I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.
I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.
I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.
Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)
Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.
I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.
While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.
On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.
But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.
Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.
Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.
Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.
Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?
My Monday post this week is late. Instead of trying to cobble something together, I will share this video from T1J’s YouTube channel published last week. It gave me a lot to think about.
“Now these stories are very complex and nuanced, and American schools generally do a bad job of teaching Black history. But the point I’m making is, it’s not true that Martin Luther King Jr. did some peaceful protests and gave some speeches and then single-handedly changed everyone’s minds. The progress we’ve seen is due to the combined efforts of Black leaders and activists throughout history, some of whom disagreed on the best path forward, but all of whom contributed towards shaping the world and making the world a little better for people of color. Another thing people fail to realize is that Martin Luther King Jr. was very unpopular during his time. So, whether or not something is palatable to the white masses is not a good measure of whether it is the right thing to do.”
My attention this week has largely focused on what’s happening in the United States with the protests and marches. As such, the vast majority of this week’s round-up are a collection of posts from social media that I want to help amplify.
Here is my round-up for the week ending on June 5th, 2020:
I read Mattis’s memoir a few months back, and in it he specifically states that he does not intend to publically comment or speak out against a sitting President. He notes that it’s inappropriate as a former military member (he feels that there should be a separation between executive politics and the military) and as a former Cabinet member. The implication is that while he resigned his post in protest over the policy decisions being made by the White House, there will come a time when he feels it would be appropriate to finally criticize the President he served under. That is what made this post all the more surprising (thought not surprising when you read it) – things have gotten to the point that he feels his silence is counter-productive to upholding the American Constitution. Based on his memoir, I hold Mattis in high regard, both as a leader and as a thinker, so this is something I took note of.
💭 Reflection – What can I do as a white ally?
When this week started, I could find no words that would be appropriate. This is, of course, a huge privilege – that I can choose to remain silent while people are out fighting for their lives and a better world.
It would be inappropriate for me to wax on about my thoughts because that would mean centering my voice (even if this is my blog). My voice, my thoughts, and my opinions are not important in this social conversation. Instead, I want to share and amplify some of the great ideas that I bookmarked in my feed.
I think this video does a good job to interrogate my love of certain kinds of comedic news. I was a late-convert to Jon Stewart, and felt crushed when he announced his (much deserved) retirement. While I’ll admit I haven’t given Trevor Noah a fair shake, I pretty much stopped watching the Daily Show after the change-over. Similarly, I’ve watched other shows that riff on the format, whether on cable (such as Samantha Bee), subscription services (like Hasan Minhaj), or online content (I get John Oliver through YouTube). It’s not lost on me that all of the names listed above are Daily Show alumni. My consumption also includes shows that are inspired by the presentation format, like Some More News on YouTube. Still, it’s rare that I consistently follow any one show because I tend to find the material or subjects to be somewhat hollow. The only exceptions to this, as noted by Wisecrack, are Oliver’s and Minhaj’s shows, which I feel to be both smart and wise in the material they present. Rather than trying to punch for the sake of cracking jokes, their shows punch at topics that are meant to help people that aren’t in on the joke. That is, their shows aren’t just speaking to the in-crowd as a private way of mocking the out-group. This was a great video essay that made me think.
I purchased Hannah Ardent’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as a birthday present for myself a few years ago (I know, I’m weird). I still haven’t cracked into it as of writing, but last week I received an email update from my alma mater, and in it they discussed how one of the faculty members had recently returned from time spent doing research at the Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The email also described the regular reading group that occurs, and how it recently moved online to promote physical distancing. I checked out their YouTube page and found this series that I hope to carve out some time to follow along with. Origins is a pretty hefty book, and Ardent is a pretty powerful thinker, so I’m glad to have a resource to help me understand the nuances of her work better.
In preparation for my upcoming book club meeting, I’ve been reading through our current selection, Plato’s Symposium. While on Friday I chuckled at a little dialogue I’ve started with myself as a reader over time, I stumbled across a very interesting footnote that I wanted to share.
I love learning about words in foreign languages that don’t have an exact translation into English. The great thing about these words is that is serves as a worldview expanding device that adds to the filters we use to engage with the world. Sophrosune (or sophrosyne as I later learned from Wikipedia) is often translated to mean temperance or self-control. But as this footnote discusses, the world has an added element that sets it apart from self-control.
It carries an added moral character dimension that describes a certain kind of disposition. Implied in the idea of self-control is an element of instability – the self-control is needed to push against some felt desire or want. Were the desire absent, there would be no need for self-control. We don’t think of a person who is not thirsty as exercising self-control because they are not drinking water. Self-control would instead apply to the person who is actively thirsty but must resist imbibing for some reason. There is a force of will that is being applied against a desire to tamp it down.
Thirst for water might be a poor example here since water is necessary for life. Instead, we can think of the addict who is fighting an impulse to consume something they seek to abstain from. When they fight against the impulse, they can be said to be exercising self-control.
By contrast, sophrosune describes a moral quality of a person who is, in some sense, harmonious in their inner life. They don’t have the cravings that create impulses that require self-control. Instead of fighting cravings, as in the case of the addict, they may choose to engage or not engage in an activity without any internal pull towards it.
Whether this is a quality that is possible to attain, I cannot say. But it was an interesting word to learn about as separate from what one typically thinks about when pondering self-control and temperance.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton the musical on stage. As I noted in my Instagram post, I was blown away by the experience, and was moved to tears by the performance. My emotional reaction was due, in part, to my having completed the audiobook a few weeks back. Had I not already been familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton, I think I would have struggled a bit with the fast paced delivery of the lyrics.
In my mind, the musical is perfect – it is a shining example of why art exists and what it is capable of. Hamilton the musical takes a 35-hour book, of which spans the nearly 50-year life of Hamilton, and distills it down into a powerful 2-hour performance.
There are so many fantastic elements of the play. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but I can’t not list some of my favourite parts.
For instance, in the second song, a throughline is set-up that spans Hamilton’s life where he ambitiously declares that he won’t throw his shot (waste an opportunity to advance himself). But, at the end of his life, when he is dueling Aaron Burr over a matter of honour, he chooses to “throw his shot” (raise one’s weapon in the air to waste your shot, signalling that you are not participating in the duel) as he becomes morally opposed to dueling. It was haunting to hear this theme get set up so early.
I loved the use of space on stage. The floor was set up with two circular discs that could rotate in different directions, which meant that the actors could allow the stage to carry them around the space to give the illusion of traversing great distances.
Speaking of those discs, there were a few moments in the play where things could freeze in time or rewind. The actors could halt in tableau, but the discs would rotate them around, giving the appearance that they were reversing in time. This was so cool to see – we were able to watch a scene play out twice: once from Hamilton’s perspective, and one from the narration of a side character who was singing her motivations while guiding the scene along.
I’m not normally a great fan of dancing, but even the bodily movements of the performers had me transfixed. The ways they moved around to evoke things like battlefield war, or Hamilton feeling at the centre of a hurricane made me forget I was watching a play on stage.
So many other elements came together in amazing ways – how they used space on the stage to signal travelling over vast distances, how costumes took on symbolic meanings, the politics of ceding from England through the Kings’ songs, and the incredible attention to detail of every word spoken, rapped, and sung by the cast. The last straw was Eliza getting the final word. So. Good!
The experience was so wonderful and memorable, I can’t put into words what it meant for me to see it. I simply don’t have the vocabulary developed to articulate how smart and charming the musical was. It was a pure masterclass of how to put together a modern piece of art to tell the story of one of the United State’s founding fathers – a man whose impact lasts through to today, but whose legacy is unknown to most everyday persons.
I’ll end with one final note. In the premiere week of the show in Toronto, the CBC news company ran a short piece about the show. Within the segment, they showed a clip of an interview with the musical’s writer and original-run star, Lin Manuel Miranda, where he gives advice to up and coming playwrites. Now, granted, his words are meant to speak to marginalized voices who fall outside of what is deemed normal or popular art. However, his words, more generally applied, can speak to the creative urge in all of us.
“Well, I’ll tell you the only advice I can give is: write what’s missing. Write what you don’t see on stage. I started writing in the Heights because I really wanted a life in musical theatre and so I wanted to write the kind of show I wasn’t seeing. So, don’t write the next Hamilton. Write what isn’t Hamilton. Write the story that only you can write.”
During a throwaway thought experiment in his 1641 treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, René Descartes posited the idea of an evil genius or demon that systematically deceives us to distort our understanding of the world. Contrary to first year philosophy students everywhere (a younger version of myself included), Descartes did not actually believe in the existence of an evil manipulator that was holding us back from understanding the nature of the real world. Instead, he was using it as part of a larger project to radically re-conceive epistemology in an era of rapid advancements in science that was threatening to overturn centuries of our understanding of the world. He felt that knowledge was built upon shaky ground thanks to an over-adherence on the received authorities from Greek antiquity and the Church’s use of Aristotelian scholasticism. Similar to Francis Bacon twenty years earlier, Descartes set out to focus on knowledge that stood independent of received authority.
Through Meditations one and two of his book, Descartes considers the sources of our beliefs and considers how we come to know what we think we know. He wants to find an unshakable truth to build all knowledge from, and through an exercise of radical doubt he calls into question many of the core facts we hold – first that knowledge gained from the senses are often in error, that we often can’t distinguish the real from fantasy, and through the use of the evil genius, that perhaps even our abstract knowledge like mathematics could be an illusion.
When I teach this to first year students, they either don’t take his concerns seriously because of the force of the impressions the real world gives us in providing sense data for knowledge (a stubbed toe in the dark seems to forcefully prove to us that the external world to our senses is very real), or they take Descartes too seriously and think Descartes really thought that a demon was actively deceiving him. Regardless of which side the student falls on, they will then conclude that Descartes’ concerns are not worth worrying about; that this mode of thinking is the product of an earlier, less sophisticated age.
Unless you are a scholar delving into Descartes’ work, the real purpose of teaching the Meditations is to provide students with a framework to understand how one can go about thinking through complex philosophical problems. Descartes starts from a position of epistemic doubt, and decided to run with it in a thought experiment to see where it took him. The thought experiment is a useful exercise to run your students through to get them to think through their received opinions and held-dogmas.
However, in light of my rant a few weeks back about informed consent and vaccines, I’ve discovered a new contemporary use for thinking about Descartes’ evil genius. In some sense, the evil genius is *real* and takes the form of fear that shortcuts our abilities to learn about the world and revise our held beliefs. Descartes posited that the evil demon was able to put ideas into our heads that made us believe things that were completely against logic. The demon was able to strip away the world beyond the senses and even cast doubt on abstract concepts like mathematics.
Much in the same way Descartes’ demon was able to “deceive” him into believing things that were contrary to the nature of reality, our fear of the unknown and of future harm can cause us to hold beliefs that do not map onto facts about the world. Worse yet, the story we tell about those facts can get warped, and new explanations can be given to account for what we are seeing. This becomes the breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, the backfire effect, and entrenched adherence to one’s beliefs. We hate to be wrong, and so we bend over backwards to contort our understanding of the facts to hold-fast to our worldview.
In truth, we are all susceptible to Descartes’ demon, especially those whom believe themselves to be above these kinds of faults of logic. In psychology, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, of which there are all sorts of reasons given why people overestimate their competence. But in the context of an entrenched worldview that is susceptible to fear of the unknown lurks Descartes’ Demon, ready to pounce upon us with false beliefs about the world. Its call is strong, its grip is tight, and the demon is there to lull us into tribalism. We fight against those we see as merchants of un-truth and in a twisted sense of irony, the weapons of truth we yield only affect those already on our side, while those we seek to attack are left unaffected. It becomes a dog-whistle that calls on those who already think and believe as we do.
If we hope to combat this modern Cartesian demon, we’ll need to find a new way of reaching those we see on the other side.
In the ethics of conducting research with human participants, there is the concept of “informed consent.” At its foundation, informed consent is the process of communicating a sufficient amount of information about a research project to a prospective participant so that the prospect is able to decide whether they want to consent to being a participant in a study. There is a lot of nuance that can go into selecting what gets communicated because you have a lot of necessary information that needs be shared but you don’t want to share so much information that the participant is overwhelmed by the volume of information.
When I review research ethics applications, I am privy to a lot of information about the project. In the course of reviewing the project, I have to make judgement calls about what should be included in the informed consent letters that participants read. It would be counter-productive if the participant had to read all the documentation I am required to read when reviewing an application, so we use certain best practices and principles to decide what information gets communicated as a standard, and what is left in the application.
There is, of course, some challenges that we must confront in this process. As I said, when reviewing a research project, you have to balance the needs of the project with the needs of a participant. All research, by virtue of exploring the unknown, carries with it an element of risk. When you involve humans in a research project, you are asking them to shoulder some of the risk in the name of progress. Our job as researchers and reviewers is to anticpate risk and mitigate it where possible. We are stewards of the well-being of the participants, and we use our experience and expertise to protect the particpants.
This means that one challenge is communicating risk to participants and helping them understand the implications of the risks of the research. In many instances, the participants are well aware of risks posed to their normal, every-day lived experiences and how the research intersects with it. The patient living with a medical condition is aware of their pain or suffering, and can appreciate risks associated with medical interventions. A person living in poverty is acutely aware of what it means to live in poverty, and understands that discussing their experiences can be psychologically and emotionally difficult. Our jobs (as reviewers and researchers) is to ensure that the participant is made aware of the risk, mitigate it as much as we can without compromising the integrity of the research program, and to contextualize the risk so that the participant can make choices for themselves without coercion.
The concept of informed consent is hugely important, arguably the most important component of research projects involving humans as participants. It is an acknowledgement that people are ends in themselves, not a means to furthering knowledge or the researcher’s private or professional goals. Indeed, without a respect for the autonomy of the participant, research projects are likely to not be moved into action even when research funds are available.
All of this is a preamble to discuss the anger I felt when I read a recent CBC report on how anti-vaxxer advocates are using the concept of informed consent as a dog-whistle to their adherents, and are using informed consent as a way of both furthering their awareness and raising money with well-meaning politicians and the public.
In fairness, I can see the chain of reasoning at play that tries to connect informed consent with concerns about vaccines. For instance, in the article there is a photo of supporters of a vaccine choice group with a banner that reads “If there is a risk there must be a choice.” This sentiment is entirely consistent with the principles of informed consent. The problem with this application is that the risk is not being communicated and understood properly within context, and instead fear, misinformation, and conspiracies that lead to paternalistic paranoia are short-cutting the conversation. Further, the incentive structures that are borne out of the economics of our medical system are doing little to address these fears. Because so little money is flowing from the government to the medical system, doctors are forced to maximize the number of patients they see in a day just to ensure enough money is coming into the practice to pay for space, equipment, staff, insurance, and supplies. Rather than seeking quality face-to-face time with a patient, doctors have to make a choice to limit patient time to just focus on a chief complaint and address questions as efficiently as they can.
I don’t think it’s all the doctor’s fault either. I think we as patients, or more specifically we as a society, have a terrible grasp of medical and scientific literacy. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the root cause of this is, but some combination of underfunded schooling, rapid technological innovation, growing income disparities, entertainment pacification, a lack of mental health support, increasingly complex life systems, and precarious economic living in the average household are all influencing the poor grasp people have about what makes the world around us work. Rather than being the case that we are hyper-specialized in our worldviews, I think it’s the case that “life” is too complex for the average person to invest time into understanding. Let’s be clear, it is not the case that the average person isn’t smart enough to grasp it (even if sometimes my frustration with people leads me to this conclusion). Instead, I think that people are pulled in so many directions that they don’t have the time or economic freedom to deal with things that don’t immediately pay off for them. People are so fixated on just making it day-to-day and trying not to fall behind that it becomes a luxury to have the leisure time to devote to these kinds of activities.
What this results in, then, is the perfect storm of ignorance and fear that congeals into a tribal call to rebel against the paternalism of a system that is ironically also too cash-strapped to allow the flexibility to educate people on the nature of risk. People don’t have the time and ability to educate themselves, and doctors don’t have the time to share their experiences and knowledge with their patients.
Within this gap, opportunistic charlatans and sophists thrive to capitalize on people’s fears to push their own agendas. This is why bad actors like the disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and movement leader Del Bigtree are able to charge fees to profit from speaking at anti-vaccination events. I’m not saying a person who spreads a message should do it for free. What I am saying is that they are able to turn a personal profit by preying on people’s fears while doing little to investigate the thing they claim to worry about.
We must find a way to communicate two simultaneous truths:
There is an inherent risk in everything; bad stuff happens to good people, and you can do everything right and still lose. Nevertheless, the risks involved when it comes to vaccines are worth shouldering because of the net good that comes from it and the risks themselves are vanishingly small.
In the 22 years since Wakefield published his study and the 16 years since its retraction, there has not been any peer-reviewed credible evidence that supports many of the claims given by the anti-vaxx movement. The movement is predicated on fears people have of the probability of something bad happening to them or their loved ones. The motivation behind the fear is legitimate, but the object of the fear is a bogeyman that hides behind whatever shadows it can find as more and more light is cast on this area.
The anti-vaxx ideology knows it cannot address head-on the mounting scientific evidence that discredits its premise, and so it instead focuses on a different avenue of attack.
This bears repeating: the anti-vaxx ideology cannot debate or refute the scientific evidence about vaccination. We know vaccines work. We know how they work; we know why they work. We understand the probabilities of the risk; we know the type and magnitudes of the risks. These things are known to us. Anti-vaxx belief is a deliberate falsehood when it denies any of what we know.
Because of this, the anti-vaxx ideology is shifting to speak to those deep fears we have of the unknown, and instead of dealing with the facts of medicine, it is sinking its claws into the deep desire we have for freedom and autonomy. It shortcuts our rational experience and appeals to the fears evolution has given us to grapples with the unknown – the knee-jerk rejection of things we don’t understand.
Informed consent as a concept is the latest victim of anti-vaxx’s contagion. It’s seeping in and corrupting it from the inside, turning the very principle of self-directed autonomy against a person’s self-interest. It doesn’t cast doubt by calling the science into question. Instead, it casts doubt precisely because the average person doesn’t understand the science, and so that unknown becomes scary to us and we reject or avoid what brings us fear.
Anti-vaxx ideology is a memetic virus. In our society’s wealth, luxury, and tech-enabled friction-free lives, we have allowed this dangerous idea to gain strength. By ignoring it and ridiculing it until now, we have come to a point where it threatens to disrupt social homeostasis. Unless we do something to change the conditions we find ourselves in – unless we are willing to do the hard work – I fear that this ideology is going to replicate at a rate that we can’t stop. It will reach a critical mass, infect enough people, and threaten to undo all the hard work achieved in the past. We have already seen the evidence of this as once-eradicated diseases are popping up in our communities. The immunity and innoculations have weakened. Let’s hope those walls don’t break.