Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Tree Falling in the Forest with No One There to Blog About It

Philosophers disdain cliches as much as anyone, but because hating cliches is itself a cliche, they also sometimes like cliches. My favorite is tree-falling-in-the-forest-with-no-one-there-to-hear-it. 

The tree in this picture fell in the Tennessee forest at some point. The magnitude might not be apparent in the photo, but the tree is huge, and fell a great depth into the ravine. The photo, seemingly so peaceful, is really a representative after-image of what must have been a dramatic event. 

But was it a dramatic event? The air-vibrations from rending wood, and the impact of massive objectivity hitting the earth, were quickly absorbed within the forest. I doubt any one was there. (Animal life might count, but will be ignored for the moment.) But even before absorption, it was simply vibrations, in themselves having no significance. The charm of the Lonely Tree example is that once we imagine a tree falling, we cannot avoid imagining its sound, thus negating the idea that no one is there to hear it. 

The 18th Century philosopher George Berkeley is probably the best resource here. As an empiricist, he believed that we are only justified in claiming to know things if they are derived from sense experience. And since our sense experience has an unavoidable specificity, different from person to person, perspective to perspective, etc., it is impossible to make objective claims about things in the world. For example, I saw this Tennessee tree as very large. You are seeing a small image of it now, and even if you were seeing it with me on the same hike, you would be seeing it from a different place. It would be a different size to you, and since it is a contradiction to say that a tree is both large and not large, the size of a tree cannot be in the tree itself. The same goes, according to Berkeley, about all of our perceptions.  

The Bishop Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous is hack literature, but good philosophy. He takes us through what amounts to a conversion experience for the character Hylas. Berkeley's ultimate point is that, to start from the premise of empiricism is to end up with the conclusion that God exists. This is not, as some might believe, just an extraneous assertion by a preacher, but rather the reasonable inference of a philosopher. 

I confess to having a mild disdain for those who say that they find God in the forest, or within other places where there are surrounded by non-human nature. This seems to me kind of non-social, or even misanthropic. I have quipped that, on the contrary, I find God in awkward church potlucks, where I am challenged, for example, to find the inherent goodness of other people -- in all of their goody-goody, down-home, meat-saturated, plastic-fork essence. 

But I think I have found a way of finding God in the forest. Berkeley's belief is that there must be a God that keeps everything in 'objective' existence through an omnipresent subjectivity. We live and breath and have our being in God. When the tree fell in the forest, it had to be an event with some significance. It had to have been at least a little awkward. It could not have been just a vibration of air, and neither could all of the conversations I've had in my life -- many gone and forgotten as quickly as a tree-crash in the forest -- could have been just the movement of vocal chords.  
-- Tadd Ruetenik 


Monday, August 14, 2017

Hate White Supremacists less; Hate White Supremacy more.

A Press Release Human Family QCA indicates that

"the White Supremacist group, the National Alliance, has been distributing hate literature in the Quad Cities Area ... in at least two locations ...
In response to this promotion of racism and bigotry in our own community, One Human Family QCA is organizing a No Hate Rally. The rally will take place on Wednesday, August 16, from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. at Vander Veer Park in Davenport."

I encourage people to attend. I support this, and will attend, but with some reluctance. This reluctance has to do with the way the term "hate" has been overused and misused.

First of all, I am pro-hate: I hate the military-industrial complex; I hate income inequality; I hate mass incarceration; I hate state violence against minorities; I hate the death penalty; and I hate consumerism and its degradation of the environment. I am filled with hate.

Second, I am a humanist. I value the humanity of even my enemies.

Here is the problem:

Among those who are rallying against hate, there will be many people, predominantly white, who are part of white supremacy policies without acknowledging it. Their protest against other white people is perhaps a projection of their own insecurities. It's easy to hate someone who signifies something you do not like in yourself. I suspect I will hear many people, both publicly and privately, decry the stupidity of the white supremacists. They'll take a break from pointing out the grammar mistakes in the tweets from Trumpians, Sharpie-up a posterboard from Target, and take the SUV to the park.
White supremacy is a moral abomination. But it is anything but stupid. It is found in the calculations of the CIA, which has consistently subverted governments in Latin America. It is found in the machinations of the criminal justice system, incarcerating people of color disproportionately. It is found in the distribution of wealth, riches hoarded by white people, who are then considered benevolent because they donate to the Democratic Party instead of the Republican Party. It is found in the anonymity of drone strikes, in the mechanical distance with which the United States defends "freedom" around the world.

Whiteness is found in anonymity and objectivity, and white people are frightened when other white people see themselves subjectively, that is, as white people, and then bring torches to rallies. I don't hate the guy yelling in this photo. I feel a sense of pity. He honestly believes that white people are in danger of extinction, when he is really just afraid of the loss of white supremacy.

So I would prefer that, instead of (or in addition to) a No Hate Rally, we have a White Supremacy Funeral Service -- complete with priests, pastors, flowers and blackness.

--Tadd Ruetenik

UPDATE 11/30/17: A Symposium called Hate: We Shall Overcome is taking place next month. Somewhat shamefully, I did not attend the rally mentioned earlier. I think I still have the same reservations: the idea of mostly white people getting together to show how they are different from white-supremacists white people is probably not harmful to the cause of justice, but will probably not be as much help as a symposium focused, as T'Challa Ra says above, on radical change to the systems of supremacy. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Jesus Christ Pose

In her final dispatch of the villain, Diana (yet to be named Wonder Woman) strikes a remarkable pose. With a supernatural leap, she levitates with arms outstretched like Jesus, but then absorbs the evil rays from the God Ares and deflects it back towards him, destroying him almost beyond the point of sequel.

Cinematically, it is of course overdone, as is usual. Movies have to compete with the overstimulation of video games. Yet in addition, it is thematically overdone. Wonder Woman become Christ, which impresses John McAteer, Professor of Liberal Arts at Ashford University, who notes the significance of this pose.  He calls it part of a theme of “gentle strength.”

“True heroism,” says McAteer “is love and the willingness to lay down your life for others, not the ability to kill and destroy.” Contrary to the way things are ordinarily depicted, the movie shows men that heroic strength and courage are not incompatible with compassion and gentleness and emotion. Diana is deeply moved by the suffering she encounters and clearly prefers to disarm her enemies rather than kill them. She is shown repeatedly giving her sidekick Steve Trevor a disapproving look when she sees him kill someone during a battle. And her most typical fight move in the movie is to deflect bullets back to destroy enemies’ guns or even cutting their guns in half with her shield.

McAteer is correct to a point, but doesn’t note the things in the movie that indicate something far from pacifism, and, as I believe, far from Christianity as well. Indeed earlier in the movie, Diana is shown advancing from the nihilistic trenches of World War I, deflecting bullets with wristbands and a shield. Her heroism is not really pacifist, since her efforts serve to allow her allies to advance on the enemy, kill them, and take ground.

The movie pulls us more strongly to the side of Wonder Woman’s allies than any other. McAteer is largely correct in saying that the German army is made up of patriotic young men sent to die by generals and politicians on both sides who would never set foot on a battlefield. War is thus portrayed as a tragic battle between brothers, not a contest of good versus evil. Even the “good guys” Diana fights with are mercenaries, motivated by money more than honor. And he notes that setting the film during World War I introduces the theme of a political debate between those who counsel isolationism and appeasement (“peace at all costs”) against those who believe that good can come out of war (“the war to end all wars”). The story of Wonder Woman is the story of Diana’s dawning realization that both sides are wrong.

Yet even if this is Diana’s realization, it is unlikely to be shared by everyone who sees the movie. Diana’s Jesus Christ Pose is one of aggression, not sacrifice. It suggests the doctrine of peace through military strength shared by both Republicans and Democrats in the United States.

The controversy involving the protagonist being played by an Israeli has a little merit, although the movie certainly does not merit censorship. Gal Godot Diana comes from a special, culturally distinct group of long-time warriors in self defense. This group believes that it has a special and sacrificial role in the world. When Diana unites romantically and politically with the American spy Steve Trevor, the implication of the U.S.-Israeli military alliance should not be ignored. One does not, and should not, think in terms of Zionist conspiracies here. There is little value, and much danger, to imputing evil causes to small groups of agents. Rather, one is permitted to see the Trevor-Diana alliance as a symbolic reflection of something else, namely the Military-Industrial Complex, which, more than any mythical Ares, is a real force of destruction in the world. The growing militarization of the humanity is a issue even bigger than The United States and Israel.

Any Christians who see Diana as a Christ figure need also to see the dangers of seeing Diana as a Christ figure. The film brilliantly shows that the wargod Ares is a deceptive figure, working through humans rather than merely against them. Accordingly, the Christ who kills is never the true Christ, and those who look forward to seeing an embodied Christ shooting lightning at the enemy are in danger of worshipping Ares is disguise. Unfortunately, for all of its supposed Christianity, most Americans look for Christ as an avenger in the sky rather than a spirit of pacifism on the Earth.

To some extent, the movie contains, as McAteer believes, an inversion of war values. And yet I never noticed her looking disapprovingly at Trevor for killing. I did, however, notice that Diana overtly mocked a male sniper who believed that war is about cunning and technological sophistication, rather than honesty and risk. Surely she was also by implication mocking the supposed heroism of the Unites States, who maintains a technological superiority over its chosen enemies, and then claims to have more valor. Diana's women fight face to face, while men have developed a sophisticated system of techno-battle.

In addition, one of Diana’s supposed superpowers is nothing more than the ability to understand many languages. Expressing classic Wonder Woman values, the film show that strength comes from the ability to understand and sympathize, and not from detached reason and calculation. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman cannot go too far in this pacifist direction if it wants to make money in a country soaked in overstimulation and martial values.

If any American Christians are offended by Diana's Jesus Christ pose, it is likely for the wrong reasons. The problem is that she is presenting a false Christ of violence in the name of world order. But this is exactly where conservative and neoliberal American Christians show their idolatry: Their Christ is really the god Ares.

--Tadd Ruetenik

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Wind Chill Doesn't Care About Your "Feelings"

The idea of a wind-chill factor is confusing. Our ordinary understanding is that wind chill refers to the way that things feel. It might be a temperature of 10 degrees outside, but with a certain amount of wind, they say it can feel like it's -10 degrees. But this is where the concept gets strange, because we commonly believe that feelings vary among people, and so it is presumptuous to quantify such things without a survey. This patron at Bent River Brewing Company, for example, responds to a cold Quad Cities day by putting on a hefty coat, while quite happy to have wind chill factoring its way up his legs, from ankles to crotch.

But what really is the difference between the supposed actual temperature, and the wind chill factor? In the objective world, it means nothing. Water does not freeze if the wind chill drops things below 32 degrees. Practically speaking, there seems to be no difference. One can get frostbite from a temperature of -10 as much as from a temperature of 10 with a wind chill of -10. So feelings, in one sense, are irrelevant. A person with a strong sense of tolerance for the cold, one who doesn't give a crap about your cold-weather complaining, is just as likely to get frostbite as you are. Wind chill, after all, does not care about your feelings, or your lack thereof.

An episode of Car Talk in which a caller asked about whether starting a car is affected by wind chill prompted some thoughtful discussion. The Tappers had said that a car wouldn't be affected because cars do not feel, but that is an incomplete answer. A car sitting in a fierce wind will lose heat faster than if it were sitting in the calm cold, and the colder a car is, the more difficult, presumably, it is to start. Once the heat is lost, however, wind doesn't matter, since a stopped car does not generate heat.

Just like the proverbial tree falling in the deserted forest and making no sound, a car sitting in a cold parking lot over vacation with no one there to drive it is not cold. Pluto is not cold. And even if Pluto had an atmosphere, there would be no wind chill factor -- until we consider what it would be like for us to be on Pluto. This giving-of-a-crap is the important factor.

There are a number of failed expeditions up Mount Everest, and the human race appears not to have the ability to retrieve the bodies. They are statues in the frozen air. It seems to be part of the allure of the expedition to pass these objects knowing that you, unlike them, are still subjected to wind chill.
This is where the idea of the wind-chill factor is interesting. It is both a subjective and an objective concept. It is subjective in that it is relevant to subjects rather than objects; and it is objective in that it refers to an objective fact among those subjects, namely the danger of lost heat for the physical objects associated with those subjectivities. The metaphysical theories of idealism, materialism, and dualism are all topics to be discussed in relation to the concept of wind chill. So it's no wonder that wind-chill is confusing: it draws you into the mind-body problem.
-- Tadd Ruetenik

Sunday, November 20, 2016

American Democracy is a Great Experiment, and We're Doing it Wrong

To find something out, we often do an experiment. If we want to discover something about human beings we do an experiment, perhaps a controlled study, on human beings. It's hard to deny that the idea of democracy, and in particular the process of voting, is designed to be the best way of finding out what the citizens themselves want from a government.

We are doing the experiment wrong. If we wanted to find out what a subject really believed about a topic, say the aesthetic value of eyebrow plucking, we might show them pictures of people with and without plucked eyebrows, and ask them which one they liked better. If we ran the experiment right, and without inserting personal bias, it seems we would be justified in concluding something about eyebrow plucking.  But one thing we would not do is tell the subjects the expected results of the experiment before we do the experiment.  

This, however, is what happens in our democracy. We have polls indicating how many people support each candidate, and we are continually reminded what those polls say. And, like Christmas decorations, the predictions are put up earlier and earlier. Stats guru Nate Silver had predictions going way before primary voting even started, and people followed his website religiously. And while the media do not make predictions on election day until the polls closed, so as not to affect people's decisions, they are happy to present poll data at any time.

The result of this is that we have messed up the experiment. We do not really know what people want from a government. When people see polls, they are prejudiced toward the perceived winners. If you argue that seeing polls can also have the offsetting effect of emboldening some people to vote for the underdog, you are relying on the questionable assumption that social desirability is less important than an underdog complex. More importantly, though, you have to answer this question: If seeing polls encourages and discourages votes equally -- in other words, has no impact on actual voting behavior --  then why in the hell are you doing them? What's the use of gathering poll data? I want to know the weather forecast because I want to dress appropriately. It's not relevant information in itself.

One answer is that polls are designed as a safeguard against election fraud. Large discrepancies between polls and actual results indicate something went wrong. But exit polls can also serve that purpose, and without the possibility of unintentionally screwing up the results of the democratic experiment.

The other answer is that polls are intentionally screwing up the experiment. They are for psychological manipulation of voters. They might tilt a little toward the Democrat or the Republican candidate, but they always tilt tremendously toward the Democratic-Republican establishment. All other political parties are beaten down by polls indicating that these candidates do not have a chance from the start. Do we know if Americans like these parties? We think we do, because we put them on the ballots and see if people vote for them. But the problem is apparent: The other parties do not warrant coverage, say the media, because they do not poll high enough, and they do not poll high enough, say the other parties, because they do not get coverage.

Polls serve to manipulate public opinion the way that the electric wand in these old neuroscience experiment manipulate the facial expressions. I don't think any of the subjects were hurt in these experiments; some just appear terrified because of the electricity. But people who support the Democrats or Republicans actively discourage independents from voting for other parties by insisting that their votes do not matter, or worse, they give the contradictory message that independents are spoiling the Democrats' or Republicans' preferred outcome.

This is enough to make you roll your eyes --> at the whole thing. But I do have a way out, and I call it Veil of Ignorance Voting. The original veil-of-ignorance idea comes from philosopher John Rawls, who asks us to imagine starting a government from scratch up in a heaven, and each person had to decide the best government without knowing what position they would occupy in the world below. Since they do not know if they are rich or poor, male or female, etc., they would rationally choose a government of fairness to all, so as not to risk being on the bad end of policies. My idea is not that we ignore our own position of privilege in deciding on a candidate. My idea is that we assume the veil of ignorance but extend it to include the expected outcome, based on polls. Vote your original-position conscience. If you believe the Republicans or Democrats are best for everyone, vote that way, but if you think that the Green Party or the Libertarian Party are best for everyone, vote that way. Let the election be like a passive electrode on the temple of the American public, rather than a shocking study in vote-shaming that only gives Americans a sense of learned helplessness.

--Tadd Ruetenik

Friday, October 7, 2016

What’s Next? – Putting a Basic Mediation Trick to Work for You

Having just returned from a meeting of the Association for Conflict Resolution in Baltimore, I have come to the conclusion that we do not do enough with mediation in Iowa. While there are a few individuals with private practices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, here in the Quad Cities there are very few people who practice mediation at all, and those are largely volunteers. When I teach mediation, both at St. Ambrose University and also in the local schools, most people don’t know what exactly they are in for. So I thought it might be good to have a primer on what this method of conflict resolution is and, more importantly, what are some practical tips you can take away from it that could help in your day-to-day life.

Mediation is a form of conflict resolution where a third party facilitates a conversation between two or more conflicting parties. The mediator does not determine the outcome and the participants are not obligated to participate. Instead, it is an entirely voluntary conversation where conflicting parties, who have been struggling to determine a suitable outcome on their own, are helped toward that outcome by someone who won’t weigh in on what they think should be done. Mediators create structure, they provide organization to a conversation that might otherwise be emotional and sprawling, and they help participants identify the goals that they see as desirable. Ultimately, it is keeping the participants' focus on that self-determined goal that creates the structure. 

The reason why this is useful for people in conflict is the number one practical tip mediation can offer you. When we are in conflict -- or more generally, when we are in a situation we don’t like -- it is very common for us to focus on what we don’t want rather than on what we do want, what outcome would be acceptable as the next best alternative. We had an outcome in mind, an obstacle to that outcome has presented itself and now all we can see is the loss of the ideal situation for which we were aiming. There is a term in German that I think beautifully captures this condition: weltschmerz. The despair that results from comparing the world as it is to the world as we wish it to be. Once we are “weltschmerzed” it is difficult for us to move out of that despair and into being an active part of the resolution. It is as though once we know we won’t get the desired outcome then NO outcome is worth pursuing. We let the perfect become the enemy of the good or the acceptable and in the event that we see inevitable imperfection we halt all forward progress. 

On some level we know how silly this is. We have all seen the child in the restaurant who, having been denied dessert for dinner, pushes away all other reasonably acceptable nourishment. It’s as if we have reached a level of disappointment that poisons all of the remaining alternatives. In mediation, it quickly becomes the mediators' job to help the participants identify their next best outcome so that they can work together to find a solution that is aimed toward that. When the participants are struggling through a conflict without a next-best alternative in mind, the conversation frequently spirals without direction and it is very difficult for a mediator to create structure in a conversation that just keeps revisiting how unhappy the conflicted parties are.

There is a way we can use this information to our advantage. When we are in a conflict with another person, there is the tendency for one or both parties to fall deeply into weltschmerz-induced paralysis. It seems as if the conflict cannot be resolved because a fixation has grown around the tug-of-war of opposing desired outcomes. Rather than engaging in the tug-of-war consider shifting the focus to what’s next. We cannot have our first options, but what’s the next best alternative? Precious time can be wasted arguing over what could have been differently to produce the desired outcome but if it can’t go back now and be fixed then we need to thinking about what we do from here. Discussing the past is only minimally useful, and only then if there is some sense in which you are able to learn something from it that will improve the future. While that may be worth pursuing when you are engaged in a conflict with a family member, friend or long-term colleague, the vast majority of our life conflicts don’t fit that criterion. 

In any situation of conflict, when you see your partner-in-conflict turning the conversation toward what’s happened, shift the line of dialogue toward what’s next. One way you might want to try doing this is to ask questions such as: Given that we can’t do what you want, what would a situation look like that might work for you? What did you like about that outcome? Are there some components of that outcome that could be salvaged? What’s most important to you at this point? The idea is to avoid assigning blame, avoid trying to rewrite the past and instead help your counterpart (and by extension, you!) to see what they want. Once we know what we want, we can work together to find how close we can get to that. If we don’t have an outcome in mind anymore (because our desired outcome has gone out the window) we become like a traveler without a destination. In any conflict, first things first, identify the destination. 
Try it the next time you run into a conflict with someone. Try to help clarify what they want. You don’t have to be entirely forthcoming about what you are doing and you may not want to ask them directly (because thanks to their weltschmerz-induced paralysis they probably don’t know yet.) However, it is worth the effort to try to explore the possibilities with them and once you establish a destination you can figure out what’s the next step to move toward that. 

Even better, work on identifying those next best outcomes for yourself. When you have poor customer service, a disappointing exchange with a professor or student, or a disagreement with a family member, work on establishing for yourself what’s next for you. Once you know that, it is easier to ask for the necessary steps to make that happen. It’s a whole lot easier for you and your fellow conflicted soul to get out of the rut you are in if you have a destination in mind.

--Jessica Gosnell

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Colin Kaepernick and the Military-Idolatrous Complex

Fortunately, when Colin Kaepernick chose to sit out the National Anthem, the instinctive offense of patriotic Americans, and the equally instinctive disdain of American critics, soon gave way to some rational debate. What arises in cases like this can be called the Freedom Fighting Free-Speech Paradox: Is it appropriate for someone to disrespect soldiers when the very freedom to disrespect soldiers came from the efforts of those soldiers? Each side believes it is on solid logical ground:

The supporters of the soldiers believe it is contradictory to protest that which gave one the right to protest.

The protesters believe it is contradictory to criticize someone who is using, in its most general sense, the right that the soldiers gave to them. 

Such a debate probably has a solution that depends on how general one thinks about freedom. So considered, the protesters are probably right. Freedom has to involve the ability to disrespect freedom, or else it is not freedom.

But both sides seem to share a misguided assumption, namely that the American soldier has actually defended the American citizens' right to free speech. Recent history shows nothing indicating that Americans' right to free speech was ever threatened, much less defended, through military action. Scanning the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, we find no country that has ever threatened Kaepernick or any other American here. I also do not believe that there is a significant internal threat in this respect, whether from terrorists or politicians. And yet the reflexive reference by both sides of the Kaepernick Conundrum to the supposedly protective troops deserves our attention. I find it disturbing, not because I have a problem with the troops, but because I notice in myself a compulsion to tell people that I do not have a problem with the troops whenever I express an opinion about the significance of the troops in American culture.

It is as if all ethical debate goes through the American soldier. From setting off excessive fireworks to burning an American flag, the raised-up image of the American solider is supposed to determine the appropriateness of our actions. The sacredness of this icon is beyond question, so much that we fail to realize the deeper issue. Let's call this the American Military-Idolatrous Complex: In a country believed by many to be essentially Christian, a belief that makes Jesus and the American Soldier functionally equivalent is not considered blasphemous.

--Tadd Ruetenik