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Monday, December 18, 2017

Now I understand why so many parents overestimate their children's intelligence

When you spend two years with a kid who, for the most part, comprehends nothing, does not speak, and mainly communicates by crying, you inadvertently develop really low expectations. So when this creature one day walks up to you with a mop and says, "Mommy I help you clean," you will naturally think, "My child is a genius!" And it will only go downhill from there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Testing extreme political propositions

One thing I wonder about current politics is why those who oppose various lefty demands, especially demands made by the so-called "campus left," on the grounds that they're unsustainable when enacted on a large scale spend their time arguing this instead of simply demonstrating it. For example, if you think that gender is not really amenable to self-declared change or that pronouns are not a matter of preference, why don't you and your friends (and better yet, many more people whom you've either persuaded to help you for the sake of advancing human knowledge, or bribed) simultaneously declare yourselves to be the opposite sex, or a third sex, or no sex, and demand that everyone around you accept your assertions. If these sorts of demands really are as socially destabilizing as you claim, then the ensuing chaos will prove your point better than any earnest op-ed you submit to the student newspaper. And if they're not, then I guess you'll have to rethink your argument. Either way, the costs to you will be pretty low: campuses are pretty insular, chaos in them will be contained, and you can go back to your old sex at any time.

It seems to me that you could do this with nearly every liberal social demand of the past decade, since so many of them arise out of individual, unfalsifiable assertions about identity or personal history. So when I read articles like this one - pointing out that the present demand to punish all sexual harassers suffers from some obvious difficulties, like an over-broad definition of harassment, a reliance on personal perceptions of offense, and the discovery that "in recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don..." - I again wonder, why not just demonstrate how big a problem this is by using your new powers to accuse not just the Oxford don, but pretty much anyone you'd like to see fired? Accuse the don's entire college at Oxford, the entire editorial staff of a major newspaper. Most of them are probably men, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Get your friends to accuse them too, or just say you "have in your hand a list...", as Berlinski puts it. If the doctrine of "just believe" the accuser is really as malignant as you warn, then its malignancy should be easily made manifest when an entire university department gets vacated or an entire publication is forced to fold under public pressure from unproven accusations of harassment. I really don't think this would have to happen more than once for the difficulties to be widely appreciated.

Of course, this is a form of heightening the contradictions, or trolling, if you prefer, and as a tactic, it has its dangers. And it also obviously requires acting in bad faith, a profound social sin in many quarters. But, the young seek adventure and don't care what respectable people think of them, no? So why hasn't this totally obvious method of persuasion been tried?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lady Bird: But what does this movie say about ME?

Peeps, I am old. Not old like OLD, CAN YOU HEAR ME ALRIGHT?, but old enough to have my life depicted in a period film. Is that the benchmark for middle age? I realize my age on a near-daily basis now that I teach people who are, effectively, permanently 20. But it still "wrecks me" (a phrase I recently learned from my students) that the movies find my youth to be suitable material for a nostalgic coming-of-age film. My youth. I am a nostalgic artifact. Like Rory Gilmore, Lady Bird is exactly my age. High school class of 2003 represent. However, Gilmore Girls was a contemporaneous production, whereas Lady Bird is...ughhhhh...a nostalgic period film.

Anyway, the Self-Importants love Greta Gerwig and all the films Greta Gerwig is connected with, including even Damsels in Distress and Mistress America, and also almost all the films Noah Baumbach makes even though yes they're pretty repetitive (but it's a good theme!), so my normative evaluation of this movie is completely predictable and not of any interest.

So let's talk instead about the politics. The movie is about The Youth in the early 2000s, a time when The Youth had nothing significant to pay attention to but themselves, but to themselves they were exquisitely attentive. (Lady Bird overlooks the ubiquitous online diaries for public consumption which Miss Self-Important of course never had...10 versions of and none of those became this blog ahem.) Perhaps this does not reflect well on us, but as Lady Bird notes ("I wish I could live through something"), these were not dramatic times unless you were in New York in September 2001. So the movie is about the perennial subject of peacetime dramas, finding yourself. But since it's not terrible, it's more specifically about valuing the given vs. the chosen.

Lady Bird thinks she hates everything about herself at 17: her name, her hometown, her Catholic school, her lowly social status. The problem with these things is that they're arbitrary, imposed on her by her parents (especially her mother). So she decides to change these things by choosing alternatives: she renames herself something absurd ("Is that your given name?", the theater teacher asks her, and she replies, "Yes, it was given to me by me."), she applies to colleges in New York without a clue as to where that even is, she openly defies Catholicism, she invents a persona to befriend the rich girl in class. The problem, as she realizes by the end, is that all her choices were just as arbitrary as the given things, and no more lovable simply for being chosen by her. At the end, she asks a guy at a party whether he believes in God, and he dismisses the proposition as stupid in a way she would've agreed with five minutes ago, but now she's struck by the irony of such insouciance: "People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God." So she reconsiders the value of self-assertion against givenness. Maybe her real name isn't so bad, and Sacramento has some charms, and even Catholicism... Look, you know things are heading in a dangerous direction when a character is poised to embrace Catholicism.

But, despite this quite conservative epiphany about the self-constituting value of given things, Lady Bird never really turns right, because it can't quite condemn youth culture, even as it can't really embrace it. Youth culture is depicted as the promise of a lot of potentially exciting experiences (first love! sex! drugs! prom! going away to college!) that in the end are not nearly as exciting as they appeared, but disappointment is no reason to reject it. Anyway, there are no grounds to reject youth culture even if you wanted to. It just exists, ubiquitously and without plausible alternatives, and our task is to adjust to it. What you're supposed to learn, what constitutes "growing up" in this movie, is that, while there remains no way of knowing who you are or what you want except by experimenting with experiences, you have a duty not to cause harm to others in your experimental pursuit of experiences. Of course, you already understood the harm principle as a child, but what you didn't understand was the scope and subtlety of "harm." You learned not to bite and hit and taunt, not to cause overt harm. But the task of adolescence is to understand that causing harm also encompasses causing distress to those individuals to whom you have, for largely unchosen reasons, heightened obligations - your parents, your friends. Only once you understand this expanded version of the harm principle, as Lady Bird does after arriving at college, can you pursue your serial experiences and experiments in living in a responsible way. There will necessarily be disappointments along the way (science tells us that most experiments fail), but so long as you're taking responsibility for yourself and respecting the rights of others (including their rights not to be harmed by you), you are on the right road to...something. Well, the audience is satisfied enough by the time the movie arrives at this conclusion not to worry whether it's really conclusive or whether Lady Bird's road leads anywhere. Her life has only just begun! The future is unknown! The roads before her as yet untraveled! And so on.

Only I worry about it because, as I said, Lady Bird is now me. My life has not only just begun, a bit of my future is known, and several roads have already been traveled since 2003. And I would like to suggest, from a point in the less open future, that serial experimentation in pursuit of culturally pre-formulated experiences undertaken in light of an expanded understanding of the harm principle is never going to stop being disappointing.

On the other hand, the movie could also point in a different direction, though it never does this explicitly. If what is given is arbitrary and therefore of questionable value, but you discover that what is self-chosen is also essentially arbitrary because you had no coherent reasons for choosing except the desire to make a choice, then you might be moved to wonder, what's required to make a non-arbitrary choice? Are there coherent reasons or standards that would lead to a good choice? And then of course you'd become a philosopher. Just like that! Anyway, I trust that you get my point.

In conclusion, in this movie, we were kids. And now we have kids. That is a jarring thought when exiting a dark room in which you had just been immersed in your own adolescence for two hours.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Conversation 2

Mr. Self-Important: Do you know where milk comes from? What animal makes milk?
Goomba: Mama!