Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Retribution, The Limits Of Punishment, And The Question Of Unenlightened Motives

Cells of the prison on Alcatraz Island. Posted to Flickr by marine_perez; used under Creative Commons licence.

In last week's New Yorker, the classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen has a searing personal history essay about her cousin Michael, who enters the criminal justice system as a result of minor crimes at age 15, gets derailed in life, and ends up dead -- murdered at a young age.

You should read the whole piece. It is a heartbreaking personal story and also a commentary on race, culture, and the concept of punishment in the contemporary US. Like many young black children, Michael confronts a series of obstacles. Like many young black men, when he gets into trouble, his crimes are punished in ways that are wildly disproportionate.

As Allen explains, among other things Michael was caught up in a serious of specific criminal justice policy changes, motivated by general societal fears and ideas about what the concept of punishment is for. In 1994, eighteen months before Micheal got into trouble, California's Three Strikes and You're Out law had gone into effect: three felonies means twenty-five years to life or a plea deal. In 1995, panic over rising carjackings had led the state to lower the age at which a teenage can be tried as an adult for that crime to 14 years old. Micheal tried to steal a car; the prosecutors found a way to charge him with four felonies based on what the police said were spontaneous confessions at the hospital after he got shot by the car's owner.

From a philosophical point of view, Allen says that California legislators had not only given up on prison as rehabilitation, they had also given up on the idea of prison as retribution. Retribution, as she says, "limits how much punishment you can impose." "Anger drives retribution," she says. "When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens."

The policy on carjacking was not about retribution, it was about deterrence. It was driven by fear, and the crafters of the policy were focused on aggregate crime statistics. As Allen says, "The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles." This is dehumanizing, and wrongly puts the massive burden of society's problems onto a young man's shoulders.

From a philosophical point of view the question about punishment as deterrence versus punishment as retribution often occurs in the context of the debate over ethical theories that are "consequentialist" -- in which we should aim at the production of the most well-being overall -- versus theories that are "deontological" -- in which we should follow certain rules and respect certain specific values.

It is partly because I agree with Allen's perspective on the problems of "aggregative" moral reasoning that I am not a consequentialist; as I've written about, I believe in justice and other values, and I think these values put constraints on our behavior. One of those constraints would concern the appropriate limits of punishment. 

The theoretical debate between consequentialism and deontology is massively complex, and I can't hope to contribute something to that debate here. But I would like to comment on the mood, tone, or quality of motivations associated with retribution versus deterrence.

In my experience, retribution is sometimes informally regarded as a problematic concept, arising from base and unworthy emotions. It is associated with motives that are thought to be low, unenlightened, and uncivilized.

We evolved to have retributive moral judgments, so the thinking goes, because back in the day, evolutionarily speaking, punishing was needed to keep community members in line. But we thinking people should rise above these base motives. Once we know our aim or goal is to make the world a better place, we don't need base motives like anger or retributive judgements. Instead we can cooly calculate which action will have the best effect, and simply do that. Deterrence is seen as "helping" while retribution is seen as abusive.

I once joined a multi-disciplinary audience listening to a speaker talk about ethics and robots. You want your robots to do good things and not bad things, but what does that mean? There was a general sense that the robot-makers wanted to answer the question with consequentialism: do the things that will bring about well-being overall. Aggregate.

In discussion, I tried to explain what seemed to me the importance of moral responsibility, and the inchoate sense I had that moral responsibility was something we do, and should, ascribe to humans. It matters why things are the way they are and who made them that way. Maybe the choices of robots could be tracked back to creators, so that a person would take responsibility for the choices the robot made.

The other people present really did not agree with me -- especially the computer scientists and engineers. They suggested that "moral responsibility" sounded like I wanted to punish people. And wasn't retributive punishment so barbaric? Who needs it? If you're being constructive and positive, you focus on the future. You want good results. Who cares why things are the way they are, except insofar as it's useful for thinking how they should be?

If we'd had more time, I would have tried to explain how, far from being barbaric and unenlightened,  responsibility and retribution fit into what I see as a human way of interacting, that values and respects people for themselves, for who they are, as individuals -- that aggregating people is more like managing them than caring about them.

I realize this brief foray into the cultural moods of retribution and deterrence does not settle the theoretical issues in debates over moral philosophy. But I was so moved by Allen's way of bringing out the potential humaneness of the retributive point of view -- how, far from being base and uncivilized, that framing encourages us to see individual people as worthy of respect, and forces our attention to the limiting of what counts as an appropriate punishment.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Dying Art Of Difficult And Awkward Conversations

A few years ago, I was trying to sleep around 2:00 in the morning and the people in the apartment next to me were making a racket having some kind of party. As I lay there in bed, I contemplated my options and waffled over whether to get up and knock on their door. I believe in the right to party and make noise, but as it got toward 2:30 or 3:00 I decided enough was enough.

As I threw on some clothes, I worked myself up to a state of dread and fear about the conversation. I had never met the neighbors, who had moved in not that long before. I pictured energetic partying people, angry at me for interrupting them. I pictured large guys answering the door and looking at me like I was the worst person ever. I pictured years of living next door to these people who regarded me as an asshole. I pictured them finding the smallest reason to complain back, as the years wore on.

I crept out into the hall and knocked on their door. A woman answered, with a man standing a bit behind her. They were smiling. I explained, nicely, that I was trying to sleep. They were extremely apologetic. They hadn't realized how the noise would carry. They expressed concern and kindness. They immediately quieted down, and the next day they left a ten dollar Starbucks gift card and a note on my door. I wrote them a thank-you note.

And as I have on other occasions, I found myself wondering at the power of talking to people in person and the difference between what we imagine and what is real when it comes to certain kinds of difficult conversations. I have had many similar experiences, where reality confounded expectations. It's a platitude that open honest conversation produces good results, but it's also human nature to want to shy away from conflict. And platitudes are often stupid. But in this case there's something to it.

It's not always true and there are assholes everywhere. But if you have a problem or something you need or want, and you express yourself with respect and kindness, it's amazing how many people will be respectful and kind right back to you. 

I would go even further and say that negative or difficult conversations often draw people closer together. I don't know if you've had this experience where only someone's judgment or need conveyed to you the depth of their concern. When people are a hundred percent live and let live, you can't get any grip on where you are with them.

I'm not one of those people who are always complaining about "kids these days" and I think generally speaking the younger generations are wonderful and unjustly accused of all kinds of ridiculousness. I don't buy into the idea that their desire to make the world a better and more just place speaks to some kind of weakness on their part.

But I do think that all of us are getting even more reluctant to have difficult or awkward conversations, probably for a range of reasons, some of which involve the internet. Sometimes out and about, I see people waiting and waiting for their needs to be acknowledged -- by a stranger or a service person -- seemingly reluctant to speak up and say "Excuse me, can I get some help"?

I don't know if you've noticed this, but in women's bathrooms in public places, women will line up behind one another, entering only the stalls that someone is coming out of, and leaving a bunch of stalls open and unused, because they don't want to be "that person" who is either knocking, or trying the door, or looking for shoes under the stall, to see which ones are empty. Because it's awkward.

Somehow I feel like the extra negativity we feel when we hear these things by email or virtually has infected our impression of how we'll feel when we have these difficult conversations in person. It's tempting to think that bad news should come virtually, since the person can react privately and won't be put on the spot. But I think that's a mistake. When I have bad news to convey, I feel like conveying it in person just passes along so many human emotions along with the news, it can't help but be made better.

I remember a long time ago when I was in high school, I had these two teachers. One was relentlessly positive and always told us the nicest, most supportive things. She was like a cheerleader for students. The other was difficult, and caustic; she was the faculty member in charge of the literary magazine and when she thought students were being stupid or lazy she would tell them so in no uncertain terms.

I remember that when I applied to a summer arts program, I had to get some letters of recommendation. And I was so much more comfortable asking the grouchy teacher than the supportive teacher. Because the supportive teacher was so supportive -- I had no idea what she really thought of me, or what she really thought about anything. The grouchy teacher, I knew she thought I was smart and talented, and I knew she thought I was imperfect, and we were good to go.

Difficult and awkward conversations are difficult and awkward. But especially when you have them in person, they're often OK. As we get less comfortable being awkward together, I hope they don't disappear entirely.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I Am Away But Here Are Two Photos That Gave Me A Complicated Feeling

I'm away at a conference in Prague, and I thought I'd have time to write something, but the stresses and complexities of international travel got to me and I didn't.

For your entertainment, however, I can offer these two photos, of a Prague window/storefront for a place offering iPhone repair: 


In case you can't tell, this is window-areas littered with broken and discarded iPhone parts, mostly screens, with one actual Mac showing gadgetry insides.

I had a complicated emotional response to this sight. I thought it was a cool, original, and artistic idea. I like the way it looks -- it actually does look like art. I like the idea. On the other hand, it's depressing to see all this junk, and it's awful to be reminded of the mass of garbage that our lives generate.

I'm even ambivalent about all the broken screens. I'm the type of person who uses a protective cover for my phone, because I'm the of person who drops my phone and doesn't want to deal with breaking it. When I see young people (and it is mostly young people) using fancy phones with no protection, my first instinct is something to be like "What are you doing! That's a nice phone! What happens if you drop it!"

And yet -- there's something I love admire about the anti-protection commitment. I was also the kind of young person who wouldn't have used any protection on my phone, and would have been heartbroken when the screen cracked, but who would also have gone on the same way, unwilling to give up the aesthetic commitment for some dumb practicality like "the phone might break."

I know I'm more sensible now, but sometimes I miss that adolescent spirit I had, and wish I could be that person again. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Few Philosophical Thoughts On "Taxation Is Coercion"

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, "Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector)," via Wikimedia Commons

I feel like there's been an uptick in people in the US using "taxation is coercion" or "taxation is theft" to support their given point of view. The topic is obviously enormous and too large to be dealt with in a short blog post, but these are just some thoughts that come to my mind about this idea from the philosophical perspective.

Taxation is only coercive against a backdrop of a very specific theory of ownership -- one in which you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction. But as we've discussed before, this theory of ownership faces several serious and well-known problems.

First, contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and political structures and relationships. Many modern voluntary exchanges would be impossible without infrastructure, education, etc. etc. etc. As is often pointed out, the question isn't whether we have to pay for these things -- it's just how much.

Second, if we actually tried to follow a principle in which everyone has full property rights to whatever they gained in a voluntary transaction, we'd run immediately into the difficulty that vast wealth and holdings in western countries derives partly from utterly non-voluntary transactions.

This is because in a theory where you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction, you do not have rights to whatever you gained through a non-voluntary transaction, and you do not have rights to what was stolen or taken by force. If A steals a diamond ring from B, then A doesn't own the ring -- B does. If A sells the ring to C, C also does not own the ring: justly speaking, B owns the ring, C owns the money they were going to trade for the ring, and A doesn't own anything.

But the land and wealth in rich western countries is enmeshed with a violent history of colonialism, slavery, war, and theft. Under the theory of ownership being proposed, who would own the land in North America? Presumably, Native Americans and Indigenous people and no one else. So the theory leads to very different consequences from the ones it's typically taken to support.

Third, when the full ownership theory is used in ways people don't like, there's a lot of uproar about it, suggesting most people do not endorse or agree with that theory. When Martin Shkreli bought the rights to life-saving drugs and then radically raised the prices, what he did was well within his rights in the full-ownership theory of property. It's his -- he gets to do what he wants.

I've been surprised by the degree of hate against this guy from all sides. I mean, I think the outcomes are bad, but then I'd endorse a different health care system entirely. It's the lack of supporters from other sides I'm struck by.

As I mentioned before, on Reddit there was general applause when a doctor pressed Shkreli on what improvements in the drug "warranted" the price increase. But that's not how our system works. I actually thought Shkreli made a valid point when he said in 2015, “Our shareholders expect us to make as much money as possible ... That’s the ugly, dirty truth.” That's true. The problem is with the system, not with one specific guy.

Anyway, moving beyond the full ownership theory, it seems to me that whatever theory of ownership you adopt, a claim about "coercion" is a moral claim, and once you're in the realm of morality, things are never straightforward. As I discuss in my 2015 book, many people endorse multiple values. In our society, that range of values often includes some right to be free of certain kinds of interference. But it also often includes other values like justice, benevolence, honesty, fidelity, and so on.

So whether taxation is "coercive" isn't the end of a discussion. It's the beginning of a larger discussion, about ownership and what is and isn't coercive, but also about how all the various values we endorse should be implemented and prioritized in some sensible way. Obviously, this is something the citizens can, and do, disagree about, and that's one reason politics is complicated and fraught. 

I don't endorse the kind of full ownership theory that would be necessary to conclude that taxation is coercive, partly because, as this book review explains, taxes are "part of the entire system of property relations, not something that happens after property accrues in private hands." That is, there's no "A owns X and B owns Y" and then you have taxes. Rather, taxes are part of the system of property relations that entails what, exactly, A and B own.

And if property relations are a system of which taxes are one part, then I also believe that other values, like justice and fairness, should play a rule in structuring that system. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why I Deactivated My Facebook Account


I recently deactivated my Facebook account. When Facebook asked me why I was deactivating, I put in the text box: "I don't want to aid in Facebook's quest to take over the entire universe."

I know social media platforms all share the same kinds of problems. I know that "if you're not paying, you're the product." I know that their ultimate goal is to make money off us, often by tracking our info and selling it to advertisers or whatever. I know that they're all engaged in various shenanigans.

But Facebook is in a class by itself. I've always felt pushed around and creeped out by Facebook, what with its perverse privacy settings and options and with Mark Zuckerberg basically acting like if you're not willing to make something public you must be some kind of criminal. Every time I went on Facebook -- and often by email when I didn't log in -- Facebook would remind me that I didn't really have a lot of friends, and I might be able to connect with more friends, and the things I posted weren't really getting any traction, and there might be ways to make traction happen.

Just last week, I wanted to message something to an old friend, and --oops! -- You can't message people any more unless you've properly opted into the chat feature and signed on to all the extra crap Facebook wants to you to sign on for. Good god.

But beyond the manipulation, to me the deeper threat is the depth to which Facebook is embedding itself in everyone's lives, becoming something you can't live without, becoming essential to what you thought were entirely non-Facebook related things. I'm sure you heard about the old news that lenders were going to use Facebook to judge your credit worthiness. Recently I was using a book reading app and there was an option to share notes. How do you share notes? You have to authenticate through Facebook. Want to use a dating app? Oh -- you can authenticate through Facebook.

What's it going to be like when you have to authenticate through Facebook to vote, to apply for a job, or to satisfy a customs official?

It also freaks me out that people are increasingly getting their news -- and their everything -- from Facebook. People often tell me they won't see anything unless a link pops up on their Facebook feed. It is disturbing. Plus, as we've written about before, do you really want Facebook determining what is and isn't a genuine news source?

The way Facebook deploys its real name policy is frightening. The brilliant sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about her experience being kicked off Facebook for using "TressieMcPhd" -- the name she uses in her online writing and with her 20,000+ Twitter following -- as her name. Someone reported her -- and bam! As Dr. Cottom explains, for all kinds of reasons, the enforcement of these kinds of policies have particularly negative effects for people who are already oppressed:

"It is more common that Facebook will ban non-white, non-male, non-Western users for violating ethical codes when they write against racism or sexism or inequality than they will ban those who post actual racist or sexist content."

In my academic field of philosophy, it is amazing how much discussion relevant to issues in the profession happens on Facebook. Often, before I learn about something from a blog post, there has already been extensive discussion of it on Facebook. But one problem with this is that Facebook actually reinforces some of the problems we're already having. For example, philosophy has an in-group out-group problem: some people are, or are perceived to be, the in-crowd, while others are, or feel, marginalized; overlaid on that there is a sense of people in factions or cliques. Because Facebook encourages and facilitates sharing with your friends, more than with strangers, opinions are shared in ways that track, rather than challenging, the sense of factions, groups, subgroups, who's in, and who's out.

I know my deactivation will go zero distance toward challenging Facebook's success at global domination. It is a tiny symbolic gesture in a cold and uncaring universe. But maybe some day some event or something will be organized and there will be this tiny resistance of people who aren't on Facebook, and the whole business will have to be conducted in some other way, like a blog, or on the non-walled garden parts of the internet, or -- god forbid -- email.

As I was writing this post, I was reminded of the 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert Hirschman. Hirschman argues that when an organization of any kind is being a pain in the ass, its members can "exit" but they also have the alternative of "voice" -- of sticking around and trying to change things. Maybe the current members of Facebook can change the way Facebook operates, as they did when drag queens won the right to use their preferred names. God knows, when it comes to members of Facebook, there certainly are enough of them.

It's a testament to the power of Facebook that I didn't delete my account but merely deactivated it. Which is temporary. We'll see how things go. In the meantime, why not connect with me on Twitter? It's far from perfect, but there's no real name bullshit. Plus, isn't it weirdly comforting that Twitter is so far from world domination that they still haven't even managed to make any money?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life's Confounding Open-Endedness And The Problem Of How To Spend Your Day


I don't know if you read this in-depth piece in The New Yorker about the opiate crisis and how it is affecting a community in West Virginia.

West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country, and mostly the article describes how communities are responding to the crisis -- in some cases blaming drug users, but mostly doing heroic things to save them and to increase the measly support for people who want to quit.

My attention was caught, though, by something that might seem a bit to one side of the main topic. Toward the end of the article, the author describes a person formerly addicted who points out how hard it is for people who've never had the experience to understand what it's like to be addicted, how everything is grey and your mind just shuts down. And then the author says:

"As she described it, the constant hunt for heroin imposed a kind of order on life's confounding open-endedness. Addiction told you what every day was for, when otherwise you might not have known."

I was struck by this description of opiate addition. I had heard of the idea that opiate addiction transforms the vast range of human motivations and emotions into a single kind of thought -- do I have access to drugs, and if not, how can I get them? But it had never occurred to me how that might be a relief from something.

Regular readers won't be surprised to hear that this resonated with me -- I mean, the idea that "life's confounding open-endedness" could be a burden. At first I was inclined to see it as part of the human condition. As humans, we have to make decisions about what to do, and this means putting yourself behind something, in a sense. Unlike with other animals, even our less reflective decisions can feel like they are the result of decisions --  even if you're not going to think about something, you often have to choose not to think about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that life's confounding open-endedness might be a particular burden in our particular time and place. We live in a culture that has take to an extreme the idea that you should be free to do as you please, that one way of living is as good as another, that happiness involves finding your particular "passion" or developing some personalized "dream," that the things you chose are somehow more important than the things that just, somehow, choose you.

This is not only a departure from previous less "modern" forms of living, it's also largely bullshit. I think one reason it can be hard to see it as bullshit is that the sometimes less modernity seems less "progressive." When the contrary to "everyone can do as they please" is "women do this, men do that, gay people shouldn't exist," it's horrible. But the fact that X is bad doesn't mean everything not-X is good. We're already asking people to create their own personalities, branding, and entrepreneurial selves. Maybe  asking them to craft a day out of nothing is too much to bear.


Ages ago I wrote a post about our "independence fetish" and how strange it is. People talk about how important it is to be "happy within yourself," and to have a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home. There's the idea that you have to assert the rights of that self within relationships. But these ideas seem directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being needed by someone one of the best things in life?

Maybe the kinds of activities and relationships that relieve the burden of the "confoundingness open-endedness of life" require the opposite perspective: that you're radically dependent on other people, and they are on you, and sometimes the things you find yourself immersed in are just yours, whether they're the ones you'd have chosen or not.

Since I had seen the "confounding open-endedness" of life as somewhat to one side of the main point of the article, I was struck that a New Yorker letter writer mentioned it as well, as a manifestation of a "spiritual crisis" and in that sense a central cause of addiction. Correctly observing that detox, rehab, etc. do not really address these causes, the letter writer then goes on to way that what really is needed is job creation -- some New Deal type of thing that would put people back to work.

Being immersed in my own interpretation of the burden of life's "open-endedness" I was startled to see the idea of "jobs" being proposed as a solution. Of course, there's no question that having meaningful work, and being able to support a family, are crucial elements of well-being! And yet, the idea that this kind of spiritual crisis could be cured with a little extra dose of capitalism -- well, I guess it just seemed to me a little sad.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Mother Audrey Would Not Just Follow Your Stupid Rules

My mom in her twenties
As regular readers know, my mother had been in ill health for quite a while. Last week I posted that picture of my parents from back in the day. The following day, my mother died.

As you may know if you read the obituary, my mother was a political activist, feminist, cat-lover, and Red Sox fan, known for her open-mindedness, humor, warmth, and compassion. But she was also what you would call an "independent thinker."

People toss around phrases like "independent thinker" to be nice about eccentrics, intellectuals, or weirdos, but my mom was the real deal. She just refused to go along with things just because they were things everyone else was doing, or things someone else wanted her to do, or things you'd be expected to do just because doing them was part of how the system works.

When my mom was just out of high school, she moved out of her parents house, got a job, and got an apartment in Boston with her friends -- something single women never did in the mid-fifties. Though she never went to college, she read widely in a range of subjects and especially in politics and education. She thought elementary school should have more freedom and more play and more unstructured learning -- and she said so to anyone who would listen -- even while my father was running for school committee in our town on almost the opposite platform.

My mom played the piano and was seriously into classical music, but she refused to play in front of people -- she said it drove her crazy if she was playing and people were talking, so she just said, "Nope!" In 1976, when everyone was arguing about Carter versus Ford, my mom campaigned for Senator Gene McCarthy. Her favorite movie was Auntie Mame.

I'm not going to lie: being the child of an independent thinker wasn't always easy. My mom's feminist commitments included the concept that children should be dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers -- basically, clothes you could run around in. But I was a girly girl from the earliest age. Why couldn't I run around in a dress? My mom valued eduction, and sometimes said she wished she'd gone to college -- but then she also said she only wanted to go if she didn't have to do any assignments she didn't want to do. Why couldn't she just suck it up, like everyone else? When she drove around without car insurance or registration because "nothing bad is going to happen" or wouldn't go to the doctor because she was "mad at the American health care system," I went nuts.

But my mom's habits of independent thought have obviously had a profound impact on who I am as a person. I myself enjoy challenging the status quo. Even though my mom seemed to think academic philosophy was an unimaginative and irrelevant way to think about things, the impulse to ask "why are things way rather than some other way" is one that clearly forms a basic part of my intellectual approach to the world. Also, I don't mind being thought a weirdo. For these things, crucial to who I am, I have my mother to thank.

My mom had a heart condition that caused her to have heart failure last fall, and after a hospital stay she was weakened enough that had to move permanently to a nursing home. In a way, she was OK there: reading, following politics, and watching the Red Sox were all activities easy to continue, and her warmth and caring attitudes were appreciated. But she didn't like the rules. She didn't like being told that she had to do physical therapy, or that she had to take a shower at a certain time. She didn't like that she had an identifying bracelet with her doctor's name written on it. She didn't like being part of the system.

Over the last few weeks my mom's health declined rapidly, likely because of her heart. On one of her last days, the doctor came in to check on her. "Audrey," he said, as he leaned down to speak into her ear. "It's me, Dr. Sharma."

My mother had just been lying there with her eyes closed, but at this she perked up. "Oh!" she said, raising her braceleted wrist, her tone eye-rolly and sarcastic. "I guess I belong to you." Everybody laughed. Complaining about the system, right to the very end. That's my mom!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Picture Of My Parents

Regular readers may remember that my mother's health hasn't been good. Unfortunately, she has rapidly declined over the last couple of weeks, and isn't doing well. Partly because of this, I wasn't able to write a blog post this week.

So I thought instead I'd post this photo of my mom and dad, taken some time in the 60s or early 70s:



I love this picture. I think my mom made this dress, since sewing her own clothes was a thing she did in her youth, even though by the time I came along -- and wanted to learn to sew my own clothes! -- she had decided this was somehow regressive and anti-feminist. I also love that my mom has both a drink and a cigarette -- my mom loved a Southern Comfort Manhattan, which is a crazy drink along multiple dimensions.

Thanks for your patience and kindness, loyal readers. I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Problems Of The Environment Are Not (Only) Problems Of Individual Consumer Obligations

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was interested to see this piece by Umbra Fisk on Naked Capitalism about how "withdrawing" and living "off the grid" were bad solutions to environmental problems.

When I first saw it, I confess that in true modern style I had expected it to confirm some beliefs I already had: that living in cities was environmentally friendly, that living in the country often involves a lot of driving and so on, and that spending a lot of time doing outdoorsy activities could be harmful.

I wrote about some of these issues a couple of years ago.  For one thing, it turns out that if you think of elevators as a way of getting from one place to another, they are very energy efficient, because of counter-weights. As the New Yorker put it back in 2008:

"Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete."

I love that image, of the elevator saving people from oozing out all over the earth's surface -- like we're some kind of skin disease or something.


Another interesting thing is that as reported in the NYT, hiking and camping and related activities are "the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

To a certain extent, the NC piece did confirm my existing beliefs. Because of public transportation and other kinds of infrastructure, living in cities can be more environmentally friendly than living "off the grid" or moving into a tiny house.

But in another way, the piece actually pushed me to realize ways that I had failed to take my thinking to the next step. Because the main gist of the piece is really about the relative pointlessness of all those small individual habits we form, the limitedness of thinking just about yourself and your consumer activities, when really you should be trying to think more in terms of community and contributing to large structural changes. The theme of the essay is "get to know your neighbor."

And I realized I really had been framing my thinking about this in a highly individualized way, thinking of myself as a consumer, and then considering what my obligations were in terms of my individual choices.

It's not that that kind of thinking is wrong. Of course it's good to carry your water bottle, and repair your things and, of course, take the bus (like I do!).

But to frame the problem as an individualistic consumer obligations problem is a mistake. It's a mistake we're all likely to make, because we live in a society that for complex reasons is constantly reminding us of our position as individual consumers and never reminding us of our position as anything else.

So yes, ask yourself about sustainable practices for your life. But as the essay says, don't forget to also ask: "How do you cultivate respectful, meaningful relationships with the people who will help you fight fossil fuel infrastructure?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hurt Feelings And The Perverse Modern Demand For Invulnerability

Have you seen that comic strip that shows the guy hearing all kinds of praise and one bad thing, and how in the course of the day the praise fades and fades to nothing, 'til when he's lying in bed and all he can think is of that one bad thing?

Here it is:



I think about this comic all the time, because I am very susceptible to this. In the comic, the one negative thing the guy can't get out of his head is "you're a jerk," but my negative things range over all types and categories and can include both comments from other that, for whatever reasons, hurt my feelings, and also vicious negative self-assessment.

Anyone who teaches students can tell you about experiencing this with course evaluations. You can read one positive comment after another, sheet after sheet where the only negative feedback is "the readings were dry," and then you come upon someone who says you're incompetent or boring or disorganized or behind-the-times and -- WHAM. I promise, that is the comment you'll be thinking about for the next few weeks, or maybe forever.

I discuss this comic strip with people often, because it's important to remember what a widely shared experience it is and to keep in mind that feeling this way doesn't make you weak or weird or over-reacting or anything. It's just human nature.

When I share this comic strip and think about it, my mind often turns to thinking about how crazy it is that as humans hyper-sensitive to negative feedback, we've basically created a system in which people are constantly subjected to it. You'd think if we were people like the guy in the comic strip that we would find a way to create a society in which we are surrounded by praise and positive comments and only hear negative feedback in the gentlest and most constructive way.

But it's not like that at all. It's like the opposite. Most of us are surrounded with critical evaluation from all sides and only hear praise if we're lucky enough to have people around who love and care for us.

Worst of all, the people who are -- or who act -- the most impervious to criticism are often the people who are most successful. They exude positivity, and they prop up their personal brand and likability.

It is one of those strange states of affairs: we have massive human vulnerability, and modern society is set up for massive invulnerability. Like we set up society for people radically unlike ourselves. WTF?

I don't know how you undo any of these complicated systemic things that no one really designed, and that seem to emerge out of the always churning blend of capitalism, the Human Resources industrial complex, and people just needing to lord it over other people. But wouldn't it be nice if we could shift things around a little?