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Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21.2 They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group's leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. "Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech's own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren't going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them. At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 A.M., they were getting seriously worried.

At 4:45 A.M., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. "And mighty is the word of God," she told her followers, "and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room." The group's mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group's members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech's prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger's.
17 January 2011 @ 02:05 pm

15 January 2011 @ 01:15 am
A test from a self-labeled "mindhacker": if you fail to achieve something, how will you feel about it? The answer may not seem so important. But it is, because it reveals whether you are motivated by a positive force or merely trying to avoid something. When positively motivated, not succeeding means nothing to you. You have no guilt, no shame, no torment, and no regret about the fact. You gave it a shot, and there's nothing more to ask.

On the other hand, if you feel bad or guilty for not succeeding, you are actually using your goal to move away from or avoid something else. Students regularly experience guilt for procrastinating on school work. They are only working because they want to avoid bad grades, not because they are really concerned with getting decent grades. That is, their focus is really on avoiding some state of affairs rather than gaining something specific.

Being positively motivated to do school work isn't that important. It's good, but it won't ruin your whole life. Probably just the nights you have to stay up late doing schoolwork. But if you are consistently running away from something -- bad grades, the inherent uncertainty of life, loneliness, reality, anything that recurs in your life -- it is bound to be unhealthy.

04 January 2011 @ 11:17 pm
From Rainer Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:

0: "You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sound - wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted."

1: "We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So you mustn't be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change."

1.5: "Don't observe yourself too closely. Don't be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame (that is: morally) at your past, which naturally has a share in everything that now meets you. But whatever errors, wishes, and yearnings of your boyhood are operating in you now are not what you remember and condemn. The extraordinary circumstances of a solitary and helpless childhood are so difficult, so complicated, surrendered to so many influences and at the same time so cut off from all real connection with life that, where a vice enters it, one may not simply call it a vice. One must be so careful with names anyway; it is so often the name of an offense that a life shatters upon, not the nameless and personal action itself, which was perhaps a quite definite necessity of that life and could have been absorbed by it without any trouble. And the expenditure of energy seems to you so great only because you overvalue victory; it is not the "great thing" that you think you have achieved, although you are right about your feeling; the great thing is that there was already something there which you could replace that deception with, something true and real. Without this even your victory would have been just a moral reaction of no great significance; but in fact it has be come a part of your life. Your life, dear Mr. Kappus, which I think of with so many good wishes. Do you remember how that life yearned out of childhood toward the "great thing"? I see that it is now yearning forth beyond the great thing toward the greater one. That is why it does not cease to be difficult, but that is also why it will not cease to grow.

And if there is one more thing that I must say to you, it is this: Don't think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words."

2: " Irony: Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of fife. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn't be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless. Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world arises from a necessity of your being. For under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you (if it is something accidental), or else (if it is really innate and belongs to you) it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with."

3: "Read as little as possible of literary criticism. Such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are clever word-games, in which one view wins , and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating."

4: "In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!"

5: "[E]verything that may someday be possible for many people, the solitary man can now, already, prepare and build with his own hands, which make fewer mistakes. Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can't take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don't torment them with your doubts and don't frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn't be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn't necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama, that is always stretched tight between parent and children; it uses up much of the children's strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn't comprehend Don't ask for any advice from them and don't expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it."

6: "I don't want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing.

And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own world, from the vastness of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child's wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are a participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from.

Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own - only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people. Who says that you have any attitude at all? l know, your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, there is nothing I can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty. The situation you must live in now is not more heavily burdened with conventions, prejudices, and false ideas than all the other situations, and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom, there is nevertheless none that is, in itself, vast and spacious and connected to the important Things that the truest kind of life consists of. Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life. What you, dear Mr. Kappus, now have to experience as an officer, you would have felt in just the same way in any of the established professions; yes, even if, outside any position, you had simply tried to find some easy and independent contact with society, this feeling of being hemmed in would not have been spared you. It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness; if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad and happy in just the same way and if you think of your childhood, you once again live among them, among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value."

7: "It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves ("to hearken and to hammer day and night"), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.

It is true that many young people who love falsely, i.e., simply surrendering themselves and giving up their solitude (the average person will of course always go on doing that), feel oppressed by their failure and want to make the situation they have landed in livable and fruitful in their own, personal way. For their nature tells them that the questions of love, even more than everything else that is important, cannot be resolved publicly and according to this or that agreement; that they are questions, intimate questions from one human being to another, which in any case require a new, special, wholly personal answer. But how can they, who have already flung themselves together and can no longer tell whose outlines are whose, who thus no longer possess anything of their own, how can they find a way out of themselves, out of the depths of their already buried solitude?

They act out of mutual helplessness, and then if, with the best of intentions, they try to escape the convention that is approaching them (marriage, for example), they fall into the clutches of some less obvious but just as deadly conventional solution. For then everything around them is convention. Wherever people act out of a prematurely fused, muddy communion, every action is conventional: every relation that such confusion leads to has its own convention, how ever unusual (i.e., in the ordinary sense immoral) it may be; even separating would be a conventional step, an impersonal, accidental decision without strength and without fruit."

8: "The girl and the woman, in their new, individual unfolding, will only in passing be imitators of male behavior and misbehavior and repeaters of male professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions, it will become obvious that women were going through the abundance and variation of those (often ridiculous) disguises just so that they could purify their own essential nature and wash out the deforming influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately , more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

And one more thing: Don't think that the great love which was once granted to you, when you were a boy, has been lost; how can you know whether vast and generous wishes didn't ripen in you at that time, and purposes by which you are still living today? I believe that that love remains so strong and intense in your memory because it was your first deep aloneness and the first inner work that you did on your life. - All good wishes to you, dear Mr. Kappus!"

9: "It must be immense, this silence, in which sounds and movements have room, and if one thinks that along with all this the presence of the distant sea also resounds, perhaps as the innermost note in this prehistoric harmony, then one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life.

Yes: I am glad you have that firm, sayable existence with you, that title, that uniform, that service, all that tangible and limited world, which in such surroundings, with such an isolated and not numerous body of men, takes on seriousness and necessity, and implies a vigilant application, above and beyond the frivolity and mere time passing of the military profession, and not only permits a self-reliant attentiveness but actually cultivates it. And to be in circumstances that are working upon us, that from time to time place us in front of great natural Things - that is all we need.

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art - as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality. May the coming year support and strengthen you in that.


R. M. Rilke"
From (but really the linked page ) we get a few handy pieces of support for the previous post.

Proving people wrong actually somehow reinforces their beliefs:

But for people who placed themselves ideologically to the right of center, the correction wasn’t just ineffective, it actively backfired: conservatives who received a correction telling them that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD than people who were given no correction at all. Where you might have expected people simply to dismiss a correction that was incongruous with their pre-existing view, or regard it as having no credibility, it seems that in fact, such information actively reinforced their false beliefs.

Maybe the cognitive effort of mounting a defense against the incongruous new facts entrenches you even further. Maybe you feel marginalised and motivated to dig in your heels. Who knows. But these experiments were then repeated, in various permutations, on the issue of tax cuts (or rather, the idea that tax cuts had increased national productivity so much that tax revenue increased overall) and stem cell research. All the studies found exactly the same thing: if the original dodgy fact fits with your prejudices, a correction only reinforces these even more.
15 December 2010 @ 08:07 pm
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” - John Kenneth Galbraith

The more time one spends around people, the more one sees that they are not primarily rational. Least of all when they claim to be. They are rationalizing. They invent excuses when there are none to hold onto their biases. They create reasons where none are sufficient. They are successful even in deceiving themselves. This is extremely plain in religion just as in politics, and I have thought for a while now when we divide the two we are, for the average person, making a pointless distinction.

Rationalization does look better than admitting a preference for something, an honest but possibly embarrassing reason, or no reason at all. The first of all embarrassing reasons is the need for certainty. The weak* want flawless, timeless, dogmatic answers. Just as in Ayn Rand as in Christianity, just as much in politics as in religion. And as in philosophy.

The last one was made clear to me over the last semester. An ethics professor** -- who proudly claimed to have a Ph.D and didn't hesitate to use that as though it meant his ideas were inherently worthwhile -- repeatedly made his case for dogmatic certainty in selfish ethics. In his years of supposed education, he didn't learn that distinctions can be made endlessly and for any purpose. That definitions can be played with, stretched and abused. Everything meant what he wanted it to mean, whether speaking of "the mind" or "selfishness". Thinking oneself very bright for having separated "killing" and "letting die" into two categories is demonstrating a willingness to be a pedant, and not much else. For the average person the pointless distinction between "killing" and "letting die" has no impact; the issue has always been about how they can help their fellow human beings because they value them. What matters is fulfilling what they feel is a responsibility to others.

Most of the class isn't prepared to deal with professional, Ph.D'd nonsense. An eighteen year old student can muster, like the girl who sat in front of me, a "People are good." To the professor, she may as well have thrown her arms up and said, "Yay, people!" The professor made a larger showing -- he explained all his preferences, distinctions, and a general fountain of pedantry followed each claim. "You think people are priceless? Name an amount of money. I can tell you no person is priceless, and no one is worth a million dollars. Name someone." The problem is not with how much people are worth, but with money and people who value money. In the purely hypothetical world some Ph.D'd philosophers spend much time dealing with, a human being is priceless. But this has set me off on a different topic than I want to write about.

"A rational person is interested in maximizing all utility for themselves." And the class didn't know to question his definition of a "rational person". I make an exception for myself, but all the arguing in the world cannot convince a dogmatic person. And I suspect a good deal of the class had always dreamed to hear their biases spoken back to them by someone with "authority". One usually loves to hear their own biases explained and defended, all dressed up, by a university professor. Educated people do this with books -- Kant, Rand, the Bible -- and then they pass it along. Biases are satisfied one way or another so long as they are explained in intricate detail, giving the illusion of something well-thought out and not as embarrassing as saying: "I am just selfish."

Because without that embarrassment, never would anyone have written a philosophy justifying selfishness. Few religious persons would write a book on apologetics. They want certainty and they want to do it without thinking they have values. They want to fool themselves into thinking there is something perfectly objective in their standing.

So much of life is wasted this way, deciding not to see what is plain as day. Rationalizations will always be rationalizations, whether they come from an eighteen year old girl sitting in front of me or from a man whose education was lost on him. And an honest "Yay, money," is no more dignified than, "Yay, people." Judging by the embarrassment, the professor's is less dignified.

But once you fall for it, you'll think your philosophy is so much more complex and involves so many smart sounding words that it must be absolute. Rationalizing rationalizations.

* Note: "Weak" is the right word, but I don't encourage throwing it around. The need for certainty makes people clutch to anything they can get a grasp on, though it still takes some time to recognize who is merely wrong or actually clinging to a philosophy. Take the time to tell the difference.

** Note: Not being the devil's advocate. These are a fair representation.
15 December 2010 @ 03:04 am
I ran out of time, so I'm just going to phone this one in. Part of my new draw-a-bunch-of-stuff-daily-to-get-better-at-drawing-athon. Original by Pablo Picasso, of course.

New stuff will either show up here rarely (when everything is sorta meh and only for showing progress) or when I actually start liking it.

Also, this sums up my experience with books about drawing:

27 October 2010 @ 10:21 pm
She looked at me in pure bafflement: she crossed her arms and shook her head. What I'd said was completely alien to her. It was a thought she probably had never heard anyone speak aloud. Her reply came in a strong wave of impatience. "They'd torture us. They'd bomb us and kill us all. How can we treat them like they're special? We should be protecting ourselves -- return the favor to them, before they do it to us again."

The English professor who brought this conversation on smiled as he leaned against his desk. It was one of his off days; one of the classes where the students were supposedly preparing to write "opposing viewpoint" papers. Some class periods consisted of nothing but students arguing and him standing there, amused until he needed to re-direct the conversations.

My response to the girl had to be simple and fast. I could see the professor was about to jump in and switch the topic, which he tended to do after someone took a strong position of any kind. While he wanted us to argue, he didn't want students to throw textbooks at each other. But I think my answer was sufficient for how little time I had to make it. "Imitating your enemies means you're no better than them. You have to do better than that. If we are going to advocate bombing, torturing, and going to war at the same level as terrorists, then we are terrorists too."

She brushed this thought off before it could sink in. She rushed to another point. "It's different. Who cares about terrorists?" Fundamental to her worldview, as with many people, was the belief that we -- and they mean by that word only Americans -- are Good. Everyone else is below us, Neutral. And our enemies are Evil.

"Terrorists are people, too." The whole class, even the few people who half-agreed with my first statement, seemed to edge away. People shifted in their seats. No, they said without speaking, terrorists are subhuman. It's one thing to oppose bombing and pre-emptive strikes, but a second kind of action to argue for a perceived subhuman's actual humanity.

Terrorist. Functionally, that label strips them of their human qualities and replaces them with, and only with, Evil. The only valid desire for someone with that label is for their destruction.

The professor kept smiling, but even he seemed, at least, surprised. He then wrapped up that argument to go on to the next one.

Here are some quotes that are widely admired and repeated:

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness. - Seneca

Don't wait for people to be friendly, show them how. - Author Unknown

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. - Plato

By swallowing evil words unsaid, no one has ever harmed his stomach. - Winston Churchill

These quotes seem true and worth emulating until you try to actually put them into practice, at which point you regress and try to justify your real behavior; you either want to kill a lot of people -- usually a whole group of them -- or aren't troubled by the thought of it. You feel okay with insulting people, as long as they're certain people, and as long as you do it an hour after either church or reading a blog post about being a better person. But, without a doubt, being a good person isn't your priority if you're okay with killing people.

The greatest misunderstanding of ethics is that, for many, it's assumed as a two-way street. You treat your fellow man the way he treats you. He treats you like crap. So whatever you do to him is justified. He's evil and ignorant, generally. What do you care? Why should you?

Turn the idea over. Morality is a one way street. What defines a human being's goodness can only be the way they treat others. What others have done to them has little to do with it. If you want to punish, revenge, and attack someone, it's only a matter of finding a convenient justification for it. You will always -- always -- find one if you take the time to look. Or make one up. In plenty of cases, it's as easy as using a label.

Calling people terrorists. Calling them nice guys, lawyers, gamers, republicans, democrats, anarchists, socialists, heathens, sinners, or saints. They all strip complicated individuals of their humanity. And after reducing them to one aspect, which they may not even recognize themselves as being, you're free to hate them. We're free to not care, to dismiss the problem, to marginalize them, to call them Evil if we feel like it.

When asked whether an adulterer or thief should be executed, the Stoic Epictetus replied by asking whether the blind should be executed: The worst you can really say of someone is that they're blind to the truths you possess. Like a blind man, they can't see what you see. But that is a poor excuse to hate the blind, whether physical vision blindness, knowledge blindness, reasoning blindness, or moral blindness. It's a much better reason to hold yourself accountable, to check your own hate. If you have the truth, and you are so sure of it that you're happy to condemn people, why do you spend your time hating them rather than informing them? Or why not admit the case of the matter, that the difference between you and the blind is some information, and the difference between you and a terrorist is the same.

That probably isn't enough. You won't beat a blind man senseless just for being blind. You might beat a blind person senseless if they stand in the middle of the street telling you it's the sidewalk. Ironically, if that's the case, this is because you are blind too. It's the reason you hate anyone, and Epictetus was exactly right. It's blindness.

Knowing about this difference between knowledge and ignorance won't make you care. If you don't care, you don't empathize. You don't empathize, and you don't understand. You don't understand, so you explain away whatever it is you don't like with an old, convenient solution. Usually with the belief that these people are Evil and unsavable. You demonize them. The people who it's most important to understand, to relate to ethically, have been excused from moral consideration completely.

You could live without hate: You could decide that people just haven't got it figured out. You could help them as best you can, or you could at least pity them. There are many healthier perspectives than hate. But either way you want to address the problem, what place does hate have in a world of blind people standing in the middle of the street while saying it's the sidewalk? The stakes are high enough.

Arguing against the hatred of common targets will of course be viewed as sympathy with the Evil enemy, whether that's some social minority or military enemy. Anyone who opposes this hate will be viewed as a new, lesser enemy, who is possibly less Evil, but still Evil. I can't help if that's the view others take, I don't like that it is, but I don't hate them for it. Their ignorance isn't Evil -- it's ignorance.
24 October 2010 @ 03:06 pm