This is my first foray into newAPPS waters-- and I thank the newAPPS coterie for the invitation!-- so I thought I’d start by tossing out a fairly straightforward philosophical claim: Tolerance is not a virtue.
When I say that tolerance is not a virtue, to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that tolerance is a vice. No reasonable moral agent, certainly no moral philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede that. Rather, I only want to point out that “being tolerant” requires at most little if not nothing more than refraining from being vicious. Not only is it the case that we don’t define any other virtue in this explicitly negative way, but we also don't generally ascribe any particular kind of moral credit to persons who are merely refraining from being vicious.
I want to offer a reading of the classic film Casablanca through the lens of a conception of love developed in bell hooks's All About Love. In that series of essays, hooks picks up on ideas of M. Scott Peck's in The Road Less Traveled. Peck, whether explicitly or not - I haven't read that book - is developing Aristotelian notions. Leaving that aside, and taking a few liberties with what hooks has to say, the concept of love that I want to make use of here is roughly this: a mutual social-psychological orientation between a group of people through which they systematically contribute to each other's spiritual growth. (Here 'spiritual' can be given a more directly Aristotelian reading in terms of virtue, or others. These differences do not matter for present purposes.)
A few quick points: this is meant in the sense of concept crafting. That is, the claim is not that this notion captures the (all, even some) commonsense usage of 'love' but that it is a useful concept for cutting some aspects of moral-social-psychological reality at the joints. Note as well that this notion of love is not at all essentially tied to romantic love. It applies as well to friendship, parenting, political comreades, members of a close social group, etc. Importantly, this sense of love is not equated with affect or emotion, though some sorts of emotional engagement may be necessary. It is essentially measured by effect. Love is a relationship that leads to mutual growth, reinforced by the relationships that nurture it. Finally, note the emphasis on mutuality - which is not to say symmetry. A loving relationship is one in which each nurtures the growth of the others. There may be healthy relationships that nurture growth in one direction, but that is something different, and something that is very likely to quickly become unhealthy.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
Now, reflection on this very small sample (add your favorite example in comments!) inclines me to delimit a certain genre of philosophically effective ridicule (as opposed to mere character assassination); this genre, relies on the magnification of a core philosophical commitment of the opponent and thereby render the whole project preposterous or laughable. I label this a 'Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy.' Nietzsche's writings are littered with attempts at Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy, although he often suggests that the contrasting strategy -- ridicule by way of minimization (e.g., Berkeley on minute philosophers) -- comes more naturally to him.
Of course, such a Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy is compatible with the existence of effective arguments against the ridiculed opposition (as well as the existence of argumentative rejoinders). It is also compatible with holding a rather austere (what we may call, adopting a phrase from Derrida) 'ethics of writing'. Given the sample, I hasten to add that even if the meta-ethical-writing-principles were shared, the enacted norms of writing may differ widely. We should distinguish the Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy from other forms of ridicule (which, say, rely on misrepresentation, incredulous stares, silencing techniques, etc.).
I conclude my preliminary analysis by way of a suggestion; in some possible world it ought to be possible to execute the Swiftian-Rabelaisian strategy under, as it were, the radar without, say, being funny. To give a hint of an example: when Locke takes on the stance of an 'under-labourer' he magnifies some privileged others (Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens Newton). Nobody would ever accuse Locke of being a funny writer, but it would be amusing if he were capable of an inside joke.
We already know that with a social graph at its disposal, a mood graph would give Facebook an incredible edge over its competitors for customizing ads and recommendations, as well as predicting users’ future feelings. But consider this: Even if you’re someone who doesn’t share anything, Facebook could potentially reverse-engineer your emotional persona by filling in the blanks from your like-minded friends’ emotional states. In other words, the more your friends emote and translate their soulful moments into basic data points, the more Facebook can determine what makes you tick, too.
In short, thanks to persuasive interface design and non-transparent algorithms, we may be providing emotional labor without even knowing it.
You'd literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy.... We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilisation 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that's not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.
But if, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; (Spinoza, TTP, Preface)
Evolved Apprentice Kim Sterelny claims there has been an over-estimation
of the difficulty of cheater detection in small groups. (Hence he is not a
supporter of Machiavellian Intelligence theories alone; in fact, cheater
detection is less demanding than coordinating cooperation [2012, 7-10].) The
real issue for him is to explain how cooperation in complex tasks works. His answer,
apprenticeship, is fascinating in its own right, but what I want to concentrate
on here is the way in which at the end of his book Sterelny poses the question
of functionalism, or if you prefer, the Spinoza question: why do people
go along with hierarchies when they are at the bottom – or at least not at the
[UPDATE 8 August, 2:25 pm CDT: comments by Roberta Millstein and by "bizarre" have convinced me that the author of the review, David Haig, is better seen as *diagnosing* tough guyism in his neo-Darwinist colleagues rather than as exemplifying it. My thanks to them for pushing me to see this. I'll leave the post as is -- for the record, as it were -- but ask readers to keep this change of view in mind in reading it.]
This is a fine review of Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Jablonka (MIT, 2011), but its conclusion is somewhat marred by a classic flaw: it attributes an "emotional reaction" to its targets without acknowledging that its own position is also emotionally inflected rather than being simply "intellectual." We can call this the self-denying political affect* of tough guyism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: "I think the message of this episode is unfortunate. By Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living. An intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did--buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law and then wait."
This Salon interview with an urbanist about Gezi was published the afternoon before the 15 June police attack. It includes this memorable description of sports fandom, occupation of public space, and political affect:
On Saturday [1 June] there was a back and forth struggle with the police all day, but they backed off around 3PM, largely thanks to the Beşiktaş soccer team’s ultra fans, Çarşı. They maintained a solid front before the tear gas and police. Their steady patience at the front line kept those us of behind them in place up until the police retreated. Then, we all rushed into the park shouting ideological slogans. The feeling of walking back in was amazing, powerful…. It’s a standard thing to walk in a park. You know, “It’s like a walk in the park,” the saying goes, but the effort here transformed it. To be with those thousands of people taking control of our urban space, our park, in our city came with a sense of communal empowerment I’d never felt.
Facebook was awash with jokes yesterday poking fun at McGinn and his defenders. (You know who you are! ["you" = the jokesters and the defenders]) Taking off from the original Defense of Snark, I would like to defend mockery in the McGinn case as an important means of norm enforcement. In other words, mocking the inanity of McGinn's defenders with their "out of context" or "he was just conveying the results of his research" maneuvers does two things I think: one, it ups the social cost of traditional defenses of the indefensible, and two, it sends a message of encouragement to those thinking of pressing charges but worried about what the defenders of the accused will say.
As some of you may know, Niall Ferguson engaged in a bit of gay-bashing yesterday (links below), holding that Keynes wouldn’t have cared about future generations because he was gay (the point is apparently taken from Gertrude Himmelfarb: see the Delong item referred to below). Now he has apologized. In my view no one is obliged to accept an apology: should we accept Ferguson’s and move on, as they say?
Henry Blodgett at Business Insider was one of the first with the story.
Tom Kostigen at Financial Advisor also reported on Ferguson’s remarks.
One brother is dead and the other is in custody in a hospital. Obviously I loathe what they did. Obviously my thoughts are with the victims and their families. Obviously I would have stopped them if I could have, by any means whatsoever. But I also feel enormously sad that a 19 year old boy could come to this. And being a naturalist - that is not believing that things happen magically because of some supernatural force for evil - I believe that there is some explanation for why this happened. Maybe his brain chemicals are at different levels from ours. Maybe he underwent some trauma - either acute or chronic. Maybe he was taken in by an irrational ideology or systematically trained as are government torturers. Maybe all of these. I have no idea, and neither do you. Probably we would never fully understand even if we tried. But something happened, something contingent and potentially avoidable. And I hope that there is a way to redeem some modicum of life for this boy also. I hope that there is a way for all to find restorative, rather than vindictive, justice in this. I hope we can do better than toss one more body on the pile.
I think the discussions in the books demonstrate a slogan of mine, that "our nature is to be so open to our nurture that it becomes second nature."* What I mean by this is that we are "bodies politic," that is to say, due to our neuroendrocrinological plasticity, social experience will shape our bodies in accord with the subjectification practices in which we participate more or less consciously and willingly. Experience goes deep, you could say, right down to the brain's neurons and hormones. But there's a variation in that depth, I think; some depths are deeper than others.
Last night, Michelle
Obama presented the award for best picture at the Oscars. She said
all the usual inspirational stuff about movies making us laugh and cry and teaching
us something important about the human spirit. In Hollywood’s America, it doesn't matter what
you look like (wink, wink - race), where you come from (wink, wink -
immigration), or who you love (wink, wink - gay marriage), if you believe in
yourself, you can make your dreams come true. We all know it’s bullshit, and yet… hey, it’s
But wait a second! Isn't Michelle Obama the First Lady of the United
States? The wife of the President? And who are those smiling white people
standing behind her in military pomp and little bow ties? Is she actually
speaking from the White House?
Presenting an entertainment award? I know that's kind of weird, and
yet... she looks great! Her bangs are a little heavy, but it works.
Last week I presented a paper* on "Plato, Political Affect, and Lullabies"** at a wonderful conference at CUNY. One key point is Plato's claim that habits of transgression formed from repeated petty misdeeds can ripple up to bad effect in a polity (788b-c). In the plus ça change category, I read this AP story on "zero tolerance" school policies in the morning paper. Some key grafs:
Zero tolerance traces its philosophical roots to the "broken windows" theory of policing, which argues that if petty crime is held in check, more serious crime and disorder are prevented.[***]
Among the great early
Modern thinkers, Hobbes famously emphasizes the role of fear in the state of
nature in prompting the agreement to form the civil state—and fear of a return
to the state of nature once in such a state. The reason we must be afraid in –
and of – the the state of nature is the widespread ability of people to kill
each other; while asleep, even the strongest can be killed by the weakest (Ryan,
1996; Foucault, 2003; Hull, 2009; on the general relation of reason and passion
in Hobbes, see Coli, 2006).
The other great early Modern thinker whom we will
treat is Spinoza.
Max Weber defines political sovereignty as the monopoly on the legitimate
use of force within a territory. But there is a problem: how to
unleash yet control the killing potential of the forces of order, the army and
the police? The problem is especially acute in the
crucial point of counter-revolution: will the army fire on “the people”? Plato
saw this problem clearly in his analysis of the character of the guardians, who
had to be kind to friends yet fierce to enemies (Republic, 375c).
Interestingly enough, the problem is more on the
“unleashing” side than on the “controlling” side, for killing is less easy than
it might seem for those raised with a Hobbesian outlook in which the ability to
kill is assumed to be widespread. We should recall here the way Hobbes emphasizes the role of fear in
the state of nature in prompting the agreement to form the civil state—and fear
of a return to the state of nature once in such a state. The reason we must be
afraid in – and of – the the state of nature is the widespread ability of
people to kill each other; while asleep, even the strongest can be killed by
This NYT article (h/t Greg Downey on FB; check out his Neuroanthropology blog) lays out research on the effects of social conditions (isolation vs integration) on PTSD. Greg excerpted this quote:
It turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors. Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself.
I thought this one about Nepalese ex-child soldiers provided a good concrete example:
But in villages that readily and happily reintegrated them (usually via rituals or conventions specifically designed to do so), they experienced no more mental distress than did peers who had never gone to war. The lasting harm of being a child soldier, it seemed, arose not from the war but from social isolation and conflict afterward.
As M.P. notes here in comments on Mohan's post, there is an undercurrent of thought (using the term lightly) that defends absolutist interpretations of the 2nd Amendment by claiming that widespread ownership of guns (sometimes specified as assault weapons) serves as a last line of defense against "tyranny."
The university's Board of Trustees proposed and unanimously approved the fingerprinting policy earlier this fall as a way to better protect minors on campus from potential criminals, reportedly following the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case that rocked Pennsylvania State University in 2011. "It's prudent for us to do our due diligence and make sure we don't hire people like that," Florida Gulf Coast President Wilson Bradshaw told local media last month."
A petition at whitehouse.gov urging that Texas should secede from the United States has gathered over 100,000 signatures. Following the iron logic of secession, El Paso and Austin have filed petitions to secede from Texas should it secede from the US, and no doubt certain neighborhoods of those cities will file petitions to secede from the secession from the secession.
Texans should really think twice about this. The United States has a tendency to turn the governments of small- to medium-sized oil-rich countries into unstable dictatorships, and then, when it tires of its new playthings, it bombs them. Texas, or rather Texans, would, of course, save a significant amount of money if they no longer paid Federal income tax. But even $389 million doesn’t go very far when one stealth bomber costs a billion.
This NYT article on Occupy Sandy (h/t to Mark on FB) is noteworthy for highlighting a pressing problem for more-or-less anarchist strains of thought as they cross political affect.
"Occupy Wall Street has managed through its storm-related efforts not only to renew the impromptu passions of Zuccotti, but also to tap into an unfulfilled desire among the residents of the city to assist in the recovery. This altruistic urge was initially unmet by larger, more established charity groups, which seemed slow to deliver aid and turned away potential volunteers in droves during the early days of the disaster."
The question is how to institutionalize for efficiency without losing the face-to-face that helps drive empathy and altruism. I tend to take a modest evolutionary psychology angle here -- there really is something about faces for human beings and that something is plausibly an evolved predisposition for emotional resonance. Of course, the big question here is the ontological status of "predisposition."
The event of Hurricane Sandy is multi-dimensional; its sociological dimension is that people on the ground are "their own first responders," in Russel Honoré's phrase. Honoré's experience leading the militarized rescue effort in New Orleans after Katrina matches what sociologists have long demonstrated (and what Rebecca Solnit narrates in A Paradise Built in Hell): what appears in disasters is prosocial behavior, not atomized predation.
So, at the age of 32, I uncapped my pen to create a concept that could
be popular in the East and the West. I would go back to the very sources
from which others took violent and hateful messages and offer messages
of tolerance and peace in their place. I would give my heroes a Trojan
horse in the form of THE 99. Islam was my Helen. I wanted her back.
THE 99 references the 99 attributes of Allah - generosity, mercy, wisdom
and dozens of others not used to describe Islam in the media when you
were growing up. But if I am successful, by the time you read this, you
will not believe that such an era could have ever existed.
Knowing that children will learn vicariously from THE 99 to be tolerant
of all who believe in doing unto others as we would have them do unto
us, makes me very proud.--Naif Al-Mutawa (Exerpted from here).