J’Accuse! Dissecting an accusatory comment

I don’t get much time these days to reply to comments as I once did. I used to greatly enjoy responding to comments on MercatorNet, and still miss the discussions and debates.

But ultimately I think my replies were solipsistic. I tried to resist the urge to reply snappily or angrily to insolent or sarcastic replies. I rarely indulged the desire to mock someone for their half-arsed arguments or complete misunderstandings of the issue at hand.  Instead I viewed the comment as an opportunity to check and correct myself, as though I were posing it as a challenge to my own reasoning and beliefs.

Solipsism isn’t always a bad thing. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns on even the most charitable approach to argument. We must, I think, proceed with the assumption that the commenter will get nothing from the exchange. Only then can we respond freely.

In that vein, reader ayametan posted the following comment in response to my article on religious perspectives on lust:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

Firstly, apologies to ayametan for replying to your comment indirectly. By way of direct reply, it’s clear we disagree on a great deal. Any further elaborations would be contained in the following observations.

The disconsolate reality is that once we adopt an appropriately detached attitude, far too many such comments begin to feel like answers to a question that was never asked. This is not so much a critique of the commenter, but an observation of my own detached response to such comments.

Take the first line for example:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Firstly, I am not a consequentialist. Telling me that the consequences of A are worse than the consequences of B leaves as much unanswered as telling me that I should follow football because it is better than cricket, when really I am uninterested in sport generally.

Therefore we have to ask:

1. Are consequences the only relevant or most relevant factor?

Secondly, I know enough about consequentialism to know that the evaluation of consequences is a vexed question, not only in terms of where to draw the line, but also in terms of how to weigh the relative consequences. It is not self-evident that consequences such as boredom outweigh consequences such as prostitution, for example, but this in turn refers us back to where we draw the line.

Therefore we have to ask:

2.i Where do we draw the line between direct and indirect consequences?

2.ii How do we weight the relative consequences?

Thirdly, the commenter implies an equivalence between the terms “lustful” and “natural”. What is meant by these terms? Do we agree on the definition of either term? Is there an implication that “natural” lends normative weight to the exercise of lust?

Therefore we have to ask:

3. How do we define our key terms? Do we agree on the terms we are using?

Moving on to the next line:

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

I might agree with this, but looking at it critically we have to ask more questions.

4. What is the relationship between sex and lust?

Question 4 is clearly dependent on the answer to question 3.  Question 5 could, if pursued, take us deeper into the various religious systems touched on in my original article:

5. How does bonding relate to the spiritual disciplines contained in the various religions?

I would also envisage question 5 examining in greater depth how these religions deal with the overlap between lust and sex, and how this unfolds through their broader sexual morality.

Moving on to the final paragraph:

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

My first thought is:

6. What is hypocrisy? Does this scenario match actual definitions of hypocrisy?

Followed by:

7. Is this scenario accurate? Does it match my experience and circumstances? Is this a fair accusation?

And then we’re back into the more philosophical domain, which overlaps somewhat with questions 6 and 7, but also with question 3 and maybe others:

8. Am I claiming that enjoyment of sex is hedonistic?

Clearly this question requires answers to question 3 regarding the definition of terms, including now hedonism, as well as question 4 regarding the relationship between sex and lust. We could in fact turn this whole question into a separate subcategory beginning with 8.a. What is hedonism? This would actually be quite pertinent given the concluding assertion:

Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

The commenter’s accusation that the desire for eternal paradise amounts to hedonism is by no means novel. It is better known in the context of psychological egoism: the claim that all actions, including supposedly altruistic ones, are ultimately selfish. The standard example given in undergrad philosophy courses is that Mother Theresa was not truly selfless, but acted selfishly on the belief that helping others would earn her a heavenly reward.

The accusation is not usually crafted around hedonism, as hedonism is typically described as the belief in pleasure as the only, or primary good, and there is debate over to what degree this belief would facilitate or be compatible with long-term delay of gratification, or with the allegedly hedonistic endorsement of non-hedonistic moral standards.

But as the philosophy teachers will explain, the bigger problem with defining all action as selfish is that it diminishes the descriptive power of the concept itself.  Clearly there are meaningful differences in behaviour for which the terms “selfish” and “selfless” have arisen. It’s all very well to argue that “selfless” is an empty category, but that doesn’t negate the distinction between acts for which those two terms first arose.

If we were to pursue this further, it would lead us to the question:

Q. What do we mean when we say that an action is selfish?

That’s a lot of questions contained within one brief comment. To be fair, my article also left many questions unanswered. But for me it is important that an article be the product of my own best attempts to ask and answer the right questions for myself. Too often, I find that commenters seem to have done little of this work for themselves before attempting a critique.

I think many people comment without realising the questions implicit in their opinions, accusations, and conjectures. It is rare to find someone sincerely asking questions that can be answered, because those who are sincere are either capable of finding the answers for themselves, or else, perhaps, they are more justifiably preoccupied by their own questions and interests.

If nothing else, I think philosophy can give us an appreciation for the immense difficulty of knowing. Confucius put it well:

“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.”

 

 

 

New You Resolution

My latest MercatorNet article draws on a 17th Century French genius and an esoteric Neo-Confucian spiritual discipline to answer the question: what would make this new year truly more happy?

When asked at a party whether he was enjoying himself, George Bernard Shaw replied “that’s the only thing I am enjoying.” For most of us in life it is the other way around: we can blame circumstances, other people, cruel fate or daily drudgery but in the end the common factor in all our unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and complaint is we ourselves. There is something amiss in the human psyche, and we are loathe to face it, let alone try to fix it. We would happily renovate everything but ourselves, even to the point of hoping that the year itself will change for our benefit.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/new_you_resolution

The vibe of ‘white genocide’

So when I wrote an article basically mocking the idea of ‘white genocide’ and the people who subscribe to it, I didn’t think I’d get many hostile comments. Perhaps the moderators were already working overtime, but even the stuff that got through surprised me.

It turns out that some people really do believe multiculturalism is a genocidal plot aimed at white people! I was kinda hoping the whole thing would turn out to be elaborate satire. Alas, no.

In comments we’ve had LOTS OF CAPS to emphasise the seriousness of the threat, we’ve had what looks like an attempt to pin ‘white genocide’ on ‘The Jews’, and we’ve also had the slowly dawning realisation that this is apparently the first (alleged) genocide ever to be carried out by means of voluntary intermarriage between consenting adults.

The essence of the ‘White Genocide’ argument is elusive.  I’m not sure we ever got to the level of actual evidence; but evidence isn’t really required in this kind of argument, not when it’s all so obvious and everyone knows it’s happening, right?  I mean, to have to meaningfully compare alleged genocidal acts against precedent would detract from the spirit of the debate.  To have to explain how this ‘genocide’ is supposedly happening, the expected time-frame, and the interventions required to stop it BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE is asking a bit much of people who are already demonstrating such courage in speaking out against the conspiracy.  Ultimately, in language any true White Australian will understand, when it comes to ‘white genocide’: “it’s the vibe of the thing.”

 

 

 

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I recently posted the following comment in response to my article on gender equality at Mercatornet.

I’m reposting it here because the substance is generic: you can’t have a dialogue where only one person is willing to do the heavy lifting.

 

It’s unfortunate that an article on gender equality, violence against women, and the need for intelligent critique that doesn’t degrade into prejudice has met with comments arguing that the theme of ‘violence against women’ is some kind of bigoted campaign to stigmatise men, that the best available sources of information and methodologies can simply be disregarded as ‘lies’ in favour of ‘common sense’ and personal experience, or that violence against women is merely a subset of violence in general, for which women are somehow largely to blame.

I have spent some hours searching for valid sources of information and statistics in the hope that we could engage in rational discussion; I have even provided evidence such as statistics on the numbers of children in single-parent households, which my interlocutor claimed was being censored as some kind of conspiracy or plot by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Demonstration of concrete evidence such as the disparity in intimate partner homicide for men versus women was met with silence. To recap for other readers, the National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report states:
“Consistent with previous NHMP annual reports, females were overrepresented as victims in intimate partner homicide (n=89; 73% of intimate partner homicides),”
http://www.aic.gov.au/media_li…

Page 11 of the VicHealth report linked to in the first line of my article shows that in general, men and women are almost equally likely to suffer violence, yet the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men:

“In 2012, 42% of persons (aged 18 years and over) had experienced
violence since the age of 15 years by a male perpetrator, compared with
12% who had experienced violence by a female perpetrator (ABS 2013b).
While
men are also more likely to be the victims of violence than are women
(ABS 2013b), the difference is not large. In 2012, 49% of men aged 18
years and over reported that they had experienced violence since the age
of 15, compared with 41% of women. Most of the violence experienced by
men is accounted for by physical assault, with men being less likely
than women to be subject to sexual violence. Since the age of 15, 4.5%
of men reported experiencing sexual violence, compared with 19% of women
(ABS 2013b).”

If your response to such data is to fear that this is part of some plot to stigmatise men, and hence you denigrate the integrity of the survey, the methodology, and the institutions behind them without valid evidence or a rationale on which to base such accusations, then there is little hope of rational dialogue.

If, on the other hand, you humbly submit to follow the evidence wherever it leads with a critical but inquiring mind, then you can say with some integrity “veritas lux mea”, which is a much more noble path.

Readers will have to forgive me for not following up with further research to engage with the various claims being made in comments. But the fact is that if people are genuinely looking for the truth they shouldn’t need me to do all the heavy lifting for them.

Style over substance

Intrepid commenter dtcwee asked:

what role does the goal play in determining whether an endeavour is shallow? What is a shallow goal? And can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

Appearances are always more shallow than reality.  The phrase “style over substance” is pejorative because we take for granted that substance is almost always more important than style, such that an inversion of priorities is contemptible.

Goals that invert or disrupt natural priorities may be considered shallow, like putting style before substance.  For example, an academic whose goal is to obtain a high number of publications, but who isn’t concerned with the quality or significance of his work.  A singer who wants to be high on the charts but doesn’t really care about how he gets there.  Or a multitude of bloggers, youtube account holders, and other social media fanatics who desperately want to somehow get rich, but don’t have any genuine motivation or inspiration behind their content: – these can all be considered people with shallow goals.

But is this really different from the previous post where we defined shallow endeavours as instances where “the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal”?

I think they are different, because in the examples given above the goals are quite specific and oriented toward the defect we are calling ‘shallowness’.  These are not cases where the academic mistakenly thinks his shallow efforts to merely get published are appropriate to his position.  No, a shallow goal contains a kind of duplicity or deception, like a shoddy good masquerading as something of quality.  Whereas a shallow endeavour might see someone totally out of their depth, a person with a shallow goal is quite able to achieve it.  The value of the shallow goal lies in deceiving people, finding shortcuts, cutting corners, and so on.

But as with the previous case of the shallow endeavour – a shallow effort directed toward a genuine goal – it is only with the benefit of greater knowledge that we can label the shallow goal as somehow deficient.  It is ‘shallow’ relative to the normal expectations, in the same way that a product or service is considered defective according to established norms.

I’m sure we’ve all come across situations where people have, in good faith, attempted to undertake a project vastly beyond their abilities.  But many of us have no doubt also come across situations where people have, in bad faith or cynicism, tried to pass off a half-arsed job as the real deal.

The terminology here is far from definitive, because the original intention was to clarify depth rather than shallowness.  In that case, what really matters is that we have so far described two cases of insufficient depth – one intentional and one unintentional.

In this context, how should we answer the second part of the question:

can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

In theory it can, though the scenario would be somewhat comedic, in that it would imply a person so dedicated to a shallow goal that their efforts become disproportionate to the goal and do approach depth.

Take, for example, the Swedish film ‘The Swimsuit Issue‘ in which a group of middle-aged Swedish men become involved in synchronised swimming as a joke, but start to take it seriously and end up competing in major competitions.  There are other examples that will come to mind later, but the point is that there can indeed be depth in the pursuit of a shallow goal, however, the depth seems to engage and transform the character in new ways, such that by the end the nature of the goal itself has changed, and is perhaps no longer shallow.

 

 

 

 

Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.

The Power of Sincerity

“Sincerity is that whereby self-completion is effected, and its way is that by which man must direct himself.”

We think of a sincere person as someone honest and open. But for a melancholic idealist sincerity has far greater significance.

The definition of sincerity is freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity,
which comes from the Latin sincerus meaning whole, pure, clean, or unmixed, which in turn is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘of one growth’.

‘Of one growth’ means that one’s words, deeds, and even one’s bearing are expressions of one’s deeper nature. No pretence, no duplicity, no contrivance, no artifice.

The idealist appreciates this, because his efforts are useless if they do not accord with his ideal. Efforts are too much to sustain, and superficialities are too much to remember if they are not founded in something deep, unchanging, and reliable.

The Doctrine of the Mean ascribes almost supernatural qualities to sincerity:

Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought;– he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast.

Or perhaps it is better to say that it describes an almost supernatural degree of sincerity.

It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.

This section of the Confucian classic is reminiscent of the older text, the Zhou Yi or Yi Jing, Hexagram 61, ‘Inner Truth’:

Pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of all animals and therefore the most difficult to influence. The force of inner truth must grow great indeed before its influence can extend to such creatures. In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. When a door has thus been opened, the force of one’s personality will influence him. If in this way one finds no obstacles insurmountable, one can undertake even the most dangerous things, such as crossing the great water, and succeed.

Both the Confucian text and the Yi recognise that sincerity is not morally neutral; it both encourages and presupposes underlying virtue:

But it is important to understand upon what the force of inner truth depends. This force is not identical with simple intimacy or a secret bond. Close ties may exist also among thieves; it is true that such a bond acts as a force but, since it is not invincible, it does not bring good fortune. All association on the basis of common interests holds only up to a certain point. Where the community of interest ceases, the holding together ceases also, and the closest friendship often changes into hate. Only when the bond is based on what is right, on steadfastness, will it remain so firm that it triumphs over everything.

Sincerity ensures that our words and deeds arise from a secure foundation in our true nature, rather than the vagaries of cultural forces, or the facades of daily life. The attainment of sincerity is more than simply ‘being honest’ or ‘being oneself’. Rather, it is the expression of one’s true nature, which is in turn the foundation of virtue in a human context.