Quotes out of Context: Bertrand Russell

Picture this: Trump, sitting in with his team of health experts, barely conscious because this isn’t about him and he doesn’t understand it anyway. But he perks up when he hears something he can comprehend – the word “disinfectant” – and takes this confidence in his natural scientific ability to the podium, giving us the moment in history that so perfectly illustrates the quote:

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”  – Bertrand Russell

You might think this is from Bertrand Russell’s Big Book of Burns, but it’s actually from his History of Western Philosophy, where he discusses the credibility of one of Socrates’ reporters, Xenophon:

There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid line of argument. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy. We cannot therefore accept what Xenophon says if it either involves any difficult point in philosophy or is part of an argument to prove that Socrates was unjustly condemned

For someone who is protective of ideas retaining the intended meaning/nuance, the quote itself rings true logically, if not a bit petulantly. I’m not surprised then that in context we learn he is using it to attack someone… someone who really must have gotten under his skin to be mentioned in his magnum opus like this, and that is much more interesting!

I looked into this Xenophon character to see if he is really as stupid as Russell seems to think he is. Little is know about him personally, besides a “good basic education and military training”, but he made a mark as a “brilliant leader” and “kind horseman” . He wrote practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, and about certain figures of the day – including Socrates, whose moral philosophy resonated with him.

Over the span of four books called Memorabilia, Xenophon describes Socrates as a down-to-earth figure and dispenser of practical advice, who is “committed to helping people improve their lives in all practical dimensions”. This account differs from Plato’s Socrates, who is a purebred philosopher, committed to “follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us”. If you ask me, their versions of Socrates sound suspiciously created in their own image, but nevertheless, Plato, an actual philosopher, was considered the more trusted reporter of philosophy.

So why the disrespect, Bertie? The first line of the quoted paragraph indicates some saltiness that people generally take Xenophon for true, even though, in your words, he is “not very liberally endowed with brains”. Hmm. Seems harsh to call him “stupid” since he wrote several works and had an audience. Socrates was his mentor as much as he was Plato’s.

It could be that Russell saw something in Xenophon – or saw through him – that wasn’t so obvious to non-geniuses, and was frustrated by his popularity with the general population. But from a historical perspective, it sure seems like Russell was just engaging in some good old-fashioned prejudice of non-intellectuals and simply didn’t think it was the place for a non-qualified philosopher to speak for someone as profound as Socrates (who never wrote anything down himself). What’s more, the criticism of Xenophon doesn’t even suggest he is guilty of misunderstanding Socrates so much as reporting on him superficially – in a way the layman can understand. But isn’t that the mark of a good teacher?

Sorry, Bertie. I’m usually on your side, but I think Socrates would agree you were being kind of a dick here.

And yet again, the quote really only works for me if I don’t do a deep dive!

Monday Musings: Walking off Set

I know I’m not American, but I consume so much of its news and culture that I can’t help feel like I am. Or at least feel for all the good people there as I watch from the comfort of my own non-collapsing country. 

I feel sorry, I gasp, I cheer, I agonize.  I feel like I’m watching a reality tv show, with the star as the villain who is running America like his failed businesses. Except it’s less The Apprentice and more Survivor. 

If you told me America would be in this spot three years ago, I would in fact be incredibly surprised. I would assume that the most incompetent, immoral, impeachable president on record would have been removed by now for [pick your reason]. We the viewers can’t see the behind-the-scenes activity that props him up and got him there in the first place, but it must be pretty grim.  I can’t imagine the angst I would feel if I actually lived there. But I also can’t imagine a circumstance where I would stay there willingly.

So WHY DO PEOPLE STAY? Why do the many strong, intelligent, impressive people who are free to emigrate somewhere that doesn’t require them to sacrifice their lives on the altar of the Dow, choose to remain in this game that clearly is rigged against them? I don’t get it.

They must be blindly loyal, I think; or maybe optimists. But if he gets another term, I doubt there will be a mass exodus or anything. They will stay and continue their work.

One of the things I initially cheered for as a win were all the empty seats at Trump’s Coronavirus “press briefings” from the reporters not bothering to attend due to lack of actual news.  Good, don’t give him an audience. Narcissists hate being ignored.  Then I started seeing clips circulating of the few reporters who stay and persist in needling him with the questions his preferred reporters would never ask. They know they aren’t there for news, but rather to play Trump at his own game. They know there’s nothing he is more sensitive to than being challenged by an intelligent woman, so the stations send their best players.  This is entertainment baby. Their very presence amplifies his clownliness on on his very own stage – thanks to the internet, the world stage. An added bonus being the audience who don’t watch any other legitimate news sources are seeing something other than a bunch of cogs in the propaganda machine just going along with it. It’s working.

Changing my mind about who should be attending these briefings has changed my mind about what it takes and what it means to stay in America. It’s the people who can leave but choose to stay and fight the good fight who are the heroes here. Even if it means just staying to vote.

But all I see is a drunk giant that’s about to topple over, and my instinct still is to get as far out of the way as possible to a country which is as least dependant/affected by US as possible, like New Zealand. Here I am, lucky enough to be Canadian and it’s still not enough.

Maybe that’s why American is great, because of its fierce loyalty either way, and its potential which can only be fulfilled if the good ones compete. Me, I’m just someone who’s scared of the show.

Monday Musings – Reality Checks

As you may know already, lucid dreaming requires performing “reality checks”, which is literally asking yourself within the dream, “Am I dreaming right now?”, performing other checks to confirm, and then enjoying the ride with various degrees of awareness.

Of course, it takes a lot of practice to get to this point of semi-lucidity within a dream to even ask such a thing. And even if you get there, you’ve performed the other checks, you’ve controlled your dream, you are still never sure  it’s a dream to the extent as when you are awake that you are sure you’re awake, or that you had just been dreaming. It’s only when we are awake that we can be positively sure we were dreaming.

We don’t really think we’re awake when we’re dreaming – but we’re passively assuming wakefulness. We don’t doubt the dream inside the dream, and that’s the problem. It takes active consideration and practice to conclude that we are indeed dreaming. We cannot conclude, upon active consideration, that we are awake. So in a dream, when we actively consider, we conclude correctly – but we only achieve the absolute certainty when we awake.

So how does this carry over when we ask ourselves, in reality, to confirm our state of consciousness in reality? Like, “Am I in love?” for instance. It’s easy to actively consider these questions when awake; we may do it obsessively. And we get a lot of false positives, for the love question in particular. Yet when we know, we know. And we look back on that “knowing” as something entirely different than all those other times we thought we knew. Same how we know when we are awake. In both cases, we look back in awe at our naiveté.

But no matter how sure we now feel at the moment, we still can’t accept it as certainty for the same reason we can’t accept the certainty about our lucidity while dreaming. We still can’t truly know until we’ve woken up. But in reality there is no other level that we can “wake up” to. The closest we can do is conclude (rightfully).

So like what lucid dreaming is to regular dreaming, it seems like we have to achieve a state of consciousness beyond mere wakefulness to be able to look back and know what we were right.

It follows then that it’s only through experiments with consciousness that we can bring about the certainty we all desire.

Thoughts?

Quotes out of Context

I am a great lover of quotes. I collect them, repurpose them, substitute entire works for them (hey I never said I earned my degree). I think it’s okay as long as I acknowledge that out of context I don’t know what the author exactly meant by it. But it means something to me; speaks to something deep inside that I believe very strongly, I just don’t have ability to express it so concisely, nor the desire to expound. So I want to make up for all my past intellectual laziness (and disrespect for the intellectual in quotation) by starting a new series wherein I examine in as much detail as I can muster what a particularly resonating quote means to me. Then I’ll find the context and see how my imposed meaning differs from the intended one. So, the first quote is:

wiesel-quote

This one made a lasting impression on my 17-year-old self searching for “quotes about love”, and after all my experience with both extremes rings even truer to this day. Love and hate certainly have more in common than it seems. But why?

This phenomenon of coming to hate someone you once loved is truly one of the most mystifying aspects of our psyches. People seem to reserve their worst behaviour for those had once only seen the best in and were their best around. The love/hate coin is flips faster than we could ever expect.

I’ve spent a lot of time/coping mechanisms trying to intellectualize this is and here’s my best analysis:

Being in any intimate relationship is to break the surface of standard human interaction into a place of total comfort, where you can be yourselves and feel that your self – warts and all – is accepted unconditionally. We feel safe. It’s where we all want to be in the company of others.

These relationships naturally breed expectations, like that each will be consistent, committed, and fight fair – in the name of love. The closer you feel, the higher these expectations; the higher the expectations, the more likelihood of failing them. The vulnerable partner takes this fall from grace as a form of betrayal (of who you appeared to be), which they take as a direct hit (one could argue it’s their fault all along for failing to see and accept the other as human).

So when we feel betrayed by that person, whether real or perceived, we take it so much harder than we would if it were just a friend, or someone we can just shrug off as “not really knowing me” or “has their own issues I don’t know about”. When it’s with someone we feel connected to on the deepest level, who created a space in this confusing world where everything was to be trusted and made sense, the betrayal is almost existential.

Just as each intimate relationship is a uniquely new feeling, so is each betrayal, so we have no frame of reference or societal script for what the correct reaction is. We are in full-on feeling mode and tend to lose control of ourselves that way. The only remedy is time – time to adjust to our new worldview. I guess, the more influence the person had on your life, the more time it will take.

So, that’s how I see that love and hate are more related than it seems. Indifference is just a lack of feeling where there never was to begin with.

Now, my analysis only explains how what we once felt as love can turn into hate, not how love and hate can exist simultaneously. That I don’t believe. But someone who does could also use this quote as support, since it’s so vague. So…maybe I need a more precise quote, or stop using this one at least. Hmm. I’m glad I did this.

Now I will take a look at the origin of the quote and its intended meaning.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

And was said by Nobel prize winner and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in an interview to US media in 1986. That’s all the context I could find.

So it seems it’s not about love in relationships in particular, but about indifference being the “epitome” of evil (which he says so in another quote) from a sociopolitical standpoint, more in the tune of this out-of-context quote:

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I get his intended meaning. Voter apathy letting evil powers that be reign and all that. Not stepping out of the shadows of silence/ignorance when there’s something obviously wrong going on in society. Very bad. But…the opposite? If love is the good guys and hate is the bad guys, then it seems like indifference – not choosing sides – is right there in the moral middle of the two, not the epitome of evil as he says…?

Discuss!

(From July 2017. When Jess was active on the Blog. Come back, Jess. )

Letter from a Pessimist

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Fig A: Supreme court judge lying under oath


Dear Bob,


Oh god. There’s just so much bullshit, Bob. And none of it is even being used for compost. I’m losing hope. 

Be like a boat, they say. Just keep the water out and float on. Don’t let it overcome you. Easier said than done, I say.

There are two kinds of negative feeling that overwhelm: the kind of our own making that time and self-talk help pass, and the kind that is a perfectly appropriate reaction to the reality of the situation; that is, to name one element of this mess we’re in, that we are basically inhabiting a spaceship piloted by incompetent, amoral megalomaniacs who live lives with dire consequence for anyone but themselves. Who choose to sacrifice this life – our lives – either for some afterone they’ve been promised in a book, or simply because it benefits them. It is slowly but surely heading towards the sun, and our efforts are too few and too late to turn it around. So what do we do then? Is the only option to delude ourselves?

I’m asking you because you are my oldest friend, at – how old are you now? – and probably wisest, and you’d think if things were really as bleak as I say, that you of all people have a much more effective coping strategy or else you would have pressed the “eject” button by now.

Knowing you, you would just give me some ambiguous quip if I just asked for your secret, and while I do admire your constant sense of humour, I want real answers, so I have compiled this list of questions on the topic of Having A Good Time Despite It all.

Thank you,

Jess

What is the most useful influence religion has on coping with the unpleasant truth of the world? (that doesn’t require supernatural belief)

Is peace more than just absence of suffering?

How much attention should we give to world politics?

Do you meditate, why/why not?

Can words change our outlook?

Have you been lucky in life? Or do you possess a quality that attracts what some call luck?

Have you ever had a mental breakdown?

How can we be happy?

Letter from Nanaimo – Jess

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View from my porch

Dear Bob,

You gave me some post-Japan interview questions and I did it in one go! Thanks for asking.

How does it feel to be back on the Island?

I feel better than ever about being – and staying in the foreseeable future – in Nanaimo. I love and care for this place, and I think that’s due in part to being at a time where I need to make some commitments to find sustainable meaning (the tricky minx). And being lucky enough to have had experiences and formed relationships that made me want to come back each time, because Nanaimo’s just pretty great on its own. I’m still constantly discovering stuff. As for the Island, as soon as I got back I bought a big detailed wall map and realized I’ve got a lifetime of exploring to do way closer to home.

What did you learn from your work in Japan?

That a connection with a person transcends language and culture. Some of the people I felt the closest to were the lowest English level. There’s a few that after just one lesson of barely speaking English – and certainly not the English they would speak if they could – I felt like I knew them, and those are the ones I am still in contact with. It’s one of the most mysterious things! Sometimes I think language obfuscates the connection. I came away much less skeptical of low-verbal relationships – as long as you can be with them.

What are your career plans now?

Philosophy (and all the “interesting” yet low-paying jobs you’ve led me to), it’s been a slice, but it’s time to get fiscally responsible,  so I’m gonna do the electrical apprenticeship program at VIU and I’ve been working p/t under my electrician in the meantime. I also start an evening front desk job at the Coast today! I’M IN A UNION!!

What cultural differences did you notice?

The big differences I noticed all related to community and harmony. Like the concepts of one’s true feelings (honne) and the façade one keeps in order to preserve harmony (tatemae) being so ubiquitous. I think every culture experiences this to some extent, but in Japan people seem to at once do it, know everyone else is doing it, and are annoyed by it. It’s sort of funny to them, like, “Oh well, that’s Japan”  It was stressful for me though, not knowing or being told.

That and (keeping in mind that it’s a countryside town), the sense of trust and safety. People would leave their bikes unlocked, my school would leave the door unlocked, you can walk anywhere at any hour, and just the feeling like everyone wants to get along.

What was the effect of living in a place where you had language difficulties?

I never found it difficult or even frustrating; only amusing. Most know at least enough to get across basic communication, or we use Google translate (the downside of that being you don’t learn much Japanese by necessity), or I had my fluent-English speaking bosses on call.  I relished in each and every language misadventure.  I’m used to feeling like the odd one anyway so it was almost a relief for it to be chalked up to my western-ness and nothing more!

What are you going to do when you grow up?

Ha ha, very funny. I have two plans for the future: one, become an electrician/wirer of tiny homes, build and wire my own tiny home, move onto the property on Gabriola my good friend bought for the intention of having a tiny home community (we need people to join us or to park there in the meantime, so inquire within/pass along), live in communal self-sufficient bliss writing, wiring, and prepping for doomsday. Second, be with the one I love doing whatever follows. I am hoping they are not mutually exclusive, but I’m flexible.

SS: Gender Apathy

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We people have this annoying tendency to try and fit our behavior, beliefs and states of being into boxes so we’re easy to understand. Gender is one of them. As the only part of the gender-sex-orientation triad that is generally in our control, we choose to be regarded as more or less male or female (with varying degrees of consciousness of the fact). In the middle of the spectrum of gender lies an ever-growing list of non-binary positions; gender fluid, gender bending, pangender, gender neutral, and agender to name just some. The question, “What is your gender identity?” is now something to think about.

But let’s consider the people who are off the spectrum entirely; who, through lack of consideration, don’t take any position. The gender-apathetic. You haven’t heard of them because they don’t care enough to make their presence known. They are neither loud, proud, or out. When asked to define their gender identity they’d probably shrug and default to their sex with a question mark inflection before quickly changing the subject.

The gender apathetic cannot be said to be gender neutral, agender, or genderless. Where agender is like bald as a hair color, gender apathy is more like the floating teapot in space; maybe it’s there, but they’re not thinking about it. Not only is gender totally uninformative to who they are, but the question of how their gender influences any part of their hobbies, choices, interactions, is not even raised in their minds. The gender apathetic don’t go to any lengths to show their genderlessness, but might do something gender-bending for other personal reasons.

Says one cis male who “guesses” would describe himself as gender apathetic, “I don’t really think about it. Maybe that’s a function of me wearing nail polish. It makes me happy, so I do it. If I had the option of growing long, luxurious hair, I’d want to explore that.”

People who are gender apathetic are unphased by gendered comments (insofar as they are supposed to apply to them) because they don’t particularly identify to what they refer. Nor do they feel discriminated against (even when they are) for being their gender. They feel no pull to join any gender pride groups and do things considered against gender norms without thinking about it. The idea of coming out as “agender” seems absurd.

Not to say that identifying one way or another isn’t valid, social construct or not. Says cis female: “My family was really open to gender fluidity and sexuality, so naturally I experimented, and particularly questioned what was and wasn’t male or female. Now that I’m more settled, I don’t need to try on an identity. I’m female. I do wish I had more experience that made me more classically female, like bra shopping or how to wear makeup.”

Whether gender apathy is yet another identity, an impossibility, whether it’s a way to avoid participating in a fight for human rights where a world with gender discrimination is real, or what we should all be striving for, I don’t really care. I was asked to write this.

Quotes out of Context: Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis C.K.

Whenever I have been hurt or have hurt someone and am trying to throw away responsibility, these two quotes come to mind:

eleanor-roosevelt-no-one-can-make-you-feel-inferior-without-your-consent
quote-when-a-person-tells-you-that-you-hurt-them-you-don-t-get-to-decide-that-you-didn-t-louis-c-k-106-95-62

At first these ideas seem to contradict each other. The first quote says victimhood is a choice; it’s up to us to accept or reject the inferior position of being hurt. We are in a situation and it’s our responsibility to decide how to feel about it. So if we are hurt, it’s our fault. It’s appealing to me, someone who is much more inclined to express hurt from the “superior” position of anger, and who also does not think it fair to be accused of causing hurt that I did not intend. So, I read this quote as to validate the admittedly defective ways in which I process being and causing hurt.

The second is from the view of the offender and says that if someone is hurt by your actions, you have to accept the fact without dispute and act accordingly. You can’t blame the person for deciding to be hurt (“playing the victim”), and you can’t decide that their hurt is invalid. These things don’t matter. You are responsible for the hurt you have caused. This is a healthier way to look at. Makes me feel safer to express hurt knowing it ought not to be rejected, and holds me accountable for the hurt I have caused.

Now, context.

Turns out, Roosevelt never actually said these words verbatim. She did, however, express this core idea over an incident in which the Secretary of her administration had been invited to give a speech at a University Charter Day, only to have the host of the event step down because she did not believe it appropriate to have a political figure speak.

At a conference, Roosevelt was asked whether the secretary had been “snubbed”:

 “A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

The quote was thusly distilled, attributed, and published in the Readers Digest. For ease of digesting.

I’m a surprised and a little disappointed at the relatively petty origins of such a powerful idea. I’d have thought it would be a response to bullying or discrimination to encourage those who feel the power is in everyone else’s hands. Really, the host’s decision to step down from the event seems to be an upholding of her personal values, not an effort to demean. Not a big deal.

The Roosevelt quote is really about self-esteem. Inferior and superior are states of self-esteem. And it’s true, if you have high self-esteem then you will not easily be taken down a notch by those who wish you challenge you. But the quote implies that self-esteem is something you can decide. Is that so?

The quote also raises the question: is someone with high self-esteem impervious to hurt? Should they be? What does that do to a person who is unable to feel hurt? Maybe there are times in our lives where we should be hurt, so we don’t get too ahead of ourselves. Just sayin’.

Then we have the Louis C.K. quote, which seems to me more about having empathy for those you’ve hurt no matter if their hurt is justified in your eyes. Since you are the one that caused the pain, your acknowledgement of it might be the only thing that can undo it, so it is your moral duty to do so. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. It’s a bit of a lofty idea, to expect everyone to cave so easily to those they have hurt when there was a reason – maybe even a valid one – to do it in the first place. But let’s say he’s talking about the hurt one inadvertently causes.

Context in light of recent events (refusing the address the allegations of the women who felt violated) gives this a little…hypocritical edge.

BUT WAIT. Upon further investigation, this quote is from season 5 episode 3 of Louis, where his character has to draw the line with a friend whose roughhousing goes too far, admit his friend’s protests:

“You’re hitting me and you’re physically hurting me and that’s where I have to draw the line. I’m telling you that it hurt and you don’t get to deny that. When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”

Goddamnit, it’s PHYSICAL pain he’s talking about!! Will I ever read a quote properly out of context?!