Cuteness: A Philosophical Investigation

chase-no-face-front.jpeg
Chase No-Face (Facebook): Cute because he’s loved, or loved because he’s cute?

Cuteness is an underrated and misunderstood virtue; its essence obscured by cat memes and intellectualization as a mere evolutionary advantage. Here I want to try to dissect cuteness as the independent quality in a person that transcends age and appearance.

There’s no denying that children and cats can be cute, but it’s not by virtue of who they are (as you’ll know if you’ve ever taught children or been allergic to cats). They have the quality of cuteness. Anyone can be cute if they have cuteness; but they and cute are not one in the same. So what IS cute, then? What is the form of cute?

il_570xN.607879884_740y.jpg
Baby wombat: not my thang

To take some stabs at finding what all cute things have in common, or at least eliminate some possibilities, we can ask a form of Moore’s open question:  That which is youthful is cute (let’s say). Baby animals are youthful. Are baby animals cute? Well let’s say they are. A baby wombat is a baby animal. Is a baby wombat cute? No. So only cute baby animals are cute. Maybe it’s big eyes that are cute. I can think of many people with big eyes who aren’t cute once I get to know them. So, big eyes themselves can’t make someone cute. It’s something else.

Teaching such a range of students here in Japan, I have experienced an almost inverse correlation with age and cuteness. It seems the older they are, the more warmth and affection I feel. Also, the older they are the more reserved/nervous they are, maybe in part because they have had (especially in the countryside) less exposure to English/Western culture, and choosing to take an English conversation class with a foreigner is more of a leap for them. My feeling is that the older people who choose to speak English with me, despite their nerves, do so because of a certain purity, vulnerability, and eagerness in their intentions that makes them, well, cute. The cuteness that the little ones exude is something else altogether – indeed probably to do with the evolutionary advantage that makes me (and their guardians) tolerate their decidedly non-cute behaviour so that I can still perform my duties with patience and affection. That’s different.

This way, cute might be defined as the opposite of threatening. It’s impossible to feel defensive around someone you find cute. Instead you have the impulse to open up, to bring closer, to care. It seems like love – but the safest form because a cute person seems unlikely to reject or hurt you. Once they do, they cease to be cute. I consider cuteness as the clearest indicator in my own relationships of whether I want to stay or go. When it fades, so does my affection. The disappearance of the cute betrays an undercurrent of mistrust or insincerity. Fear seeps in – of being hurt. And loving is not worth the risk anymore.

If someone allows themselves be cute around you, it means – either because of their nature or the way you make them feel – they are they are showing you themselves with no defenses at all. They are showing you that they trust you. To consider them cute is to accept their invitation to trust – and to do with that what you will is your power and responsibility. If people find “cute” condescending, that just goes to show how they feel about defenseless people.

I’m not exactly sure how or why cuteness is such a prominent feature of Japanese culture, but mostly it seems to be a certain commodification that gives cute a bad name (in the form of big-eyed tooth or cow mascots for decidedly non-cute things like dentists or beef restaurants.) In fact, cuteness, or Kawaii, is dually defined as adorable and lovable. That which is easy to love. So, that which is easy to love is cute. Could that be the answer?

Quotes out of Context

Dear Bob,

You posted the quote,

quote-be-careful-what-you-pretend-to-be-because-you-are-what-you-pretend-to-be-kurt-vonnegut-191267.jpg

This has been one of those lifelong trending topics of interest for me – the whole faking it until you make it business, and whether it is at odds with authenticity, since it implies you are not being who you are. But also whether being who you are is overrated and a certain amount of pretending is what we all do to become the person we want to be, and maybe my refusal is why I am sooo delayed. Maybe.

The quote has a foreboding ring to it though, so maybe that’s not what it’s about and I am once again projecting to a quote out of context and missing what the author intended. Well, here I go.

It’s part of his book Mother Night and I didn’t have to get very far – it’s the third sentence. Goes like this:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral, I simply just happen to know what it is. We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t expound. The next line goes:

“My personal experience with Nazi monkey violence is limited…”

So I listened to the rest (of the audiobook). It’s about an American who pretended to be a U.S. defector-turned-Nazi to spy on the US during WWII for no reason other than that he was approached and could use his skills as a playwright to write brilliant propaganda and such. “I would fool everybody with my brilliant imitation of a Nazi, inside and out” he says, “and I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right hand man. And nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.” But when the war was over, he found it was not so easy to resume an authentic life.

So in context, the quote refers to this man who has adopted a pattern of behaviour that didn’t reflect his attitudes and how and how those behaviours followed him past the point he dropped them off. This is the lesson that put the quote in the context I think it was meant to be in, and not the one I was projecting – that our reality is determined by our behaviours, not our thoughts, and compartmentalizing the two is not so easy. That’s why we must be careful we aren’t leading anyone astray in either direction about who we really are via our behaviours, because it will come back to haunt us. Maybe not in the form of influencing our thoughts and muddying our authentic self on the inside, but like in this case, being unable to lead an authentic life on the outside because of the reality he has created with his behaviour (in the form of his worshipers tracking him down).

Maybe it’s why he kills himself at the end, despite having his name cleared after nearly being exposed. Maybe the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear, or maybe he knew he couldn’t escape the life he’d pretended to have. In any case, he severely underestimated the difficulty of separating one’s thoughts from his actions.

But when people pretend it’s usually to be someone less despicable. So what to make of pretending to be someone better, more noble than they actually are?  If it’s true that we are what we pretend to be, what’s to distinguish someone acting and someone’s being, so long as they act consistently? So long as they never let on to anyone what their true feelings are.

Do feelings change with behaviour? Is that what transformation actually is?

Comments welcome!

Jess

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paradoxes of Vulnerability

Oxford’s Dictionary (I mean, define: __ in Google) defines vulnerability (noun) as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” Other synonyms include: powerless, defenseless, dependent, weak, exposed.

In self-helpy ways, the definition is more focused on the mechanism of getting to the exposed place as being one of surrender to your own negative states. And it’s supposed to be good for you. But talks* of vulnerability here are often too vague or trite to be much use. To me, anyway.  So I’d like give my own take on vulnerability and argue in favor of its main paradox: how vulnerability makes you strong while invulnerability makes you weak. In the self-helpy way. First, defining my terms:

Vulnerability, the noun, is the quality of admitting and expressing our dark, weak, ugly sides; unwanted feelings and erred ways when they come up. Then there’s exposing ourselves to situations where we can be challenged and potentially hurt as being vulnerable, the adjective.

Being the noun while doing the adjective gives us growing pains **. Being vulnerable without vulnerability is a hollow endeavour***.

**to hurt is to grow. You might have heard. But it’s only as long as you’re aware of what about your psychological condition caused the hurt in the first place, and why you don’t need to be anymore. You need to feel it first, though.

*** being invulnerable means we cannot get hurt or change, means we cannot learn the above, means that while our appearance might seem solid and mature, we are an empty product of our experience. And this product is weak****.

There still needs to be a balance, of course. Too much vulnerability (adj) can make you seem overly emotional and self-absorbed. Being vulnerable to the wrong person and in the wrong situation can backfire*****.

The problem is that when you want to express vulnerability, it means you are currently feeling vulnerable and thus at the mercy of your emotions. This weakens your judgement and makes it more likely that you will indulge inappropriately. Here, emotions must tempered with logic (paradox #2).

Does too little vulnerability make you invulnerable? I don’t think so. Invulnerability is a different beast from mere ignorance; the quality of actively denying our dark, weak, ugly sides, either knowing it exists but not wanting anyone else to, or having deluded ourselves into thinking they are not there.

****How does invulnerability make a person weak? I guess it ultimately depends on one’s definition of weak. The way I see it, the weakness of the invulnerable lies in not so much in what they are, but what they are incapable of being. As being invulnerable limits growth, they are weak in relation to their peers and their potential self. Weak in the way that when the opportunity for emotional intimacy presents itself, they are not strong enough to reap its reward.

It also depends on the possibility of there being a person who is without flaws. Then there’s nothing to offer in the way of vulnerability. I don’t believe such a person exists, but who’s to know.

*****It helps if the recipient of the vulnerability is also one who is comfortable with their own so that they are less likely to use it against them. Unfortunately, it’s often the people who are not who are most able to/wont to hurt the vulnerable (noun and adjective) (paradox #3…or is it a catch 22).

*except for this talk

The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

seed
Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.


Descartes 

 

Letter from Japan #9

IMG_20170816_222046_900.jpg

Dear Bob,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The season of epic thunderstorms, community events, vacations for all. This plus my impending change to part-time (to try become the writer I thought I’d at least try to be by now) has revealed stores of energy and ideas heretofore buried in the monotony of full time (which I really can’t do for long unless it’s my calling). I think my students have noticed too as some of the younger ones have started addressing me with the“-chan” honorific (which according to Wikipedia is used toward children, close friends, and youthful women!), and the older ones have asked me which of the high school boys I would date, which is weird and I refuse to answer, but I’ll take it. I can’t wait to see their faces when I tell them I’m 30 this month!

For my week vacation I drove to Hiroshima prefecture and city. I’ll call it a field trip since it was an educational and immersive experience and not enjoyable in the traditional sense. It happened to coincide with that missile-measuring between Trump and Kim Jong Un, so now I feel like knowing how to best survive a nuclear fallout is something I should maybe know a bit about. My most reasonable friend back home said I shouldn’t worry, but then a few days later I wake up to a message by this friend that said now I can start, because NK missile had just launched a missile over Japan. I don’t know how seriously to take all this. All I know is that being the only one to leave out of fear feels unconscionable.

IMG_20170814_114958_650.jpg

Visiting Hiroshima was pretty surreal as there is no indication that it was ever a nuclear wasteland in many of the survivors’ lifetimes, other than the preserved A-bomb dome and the surrounding area which has been turned into a Peace Park Memorial. Besides that it’s just like any other modern (even moreso), thriving, green city in Japan. That’s on the surface anyhow. My friend from Hiroshima says that locals have a quite twisted sense of humour and an unusual fascination with death and violence.  It made me think back to my kids in Korea who were also obsessed with death and violence and would joke about it constantly. I wonder if this is how the pain manifests generations later after a singular trauma like that, like a coping mechanism to address what is close to home without having to confront it directly. Or maybe I’m just projecting my preferred coping mechanism.

IMG_20170730_221958_993.jpg

This friend happened to be in Hiroshima visiting his family at the same time. He’d come back home for Obon, which is the annual Buddhist tradition of welcoming back the spirits of deceased relatives. Japan makes a huge deal of their dearly departed. In addition to a wake and a funeral, there is a memorial service every 7 days after the death until the 49th, and one more on the 100th day. Then there is the communal anniversary during Obon on which there is a memorial service on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th year after a family member dies. My friend had come back for the first Obon since his father’s death, which I didn’t know when he responded to me request to hang until we were at his father’s grave with his family and he was hugging his father’s gravestone (not traditional Japanese custom).

Later he asked me something I’ve tried to avoid thinking about, at least in this way:

“You know, you’re a superstar in Japan. How do you feel about that?”

Well, I am aware my presence is a novelty but I prefer to think of it more like with Western culture being as pervasive as it is while actual Westerners being so rare, that the sight of one is like seeing an animal in a zoo for the first time, but the cages are open and you are also an animal and… and eventually they’ll all mingle….and I’m bad at metaphors. It’s something you get used to is what I’m saying. But ever since he asked that I started thinking of it through this filter of reverse racism (can I call it that?). Am I being treated differently, even once the novelty has worn off, and cared for and about like an exotic and/or endangered animal? It made a bit paranoid. I started noticing things like how when I have an awkward language barrier-related encounter, it’s the Japanese person who apologizes profusely and seems so embarrassed, like I’m not the one in their country not speaking their language.

I’ve considered staying longer for what I am afraid now is the reason that’s life is easy (on the surface). If I do, maybe I have to accept that the way people treat me is not necessarily standard and that being here will always and forever be a privilege in that sense. Staying might only ever amount to a pale imitation of belonging, and a deep undetectable loneliness might be the sacrifice I’d have to make. Maybe not though. Maybe I just have to find my people, as is the case wherever I am.

IMG_20170817_004833_572.jpg

Anyway, I came back to Sasayama in time for the yearly Dekansho festival. My students had been asking me months before if I was going like it was a big deal, and it was so much more impressive than what I had imagined, for anywhere let alone a town half the size of Nanaimo. There was song and dance, all of Japan’s most famous food (not a sushi in sight), games, fireworks, and what felt like the half the city in attendance. And it’s even famous in the region, with politicians from Osaka and Kyoto coming out for it. And it’s not really FOR anything. Actually no one really knows for sure how it started, but I have it on good authority (one of my students is the Mayor’s secretary) that it originated as a party on the beach by a small group of students from Sasayama who were studying philosophy at the University of Tokyo. The word itself  – Dekansho – is said to be a portmanteau of three famous philosophers (Guess!). So there’s your relevant cherry on top of this month’s letter.

 

SS: Quotes out of Context

life-can-only-be-understood-backwards-but-it-must-be-lived-forwards26

I like this quote because it affirms my faith that my life will eventually make sense.

Because up until now it’s been a random and disconnected series of events that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the reason this doesn’t completely paralyze me with existential dread is because I trust that I won’t realize the outcome of my self-construction until later, when I can look back and see my decisions as necessary pillars.

Why later? We know that future events give meaning to past ones just by watching a movie with a twist ending, or living long enough to see patterns emerge in ourselves and others that reveal our character. It’s easy to be patient one time, but patience of character shows through consistency, and consistency takes time to show. Similarly when you fight with someone – you will never know if you are in the right, or at the whim of some blind spot – not until or if you show a pattern of the same kind of kind of fight, the same kind of criticism. We can never be sure about much in the way of self-justification as long as the future continues to unfold.

So, I do have faith after all; but it’s in myself. That as long as I keep doing those things I want to keep doing, even if there’s no clear reason why, I will become the person I want to be.  I trust that someday I’ll be able to look back and think “oh yeah, that’s why I did that. Because that’s the kind of person I have turned out to be. It didn’t make sense at the time because I was not that person yet, I was only becoming.” And if I never attain that feeling – well, I’ll be too dead to know nothing ever did make sense in the end.  It’s like Pascal’s Wager for the self-involved.

So, this quote makes sense to me. I need it to.

The full quote goes like this:

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”

Well well well, how the meaning has changed. Here he seems to emphasize the “living forward” part as if to remind us that we might forget to do this if we are continually looking backwards for meaning (which he takes for granted as something philosophy “tells us”).  But it’s because we are always going forward – and in doing so, constantly changing the meaning of the past – that we can never actually take the position of looking backward from a fixed point where the past’s meaning has been set in stone.

So, where the quote I have always loved suggests life can be understood, the not-shortened version says that it’s impossible.  How embarrassing!

I want to mention Steve Jobs’ similar quote, which my original interpretation of this quote might better apply to.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

I take this to also say that you can’t plan the life you’ll have, you can’t predict how you’ll feel, what you’ll do, in any given situation. And if you try – like picking a career path because it seems stable and doing such and such to get there – we will be doomed to dissatisfaction because we aren’t honouring our gut, or whatever.

The questions I have for readers – what “guides” you in your life decisions? Does it feel like a story with no plot or is there a common thread? Does it make more sense looking backward, or are you still working it out? Do you care?