Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Illiteratacy - The Impossibility of Debate

In addition to my work as a professional, I have taught a number of classes at a local community college. My students in those classes range from just graduated high school all the way up to 40+ second-careerists. I also have a wide variety of friends on Facebook, from many walks of political life.

I have had a number of debates in classes and on Facebook, and seen others conducted online, especially revolving around the gay marriage debates, abortion, and other hot-button issues currently roaming around the countryside. In observing all of these, I have come to several conclusions.

The one which concerns me here is: the majority of people with strong opinions about these subjects are illiterate - in the sense that they have not read or discussed their reading enough to understand basic rhetorical devices, such as analogy.

Let me explain, if you're still here.

A typical example in the debate is a question of status versus action. Typically, thoughtful Christians distinguish between status ("homosexuality") and action ("homosexual acts"). In other words, Christians find nothing sinful in being homosexual - the problem is in the homosexual sexual actions (which Christians find are sinful, as are non-marital heterosexual acts, etc). When this distinction is rejected, one basis being that homosexuals feel deeply that the inclinations are inborn and natural, Christians attempt to analogize, such as by retorting that some people feel deeply attracted to young girls,  but that attraction should not permit those people to act upon that inclination. 

The response to such an analogy is usually swift, furious, and illiterate. Rather than taking the analogy as a broad comparison attempting to question the validity of a direct link between a desire always being natural and the related act being "good", the opponent invariably launches a statement to the effect of "so, you're saying that homosexuals are as bad as child molesters", or "you're saying that having consensual same-sex relations is the same as raping a child".

Charitably, I assume that such responses are borne of illiteracy - the inability to understand a limited analogy in argument. Less charitably, I often wonder whether such vehement response is a deliberate misconstruction of the statement, where the interlocutor is perfectly aware of the analogy, but is using shame or embarrassment in attempt to shut down the discussion.

Reflection - April 16, 2014: Deneen, Smith, and the Founding

I often find myself thoughtful at the outset of the day, before my mind is "distracted and diffused", to borrow from Simon & Garfunkel. This is especially true if I have had a chance to peruse some of the more thoughtful blog posts from the various sites to which I subscribe. Therefore, I have decided to spend 10 - 15 minutes in the morning to set a few thoughts out for consideration - for those who might read, to stimulate my own thoughts and dialogue with others, and to get them out of my head and onto "paper".

This morning brings a review of a recent book by Stephen D. Smith, entitled "The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom." In his review, Luis Silva reveals that Smith argues that the American Founding was:
[N]ot a product of the Enlightenment born out of radical distrust for religion, as is widely believed. Rather, the American Constitution expresses continuity with a tradition that originated nearly 2,000 years ago when Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In Smith’s words, “American religious freedom was not so much a repudiation of and departure from the Christian past as a retrieval and consolidation of that past.
The appearance of this book (and review) comes at a...timely time...in my opinion. Recently, we have seen Patrick Deneen argue (placing himself in the latter school, below) in the pages of the American Conservative that:
For those in the Murray/Neuhaus/Weigel school, it’s simply a matter of returning us to the better days, and reviving the sound basis on which the nation was founded. For those in the MacIntyre/Schindler school, America was never well-founded, so either needs to be differently re-founded or at least endured, even survived. 
In a different post, bringing replies from bloggers Micah Mattix and Stephen Herreid, Deneen reveals his belief that:
I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the “utopia” of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things.
For those more unfamiliar, Deneen contends (contra, apparently, writers like Smith) that modern liberalism, such as we find at the Founding, has a set of ideological commitments embedded within it that must turn it hostile to religious belief - commitments to be found in the basic ideas of the Enlightenment as espoused by figures such as Locke. Smith, I suspect, argues that there were turns made in American political action that destroyed the Founding belief in a religious separation of Church and State, thus turning commitments to religious equality and freedom to overt hostility to religion.

While I suspect there are truths to be found in both camps, and the practice of the history of ideas fraught with the difficulties of delving into individual and group motivation, the discussion is rather fascinating.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Narcissism, Entertainment, Art

Over at a website (hitherto unkown to me) entited "Minyanville", one of the regular editors and contributors, Michael Comeau has a post up entitled "The Harlem Shake and the Decline of Western Civilization." Therein, Mr. Comeau notes a recent YouTube phenomena (don't blink - there may be a new one tomorrow)  in which people are posting 30 second music videos they have created which use a song (the "Harlem Shake") by an electronic music artist named Baauer. Mr. Comeau is not kidding about the "phenomena" aspect of this - a quick search of the term "Harlem Shake" on YouTube reveals "about" 201,000 results.

So, what's Mr. Comeau's problem with this? Is it that he's a conservative prude? He disclaims any such thing. Is it that he does not find any of the videos amusing? Not at all - he admits that "the part of me that can't help but laugh at the "Harlem Shake" struggles with the part of me that doesn't want to be entertained by all this." So, what's his concern then? Referencing an earlier post of his, "The Bull Market in Narcissism", he expresses his concern that we increasingly live in an age that values attention more than "true creativity and accomplishment." In his earlier work, quoted in the newer, he worries that:
Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage....These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.
I think he is right to express this concern.

Mr. Comeau joins a grand tradition of social commentators who have noticed a steady loss of highbrow culture in favor of the moment, of which social meadia is the very avatar. Others in this grand tradition have include:

Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" who stated in its introduction that:
As Huxley remarked in _Brave New World Revisited_, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In _1984_, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In _Brave New World_, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right
Christopher Lasch, who noted in his work "The Culture of Narcissim" (1991) when referencing other cultural critics and sociologists that:
"They fail to explore any of the characer traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age:
[1.] dependence on vicarious warmth provided by others combined with fear of dependence
[2.] a sense of inner emptiness
[3.] a boundless repressed rage
[4.] and unsatisfied oral cravings. Nor do they discuss what might be called secondary characteristics of narcissism:
[5.] pseudo self-insight
[6.] calculating seductiveness
[7.] nervous, self-deprecating humor. 
They thus deprive themselves of any basis on which to make connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the
[8.] intense fear of old age and death
[9.] altered sense of time
[10.] fascination with celebrity
[11.] fear of competition
[12.] deteriorating relations between men and women."
Alan Bloom, who painted the following in  "Closing of the American Mind" (1987) that (and his tech references are a bit dated, of course):
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
Jean Twenge, author of several books discussing the narcissism of the present generation, setting forth in one of her books:
The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful fact birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.
and in another book:
No parent ever says ‘my goal is to raise a narcissistic kid.’ It’s part of this overall individualistic culture. It comes from the ‘good intentions’ of trying to develop self esteem, from the cultural pressures of uniqueness and standing out.
Emphasizing specialness, uniqueness and standing out so much does tend to create that situation where we’re focusing on that, we’re focusing on being better [than others] and standing out.”
Alan Wolfe, who noted in a brief WSJ post on blogs that:
One by one, Marshall McLuhan's wackiest-seeming predictions come true. Forty years ago, he said that modern communications technology would turn the young into tribal primitives who pay attention not to objective "news" reports but only to what the drums say, i.e., rumors. And there you have blogs. The universe of blogs is a universe of rumors, and the tribe likes it that way.
The last is not so far off your thoughts on "attention", is it, Mr. Comeau?

Contrast your ideas on art and YouTube with this quote from "Art and Scholasticism" by Jacques Maritain:
The work of art has been thought before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, ripened in a mind before passing into matter. And in matter it will always retain the color and savor of the spirit. Its formal element, what constitutes it in its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect. If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes. The work to be made is only the matter of art, its form is undeviating reason. Recta ratio factibilium: let us say, in order to try to translate this Aristotelian and Scholastic definition, that art is the undeviating determination of works to be made.
YouTube is the narcissist in artistic action. Expressive only of self, not of art, taking no work, little pain, short periods of time, and certainly, little brooding. Try not to be cranky, Mr. Comeau - though, I have been trying for years, and it always seems to catch up with me.

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A lawyer, professor, Catholic, Federalist, Conservative