The myth of planet normal

Michelle Weber shared a heart-wrenching account of her friend’s suicide and her own acquaintance with it:

Openness, flexibility, and acceptance seem like the antidote to grief. For Connie to be gone means that there was some pain so overwhelming in its destructive powers — so sudden, or huge, or unforeseeable, or all of the above — that no amount of flexion could withstand it. […]

I could just as easily be dead. Once, I sat on a bed asking my husband, tearfully but politely, if he’d mind sitting with me while I took all the Valium I’d saved up, because I thought I’d feel better if he were holding my hand when I died. If he’d agreed, he’d be observing the eight anniversary of my passing this autumn. […]

I worked hard and leaned on people harder, and now my current life is wonderful enough that I have a hard time talking about it: it’s an embarrassment of riches that simultaneously elates me and makes me feel acutely like the privileged jerk-wad I sort of am. I will gladly deal with processing those feelings of jerk-wad-ity to have this life, to not be dead. […]

It makes me think: maybe I’m not stranded on Planet Almost-Dead with the universe’s other troubled souls. Maybe Planet Normal is just a myth that keeps us all striving for perfect; maybe we’re all already on Planet Almost-Dead, and the best we can hope for is to stay there until we reach a ripe old age. Maybe our jobs are to keep ourselves grounded there, and to help others do the same when we see them unmooring. To cling to one another and to those small things; to clutch our friends and our little orange bottles, and just keep going.

I encourage you to read Weber’s insightful post in full, especially if you struggle with depression or know someone who does1. As someone who has also wrestled with depression, I’ve always found it comforting and important to learn about other’s accounts. They help to broaden my perspective and keep myself grounded.

  1. That’s just about everyone.

David Brooks cares about privacy

In his recent New York Times editorial, David Brooks waxes philosophical on our “lost language of privacy”, observing quite rightly that:

Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform. There has to be a spot where you are only yourself and can define yourself.

Indeed, privacy is not only important for the individual, but also the collective. As Brooks writes:

Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties.

Given such impassioned views, one might suspect Brooks to be among our staunchest privacy advocates, lobbying against government and corporate invasions, and fighting to build a society worth living in.

Indeed Brooks’ concern for privacy seems to know no boundaries. His tender soliloquies pertain even to the nationwide effort to place video cameras on police officers. In particular, his concern is for the privacy of police officers who, betrayed by civilians, withdraw their “intimate friendship” with them, and partake in a relationship that’s more “oppositional and transactional.”

Since his veneration for privacy is so expansive that it extends to state officials operating in the public sphere, one might suppose that he would be altogether overwhelmed by mass invasions of civilian privacy in the private sphere.

Brooks is indeed overwhelmed, but his fury is reserved for NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden. In a Times smear piece, Brooks writes that Snowden betrayed “honesty and integrity”, “his friends”, “his employers”, “the cause of open government”, and “the privacy of us all” in exposing mass surveillance programs. Admonishing Snowden, Brooks observes that “[f]or society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures.”

Thus we learn that privacy is important, but only when it fosters vital support for institutions. When we defend our personal privacy, “federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, [and] they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.” Since we can anticipate the violation of our rights, we must accept it. If we resist, the moral responsibility for such violations will rest with us. For we have “no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good”, and must look to authority in order to become whole.

David Brooks cares about privacy. But it is the privacy of institutions that keeps him awake at night.

In praise of Verdana

For the past few years, I’ve used the Ubuntu typeface almost exclusively in my web work. I even released a WordPress theme that incorporates the font, thereby imposing my refined taste upon as many as two thousand websites.

But lately, I’ve felt the need for a change, and have decided to switch back to that old favorite, Verdana.

Verdana has been around since the beginning of the web. At that time, you could safely bet that the next website you visited would be rendered in Arial, Georgia, Times New Roman, or Verdana. You could tell a lot about a site by the typeface it used. I often found that the most pretentious sites used one of the serifs, while the most interesting sites used Verdana. (Arial seemed to be used by poseurs!)

You might wonder why I should use a font like Verdana, when so many wonderful embeddable fonts are available nowadays. After all, even Google offers a cornucopia of six hundred such fonts — all for free, all open source, all easy to use. Despite this, I’ve decided to lean on this relic for a few reasons:

1. Verdana is utilitarian

Ever since we started using CSS to help separate content from presentation, we started to believe that the two were fundamentally independent. It was suddenly possible to make dramatic changes to a website’s appearance with just a few keystrokes. Because of this, you could be excused for believing that typefaces didn’t really matter much. Sure, you had to find the right typeface, the one that looked good, but otherwise they were basically meaningless. They were meaningless because they were readily changeable.

However, this is to ignore one-half of the equation. Typefaces are used in the display of existing content, sure, but they’re also used in the creation of content. And that’s what interests me the most.

Verdana feels lean and scrappy. When I write in it, I feel like I’m cobbling together a flea market jigsaw puzzle. Something cheap and beautiful and slightly deranged. Something that is certainly not art. Something whose purpose is functional, it transmits meaning and then it goes away.

2. Verdana makes me feel nostalgic

As I mentioned already, Verdana has been around since the beginning of time. And it was at such a time that blogs — really, weblogs — accurately reflected a person’s life, in all the complicated, tedious, and maniacal ways. When a blogger wasn’t speaking about their life, they were documenting their travels around the web. It was absorbing and historic.

These kinds of blogs still remain, but have been somewhat overshadowed by the emergence of “new old media” institutions, like Gawker, and other blogs produced primarily for an audience and only secondarily to express the writer’s personality or ideas. Beyond this, a great number of blogs seem to exist solely to instruct bloggers on how to develop a following for their own blogs. The result is that audience growth and increasing pageviews have become the new metric of success, rather than improving one’s writing and forming meaningful connections with others.

Verdana throws a wrench into such wrongheaded optimization, and steers us back toward candor. In Verdana, you’re naked.

3. Verdana is ubiquitous

Virtually every computer has Verdana installed on it — whether it’s a laptop from 1998, or a smartwatch from 2015. In itself, this isn’t particularly important, as many devices nowadays support embedded fonts, but there’s something pleasant in the ubiquity of a given typeface. It’s commoditized, not something to be revered or imagined scarce. It’s prolific, unremarkable, and readily accessible to anyone. It’s the salt and pepper in your kitchen, not the Cajun seasoning that — while inexpensive — you may not have on hand.

These are just a few of the reasons why I use Verdana, and I hope you’ll also decide to make the switch to this venerable old font.

On wage gaps

A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal published an influential apology for the gender wage gap. In the article, Carrie Lukas argues that the gap is an illusion and disappears when one controls for hours worked, occupational choices, and working conditions. What’s perhaps most striking about the piece is that it appears to demonstrate the exact opposite of what Lukas maintains. Namely, it suggests that the gender wage gap is alive and well.

Even if we concede to Lukas’ assumptions — that men work longer hours than women, tend to take up higher-paying professions, and incur greater risks in the workplace — it remains to be argued why these should yield higher wages. In order to justify the gender wage gap on these assumptions, one must further argue that women’s occupational choices are intrinsically less valuable than men’s choices.

Again it’s not enough to merely state that more women than men work, for example, in the so-called “caring professions.” Rather, in order to justify a wage gap, one must further argue that the caring professions are less valuable than the professions in which men tend to be predominant. Otherwise, one would imagine the lower wages of caring professions as reflecting the very bias in question!

Similarly, if women tend to work fewer hours than men, there’s presumably some reason that this is so. Whether that reason is environmental, social, or biological doesn’t particularly matter. For example, perhaps some women work less at the office to compensate for greater domestic work. In this case, the wage gap can only be justified if we argue that the domestic work ought to be uncompensated.

More generally, if a difference in hours worked is assumed to justify different wages, one must contend it’s appropriate to punish (or disproportionately reward) one group for the environmental, social, or biological factors that produce their different working behaviors. But again, this would reflect the very bias that purportedly doesn’t exist.

Incidentally, these arguments apply much more broadly, and call into question how we compensate people in general. If wages are to be distributed fairly, it’s difficult to see how wage gaps between individuals of any sort are ultimately justifiable. Whether wage gaps exist between genders, races, occupations, educational levels, or even social classes, they must be attributed to some cause — and often one that a person doesn’t particularly have much control over.

Many people would think it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of a person’s genetic endowment, but very few seem to have serious concerns when such discrimination arises from variable environmental or social conditions. When that occurs, wage gaps are often justified as the deserved consequence of one’s industriousness or laziness. Conveniently, actual causes are ignored. So while everyone acknowledges that a rich child is better off than a poor child, and that neither child is particularly responsible for the family in which they were raised, the poor child is nevertheless expected to overcome all obstacles in order to stand a chance. If pressed on this point, one often retorts in exasperation that “life is unfair!” Can anything more outrageous be imagined?

With the gender wage gap, among others, we see inequality of opportunity that’s papered over and ignored. But when we consider the greater moral imperative, equality of outcome, we don’t even come close.

As with civil rights generally, equal pay should be an ethical commitment that we make to one another. Not something that needs to be earned or even particularly proven. The alternative is simply to acquiesce to injustice.

On idleness

Andrea Badgley on loafing about:

I don’t know how to loaf anymore. I’m always doing. Always going. I tried to cut back on work to make time with my family and for our home. The first day I logged off after my eight hour workday, I folded five loads of laundry, emptied the dishwasher, wiped down the kitchen, vacuumed, organized doctor and financial appointments, and did two ten-minute free writes.

I exhaust myself just thinking about it.

But I don’t know if I even want to loaf. If I did want to, I would, right? I’m trying to think if I know anyone who loafs anymore. Do grownups loaf? Grownups in their 30s and 40s, with partners or families or jobs or any and all of those things?

Much of our society is organized according to the principle that we must justify our right to exist. Our very lives are contingent upon performing a certain amount of work — often artificially increased by excess desire, and to subsidize the wealthiest among us — yet the human impulse suggests that most people seek to do as little work as possible.

As Bertrand Russell puts it1:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Loafing becomes feasible once we come to accept our impulse, and appreciate that existing without interference is our most fundamental right.

  1. From In Praise of Idleness, 1932.

Is public radio for squares?

Every once in a while, Republicans set their sights on public broadcasting. They aim to defund networks such as NPR, asserting that they’re ideologically biased, and that such endeavors are best left to the private sector.

It seems to me that there is a much stronger case to defund networks such as NPR. Namely, that they are irredeemably boring.

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life that dealt with the “good guy” discount. One receives this discount simply by appealing to a salesperson’s good nature, half-joking that they’re a good person, and the salesperson is a good person, and with everyone being a good person and decent and lovely, and with everyone so merry, and isn’t it a fine day, it would be appreciated if they were to receive a discount on their purchase.

Surprisingly, this works fairly well; you’ll often receive a discount, just for asking.

In typical square fashion, the producer regrets the technique as “cheesy” and “smarmy”, that it “traffics in this term of ‘good guy’ when it’s nonsense”, that it’s falsely modest, that it suggests that “as a good guy I’m going to ask you to do me a favor, and cost you money, that’s what a good guy I am”, that it’s not “the behavior of a good guy”, that a good guy “would not make another person uncomfortable on purpose”, “that asking for a good guy discount puts the salesperson on the spot”, that “you’re asking them to break the rules for you for absolutely no reason”, and again that he “hate[s] making other people feel uncomfortable”.

Oy.

Pledging allegiance in Arabic

As a means of honoring National Foreign Language Week, one school allowed students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages. However, once it was turn for the Pledge to be recited in Arabic, all hell broke loose.

The school administration folded in response to community outrage, and issued an apology to “any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful”, a statement that only legitimizes anti-Arab bigotry. That one shouldn’t be offended by the presence of other languages is a lesson that the school is evidently incapable of teaching. (I wonder how they get on with calculus.)

Of course, I would much prefer that we cease the practice of pledging allegiance in any language. It seems to me conduct more fitting to a prison camp, than a country purporting to offer “liberty and justice for all”.

Our immoral children

In Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts, Justin McBrayer argues that there’s an epidemic of schoolchildren who believe that murder isn’t wrong. The source of their regrettable lack of conscience isn’t early exposure to violence or neurotoxins. Rather, the cause traces to some defect in the Common Core curriculum.

In particular, McBrayer is concerned with an exercise where students are to identify facts and opinions among a set of claims.1 Students are taught that facts are truths that can be proven, while opinions are what one thinks or believes. Moreover, according to McBrayer, students are told that claims are either facts or opinions, and cannot be both.

McBrayer recalls some examples of opinions, according to the curriculum, including: “Drug dealers belong in prison”, “Copying homework assignments is wrong”, “All men are created equal”, and “Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat”. These are said to be opinions on the basis that they are value claims, and that value claims cannot be facts.

Far from being innocuous (if foolish), we are to understand that these teachings call into question our outrage when a cartoonist is murdered by fanatics, our prosecution of criminals, and our beneficent political system.

For my part, I think McBrayer rather overstates the case.

Most second-graders are perhaps ill-equipped to investigate the nature of facts and opinions, and settle for a vague means of distinguishing between the two. For these purposes, the definitions that McBrayer provides seem perfectly adequate. And where they are not, any confusion is usually resolved with a few additional sentences.

If someone told me that vegetarians aren’t really healthier than meat-eaters, and that it’s solely a matter of opinion, I’d tell them to increase their meat-intake and we will judge according to who should perish first. Similarly, if one told me it was a fact that “drug dealers belong in prison”, I should ask why our jails don’t overflow with bartenders, and whether there is some principle by which we might advocate for their rightful imprisonment. Facts and opinions both seem amenable to reason, and I’m not convinced the distinction between the two is of grave importance for most purposes.

More generally, it’s not clear to me that the lessons we complete in school are uncritically adopted into our belief systems. Most students learn at a young age that schools are looking for particular answers, and the very best students are those who supply the teacher with what they want, rather than what the student believes true. This extends quite broadly, including that which is taught by other authority figures as well, including parents. That those who are entrusted to care for children often tell lies to them (and expect lies in return) is unfortunate, but this fact must be distinguished from the supposed efficacy of such lies. At some point, many will stop believing in Santa and American democracy, even if such notions had been reinforced for years.

Certainly there are those who believe their opinions are beyond examination, or even coherent explanation. Such people often believe their opinions are to be revered by all. Historically, such people became priests or politicians, but more recently, they write for the Times.

  1. They’re also asked to identify “reasoned judgment”, but McBrayer doesn’t address this in his moral argument.

Smartwatches and aloofness

Cami Kaos on her inamorato’s smartwatch:

Maybe it would allow him to better stay in the know as he ran from place to place. Meeting to meeting. But the first weekend he wore it I knew I hated it. Every time a notification came in he would glance at his wrist. Then squint at it. Then either pull out his phone or return to our conversation. Or our brunch. Or our super hero movie.

I was annoyed. And while that annoyance was directed at him I was annoyed with society. That we’d reached a point in our desire for connectivity that we needed something on our skin all day which would give us a jolt to tell us SOMETHING IS HAPPENING!

Smartwatches are a perfect example of technology being used to produce new problems in the course of providing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. I’m unaware of anyone who claims that their smartphone isn’t sufficiently annoying, and that they require a more intimate means of being distracted, so that they might be more socially aloof. However, money is to be made.

The dress is neither blue nor white

There’s currently a heated debate as to whether a particular dress is blue and black, or white and gold, with different people reporting that they perceive different colors. From the New York Times to Wired, every media outlet is publishing an account of the phenomenon, attempting to resolve the apparent paradox by appealing to how our visual system operates. However many seem to succumb to a kind of dualism in their efforts.

In the Times article, Jonathan Mahler discusses the seemingly insoluble problem, only to offhandedly remark that “The dress, as we all now know, is blue and black.” Adam Rogers of Wired also enters the debate, interviewing scientists and analyzing an image of the dress, only to conclude (perhaps facetiously) that “The people who see the dress as white are utterly, completely wrong.”

That there’s even a dispute at all reveals more about our intuitions on how the world works than how we perceive the dress. Indeed the entire paradox seems to dissolve if we accept that things do not actually have a color.

Most people would probably concede that nature does not construe some roughly cylindrical object, made of ceramic and attached to a loop, as a coffee mug. A coffee mug is a coffee mug because, in part, of how we use it. To nature, it’s not a coffee mug, nor is it even an object. Nature, we will concede, is not a person and doesn’t possess a mind, so such questions are essentially meaningless.

Similarly, notions such as how your toothbrush perceives the toothpaste you place upon it — whether the toothbrush believes it to be cold or moist or smooth — do not even arise. We all acknowledge the absurdity of such questions.

And yet, for some reason, many think it’s perfectly sensible to talk about what color an object really is, as if color were a property of things in themselves, as opposed to a product of the mind. We tend to assume that there’s some thing out there that’s interacting with our mind to produce these sensations. But in principle, the sensations may be induced by Descartes’ evil demon or a scientist with an electrode. Which of these is true, if any, doesn’t particularly matter for our purposes.

It’s easy to imagine a world where, upon being met with light of some wavelength, half the people perceive yellow, and the other half purple. If the difference in perception amounts to some innocuous difference between their visual systems, it would only be abusive for one to insist that the color in question is really what they say it is, and that the other is mistaken. One could formulate no rational argument for such a conclusion. We could ask how such differences exist, and perhaps learn something about the structure of our visual systems along the way, but there would be no coherent question as to the true color. A person could only conclude that they see yellow or purple, and accept that others seem to perceive a different color.

Thankfully, our brains are more similar than they are different, so communication is not altogether impossible. Even if sometimes it may appear so.

Homeownership and personhood

It’s been nearly two years since I purchased my house, and it’s increasingly resembling a home.

Houses are funny things. We spend most of our lives inside them, but the subject is almost solely discussed in connection with their financial value or their accoutrements. Comparatively few discuss their larger importance, or the psychological effect they have upon us.

This is not altogether surprising. Residing in some murky territory between asset and liability, our houses are fickle things, inspiring us with feelings of comfort and security, only to rob us blind and make us feel vulnerable. If houses were people, they would be shunned or imprisoned.

So how did I get ensnared by their siren song?

For me, it was about two things: Realizing potential and attaining some measure of security.

The potential I sought to realize wasn’t my own. It’s trivial to obtain a substantial mortgage if you have a steady job, and while there are certainly piles of forms to complete, any trained monkey can complete the process. There are even people who are paid solely to assist you in this, so while some might say that home ownership is a milestone in personal achievement, I didn’t particularly believe it. Not entirely anyway.

Rather, the potential I hoped to realize was that of the house. It was just sitting there, wasting away, in a neighborhood and in a city that I love. It was perhaps months away from being purchased by some fiend who would see in it only the potential for a quick buck. Alternatively, a more sensible person than I would purchase it, live in it, and let it remain in its current state. Maybe they’d sell it a few years later, and let someone else inherit the problem.

This sensible person would look at it, conclude that it was a lost cause, and lie there in wait until they got married or were ready to do something productive. Yes, it allowed entry into a desirable neighborhood at an attractive price, but this was to be expected. Just look at the thing: It was built almost 150 years ago, and hundreds of soulless alterations had accumulated over just as many. The exterior made it look like a sardine can, and the kitchen ceiling drooped to the floor. The carpet provided refuge to countless arachnids, and the basement — well, the basement contained a bathroom wholly entombed in walls built when Eisenhower was in office. Someone really should have burned the whole thing down.

They didn’t, and so I bought it.

In my short time here thus far, I’ve refinished, removed, and painted. Adjusted, patched, and painted. Refurbished, painted, and sanded. I even mowed the lawn a couple times.

Over the past few days, workers have unpacked the sardine can to reveal the original clapboard. It’s in remarkable condition, especially considering its long neglect, and it reminds me why I took on this project. As the ghosts of handcarved trimming were revealed, the house was exorcized, and I resolved to make it live up to its history. Because we’re all surrounded by history, and mostly let it turn to garbage, and I think it’s a crime.

The second reason I purchased a house was to obtain some measure of security. This security turned out to be hardly financial, one realizes after raiding their savings into oblivion. The very affordable mortgage that you were almost pleased to pay, you come to understand, would be utterly miniscule in comparison to the stupendous expense of compounding little things that you will incur. No, the security is primarily psychological, but it’s nevertheless real.

For the first time in my life, my walls do not resemble those of an asylum. Not moving any time soon means you can hang things on them, and even feel pretty good about this decision. It means that you can purchase interesting furniture, and maybe even a rug. Do you have a thousand books? You can take these out of storage, and actually read them again!

In buying a house, your precarious existence becomes marginally less precarious. You might even find yourself showering more often, and cleaning up your mess every once in a while. It’s outstanding.

As your house attains its potential, gradually becoming a home, and as you ponder its importance, you may find yourself coming to resemble a person. You sought to help the house, and you came to help yourself.

Three stupid words

From L. Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose (1939):

We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose.

I’ve noticed three words becoming more prevalent in political discussions. These are words that tend to promote “potted beliefs”, and I think it’s worth examining them, so that we may avoid them or use them more carefully. These words are “problematic”, “narrative”, and “offensive”.

Each of these words has a more literal meaning, which is frequently unused as it carries little of substance. Suggesting that something is “problematic”, a “narrative”, or “offensive” doesn’t really say very much. At best, each creates a very superficial kind of distinction, such as when people say that such-and-such apples are “real” apples, without suggesting that “fake apples” actually exist beyond the familiar plastic replicas you might keep in a basket. When used in this manner, they’re perfectly fine words. The problem is, they’re seldom used this way in fashionable discussion.

Rather, the way in which they’re often used is quite different. “Problematic” is often used apparently as a substitute for “untrue”, which as Bertrand Russell puts it has all “the advantages of theft over honest toil”1. Once something is said to be “problematic”, any further discussion is to immediately cease, or else one is liable to be summarily executed as a counter-revoluntary. To explore just why something might be untrue is an unnecessary complication that would only put a damper on breathtaking rhetoric.

It’s a rather strange notion, assuming that pursuing just why something appears untrue aids one in forming compelling arguments about the matter, which is presumably desirable by those who disagree with something. Therefore, I can only assume that those who find something “problematic” do so because they do not know why they believe something is untrue, and have merely inherited their views from others. If they were born in another era, perhaps they might believe that extending labor rights to children would be “problematic”.

“Narrative” is a word that’s used by people who have been so successfully abused by advertising that they believe the world is merely an arena in which competing fictions duel for the prize. Coca-Cola says they’re the best, while Pepsi says they’re the best, and so one must embrace intractable confusion surrounding matters of soda.

On such a view, “truth” is merely a construct formed by the powerful, rather than (say) lies mislabelled by the powerful. It’s unclear on what basis one should choose to propagate their favorite “narrative”, except for perhaps their chance membership of one insular group rather than another.

As for “offensive”, it is a word that can be used sensibly, but it can also be used in a vacuous manner similiar to “problematic”. When in doubt, a person should simply replace the word with the reasons for which they find something offensive. Sometimes they are quite reasonable. Otherwise, to state that something is “offensive” without much elaboration is to merely suggest that something stimulates a particular response in you, as if by reflex, and that others should share your response. Religious fundamentalists surely find all manner of fun offensive, as uncritically as pets yield to our commands. However, the question remains, “Why should we share your response?”

These are only a few words of many that are often used foolishly, and I don’t know the extent to which they actually shape our worldview. On the contrary, I tend to think their peculiar usages simply reflect some pre-existing stupidity which we all share. Nevertheless, after ridding yourself of them you may find yourself once again, as Stebbing puts it, “thinking to some purpose”.

  1. From Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.

On sharpening contradictions

In connection with the recent atrocities in Paris, Juan Cole has written an important piece on “sharpening the contradictions“, which Cole characterizes as a political strategy that may result in ordinary, generally decent people being co-opted by some very unsavory figures. As Cole puts it:

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Therefore, Al-Qaeda may find themselves emboldened by the anti-Muslim bigotry that’s likely to spread as an unfortunate yet foreseeable consequence of the Paris attacks, and then the cycle repeats itself.

The underlying concept is found somewhat more broadly, in my view, and its effects may follow regardless of intent. It’s not necessary that Al-Qaeda (or whomever) intends to so organize people in service of their goals. If reactions to the attacks only help to further polarize Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than produce actual solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, their specific intention might not matter very much.

The concept is also reflected in the French phrase, les extrêmes se touchent1 — that extreme acts, and the extreme reactions that follow, can sometimes lead to similar ends.

You can help prevent yourself from being turned upside-down by simply considering the actual (not ideal) consequences of your action or inaction. Is your response to the outrageous acts of others likely to promote broad solidarity, or is it likely to further isolate large groups of people? And if it isolates large groups of people, what happens to those people? Are they left to be organized by some charlatan? And if so, what’s likely to happen to the people with whom you ostensibly once found some solidarity?

  1. “The extremes are touching.”

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I’m pleased to see that Ferguson has made people more aware of police violence and the fact that it often goes unpunished.

However, I don’t believe anyone can honestly claim to be particularly surprised by the events. Ferguson is not unprecedented. It’s simply a publicized example of what happens with some regularity across the United States.

Anyone who has been to a demonstration isn’t unfamiliar with the sight of our militarized and aggressive police forces. It’s deeply troubling, and as violent and terrible as it is, it remains a fairly mild form of what the United States and its allies have brought to other populations for many years.

Recognizing all this is important, but it’s not enough.

Everyone should be outraged about Ferguson, and the failure of the prosecutor to secure an indictment, but we also have a responsibility to act, and this responsibility is proportional to our privilege.

Decent people with privilege — however that privilege manifests itself — cannot limit their political involvement to voting and expressing outrage. They are the barest things we can do to effect positive change, and there is plenty more that we can do.

The other things we can do often look deceptively minor. Important things like making donations, writing letters, convincing those who are mistaken, and offering our support to others in need may seem like trivial things that have no larger consequence. They can even seem hopelessly naïve. But this is a fatal mistake, and it’s one that only serves the status quo.

When you write a letter to your Congressperson, imagine that a thousand others will do the same. When you make a donation, assume many millions will follow. When you participate in a march, imagine everyone leaving their houses to join you. When you convince a confused person of their error, think about everyone else doing the same, and think about the incredible effect that could have.

Everything we enjoy is the consequence of many millions of tiny actions by people we do not know, and everything we regret is just the same.

Respectable beyond question

Jim Naureckas published an important observation about the news treatment of the numerous rape allegations that have been made against Bill Cosby. The observation is applicable not only to NPR’s interview, but a separate unedited interview recently released by AP. (It also applies quite generally to how the media deals with topics it deems unsavory.)

The rape allegations have received very little news coverage over the years, but their recent circulation in social media has made it impossible for mainstream outlets to ignore them. Now, AP and NPR want to take credit for being bold and vigorous in search of the truth.

The only problem is, consistent with their past inaction that effectively suppressed the years-old allegations, neither organization even bothered to explain what Cosby had been accused of in their initial interviews with him. A listener could be excused if they believed that Cosby had been caught in an extramarital affair or with unpaid parking tickets.

Instead, a couple of the more trusted news organizations made the most pained and obsequious efforts to tip toe around the issue, and in so doing, sought to preserve for Cosby that air of respectability that is not merely beyond reproach but beyond even the mildest questioning.

On optimism

I recently attended a discussion group on the topic of optimism. In it, we discussed the very real, and often substantial, general progess toward a more civilized and just world that vaguely accompanies the passage of time. When you look at rates of poverty, war, disease, murder, or illiteracy, you can see in broad strokes that humanity is becoming more humane (or less inhumane if you prefer). As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This is worth keeping in mind as an important and useful counterweight to our increasing awareness of the world around us, which includes an increasing awareness of human atriocities, and the feelings of hopelessness that often seem to come attached.

It’s tempting to read news or opinion and conclude the very worst about humanity. Judging from social media, it even seems to be in fashion. But no good can come from this. If we apply such a conclusion to ourselves, then we’re perhaps honest but will grow to despise ourselves. If we do not, then we’re hypocrites and will tend toward narcissism and dishonesty.

And so, challenging though it may be, it seems to me that the best course is to read broadly, and conclude from it absolutely nothing about humanity at large. Our view of humanity should follow from first principles, including hopefully our optimism. We should bring this to bear on our reading, and not allow the converse.

Should socialists eat brunch?

In Should socialists smoke good cigars? (1932), Bertrand Russell considers whether it is unethical to consume more than one’s share, if everything ought to be divided equally. Many would perhaps admit that it is unethical, but defy the principle anyway. However, Russell suggests it is not so clear.

If it were unethical to consume more than an equal share of the world’s income, then in order to live ethically, one would need to make do with about $10,000 per year. For many of those living in industrialized countries, this would be plainly impossible. So, if the principle holds, we’re left with the result that the majority of people in such countries are living unethically, and perhaps cannot do otherwise, including many of the very poorest in these countries.

Try to advocate for a more equitable world on that platform.

David Shaftel tries as he might in his Brunch is for Jerks, writing:

There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it. As rents have gone up, our area has become unaffordable to much of the middle class, and to young families who want more than two bedrooms — or can’t even afford one.

This leaves an increasing number of well-off young professionals who are unencumbered by children — exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch. Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.

Shaftel shows his concern for social justice by chastising those who have the resources to eat breakfast foods at lunchtime hours. Inequity is captured best by the endless stacks of starch and sugar that the Fortunate consume.

However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Shaftel’s disdain for pleasure is primarily motivated by his concern for social justice. He’s actually just feeling a little old:

For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood. It’s about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation. It’s about reveling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture1.

So before you eat brunch, if you won’t think of the poor, think of the children.

  1. If anything shows that one is of the people, it’s a reference to some controversy in the New York art world.

Comedians and truth

Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

Working with people you love

Automattic Meetup 2014

Automattic Meetup 2014 – Park City, Utah

I just got back from a fantastic week spent connecting and learning with some of my favorite people in the world, my coworkers at Automattic.

I learned how to analyze data in Python with Carly, and went skydiving with Prasath. After discussing common security vulnerabilities with Anne, Cami and I plotted a podcast about absolutely nothing, and recorded part of our first episode.

JR and Matt Husby helped me with a little WordPress plugin I’ve been working on, and Tammie assigned me my first theme to review. I forced Adam to give a talk on reverse Polish notation, and he forced me, in turn, to give a talk on whether there are aliens in our ranks.

This is only a very small portion of a very full week for 276 incredible people who are passionate about making the web a better place. It’s a week of hundreds of talks, thousands of conversations, and dozens of projects. A week that brings new energy and focus to the rest of the year.

It’s an intense week, but it captures only a portion of the ingenuity, the spontaneity, and the generosity that I’ve come to appreciate from my fellow Automatticians, and that they demonstrate throughout the year.

If you asked me four years ago if I thought it were possible to enjoy working, I’d be dubious. If you asked me whether one could ever genuinely love and respect all their coworkers, I’d hesitate.

Over the past four years, the people of Automattic have demonstrated to me that it’s possible to do work you love with people you love. It’s not common — not yet — but it’s possible.

Read what our founder, Matt, has to say about our meet-ups, and join us.