Archive for March, 2011


Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The only song you might recognize by War, other than “low rider”

One thing I’m always very curious about is why I can’t be friends with someone, which of course, being a philosopher, I universalize and generalize to the question: why are there are certain people we just aren’t friends with, and perhaps can’t be friends with?

I’ve taken some shots at this question before (here and here) and today I was thinking of a new way to get at it.

The way is this. I don’t have a lot of friends who are black (some though!) and I don’t have a lot of friends who are economically struggling (again, some). I also don’t have a lot of friends who aren’t at least intellectually curious and I don’t have a lot of friends who aren’t pretty type A, personality wise. I suspect that some of these things have to do with my economic / social milieu and the others have to do with my personality. But how much, and in what way? How do our commitments and life history change who we are friends with and in fact, end up perhaps PREVENTING us from being friends with certain people who are not, in any way, unworthy of our friendship.

The least sinister explanation for why we are friends with some people and not others is simply a selection effect. By living my life the way I have, I’ve encountered many type A people who think a lot, and also many people who have a very advantageous economic position. In a way, it kind of sheds an incriminating light on my life (why didn’t you get out more and why weren’t you open to more new experiences?). But in another way, it’s to be expected. It’s a tautology to say that you can only encounter people who you encounter, and living one type of life rather than another brings you into contact with only those people that cross into your life. And maybe it’s partially that I’m young and so are limited by a relatively short time here on earth. Perhaps with time I will get to know more people and I will take on a more impressive cross section of friendships and empathic commitments.

One thing that continually boggles my mind though is how many types of people there are. That sounds so dumb for me to write though, but let me clarify it in a way that pushes it a little further. I’m totally blown away by the startling regularity with which a person-type that I thought COULD NOT POSSIBLY EXIST, comes right into my life, usually in the form of some lunatic. I say to myself “I really didn’t know they made people like that.” I have a feeling this will be a continual theme as I grow older — that I will discover the existence of people that I had hitherto thought could not exist. In that way, just leaving your house is like going to another planet: you never know what you’re going to find.

But back to the original question I was pursuing, which is, why aren’t I friends with certain types of people.

The next least sinister explanation is that it’s not just that living a certain way makes you encounter certain people, but that living certain way gives you certain ideas, and those ideas will not match the ideas of many other people. This seems plausible, but it really doesn’t go very far for a few reasons.

1) First of all, it doesn’t explain the regularities necessarily. Couldn’t people with very little ambition have the same ideas as me?

2) People with very different ideas on things can still be friends. Politics is the best example. My dad is friends with people from all over the political spectrum and many politicians have deep friendships across party lines. If you’re tolerant, than ideas won’t really matter.

3) More intuitively, almost no one is not friends with someone due to their intellectual position or due to the EXPLICIT reasoning they engage in on certain topics.

So again, I ask myself why I don’t feel a firm attraction to people who are unlike me in some of the predictable ways I’ve highlighted? I think the answer is something that I’ve spoken about before is that our ways of living are much stronger than we think and can’t simply be neutralized by our explicit thoughts. What I mean is that perhaps our commitments to our own type of life kind of “drip out” and “contaminate” or “color” our views of other people, and alter how we interact with them in subtle but powerful ways.

For me, a powerful example is drug users. I don’t mind drugs. I think drugs should be legalized and I think outside of certain extremely pathological or exploitative situations, they are a lot like other things that humans can abuse. HOWEVER, I have almost no friends who use drugs EVEN A LITTLE. I just don’t like them myself, and so I think this spills out in my interactions with people who I know to be a drug user and makes me more guarded, awkward, less intuitive. When I’m interacting with some people, I’m a smoothly flowing river, but the knowledge that someone is a drug user is like adding small like breaks of consciousness into an otherwise “below the surface” practice of interaction I have. All sorts of eddies and currents take hold, and next think you know, I’m not as funny, or friendly, and the other person APPEARS to me to be less interesting, less funny, less worthy of my attention.

This not far off from studies about “implicit” or “unconscious” racism. In these studies, people who profess no racist beliefs or attitudes can nonetheless be shown to react differently to subtle changes in the racial environment that is presented to them. This is of course, the most sinister explanation for why I’m not friends with that many black people.

Of course, most of the studies, I believe, show that such reactions can be consciously compensated for, and a) I don’t think I have any conscious discriminatory tendencies and b) I think I even do a good job of compensating for, and being alert for, subtle forms of bias that can creep into my mind.

Besides, I don’t think the reason that I’m not friends with, for example, that many black people, has nothing to do with animus or bias, conscious or unconscious. I do think though it has to do a REVERBERATION or an AFTERSHOCK of privilege and discrimination that does exist in society.

What I mean is that my experience of certain institutions — police, school, job market — has been one way as a result of my privileges, and other people have had such different experiences that even though I am firmly in favor of combating these types of inequality, my INEXPERIENCE WITH THEM prevents me from latching on to people who have labored under these difficulties. It’s really a shame, and I think it’s another insidious consequence of differential treatment in society. The same goes for differences based on personality or economic class.

When I meet shy or quiet people, I feel very protective of them. I think most people will tell you that I’m fairly careful in trying to include soft-spoken or quiet people in conversations, especially in situations where I feel very comfortable and talkative (maybe I’m fooling myself and that I’m a bastard deep down inside — it’s definitely possible, the ability to fool oneself is one of humanity’s strongest power). Nonetheless, I don’t find myself being able to be friends with such people as in wanting to hang out with them or get to know them. I often feel like they deserve my help and my respect, but not necessarily my precious leisure time, which I try to direct as much as possible towards those I have a good time with (after all, life can’t be just one big responsibility, that’s too exhausting and alienating).

But here the big point is just that I think that we have certain friends and not others NOT because we specifically disagree with the life choices of others — though of course someone who attends abstinence rallies will have trouble hanging out with someone who has pre-marital sex. Also, a raging liberal may have trouble hanging out with a member of the NRA.

Rather, we grow in a way that moves us slowly and inexorably apart from the concerns of others even if CONSCIOUSLY, and EXPLICITLY, we know those concerns. For example, I know, from having a buddy from big brothers big sisters, what some of the hardships of being poor are. However, I don’t LIVE those difficulties, and so I have trouble being friends with poorer people. I have no trouble respecting them, empathizing with them, and wanting to help them (that’s why I joined the charity after all), but when it comes to that magical connection that makes you want to be friends with someone, it’s hard for it to be there.

This is why things like travel, charity, and just spontaneity are absolutely crucial to a good life, because they represent the AGENTIAL EXPRESSION of imagination. We are different people when we travel, when we’re threatened, when we’re helping a stranger, or trying struggle with a new idea. At these moments of flux, we can join up with other people and combine with them in ways that were not possible before.

Sometimes I think about living in Africa, and I think it must be horrible. I react sadly toward that horribleness, and then I become even more sad because the situation seems to be so bad that I can’t even relate to a person living in such dire circumstances (as this entire post has been about). But I don’t feel bad about not being able to relate to people in Africa anymore (I still feel bad for their objection situation, but I don’t think it’s extra-bad because I can’t even relate to their lives), because I realized that it’s just as possible that I can’t relate (without some serious counterfactual changes) to the person down the street. Nothing is for certain, we can always go beyond the limitations set on us, but it takes courage and perspicacity to see where those moments are and seize them.




A fun survey

I’m doing some philosophy and it requires getting some intuitions about language. I can’t really find the intuitions for myself anymore because I’ve been working with some of the sentences in this survey for too long.

This survey is extremely short (3 T/F questions) and filling it out will really help me. It’s not supposed to be tricky and its supposed to test your intelligence or anything like that. Just your gut reactions will help a lot.

Here is the survey.


Private Eyes

They’re watching you. Hall and Oates, “Private Eyes

Saw this article today, and I found it interesting. As a bonus, it mentions chat roulette, which I wrote about here.

Anyway, this article is about some app called “color” (no idea why its called that) which apparently lets you take pictures that are automatically sent to people within 100 feet of you.

Apparently some people are concerned that there is a privacy issue, but I really don’t see the issue. I mean, if you download the app, then you will receive pictures, but I’m not sure what that reveals ABOUT YOU. Also, if you take pictures, they are automatically shared with the people are you. I guess there is the risk that you might snap a picture of your individual surroundings which is then broadcast (kind of a strange word, given the area it goes to. Do you know how small a circle with a 100 sq. ft radius is? ) to others.

I mean, there is also the idea that the device records your location, but it’s only relayed to people who are right on top of you anyway. Also, this thing isn’t something “running in the background.” If you’re taking photos with this thing, it seems like you probably have a pretty whimsical disposition, and hence are on alert that you shouldn’t be documenting your intimate moments.

Also, isn’t everyone just going to take lewd pictures of themselves. Is this the ultimate sketchy flirtation tool? I don’t know. I hope it gets integrated to four square so that you can only “check in” to a place by taking naked pictures of yourself.  That would really change the dynamic of that site.

(side note: I’m using four square as if everyone knows what it is, and I think that’s a pretty safe assumption, since I think I was one of the last people to find out about this ridiculous HYPERMARKETING tool.)

I’ve heard people say that my generation has been very complacent about internet privacy concerns and that in the future, there is going to be a backlash against so much un-regulated information sharing.

I don’t know what to think about this, but I think people my age couldn’t care less about internet privacy issues, and if anything it seems like they will care less and less as we see how totally awesome the internet is when people can design things to take advantage of information without waivers and whatever.


Philosophy of Laughter

My friend has been asking me for a little while now if I would do a post on different types of laughter. I told him it that it was an interesting idea, and I still think it is, but it’s partially so interesting to me because I have no idea really what he had in mind or what I could about the topic.

So I’ll start as any good philosopher would and get some distinctions and terminology on the table. As I thought about the following, I realized that laughter is a rich and varied category.

There are such things as a chuckle, which is best described as a quick short laugh. It can be used to humor someone who isn’t funny, but it can be genuine as well. This is kind of a pleasant soft type of laughter and isn’t violent or explosive. The are also belly laughs which are deep and resounding, but also “knee-slapping” laughter which is characterized by shortness of breath and a sense of being overwhelmed.

There are also a variety of artificial laughs. One can give a short sarcastic blast, like a HEEH, or a more drawn out imitation of laugh, usually culminating in a sardonic “whew, that’s a good one.”There are also linguistic descriptions that perform the same role, such as when you say “that’s funny” but obviously cannot mean it since if you found it funny you would be laughing….or would you. I often wonder if humor is necessarily tied to laughter.

I mean, it seems like you could listen to a joke and say “that’s funny” in the way that you might say of a piece of art “that’s a great drawing,” though not linger on it because it doesn’t move you in any way. Could you do the same with laughter and say “that’s funny” but just not be moved to laughter. The possibility of this sort of judgment would be fascinating to me, because without laughter, how do you know something is funny? Do you merely think it would provoke laughter in someone else, or are you sensing certain features of the joke that you find appealing?

There are also MODES of laughter. Not types, but modes. What I mean is that you can start by just humoring someone with a little fake laugh, but then find yourself laughing at the fact that you’re humoring the person on this particular occasion. Sometimes just faking a laugh and giving yourself a crude approximation of the sensation of laughter brings real laughter along. Also, there is a big difference between sitting in a comedy club and expecting to laugh, and being struck by a friend’s out-of-blue comments. Expectations can be of course raised outside of formal comedy settings. Maybe you have a friend who you know tells funny stories and when he starts in, you immediately lock your attention, perhaps already chuckling “where is he going with this one…”

What does it mean that our internet lexicon developed a fairly subtle set of laughter words. You can say “haha,” “lol,” “jaja,” “hehe,” “RFLOL,” and many others. These correspond to some of the categories I’ve described above.

But there is an even deeper lesson about LOL, which is, WHY WOULD SUCH A WORD HAVE DEVELOPED IN THE FIRST PLACE? The answer is that “haha” began to be used as a throwaway word. At first, I guess people sensed that it was TOO EASY to be humored in cyber space with a written “haha,” just as one is not appeased when someone says “o that’s funny,” but does not laugh. But then why does LOL do any better. You can type those words without laughing just as much as you can type haha. And in fact LOL seems to be much more deceptive (which is why I don’t use it), because when you type LOL, you are describing something you are doing — laughing out loud — but when you type haha, you are not describing your laughter, you are expressing it. Compare what I just said with pain. If I say “I am in pain” this is much different than saying “OOWW!.” If you thought I was not in pain and I said “I am in pain” you could rightly say “that’s false,” but if you thought I was faking and I said “OOWW” you couldn’t say “that’s false.” You would have to say something like “don’t get melodramatic” or “don’t fake it.” Again, the reason is that LOL describes a state of the world and so can be true or false, while haha merely expresses our laughter and so MORE CLOSELY simulates real laughter.

But to return to LOL, I think it ‘s a very provoking little tidbit about our internet culture that we try to cling to the aural distinctiveness of laughter even when separated, and that the “out loud” or “social” aspect of laughing is trying to be preserved even over the silence of text communication.

The reason we may cling to humor’s out-loud characteristic so strongly is that humor was humankind’s first ANTI-VIRUS. What do I mean? Am I being dramatic? Yes of course. But listen, laughter, as we know, can spread, and it is CONTAGIOUS. If we take this metaphor seriously, then we can think of humor as the opposite of a disease — a kind of experience that grows in power the more we practice it and the more we use it with others. It’s a kind of jolliness disease.

I thought most of this up just in response to my friend’s probing question, so thanks Jesse.


A Breakthrough on Awkwardness

When it comes to awkwardness, I’ve heard it all (I’ve done it all too). So as I grow older and become more mature, I’ve become a little more guarded and jaded about the term “awkward.” People seem to use it a lot; way too much in fact. Everything now is awkward and it seems that for growing number of people, this is our default way of relating to people.

So I’ve been doing some thinking, and my thoughts were these: first, can I say anything new about awkwardness that helps this amorphous concept take on a new distinctiveness and with it, perhaps a new significance? Second, could any theory that I came up with explain the apparent EXPLOSION in the use of this term? In other words, I guarantee you that people living together in the 1100s, 1200s, 1600s, and 1800s didn’t have much  use for this term. Why now?

At long last, I think I have some answers, and I found them by going to get my haircut.

You see, I really like the haircutting job that my current “stylist” gives me. She is VERY quick, reasonably priced, and seems to do a good job. Then again, I’m comparing her work to when, until shockingly recently, I just shaved my hair to a uniform length with a razor when it got too long. NOT a hit with the ladies as you might imagine. Not even really a hit with myself when I looked in the mirror.

Anyway, the one problem with this hair person is that we are about as different as two people can be. We have nothing to say to each other. Not anything — and I consider myself a competent conversationalist. And true to form, I have been able to keep things going with her in the past. We talk a little bit about the weather, not too much, but sometimes about her kids, recent holidays.

The only problem is that to advance these conversations, I had to lie quite a bit. She would ask me why I was getting my haircut at 2:30 on a monday dressed in shorts, and to be honest, I was a little ashamed of the fact that I was a philosophy grad student and hence had no job and read books all day (today I would do things differently and would not be ashamed to admit that piece of information — call it maturity, or call “i just don’t care anymore,” whichever suits you). So, I made a vague story about how I get a lunch break from my job (which remained unspecified) which I use to get my hair cut. This has continued and now I have to keep making things up when I show up at odd times to get my haircut because I forgot my lie from last time. AND FRANKLY, I didn’t think this woman was really paying attention.

But today, everything came crashing down. I was a little tired, and had no energy to pull conversational teeth. So, things quickly lapsed, and that was when I realized that I understood awkwardness very well — it is the consciousness of futility. Here’s what I mean. I tried some topics I knew she wouldn’t care about. For example, I told her “there is a girl I really want to take sailing, so I’m looking forward to April, when the dock opens back up. I need to get back into practice.” I’m met with “O sailing?” followed by silence. Ok fine I thought. She then asked what I did on the weekend. I was filled with dread. I ran through my activities briefly, trying to think what would strike a chord. I said that I caught up on sleep and went to Chelsea (poorish, immigrant part of Boston) to work on a public health campaign that I’m a part of. “O.” And then this is where the insight really hit me, which is that after that, I wanted to find something to say, at least to be polite, to show that I was trying too, but I felt trapped. Why? Because ANYTHING that I might find interesting and worth talking about, she would not. I began to feel that the conversation was FUTILE, and I became vividly aware of that fact. More specifically, I felt trapped by my own psychology, because anything that my mind, either naturally or through sustained ratiocination, settled on as a topic, would almost certainly not appeal to her. So I stewed in this state as she snip-snipped away, and then thought “well, I can at least ask her HOW her weekend was,” but I hesitated because it’s a strange question to ask a thirty-something year old married woman. But more than anything I just knew she wouldn’t care or wouldn’t elaborate on anything, so I waited, and then realized that I HAD WAITED SO LONG that I couldn’t even ask the polite “how was your weekend” if I had wanted to.

Caught in the mirror of this salon, I became distinctly conscious that this woman and I could not bring ourselves to care about each other. Now don’t take this is the wrong way. I do care about this woman in some ways. I give her a good tip, and I like her work, and were she ever to be in trouble, or needing a blood transfusion, or on and on, I would be glad to help. And of course, she is polite to me and respects me as a customer, so she cares about me in a sense too. But in any DEEPER sense, we do not care about each other, and the awkwardness of my haircut today I think grew out of the dangerously obsessive awareness of this fact.

Awkwardness, in all (most?) situations, is, I think best understood as the realization of the hopelessness of further conversation in the situation. It is the realization that all communication will have a strictly utilitarian character. This is why it’s awkward to run into an ex that one isn’t on good terms with. All communication for the sake of communication (which is normally an entertaining exchange of ideas and worldviews –this blog has tried to show deep an activity a simple conversation is) is out. Communication is for a utilitarian exchange: “how are you?” “what are you up to these days” These are things just to fill periods of silence just as my stylist asked me questions simply to pass the time. The answers were irrelevant. When you’re at a party and a conversation is getting awkward, the reason is that your jokes and comments aren’t hitting home — they’ve become an act or a play and they aren’t finding their proper reception.

Now the extrapolation. Why is it that in this day and age, we are so enamored with the concept of “awkwardness” and why do we reach for it so naturally and instinctively?

I think the answer comes from the spread of standards of behavior (brought about partially by capitalism, but not entirely. Besides, laying everything at the doorstep of capitalism is so passe, and wrong to boot) and most recently, the way that the internet renders relationships. You see, more and more, we run into people that we respect and have some attenuated concern for, but as our web “weak” concern spreads further and further, we find that our web of “strong” concern is not keeping up. So, we run into the waiter who we trust to take our order and not spit in our food, but have no ability to josh with him before he takes our order. We have facebook friends who we may run into at a party or out in the city and its quickly apparent that our biggest connection is contained in servers tracking facebook’s data somewhere in Los Angeles (or where ever they keep the damn things). So we find ourselves draw, in some situations, to respond and acknowledge other people that it is FUTILE to speak to. We know it is. We know there is nothing we care to share with each other, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the case for everyone. I’m not trying to depict a lonely world of disintegrating social bonds (but as you know, I believe that to be happening,  but just not in this post and with this point). People try hard to speak to others and some people (especially older people who’ve had hard lives it seems like) have an uncanny ability to launch into conversations and to genuinely TAKE AN INTEREST in another person’s life. Is this skill best classified as curiosity or kindness, or what? I don’t know but I know awkwardness is the outgrowth of our increasingly dwarf-like ability to relate to others that are very different than us, and when this inability comes home to roost in the form of a conscious moment, we find ourselves being awkward. Words become mere sounds and pleasantries become, well, just pleasantries.


Should We Make Public Discouse Like A Basketball Game?

The NCAA tournament is in full swing, so here are some thoughts that merge basketball and politics.

Reading up on the daily grinding, yelling, screaming, name-calling, and deception of our political system is a very laborious affair. It’s so tiring, and I have often have to take a nap after reading all the ridiculous things going on. And then I have to write about them on this blog, to implore people to ignore the ridiculous and to focus on the true. In trying to ignore some of the things not worth commenting about, I end up having to comment about them. This is the unavoidable cycle that drives a lot of our supposed public “debate.” Is there a way out?

To get clear on a solution requires getting clear on the problem. I want to characterize public discourse as infected by the following two tendencies.

1. cynicism and the imputation of bad faith — For a while I kept a tally of this phenomenon, but I got so upset that I stopped. But basically, if you read an article that is critical of one party or politician, you will come to a point where the description of the issue stops, and the argumentation is supposed to begin, but all you find is something like “The explanation is simply that X does not want America to succeed,” or some such thing. And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself PAST the argument. That was it, just a bald assertion of bad faith.

I have interviewed now many people in government, and seen many more interviews, and not once has this been anyone’s motivation. Not once. Nonetheless, rampant cynicism abounds — the collective belief is that everyone who does not see it one’s own way must necessarily be devious and conniving. Never is there the thought that someone might sincerely think that something YOU THINK is incomprehensible, is actually a good way to do things. Trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible is where all argument (and all philosophy in fact) begins, and as a political culture, we seem just too plain exhausted to try for that anymore.

2. The focus on others rather than oneself. Even when arguments in our media culture do hone in tightly on an IDEA or a POLICY, they inevitably seek out the most easily dispelled mistake or the most the irrelevant factual error. At the very best, this debate usually targets some idea that someone or some party has as DUMB. Fine. All good discourse is going to require that you criticize flawed ideas, and sometimes you will have to criticize them quite harshly. However, there is a continued emphasis on trying to find out what one should not believe and what one should not endorse rather than helping people try to find a proposal that is complex, but nonetheless DOES MAKE SENSE. And, in fact, makes sense despite the wide variety of alternative views and arguments that are available to attack any position worth debating together as a society.

The media as I see it relentlessly (probably unintentionally) batters the brains of people into giving up ideas and turning against proposals. I’m not an Obama devotee, but the notion of hope is probably relevant here. At every turn the media drowns out, destroys, and smashes ideas into pulp, often with very bad arguments and often without any comparison to the alternatives. The average person is not only skeptical of politicians and media outlets, but even intellectually, skeptical that anything could ever work.

In short, there is very little emphasis on developing a positive view and growing it and defending it. This is also a metaphor for most of American culture today. There is never an interest in the sacrifice, or risk, or difficulty, required to BUILD SOMETHING. Whether it be something as quotidian as a marriage or a personality, or something as grand as a scientific theory or philosophical program (don’t misread me here. I don’t think philosophy and science is actually any more GRAND than everyday struggles like raising a family. I use the word because others would be tempted to. Sometimes I meet people who are like what is your, like, PHILOSOPHY, man. That’s not the right attitude a philosophy is just like any other activity such as becoming a great discus thrower or a good club promoter. You are growing something that will shed light on everything else; that will ripple throughout your daily consciousness).

So now the solution: make public debate more like sports. I don’t mean the “gamification” of politics (excuse this terrible word that some tech commentators insist on violently injecting into the vernacular). The reason is that there is a difference between the chicken-shitification or the farmvillification of important things. I.e., turning serious tasks into petty little simulations with make-believe rat pellets guiding us toward a social equilibrium of behavior. No, I mean an understanding of the attitude that comes from competition. I’ll outline it below and explain how it dispels the problems I raised above.

First, highly established competition is self-absorbed, and I mean that in a special way. What I mean is that a coach, before a game, NEVER talks about the other team. Whether they’re hurt, or whether they’re offense is bad, or whether they’re fans are cowardly, or whatever. The emphasis is always on the team and what it has accomplished. Listen to coaches interviewed right at halftime. They always talk about their team and what it can do and what confidence they have in the group of people they have GROWN over the course of the season. Sports is ruthlessly self-examining.

This is no accident. You can’t win unless you take a simple confidence toward your own abilities. In practice, you don’t sit idly, thinking about how all the other teams are ruining themselves with incorrect workout routines, injuries, or off-practice revelry. No, one SCREENS the opponent out. Mentally, a team is always with itself in a complete, but benign solipsism, just trying to make itself as good as possible, and then turning that power outward at the moment of competition.

Second, there is no cynicism. One knows that the other team is trying to win, just as much as one’s own team. And for the most part (there are some exceptions when a call is just awful) coaches never let their PLAYERS think about the refs or make excuses for themselves. Of course, the coach will curse and heckle, but never is this allowed to infect the players. For them, the game is as close as possible to a fair and pure test of each side’s heart and determination.

Also, and this is really key, opponents in sports often come to respect each other. How does this happen? I’m not really sure, but I think it is the result of a controlling attitude of anti-cynicism, that merges with the confidence that sports breeds.

So how to remake the political sphere according to the values of competition?

Well, for one thing — and this should come as no surprise — the parties must become more like sports teams. Heck, citizens must become like sports players. The temptation is to look elsewhere. To take great joy in seeing someone else falter or to see an idea that plainly doesn’t work, or a demagogue create controversy out of nothing. The temptation is to look OUT and AWAY and to get angry and self-righteous. This is the fuel of the worst sorts of engagements our society is capable of.

Rather, the attitude should be like sports. One should read, think, and learn, all the while growing a theory of an idea or a position. When confronted, one can defend it, but the search, just like a practice, screens out distractions.

In this quasi-utopian world I’m imagining, I would not have to sit here and blog about all the ad hominem attacks and poor arguments, because no one would focus on them. They would dissipate like a calorie of heat in the endless cold of space. No one would turn their head and no one would glue their eyes to the TV. Chicanery and nonsense would not be combated or called out or suppressed. Rather it would cease to exist for the public at all (notice that I’ve made this argument before when I’ve argued that we should be zen-like in our approach to politics, by which I mean we should act against mudslinging THROUGH INACTION).

Further though, cynicism would disappear. Of course, the media would have to, as I’ve argued it shoud, reshape itself as an ump or a ref, faithfully recording point and counterpoint in a great national debate on serious issues. This would combat cynicism, but so would the focus on competition in its true form, which as we’ve seen, can generate respect. Larry Byrd was one of the first people to call Magic Johnson when the latter found out about his infection with the HIV virus. In a way, I think the competitive urge of two great competitors to destroy one another is the flip side of love. It is love in its other guise.

There are flaws with my proposal, and I’ll present them in the spirit of combating cynicism.

First, there are time when personal attacks and imputations of bad faith are needed. This happens in sports too. Every once in a while one coach will say that another coach has poor player control or that the coach encourages “dangerous” play. This is a last ditch effort and it is sometimes necessary. It is necessary in our culture too. It’s important to call out bigots or obstructionists, etc. I just think the threshold for doing so should be high. Better to keep our noses to the ground and work on building something rather than indulging tit for tat exchanges about words, comments, and bad faith.

Also, there is a real elitism to my proposal. In a way, I’m suggesting that we make our public sphere like a debating society where everyone observes decorum etc. But what about times when there are people undergoing oppression in the streets? Should such people await the conclusion of an austere round of discussion before rioting, or trying to retake a modicum of decency and power?

I have no answer to this objection, because again, there are times when debate and discussion break down. When the bounds of rationality and public-spirited discourse are twisted and only action can break them free.

One response I have though is that notice how ANTI-ELITIST sports are in general. If anything is these days, SPORTS are for the people. So perhaps there is a way to elevate everyone in the political sphere by treating our discourse with as much reverence as we give Sunday football (and actually, I think that would be a bad model, because sunday football gets infected with all sorts of other issues that are unrelated to “pure” competition). On this model, we are all participants in a roughly fair media system and to make it more fair, we must attend to our ideas and then be prepared to engage with others with the respect given to opponents on those same ideas.



Just Shooting Some B-Ball

Yo Homes, Fresh Prince intro.

I played basketball for the first time in a while, and if one is willing (to waste time with excessive ratiocination), even the simplest experiences have a treasure trove of lessons.

Here are a few. First, I experienced, for the 100th time, the importance of competition and why I find it philosophically interesting. When you’re playing a complex game, you’re reacting to the environment in a seamless, uninterrupted way, but it would be wrong to say that you’re just reacting or following impulse. Rather, you’re reading situations and constructing patterns, as well as reasoning in a kind of background, non-conceptual way. But this is old hat.

Here are two other lessons.

1. I played three games. In the second game, our opponents were not very good, but the team we had beaten in the previous game were. The good team was waiting and resting while we beat up on the bad team. I was conscious of my desire not to expend too much energy beating up on the bad team so that we could beat the better team when they came back into the game. The point is that I wonder how NCAA teams must feel. My experience suggested to me that the temptation to “look ahead” to the next round is VERY REAL, and I think could be said to have a measurable effect on what players do. In a way, thinking ahead is very dangerous, because competing almost inevitably requires that one give oneself over to the task at hand completely. There are no half-measures.

On the other hand, playing so many games in such a short time has very real consequences and issues like rest and injury can definitely play a role. Perhaps coaching is what allows one to bridge the gap between these extremes. Perhaps well coached teams are able to ratchet down their energy WITHOUT ratcheting down their intensity.

2. There are often arguments about to what extent men and women are the way they are because of society or genetic makeup. Usually the subject matter is women, and some say that women have certain attributes that are resilient to many types of social organization. These traits often include being more nurturing and emotional (and many people immediately say that because women are emotional, they are not rational. I could not disagree more, and in fact, I hope people who read this blog on a regular basis can see how the argument might go.).

But how much is the “nature” of women malleable by the institutions that we create and sustain jointly in a complex society. I think a lot, and I think this is an optimistic result, because it means that some types of devaluing of the sexes (men are devalued too in some ways) are correctable if we can correct our institutions.

My evidence is that in one of the basketball games there was a girl (woman? she was like 22) who played. Now, first things first: girls who play in pick up basketball games earn my respect immediately, because personality and attitude aside, girls ARE usually smaller, and so to bang around in a serious basketball game takes a lot of courage. Not to mention the “gender” specific difficulties that arise.

This girl though, who was flirting coyly with one of the players before the game, changed completely once the game started. I won’t say she became manly, because that’s the whole point — I don’t think that basketball is gendered. But she did conform herself to the conventions of a competitive game among equally matched players. How so? Well, there are a lot of subtleties in a pick up game. When to call a foul, how to react when someone else calls a foul, and how to behave at the end of a game. When you win, you need to shake the hands of the losers — not doing so is an obvious snub. BUT, being too friendly with someone who lost after you won is the patronizing and insulting. The middle ground is delicate, but its EASY TO FIND, if you know how this sort of thing works.

And my point is that this girl knew how things worked. She knew how to check the ball in the right way, dispute the score, and the appropriate type of chatter during the game. She also knew how to PLAY, which doesn’t hurt, but even that in a way is a learned skill. If girls are so caring, how is it that this girl was terrorizing everyone (ok terrorizing is an exaggeration, but she played well) with a VERY competitive intent in her eyes.

Bottom line, people grow and expand into the opportunities you give them, and most institutions, when they are running well — which is to say, close to their IDEAL manifestations — then all people can be induced to act so as to take advantage.

In my mind, pick-up basketball games with a reasonable group of people approach the ideal of competition, in which there is no referee because one is not needed. A group of people come together with the honest goal of defeating one another (the killer instinct) WITHIN a set of rules that lay out how each person is to be treated. The result of participating in this framework is an elevated character.