Quick Roundup 385

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Real Obama

Charles Krauthammer takes a look at Barack Obama's centrist appointments and sees pragmatism:

A functioning financial system is a necessary condition for a successful Obama presidency. As in foreign policy, Obama wants experts and veterans to manage and pacify universes in which he has little experience and less personal commitment. Their job is to keep credit flowing and the world at bay so that Obama can address his real ambition: to effect a domestic transformation as grand and ambitious as Franklin Roosevelt's. [bold added]
Pragmatism is a rejection of philosophical principles on principle in the name of expediency. But what is expedient? What "works"? Because a pure pragmatist will not have firm moral convictions, he will end up absorbing as worthy ends whatever other people around him regard as moral goals. Society's dominant moral code is altruism.

Obama's osmosis has taken place in such places as the Reverend Jeremiah Wrights pews, so those who are hoping to see his altruist-collectivist domestic ambitions blunted by his pragmatism may be in for a rude awakening. Like a Christian who is pious one day of the week, Obama may be hoping to be pious with one aspect of governing. It may take a witch's brew of continuing crises to distract him from implementing his domestic agenda -- but Krauthammer points out that even those could just as easily serve as an excuse for his agenda as a distraction from it.

What will it take for Obama to throw his agenda under the bus? That may be the question for those of us who realize that his agenda is to throw the protection of our individual rights there instead!

Interesting Article on Teasing

Via Arts and Letters Daily is a thought-provoking piece that indicates one way that misguided efforts to ban bullying in grade schools may be causing more harm than good:
The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it's aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate. Sexual harassers grope, leer and make crude, often threatening passes. They're pretty ineffectual flirts. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life's ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human.
Author Dacher Keltner raises lots of similarly good points in his essay, but they are undercut by elements of his personal philosophical views. For example, He notes at one point that when kids reach about 11 or 12, "you begin to see a precipitous drop in the reported incidences of bullying". This may be, as he says, because "[a]s children learn the subtleties of teasing, their teasing is less often experienced as damaging", because actual bullying drops off around that age, or both.

But here's his deeper explanation for the appreciation of "the subtleties of teasing":
[C]hildren become much more sophisticated in their ability to hold contradictory propositions about the world -- they move from Manichaean either-or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding. As a result, as any chagrined parent will tell you, they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertory.
Note his metaphysical interpretation of the cognitive challenges of social life as reflecting the nature of the universe rather than simply the ambiguities of navigating complex relationships with people whose minds you can't read.

But reality is absolute, and existents (including relationships) have definite identities. To attribute our own ignorance of these identities to a flux-like metaphysics is wrong and will lead to losing the scent of this interesting line of inquiry.

Let's look at an example from Keltner's own life:
I still remember that day, as clear as a bell. Off to the side of the seventh-grade four-square game, Lynn, future high-school mascot, valedictorian, and my first love, approached me with hands coyly behind her back. She stopped unusually close, and with a mischievous smile framed by her cascading hair, asked, "Hey Dacher, wanna screw?" As I was in the midst of mumbling an earnest and affirmative reply, she held her hand open in front of me, a screw lying flat on her palm. "Just teasing" I heard amid the screeching laughter of the cabal of finger-pointing girls.

Had I trained my ear to discern the off-record markers of teasing, I would have detected subtle deviations from sincere speech in the artfully elongated vowels of Lynn's enunciation ("Hey Daaaacher, wanna screeeuuw?"). Had I read my Shakespeare I would have known to counter with my own provocation....
This is indeed a very ambiguous situation. Lynne, a young girl, may have been feeling some of her very first romantic stirrings, and may have been inexperienced enough with such feelings even to be aware of them as such. She needed room to explore these feelings. Teasing gave it to her.

And furthermore, even if she was sure that she was wild about Dacher, she can't read his mind. Teasing gives her a way to put romance on the table without necessarily putting Dacher on the spot. He is her friend, after all, and being too insistent might, if he did not have such interest, have endangered the value of continuing to have that friendship.

There is nothing self-contradictory or unknowable about reality at all here, but clearly, teasing is serving at least one useful function for two young human beings exploring their own values and trying to learn more about each other. This is very interesting stuff, but as I have noted before, modern philosophy is endangering the prospect of making further progress by altering how results are interpreted.

Teasing is not an acceptance of mutually exclusive possibilities at the same time. It is (at least in part) a means of learning which of several possibilities is true without costing oneself more than the knowledge is potentially worth.

Incidentally, Keltner edits a magazine based on the mistaken premise that altruism is good and that purports to support that contention with scientific evidence. Not too dismiss the value of studying animal behavior (or the psychological consequences of altruism), but ethics can apply only to beings with free will. The question of which ethics is proper is a philosophical one (and also necessarily assumes the existence of free will), and comes before science, which can lend insight into mechanisms that result in free will and how emotions arise, but cannot say anything about the matter of whether altruism is a proper morality for man.

Daily Dose of Reason

Rather belatedly, I have read an email announcing a new look for Dr. Michael Hurd's website, which now (or I am now aware) includes a blog. His Daily Dose of Reason is now accessible from the sidebar and, by coincidence, flows nicely from the above mention of altruism as a subject of study in cognitive science. His latest post briefly discusses the difference between short-term rapaciousness (which he calls "greed") and actual selfishness.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

The main reason why bullying reports drop off is because 11 or 12 is the age when being "tough" becomes paramount. They bullying itself doesn't stop; on the contrary, it starts getting far worse, because that's when puberty starts happening among boys, and the barbaric Lord of the Flies environment they create gets more intense. The largely implied threat of the prepubescent years becomes more real. If you think "telling" was bad when you were 9, try it in an inner city high school!

The one thing which IMO would be the solution to the bullying (aside from the first and most obvious solution: abolish the public schools) would be the same thing that would help reduce crime in the larger society: permit a greater freedom of self-defense and self-assertion, to solve one's own problems.

But that contradicts the purpose and nature of socialized education. As John Taylor Gatto puts it:

"What better way to habituate kids to abandoning trust in their peers (and themselves) than to create an atmosphere of constant low-level stress and danger, relief from which is only available by appeal to authority? And many times not even then!"

Gatto is tainted with some flecks of the usual anti-capitalist tendency, but if you get past that, his critique of the nature and purpose of socialized education is devastating.

Gus Van Horn said...

"The one thing which IMO would be the solution to the bullying (aside from the first and most obvious solution: abolish the public schools) ...."

True. And abolish truancy laws.

Thanks for bringing that up. I'd intended to, but forgot about it as I began thinking about teasing.

And what you say about bullying I should have thought of, but did not. I was very fortunate that my parents sent me to Catholic schools, but I've heard enough that I should have thought of that.

Harold said...

This is indeed a very ambiguous situation. Lynne, a young girl, may have been feeling some of her very first romantic stirrings, and may have been inexperienced enough with such feelings even to be aware of them as such. She needed room to explore these feelings. Teasing gave it to her.

You know, that's very interesting. I never thought about it that way.

Gus Van Horn said...

Neither had I! Blogging such things often has given me some really neat insights like that. Glad you also found it interesting!

ADL said...

Dear Gus,

Thank you for reviewing Dr. Dacher Keltner's recent article published in the New York Times ("In Defense of Teasing")! Dr. Kelter is the Executive Editor of Greater Good, a quarterly magazine. Articles from the latest issue of Greater Good magazine are now online at
our redesigned website, www.greatergoodmag.org! Please take a look!

This issue features a series of essays on trust--always a critical issue in
an election year, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Though
trust is essential to families, friendships, governments, businesses, and
even the global economy, it has been declining for years. This issue of
Greater Good explores why trust is so important, and how we can rebuild


Alice Ly
Circulation Assistant

Gus Van Horn said...

Dear Alice,

You're welcome, and thank you for stopping by.

Although I suspect I will often very strongly disagree with the philosophical positions undergirding the articles in your publication, I look forward to its explicitly raising issues pertinent to morality and the nature of the mind.

These issues are very interesting and vitally important, and Objectivists have quite a few worthwhile things to say about them.

I do plan to stop by your magazine's web site from time to time.


Gus Van Horn