Tag: New Philosopher

It is the child within us that trembles before death

So said Plato in his Phaedo. I’ve just returned from a holiday, much of which was dominated by finding out that a good friend of mine had passed away. It was a huge shock.

A few days later, author Austin Kleon sent out a newsletter noting that a few people he particularly admired had also died, and linked to a post about checking in with death. In it, he quotes advice from a pediatrician who works with patients in palliative care:

Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.

These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details.

Oh… and eat ice-cream.

Alastair McAlpine

Despite my grandmother dying last year, I was utterly unprepared for the death of my friend. I had thought that by reading Stoic philosophy every day, and having a memento mori next to my bed, that I was somehow in tune with death. I really wasn’t.

I shed many tears for the first couple of days after hearing the news. While I was devastated by the loss of a good friend, I was also affected by the questions it raised about my own mortality.

I’m thankful for the strong support network of family and friends that have helped me with the grieving process. One friend in particular has a much healthier relationship with death than me. They said that they’ve come to see such times in their life as a useful opportunity to re-assess whether they’re on the right course.

That makes sense. I don’t want to waste the rest of the time I have left.

Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly – so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.

Seneca

Some people seem to pack several lifetimes into their short time on earth. Others, not so much.

When I studied Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was always puzzled by Aristotle’s mention of Solon in the Nichomachean Ethics. He thought events and actions after a person’s death could affect their ‘happiness’.

On reflection, I think it’s a way of saying that the effect that someone has during their time on earth ⁠— for example, as a teacher — outlasts them. Their lives can be viewed in a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ light based on how things turn out.

When someone close to you dies before they reach old age, we also mentally factor-in the happiness they could have experienced after they passed away. However, after the initial shock of them no longer being present comes the realisation that they (and you) wouldn’t have been around forever anyway.

Back in 2017, Zan Boag, editor of New Philosopher magazine, interviewed Hilde Lindemann, Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University. In a wide-ranging interview, she commented:

Premature death is a tragedy, but I don’t think death at the end of a normal human life span should be met with anger and indignation. We humans can only take in so much, and in due season it will be time for us all to leave

Hilde Lindemann

As a husband and father, perhaps the hardest teaching from the Stoic philosophers around death comes from Epictetus in his Enchiridion. He expresses a similar thought in several different ways, but here is one formulation:

If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own… Exercise, therefore, what is in your control.

Epictetus

There are some things that are in my control, and some things that are not. Epictetus’ teachings can be reduced to the simple point that we should be concerned with those things which are under our control.

Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations we should remember were designed as a form of practical philosophical journal, also mentioned death a lot.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.

Marcus Aurelius

I think the best thing to take from the experience of losing someone close to us other is to begin a life worth living right now. Not putting off for the future right action and virtuous living, but practising them immediately.

It’s certainly been a wake-up call for me. I’ll be reading even more books, giving my family more hugs, and standing up for the things in which I believe. Starting now.

Neoliberalism in any guise is not the solution but the problem

Today’s quotation-as-title is from Nancy Fraser, whose short book The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born in turn gets its title from a quotation from Antonio Gramsci.

It’s an excellent book; quick to read, straight to the point, and it helped me to understand some of what is going on at the moment in both US and world politics.

First, let’s explain terms, as it is a book that presupposes some knowledge of political philosophy. ‘Neoliberalism’ isn’t an easy term to define, as its meaning has mutated over time, and it’s usually used in a derogatory way.

There’s a whole history of the term at Wikipedia, but I’ll use definitions from Investopedia and The Guardian:

Neoliberalism is a policy model—bridging politics, social studies, and economics—that seeks to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership.

Investopedia

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.

Guardian

To me, it’s the reason why humans go out of their way to engineer situations where people and organisations are pitted against each other to compete for ‘awards’, no matter how made-up or paid-for they may be. It’s a way of framing society, human interactions, and reducing everything to $$$.

In that vein, the most recent issue of New Philosopher, features an essay by Warwick Smith where he uses the thought experiment of an AI ‘paperclip maximiser’. This runs amok and turns the entire universe into paperclips:

I recently heard Daniel Schmachtenberger taking this thought experiment in a very interesting direction by saying that human society is already the paperclip maximiser but instead of making paperclips we’re making dollars — which are primarily just zeroes and ones in bank databases. Our collective intelligence system has on overriding purpose: to turn everything into money — trees, labour, water… everything. It is also very good at learning how to learn and is extremely good at eliminating any threats.

Warwick Smith

This attempt to turn everything into money is basically the neoliberal project. What Nancy Fraser does is identify two different strains of neoliberalism, which she explains through the lenses of ‘distribution’ and ‘recognition’:

  • Reactionary neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, within an exclusionary vision of a racist, patriarchal, and homophobic society.
  • Progressive neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, while using the banner of ‘diversity’ to assimilate equality and meritocracy.

The difference between these two strands of neoliberalism, then, comes in the way that they recognise people. Note that the method of distribution remains the same:

The political universe that Trump upended was highly restrictive. It was built around the opposition between two versions of neoliberalism, distinguished chiefly on an axis of recognition. Granted, one could choose between multiculturalism and ethnonationalism. But one was stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization. With the menu limited to progressive and reactionary neoliberalism, there was no force to oppose the decimation of working-class and middle-class standards of living. Antineoliberal projects were severely marginalized, if not simply excluded from the public sphere.

Nancy Fraser

It’s as if the Overton Window of acceptable public political discourse served up a menu of only different flavours of neoliberalism:

Ideologies are oriented within a narrative that spans the past, present, and future. We can argue over visions of what education should look like within a society, for example, because we’re interested in how the next generation will turn out.

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff explains that instead of shackling themselves to ideologies, Trump and other populist politicians take advantage of the 24/7 ‘always on’ media landscape to provide a constant knee-jerk presentism:

A presentist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or overresponding to every bump in the road.

Douglas Rushkoff

What we’re witnessing is essentially the end of politics as we know it, says Rushkoff:

As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they instead seek merely to respond to the emerging chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative.

[…]

If we have no destination toward we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.

[…]

Blatant shock is the only surefire strategy for gaining viewers in the now.

Douglas Rushkoff

We might be witnessing the end of progressive neoliberalism, but it’s not as if that’s being replaced by anything different, anything better.

What, then, can we expect in the near term? Absent a secure hegemony, we face an unstable interregnum and the continuation of the political crisis. In this situation, the words of Gramsci ring true: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Nancy Fraser

No matter what the question is, neoliberalism is never the answer. The trouble, I think, is that two-dimensional diagrams of political options are far too simplistic:

Political compass, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, as Edurne Scott Loinaz shows, even within the Libertarian Left (the ‘lower left’) there are many different positions:

Lower left cultural differences within the zone of solidarity (Edurne Scott Loinaz)

The Libertarian Left has perhaps the best to offer in terms of fighting neoliberalism and populists like Trump. The problem is unity, and use of language:

When binary language is used within the lower left it does untold violence to our communities and makes solidarity impossible: if one can switch between binary language to speak truth about capitalists and authoritarians, and switch to dimensional language within the zone of solidarity with fellow lower leftists, it will be easier to nurture solidarity within the lower left.

Edurne Scott Loinaz

For the first time in my life, I’m actually somewhat fearful of what comes next, politically speaking. Are we going to end up with populists entrenching the authoritarian right, going back full circle to reactionary neoliberalism? Or does this current crisis mean that something new can emerge?


Header image by Guillaume Paumier used under a Creative Commons license

Our nature is such that the common duties of human relationships occupy a great part of the course of our life

Michel de Montaigne, one of my favourite writers, had a very good friend, a ‘soulmate’ in the form of Étienne de la Boétie. He seems to have been quite the character, and an early influence for anarchist thought, before dying of the plague in 1563 at the age of 32.

His main work is translated into English as The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude where he suggests that the reason we get tyrants and other oppressors is because we, the people, allow them to have power over us. It all seems very relevant to our times, despite being written around 450 years ago!

We live in a time of what Patrick Stokes in New Philosopher calls ‘false media balance’. It’s worth quoting at length, I think:

The problem is that very often the controversy in question is over whether there even is a controversy to begin with. Some people think the world is flat: does that mean the shape of the world is a controversial topic? If you think the mere fact of disagreement means there’s a controversy there, then pretty much any topic you care to mention will turn out to be controversial if you look hard enough. But in a more substantial sense, there’s no real controversy here at all. The scientific journals aren’t full of heated arguments over the shape of the planet. The university geography departments aren’t divided into warring camps of flattists and spherists. There is no serious flat-earth research program in the geology literature.

So far, so obvious. But think about certain other scientific ‘controversies’ where competing arguments do get media time, such as climate change, or the safety and efficacy of vaccination. On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of expert opinion; on the other side amateur, bad-faith pseudoscience. In the substantial sense there aren’t even ‘two sides’ here after all.

Yet that’s not what we see; we just see two talking heads, offering competing views. The very fact both ‘heads’ were invited to speak suggests someone, somewhere has decided they are worth listening to. In other words, the very format implicitly drags every viewpoint to the same level and treats them as serious candidates for being true. That’s fine, you might reply: sapere aude! Smart and savvy viewers will see the bad arguments or shoddy claims for what they are, right? Except there’s some evidence that precisely the opposite happens. The message that actually sticks with viewers is not “the bad or pseudoscientific arguments are nonsense”, but rather that “there’s a real controversy here”.

There’s a name for this levelling phenomenon: false balance. The naïve view of balance versus bias contains no room for ‘true’ versus ‘false’ balance. Introducing a truth-value means we are not simply talking about neutrality anymore – which, as we’ve seen, nobody can or should achieve fully anyway. False balance occurs when we let in views that haven’t earned their place, or treat non-credible views as deserving the same seat at the table.

To avoid false balance, the media needs to make important and context-sensitive discriminations about what is a credible voice and what isn’t. They need balance as a verb, rather than a noun. To balance is an act, one that requires ongoing effort and constant readjustment. The risk, after all, is falling – perhaps right off the edge of the world.

Patrick Stokes

For many people, we receive a good proportion of our news via social networks. This means that, instead of being filtered by the mainstream media (who are doing a pretty bad job), the news it’s filtered by all of us, who are extremely partisan. We share things that validate our political, economic, moral, and social beliefs, and rail against those who state the opposite.

While we can wring our hands about the free speech aspect of this, it’s important to note the point that’s being made by the xkcd cartoon that accompanies today’s article: we don’t have to listen to other people if we don’t want to.

In a great post from 2015, Audrey Watters explains how she uses some auto-blocking apps to make her continued existence on Twitter tolerable. Again, it’s worth quoting at length:

I currently block around 3800 accounts on Twitter.

By using these automated blocking tools – particularly blocking accounts with few followers – I know that I’ve blocked a few folks in error. Teachers new to Twitter are probably the most obvious example. Of course, if someone feels as though I’ve accidentally blocked them, they can still contact me through other means. (And sometimes they do. And sometimes I unblock.)

But I’m not going to give up this little bit of safety and sanity I’ve found thanks to these collaborative blocking tools for fear of upsetting a handful of people who have mistakenly ended up being blocked by me. I’m sorry. I’m just not.

And I’m not in the least bit worried that, by blocking accounts, I’m somehow trapping myself in a “filter bubble.” I don’t need to be exposed to harassment and violence to know that harassment and violence are rampant. I don’t need to be exposed to racism and misogyny to know that racism and misogyny exist. I see that shit, I live that shit already daily, whether I block accounts on social media or not.

My blocking trolls doesn’t damage civic discourse; indeed, it helps me be able to be a part of it. Despite all the talk about the Internet and democratization of ideas and voices, the architecture of many of the technologies we use is designed to amplify certain ideas and voices and silence others, protect certain voices, expose others to violence. My blocking trolls doesn’t silence anybody. But it does help me have the stamina to maintain my voice.

People need not feel bad about blocking, worry that it’s impolitic or impolite. It’s already hard work to be online. Often, it’s emotional work. (And it’s work we do for free, I might add.) People – particularly people of color, women, marginalized groups – shouldn’t have to take on the extra work of dealing with abusers and harassers and trolls. Block. Block. Block. Save your energy for other battles, ones that you choose to engage in.

Audrey Watters

Blocking on the individual level is one thing, but what about whole instances running social networking software blocking other instances with which they’re technically interoperable?

There’s some really interesting conversations happening on the Fediverse at the moment. A ‘free speech’ social network called Gab, which was was forced to shut down as a centralised service will be soon relaunching as a fork of Mastodon.

In practice, this means that Gab can’t easily be easily shut down, and there’s many people on Mastodon, Pleroma, Misskey, and other social networks that make up the Fediverse, who are concerned about that. Those who have found a home on the Fediverse are disproportionately likely to have met with trolling, bullying, and abuse on centralised services such as Twitter.

Any service like Gab that’s technically compatible with popular Fediverse services such as Mastodon can, by default, piggyback on the latter’s existing ecosystem of apps. Some of these apps have decided to fight back. For example Tusky has taken a stand, as can be seen by this update from its main developer:

Before I go off to celebrate Midsummer by being in bed sick (Swedish woes), I want to share a small update.

Tusky will keep blocking servers which actively promote fascism. This in particular means Gab.

We will get our next release out just in time for the 4th of July.

Don’t even try to debate us about Free Speech. This is our speech, exercising #ANTIFA views. And we will keep doing it

We will post a bigger update at a later time about what this all really means.

@Tusky@mastodon.social

Some may wonder why, exactly, there’s such a problem here. After all, can’t individual users do what Audrey Watters is doing with Twitter, and block people on the individual level — either automatically, or manually?

The problem is that, due to practices such as sealioning, certain communities ‘sniff blood’ and then pile on:

Sealioning (also spelled sea-lioning and sea lioning) is a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.

Wikipedia

So it feels like we’re entering a time with the balkanisation of the internet because of geo-politics (the so-called Splinternet), but also a retreat into online social interactions that are more… bounded.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the next 18 months takes us, I think. I can definitely see a decline in centralised social networks, especially among certain demographics. If I’m correct, and these people end up on federated social networks, then it’s up to those of already there to set not only the technical standards, but the moral standards, too.


Also check out:

  • The secret rules of the internet (The Verge) — “The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?”
  • The New Wilderness (Idle Words) — “Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.”
  • IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries and that doesn’t bode well for humanity (Think) — “Details vary from study to study and from place to place given the available data. IQ shortfalls in Norway and Denmark appear in longstanding tests of military conscripts, whereas information about France is based on a smaller sample and a different test. But the broad pattern has become clearer: Beginning around the turn of the 21st century, many of the most economically advanced nations began experiencing some kind of decline in IQ.”

Header image via xkcd

The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty nor is far distant from it

So said Seneca, in a quotation I found via the consistently-excellent New Philosopher magazine. In my experience, ‘wealth’ is a relative concept. I’ve met people who are, to my mind, fabulously well-off, but don’t feel it because their peers are wealthier. Likewise, I’ve met people who aren’t materially well-off, but don’t realise they’re poor because their friends and colleagues are too.

Let’s talk about inequality. Cory Doctorow, writing for BoingBoing, points to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report (PDF) by Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu that is surprisingly readable. They note cultural differences around inequality and its link to (perceived) meritocracy: 

A recent experiment found that people were much more accepting of inequality when it resulted from merit instead of luck (Almas, Cappelen and Tungodden, 2019). Given the opportunity to redistribute gains to others, people were significantly less likely to do so when differences in gains reflected differences in productivity. The experiment also revealed differences between countries in people’s views of what is fair, with more Norwegians opting for redistribution even when gains were merit-based and more Americans accepting inequality even when outcomes were due to luck.

This suggests that to understand whether inequality is a problem, we need to understand the sources of inequality, views of what is fair and the implications of inequality as well as the levels of inequality. Are present levels of inequalities due to well-deserved rewards or to unfair bargaining power, regulatory failure or political capture? Can meritocracy be unfair? What is the moral status of luck? And what if inequalities derived from a fair process in one generation are transmitted on to future generations?

Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu

Can meritocracy be unfair? Yes, of course it can, as I pointed out in this article from a few years back. To quote myself:

I’d like to see meritocracy consigned to the dustbin of history as an outdated approach to society. At a time in history when we seek to be inclusive, to recognise and celebrate diversity, the use of meritocratic practices seems reactionary and regressive. Meritocracy applies a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that — no surprises here — just happens to privilege those already in positions of power.

Doug Belshaw

Doctorow also cites Chris Dillow, who outlines in a blog post eight reasons why inequality makes us poorer. Dillow explains that “what matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has”. I’ve attempted to summarise his reasons below:

  1. “Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in… means of entrenching their privilege and power”
  2. “Unequal corporate hierarchies can demotivate junior employees”
  3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust”
  4. “Inequality can prevent productivity-enhancing change”
  5. “Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest”
  6. “Inequalities of power… have allowed governments to abandon the aim of truly full employment and given firms more ability to boost profits by suppressing wages and conditions [which] has disincentivized investments in labour-saving technologies”
  7. “High-powered incentives that generate inequality within companies can backfire… [as] they encourage bosses to hit measured targets and neglect less measurable things”
  8. “High management pay can entrench… the ‘forces of conservatism’ which are antagonistic to technical progress”

Meanwhile, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for The Guardian that the New Zealand government has unveiled a ‘wellbeing budget’ focused on “mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence”. Their finance minister is quoted by Roy as saying:

For me, wellbeing means people living lives of purpose, balance and meaning to them, and having the capabilities to do so.

This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.

Grant Robertson

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for government to act on inequality. We can seize the initiative ourselves through co-operation. In The Boston Globe, Andy Rosen explains that different ways of organising are becoming more popular:

The idea has been percolating for a while in some corners of the tech world, largely as a response to the gig economy, in which workers are often considered contractors and don’t get the same protections and benefits as employees. In New York, for example, Up & Go, a kind of Uber for house cleaning, is owned by the cleaners who provide the services.

[…]

People who have followed the co-op movement say the model, and a broader shift toward increased employee and consumer control, is likely to become more prominent in coming years, especially as aging baby boomers look for socially responsible ways to cash out and retire by selling their companies to groups of employees.

ANdy Rosen

Some of the means by which we can make society a fairer and more equal place come through government intervention at the policy level. But we should never forget the power we have through self-organising and co-operating together.


Also check out:

That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate

Today’s title is quotation from Carl Jung, via a recent issue of New Philosopher magazine. I thought it was a useful frame for a discussion around a few things I’ve been reading recently, including an untranslatable Finnish word, music and teen internet culture, as well as whether life does indeed get better once you turn forty.

Let’s start with that Finnish word, discussed in Quartzy by Olivia Goldhill:

At some point in life, all of us get that unexpected call on a Tuesday afternoon that distorts our world and makes everything else irrelevant: There’s been an accident. Or, you need surgery. Or, come home now, he’s dying. We get through that time, somehow, drawing on energy reserves we never knew we had and persevering, despite the exhaustion. There’s no word in English for the specific strength it takes to pull through, but there is a word in Finnish: sisu.

Olivia Goldhill

I’m guessing Goldhill is American, as we English have a term for that: Blitz spirit. It’s even been invoked as a way of getting us through the vagaries of Brexit! 🙄

Despite my flippancy, there are, of course, words that are pretty untranslatable between languages. But one thing that unites us no matter what language we speak is music. Interestingly, Alexis Petridis in The Guardian notes that there’s teenage musicians making music in their bedrooms that really resonates across language barriers:

For want of a better name, you might call it underground bedroom pop, an alternate musical universe that feels like a manifestation of a generation gap: big with teenagers – particularly girls – and invisible to anyone over the age of 20, because it exists largely in an online world that tweens and teens find easy to navigate, but anyone older finds baffling or risible. It doesn’t need Radio 1 or what is left of the music press to become popular because it exists in a self-contained community of YouTube videos and influencers; some bedroom pop artists found their music spread thanks to its use in the background of makeup tutorials or “aesthetic” videos, the latter a phenomenon whereby vloggers post atmospheric videos of, well, aesthetically pleasing things.

Alexis Petridis

Some people find this scary. I find it completely awesome, but may be over-compensating now that I’ve passed 35 years of age. Who wants to listen to and like the same music as everyone else?

Talking of getting older, there’s a saying that “life begins at forty”. Well, an article in The Economist would suggest that, on average, the happiness of males in Western Europe doesn’t vary that much.

The Economist: graph showing self-reported happiness levels

I’d love to know what causes that decline in the former USSR states, and the uptick in the United States? The article isn’t particularly forthcoming, which is a shame.

Perhaps as you get to middle-age there’s a realisation that this is pretty much going to be it for the rest of your life. In some places, if you have the respect of your family, friends, and culture, and are reasonably well-off, that’s no bad thing. In other cultures, that might be a sobering thought.

One of the great things about studying Philosophy since my teenage years is that I feel very prepared for getting old. Perhaps that’s what’s needed here? More philosophical thinking and training? I don’t think it would go amiss.


Also check out:

  • What your laptop-holding position says about you (Quartz at Work) — “Over the past few weeks, we’ve been observing Quartzians in their natural habitat and have tried to make sense of their odd office rituals in porting their laptops from one meeting to the next.”
  • Meritocracy doesn’t exist, and believing it does is bad for you (Fast Company) — “Simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behavior.”
  • Your Body as a Map (Sapiens) — “Reading the human body canvas is much like reading a map. But since we are social beings in complex contemporary situations, the “legend” changes depending on when and where a person looks at the map.”