“Just the Facts, Mam.”

Fact fistToday, I saw an article floating around social media called “No, It’s not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong” by Jef Rouner. It comes at the heels of similar articles, like this one from Vox about professors being afraid of liberal students or this cogent blog post about Twitter by Alex Ried.

As Rouner puts it, “There’s a common conception that an opinion cannot be wrong.” In many cases, this is fine. I mat have an opinion on certain music or food. Having that opinion relies on aesthetic judgement, which may be informed, but has a different standard than scientific “fact.”

As the article points out, however, many people have “opinions” that seem to contradict “fact.” Bringing in the usual suspects–climate change deniers, people who connect autism to vaccines, people who doubt privilege–the article tries to argue that such “opinions” are simply wrong. They are misconceptions. Factual errors.

I think the brusque way the article deals with the problem, typical of most contemporary mainstream rhetoric, dodges some of the deeper complications. In reality, I think we have a major epistemological issue afoot, where our sense of fact, truth, or opinion, and the standards we use to judge these words have become really messy.

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In this together, but alone

With the protests in Baltimore taking place, I’ve been thinking a lot about race, equality, and social media. I don’t post much on the subject, as I’m not sure how I fit in to the whole debate, but prompted by some conversations and thinking from this past week, I feel compelled to sort out my thoughts in a public or semi-public place. I don’t want to point any fingers or espouse any solution. Instead, I mainly just want to clarify.

In terms of labels, and the privileges traditionally ascribed to them, I’m high on the chart: straight, white, male, able-bodied, and upper middle class. I’m not part of the 1%, but I have never had to face any real discrimination. At most, I’ve had to curb decisions and trim back dreams due to constraints on money.

That said, I have felt “other” at points, whether through mingling in counterpublics or traveling to Egypt, where I was the minority at the station, in the markets, on the streets, etc. It is an odd feeling. A certain embodied and spatial self-consciousness, a sense of uncanny distance–even rejection–from the stuff and people around you. A sense of the exiled, alien, or intrusive.

With that in mind, I can’t say my experience connects to the experience of those alienated by the public sphere at large. My experience is vastly different from theirs, and I think that’s the key: find a multiculturalism that doesn’t try to erase the meaningful differences that do exist, but that provides a place where conversation can take place. Recognizing difference, but also recognizing relationship.

For example, Cornell West points out how many Black leaders become washed down or “de-odorized,” in his words. We see this with MLK, honoring his “I have a Dream Speech” without recognizing his widespread attacks on capitalism or militarism. Or, as with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, many white Americans–and the media and textbooks I’ve encountered at large–stress the nonviolent turn they took, as if their violent actions were merely a muddy memory and not a meaningful response to the oppression they faced.

In more contemporary contexts, many white Americans might stress the “I recognize my privilege” narrative, while the victimized narratives of minorities–and the anger it expresses–becomes secondary. Some may attack the looting without reflecting on the anger, frustration, the institutional poverty that causes it, left over from hundreds of years of race relations, struggle, and oppression. On the converse, others may fixate on the violence, without looking at the nonviolence and cooperation that may take place on the sidelines. Or impose boarders that leave people alienated and uncertain. Or rely on unchallenged cultural assumptions and group dynamics, like the classic “rugged individualism” narrative.

Simply put, some narratives are more marketable or palatable than others. Some are easier to grasp, easier to hold onto, easier to repeat, easier to spread, or shout, or celebrate. Or, more bleakly, our own inborn biases–our confirmation biases, Dunbar’s numbers, and in-group proclivities–and our cultivation as individual people with limited access and viewpoints in an American milieu prevent us from seeing the whole stage. We get stuck, in a sense, caught up in simplification because the broader picture is so messy, uncertain, ugly, and inconvenient.

We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.

As I said, I don’t want to propose a solution, and though I unintentionally point my finger at certain broad perspectives, I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m flawed. Even this thinking-through or “essai” may be fraught with errors, may be dangerous, may be constraining and insensitive.

If anything, though, I think we need a certain kind of sympathy, a certain kind of identification that traditional in-group out-group dynamics and bland #AllLivesMatter multiculturalism do not meet. Once upon a time, Americans were called “The People of Feeling.” Sympathy and “fellow-feeling” was a bedrock of politics and social relations. It was a scientific fact that filled all sorts of writings. Granted, as many scholars–like Julia Stern and Andrew Burstein–note, it often excluded many black Americans and women, but I think it still has some use for us today.

I know of few other things that highlight these affective ties and social relations as clearly and viscerally as sympathy. As Diane Davis argues, in order for unifying symbols–like language or culture–to develop, one must first consider an “always prior relation to the foreign(er) without which no meaning-making or determinate (symbolic) relation would be possible.” In other words, we are always in relation. We are always “being-with.”

With this in mind, we always have an ethical obligation to recognize our inherent relationship. But at the same time, that relationship always recognizes the inherent difference or “foreign” element of the other. Through “sympathetic imagination” and “emotional contagion” we may break down boarders, but a separation always persists for most of us. “I” can never be fully “you.”

So perhaps I lied (again), and I am putting forth a position, but it is a pretty basic  one: we are all different, each with different (inaccessible) worlds and stories, but we are also in the same communities, the same country, the same world.

With this in mind, I see the role of activism. I do not see myself fitting that role personally, but I think activism and the laws and tradition that allow such activism provide key resources. They are necessary. They are beneficial. But they also have a profound ethical dimension, because activism always addresses “our” world, not “my” world or “your” world. All of our individual actions ripple through the whole.

As one of my teachers would always say, “It’s complicated.” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek progress or clarity. I think it just means we must do so with a clear sense of sympathy and “humility,” mindful of the “ground” where each of us stands and why.

The need for philosophy

I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

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Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
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What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason

We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.frowny-face

If anything, emotions make life interesting.

But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”

Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government. 

Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions. 

Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.

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“I Am”: A sense of self

Image courtesy of Forbes.com
Image courtesy of Forbes.com

In 1841 a little-known English poet escaped an asylum and wandered back to his childhood home in the farmland of Northamtonshire, convinced that he was married to a woman who had died three years earlier.

The poet, John Clare, said that separation from his childhood home–its fields, cottages, and the small taverns where he worked–had made him increasingly alienated from his own self. His later poems reflect his fixation. In one he claims that he was once Shelly and Lord Byron. In his most famous one, “I Am,” he reflects on his isolation:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed.

Isolated and unknown, Clare clings to the few activities, memories, and passions that adhere to his fragmented self. This raises an important question: Who is this “I Am” Clare speaks of, separated from his roots? Who is an I? What is a self?

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Egypt: a reaction

When I first read Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out–“ about a boy getting killed in a chainsaw accident, I cringed at the final sentence: “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

Egypt, street scene

How could they be so calloused? I thought. That boy just died, and they “turned to their affairs”?

I now understand that we must often turn to our affairs despite tragedy or else nothing would get done. Held down, scarred over, and silenced with whiteout, our memories remain, but we move on. There’s even a sort of stoic courage there.

Egypt has resurfaced in the news as the violence worsens. As of this writing, the mainstream media has confirmed over 800 people dead since unrest began. That doesn’t count the thousands of injured. The burned churches. The torched and dismantled government buildings. The barricades. The shattered lives. The unconfirmed dead. The fear.

Another teacher I worked with reported on a blog how a priest she knows was riding in car when a man with a knife started chasing him. The fast-thinking driver saved the priest’s life.

“Today this same priest told me that priests in Egypt fear being led like sheep to the slaughter,” the teacher wrote.  

It’s one image in a complicated mosaic.

“It was a hell,” a doctor said about the violence a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine what he’d say now, with hundreds dying and motorcycles carrying bodies back from front lines to makeshift morgues in mosques.

I, too, worry about the friends I made, the places I saw, the people I shook hands with. They are more than statistics. The grease and dust from their hands has washed off, but I still feel it. I still hear their stories, remember their smiles. Every update makes me think of them.

I want to mourn or fight, but I must “turn to my affairs”–so says that voice inside my head, that voice that points to all the practical, at-hand problems I must deal with: loans, money, drivers’ tests, GRE exams, messy kitchens.

I’m getting them done, but my mind is still in Egypt.

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Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

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Almond Blossoms

Another excerpt from my memoir, a polished-up and expanded older piece: almond blossom

On Sunday, Jun. 24, Egypt announced its first democratically elected president: Muhammad Morsi. It’s a milestone for any nation. Egypt is no exception.

I ‘d like to say I was huddled in some austere bunker nibbling rations as a radio murmured Morsi’s name through static, or that I was near Tahrir, watching a sea of faces, cheers, and gun shots rattle in the air as people celebrated the pick.

They’d make good stories.

Instead, I was taking a nap. From my window, I heard someone shout Morsi’s name from the street, so I cracked my lids open to decipher the echoes. When no one else shouted, I closed my eyes again.

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