Thursday, November 30, 2017

On Lindsay Shepherd and Academic Freedom

If you haven't listened to the Lindsay Shepherd recordings, I highly recommend you do that.  If this hasn't come onto your radar, Ms. Shepherd, teaching a component of a writing course as a graduate TA, showed a segment from a Canadian public television show in which Jordan Peterson and a panel of others discussed the use of pronouns.  Shepherd was talking to her students about pronouns, and she naturally brought in the issue about them.  You see, Candadian law requires people to use another person's "preferred" pronouns.  This is in relation to trangenderism and the idea that people can choose what gender they are, and how you refer to them.  Under this law, even though I am a masculine male, I could demand that you refer to me as she and her, and you'd be compelled to do it.  Peterson objects to the law compelling him to use certain words, and he's skyrocketed to fame because of that position, that the law has no business telling people what they must say.  And I agree with him on that point, fundamentally, that law should never compel speech, and really, that's a separate issue than the one of politeness, that I ask you to refer to me as she, you'd be polite to do as I ask, but having the force of law behind my pronoun choice, that's another matter.  You can watch the entire program here.

All that aside, Shepherd showed a clip from a rather benign video that shows a civilized dialogue between adults about a contemporary issue, and something about that video caused a student to complain, not to her, but to her superiors, and she was hauled in before an inquisition of three superiors, two professors, and one human resources department of diversity officer.  You must listen to the recordings to fully appreciate what I'm writing about here, and in fact, what has prompted me to write about it.

If you listen, you'll hear Shepherd, who is only 22 years old, offer a wonderful defense of academic freedom, that no ideas are off the table, that there's nothing that can't be discussed and debated in the spirit of open and free inquiry.  That college students must have their fundamental presumptions called into question.  That they are adults, and college is the place where they learn to think, to process ideas and come to stronger, better ideas, and that can only happen when information flows freely.

In response, these professors argue the opposite.  They argue that some ideas are inherently dangerous and ought to be censored, that 18-year-old adults ought to be protected from some ideas on a purely arbitrary basis, and that by showing the clip, and this really takes the cake, by merely showing the clip (of adults, having civil discourse) Shepherd was guilty of "trans-phobia".  She presented the clips neutrally, in the spirit of generating debate and classroom discussion, and revealed none of her political leanings, preferring to allow the students to articulate their own thoughts, which is exactly the right thing to do, and exactly what I would have done.  Put another way, Shepherd did nothing wrong, but in fact, did everything right.  She operated with professionalism, and she participated in the venerable tradition of the academy, the spirit of argumentation and truth-seeking.

I actually wrote an email to the university's president about this matter, something I never do, because I don't care much about what happens outside of my walls, but this one struck close to home, the issue of academic freedom, about being an honest purveyor of truth, which I think is the professor's duty, beyond all others, to be a purveyor of truth.  And these professors in the recordings were lying.  Just flat-out lying.  They weren't purveying truth, but dissembling obfuscation and outright lies.  No professor should operate that way.  It is the highest offense, and though they have tenure and can't be fired easily, I called on the president of the college to find a way to censure them.  For their lies.  Professor's must not, cannot, lie.  Truth.  That's the only thing.

I got a form letter in response.

Nevertheless, and I've never written about this publicly until now, I spent six years laboring in what was essentially the kindergarten of higher education, an institution in which students were treated as customers.  The outstanding instructor award was called the "customer service award", and I shit you not.  And I learned, early on, to keep all readings, all viewings, to the most benign possible issues, because if a student complained, that was it.  I did something wrong.  Avoiding student complaints was paramount.  Exposing those students to ideas, to get them to write, to stoke their minds, to get them to actually put some though behind their writing, was off-limits, completely.  One student complaint and I was sitting in the deans office explaining myself.  It was just that bad, to the point that I was left wondering, what can I have these students read?  Do I need to bring in children's books?  Are Biscuit books controversial?  Are these students adults, or are they kindergartners?

This is reflected in the Shepherd recordings, in which a professor states, unequivocally, that freshmen must be shielded from some ideas, that they aren't ready for some ideas.  It's outrageous if you're doing your job to educate these adults, but that's where we are.  That's exactly where we are.

Well, doubtful that they gave Shepherd this training, and I certainly haven't received this training, but I'm calling for training.  If certain ideas and issues are off-limits for freshmen, I need to know exactly what those issues are.  I'm not trained for this.  My education is is rhetoric and composition, and my impulse is to teach students how to engage with ideas and create arguments and to participate in discourse.  My job, ultimately, is to teach students how to write well, and if you write well, you can think well, and these two are inextricable.  If I'm supposed to shield my students, I need training about this new freshmen kindergarten I'm running, because my training in rhetoric and composition has ill-prepared me to shield students from ideas.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nobody With a Good Car Needs to be Justified

Or, On Rereading O'Connor's Wise Blood after 20 years.

Something is happening to me.  Thoughts are swirling, and if I were a woman and knew that the metaphor was somewhere close to apt, I might say I was pregnant with something, something growing and kicking in my guts.  Ideas new to me, stretching out, spreading out and grabbing onto any crag or cranny that might serve as a handle, like a vine growing up and around its trellis.

I have to make sense of Hazel Motes' vision.  What was Flannery saying through him?

In no particular order:


  1. Automobiles.  They weave around, all clunkers, all "rat-colored".  Once Haze's is destroyed, he walks back to town, grabs a sack of quicklime and a bucket, and promptly puts his eyes out.  Not before he'd used to automobile as his pulpit, as a murder weapon, as a home.  The damned things sometimes won't move an inch, for slightest reason, such as when the tiny hose on the PCV valve in my Toyota burst.  Car wouldn't go.  Yet, sometimes they will go and go, like nothing can wear them down.  They hang onto life sometimes with tenacity, Haze hanging onto it, himself beaten up but undeterred, wearing out, but holding together.  Until it's over, and if I've learned one thing in this life, myself beaten up, yet holding somehow together, when it's over, it's over.  Ain't no going back.  
  2. Death.  Everywhere.  The living and the dead commingling, everyone carrying around something dead within.  My sweet Jesus, I can barely stand to enter into this world, yet I'm reasonably sure I'm living in it in this reality.  But I can't stand to see it through O'Connor's eyes, with its varnish all stripped away.  This is haunting me.  
  3. Death.  Everywhere.  No one has friends.  Everyone is out to get something off of someone, and that's the extent of their interest.  Except Haze, who is so encased in his own dogmatic vision so as to render his needs for another person just an act to further test that vision, his trysts with Leora Watts, his decision to seduce Sabbath, and then lose all interest.  He isn't driven by the typical desires.  Thing is, I'm not sure what's driving him.  Driving.  Driving.  Enoch . . . has been in Taulkinham for two months or so, and not one friend, not one person offered to shake his hand, until a man in a Gorilla suit shook his hand, and promptly told him to go to hell.  
  4. All of the children are blasphemers, and their blasphemies are hilarious.  "Jesus on the cross," the boy said, "Christ nailed." . . . "King Jesus!" Enoch whispered.  
I can't go on tonight.  I'm nauseated.  Read this in a day, and my constitution has its limits. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On Truth

I listen to Sam Harris' podcast, have for years, called Waking Up, and it is usually quite informative, and all the more entertaining because Harris is not a professional interviewer and he sometimes gets frustrated, defensive, irate, when he disagrees with an interviewee.  Harris has done two podcasts with Jordan Peterson, and that's how Peterson got on my radar.  The first one was what I can only call a debacle as Harris and Peterson got bogged down on how to define truth.  It was fascinating to listen to these two intellectuals hit an impasse, and Harris just kept on flogging away and Peterson refused to budge.  As near as I can tell, Harris worked with a definition of truth from a scientific perspective, which makes sense given that he is a scientist, and insisted that concrete and objective truths exist, such as 2 + 2 = 4, or that some numbers are prime, and so forth.  Nothing really controversial there, to my thinking.  Peterson's ideas about truth, though, I'm still struggling to pin down, though I am making some headway.  I think his ideas about truth are not contingent on the objective, but that some truths are good enough.  He focuses a lot of his attention on myths, old stories, Bible stories, and extols the idea that the Bible, especially the Bible, is full of truth, or what he might call, I think, functional truths.  I think that's getting close to his view, and I think a lot of their struggle to find a consensus was that he came into the interview prepared to battle Harris' stone-cold atheism.  I think Peterson came into the conversation with the goal to be on the attack, and I think he had a straw man built up with regard to Harris.  That's just my speculation, but you can hear it for yourself by listening to the podcast.

I might call Peterson's truths contingent truths, which seems a bit contradictory, especially juxtaposed with Harris more hard-line objective scientific truths.  I think for Harris something is true or it isn't, and truth can't be contingent on anything.  For Peterson, the contingent truths are functional to the human species, which very much seems to spring from his training as a psychologist.  Truths are human, and some things are true for humans, in a human context, and I'll try to elaborate.  Peterson, in his lectures and in his YouTube videos, often references stories like Pinocchio, and stories from the Old Testament, to illustrate his truths.  He is given to offer platitudes like what has become essentially his catch phrase, clean your room, that a person, before he or she can achieve anything, has to order his or her own personal space, and that order becomes a starting point for one to expand his or her sphere of influence, something that resonated with me in particular so much so that I started paying close attention to cleaning up my space, to keeping my house in order, and I can even see a connection between my order and chaos, that when I can maintain my room, that order seems to carry over to other things, like paying my bills, or taking care of that speeding ticket, and sometimes when I let things slide, it is almost a metaphor for avoiding that speeding ticket to the last minute, and I work on facing the music because I have a tendency to put things off despite that I know it is almost always better to go ahead and take care of business, that nothing good has ever come of avoiding my responsibilities.  This, to me, seems true, but it certainly isn't 2 + 2.

Peterson has struck a nerve and struck a chord.  He first became a public figure when he opposed the pronoun legislation in Canada, which put the force of law behind using a person's preferred pronouns, and Peterson objected to the government legislating that one use certain words, a sentiment that is hard to disagree with.  This, predictably, has earned him the malice of the regressive/Marxist left; which means he's doing something right.

From there, his truths have earned him, last I checked, a $50,000.00 per month Patreon income, which is breathtaking, and he never misses a chance to shill for his Future Authoring program, which is a glorified journal-writing project, which is right in my wheelhouse.  I dislike this one thing about Peterson, that he shills for this program on every interview he does, and it is, in essence, Ira Progoff's Intensive Journaling program repackaged, and I've never heard Peterson credit Progoff.  Most of the time I think Peterson is sincere, and I think he has the scholarly chops, so let's just say I object to the shilling, and I think he's ripped off Ira Progoff without giving him credit.  Leave it at that.

I digress.  Peterson, it appears, has struck a chord with males, young males, and I'm not sure what to make of that beyond speculation, and I don't feel up to speculating at present (maybe some other time).  Leave it at, Peterson has struck a chord with white males, and they are paying him for his services, and his message is positive, to clean up your room.  To go out there and do something.  To stop complaining.  To make a choice between giving up and getting going.  It is all good stuff, and it has indeed struck a chord with me.  Namely, this word functional.

I spent years, several years, mired in nihilism, which I still regard as about as true a philosophical stance as I can articulate.  I can't see how anything matters, at all, and I see no compelling reason to go on living, for all that it seems to matter.  Thomas Ligotti's book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, is, for my money, about as succinct and dead-on book of philosophy I've ever found, and I chafe at writing that, but it is true, as I see it.  (Back to that slippery word.)  Ligotti's conspiracy is that we are told at every turn that life matters, and that we ought to be positive.  Ligotti is, in many ways, the antithesis of Jordan Peterson.  I guess my encounter with Peterson was a necessary collision of ideas because I can verify that nihilism, or pessimism as put by Ligotti, is pretty much a non-starter.  I think it is essentially true that there's no real meaning to be had in life, and that all meaning we are able to find is just manufactured, no better than a self-sustained, self-perpetuated delusion.  As near as I can tell, the only meaning I'm likely to generate is in my relationships with the people I care about, who are all going to turn to dust, and I near as I can tell, a mere 40 years after my death my children will die, and it all just adds up to nothing.

I think all of that is true.

Peterson's functional truth I like much better, even if it isn't true.  (I'm just as confused as you are likely to be at this point.)  Meaning here, that Ligotti's truth doesn't help.  It keeps me from getting out of bed in the morning.  It keeps me from carrying on.  Life may add up to nothing, but I am in fact alive, so here I am.  Might as well do something.  But what should I do?  Peterson's emphasis on mythology comes into play here, that the hero in every story goes on some kind of quest, encounters hardships, and wins something from the effort.  Ligotti would see this as probably something to do, but essentially meaningless.  I see it that way, too, but I want to buy into Peterson's functional truth nonetheless.  It is, in the truest sense, better than nothing.

All of this has added up to my reevaluating the stories of the Bible, teaching them to my children, and forgetting about Harris' objective truth.  It isn't all that useful to me anymore.  I've grown past the stage of rejecting them because they are fantastic, and they are, and they ought to be rejected in that sense, that one can't stuff every animal onto a wooden boat.  I'd forgotten the value of a figurative reading of those texts, yet the sorts of truth that one can find in a figurative, light-hearted reading are good enough, and functional.  A friend of mine, just a few days ago, whose wife up and left him after fourteen years, and who, seems to be rolling with the punches much better than I ever did, told me, "Be Still and know I am God."  Fuck yes, I thought.  Let the woman do what woman seem compelled to do in their middle age nowadays, and know it is going to be all right.  Let God handle the worrying.  That seems to be working for my friend, and that's true enough.

All of this is just to say, a mere two years ago I was Sam Harris.  Nowadays, I'm Jordan Peterson.  I'm the hero of my own myth.  Better than nothing.

Monday, November 6, 2017

On Forgiveness and Stoic Pity

We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead? --Epictetus
 The concepts of forgiveness and stoic pity have lately been on my mind, especially pity and how it is a somewhat different concept than I'm used to in a stoic context.  In the quote above, Epictetus seems to recommend pity instead of anger when it comes to how we think about those who have wronged us.  That contradicts, or seems to contradict, what I had previously thought about pity, and had let be my final word about pity, that pity was a base emotion that elevated the one who pities over the one pitied, and that it cheapened both parties.  If I'm not mistaken, that's how Nietzsche described pity, and I was comfortable with that description, and the matter was settled for me.  Don't pity people.

As I've delved into the writings of the stoics, I came across the view of pity as described by Epictetus, who again, seems to see it as a better emotion compared to anger.  And this view has resonated with me, especially when it comes to my ex-partner.  I've been looking for a means to feel better about her, not for her benefit, but for mine, that experiencing so many negative emotions about her was poisoning me, the anger and resentment and disgust she had inspired me to carry around with me like some rotting corpse slung across my shoulders, heavy and stinking.  She'd robbed me, mainly of time . . . of time with my children, of time I'd spent building something with her, of my family, and she embarrassed and humiliated me and I think herself, and she continues to live a life that is beneath her . . . et cetera.  And again, this was anger and resentment that was stinking up my life, to the point that I felt as though people around me, like when I was grocery shopping, could smell the aura of resentment around me.

In that sense, surely pity is the better emotion, though it probably isn't the best.  I'm not sure Epictetus is so much praising pity, but saying that it is preferable to anger when it comes to people who are lost, and indeed, don't even seem to recognize how lost they are.  People who aren't guided by philosophy, but by their own irrational impulses.  At my best, I try to let philosophy be my guide, and stoicism has been indispensable to me as I've made the attempt.  Pity being better than anger, I worked to make that trade.  It isn't easy.

Let me delve into this a bit differently.  In my previous ideas about pity, that it was base and ought to be avoided, I would think about someone who had it worse than me, like say a homeless man.  Pitying a homeless man was problematic because:

  1. I'm not better than a homeless man.
  2. I can imagine losing everything and becoming a homeless man.
  3. If I were homeless, I wouldn't want anyone's pity.   
  4. A homeless man, in some senses, has a lot more freedom than I do.  He isn't bound to his things, and doesn't have debts.
Or maybe a woman dying of cancer:
  1. I am not better than a woman dying of cancer.
  2. I, too, will one day die.
  3. I, too, have and will experience horrible pain.
  4. She is closer to ending all suffering than I am, at least that I am not today wasting away with sickness.  
But what about thieves and robbers?  Epictetus isn't talking about those who might more typically be thought about as the those who receive pity, but those who are healthy and active, those who act in ways that wrong and harm other people.  In other words, people who might more typically be the subjects hatred, not pity.  This seems to be a crucial turn.  These are people who are out of sync with the universe, or with God's will, as the stoics might say.  They would say that our highest aim ought to be aspiring to the nature of God(s), and that would be to live according to virtue, and that would be to serve others, as I understand it.  

I've found some relief in pity for she who wronged me and stole from me, so that I could take that hatred and anger and transmute it into something that wasn't so putrid and poisonous, not because I want to help her, but because I want to experience fewer negative emotions and find some tranquility.  To live as a stoic, as it were.  And I think that application of pity is a stone's throw from achieving forgiveness, and that is certainly a goal of mine with regard to she who stole, again, not for her benefit, but for mine; I want to find a way to let the past be the past.  

In application, once I started to embrace pity, I started saying these words aloud, quite to myself (talking to myself I'll treat another time, maybe, but suffice it to say that I have found much benefit from that practice):
I love you.  I am sorry.  I forgive you.
I said it even though it was counter-intuitive, and I didn't want to say it at all.  It felt wrong to say it, especially the I love you and the I forgive you.  It felt like I was giving her something she didn't deserve.  Aren't we supposed to punish thieves?  That seems to be the dominant sentiment in our culture.  But I have changed my mind; I think that sentiment is wrongheaded and misguided.  We ought to do what we can to protect ourselves from thieves (or is to protect our belongings?), but I'm no longer convinced the imprisoning of such people ought to be motivated by the desire to punish them.  This, again, seems a bit counter-intuitive to me; nevertheless, the impulse to punish is fueled by anger, perhaps the most negative of negative emotions, and therefore ought to be managed if not avoided.

And so, I keep saying it.  Still today, two years after she moved out, I feel anger every day at some point.  Not like two years ago in which I lived in almost perpetual anger, but at least once a day anger will invade, and I say the words:
I love you.  I am sorry.  I forgive you.  
And my anger is dismissed for another day. It is a practice, and it helps, and it started when I encountered Epictetus and revised my ideas about pity.