.
     But, of course, these firings are highly non-random. There’s definitely a “why,” but, in this case, we just don’t know what it is. And it’s not because the universe is being weird again; it’s because certain people are determined to keep the cause obscure. Darryl C, we’re told, is required to maintain silence. No doubt the same is true for Helen L.
     But wait a minute. It just won’t do—will it?—this business of harsh things happening to people and then deliberately turning these events, for all observers, into pseudo-action events or electron firings. Among human beings—moral, decent creatures—such brute factual absurdity is at least disconcerting, morally. In the moral universe, we need to know what happens to people, and why it happens to them, so we can know that what's happening to them isn’t wrong.
     The absurd fire. Why do people do such things? And what are the grounds for complaint about them?
     Part of the answer comes up in a piece that appeared two days ago in the NYT: Fired? Speak No Evil. It’s about an editor who is suddenly fired and is told to sign a document—or else no severance:
     What brings me up short is clause No. 12: No Disparagement. “You agree,” it reads, “that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law.” If I don’t agree to this nondisparagement clause, I will not receive my severance — in this case, the equivalent of two weeks of pay. Two weeks? Must be hard times out in San Francisco, or otherwise why the dirt parachute — and by the way, is that the sort of remark I won’t be allowed to make if I sign clause No. 12?
. . .
     ...[A]s quaint as this may seem, giving up the right to speak and write freely, even if that means speaking or writing negatively, strikes me as the unholiest of deals for a writer and an editor to accept. Though such clauses don’t technically violate the First Amendment — I’d be explicitly agreeing to forfeit my right to speak freely if I signed clause No. 12 — such a contract has a paralyzing effect on the dissemination of the truth, with all of truth’s caustically cleansing powers. To disparage is but one tool in a writer’s kit, but it’s an essential one. That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to — well, I’ve seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange.
     The increased prevalence of nondisparagement agreements is part of a corporate culture of risk management that would have us say nothing if we can’t say anything nice. And yet it occurs to me that if a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.
     Mind you, I’m not looking to disparage Byliner. The company has made a few mistakes in my view (firing me perhaps being a relatively minor one), but what fledgling enterprise does not screw up from time to time during its shakedown phase? It’s not that I necessarily want to disparage, but I want the freedom to do so, to be able to criticize, to attack, to carp, to excoriate, if need be. I want to tell the truth, even if it isn’t pretty.
     That’s why I won’t sign clause No. 12. Byliner can keep the money. I’ll keep my self-respect.
     Darryl and Helen aren’t editors or writers, and so I’m not suggesting that they have no self-respect. Just no job.
     But the action, the coercion for silence, demanded by a mob, is about the same.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is your college on drugs

From Dissent the Blog:

assume - to suppose to be the case, without proof: you're afraid of what people are going to assume about me | [ with clause ] : it is reasonable to assume that such changes have significant social effects | [ with obj. and infinitive ] : they were assumed to be foreign.*
1. Today's visit by students of the California Corporate College caused the predictable parking snafus. One could see students (et al.) anxiously prowling the lots. A colleague explained that she was a half hour late for her class, owing to the fubar. [Note: college administration seems to have declared war on instruction at Irvine Valley College, now regularly creating parking snafus for the sake of questionable events such as this one, thereby causing students--and instructors--to be late for class, etc.]

2. At about 11:40, I wandered over to the IVC PAC and entered. The "California Corporate College" event was in full swing, and the hall was pretty full. Somebody was yammerin'.      I've got nothin'.
3. I assume that the sun will rise in the morning. Does that make me an "ass"? Don't think so. 
     Note: someone who does not make that assumption is mentally ill.
     And suppose that someone really said that "it is reasonable to assume that such changes have significant social effects"? (See def. above.) Only an ass would insist that it is unreasonable to make that assumption.

4. Insisting that one does not "assume" any such thing would make one an ass. If not an ass, at least a liar. 
     "I am aware that it is at least possible that the sun will not rise. And so I don't really assume it." —Here we have someone who is used to changing words' meanings to save a foolish idea. —A liar or self-deceiver.

5. It's pretty clear, I think, that the truth about assuming is as follows: the phenomenon of assuming comprises a range of cases from the reasonable (and, in truth, more than reasonable) to the unreasonable (foolish or even mad). Hence, some assumptions are foolish (i.e., ass-making) and some are not. It depends on the case.
     Why overstate the case, declaring all assumptions to be foolish? Just what is the matter with you?

6. It's like the familiar blatherage that "you can be anything you want to be." Well, no. Obviously not. Sure, there are some who need to be encouraged to try to do or achieve things. Yes, there are some who falsely or foolishly underestimate what is achievable as a goal. Be that as it may, it does not justify such idiotic blatherage as "you can be anything you want to be."

7. In this country, when we plan an event, we tend to turn it into a circus. Fighting cancer, for us, is no sober enterprise; it's pink ribbons and "races" for cures. And when we seek to correct an error, we overcorrect and create a new error:
Your vote counts. (Sure, they count it. But it doesn't "count" in the sense of having a bearing on the outcome.) You can be anything you want to be. (Well, no. Yes, quite possibly, you have underestimated the opportunities available to you. But it takes strength to aim high and miss. The miss could send you spiraling downward. Do these idiots have a slogan for spiraling depressives too?) There are no limits to what you can achieve! (Ditto.) This is your brain on drugs. (C'mon. Kinda depends on the drug, doesn't it? And what about that martini in your hand, asshole?) Celebrate yourself! (I should celebrate myself? What if I'm a lout? A lazy ass? A Tea Partier?)
*My Mac's dictionary