Thursday, June 23, 2016

On Double Standards and the Red Herring of Consent


My philosophy class discussed Erin Anderson's article from Friday's Globe and Mail, and it provoked a whole gamut of topics.  I'll try to encapsulate some of them here.  The article starts with an important question:
"The question left is whether we'll waste this moment, leaving the teenagers today to have the same conversation decades from now.  It's time to talk about solutions - in the courts, on the Internet and in our schools."

SEXUAL EDUCATION

The article calls for better sex ed in the high schools.  I agree, but what Anderson fails to realize is that, while Ontario students must take one Health and Physical Education credit to graduate, they can take it in any grade.  They don't all have to take the grade 9 health curriculum that focuses on sex ed.  And there were many stories from my class of some of the fear-inducing or just plain silly lessons from middle school health classes.  Sex ed must be improved dramatically to include "consent training" and "bystander training," as the article points out, but I think that has to happen outside of health class as well.  It must be part of mandatory courses, and I think it's particularly suited to fit randomly throughout English and civics courses.

Luckily, new curriculum documents (I believe for all courses) have or will have "front pages" - a reference to the preamble before the actual essential course learnings - that demand a focus on environmental education, healthy relationships, equity and inclusive education, and financial literacy as it applies to the subject area.  History got a curricular make-over just this past year, and the new Social Science blurb (p 41) on healthy relationships sounds pretty good:
"Healthy relationships are based on respect, caring, empathy, trust, and dignity, and thrive in an environment in which diversity is honoured and accepted.  Healthy relationships do not tolerate abusive, controlling, violent, bullying/harassing, or other inappropriate behaviours."  
This is or will be an actual part of every course now which is much more effective than forcing it into a few weeks of one course.  In teachers' college, we had a week of equity and inclusion studies that many deemed "pink week," and ridiculed it as such.  When I taught Careers, I tossed in an article about sexual harassment in the workplace in the middle of discussing employee dynamics, with no discernible backlash from students.  If we can sneak this type of education in throughout all our courses, it could actually foster a cultural shift.  I'm ever optimistic!

But, of course, we have to make sure it's addressed well.


CONSENT IS A RED HERRING

But one problem I have with Anderson's article, is the way it frames the issue of sexual assault as a matter of innocently misunderstood signals.  Yes, that happens here and there as we continue to see the rape myth perpetuated in films enough that some might still think resistance is part of the mating dance.  But I think it can often be an excuse for behaviour - "It was all just an honest mistake!" - and part of a larger issue of a lack of respect for women in general.  The fact that the article started with a discussion about Jian Ghomeshi makes it curious that it went down the "consent training" road.  From all reports, it's pretty clear that JG didn't misunderstand the signals he was getting.  He just wanted to hurt some women.

And, skirting an uncomfortable issue but no less relevant to my argument, my students got into a good analysis of the double standard.  "Men can have many partners and be cool, but women can't."  "Even if guys are okay with a girl who's slept around, girls like that have to deal with the consequences that no guy will actually date her."

Still.  In 2014.

Of course no discussion on this topic is complete without the requisite Breakfast Club double-edged sword speech - at 1:50: "It's a double-edged sword, isn't it. If you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap. You want to but you can't, and if you do, you wish you didn't. . . . Or are you a tease?" 



My questions, as always, is "Why?"  Why does that happen?  What cultural forces maintain that dichotomy that hasn't budged since I was in high school in the early 80s.  I watched all sorts of gains made in racial issues and LGBTQ issues, but this one hasn't moved.  Do we want it to continue for some reason?  Who's benefitting from it?  Why won't it die??


Biology

Some said it's part of nature.  I guess since women have children, we have to protect them from being tainted with bad seed.  Many philosophers over the centuries have written about the importance of knowing for sure that a wife's children are actually her husband's, so a chaste woman is necessary to ensure proper lineage.

Almost 200 years ago, Schopenhauer said it's natural for men to be okay with multiple partners. Their will to live is satisfied by the possession of love - i.e. sex - regardless whether or not the desire is shared by the woman:
“But yet that in every case of falling in love, … the essential matter is not the reciprocation of love, but possession, i.e., the physical enjoyment. The certainty of the former can therefore by no means console us for the want of the latter; on the contrary, in such a situation many a man has shot himself. On the other hand, persons [i.e. men] who are deeply in love, and can obtain no return of it, are contented with possession, i.e., with the physical enjoyment. This is proved by all forced marriages, and also by the frequent purchase of the favor of a woman, in spite of her dislike, by large presents and other sacrifices, nay, even by cases of rape.” 
And, he continues, women are biologically determined to want love more than sex so they, and their children, can live securely.

Nowadays many of us call that essentialism and believe we are more than our biological or evolutionary mechanisms.  Our brains are more complex and efficiently designed than most of the other animals with segregated gender roles.  And, since we have birth control and DNA testing, how much does it matter if women have a variety of partners?  So why is this still maintained so vociferously?

There's another bit of biology that came up though - that the act of penetrating is different than being penetrated.  That women are a vessel that contains men's semen.  If she's been with 50 men, then she'll be "loose."  I countered that women give birth and bounce right back, but I should have argued that she could be with one man 50 times and not raise the same concerns.  It's the "kill count" that matters.  It's the image of the hot dogs down the hallway, the jizz bucket, sloppy seconds, damaged goods - as if sexually active women don't bathe and sex destroys their genitals - but only if it's with many men.  They can be tainted in a way that men can't because men leave something behind, deep inside, that seems to leave a lasting mark - forever.

But the vagina cleans itself out, kids.  Regularly.  Geez!

I can't scoff too much because I remember being in grade 12,  just when AIDS was first discussed, and, because it seemed relegated to gay men and prostitutes, my group of friends surmised that if one man's sperm touches another man's sperm it's actually fatal!   That's why sex education is so important.

But their imagery paints a picture that can be hard to shake.

ETA - And four classes later, someone raised the "vaginal looseness" argument AGAIN, so I was able to discuss the 50 times vs 50 people argument after all (and reiterate that they really need better sex ed classes).  But another argument was added to the fray:
"If a woman's vagina couldn't go back, then the tampon industry would go under because sexually active women's tampons would be falling out all over the place.  So if a woman's vagina can accommodate a tampon, it's likely small enough for your needs."
Whatever works to get the point across.


Religion

It's all because of religion.  Like the biology explanation, I think this is too simplistic. And there were myriad sexual restrictions long before the Christians ruined all the fun.

The Code of Hammurabi - written centuries before Genesis - states:
142. If a woman wishes to divorce her husband and refuses him sexual rights, an inquiry shall be held. If she has not committed adultery but her husband has, she may take her dowry and return to her father's house. 143. If she has committed adultery, then she shall be executed by being thrown into the water.....154. If a free man has sexual relations with his daughter, that man shall be exiled....159. If the first wife and a female slave of a free man both bear him sons, and the father acknowledges the sons of the female slave as his own, then the sons of the female slave shall share equally with the sons of the first wife in the paternal inheritance after the death of the father....171. If the father did not acknowledge the sons of the female slave as his own, then the sons have no right to share in the paternal inheritance; but both the female slave and her sons shall be given their freedom.
Sexual restrictions are part of society to maintain social order.  Sometimes they're officially legislated, but it's an easier time to keep order if they're part of the social fabric.  It can cause conflicts if we all sleep with anyone without respect for who's bothered by our shenanigans.  So my beginning position is that there is an order that is somewhat maintained by the sexual double standard.  Maybe if we can get to the perceived necessity for the structure, we can dismantle the attitudes.


Social Control

We ran out of time before I could postulate my own theories, but I think it's mainly about control.

If sexually confident women - or even just attractive women -  are sluts, then it reduces the competition for nice hetero girls.  So girls definitely benefit from reinforcing the dichotomy even if it's to their own detriment later.  It can be a means for girls to keep other girls from their guy by labelling them as diseased so that they become less attractive to their potential mate and even shameful to be seen with.  The solution to this dynamic is to recognize the abundance of potential mates available.  We don't need to complete with each other.  If she likes him, and he likes her back, let him go.  There are plenty to go around.

But I think for men the dynamic is perpetuated because many guys still like the upper hand in a relationship.  Not nearly all, of course.  There are confident men who can be with an experienced woman, but some really can't.  Like Silent Bob explains in Chasing Amy:



Personally, if a man has kept himself chaste and demands the same of a woman, I can respect that.  But if a man has seen some action, or tried to, and has a different standard for the women he dates, then I really can't tolerate that hypocrisy.

As I said in a previous post, saying no can precipitate retaliation of the weirdest sort.  I once turned down a guy just on a date to a movie, and he denigrated me to his friends mercilessly.  And it was just a movie, AND I was in a relationship at the time.  Some people don't take rejection well.  It's not the problem of the nay sayer, but that retaliation, unfortunately, is something women sometimes have to cope with.  So some girls say yes when they don't want to. And then they're ruined in the eyes of the Silent Bobs of the world.  But some girls want to say yes because they want to.  And that should be okay.

Here's the dynamic I think's at play:

Last summer I went on a date with a guy who I discovered, part way through the meal, loves Stephen Harper.  He challenged me to say one bad thing about him.  I listed a medley of dismantled environmental laws and regulations that are permanently destructive to Canada, not to mention the stranglehold he has on scientists.  But, I think separate from his politics, this guy's response was very interesting:
"Yes but, you can't talk about that because I don't know anything about the environment.  It's not fair because you're an environmentalist, and that's not my field."
So... let's get this straight.  I shouldn't discuss any piece of knowledge I have that a man doesn't have during a debate?   This man anyway.

But it's not just this one guy.  I've seen that same type of response here and there in other relationships over the years.  An early boyfriend whined that I'm so much more worldly than he because I lived in Ottawa for a year - Ottawa - so we just don't fit.  And a male friend insisted I didn't influence his musical tastes even though he hadn't heard of Ween or Primus before he met me and now is a rabid follower of both.  It feels to me like it couldn't be possible for him to have been influenced musically by a woman.  I could be wrong on this, of course, but it feels like a significant behaviour - a dynamic primarily between two sexes.

There's an insecurity there.  A fear.   And it hinges on what real men do and don't do.  Real men don't learn things from women, and part of that means that they should be the most experienced in the bedroom.  And the underlying current here, is that women don't have the status to teach, to know, to have seen more things - and they won't be respected if they have.  This likely ties in with the reality that smart, successful women are often single:
A study conducted with 121 British participants reported findings that females with high intelligence in male/female relationships were seen as problematic. Their intelligence were predicted to cause problems in the relationships. Whereas, high intelligence in the male partner was not seen as problematic, but desirable.
My sense is that until we can address this behaviour and belief system, we're going to be stuck with the double standard and with the sexual assaults.  It's all part and parcel of the same mentality:  This woman isn't really worth anything, so I can use her as a sex toy, as a punching bag, as a maid, as a nanny for my kids....

But then there's this guy, Terry Crews on Manhood, Feminism, and the Mindset that Leads to Rape:


"People are scared of being controlled....Feminism is not saying women are better than men....We're talking about... true gender equality.  But the problem is that men have always felt that they're more valuable....I have been that guy....Men have been manipulated to chase their win....You have to know you're already valuable."
People are getting their sense of value from their conquests, from their stuff, from their trophies, instead of from within.  Some men have a sense of entitlement over women and see women as a trophy that they deserve, whether she likes him or not.  And, I think, part of that includes wanting to be the only man the woman has ever known.  Crews says, "Never should that ever be accepted."

He suggests that men have to step up the join the battle against the patriarchal mindset that damages everyone:
"I relate it to...civil rights....Let's say the people who were silent....and the black school with two books, and the white school had everything, and you were quiet.  You were accepting it.  Same thing with men right now. You're not saying anything, you are, by your silence, accepting it.... 
The big thing for me is just that when you see another person as your equal there are things you just won't do....You would only go ahead when someone says no unless you feel you own them, you're above them....you feel they're your property.... 
We're not battling people, we're battling a mindset....It's like cutting a tree down by the leaves, it just grows back....nobody's getting at the stump.  The stump is the mindset that people feel they're more valuable than one another.....You think you're better than everybody.  The issue is every man wants intimacy....all intimacy is [that] you want to be known...and loved....Sex comes later.  The problem is people are chasing sex to chase intimacy, and you'll never be satisfied."  
Men are weaker, more fragile, more vulnerable than they feel they could ever admit. De Beauvoir discussed this at length almost 70 years ago.  Hiding that fragility is a huge burden to maintain.  Crews says, "Admit you don't have it....Keep a moment where that pride is out of here."  And maybe we can stop the competitions, and begin to see one another with respect, on an even plane, as actual equals.


BUT WOMEN LIE ABOUT RAPE A LOT

The only discussion I cut off during the class was this one.  Like the evolution vs creation debate, and the climate change vs natural fluctuations debate, saying some women lie to ruin men's lives doesn't rate an equal billing with some women get raped.  'Nough said.

Morality is a Habit, not an Act


I've been watching lots of movies and thinking about this bit from Aristotle:
"But we get the virtues by having first performed the energies, as is the case also in all the other arts; for those things which we must do after having learnt them we learn to do by doing them; as, for example, by building houses men become builders, and by playing on the harp, harp-players; thus, also, by doing just actions we become just, by performing temperate actions, temperate, and by performing brave actions we become brave.  Moreover, that which happens in all states bears testimony to this; for legislators, by giving their citizens good habits, make them good; and this is the intention of every lawgiver, and all that do not do it well fail; and this makes all the difference between states, whether they be good or bad.... 
Again, every virtue is produced and corrupted from and by means of the same causes; and in like manner every art; for from playing on the harp people become both good and bad harp-players...for if this were not the case, there would be no need of a person to teach, and all would have been by birth, some good and some bad. The same holds good in the case of the virtues also; for by performing those actions which occur in our intercourse with other men, some of us become just and some unjust....It does not therefore make a slight, but an important, nay, rather, the whole difference, whether we have been brought up in these habits or in others from childhood" (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, Chapter 1).
If it's the case that watching shows regularly can influence our actions towards others (as I suggested here), would it not follow that it's even more influential to act out the actions in the shows regularly?

It's not uncommon for actors in films and shows and plays who are playing the part of lovers to actually fall in love.  It could just be the case that two people working together fall for one another through proximity alone, but then why don't more actors fall for the camera operators or stage hands or secondary players.  I think there's something about saying the lines to one another over and over, or even just staring into one another's eyes, that creates the feeling.

But I'm curious about more villainous and harmful acts - more harmful than a new attraction ending an old relationship, and how Artistotle's ideas connect significantly with recent findings on neural pathways in the brain.
The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29)....Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away” (34).
The key difference in current brain science and Aristotle's contemplations is that we now believe that childhood isn't the end all and be all of brain development.  We can alter the pathways through our behaviour as adults. There is ever time to change, albeit it can be a more difficult battle to change the pathways than to create them in the first place.

In Birdman, the play inside the film ends with a suicide.  As a theatre piece with a long run, the actor would be shooting himself in the head every night.  Does that repeated act on stage make it easier to carry out in real life?  In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal altered the way he moved, his facial gestures, and his speech to become utterly creepy.  How well does he turn that off when he's not on the set?  How quickly does the creepiness re-enter in inopportune times when his ego's depleted, like during an argument.  After many childhood dance recitals, when asked to ad lib a dance for an audition (a lifetime ago), I reverted immediately to a collection of moves from past dances.  The body memory had created a pathway that was easiest to find in a pinch.

But the actors in our lives who, for instance, pretend to be nice for their own gain, they don't become nicer over time.  Their pretending is part of the action to the point that their nice-act becomes hard to stop.  It becomes difficult to be authentically kind or thoughtful.  Is it the case, then, that stage actors have a harder time turning off the pretending, than turning off the current characters they're embodying for part of each day?  

As a teacher, I have developed certain traits that have spilled over into my "real" life, but many of these are useful.  I stay calm and can often diffuse a situation when others are arguing angrily.  I listen patiently to the least-interesting conversations.  But then I also really want to impart information wherever I go, and tell others what to do and when to speak.  These are habits I actively repress outside of my job - and not always well.  However, during my classes, I'm not actively pretending to be a teacher.  I'm behaving appropriately as a good role model of behaviour, which, I think, is what Aristotle suggests we do.  We should act kindly and courageously as if we're role models for the world to follow.  And sometimes pretending to be kind and acting on it, not for self-gain, but as a means of practicing, can create an authentic kindness.

It's a similar problem found in self-help books that encourage us to think happy thoughts.  While smiling can actually make us feel a little happier, focusing on acting happy can have the reverse effect because somewhere inside we know it's an act.



The implications of all this isn't just a watchful eye over the behaviours of our children, but of ourselves, of our smallest actions that can get embedded as habits. And if it's the case that pretending is attached to the action being pretended, then it seems to follow that we can allow sword fights with sticks, or water gun fights, or teasing when it's very clear that it's a game (and not just a consequence-free passive-aggressive act of anger or retaliation).  And our actors won't be unduly corrupted by their actions.   But only if it all starts with the right attitude towards the good.    

Words Don't Kill?


Scott Long wrote an excellent article separating the act of supporting free speech from the act of supporting the words and images created by Charlie Hebdo.  But I disagree with this one bit:
"Words don't kill..."
As I said in a comment there, too many young people have lost lives as a direct results of malicious words and images.  We can't ignore that reality.  In my lifetime, I've seen a change in the way we talk that developed through punishments for transgressions of the new rules.  We use gender-inclusive language in scholarly writing, and professionals and politicians can no longer easily get away with cavalierly making racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs.  We recognize that words seep into our subconscious in a way we can't prevent when they're out there at large, repeated and bombarding us at every turn.

The subtle restrictions in our language, I believe, have played a part in changing in our attitudes and behaviours.  They're not the complete answer, of course, but they do have a significant impact.  The recent events have provoked some prejudicial words and views floating around social media.  We would be wise to remember this recent reaction:



Or check out how the Swedish "love-bombed" a mosque.

Long's article hits on something explained by Catarina Dutilh at New APPS, that,
"...at its core, the Enlightenment is not a tolerant movement: its ideals may be described as corresponding to “the ambition of shaping individual and social development on the basis of better and more reliable knowledge than the tangled, confused, half-articulate but deeply rooted conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors." 
Long's words:
"To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless....[This is] the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have....They know that while [Voltaire's] contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister."
The movement we've celebrated that has us in this self-righteous state of knowledge is not founded on world peace or compassion or kindness, but on escaping religious ideologies.  It's a noble path if it takes us from powers that prevent us from open critical thought, but the path leads to a cliff when it continues unabated once religious ideas are no longer a threat as a forced belief system.

It's absolutely true that religious texts have portions that provoke hatred and intolerance of others:


But, the New Atheists also have their intolerant passages that can inspire their followers:  There's Richard Dawkins' famous tweet comparing Islam with Nazism: "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism."  And Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are no more accepting of differences.  We can find hatred within every faction of society.

At least religious texts also have portions insisting on the tolerance of all:

There's Hillel's famous description of the main message of Judaism:  "That which is hateful to yourself, do not do unto others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study!"  And there's the Christian rule:  "'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater..." (Mark 12:31).

Similarly, the Qur'an instructs followers to,
"...show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful" (4:37). 
Religion doesn't make us hate one another; that's a red herring.  We have the capacity to choose to follow some ideas over others in any doctrine.  I respect Chomsky's views, but I differ from him on the right to free speech.  We can be followers of Plato without condoning slavery.

Basic human nature may be the real villain here.  Zimbardo's famous experiment got to the heart of this reality, and Nietzsche recognized it almost a century earlier in this passage, 
“Somebody remarked: ‘I can tell by my own reaction to it that this book is harmful.’ But let him only wait and perhaps one day he will admit to himself that this same book has done him a great service by bringing out the hidden sickness of the heart and making it visible."
Knowing that it's possible to let this cruel part of ourselves flourish means we have to, individually and personally, work at keeping the sickness in ourselves in check.  And if we have any hope of surviving the next few decades intact, we also have to help one another make choices based on compassion and tolerance, loudly clarifying our intolerance of prejudices.  And, no, that's not a hypocrisy.  It's a necessity.   

ETA - Russell Brand made a similar point that we have to check our own selves to begin to affect change on a larger scale.

Hedges on the Prison System


I went to see Chris Hedges speak last night.  His words brought forth a mix of devastation and elation, with some in the congregation compelled to applaud after every few sentences.  He's a brilliant storyteller, and I could have listened to him all night.  It went far too quickly.

I had a chance to speak with him in the time it took him to sign my well-annotated copy of Empire of Illusion and my brand spankin' Wages of Rebellion, and I regret not buying all of his offering in order to extend our conversation.  My voice actually shook a little when I started talking, and I talk to people for a living!

I told him of the impact Sam Harris has had on my students who now say openly bigoted things in class, and he gave me some words of encouragement and signed my book "keep resisting."  Well, he signed everyone's book like that, but still.  I felt sincerely encouraged, and he looked me right in the eye when he spoke to me.

He was being interviewed by Susan G. Cole, whose books I gobbled up twenty years ago.  I actually called her up once and asked her if she'd present to my students at a conference I organized in the mid-90s, and she agreed but for a handsome fee.  Unfortunately I didn't have the wherewithal to ask the school board for money, and I was a dirt poor mom of two babies - all I really had were the balls big enough to call her up - so I had to decline her acceptance.  But she was a great moderator.

Here are the bits that stayed with me after he finished.  These are his words, only somewhat paraphrased and out of order (I'm a fan, not a journalist), but they lack the stories that give them colour, so you still have to buy the book!



On Intellectual and Emotional Knowledge and the Necessity of Faith

When confronting climate change, we know intellectually that change is necessary. But the emotional knowledge of our fragility is hard to acquire.  The existential issue of our time is how to digest issues intellectually and emotionally in order to rise up and resist.  Rebellion is an act of faith.  It's what we become, not what we achieve.  The religious (not necessary a belief in a god, but those with belief in  our inevitable historical progress) are less susceptible to emotional highs and lows.

We need to fight fascists, not to win, but because they're fascists. And we need to believe in the good in order to want to take action.  Most people don't want to change anything because their religion is a belief in the system (e.g. they believe we have a free press).  It keeps people doing nothing.  The American religion glorifies the hyper-masculine, patriotism, strength, and the right to use violence to impose virtues on the rest of the world.  It's a sacralization of empire.

Faith isn't irrational, but non-rational.  It can't be empirically measured much like beauty, truth, justice. Wisdom involves enveloping the non-rational forces into our life - what artists do.  The utilitarian tech culture severs us from these forces: arts, education, journalism - anything that has the power to transform.  But we can only achieve wisdom with the capacity to be in touch with the non-rational.

The christian right are heretics.  Jesus was not about making money.  Like Popper said (p 543), in the name of tolerance, we've accepted intolerance.  The christian right has infused the state with religion. They've misused the gospel to sacralize elements of the state.


On Prisons:  "The only act left is civil disobedience."

People are convicted before trial.  They stack charges, then plea bargain away most so they never go to trial.  It's criminalized poverty.  They prey on the poor knowing they have no resources.  They prey on families who are fleeced for hundred of dollars for phone calls.  Due to austerity measures, in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, 30-40% of city funds are raised by fining residence for things like not mowing their lawn.  There's a 64% recidivism rate.  Dostoevsky [possibly*] said we understand civilization by looking at the prisons.  To corporations, these are the ideal workers.  They live there; they're never late, and they cost little.

Inmates know the horrible things that can happen to them if they step out of line.  They're a deeply religious community because they have so little else to hold on to.  Like in Gaza - the only thing to give structure or normalcy to their days is the call to prayer.  And, with respect to Charlie Hebdo, I'm angry at the idea that it's amusing to make fun of religion.

The privatization of the prison system means each prisoner makes the prison some money.  Prisoners are charged for everything: they have to buy their own shoes, blankets, phone calls....  There are fees charged to send money home to your family.  An emergency visit to a relative's deathbed will cost you $900.

Corporations write the legislation.  Slavery is integral to the U.S. economy. We're seeing sweatshops being recruited by prisons.  They can pay 22 cents/hour here instead of in some factory in Bangladesh.  It's neo-slavery.  The 13th Amendment allows us to use it as a form of punishment, and it's used by Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Victoria Secrets....

Appealing to the systems that are profiting off the exploitation of prisoners is useless.  The only act left is civil disobedience inside and outside the prisons.  Prisoners had a demonstration knowing the consequences they would face.

This nascent moment in the US is about organizing prison labour to get minimum wage.  It would collapse the system built on neo-slavery.  This is a perfect example of how we have to organize in that manner.



ETA - John Oliver on the inequity of bail:



On the Right and Left

Nader was destroyed by the Democrats when he ran as an independent.  They were frightened by him.  Sanders won't run as an independent because he doesn't want to be hit like Nader was.  It would mean not being at the debates and not having enough money.

The Liberals are more dangerous than the right.  Under Clinton and Obama, there were more executions and we filled more prisons.  Clinton brought in the 1993 Omnibus crime bill and drug laws, which are key to understanding the rise of the surveillance state.  This is "omnipotent policing" as Arendt calls it in Imperialism.  These are mechanisms that prey on the undocumented and the poor.

[In an different interview, he clarified that Sanders made a mistake not running as an independent. The democrats are saturated with corporate money so they're under the control of corporate power. Obama proved that in an 8-year assault on civil liberties worse than under Bush.  It's the role for the 3rd party candidate with the understanding that we have to recognize that the goal is to build movements; that you may run a candidate not to win, which is almost impossible, but to further empower the movement.  Sanders is giving legitimacy to the Democratic Party.  The democrats aren't reformable.  We must be able to agitate on the outside.]


On Activists:  "People are complex.  There's no perfect hero."

[They discussed Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Wiebo Ludwig, Che Guevara, and Martin Luther who was an anti-semite alcoholic, and scribes recorded everything he said even when he was drunk, so at least we got a full picture of the man.]

These people are messianic.  The rose up against corporations.  They have the DNA of constant rebellion.  No uprising is possible without them.  They feel passion for social change.  Community is key; we can't effectively resist without it, so we need to create acts of solidarity.


On Canada:  "There are signs of life here, but you're not going in the right direction."

There's no hope in the U.S.  We're finished.  It's remarkable how often the U.S. blunders, and then Canada replicates it.  But Canada's not nearly as far gone.  The U.S. is very violent, founded on genocide and slavery, with corporate-owned politics.  Canada doesn't have nearly the same level of violence, and its political system isn't completely closed.

To stop Harper, read Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The question is NOT about how to get good people to rule.  The question is how to make the power elite frightened of you.  Power is always the problem.  We need movements to keep power in check.  Elections are fine, but the last liberal president was Nixon because he was the last one still frightened of movements.

In Canada you have Idle No More and the Quebec student protests, which are great. You have to begin movements that might have a political wing, but every action must be about nourishing the movement.


On Rebellion and Madness:  "A protest of one is still a protest."

Nothing gets done if we're enraged or overwhelmed.  We need to embrace sublime madness to make real change.  There's nothing rational about rebellion.  When rebellion starts, people are not striving towards a vision, but driven by it.

Movements are monitored and infiltrated. There is a psychological warfare waged against you.  We can't compete on the state's level of violence or security.  What we do have is transparency and non-violence.  If we try to play their game (snitches...), we'll eat ourselves alive. We can create tiny committees to mess with the heads of state.  Consider: What can we do as an act of resistance that they won't expect?  It says to the state, 'You don't know everything.'

The most powerful weapon we have is speaking truth about discrediting the system of power that many can hear.  I talk to people about the difference between police in blue shirts and the white shirted assholes.  The blue shirts have to listen to the white shirts all day. But there are always people even at that level that can hear you.

We're standing up as forces of life.  Saving the ecosystem so the future can have life is as stark a battle as you can get.  Our capacity to speak truth is relentless, and non-violent, and there's a real possibility of bringing foot soldiers to our side.  Once we do that, then the state has no security.

I sued Obama over section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act which allowed military to take over in cases of domestic law.  We won federally, but Obama appealed and won.  The law was enacted because the state doesn't trust the police not to defect.

The state is corrupt and decadent.  In marches we find hope, light, creativity.  We are blessed by new generations of rebels.




* Sources suggest it's in The House of the Dead, but I couldn't find it, and I wonder if this is similar to the situation with Voltaire's quotation on free speech that he never said.  

On Privilege


I saw Chris Hedges speak again at the Tommy Douglas Institute / Community Worker Program followed by smaller discussion groups.  I was so pleased that he doesn't have a set speech for each book launch and that I was treated to an entirely different set of stories than the week previous.

Here's just a bit on the smaller discussion group that followed his speech.

I spent a 30-minute break deliberating which topic to choose out of eight possible offerings.  One was on Aboriginal Perspectives, and I'm teaching Native Studies next year, so I was leaning that way, but then I decided to go for a topic more generally encompassing:  Education, Engagement and Activism facilitated by Desmond Cole.  I expected something about how to engage students towards activism, which is my biggest struggle in the classroom.  Just yesterday a few grade 12s said of a project on social justice:  "What if we just don't care about anything happening in the world?"  I told them to act like they care, and the caring might come.  But it's THE pivotal question, and I ever fail to entice many of them towards a wider worldview beyond which dress they should wear to prom.  I suck at engagement, so I really needed this.

First a disclaimer:  Cole was a kind and equitable facilitator who made every effort to hear every voice in the room, and he was excellent at demanding a respectful environment.  I sat silently, patiently waiting for the topic to come up, but we didn't come close to hitting the topic I was expecting.  Hearing every voice sometimes means hearing a variety of ideas, which can be educational in its own right.

We got into a long discussion on teacher strikes and whose voices are left out on that, which I would have expected in the "Labour Perspectives" group, which I intentionally avoided because I'm so immersed in the issue at work, I'm weary of that conversation.  I get how it could be a way to engage students except that we have strict orders not to talk about it in the classroom.  

But the bulk of the conversation was about privilege, specifically Chris Hedges' privilege, and it was interesting to me how some people seemed to understand Hedges' position and how it differed from my own interpretation (as a white, middle class woman).

Here's what I heard Hedges say:
We can never allow the oppressed to become a distraction.  We must maintain vital human relationships with people who suffer.... We must build relationships with people experiencing oppression... to understand and learn so our actions are grounded in reality. Maintaining those relationships is vital.
He described the many journalists he knows who have been killed, the many friends he has in war torn places who are now dead, and how, at 40, as he helped carry a wounded boy from the street with gunfire continuing, and as he thought of his own son becoming traumatized by the psychological damage the job was having on his dad, he decided he had to stop taking these assignments.  And he told of quitting his job at the NYT when they asked him to stop writing against the establishment, and he shared the process of teaching in the prison system and encouraging his students to write a play together and then going the distance to get it on stage in NYC (Caged, coming here in January), and promising to take all their families to see it on opening night.

He spoke of growing up in a small town with a gay uncle and a minister dad who stood up against a homophobic congregation knowing it would cost him his job.  He spoke of the actions he took for the workers at Princeton, photographing their working conditions for an underground paper knowing he could be expelled for his actions.

Throughout his speech he gave credit to the many writers and activists who came before and during his time.

And in the break-out group, several people complained heatedly about his privilege and the fact that he doesn't know what it's like to walk down the streets in Toronto and be stopped and carded by police.

And I thought, quietly and a bit defensively - pretty defensively - that after all he lived through in other parts of the world, all he threw himself into in order to give marginalized people a voice, in countries where white journalists are routinely murdered, privileged is not the word that I would use to describe Chris Hedges.  I wanted to understand the anger some of the people in the room were feeling towards him, but it was a struggle.

Yes he's white and a man and necessarily privileged because of those facts, but how is it useful to rail against him for something he can't help?  And if we want to improve our situation collectively, who does it benefit to take down someone willing to risk so much for change?

Cole wisely turned it into a discussion of experiences and how difficult (or impossible) it is to share and know how another person's oppression works and how it feels, how it's hard to access that if it's not your own reality. Hedges can't speak to it if he's not experiencing it.  And one participant explained it in terms of macro and micro issues (paraphrased):
He's talking from a macro perspective, so it feels like he's not speaking to me.  But it's because he's not experiencing micro issues. 'Micro' makes it sound small and insignificant, but it's not.  So we have to find a place where the micro issues fit within the macro view.  
That helped diffuse the separateness I felt from the more vocal members of the group.  And I thought of the years I spent in training to be a sexual abuse counsellor, and one of the leaders reminding us over and over "pain is pain, and it can't be compared."  Similarly, we can't compare forms of oppression, and it doesn't do anyone any good to rank them.  Putting troubles on a hierarchy and complaining that others don't get it, or their issue isn't important enough, doesn't work to improve the situation.  It's a slimy way we've been trained to attack one another instead of looking to the real roots of the problems.

Similarly, during the labour discussion one participant suggested the solution is for teachers to give up some of their wages to people who have less money, as if a deduction in teacher wages would actually go towards helping reduce tuition costs.  That line reminded me of part of Diamond's Collapse in his chapter on Rwanda.
The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.
Instead of looking to the power source that is the heart of the problem -- and for us right now, that's the corporation/governmental policies that have removed the middle-class tax base (through outsourcing, technology implementation, stagnating wages) to the extent that there's not enough money for schools so class sizes have to get bigger and tuition has to increase -- we look to the group just a bit more comfortable than us, and revolt against them.  They're right in front of us, and it's simple and easy, but strikingly short-term and ineffective.

But some of the participants weren't done venting their anger about Hedges' privilege.

One was particularly upset that he had the forum to speak directly to the Dean, who was right in the room during his speech, about policies she implemented.  She seemed to be hoping for a bit of a telling-off to happen.

As an outsider to this school community, I had no idea what the policies were or that the Dean of a School of Social and Community Services would be anything but community minded and hyper-aware of social injustices.  So I question how fair it is to imply that Hedges should have known that, apparently, there's a problem at the school that he could be addressing.  Maybe I'm wrong and they're highly publicized and I was just unaware, but if they're not, then that's a lot to ask.

The idea that Hedges, as a white man, should step up to help the cause makes sense to me, though.  I sometimes show this video in my class because it explain that dynamic so clearly:



But this raises a different issue for me: the white man swooping in to save the day.  I used to show Power of One to my classes because it has some great bits for civics and history, but I stopped because it also has a narrative of a white man coming in to rescue the masses single-handedly. I despise any movie with women in need so grateful for the guy who can finally help, so I try to weed it out of my choice of films to show about apartheid or civil rights or first nation issues... But it is the case the a dominant voice can sometimes go further to help than a million marginalized voices, unless, of course, the dominant voice becomes seen as marginalized by association.

This idea was approached by a different participant who was concerned that Hedges didn't clarify that the oppressed and marginalized are the experts of their situation, and that when people want to help, they have to come in as allies, not as leaders.  He didn't say it overtly, so it's only because of my personal experiences that I heard it even though it wasn't verbalized.  But it IS something that needs to be made clear.

To really help, we have to get down on the ground to understand what the marginalized and vulnerable are experiencing and to find out what they need us to do, from our position in the world, to change the system.  But it's not always easy to figure out who needs help and who wants to help.  So we have to approach it all with the utmost care and respect for one another's lives.  And, a term we learned in philosophy courses when the readings were centuries old, we have to listen to people's stories and experiences charitably as best we can - especially when it's a struggle to understand a different position.  I'm not sure how well I'm doing on that one, but I'm still in the game.

Really simply, we have to stand up for each other and remember that the problem is where the power sits.  Hedges talked about rising up and using our bodies to stop the tar sands, and we can do the same for all the oppressing acts we might see, from hurtful words in the hallways to carding in the streets.

Something like that.


The Moral Imperative of Revolt


I prefer Hedges' subtitle to his title, Wages of Rebellion, but this post isn't about him per se.  Morally, we have to revolt against this corrupt system - like when the workers in Rome all walked out in a series of secessions (it doesn't always take the first time), or when the Barons and peasants turned on the King in the middle ages, or when workers in Winnipeg went on strike, and through all the rebellions against tyrannical rule in between and later.

The problem: unbridled power; the common people being subjected to the whims of the state; the masses living in poverty while the elites reap the rewards of their labour.  Right now we need a Clause 61 like they had in 1215:  25 MPs ordered to uphold the Charter in case the PM tries to overrule it:
Any infringement of the charter’s terms by the king or his officials was to be notified to any four of the committee; and, if within forty days no remedy or redress had been offered, then the king was to empower the full committee to ‘distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions’ until he made amends. In this remarkable clause, then, the charter introduced the novelty of obliging the king to sanction and institute armed action against none other than himself.

Over and over throughout history whenever a small group has found the means and strategy to get total control over a people, the people eventually revolted.  Many died trying before succeeding, and sometimes their efforts made life significantly better, and things improved for a time, until everyone got complacent again.  You'd think that any knowledge of history would make leaders wary of taking so much power for themselves and screwing over the masses.  You'd think.  

But things are frighteningly different today.  Religion is not the opiate of the masses anymore; the internet is.  We're back to bread and circuses.  We have it just good enough to ignore the news.

Here's Marx's full quote (italics are his - he was an emphatic writer):
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  
Getting rid of the distractions in our world is a red herring.  We have to get rid of the conditions that lead us to need so many distractions, the condition that requires illusions to exist.  We need to WAKE UP to the issues and get angry enough to act on them today.

This time, I fear, if we don't sort things out, we won't have another chance.  If we can't stop C-51 and openly protest the destruction of our air, water, and soil, then we are totally fucked.  

I'm a teacher using the "f-word," so you know this is serious!

C-51 could be made law this week if the Senate doesn't vote it down (click on each name to get a phone number and e-mail, or use this form instead/also).  An Ottawa Citizen article on the protests yesterday said,
Some organizers feel the turnout was also hurt by a general feeling of resignation, as polls show that, while more than half of Canadians now disagree with at least part of the proposed bill, they nevertheless believe C-51 will be pushed into law.... First Nations protest organizer Lynda Kitchikaeesic Juden is another strong opponent of the bill. “It troubles me and it worries me that other Canadians don’t realize that this bill, and this sounds horrible, but it means that they can be treated just like Natives,” she said.
MP Randall Garrison's speech is worth a read in full if there's any question that this bill needs to be defeated, as is Senator Grant Mitchell's blogpost.

People who let this go by without comment, without a letter in the mail or a sign in the streets, unless ignorant of the issue (which even my grade 10s understand), they are acting immorally.  As Geddy Lee said, "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice."  That silent choice is for unfettered authoritarian state control and the freedom to obliterate our natural resources, destroy water sources, oppress the workers, and make a profit for themselves at the expense of others.  Who wouldn't agree that's immoral?  Utilitarians and deontological philosophers alike would be on the side of rejecting the bill.  It doesn't maximize pleasure for the most people, and it can't be applied universally without contradiction.

Okay, Epicurus liked to keep out of these affairs entirely, and I've thought of getting a place in the middle of nowhere, off the grid, miles from a newspaper or internet access.  I admit I might have done it already if I had found a group of friends willing to come with.  But I didn't.  And it's just as well because we have a responsibility to the next generation and to the other species who don't have a voice in this mess.  And if Epicurus' friends were taken into custody for questionable scrolls, and once he acknowledged that his garden would be affected by climate change, he would have acted.  I mean, Lucretius wrote of him,
When 'human life lay groveling ignominously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition' one supremely brave man arose and became 'the first who ventured to confront it boldly.
And his student, Philodemus, wrote,
Men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires, and they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature...It is impossible to live pleasurably....without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.

So I think Epicurus wouldn't just sit in his garden oblivious to this one, chatting with his buddies about how to determine which desires are natural or necessary.  Because at this point, if we ignore politics, it won't just fizzle out, it will kill us all.

On Sublime Madness


"You don't fight fascism because you're going to win. You fight fascism because it is fascist."
     - Jean-Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason

In my previous post, I intended to write about Hedges' new book, Wages of Rebellion, but I got thoroughly overcome by a rant that's been building inspired by his subtitle.  So here's the gist of his writing without repeating ideas from previous posts of late (lots about the prison system that I already mentioned).


The Courage to Know, and to Join Together:
The greatest existential crisis we face is to at once accept what lies before us - for the effects of climate change and financial instability are now inevitable - and yet find the resilience to fight back. (28).  The last days of any civilization, when populations are averting their eyes from the unpleasant realities before them, become carnivals of hedonism and folly.... Culture and literacy, in the final stage of decline, are replaced with noisy diversions, elaborate public spectacle, and empty clich├ęs (33-34).   
We will have to find ways to fend for ourselves. And we will fend for ourselves only by building communitarian organizations (25).  It is the religion of capitalism, the maniacal quest for wealth at the expense of others, that turns human beings into beasts of prey...As those who build these communitarian structures discard the religion of capitalism, their acts of charity and resistance will merge - and they will be condemned by the corporate state (42-43). 
The goals of wholesale surveillance...is not, in the end, to discover crimes, "but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population" ... This fear and loss of spontaneity keep a population traumatized and immobilized and turn the courts, along with legislative bodies, into mechanisms that legalize the crimes of state (54-55).
Lynne Stewart, a lawyer for the poor, convicted on charges of conspiracy, was allowed to leave prison because of stage 4 cancer.  Her advice:
Don't let yourself get isolated....Find the other people who think like you....This is a pretty loveless world we live in....We have lots of romantic love. We have lots of Sex and the City. But real love, love that is the kind that saves people, and makes the world better, and makes you go to bed with a smile on your face, that love is lacking greatly.  You have to search for that (50).

Class Struggles and the Origins of Revolution:
Moral courage....is always defined by the state as treason (59).  The modern corporate incarnation of this nineteenth-century oligarchic elite has created a world-wide neofeudalism under which workers across the planet toil in misery while corporate oligarchs amass hundreds of millions in personal wealth.... Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. The seesaw of history has thrust the oligarchs upward. We sit humiliated and broken on the ground. It is an old battle. It has been fought over and over in human history. The only route left to us, as Aristotle (Part IX) knew, is either submission or revolt (66). 
Revolutions, when they begin, are invisible, at least to the wider society.  They start with the slow discrediting and dismantling of an old ideology and an old language used to interpret reality and justify power (67).  Berkman said, "Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point you cannot 'make' a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle. It is the fire underneath that makes it boil; how quickly it will come to the boiling point will depend on how strong the fire is" (86).  Thomas Paine, partly because he did not come to America from England until he was thirty-seven [kinda like John Oliver], understood that the British monarchy - not unlike our corporate state - had no interest in accommodation (154). 
In Germany there was a yearning for fascism before fascism was invented. It is the yearning that we now see.  if we do not swiftly reincorporate the unemployed and the poor back into the economy, giving them jobs and relief from crippling debt, then the nascent racism and violence that are leaping up around the edges of American society will become a full-blown conflagration. Left unchecked, the hatred for radical Islam will transform itself into a hatred for Muslims. The hatred for undocumented workers will become a hatred for Mexicans and Central Americans. The hatred for those not defined by this largely white movement as American patriots will become a hatred for African Americans. The hatred for liberals will morph into a hatred for all democratic institutions, from universities to government agencies to the press" (162).

Sublime Madness:

He starts his discussion of sublime madness with a quote from Nietzsche, but it's taken from a book by Max Weber rather from the original source.  Curious.  Anyway, here it is from the horse's mouth (Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, 39):
Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure - or to put it more clear, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.
Nietzsche's saying that most people need the truth to be watered down in order to cope with it, because it's painful to know.  It takes great strength and courage to face reality.  Hedges goes on to Kant:
It is impossible to defy "radical evil" - a phrase originally coined by Immanuel Kant to describe those who surrender their freedom and morality to an extreme form of self-adulation and later adopted by Hannah Arendt to describe totalitarianism - without "sublime madness (211).
Here's Kant's explanation of radical evil from Theory of Religion (aka Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), pages 42-44 (caps are his).  It's less about a group of people, as Hedges' words might imply, but about the evil within us all:
The vitiosity of human nature is, therefore, not so much WICKEDNESS - this word being understood in its severest sense, namely, as an inward wickedness, or intent of choosing evil as evil (for that were diabolical), - as rather PERVERSITY of heart, which, on account of the consequences flowing from it, is called AN EVIL HEART. This, however, is not inconsistent with a state of Will that may generally and on the whole be good, and arises from the infirmity of human nature, which is not sufficiently strong to adhere to the good principles it may once of all have adopted; coupled, however, with the impurity (insincerity) of not duly sifting and arranging the springs according to their ethic content, and of having an eye mainly to this, that actions quadrate with the Law, although they have not been originated by it. Now, although from such a state of matters VICE may not immediately arise, still the cast of thinking, whereby the absence of vice is looked upon as virtue, is already a radial perversity of the human heart.... 
This insincerity, shrouding our real inward character from our view, prevents the founding of genuine moral principles within, and spreads, after having deceived ourselves, so as next to beguile and impose upon others, which, if not wickedness, is at least worthlessness, and proceeds from the radical evil of human nature, which, by distorting and untuning our moral understanding in regard of what a man is to be taken for, renders slippery and uncertain all ethical imputation, and constitutes that rotten spot in humanity, which, until entirely severed, keeps back the germ of good from unfolding itself, as it otherwise infallibly would do.

But the important bit from Hedges is reaching this state of sublime madness:
The message of the rebel is disturbing because of the consequences of the truth he or she speaks.....To accept that nearly all forms of electronic communication are captured and stored by the government is to give up the illusion of freedom (213).  The moral life, celebrated only in the afterglow of history and often not celebrated at all, is lonely, frightening, and hard... The rebel knows the odds. To defy radical evil does not mean to be irrational. It is to have a sober clarity about the power of evil and one's insignificance and yet to rebel anyway. To face radical evil is to accept self-sacrifice (215). 
Those with sublime madness accept the possibility of their own death as the price paid for defending life. This curious mixture of gloom and hope, of defiance and resignation, or absurdity and meaning, is born of the rebel's awareness of the enormity of the forces that must be defeated and the remote chances for success. "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism," Havel wrote.  "It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." (219).   
People of all creeds and people of no creeds must make an absurd leap of faith to believe, despite all the empirical evidence around us, that the good draws to it the good.... and in theses acts we make possible a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us (226).

Hedges' Suggested Readings:

Emma Goldman's articles in Appeal to Reason
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
Ralph Nader's writings  - many pieces of legislation were written by him
Hannah Arendt - Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem
Auguste Blanqui's writings
Sheldon Wolin - Democracy Incorporated
Clive Hamilton - Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change
Alexander Berkman - The Idea is the Thing
Thomas Paine - Common Sense

On Measuring Well


In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras argue over the language Protagoras uses to explain what happens when, as he describes it, pleasure overtakes reason and people make horrible choices.  Socrates insists that it's not pleasure that overtakes reason, but ignorance.  Here's some key bits of the passage:
They maintain that there are many who recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be open to them, but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be the reason for this, they answer that those who act in this way are overcome by pleasure or pain or some other of the things I mentioned just now...  
He sets out the problem, and questions how something can be a pleasure if it causes greater pains and deprive us of future pleasures *coughclimatechangecough*.  And he explains the problem like this:    
The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance. This is true of thickness and also of number, and sounds of equal loudness seem greater near at hand than at a distance. If now our happiness consisted in doing, I mean in choosing, greater lengths and avoiding smaller, where would lie salvation? In the art of measurement or in the impression made by appearances? Haven't we seen that the appearance leads us astray and throws us into confusion so that in our actions and our choices between great and small we are constantly accepting and rejecting the same things, whereas the metric art would have canceled the effect of the impression, and by revealing the true state of affairs would have caused the soul to live in peace and quiet and abide in the truth, thus saving our life?' Faced with these considerations, would people agree that our salvation would lie in the art of measurement? ... 
What would assure us a good life then? Surely knowledge, and specifically a science of measurement, since the required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect... 
...when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains--that is, of good and evil--the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. We can go further, and call it, as you have already agreed, a science of measurement, and you know yourselves that a wrong action which is done without knowledge is done in ignorance. So that is what being mastered by pleasure really is--ignorance...

"The required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect."

The entire dialogue has Socrates questioning Protagoras, a sophist, if how to act, or virtue, can actually be taught to people.  Socrates is skeptical.  But then he argues that since being virtuous is contingent on knowledge, and knowledge can be taught, then virtue must be able to be taught.

The fact that this very behaviour has been on trial and discussed and debated for thousands of years and still we haven't found a solution makes me skeptical that it's teachable.  Not to mention the fact that people can know right and still do wrong, as Plato outlined in his Republic during a later period of writing, so people need to be made to do what's right under threat of punishment or exile for the benefit of society as a whole.

So we're horrible at measuring current pleasures against distant pains.  But even if we could, we enjoy doing wrong too much for knowledge alone to lead us down the right path.

Lovely.

We've been over this for thousands of years, yet we still value unfettered lives that lead to unspeakable tragedies, which we call evils, over some measure of restraint which could provide some current deprivations but lead to greater pleasures later.  That which we call the good.

So it goes.

On Being an Ally (and about Rachel Dolezal)


I'm not sure how to say this without being blasted, but I'll try:  I might understand a little piece affecting Rachel Dolezal decision to present as black rather than be a white ally.

I just have one story.  It was about ten years ago.  I had just finished reading The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative and was floored by it.  I couldn't believe I had never heard of her before.  The story is compelling, and it's a good length to offer to high school students.  I was curious if anyone else had tried teaching it to that age level, so I searched for forums where it was being discussed.  Then I unwittingly threw myself to the wolves by suggesting that I'd like to teach it in an English or history class.

The others on the forum were black, something I didn't think necessary to consider until they got very angry with me:  how DARE I consider teaching a book about a black experience when I'm white?

It was all kind of familiar because I've been in the middle of discussions about men teaching books about women - is it possible that men can understand the female experience enough to teach it?  Women can teach books about men because the subordinate group always knows about the dominant group.  Canadians know more about the U.S. than the other way around.  But I contend that it IS possible to look at life from an alien perspective.  It can't be done arrogantly, however, but must come from a place of respect and acknowledged ignorance, read charitably.  Like you can't really get Plato without an understanding of what Athens was going through at the time, we sometimes have to do extra research around people's environment and history to really feel their stories and understand the logic of their ideas.

I'm game to do the work, but I was so strongly dissuaded by this one black community, that I tossed the book aside believing I'm not worthy to teach it.

So it went untaught.

It's a double-edged sword.  If women think men shouldn't be teaching women's experiences, then, since most English profs are men, we might not have books by women on the syllabus.  And then we'll complain about that.  And if people of non-white heritage don't think white people can teach their stories, then they won't be taught - not because teachers don't care about those stories, but because they're afraid of doing it wrong.  And of course it's a problem that this part of the world is dominated by white men, and whites in general, but that's what we've got to work with right now.  Having the stories out there, taught by allies is one way to eat away at the system.

I know there are feminists who don't believe men can be feminists, but I'm not one of them.  I think it's important to get dominant voices (male voices) involved in the cause to help us get anywhere.  Similarly I think environmentalists have to approach big businesses as potential allies rather than threats.  I believe in intersectionality; I believe we can't undo the oppression or exploitation of one group without getting at them all.  Sexism, racism, LGBTQ issues, ablism, poverty, environmental destruction - it's all so clearly interconnected.

But, back to Dolezal.  I don't condone what she did at all, and I think she's got bigger issues under the surface there, but the one little piece maybe I do understand is that it can be hard to be an ally of a group you don't belong to.  People don't always trust you to speak for them if you haven't lived their experiences.  But I'm not sure we have time to do it any other way.


On Friendships of Utility


It sounds horrible, doesn't it?  Like we're using people, hanging out with them only because they have a nice car or because they often pick up the bill for lunch. I wrote here about utility like it's a bad thing, but what if we use people for their company? Does that make it different? And is that better, on an ethical continuum, than ditching people because they're bad company?

I have people in my life whom I find irritating and infuriating, yet I also love them all to bits. From time to time sometimes remarks on a friendship I have with someone I have had occasion to despise in the past. It seems some people are more likely to completely blot people out of their lives forever, and I think this has become a trend in relationship dynamics.

One point of view rejects the popular suggestion to ditch negative Nancies in favour of surrounding yourself only with positive people because the idea fosters a prejudice against people with depression. I'd add it also is very much using people in the worst way to improve your own emotional experience of the world (or something like that) instead of seeing people as valuable in their own right (not just as they relate to you).  But I also question the suggestion that same writer makes of ditching people who are "toxic," or perhaps my issue really is with how we define toxic. Sometime people are jerks. My general path after someone does something jerk-ish is to either avoid them for a while or, more expediently, tell them off, then there's often a sheepish awkward time to wade through, and then you can hang out again. The key part is the sheepishness, the remorse, some suggestion that it wasn't good behaviour and some movement towards changing that. People who get in a cycle of jerk-apology-jerk... or just jerk-jerk-jerk... can take a hike, but I don't think they're as common as self-help articles would have us believe. I fear we're sometimes a little quick to call a minor transgression "abuse." This isn't to negate actual abuse, but the contrary: when we use the word when it's not warranted, it waters it down until it becomes meaningless. It must be used with care.

The short answer I sometimes give for why I hang with people who have wronged me in the past is that I forgive easily, but that's really bullshit. If all were so easily forgiven, I don't think the emotions would be so easily dredged up at a reminder of that one horrible thing they did so many years ago. A different short answer offered by a sometimes-infuriating friend I adore is that I'm a walking victim, a sucker for punishment. I think it's more complicated than that.  

I think it's that I recognize we all suck sometimes. All of us do. But we're also all greater than the sum of our worst bits. So it's baffling to me that some people would choose to completely write off someone, forever, for a transgression they themselves might have committed had they been in the same circumstances. I try to remember that, even though I try to ensure my decisions and actions are moral, I am embarrassingly fallible. Then I end up friends with people whose decisions I don't wholly respect, but I also don't entirely respect some of the decisions I've made either. Works in progress, we are.

Typically I waver morally due to fear or ignorance. I might get so concerned with money or safety that I make regrettable decisions. Or I don't stop to think through the ethics of a decision, like putting money in a TFSA even though I think we should be taxed on interest on extra money we've accumulated. However, fear over losing social status doesn't drive me to immoral acts as much as it seems to affect others; I'm pretty content on lower ground. And I think this fear is one that can lead to a whole lot of mean-spirited actions in attempts to maintain our place on the pecking order. This is what causes some to go down that throw-them-under-the-bus path. But all things considered, we all falter in our choices, and we'll never get on the other side of that.

What I find trickier, though, is when people are affected by none of this, but they have a strikingly "different" morality than I have. Of course, a different morality is typically perceived as an immoral way of thinking unless I can be convinced that my view is actually in error. Years ago I was about to sell a house and found out, after making a verbal promise to a buyer but before signing, that my house was worth significantly more than I had thought. It was my word vs more money. It wasn't really such a dilemma because I had made a promise, and that was enough for me. I would have been sick with guilt had I told the buyer differently. But when I told friends of the situation, I was surprised by the number (all but one) who thought I had made the wrong choice. One told me, "When money's involved, then ethics have to go out the window." I feel the exact opposite is true: that ethics needs to deploy a steely resolve when money is in the picture. The only other person on my side also has a philosophy background, which leads me to believe that affects our ability and willingness to consider issues from this stance - a way that's a little less self-serving.

More recently, my daughter had been chastised by her friend's mom for stealing pastries from the friend's house. My daughter protested that the friend had stolen them, so it wasn't her fault. I asked her one question: "Did you know your friend wasn't supposed to have them?" Since she had, and she stood to benefit from the action, then, as far as I'm concerned, she's complicit. Therefore, she should apologize even though they didn't get a chance to actually eat the treats yet. It's a hard but, I believe, vitally important lesson to learn to take responsibility when we're involved in a wrong-doing even if we're not the direct actors. But a friend thinks my daughter's not responsible at all, and that give me pause - about the friend, not the morality of the situation.

These aren't as extreme examples as trying to maintain a friendship with someone who openly, head held high, plans to vote for Harper, but it can be unnerving to watch your view of important ethical considerations so casually tossed aside. None of these are deal-breakers for me though. But should they be? Is it lacking integrity to continue fostering relationships with people we find immoral? Or is it of the highest ethical standing to turn a blind eye to other's foibles?

But back to that utility thing: there's a cost-benefit analysis that comes into play that I don't sit with comfortably. I spend time with people I find entertaining. Their moral choices could be questionable, but if they make me laugh or think or get me up dancing, then whatever. There are people out there who are far more careful with their decisions, but if they're boring, then I'm out. I will hang out with people who don't recycle or who think feminism is a waste of time or who think some people should 'go back to their own country' if they like the same movies I like. And that feels really shallow. It is really shallow. I clearly value entertainment over ethics, but I also can turn a blind eye to the nasty parts for the benefit of the other bits of people who might be generally kind even if their world view is on the narrow side.

Is it better (more ethical) to refuse to talk with people because of their stance on an issue or to tolerate the questionable ethics and refuse to give up on anyone that presents the mildest connection?

What would Aristotle say?

He'd call these relationships I've described as, technically, based on pleasure, not utility, and see them as of a slightly higher quality than utility because we appreciate the witty character of the other rather than just their pragmatic usefulness. We're still using someone for something, but it's a product of their character we're using rather than their things or abilities, so it's somewhat less transient. Permanence is everything for many of the ancient Greeks. Things that last longer are necessarily better, which is an arguable way to value friendship at the outset. Both of these conditions, pleasure or utility, are lacking because they can change over time. If my sense of humour or taste in music alters, then my friendships might fall apart. The day it hit me that catch-and-release fishing is barbaric altered one relationship dramatically, but that doesn't necessarily negate the friendship that existed prior to the change, however brief.

But, according to Aristotle, these relationships are 'incidental' because they're selfish in nature. They're about a net gain from a transaction of some sort, hence my discomfort. But is it a problem if it's a mutual using, if there's a net gain on both sides? IF someone's no longer funny because of an illness, and the friendship dissolves, does that mean it didn't exist? Is a fairweather friend still a friend? What we're supposed to be after is a friendship in which we both admire one another's values and that helps us to be more ethical than we would be otherwise. This is something I might hope for in a romantic relationship, maybe, but I can't actually imagine finding it in a variety of friendships.
"Do men love, then, the good, or what is good for them [or what seems good for them]?...To be friends, then, there must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other" (2).... those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him....Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing....But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have 'eaten salt together'; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not" (3).
For a friendship to exist, we have to wish the other well, so any serious competition between two buddies could end things even if they keep hanging out as if they each actually wanted the other to get that promotion. But that's an interesting bit he says at the end of that passage: that a mutual wish for friendship is different than a friendship. According to Aristotle, if we're not alike in virtue then the company we keep are mere wishes rather than actualities.
"This kind of friendship, then, is perfect both in respect of duration and in all other respects, and in it each gets from each in all respects the same as, or something like what, he gives; which is what ought to happen between friends....Those who are friends for the sake of utility part when the advantage is at an end; for they were lovers not of each other but of profit....This bit is key to my discussion here: For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation" (4).
But, as I suggested, this can happen in a pleasure or utility based relationship also out of sense of equity. It's not the case that friends will necessarily want to each have a better deal and run as soon as we're on the losing end. We can be ethically and equitably minded regardless of affection and equal virtue. The only thing lacking seems to be longevity. It might not go on as long as one with matching virtues. But I question the level of effort we put into friendships that aren't of this special brand or "true." When Montaigne's BFF got the plague, he sat with him day and night until he died. I would definitely do that for one of my kids, and likely for a close family member or partner, but with most friends, I might drop by to offer help, to offer a place if they're put out on the street, or offer labour to fix a shed, or offer an afternoon of company. But I wouldn't be there day and night even if I might want to be. There are closer loved-ones who would sit by the wasting body. I'm not at that level with any of my friends, and it's curious that we relegate that much more to romantic attachments now. The romance-friend hierarchy flipped in the past couple of centuries.  But I don't believe my lack of bedside sitting means the friendship doesn't exist - that it's just a wished for friendship.
"The truest friendship, then, is that of the good, as we have frequently said; for that which is without qualification good or pleasant seems to be lovable and desirable, and for each person that which is good or pleasant to him; and the good man is lovable and desirable to the good man for both these reasons...those who live together delight in each other and confer benefits on each other....Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together" (5).
He paints a picture of friends who are so close they want to spend their days and nights together. I think that would be ideal - based on fond memories of living with friends in university - but I can't imagine it happening once everyone starts families. It works better if we're only talking about men, and the women and kids are cordoned off elsewhere. The best living situation I had was with a friend who called me, stuck in BC with only just enough cash for a flight home, but then nowhere to live. I offered free room and board in exchange for all the cooking, cleaning, and general upkeep of my house. He stayed almost a year until he got a job out of town. Today we still each think we got the better deal. It's only when you live together that you can start routines like Thursday night homemade fries in front of Seinfeld. They seem like nothing, but little traditions are bonding in a way we don't always notice until later. It's effortless to maintain a friendship when they're always there to talk with and eat with and argue with. But now that he's gone, I haven't seen him in years. Was that just a wished for friendship?

Aristotle's last bit of advice:
"People who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends; for they wish to live with some one and, though they can endure for a short time what is painful, no one could put up with it continuously, nor even with the Good itself if it were painful to him; this is why they look out for friends who are pleasant. Perhaps they should look out for friends who, being pleasant, are also good, and good for them too; for so they will have all the characteristics that friends should have" (6).
Good AND good for them? That's an awful lot to ask of such a fallible lot. It makes me wonder if we've truly lost that much character over the millennia or if Aristotle's standards were always out of reach for most of us.