The Fly

Two things about the 2020 vice-presidential debate will go down in history – the significance of Kamala Harris as the first woman-of-color contender, and a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head and staying there for two full minutes.

At first, you assume it’ll just fly away and it’ll be as unremarkable a moment as when a fly landed on Hilary‘s face in 2016 debates. But then it just stayed there, huge and prominent against Pence’s snow white hair, through his grandstanding on law and order and his steamrolling through the moderator’s six attempts to keep him within his own two-minutes. Combined with him looking generally unwell, including some kind of pink eye situation, it was the happiest I’ve ever been watching reality TV. In that moment life was imitating art, and I saw God.

People on the internet went nuts. Pretty fly on a white guy. One fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Pence the shithead. Lord of the lies. Just so many good ones. The Biden Campaign, doing everything right, immediately put flyswatters on their merch site and they sold out by morning. Then the jokes died, along with the last gasps of Pence’s soul once he realized what had been the most memorable part of his performance.

Of course what made this moment a lasting thing of beauty is the fact that Pence is the most prominent evangelical Christian in modern U.S. history. According to the reality that he is living in, the fly meant more to him than it did to us. We know the fly probably just got stuck in his hairspray, or is residing on a stationary object, but he and his base of fundamentalists have to reckon with the fact that the fly is considered the bearer of death in their religion, symbolizing rot, decay, and corruption to nobles. Satan himself, Bezelbub, is named “Lord of the Flies.” So as the head of the alleged Coronavirus Task Force (*gestures to the situation*) the symbolism is undeniable. Why the fly landed there, then, for that long, at such a crucial moment of his political career while his base ostensibly is praying for him, this cannot and will not be so easily dismissed by the people it matters to most.

“But if you will not let My people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you and your officials and your people and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians and even the ground where they stand will be full of flies. ” – Exodus 8:21

There no better symbol for the man that Mike Pence is, and no more meaningful time for it to present itself. He knows it, his base knows it. You don’t even have to be religious to see that Pence’s role these last four years has been very vulture-like, hovering somewhere behind or beside the cancer that is Trump, waiting…and now ushering.

Pence the Prince of Pestilence. Even the name fits.

Existentialism the Politically Correct Coping Mechanism


https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/08/how-our-government-helps-us-1969/

In a perfect world, philosophy and politics would be married. Instead, they barely recognize one another. The vocation did begin with people who were known for their intelligence and wisdom; called the Seven Sages of Greece which included Thales “Know Thyself” of Miletus, Pittacus “Democracy rules” of Mytilene, and possibly Aesop. Politics used to be applied philosophy, and you couldn’t do it without it.

The situation obviously has devolved greatly. We have a reality TV show gone off the rails down there, and sexy pandering nepotism up here (and grateful for it). “Philosopher” would probably be one of the last words used to describe any modern politician, and political philosophy is more like a form of history we study in school. Where it all began.

The question of what we do now when we can’t do a thing forces us to be the philosophers; the existentialists, where the question of “How can I be happy when life is meaningless?” is more like “how can I be hopeful with these fools at the wheel?” We know existentialism itself first became mainstream in a reaction to the absurdity that was Nazi occupation, and while with the U.S. it’s more like watching the sad decline of an empire from a less-obviously dire situation, the fact of Trump, the chaos of the last four years, and the actual possibility of either a legitimate or stolen re-election makes it similarly absurd. Like a histrionic sibling with the nuclear codes, it affects us all.

Existentialism has risen again, you can see it everywhere: in the comedy that is funny or news that is comedy, we grip the absurd by the ears and laugh in its face. More and more people are rebelling against the very identity they were born with or choosing to opt out of the existence they did not consent to. Mental illness is to be expected, and we aren’t ashamed to admit it anymore. We must know it’d be insane not to feel a little crazy if you’re paying any attention. If you choose to get help, by default it will be through some form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which hinges on a belief that our emotions need not be subject to our experiences.

The alternatives aren’t so easy to swallow anymore. Getting religious and riding on faith working in mysterious ways, believing we can control our environment on a mystical level by what crystals we invite into our space, all these involve expectation of how things should work, and the royal we are slowly learning that it doesn’t reliably work like that and accepting what that means – that it’s a form of denial. Existentialism is a cold embrace, but at least it’s not a setup for soul-crushing let down. Things are gonna get a lot worse. No one else is ready for it like those who embrace the absurd.

Is “Sex is Determined by Biology” a Philosophical Belief?

In light of the targeted headlines asking me to boycott the new Harry Potter game over JK Rowling’s alleged transphobia, I decided to go down the rabbit hole of how it got to this.

It all began in 2018, when UK tax professional Maya Forstater tweeted her concern that the decision to amend the Gender Recognition Act to expand the definition of “woman” to include those with male bodies would undermine women’s rights. It was a thoughtful thread inviting discussion; exactly the kind of surface-scratching discourse of controversial topics that does not go down well on Twitter. She was slapped with the transphobe label and lost her job.

The thread.

So she took it to the employment court, asking the judge not to rule on whether sex is determined by biology, but whether the philosophical belief that it is is protected by law. 

“The Claimant believes that “sex” is a material reality which should not be conflated with “gender” or “gender identity”. Being female is an immutable biological fact, not a feeling or an identity. Moreover, sex matters. It is important to be able to talk about and take action against the discrimination, violence and oppression that still affect women and girls because they were born female” 
Para [5], section [5.1] of the judgment.

The judge ruled that this “did not have the protected characteristic of philosophical belief” and she lost the case.

This is where JK Rowling came out in support, starting by tweeting that no one should lose their job for saying that biological sex is real. The focus then shifted to Rowling as public transphobe #1 (more specifically a TERF: trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and all hope for discussion of what the original ruling meant was lost in the ensuing storm.

So let’s think about it. The ruling had nothing to do with biology’s role in what makes a woman, or whether self-identifying without HRT or surgery is sufficient to be a woman, or whether the company was right not to renew her contract over those tweets. It was all to do with whether her opinion that biological sex is real (ok) and therefore trans women aren’t women (yikes) counts as a protected belief, akin to religious belief, and thus one that cannot be discriminated against by employers. 

There are five criteria that determine if a belief has the right to be protected by law: 

(i) the belief must be genuinely held; 

(ii) it must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available; 

(iii) it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour 

(iv) it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and 

(v) it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. 

Summary from para [50] of the Forstater judgment

It was the fifth point where the judge ruled against Maya and says that her belief that a trans woman is still a man is a violation of human dignity in this democratic society, and therefore cannot be protected.

If I’m being honest, and I really haven’t felt free to be on this topic with my own friends, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around why the likes of Forester or Rowling, who are adamant that anyone should feel free to identify as whatever gender they feel and will use preferred pronouns out of politeness, should be labeled transphobes.  That biological sex is real and not to be conflated with gender seems as self-evident as it gets. It seems more like a battle over the definition of words than a desire to deny one’s identity (If only we could all just define our terms and agree on those definitions before using them going forward, but not everyone is lucky enough take Philosophy 110….)

But when it comes to understanding this ruling under the law, I think the “democratic society” part is the operative term here. Trans people exist. That’s undeniable. Whether or not they are “valid” in their transness is totally irrelevant when deciding whether to acknowledge their existence. It is the responsibility of a democratic society to protect the rights of their most vulnerable members, which trans people certainly are, and so the purpose of this ruling is to makes that statement. 

I could also see how someone as influential as Rowling to bother tweeting anything about trans people that isn’t supportive is irresponsible given the sensitive time we are in where anything can be used to stoke the fires of hate, even if those things are technically true.

But it’s also very apparent that the democratic values we lean on to uphold vulnerable people’s rights are suffering from a double-standard that is preventing well-meaning people from saying anything “wrong” lest they suffer the consequences. So swings the pendulum.

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:

CmY_qR4WIAA_YeP

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

brett-kavanaugh-credibility

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?