Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Strange Kind of Liberty






Six professors at Wellesley College, members of an entity with the daunting title of "The Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Equity", recently sent to other members of the faculty at that college an email which has made the news.  As one might expect from a body so named, the email is in the nature of a pronouncement, but is in the guise of a recommendation, that recommendation being that certain kinds of people not be invited to speak at Wellesley.  Also as one might expect from members of such a commission, the email's closing salutation is "in solidarity."

Wellesley's mission, according to its Web Site, is "[t]o provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world."

The email is peculiar in several respects, but most of all I think in its use of the word "liberty."  The members of the Commission were apparently induced to issue it because within recent years speakers professing "controversial and objectionable beliefs" were invited to the college.  The members of the Commission are careful to say that they--of course--defend free speech and believe it essential to a liberal arts education,   However, they note that as noted by a historian, the "enlightenment principles" underlying free speech prescribe that the limits of one's liberty begin when it imposes on the liberty of another."  The Commission then declares: "There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose upon the liberty of students, staff and faculty at Wellesley."


For me, the fact that professors at an institution like Wellesley refer, with apparent approval, to enlightenment principles is something of a surprise in itself.  I may be misinformed, but I was under the impression the Enlightenment is disapproved as being too European, imperialist; too committed to an unsupported and detrimental regard for what was and still is considered to be science and reason.


But I digress.  I wonder, primarily, just what liberty of (evidently) everyone at Wellesley was, without doubt, imposed upon by speakers holding controversial and objectionable beliefs.  Regrettably, the members of the Commission are not clear just what the liberty is, or how it is being restricted.  Reference is made to students who feel "the injury" most acutely and "invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments."  Is their liberty imposed upon because they feel injured?  Or, is their liberty imposed upon because they devote time and energy to rebutting arguments; time and energy which could have been devoted to some other activity, or restful inactivity?

My guess is that the members of the Commission think liberty is being imposed on because of the former.  They reference in various ways the distress of students, and harm to them, several times in the email after their declaration regarding the clearly offended liberty of all at Wellesley, so I don't know what else they could intend.  So, the pertinent question would seem to be--is the liberty of a person "imposed on" when they feel disturbed or offended ("harmed") by the fact certain people say certain things?

"Liberty" is defined as consisting of freedom, i.e. the freedom to do or say what one pleases, the freedom to choose.  A person's liberty is infringed when that person's freedom to do something or other is restricted unduly.  Arguably, a person feels disturbed or distressed when he/she isn't free, but that feeling isn't itself the state of being unfree anymore than pleasure is the state of being free.  I don't have liberty because I feel good nor am I lacking it when I feel bad.  I feel distressed when I'm insulted, but that doesn't mean my liberty has been taken away or infringed upon.

This strikes me as fairly obvious.  Did the members of the Commission actually mean, instead, that liberty was being imposed upon because the students felt called upon to rebut the objectionable speakers, or somehow had a duty to do so?  I think when someone is actually compelled to do something we can say that he/she had no choice, and so wasn't "at liberty" to do otherwise.  But if one's liberty is imposed on whenever one rebuts a claim or argument, it is imposed on whenever there is disagreement, or strong disagreement, and I don't think we use the word "liberty" in that manner.  Besides, isn't time and energy invested in rebutting an incorrect concept or idea time well spent, especially (even?) in the halls of the Academy?  Regardless, I think the professors of the Commission are using "liberty" in a most unusual, artificial manner.  Which is to say that they use it inappropriately.

I think they do so because they understand that their "recommendation" will be taken to be a recommendation to restrict free speech on a college campus, and understand also that it is such a recommendation.  They could, of course, claim that free speech should be restricted in order to avoid students being harmed, or disturbed, or distressed, but would rather not say that. 

The quote from J.S. Mill I inserted at the beginning of this post should be familiar to most academics, and probably is familiar to the members of the Commission.  They're also no doubt familiar with something else he wrote, to the effect that we should be free to do as we wish provided we cause no harm, i.e. that our liberty is permitted to the extent that it doesn't infringe on the liberty of another; that is where they began in their email.  But it's clear that Mill didn't think, with them, that speech should be silenced when it is disturbing.

Silencing speech is clearly a limitation of freedom.  Preventing someone from speaking imposes upon that person's liberty.  Hearing someone speaking doesn't impose upon the liberty of the listener, though, nor does hearing of someone speaking or having said something objectionable or controversial in any normal sense of the word.

The Commission and those who share the opinions of its members must resign themselves to the fact that much as they may support free speech, they seek to prevent it in certain circumstances.  The more honorable course would be for them to admit this and maintain that certain speech should not be permitted.  That, of course, is not an easy claim to make or defend, but that is the actual claim being made, today, by some of those involved in higher education. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

History and Anachronism

 
 
Behold, above, "a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other"; in other words (or more properly word) an anachronism.  In the case of this altered photograph Abraham Lincoln appears to be holding a boom box.  The image is amusing, as such things can be, because we all know that Lincoln could hold no such thing.  The thought of him carrying one blaring around the White House is funny, though, or at least is to me.
 
History, according to Napoleon, is a fable agreed upon.  I've read that he made other comments about it as well that were not quite as dismissive.  For example: "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."  "Past events" sounds somewhat more respectable than "a fable."  Another quote attributed to him is this one:  "Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as philosophy."
 
Skepticism certainly can be appropriate in history, I think, provided it is a healthy skepticism.    Doubt is appropriate when there is reason to doubt.  It happens that with respect to past events, particularly events long past, we can have reason to doubt, sometimes many reasons.  The extent to which we have reason to doubt depends on the circumstances, the sources available--the evidence.  That at least seems to me a sensible way to approach history.
 
I've noted before in some past post that it seems these days that authors of works of history take the time in lengthy "Forwards" to apologize for what they've done.  They acknowledge that they've dared to write about, and perhaps even draw conclusions regarding, another time, another place, people who lived then and events which seemingly transpired.  This, they confess, is not really possible, because we can't "really" know what happened nor can we "really" opine about it because we weren't there, we live in a different society/culture, etc., nearly ad infinitum.
 
I'm not as inclined as others are to maintain that we can't make reasonable inferences about other people, places, times and events.  But I think it's fair to say that those who make claims regarding history--people who lived, events which took place--have a responsibility to be as certain as possible, given the evidence, that what they claim is correct, or appropriately qualified.
 
Anachronism may be employed deliberately in order to be amusing, or by artists, composers and authors, creatively in pursuit of some entertaining or artistic purpose.  The most prominent current example I can think of is the musical Hamilton, which (I haven't seen it) apparently depicts the Founding Fathers of our Glorious Republic rapping, and uses in some cases black actors to play historical figures we know to have been white.  Of course nobody (yet?) believes that George Washington, for example, was black, and incongruous as it is to watch him rap it would also be incongruous to watch him sing at all.  But this use of anachronism in itself does no disservice  because it's safe to assume that it will be recognized as such; nobody will think that Washington and it seems all the Founding Fathers were rappers, or that the slave-owner Washington was himself black.  Anachronism can be harmful, though, when it is confused with history or purports to be historical.
 
Unfortunately, we see this now and then.  Oliver Stone's movie JFK comes to mind.  Stone may have been trying to make some point regarding the implications of sealing records, but in doing so he actively depicted as true conspiracy theories which have no significant basis.  Regrettably, people believe such theories and films and other works of art can demean history, reasonable efforts at relating history in a responsible manner, and contribute to the perversion of history.
 
We seem to be especially vulnerable to the misuse of history and even the description of current events now that everyone can purport to be not only a historian but a journalist, even an expert, simply by being able to type and download or upload information on  a computer.  If we take liberties with history, we change our perception of the past, which is to say that we don't know it and so can't learn from it.  
 
As George Orwell wrote:  "Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past."  We live in a time where the ability to shape perception of the present and the past is omnipresent, and where there is a widespread belief in the malleability and of facts and their significance; not just absolute, objective facts, but even of the reasonably probable.  The more we treat history carelessly, the more we'll be careless in the here and now.



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sound and Fury and Life as a Reality Show





Perhaps little has changed since Shakespeare's time, or even that of Macbeth.  But it's difficult not to recall his words about life in these times, particularly that it is a tale told by an idiot.  Or is it rather a tale told about idiots?

A tale, of course. is something told.  It's generally something that is "made up" as well.  Stories are told.  Stories are typically distinguished from life, however unreal life appears.  Stories are told by someone to someone else.  It's not clear, then, just what Shakespeare (or we) intend when we speak of life as a tale.  Do we ascribe life to God, as a tale he's telling, or do we claim to be telling a tale to him or some other observer?

It may be that we describe life as a tale only when we think of it as a story, either a good one or a bad one.  "My life is like a fairytale."  Or, alternatively, a tragedy, or a comedy, or a farce.  Ideally, I suppose, we might envision ourselves as observing our own lives as a play or story.  That may be the healthiest alternative.  But I suspect we more likely are inclined to think of our lives as if they were being performed for others and for their benefit, one way or another.  As object lessons, or to be admired.  That would be fitting given our self-regard.

No wonder, then, that we are (or so it seems) so inclined to watch what we call with a telling lack of irony "reality shows."  No wonder either that we seem now more and more inclined to behave as if we are participants in one or see each other as participants in one.

It strikes me as characteristic of reality shows that the idea behind them is to put on display as much as possible the more dramatic of our conduct and emotions.  That's to be expected, I would think, as I suspect their producers believe, perhaps rightly, that is what makes them attractive; that is what makes people want to watch them.  Thus situations are contrived to pit people against one another or put them in circumstances where they're most likely to experience stress, which is to say competitive circumstances or dangerous circumstances..   Contrive the scene, insert "normal" people, and see what happens.

In the end, of course, not much does that isn't common, or that is unexpected.  What happens is pretty much what we expect will happen, but is made more pronounced because it is encouraged.  There are the silly little interviews inserted, where each participant gets to vent--I suspect in response to questions which promote venting.  Then, something else happens to disappoint or gladden one or another person on display, giving way to more venting.

Vanitas vanitatum, et Omnia vanitas.  Naturally, this is all to please our sense of self-worth, or to gratify us in one way or another.  The vanity of the participants in the shows is of course unquestionable.  Why else put oneself on display so shamelessly?   But the viewer's vanity is invoked as well, as the viewer is inclined to self-congratulation.  Either the participant viewed is what we think we would be or we're gratified by the fact that they are so pathetic we must be better.

More and more those we observe because they are newsworthy or in the public eye for one reason or another tend to be emotional in one way or another; bombastic, angry, stupidly happy, accusatory, self-righteous, maudlin.  It seems less and less the case that our ideal is a calm, reasonable, impartial person.  Such people are no fun at all, of course.  Nor are they likely to be known or thought of for any purpose.

Instead we see and, it would seem, expect and want to see caricatures, cartoonish versions of ourselves strutting and fretting.  And we do.  And there are more and more of them all the time.






Monday, March 6, 2017

Thinking about the Unthinking

 
 
 I'm unsure whether this is a photo of an actual billboard nor do I know, if it is one, whether it still is up displaying its oddly worded message or has now been replaced by some advertisement or another sign making a similarly bewildering statement.   I found it on (where else?) the Internet. 
 
I'm not convinced a syllogism was intended, and hope that my lack of conviction has some basis.  If it was intended as a syllogism, despair may be appropriate.  I suppose it can be deciphered as saying "anti-God is treason", and therefore those who are "anti-God" are traitors.  That seems easy enough.  But the basis for the claim "Traitors lead to Civil War" is lacking, and certainly that claim is not clearly accurate.  One may be a traitor without causing a civil war; two, in fact, may be traitors without doing so as well. 
 
I'll admit I take some delight in the fact that it is addressed to "Lunatic Atheists & their Lawyers."  The reference to "lunatic atheists" naturally implies that there are some atheists who are not lunatics, though that may not have been the author's intent.  But why single out the lawyers of those atheists who are lunatics?  Are lawyers who have sane atheists as clients less reprehensible in some sense?  Perhaps they don't require the stern warning made in the billboard.  Do all atheists who are lunatics have lawyers?
 
Regrettably, though, what the author of this message meant to communicate and why he or she meant to do so isn't the subject of this post.  What I'd like to remark on here is the great task or quest with which I think we're faced.  That is, to get the unthinking to think; to render the thoughtless thoughtful.
 
I've noted before that I believe the ability to think critically is--well, critical--especially in these times, when thought itself is discouraged even by our technology.  When a person accepts a world in which the need to think is limited in time to, e.g., that needed to read and respond to a text or tweet, and in space to what might be expressed in a limited number of words or letter, a person has in effect given up on thinking of the kind which requires real study, or consideration of alternatives, or consequences, or discretion, or analysis.  Thinking on one's feet is considered admirable, but thinking with one's fingers is not, at least not yet. 
 
I think this limitation is beginning to show itself in such things as our acceptance of conspiracy theories and of the opinions of those who, for no clear reason  as far as I'm concerned, are held up as knowledgeable and intelligible or hold themselves out as being experts, from those looked to by the media to those who earn their bread and butter by pontificating on talk radio.  Even our president seems inclined to accept as true what he sees or listens to on TV, God help us all, regardless of what experienced professionals tell him is the case.  And, unfortunately, he himself is prolific in his confabulations and the purveying of misinformation.
 
What would seem to be necessary is the teaching of practical reason, or logic, or perhaps rhetoric as a therapeutic study, from an early age.   That may well be an impossibility, though.  We have difficulty enough teaching our youth how to read and write and do simple arithmetic.  But in dreams I think of a course in logical fallacies, in ascertaining the tricks of salespeople and politicians in playing on our fears, desires and  emotions.  Perhaps even more important would be a course of study which would teach how to express objections and formulate arguments.
 
Perhaps through the use of practical examples derived from our day to day lives it would be possible to demonstrate the problems which result from thoughtlessness.  It might even be an interesting course of study.  But the problem with critical thinking is that it leads to questioning of the settled; customs and norms and the various shibboleths on which so many things are based, and the one thing we may be sure of when it comes to educating children is that their parents won't tolerate any teacher or course of study which might lead their children to ask difficult questions.  In this way, we propagate our ignorance and leave ourselves open to those who manipulate us.
 
We're in sad shape, as is demonstrated by the venal, self-serving, ignorant, inarticulate and mean Sad Sack we've elected to be our leader.  It's true he will pass, much like a kidney stone, in time, and we may take comfort in that.  But there is the potential that he'll be replaced by someone even worse, and we should try to take steps to lessen that possibility. 



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Identity, Gender and the Law



Bathroom Law, or Lex Lavacrum as I called it in an earlier post, again consumes the nation.  The bathroom, specifically the public bathroom (as opposed to the private bathrooms located in our residences) is it seems the "darkling plain" on which the battle of gender identity and the law will be fought here in God's Favorite Country. our Great Republic.  At least, it is the battleground in which we take the most interest at this time.

I can't help but feel that this does us no credit.  That is to say, that our abiding and intense concern over those with whom we will defecate and urinate seems, well, unworthy.  Granted, these are acts which normally are not matters in which we take pride or of which we boast, and so we're not inclined to put them on display.  Many of us find the acts embarrassing.  Some find them shameful.  Nevertheless, they are acts in which all of us must engage; nobody will be surprised to find them being done in a public bathroom.  Is the fact that we don't like to do them when those with particular genitalia are present something which merits the imposition of a law?

So, our fascination with Bathroom Law seems to me unseemly.  But that's not really the issue I wish to address in this post.  Rather, I'd like to consider gender from the legal standpoint, or in any case from a legal standpoint.  When I do so, I think certain problems may arise in creating, enforcing and interpreting law when it comes to gender issues.  Have these already been addressed?

The photo above is of a statue of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.  He was remarkable in many ways.  One of the ways in which he's been remarked on is with regard to his appearance as depicted by the ancients.  That appearance is said by some to be unusual in several respects, one of which is that it is androgynous, of indeterminate sex due to the wide hips, for example.  It seems to be the case he's depicted in a style different from that of other pharaohs of other times, that his is a more realistic portrayal or it's possible that he was deliberately depicted in this particular way for religious or other reasons.   We don't know, really.  The famous bust of his wife Nefertiti, though, is remarkable only for its beauty. If the artists of the time were portraying royalty more realistically that at other times, it seems she was lovely and he was somewhat peculiar.

Androgyny isn't the same as identity or gender, even now, at least not necessarily.  And we don't know what if anything it meant in ancient Egypt, if we're honest with ourselves.  Whether it led the ancient Egyptians to question gender in any respect is, as far as I'm aware, unknown.  I think it's reasonable to believe that the ancients thought of sex generally differently than we do, and suspect that it wasn't a concern of the kind it is now.  I have no idea whether there was any concern in ancient times over where and with whom one expelled waste, but also suspect there wasn't the kind of concern then that there is now.  The Romans, we know, had public latrines, but I'm unaware of any source or evidence indicating they had different ones for each sex.  I doubt they did.

The Romans and other ancient cultures distinguished between male and female genders, though.  That seems clear enough.  Are we being asked not to do so now?  If so, are we being asked to do so only in certain respects or entirely?

Precisely what is gender discrimination if it is to be prohibited by law?  It would seem one would first have to determine what "gender" means.

From the legal point of view, I find myself uncomfortable with the tendency to say that a person "identifies with" a certain gender, or no gender at all.  If identity is how we think of ourselves, it isn't clear to me that this is something that is necessarily to be protected by the law.  A person may think of himself/herself as many things but it doesn't follow the law should treat them as what they think they are; obviously, for example, the fact that particular people may identify themselves as Nietzscheian super humans and so beyond the law doesn't mean that the law shouldn't apply to them. If person X identifies with being black, but is in fact Caucasian, would discrimination against that person because of such self-identification be actionable?

Gender apparently according to current definition is something which need not be associated with the possession of particular genitals.  It is thought to be, like so much else is thought to be these days, a social construct.  I'm not as dismissive of social norms as some, but whether the law should strictly adhere to them or protect or enforce them is a separate issue.

For good or ill, though, the law is something which relies a great deal on definitions.  Especially from the standpoint of enforcement, it's essential that it be reasonably clear how the law is to be applied.  If gender cannot be determined by reference to genitals or something else which can be established with relative ease like sexual organs, how can it be established? 

Is it established merely by whatever someone may think they are, or say they are?  Are we to be prohibited from discriminating against people because they say they are of a particular gender?  Are there physical or psychological tests that determine one's gender, or lack of it?  If there are, can these tests be practically applied by, e.g., an employer or landlord?  A person may be mistaken in what a person thinks, though, and there are problems with applying or interpreting law based solely on what someone thinks at a particular time or in particular circumstances.  Is what someone thinks the determining factor when it comes to gender, i.e. is it not possible for someone to be mistaken about their gender?

The law hasn't yet progressed to the point where it can be established what someone thinks, so it must refer to what people say or do.  It would seem then to be limited in applying any law of gender discrimination based on what a person claims or does or how a person appears.  But surely, one may appear to be a man and still identify as a woman, and one may appear to be a woman and identify as a man?  It would seem then that appearance won't necessarily be useful.  So perhaps assertions are all the law would be able to latch onto.  I have a beard.  If I say that I identify as a woman, would I have the legal right to use the "women's" bathroom?

These may not seem particularly important concerns where public restrooms are concerned--well, I suppose they may be to those of us concerned, perhaps unduly, with bathrooms--but the law is ubiquitous in our society, as are litigants (and, yes, lawyers) and I think that eventually they must be dealt with in the law of gender.