The Point of Stories

Featured image is A Neapolitan Story Teller, by Pierre Bonirote.

Francis: What do you think the point of a story is?

Paco: The point?

Francis: You know, their function. Their purpose. Why do we tell them?

Paco: There are many reasons, I imagine.

Francis: I think the most important one is illustrated by “The Zebra Storyteller“. We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.

Continue reading “The Point of Stories”

The Game is the Thing

A Ruck (source)
A Ruck (source)

For two years in college, I played rugby.

This was a little out of character. Loved ones wondered whether this was some sort of roundabout suicide attempt.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my good friend Alex, I went to the first practice of the GMU Rugby Club for the fall 2005 semester. This was the year before GMU’s basketball team went to the Final Four, so the administration was towards the end of a long period of neglecting GMU’s sports in general. Rugby being a less popular sport than most, the field the team had access to was more hard ground and mud than grass.

(Incidentally, the semester after the Final Four run, we returned to discover that our field had become a beautiful green jewel, tended to lovingly and invested in with fresh cash from an administration suddenly enthusiastic about sports)

When we arrived at that first practice, everyone was engaged in a drill called cross over running. You form four lines, facing each other diagonally. The lines that face each other directly run and pop the ball to the person at the head of the one across from them, who then runs and does the same, and so on.

To my unathletic, inexperienced, timid, and highly awkward self, it was a terrifying sight. You had to make sure that you caught the ball, didn’t crash into someone running from the perpendicular line, and then actually got the ball into the hands of the person across from you. And it all happened so fast! I was certain to make a complete fool of myself.

And in practice, as well as the field, I did make a fool of myself, many times. But it was a kind, forgiving group, who encouraged persistence in the face of continual failure, and went out of their way to call out whenever I did something right. In short, I stuck with it, for those last two years of undergrad.

Continue reading “The Game is the Thing”

Religious Recursion

It does annoy me, on occasion, before I catch myself and remember that the whole Christian project is a project of open futility–

About that: the Second Sunday of Easter is always Doubting Thomas Sunday, so doubt is much on my mind, being a fervent believer, liturgically speaking, meditating on the elements of my faith, which is something else, at my age, having lived through the emergence of a culture which was mostly Christian into one which is mostly not, especially up here in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Doubt, right? It’s essential to the Faith.

They were upstairs, behind locked doors, afraid, those Eleven who were with him from the very beginning, and they all saw him die. Thomas, called “The Twin,” puffs his chest out, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Well, Thomas, can’t you do that to a corpse?

Strange things.

I don’t understand the intellectual hostility to Christianity, especially when people I consider friends publicly wish there were fewer of me, less of my influence in life and culture. Why? Because there are bad Christians? And the half-baked dismissal of the fervent, you know, glib high school angry atheist stuff, always as an aside, never as a grown-up inquiry into this two thousand year old faith with a billion adherents, and growing (despite Europe and North America), which has roots in a strange Ancient Near Eastern blood cult another two thousand years hence.

The Christian project is a project of open futility, though, and I have to remind myself of that.

Nevertheless, I do take a little pleasure in some of the materialist investigations into the Faith, first transforming Christianity into a “religion,” which is a neat intellectual move, making the Faith, which dominates the life and culture of Western Civilization, indistinguishable from shamanistic druidic magicka, only distinguishing by time elapsed. When the materialists talk about ritual, ignoring my own call for distinctions within these hallowed halls

Remember, the Christian Faith is in defiance of ritual and religion. When Christianity develops rituals, it’s always a threat to itself.

This behavior of the materialists, all of them together, namely, wishing there were fewer of me, reducing my beliefs into a primordial pool of beliefs, and talking about my rites and rituals without making proper distinctions, creates in me a sense that a kind of recursion is going on:

The materialist sees the Christian, and comments. The Christian sees the materialist commenting, and comments. The materialist sees the Christian commenting on the comment, and so forth. To me, it’s like one of those wonderfully absurd Monty Python sketches:

Scene: Lower middle-class apartment, evening, husband sitting in comfortable chair reading The Times, wife making efforts at wifely cleaning. Two men appear in the window, dressed in safari clothing, writing in notebooks.

Wife: Herman, they’re watching us again!

Herman: Who are, Margret?

Margret: The Materialists.

Herman: Oh, that’s all right, dear, they’re just researching.

Margret: Researching?

Herman: That’s right, Margret; they’ve come from a long way away just to learn about our behavior in the wild instead of in captivity.

Laugh track

Margret: Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. (closes curtains. The materialist safari move to the other window)

Laugh track

Margret: They won’t go away, Herman!

Herman: Of course not, dear, they’re Materialists.

Laugh track

Herman: Ask them what they want, and maybe they’ll go away.

Margret: What do you want?

Materialists don’t answer. Whisper to each other, writing in notebooks.

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Laugh track

Herman: Do what?

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Herman: Well, what are they talking about?

Margret: Normativity.

Herman: Normativity? Did you hand them a copy of Proverbs?

Margret: I told you, they don’t think we can see them.

And so forth. The laugh track is to my advantage, but you, O Materialist, have the last laugh, the true laugh.

The whole project of the Christian Faith is a project of open futility, and it is actually encoded in the Faith. Saint Paul–excuse me–the Apostle Paul, after fifteen chapters on the wisdom of God putting to shame the wisdom of the world (that would be you materialists) finishes his exposition by saying in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If there is no resurrection of the body, then we are to be pitied more than all men. Send money.”

So, since miracles = impossible (cf. G.E. Lessing), and since the resurrection of the body = a miracle, then, it follows, therefore there is no God.

The materialist has the advantage in an ever-improving society and ever-progressing technology as a result of Science, material proof. The only way for me to prove my faith is for me to become a corpse.

They called Thomas “The Twin” for a reason, you know.

man-in-the-mirror
Image borrowed from http://menfash.us/styling-tips/am-i-really-looking-good/

 

“Me” and “We,” Where “We” Is “Thee”

CHRIS: I think we ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: So do I!

CHRIS: How can that be? Just yesterday we were talking about a proposal to tax the 1% more heavily in order to fund poverty relief programs, and you said you opposed that plan.

PAT: I do oppose that plan. What does that have to do with anything?

CHRIS: Well, evidently you oppose at least one thing we can do to help the poor.

PAT: Well, hang on. You just said you thought we ought to do more to help the poor. Now you’re saying that you think someone else ought to do more to help the poor…

CHRIS: What I meant was that I think we as a society ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: I see. I agree with that, too. Only, now I have question: Don’t you consider yourself a part of society?

CHRIS: I most certainly do.

PAT: I thought so, but then why, when talking about what we as a society ought to do for the poor, did you choose to single out a group to which you do not belong? Don’t you think you, personally ought to do more to help the poor?

CHRIS: I give what I can, but the wealthy could afford to give much more than I can give.

PAT: Yes, that is probably true. However, you said before that you thought we as a society ought to do more for the poor. Upon clarification, I now see that what you really meant was that you personally cannot afford to do more for the poor, but someone else can, and so you feel that they ought to. You began by talking about “us,” but what you really meant was “them.” Why did you say “we” when what you really meant was “they?”

CHRIS: We are all part of society, all of us. If we want to enjoy a society in which all of us has the opportunity to flourish, then we must all meet our ethical responsibilities. Because the wealthy are part of our society, I include them whenever I say “we.”

PAT: Chris, are you okay? I thought you were doing pretty well for yourself. You have a nice job and seem to be making a comfortable living. You even have some money left over to donate to charity. Are you not flourishing?

CHRIS: Wait, what? Of course I’m flourishing; I have a great life.

PAT: Well, doggone it. Now I’m really confused.

CHRIS: I didn’t think it was a very complicated concept. What seems to be perplexing you?

PAT: Well, before, you were saying that “we” ought to do more, but what you really meant was a group of “us” to which you don’t belong. But just now, you said you thought we all had to meet our ethical responsibilities in order for all the rest of us to enjoy the opportunity to flourish…

CHRIS: You don’t seem to be confused to me, Pat.

PAT: Well, hang on. When you say that we need to meet our ethical responsibilities, you obviously mean that the wealthy ought to do more to help the poor, right?

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: But “the wealthy” doesn’t mean you.

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: And since you say you have a great life, then that means “the poor” doesn’t mean you, either.

CHRIS: Well… right.

PAT: So then when you say that you want all of “us” to flourish, you mean that you want someone other than you to gain something contributed by someone else, other than you.

CHRIS: Yes, so?

PAT: So, you keep saying “us” and “we,” but in no case do you actually mean to refer to yourself. I know you and I have disagreed on politics in the past, but I never expected us to disagree so profoundly on the meaning of the words “we” and “us.”

CHRIS: Come, now, Pat. Don’t you think you’re being a little obtuse? I’m talking about making our society a better place. We all live here, rich, poor, and average. We should all accept some level of responsibility for the society in which we live, and we should all strive to provide the foundation of a better polity. That naturally means that some of us will be beneficiaries and some of us will be benefactors. Because I’m doing okay, I make a point of donating what I can, and I never make a point of accepting a donation I don’t need. But those who are doing much better than I am should give more, and those who are worse off than I should be given more. But we’re all part of the polity.

PAT: I agree with all of that. All I’m saying is that you’re not really talking about “society” or “the polity,” you’re talking about what should happen to people other than you. Even worse, you’re talking specifically about people who have different characteristics than you have. Some of them give more, some of them receive more, but none of them are you. Let me ask you another question: Would you say you belong to the same society as “the 1%?”

CHRIS: I see where you’re going with this. In one sense, I belong to the same society they do because we are all part of the same polity. But in another sense, we don’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, so I guess I don’t belong to their society per se.

PAT: Neither do you hang out with the poor, Chris.

CHRIS: That’s true, too. But we all belong to the same polity, meaning we are all subject to the same government and the same laws. So when I was talking about that progressive tax increase, I meant that this is a policy everyone within the same polity should support.

PAT: Well, I still disagree with you there, but I think you probably know now that my disagreement has nothing to do with “society.”

CHRIS: Of course it has nothing to do with society, Pat. It’s rational self-interest. You’re rich. You don’t want to pay more taxes.

PAT: Wait a minute. That means that when you first said “we,” what you really meant was… me?

CHRIS: So it would seem.

PAT: Why didn’t you just say so in the first place? You made it sound like you wanted to help. And remember, I initially agreed that you and I ought to do more. You never intended to do more for the poor.

CHRIS: I guess it doesn’t sound very nice when you put it that way. I only wanted to make an agreeable case for our helping the poor… er, I guess for your helping the poor. Look, I’m sorry for putting it to you in an offensive way. I really didn’t see it that way.

PAT: It was an honest mistake. We’re friends, apology accepted.

CHRIS: Well, now I feel a little awkward. Let’s talk about something else.

PAT: Okay, sure.

CHRIS: I think we ought to treat women more fairly…

Theory and Practice, Episode Three

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree. Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Three”

Power and Persuasion

Francis: What is on your mind? You seem troubled.

Paco: I’ve been reading a lot lately about this country’s many military adventures abroad, from drone bombings to funding various factions in other nations’ politics, to boots on the ground and air support in the sky.

Francis: That will put anyone in a sour state of mind. What has driven you to this morbid line of research?

Paco: I just wonder if there is such a thing as civilization, or if it is just a sham, a part we play while others engage in barbarism on our behalf.

Francis: Is there any point to talking in such categories these days? The whole dichotomy of primitive and civilized seems so…offensive.

Continue reading “Power and Persuasion”

Techniques of Neutralization

Ryan and Adam have been discussing the role of situation in morality. Do read both in full.

Ryan’s is a convincing defense of the banality of evil. Rape is an inevitability of war, for example, not because the participants of war are particularly bad human beings, but because the situation of being at war drives otherwise normal human beings to do heinous things. As he writes,

Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

Both he and Adam point to self-delusion as the culprit. Writing from the experience of having once rationalized the immoral actions of a close friend, Adam says he

received that wake-up call about my own capacity for self-deception over a decade ago. The bigger shock was not that I was able to be so willfully blind, but that so many of my friends continued to be in light of what the investigation uncovered. In fact, they doubled down, entrenching themselves in a persecution narrative which provided a useful framework for rationalizing away any hint of their own guilt.

I don’t have much to add so far that my senpai hasn’t (as usual) said earlier and much better. From his discussion of the shortcomings of virtue ethics in Morality Competition, and the Firm, Joseph Heath brings up the criminology literature on violent subcultures:

In the 1950s David Matza and Gresham Sykes suggested that the reason deviant subcultures (such as youth gangs) are criminogenic is not that they encourage primary deviance with respect to the moral norms and values of society, but that they facilitate secondary deviance with respect to cognitive and epistemic norms governing the way situations are construed. … Instead of maintaining that violence itself is good, members of the group may instead convince themselves that they had no choice to act as they did, or that the victim had done something to deserve it … What distinguishes the criminal, according to this view, is not a motivational defect or an improper set of values, but rather a willingness to make self-serving use of excuses, in a way that neutralizes the force of conventional values.

One implication of these “techniques of neutralization,” as they’re known, is that proper behavior, for the most part, is not hidden knowledge that the deviant is ignorant of. In fact, social deviants usually “know” the right thing to do, but explain it away with reference to exceptional circumstances, or by construing the situation differently. Paraphrasing an example Heath often gives, when someone says they have “borrowed” an item they in fact stole, they are in essence substituting one normative violation (“do not steal”) with a different, less bad cognitive violation (the generally accepted meaning of the word “borrowed”). He discusses other techniques of neutralization here. They include:

  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of injury
  • Denial of the victim
  • Condemnation of the condemner
  • Appeal to higher loyalties
  • “Everyone else is doing it”
  • Entitlement

Reading Ryan’s post, I was left with the sense that he sees a situation’s influence over moral decision as inevitable, possibly even deterministic. He thus suggests abandoning the even greater delusion that we can avoid self-delusion, and instead focus on reforming the broader system that generates the situations that leave us most compromised.

The problem with this argument comes back to the eternal question asked by criminologists: Why isn’t there more crime than there actually is? Given the state’s limited enforcement capacity, society depends on most people, most of the time behaving morally, i.e. of following the rules. If self-delusion were truly the rule, rather than the exception, civilization would collapse under a crisis of endemic shirking.

Ironically, blaming the system is one of the most pernicious techniques of neutralization criminologists have identified. Indeed, saying “it’s systemic” is one of the easiest ways to deny responsibility for one’s action, and in turn make the problematic behavioral pattern all the more common and entrenched.

This is true not just with respect to crime stemming from war or systemic poverty, but applies equally well to white collar crime, too. When bankers engage in shady lending or regulatory arbitrage, for example, they often neutralize their bad behavior by blaming the systemic forces of market competition (“Everyone else is doing it”), or the duty to maximize shareholder value within the letter of the law (Appeal to higher loyalty). Over time this leads to juridification, the thickening of law books, as behaviors that were once enforced by unwritten social norms and voluntary self-restraint must be replaced by codified laws with explicit sanctions.

rationalization

The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction.

Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion. That’s essentially what Joseph Heath argues business ethics courses should look like, rather than tired lessons in the history of moral philosophy. But in general it’s probably the sort of moral education we should all be subject to, starting as children.