Sunshine Recorder

Link: Philosophy of Captivity

Lori Gruen is a leading feminist philosopher who asks deep questions about the ethics of captivity, ethics, animals and what we’re doing to nature. She thinks that human exceptionalism is a prejudice, that considering marginal cases helpful in seeing why, is skeptical about intuitions about far fetched cases digging up important ethical insights, that two big issues concerning ethics and animals are captivity and industrial animal agriculture, thinks ecotourism is complicated, has problems with holisic approaches to environmental ethics, thinks women have it tough, that the ethics of captivity are both complex and have had little philosophical treatment, that self-direction matters when considering how we treat animals, that ideas of a wild free of human management is unrealistic, and that some captivity is necessary. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

3:AM: A recent book of yours looks at ethics and animals. You begin by looking at the position of human exceptionalism, something that goes back to at least Aristotle. What is the position, and is it a kind of default position for those who just don’t think we should think about animals ethically?

LG: Human exceptionalism is a prejudice that not only sees humans as different from other animals but that also sees humans as better than other animals. Of course humans are unique in a variety of ways, although those differences are often articulated based on naïve views about other animals. In Ethics and Animals, I explore some of the claims that have been made to differentiate humans from other animals (that we are the only beings that use tools or that use language or that have a theory of mind) and show that they do not establish that humans are unique in the ways postulated. But I also discuss the ways that other animals are indeed different from us and different from each other. These differences are important for understanding them and for promoting, or at least not negatively impacting, their well being. 

Human exceptionalism also underlies skepticism about including other animals in the sphere of moral concern. It is related to two other views that are discussed more often in the literature about moral considerability – speciesism and anthropocentrism. Speciesism is the view that I only owe moral consideration to members of my own species. Although this view is usually thought to be focused on humans, it seems consistent with the view that only Vulcans matter to members of that species, or only orangutans matter to that species. Anthopocentrism is the view that humans are at the center of everything and that everything is understood through our human interpretive lenses. Of course we humans experience everything as humans, so in some sense humans are necessarily the center of our own perceptions, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to try to understand or care about non-humans. There is a sense in which we are inevitable anthropocentrists, but we needn’t be human exceptionalists. 

Human exceptionalism sees humans as the only beings worthy of moral concern. Normative exceptionalist arguments generally fail in one of two ways—they pick out a supposedly unique characteristic or property upon which moral worth is supposed to supervene but it turns out that either not all humans have that property or that humans aren’t the only ones that have it. 

3:AM: Are marginal cases relevant?

LG: And this is why marginal cases are relevant. If there are some humans who do not have the morally valuable traits that the human exceptionalist prize, but they are nonetheless included in the group of those who do have the traits, then this suggests that it isn’t that trait that is morally important, but species membership. But membership in a species isn’t morally interesting and assigning moral significance to membership in a species amounts to a prejudice in favor of those thought to be in one’s group. I myself am uncomfortable with the “marginal” cases terminology, but it is a remnant of the human exceptionalist view that promotes the idea that all humans fit neatly into a category based on morally worthy properties that only humans share, when there are no such properties.

3:AM: Why is the ethical case about animals so important? If you want to stop people being nasty to animals then aren’t there things other than morals you could or should appeal to? Couldn’t taste do the job ie we ought squash bugs because it’s disgusting? Or it’s unfashionable now, so nineteenth century etc?

LG: The magnitude of the harms done to animals is almost incomprehensible — 60 billion suffer before they are slaughtered for food in global industrial agricultural production annually and that contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, which in turn is wreaking havoc on animal habitats on land and in the sea. When we also consider the additional threats that other animals face from human activities, it becomes clearer that the problems are structural and remedies cannot solely rely on individual tastes. But there are some really hard philosophical questions about what, if anything, individuals can do to help curtail these harms. 

Consider what sometimes gets called the “impotence problem.” When one goes out to eat and orders bbq chicken rather than a veggie burger, the chicken isn’t slaughtered-to-order, so buying the veggie burger doesn’t save any particular chicken’s life. It seems that whatever one orders, it doesn’t really have an effect either way on whether chickens suffer and die in food production. But surely individual actions must have some impact since if everybody abstained from eating chickens that would make a very large difference to very large number of chickens. This is one sort of problem Derek Parfit discusses in Reasons and Persons and Shelley Kagan and others have taken up by considering the impacts of our choices on other animals. Though I won’t rehearse some of the proposed solutions to the problem here, what I want to mention is that when we are exploring the bad consequences of complex systems, ethical and political analyses are crucial.

In saying that, I don’t want to completely dismiss the role that taste and disgust can play in perhaps making people aware of an ethical problem and motivating and sustaining people to stop harming others. But to my mind, taste and disgust, which are themselves shaped by cultural and social norms as well as idiosyncratic personal histories, are not particularly reliable and in the face of mass harms and injustice, are not always helpful.

3:AM: How important is it for people arguing for animals to be treated ethically to know what is happening to them? Your book is really full of information about this – is there a sense that you feel people who resist the ethical stance are ignorant of current problems?

LG: I’ve always been puzzled by the way that some moral philosophers create extraordinarily far fetched examples and then ask us to see what sorts of intuitions we have about these cases. I am skeptical that any intuitions we might dig up contain important ethical insights. But I’m also puzzled by those who argue from abstract general principles, for example, about the unethical treatment of causing other animals to suffer or fail to flourish, without knowing many details about particular animals and what might constitute their well-being. Having specific details are crucial for making ethical judgments. So, I think we should try to engage in some version of the process Rawls’ called reflective equilibrium in which we consider the details as we understand them (and we should also be reflective about what we see as details to start with), our intuitions, and our more general ethical and political commitments. 

Having details about the general treatment of other animals combined with particular cases promotes the reflective process. But there is more needed than just knowing what is happening to them. I think an under theorized part of our ethical lives relationships – what relationships are we in, what is the nature and quality of those relationships, and what obligations those relationships generate? Once we see that we are in relationships with specific animal others and come to understand how our actions impact individuals and their conspecifics, we can view our responsibility or complicity differently. Nobody wants to be in a bad relationship, so part of what I do in my work is include descriptions of these relationships in ways that allow for re-consideration.

One of the central ideas that I have been developing is what I call “entangled empathy” which is a type of moral perception directed at attending to the well-being of others. Very briefly, the “entanglement” part of the idea is based on a recognition that we are in all sorts of inextricable relationships with one another. The “empathy” part is not the standard form of moral emotion often discussed in the literature, but rather it refers to a perceptive skill that involves affect and cognition. Entangled empathy is developed by having a fuller picture of what is happening to others, coming to discern what the interests of others may be, imagining how those interests are experienced, and figuring out how our actions directly and indirectly impact another’s well-being. 

3:AM: So what are some of the key contemporary issues that help mobilise ethical arguments towards animals?

LG: There are two current issues – captivity and industrial animal agriculture — that have generated a lot of attention to animals of late and that have lead to questions about our obligations to them, to ourselves, and to the rest of nature. The issue of keeping animals captive in zoos and aquaria has become a pressing topic again. The movie Blackfish that looks behind the scenes at Sea World, the plight of elephants and polar bears suffering in unnatural conditions in zoos, and the practice of publicly killing animals at zoos in Europe have lead to renewed discussion of questions about liberty, conservation, individual well-being vs. species protection, and reproductive freedom. (see my oup blog and Ethics of Captivity).

In addition, as concerns about climate change become more pressing, awareness of the destructive contribution from industrialized food production has lead many people to reevaluate what they eat. The United Nations conservatively estimates that roughly 18% of the total greenhouse gases emitted come from industrialized livestock production, more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportion—planes, trains, and cars—combined. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made an explicit call urging individuals to “Please eat less meat—meat is a very carbon intensive commodity… .”
More people are giving up animal products once they recognize that personal taste can’t justify harms to other animals, the environment, and future generations. Of course, as human populations grow and wealth accumulates, more animals then ever before are being threatened and killed. Ethical arguments that convince individuals only go so far and there is a dire need for ethical engagement that can impact policy.

3:AM: You take a nuanced approach to ecotourism? Why not condemn it outright?

LG: Ecotourism is a complicated issue. On the one hand there are places where ecotourism has raised awareness of the complex ethical issues that arise in contexts in which animal well-being, environmental protection, and human flourishing come into direct conflict and ecotourism provides one mechanism for minimizing these conflicts. It also often motivates the “tourists” to work on behalf of protecting wild animals and their habitats. Coming face to face (so to speak) with an animal in her natural environment can deepen one’s sense of responsibility. On the other hand, ecotourism has the potential to further instrumentalize other animals and perpetuate problematic arrogant attitudes about human relationships with the more than human world. I don’t think a sound ethical judgment can be made about ecotourism unless the context is fully explored.

3:AM: You are unhappy with holistic approaches to environmental ethics. First of all, can you say what you mean by ‘holistic’ in this context, and who are the main proponents?

LG: Holism in environmental ethics is the view that value lies in whole systems rather than individual parts of the system or particular members of the community.  Aldo Leopold, a holist who developed “the land ethic,” argued that an action is right when it preserves and protects “the integrity, stability, and beauty” of an ecological community because integrity, stability, and beauty are the locus of value. In Ethics and Animals, I explore the complicated issue of anthropogenic extinctions through the lens of holism in the hopes that it might provide an answer to the question of why species are valuable. Holists view extinctions as, what one prominent holist, Holmes Rolston III, calls superkillings. Holists find that the value of species is more than the sum of the welfare of individual members of the species. The holist view allows that the death of individual members of a species would be justified if those deaths led to the betterment of the species as a whole and, by extension, the preservation of the species. 

3:AM: So what is the problem?

LG: There are a number of problems with holism of this sort. But my main worry is that they have a limited view of how to value nature. Holists tend to think we either value nature instrumentally, which for them amounts to not valuing nature at all, or intrinsically, where value attaches either to individuals or to collectives. But nature can be valued in a variety of ways; we can value both collectives and individuals; we can value things as means to ends (like money); we can value things as ultimate ends (much as we value our companions, partners, or children); and we can value things as neither ultimate ends nor mere means, but rather as constitutive of other things that we value (perhaps, freedom of choice and privacy are such things.). Some values lie between means values and ends values and, while it makes ethical analysis tricky, that may be the most sensible way to address tricky conflicts.

We could argue that species have value that doesn’t reduce simply to the cumulative well being of each individual member of the species, but that value doesn’t transcend the members either. There is value in the relations that the existence of the collective allows to be realized. For example, the well-being of most animals, particularly social animals, relies centrally on their ability to develop relations with others of their kind, to learn species-typical behaviors, to develop specific cultures, to communicate, to hunt, to play. Individual flourishing, in humans and other animals, crucially depends on a sustaining and sustainable context much larger than the individual, and thus valuing the individual necessitates valuing the whole within which the individual makes her life meaningful. Of course, that meaningful life is of value too.

3:AM: Things are particularly toxic for women across the globe at the moment. What are contemporary feminisms arguing to combat this situation?

LG: I don’t think things are any worse now than they have always been, sadly, I just think with social media and 24/7 news we are hearing more about various manifestations of gender oppression and violence. Women and other marginal groups are being impacted in different ways now — for example, climate change and food scarcity will affect women and children first and harder than it will affect men initially. The arguments that feminists have long been making for equality and respect are rooted in an analysis of the indefensibility of exercises of unearned privilege, e.g. male privilege, white privilege, class privilege. Feminist philosophers and theorists continue to draw attention to the social construction of social categories that have been naturalized. We try to reveal the logic of domination that allows members of one group to create social structures that favor themselves while at the same time creating or perpetuating social structures that disadvantage “others.” One of the strengths of contemporary feminist thinking about privilege and domination comes from increased attention to intersecting oppressions – the complex ways in which gender, gender non-conformity, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and I would suggest species as well, interact to generate very specific forms of injustice. Attention to intersecting oppressions complicates thinking about how we might achieve more just social arrangements and it has the potential to bring together groups that those with power have worked to keep apart and at odds.

3:AM: And in philosophy departments also there are big issues. There have been a few high profile cases recently. As a philosopher what is like from the inside, what do you think the reason is for academic philosophy being so poor in this respect and are there things that should be done? 

LG: The high profile cases within philosophy departments are focused on sexual harassment and sexual predation. It is so important that women who are being harassed are speaking out. For too long that wasn’t the case and I think part of the reason women are speaking out now is because there are many philosophers of all genders who are working to make changes in the profession so victims of sexual harassment feel they will be supported. I do worry a bit that the focus on sexual harassment in the profession has obscured the more day in and day out sexism that exists in philosophy.

I think the fact that the situation is so bad for women and minorities in the profession is, in some sense, over-determined. Old stereotypical views about women and scholars of color are still prevalent, if not as overt as they once were, and stereotype threat still operates. I have heard from more than a few students and colleagues that they have to spend energy battling the idea that they are “imposters” or “aren’t smart enough.” There is very little philosophical work by women or minority philosophers taught in most philosophy classes so for women students and students of color to pursue philosophy they have to have a deep passion as well as courage, we usually don’t just “fall into” philosophy. One of the things I love about philosophy but I know drives non-philosophers a bit crazy is how we have a habit of trying to understand and explain things in great detail. Given this habit and that the majority of faculty are men in almost all philosophy departments, the phenomena popularly referred to as “mansplaining” is thus rather common and can subtly shape the climate.

There is a lot going on to try to remedy these problems. Changing what is taught in undergraduate courses; working to avoid conferences or edited volumes that only include men (see the gendered conference campaign); and talking more openly about what positive changes can be made to create more inclusive environments in individual departments and philosophy as a whole all are promising developments. But these changes will take time and require vigilance. As a profession, we have a long way to go.

3:AM: In your new book on captivity – which looks at both human and non-human captivity and the issues that arise – there are some examples that might strike some as strange, such as the inclusion of pets. Some might thinks that including pets in discussions about captivity takes us away from crucial examples, such as prisons and zoos? Do pets raise interesting issues at the margins that help bring into sharper focus what the issues are around captivity?

LG: The ethical issues around captivity are remarkably complex and it is surprising how little philosophical attention has been paid to them. You are right to think that prisons and zoos raise the most obvious issues –the individuals that are held captive in these environments are there against their wills, they endure a wide variety of restrictions on their liberty, and they are under the control of their captors. But when we describe captivity as a condition in which a competent adult is confined and controlled and is reliant on those in control to satisfy her basic needs, it becomes clearer that there are many captive environments beyond prisons and zoos, environments that are not ordinarily thought of in those terms.

When we start thinking about pets or “companion animals” as captives then we may start reflecting in new ways on how we treat them. Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe wrote a provocative chapter in the book that questions the received wisdom that routinely confining cats indoors promotes their well-being. Cats may be happy with our affections and their lives may be longer if we keep them safe indoors, but there is a loss here, to their freedom to go where they want and interact with and shape their larger environment. 

In captive contexts, the trade-offs, between safety and freedom, protection and choice, are often obscured. For example, in the US, over 2 million people are incarcerated and not only are they denied freedom but their families and communities are impoverished in the name of social “safety” which is often illusory. Within prisons too, as two of the chapters in the book vividly illustrate, autonomy and basic respect are sacrificed in the name of safety and security. Comparing various kinds of captive institutions provides an opportunity to analyze the language of “safety” and reveals its strategic use in obscuring the loss of other valuable things. 

Seeing pets as captives, I think, does bring some of the complexities of captivity into sharper focus.

3:AM: At first it seems obvious that conditions of captivity are really important – but then again, even a well looked after slave is still a slave – and no one is going to use the conditions as a justification in that kind of case are they? So where do you stand on this – how far should we be interested in conditions of captivity?

LG: One justification for keeping individuals captive has been that captivity is better for them. In the context of companion animals and zoo animals, for example, one often hears that they will live longer lives and they won’t have to worry about injury or predation or hunger. The sense is that they are better off having lost their freedom. The same sorts of justifications were also heard in the case of slaves. Captors wanted to believe that slaves were better off, became more civilized, more human, because of their captivity. Of course, this is odious in the case of human beings, and there are some who argue that this attitude is equally objectionable in the case of other animals.

Comparing captivity to a type of slavery, some animal advocates are opposed to all forms of captivity, even keeping pets. They take the label “abolitionist” as a way of linking their views to earlier abolitionist struggles to end slavery.

But I think our relationships with other animals (of course humans, but also nonhumans) are a central part of what makes lives meaningful. Rather than thinking we must end all captivity and thus all our relationships with other animals, we’d do better working to improve those relationships by being more perceptive of and more responsive to others’ needs and interests and sensibilities. Since we are already, inevitably, in relationships, rather than ending them we might try to figure out how to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Importantly, by recognizing that we are inevitably in relationships to other animals, replete with vulnerability, dependency, and even some instrumentalization, and working to understand and improve these relationships, I’m not condoning exploitation. Acknowledging that we are in relationships doesn’t mean that all relationships are equally defensible or should stay as they are. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change.

And this is where an exploration of conditions of captivity and the complexity of the individual captives’ interests comes in. Some animals, like whales and elephants, cannot thrive in captive conditions. As much as we might want to have closer relationships with them, it isn’t good for them. Others, like dogs and chimpanzees, can live meaningful lives in captivity but only if the conditions they are captive in are conducive to their flourishing and they are respected. Part of the problem with captivity is the relationship of domination that it tends to maintain. By re-evaluating captivity (and for many in our non-ideal situation, there is no real alternative) we can start to ask questions about whether and how captive conditions can, while denying certain freedoms, still promote the dignity of the captives.

3:AM: Putting a wasp in a jar seems less bad than putting a chimp in a cage. Does this intuition track anything ethical?

LG: The loss of freedom has different implications for different individuals within the same species and for members of other species. Usually, denying individuals their liberty negatively impacts the quality of their lives, but this can happen in two ways. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are important because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated can’t follow their desires. Putting the wasp in a jar and putting a chimpanzee in a cage denies them both freedom of movement and the freedom to get what they want.
But perhaps what underlies the intuition that it is worse to make a chimpanzee captive than to confine a wasp is the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the chimpanzee who values her freedom, not just instrumentally because of what it gets her, but because it is constitutive of her well-being. This may sound odd, but I think from what is now known about chimpanzee cognition, the boredom and frustration that accompanies captivity and the documented need for environmental, emotional, social, and intellectual enrichment suggests that chimpanzees do value their freedom. The process of satisfying one’s own interests and correcting one’s self when she changes her mind or makes bad choices are part of what makes a life a good life for beings who have these sorts of cognitive capacities. I believe chimpanzees can do these things, so it makes sense to think that they, like us, value their freedom more than just instrumentally.

And its not just chimpanzees. Many other animals are self-directed, adapt to changing circumstances, make choices and resist changes, and improve their environments, often through collective action. Other animals learn from conspecifics and modify what they learn to suit themselves and their needs. Not all animals in a social group do exactly the same things, eat exactly the same things, or spend time with the same individuals. They are making independent choices. There are species-typical behavioral repertoires that constrain an individual’s absolute expression of this their autonomy, but none of us is ever completely free of constraints. So I think there are a lot of other animals for whom captivity is ethically problematic because it violates their autonomy, but probably not wasps.
But, maybe I just don’t know enough about wasps.

3:AM: Some animals wouldn’t exist if they weren’t in captivity. How do we decide whether species death or life is morally justified?

LG: There is a long-standing debate about the conservationist justification for keeping animals captive rather than let them go extinct. Some have argued that we shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of the one for the good of the many. But I confess, I’m vexed by the hard questions of extinction and also worry about whether “we” can make much useful difference.

In Ethics and Animals I recount the story of the dwindling existence of rhinoceros. I wrote about the death of one of the rarest large mammals on the planet, the Javan rhinoceros who was found shot dead in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park. The rhino was shot by poachers so they could to take the horn. At the time, conservation authorities said there are only three to five Javan rhinos left in Vietnam. In 2013, they were declared extinct. Also last year, the Western Black rhino was declared extinct. Elephants, orangutans, tigers, and a host of other less “charismatic” animals will not be around (outside of zoos and preserves) for much longer.

If there were a way to hold some individuals in ideal captive conditions in the hopes of reintroducing them to the wild in order to avoid extinction that might justify captivity. But that is no longer realistic. In fact, the very idea that there is a “wild” free of human management is itself unrealistic. One of the new ways of thinking about what used to be considered a choice between individuals in captivity and wild populations free of human interference, is to recognize that all endangered or threatened animals are in some sense already in captivity – not in zoos, but rather in conditions in which they have their freedom managed and controlled.

3:AM: There are lots of reasons for captivity that aren’t ethical – practical, aesthetic, taste, politics, emotive and so on – so do you think the ethical reason must always override these other possible reasons?

LG: This question bumps up against discussions about the scope and nature of ethical reasoning. I have sympathies with broadly consequentialist answers to this sort of question — the divisions between types of reasons can be helpful for a variety of purposes, but basically whatever divisions one makes, we can evaluate reasons in ethical terms. So if I have a taste for hamburgers, the production of which causes intense suffering, my aesthetic desire for burgers can be evaluated on ethical grounds. It may be politically expedient to disproportionately stop and frisk black youth, but the implications of acting on reasons of expedience can be evaluated ethically. 

Captivity is the same way. In fact, in many instances, the only thing to do is keep some individuals captive. My own interest in the ethics of captivity arose in my working with captive chimpanzees almost a decade ago. I felt truly conflicted about the fact that these incredibly smart, sociable, often charming, always complicated, individuals had to spend their lives (some live to be 50-60) in captivity. Many of the chimpanzees I know are 5th or 6th generation captives. Chimpanzee habitats are being decimated and the fastest growing populations of captive chimpanzees are in Africa, in native range countries for chimpanzees, where they are orphaned due to bush meat hunting and forest destruction. So even if it was possible to teach individuals who have only known captivity to survive outside of captivity, there really isn’t a safe place to release them. This raised a genuine moral dilemma – any thing we do, release them or hold them captive, can be considered wrong. So that lead me to thinking about whether and how we could minimize the ethical costs of captivity. 

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM are there five books (other than your own) you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

LG: I know many of those you interview have a hard time coming up with only five books and I’m having a hard time too. There are so many important books in practical ethics and social and political philosophy, but here are five books that have been important to my current thinking –Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger, Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat, edited by Cheshire Calhoun.

Françoise Hardy - Message Personnel 

Link: How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,”Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation“let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.
Brian Jay Stanley, We Love Our Life in the Wrong Order (via missfolly)

(Source:, via astranemus)

Link: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty's Strange Looping Trick

(This is a modified excerpt from the epilogue of my book, Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything, a book which is itself intended to be one big looping trick.)

Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, and dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.

The Loop and Wittgenstein’s Ladder

In my first year of college, I started reading Douglass Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In this book, Hofstadter explores the paradoxical notion of a “strange loop” a sort of geometric structure and abstract concept illustrated by the art of M.C. Escher. What is a strange loop? Hofstadter describes it thusly:

The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.

Famously, it can be seen in the ever-ascending staircases drawn by Escher.

Here, my concern is philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but somewhat surprisingly, there are quite a few of these sorts of philosophers in the philosophical tradition, and they are rather interesting.

When one says “unsystematic philosopher,” there is one person that pops into most philosophers’ minds: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Largely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein thought there should be no philosophical theories. Such theories, he thought, only arose because of conceptual confusions. Ironically, however (an irony he well realized), Wittgenstein could not express this anti-philosophical thought without doing philosophy, and so his philosophy on his philosophy ended up coming out quite loopy. One of the best explicit explanations of loopy philosophy comes from Wittgenstein.

If the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place that I have to get to is a place I must already be at now.

Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.

Now, of course, if the place he is trying to get to is where he already is, then any of the positive steps forward he takes must undo themselves. And thus, one of the concluding remarks of his first great philosophical work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, is the following:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

But where has he climbed? Well, just like the people climbing Escher’s self-connecting staircase, he has climbed right to the place where he began! Strangely, that’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who thinks that no philosophical theses should be advanced. Where would we expect to go? In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aim, at least in his early work, we might say is to loop philosophy, fitting it all into his system, then showing why his system is nonsense, thus showing why all of it is nonsense. The aim here, many commentators argue, is to inspire a sort of philosophical quietism. That is, to get us to all stop spewing philosophical nonsense and just shut up already.

Though the Early Wittgenstein is, in a strong sense, philosophically loopy, he is not an existentiallyloopy philosopher. That is, he doesn’t wrap himself and his personal ambitions up in the loop as well (at least not explicitly).  The next three thinkers I’ll talk about, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty, do just that.


Nāgārjuna is arguably the most important Buddhist thinker after the Buddha himself. His philosophy is called the philosophy of the “middle way.” In his central philosophical text, theMūlamadhyamakakārikā (I’m not going to even pretend like I know how to pronounce that, but it means “The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”), he entertains what he takes to be all the possible philosophical views, rejects them all, and then rejects the philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views. This last part is quite important.

First, let’s take a look at this verse:

To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism,
To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism:
Being and non-being,
The wise cling not to either.

Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place. Consider this verse:

Everything is real, or not real,
Or real and not real
Or neither real nor not real;
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

I might add a bit, just for fun: Or neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real …  or neither neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real nor neither real nor not real andreal and not real. And we could do this on and on, ad infinitum, but I think you get the point. In short, there is absolutely no philosophical claim about how things actually are being put forward here, since there is always an equally legitimate meta-claim, the negation of that claim, that could be put forward as well. And thus, Nāgārjuna arrives at the view of “emptiness,” the view that one can’t hold as a view. If you hold it as a view, you miss the whole point. Nāgārjuna writes,

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

To this, you want to say, “But you just said a whole bunch of stuff about how emptiness is the rightview!” And then it hits you: if emptiness is the right view, it can’t be the right view. It’s one giant paradox! Of course, this would be a problem for any view that was proposing itself as the truth of the matter, but Nāgārjuna isn’t proposing his philosophy as a system which captures the “truth of the matter,” even though it might seem that way. His philosophical position isn’t really a position at all. Rather, it’s a sort of philosophical act aimed at catapulting the reader into liberation.

What’s most interesting in reading Nāgārjuna isn’t really the particular philosophical views that he goes about rejecting, but the general strategy of having an all-encompassing philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views and then rejects itself. What Nāgārjuna is trying to do here is toloop the reader into enlightenment. In the Wittgenstein passage I mentioned earlier, he attempts to loop the reader into philosophical quietism. Nāgārjuna’s goal is a bit loftier, but, like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna does not provide the reader with any new philosophical theory. He rejects all views, but, without putting any opposing view in place, he leaves the reader right where they started.

This notion ended up becoming a common feature of much of Buddhist thought. We can see it arising again in the Zen Master Ch’ing-Yuan’s famous aphorism,

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

Philosophically, we’ve gone in a circle. Everything was undone, just for that undoing to be undone itself. The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.


Now let’s fast forward a millennium and a half, and move one continent westward. Our next thinker, Nietzsche, is a bit more of an unsettled soul than Nāgārjuna. Looking at Nietzsche will allow us to get some serious existential context for the loopiness just described.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical metaphors which comes from his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, is that of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysius and their distinct forms of life. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the Sun god, the god of light and reason. Above all, Apollomakes things clear and gives things form. On the other hand, we have Dionysius, the god of wine and ritual madness. For Dionysius, the world is a drunken blur, a primordial dance-party of sorts. The Apollonian and Dionysian each embody a tightly connected personal and metaphysical outlook on things, and we can see these distinct outlooks come out in some seemingly at-odds passages in Nietzsche’s work.

Consider first, Nietzsche’s notion of Giving Style, a sort of self-art that is “practiced by those who survey everything in their nature offers in the way of strengths and weakness, and then fit them all into an artistic plan.” Giving style is something that Apollo would do. It’s a way of making sense, artistic sense, of oneself. But here, we have a problem. In making oneself into a work of art, there is a sense in which one has created himself, but there is also a sense in which one has lost himself. One is always outside of their present self—an artistic projection. The downfall of the Apollonian is the realization that his whole world is an illusion, a mere dream.

Now consider the opposing notion of Amor Fati, the Latin phrase for “love of fate.” Endorsing this state, Nietzsche says, “I do not want to wage any war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers.” In this state, one has lost himself in a different sense. There is nothing to distinguish oneself from others. One has merged into the formless “Primordial Oneness” of reality. Now, this isn’t a problem for someone if they are perfectly content to blend into the primordial oneness, but the artistically inclined will be discontent here. There is no form, just flow, and, in that flow, anything distinctive about who one is completely disappears.

We might understand Amor Fati, as “dancing with the music” and Giving Style as a way of fighting against being overcome by the music in an attempt to make something of oneself. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, the flow of this music is all that there is to reality. It’s what Nietzsche called “becoming.” However, it’s in our very nature to fight against this flow, this eternal Dionysian becoming. We are the sort of beings that try to get a grip on things, including ourselves.

What are we to do once we realize this? Here’s the answer Nietzsche provides: “You shall become who you are.” When you think about it for a moment, you realize the peculiarity of this sentence. The idea of becoming implies a change, a going somewhere. And yet, the destination is right where one started because one always is what one is. Here, once again, we have stumbled into loopiness. Like Escher’s staircase on which one can walk endlessly upward and go nowhere, there is a strange circle of action in which one is both moving and staying put. This, it seems, might be the true state of becoming ourselves. It is a mesh between making something of oneself and flowing with the music. We see that struggling to make something of oneself is precisely the way in which one flows, and vice versa.

So that’s what we are? Not so fast. Here’s where the true loopiness of Nietzsche’s philosophy unveils itself: Let’s suppose that we try to identify ourselves as part of this Dionysian becoming, since that’s what Nietzsche says is really real. To do this would be to try to get a grip on ourselves, and this action is precisely the Apollonian form that we are rejecting by identifying ourselves in this flowing Dionysian sense. We’ve run into a paradox. The nature of reality is such that, in even trying to say what this nature is, we’ve already made a mistake. And so, even this statement, which is ultimately still a statement about the nature of reality, is a mistake as well.

Though the language is somewhat different, I tend to think that this is the same paradox that Nāgārjuna encounters. If we’re feeling particularly deep, we might call it the fundamental paradox of reality, or something really epic like that. This is not to say that reality is essentially paradoxical, as that would be to naively fall right into it. Rather, it is to say that the way in which we are forced to understand ultimate reality, if we do in fact try to understand it, ultimately leaves us with paradox.

However, even though they encounter the same paradox, Nāgārjuna and Nietzsche end up in radically different places. Nāgārjuna, after all, is a religious philosopher, a Buddhist, and Nietzsche is pretty deeply opposed to religious thought altogether. So why the difference? Well, it boils down to a difference in aims. Nāgārjuna’s whole point of theorizing in the first place, following the goal of the Buddha, is to alleviate suffering. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embracesthis suffering! He regards himself as a “tragic philosopher,” and tragedy, in Nietzsche’s view, is the greatest form of art. As such, Nietzsche’s philosophy is a thoroughly worldly philosophy.

But how do we resolve their metaphysical differences? The answer is that we don’t. This is because, like it or not, there isn’t really anything to resolve. Neither one of them is actually interested in taking some stand on the ultimate nature of reality. Sure, they seem to be taking a metaphysical stands of this sort, but we have to interpret this act instrumentally. Whether it is Nāgārjuna’s view of “emptiness” or Nietzsche’s view of “becoming,” the overarching metaphysical view that appears to be put forward by these two thinkers is not an end in itself, but part of an act. And what is this act? Well, it’s the greatest thing that can be done at that moment, whatever that is. For Nāgārjuna, in line with his Buddhist orientation, this is the act liberation from suffering. For Nietzsche, it is dramatic tragedy. Both Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna perform a strange looping trick in which everything comes together in its falling apart making way for the light of the unconceptualizable thing beyond.

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We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens to us.
— Epictetus

(Source: thecalminside, via absurdlakefront)

Ralston Purina Headquarters, St. Louis, Missouri, 1971 (Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum)

Ralston Purina Headquarters, St. Louis, Missouri, 1971 (Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum)

(Source: fuckyeahbrutalism, via savethelinoleum)

Link: Sex in China: An Interview with Li Yinhe

Li Yinhe is one of China’s best-known experts on sex and the family. A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she has published widely on sexual mores, women, and family issues. Li also runs a popular blog, where she has advocated for same-sex marriage and loosening restrictions on homosexuality, orgies, and sex in literature. In the 1980s, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Ph.D. in 1988, but returned to China where she was asked by China’s pioneering sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, to be one of the first post-doctoral students at Peking University. Recently retired, the sixty-two-year-old spends much of her time on the Shandong coast.

I visited Li Yinhe at her country home outside of Beijing, where we discussed some of her work and current projects, including two unpublished volumes of short stories about sado-masochism.

Ian Johnson: Why sex?

Li Yinhe: During the first thirty years of its rule, the Communist Party was anti-sex. So studying sex is controversial. Even today, my views get a big reaction online. People attack me very strongly. Even in my current book, the section on laws about sex was eliminated. You can’t publish it.

What about orgies?

I have said they should get rid of laws against orgies, and the reaction was huge. You can’t advocate that in China. [Orgies are illegal in China, with the crime known as “crowd licentiousness.”] And there’s also pornography. Even now it’s still a sexual crime. Recently a twenty-four-year-old young woman from Beijing wrote a sexually explicit novel. She sold 80,000 copies online and was arrested. It was considered pornography. The sentence was light but she still got four months of detention. Advocating against this is not okay.

Why does the party care about sex? It doesn’t challenge its power base.

They still have this idea of what’s proper or not. It’s a very traditional idea. There are two main criteria for banning books or censoring. One is black and one is yellow. Black are political issues, like you’re opposing the CCP. Yellow is sex. This hasn’t changed.

You’ve actually been studying the evolution of official attitudes toward sex.

My latest academic project is a book that will be published later this year calledSexual Discourse in New China. I’m going through all the People’s Daily [the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper] from 1949 to 2010. You can see how the rhetoric has changed about prostitution or toward AIDS, or how the Party has viewed pornographic literature. For example, during the early years after Liberation, literature couldn’t discuss love because more important issues were war, politics, and sacrifice. So love—how could you talk about such a petit bourgeois issue?

Like in the novels of Eileen Chang?

Right, exactly, these issues were considered small and petty, even evil. Later on, toward the end of the 1950s, after a period of peace, you could write about love but sex was always taboo. Then after the reforms of the 1980s it was okay to write about love and sex, but how much was allowed? There were many discussions. For example, you could write about it with humanity, or softness, but not in a wild way. They couldn’t figure out what was okay.

I met your late husband, the novelist Wang Xiaobo, a year before he died in 1997. I was struck by the fact that his novel The Golden Age (translated as Wang in Love and Bondage) discusses sex quite explicitly. Did you talk about this issue much?

Wang Xiaobo wrote about sex in a very direct way. At first it was very difficult to publish. But then when he won a prize in Taiwan it was published here. We talked a lot, of course, and he supported me a lot. When I was researching homosexuals, some men didn’t want to talk to women about it and he helped me by conducting the interviews.

In your blog you’ve advocated legalizing same-sex marriage. Is that a realistic goal in China?

The attitude toward homosexuality in China is not as absolute as in the West. At least in some earlier eras, there wasn’t an absolute opposition to it. In China it’s never been illegal or outlawed. During the Song dynasty there was a law against homosexual prostitution, but not against homosexuality in principle. It’s more something that might have been considered ridiculous but not a crime.

So the main thing was you do your duty—get married and procreate?

Yes, that’s the key. But maybe more, Chinese people’s view of sex is different than foreigners’. Chinese view it as purely a physical desire. Who your partner is—male or female—or how you express it doesn’t matter. Anal sex or things like that, they don’t think it’s bad. So from this point of view, homosexuality is not such a problem. I read a survey of attitudes about same-sex marriage in 2008: about 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely no problem and 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely wrong. But the rest—the majority—just didn’t care. By contrast, in the United States, 47 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage and 43 percent were against. Only 10 percent didn’t have a view. For the Chinese it was like this: It doesn’t have to do with me so I don’t care.

For Chinese who do oppose it, what are their reasons?

They think it’s unnatural because homosexuals can’t have children. But I think this view is slowly changing. The main hindrance is there are no rights groups. In the West, you might have members of parliament or prominent people who are gay or lesbian and they can raise the issue of same-sex marriage. In China, no one raises the issue. Most people don’t think it’s a big issue.

But there have been examples of same-sex marriages.

A couple of years ago, the Chinese press carried sympathetic stories of a same-sex wedding. Everyone in the village was out to help them celebrate and photos circulated online. If you see those sorts of stories and photos, you’d assume it was legal. But that’s only what’s known as a folk-style wedding. It’s a big banquet and party but the Ministry of Civil Affairs doesn’t give you a marriage certificate. If you go there, the officials say, “No no, it’s impossible.” People have gone there on purpose and asked. The officials’ attitude was good; they said, “Ah, we’d like to help and approve this but the law doesn’t allow it.”

When was China’s marriage law passed?

In 1950. It was one of the first laws promulgated after the Communist takeover. It’s been revised a few times: in 1980 and 2000. In 2000, the National People’s Congress legal affairs committee asked experts for advice and I was interviewed. I said they should allow same-sex marriage but the legal affairs committee said, “Do we really need this? Why do we have to be at the forefront of it?” I said, “We’re not at the forefront.” In 2000, there were already five countries that had legalized same-sex marriage, but they said, “There’s no need.”

Are official attitudes toward sexuality also a reflection of earlier Chinese traditions?

I would divide Chinese sexual history into three very broad eras. In early traditional China, Chinese didn’t have that many prejudices. The view was that sex was the “harmony of yin and yang.” It was natural. Male and female together was a good thing, especially if it led to having children, because in traditional China children were so important. The second phase started around the Song dynasty (960-1279) The state began to emphasize purity and looked at things more from a perspective of virtue. There was a sense of antipathy toward sex. This period continued through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing were quite anti-sex. Under the previous dynasty, prostitution was not illegal. But starting in the Qing, officials were not allowed to engage prostitutes. Then in 1949, when the Communist Party took over, they forbid it. The pinnacle of this era was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Women and men mostly wore the same clothes and sex was almost purged from public view.

The third era is the start of the reform years [beginning in 1978]. Sex could be a good thing and wasn’t a crime. New ideas were introduced as well, such as sexual rights. This is something that the first phase didn’t have.

What about women’s rights under the Communist Party? Has progress been illusory?

It’s definitely better than it was before 1949. It started in the 1950s, when all people—male or female—were asked to participate in the workforce. In the past it was “outward affairs handled by men, household affairs handled by women.” But this change—work—changed things for women in the cities and in the countryside.

Even in the countryside? Haven’t women always labored there?

Not always. In the north of China, women very often didn’t do agricultural work. They stayed at home, gave birth to children, and looked after the house. But starting in the 1950s they had to work. That helped their status immensely. They had their own income and didn’t have to rely on men. Now, in rural areas, women accounted for a third of a household’s income. This is quite different than not earning anything. In the cities, in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, women’s income reached 85 percent of men’s. This was amazing. It was really high by international standards. In the US around that time, it was just 60 percent.

But you don’t think that overall the status of women in China has declined since the economic reforms of the 1980s?

There have been some losses but it’s not uniform. Women’s income has slid from 85 percent to 70 percent of men’s. Also, there are more women not working and a lot of companies don’t want women with children, and if women get pregnant they lose their jobs. But it’s not all negative. In the 1980s, for example, the ratio of women to men at university was one to three. Now it’s 51 percent women. In fact, some universities have had to reduce admission standards for men to maintain some sort of equality—because women study harder than men! If you look at the situation of women entrepreneurs, there’s been a big improvement. Some reports say that many of the world’s top self-made female entrepreneurs are Chinese. In the past, managers were all men.

Besides blogging, you’re still writing a lot. What are you working on now?

I’ve written two short story collections about S&M.

Like 50 Shades of Grey?

It’s something like that. But I’m hesitant to try to publish them.

But I’m sure they would sell well.

Right now they would be banned. S&M isn’t acceptable. But I predict that in a few years it’ll be allowed.

I believe in art. We can’t have truth, because truth is so difficult. But we can have beauty. My obsession is to give to you something different. When civilization ends, Greece, Egypt, India—the only thing that endures is art. A country that does not have art despairs. War is not beautiful. Banks are not beautiful. Architecture used to have a lot of style, not anymore. Religion is not beautiful. Politics is not beautiful. What is beautiful now? Tell me. What is beautiful now?
— Alejandro Jodorowsky

(Source: thatlitsite)

Link: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the Critique of Pop Culture

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Joy Division - Day of the Lords (from Unknown Pleasures)

Link: The Worst Kind of Information

Like everything else, public information obeys the rule of declining marginal utility. A little may be a good thing. But ‘too much’ leads to trouble.

We are products of the Paleolithic age, a period of many thousands of years in which the Homo species developed the unique adaptations that make them human. In the Paleolithic period we lived in small tribes. The information we had was limited. But it was reliable. When a fellow tribesman came running into camp with word that another tribe was about to attack, we had a pretty good idea of how real and how important that information was. We grabbed our spears.

Now, we have a lot more of a different kind of information for which our Paleolithic brains are not well adapted. It is high in quantity, low in quality. Nietzsche referred to it as ‘wissen.’ As opposed to ‘erfahrung,’ – direct, personal, particular knowledge – wissen refers to ‘what everyone knows’; like we might know that America has a problem with violence or we might know that Berlusconi is a rascal or that Abraham Lincoln loved the slaves. It’s the stuff you read in the newspapers and hear on TV.

Until the invention of TV, radio and the Internet, the volume of this ‘public information,’ as I like to call it was only a fraction of what we get today. Just recently, a New York Times article estimated that the typical American receives as many as 5,000 advertising messages every day.

Advertising, news, opinions, data of all sorts—it is remarkable how much more we “know” today than we used to. In 2013, we knew, for example, that the unemployment rate was above 7%. We knew Iran posed a threat to our safety. We knew education was the way to get ahead. We knew the Republicans were trying to block tax increases and that global warming could tip the world into a climatic disaster. Joe Jones, running for the office of Sheriff, was a ‘friend of the people.’ LavaX – a cleaning product – would leave your tub “as clean as an operating table.” But what did all these things mean? Were these things even true? Did anyone know? Was there any way of knowing for sure?

Like infectious social diseases, public information is made possible by modern, large-scale life. Millions of people can now have a conversation about something none of them really knows anything about. It can be fun. But it can lead to serious itching, or as I call it, ‘public thinking.’

At an investment conference in 2002, a guy came up to me making conversation. 9/11 was fresh in our minds. And the Bush Administration was pushing for an invasion of Iraq.

“I guess we’ll have to go in and clean that place up,” he said.

A million nuances, an infinite number of real ‘facts’ based on experience and direct observation, a whole universe of assumptions, misapprehensions, muddled thinking, all reduced to a single phrase. And that, there, is ‘public thinking.’

Had he ever been to Iraq? Had he ever met an Iraqi? Did he speak the language? Where was the detailed, specific, precise real knowledge that you would need to make sense of it all? What, exactly, was unclean about Iraq? And how would this lack of hygiene be scrubbed up by a foreign invasion?

Constructing a public policy out of public thinking is like building a skyscraper out of marshmallows. The higher you go, the squishier it gets. Because the information blocks themselves are not solid. Instead, they are combinations of theory, interpretation, guesswork, spin, hunch and prejudice.

It takes a certain kind of brain to appreciate the emptiness of public information. Most of us are too earnest, which is to say most people are better adapted to the time in which they evolved. Most of us have stone-age brains. We regard all information as though it is rock hard. When Colin Powell told the world that the Iraqis had ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ most people — trapped in the noise of modern life — believed him. They took it as information of the same quality as the alarm sounded by the fellow who ran into camp warning of an imminent attack.

‘Public information’ contributes in an important way to hormegeddon. Like sugar, human consumption of news and information has soared since the 18th century. Both sugar and public information are tasty in small quantities. But eating large quantities of sugar rots your teeth and may give you diabetes. It is also self-perpetuating, as eating sugary food takes away your appetite for real food. So too with public information, your ability to make good decisions rots as your appetite for useful information decreases.

Public information is the stuff on which our governments, our social programs, our wars, and our money (including fiscal and monetary policies) now depend. It is the body of facts with which our consent is informed. It is the faux-granite upon which our public policies – involving trillions of dollars and interfering with countless private plans – are erected. And like everything else, public information obeys the rule of declining marginal utility. A little may be a good thing. But ‘too much’ leads to trouble. It gives you the impression that you know something that is really unknowable. Phony knowledge then leads to foolish action. Soon, you are on the road tohormegeddon.

Anton Senkov for Milorad Pavić’s Seven Deadly Sins

(via impossibletheater)