Who moved my brain?

Throwcase casts aside the satirical mantle to passionately implore us all to stop sharing stupid memes. If only the article could be turned into a handy, brain-infesting image or slogan, so we needn’t have to actually read the whole thing or even really understand what is being said!

It is supposed to describe a real scientific experiment that was performed on a group of monkeys, and it is supposed to raise profound questions about our tendency to unquestioningly follow the herd. Unfortunately it is complete and utter nonsense, because no such experiment ever happened. However, so many people are sharing this unverified crock of shit that it really does reveal our tendency to unthinkingly follow the herd; after all, why would you bother verifying an article about monkeys that literally has the tag line “think before you follow”?

http://throwcase.com/2014/12/21/that-five-monkeys-and-a-banana-story-is-rubbish/

Incidentally, I’ve never come across the ‘five monkeys’ thing before today, but I’m sure we’ve all seen the likes of it before. It reminds me of a particular class of corporate management/self-help literature such as the “Who moved my cheese?” book and video.

In other words, it’s the kind of thing that people in positions of minor authority like to use to ‘inspire’ and ‘challenge’ their subordinates or charges; the kind of message that is immediately undermined and made violently intolerable by the context and medium in which it is presented. Look children, I have a cartoon about rats in a maze, a story about monkeys in a cage, and you will learn so much from it!

Clearly I’m not the intended audience for this kind of demeaning tripe, but I can’t help but wonder why these stories are not immediately seen to be deeply insulting. You in your work environment are a tiny humanoid rat lost in a maze, chasing after cheese. Your life, your struggles, your motives and your goals are ultimately absurd. You are an animal, and not even a noble one but the kind commonly used in experiments for their convenience, ease of manipulation, and close relationship to real humans – but not so close that we feel bad when we have to ‘sacrifice’ them.

I think I should write a little book about a plough-horse that slaves away for many years to benefit its owner, and after making its owner rich is replaced with a tractor and sold for dog-meat. The moral is “you’re lucky you got to work as long as you did.”

Does anyone feel inspired yet?

The uselessness of a martial art

gate
I took this photo about ten years ago at WuYi Shan in Fujian. To me, Kung Fu is kinda like this gate: very old, well-worn, but beautiful, and always promising more on the other side.

My kung fu teacher has always emphasised the dangers of fighting, regardless of one’s skill or confidence in a martial art. Last week he put it more succinctly, noting that the greater our ability and knowledge, the greater our awareness of the danger implicit in any physical confrontation. Paradoxically, the better we are at kung fu or any martial art, the less likely we are to use it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Wenzi:

When you go on the Way, it makes other people unable to wound you no matter how boldly they stab, unable to hit you no matter how skillfully they strike.

Indeed, to be immune to stabbing and striking is still an embarrassment; it is not as good as causing people not to dare to stab you no matter how bold they are, not to dare to strike you no matter how clever they are.

Now not daring does not mean there is no such intention, so it is even better to cause people not to have the intent.

Those who have no such intention do not have a mind that loves to help or harm. That is not as good as causing all the men and women in the world to joyfully wish to love and help you.

If you can do that, then you are a sovereign even if you have no land, you are a chief even if you have no office; everyone will wish for your security and welfare.

It’s an amusing quotation, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but well worth considering in the context of martial arts, and learning to skilfully attack and defend oneself. Skill in attacking and defending are a part of ‘the Way’ even if we never have to use them.

There’s a difference, after all, between a person who has a skill but doesn’t use it, and one who doesn’t have the skill and hopes he never needs it. Likewise, there’s a difference between the kinds of people who get in a lot of fights, and the kinds of people who devote years of their lives to learning a martial art. Certainly the former are more dangerous than the latter, but mostly in the same way that a drunk-driver is more dangerous than a skilled driver.

These days it is considered vital for martial arts to be ‘reality-based’ or tested somehow in a sporting context or a military or law-enforcement context. But for most of us the reality has nothing to do with these contexts, and even the ‘reality’ of the most common assault scenarios is relative. A few years ago I came across a map of Adelaide that showed the crime rate for specific crimes by suburb. Want to avoid violent assault? The best approach appears to be: a) don’t live in the lower socio-economic areas of the extreme Northern and Southern suburbs, and b) don’t hang around drunk or on drugs in city night-spots in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know a great deal about the historical context in which the Chinese martial art I learn was first created, but chances are it is still more ‘reality-based’ than the behaviour of the drug and alcohol inspired perpetrators of casual violence in our society. In a city with an excellent state-subsidised medical system and a responsive network of paramedics you don’t really need to worry that starting a drunken fight might get you killed, or worse still, leave you injured, disfigured, and unable to work with a string of dependents beggared and homeless thanks to your irresponsible behaviour.

I think what attracts many of us to martial arts is that they promise something beyond a mere set of skills driven by utility. They may have started out as that, once upon a time, but in the present era they take on a life and a purpose of their own, bringing a great deal of richness to our own lives even if we are never in a position where the art is ‘useful’ in the most practical sense of self-defence.

For me, my martial art encompasses self-defence but goes beyond it, with enough physical, cultural, technical and psychological benefits and fascinations to keep me at it, hopefully until I’m too old to do anything else. This alone is enough to distinguish such a martial art from whatever realities motivate people to start pub-fights, to ‘king hit’ random strangers, or generally stir up trouble wherever they go.

But admittedly there is also a pleasure in knowing that if I or someone I care about is ever attacked I won’t make it easy for the attacker. It is good to know that I have developed the strength and the skill to give as good as I might get, while still knowing the limits of what any level of skill can guarantee.

Serving two masters

Having a smaller, less stable income these days has left me newly appreciative of certain biblical passages:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Money too is more than food and clothing, and as such I think it gives us a sense of security and sufficiency that inhibits our sensitivity to providence.  Why should we ‘trust in God’ when we have permanent employment and a guaranteed income?

This balance between material security and spiritual dependence is complex, as demonstrated by the contending interpretations of the beatitude of the ‘poor in spirit’, and the story of the rich young man who went away sad.

It’s not wealth per se that is the problem, but our devotion to it over and above higher things; allowing it to dominate our lives and our minds.  At times it can be hard to tell whether we are the masters of wealth or the slaves, driven by financial imperatives with nothing higher to intervene or change our minds.

I think this is the significance of my decision not to follow the financial imperative back into mediocre employment for the sake of a reliable income and the sense of security and sufficiency it affords.  The decision to cease compromising my integrity for the sake of money means acknowledging something higher than my income in a society where a high income is more often than not the summum bonum.

The nature of wealth

Back in my bioethics days I spent a bit of time reading Thomas Aquinas on a variety of subjects, just to see what wisdom the ‘Angelic Doctor’ could bring to bear on aspects of contemporary life.  One insight that made a great deal of sense to me was his adoption of Aristotle’s distinction between natural and artificial wealth:

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth. For wealth is twofold, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3), viz. natural and artificial. Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants: such as food, drink, clothing, cars, dwellings, and such like, while artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man, for the convenience of exchange, and as a measure of things salable.

Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, viz. as a support of human nature: consequently it cannot be man’s last end, rather is it ordained to man as to its end. Wherefore in the order of nature, all such things are below man, and made for him, according to Psalm 8:8: “Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.”

And as to artificial wealth, it is not sought save for the sake of natural wealth; since man would not seek it except because, by its means, he procures for himself the necessaries of life. Consequently much less can it be considered in the light of the last end. Therefore it is impossible for happiness, which is the last end of man, to consist in wealth.

This brief excerpt contains a number of important points.  Firstly, wealth is not the source of our happiness, but it is ‘a support of human nature’.  We need natural wealth in order to flourish and pursue the higher things in life.

Secondly, money and other forms of wealth that do not directly meet natural needs are to be considered ‘artificial wealth’.  Of themselves they hold no value.  In the words of Alanis Obomsawim, an indigenous Canadian:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

The only value in artificial wealth is that we can use it to obtain natural wealth.  Hence artificial wealth such as money is a step removed from human life, an abstraction from the diversity of real things we need in order to live and to flourish.

Money has been around for a long time, but I wonder if our  ancestors were ever so preoccupied with it as we are today?  Money doesn’t behave in the same way as natural wealth.  Because we have no direct capacity to make use of it, it exists without natural order or function.  We can, therefore, obsess about it, pursue it, covet it and accrue it in ways that would not make sense for natural wealth.  As my grandfather says: “you can only sleep in one bed.”

I’ll be writing more on this topic, as I think our current way of life exaggerates the role of artificial wealth in our lives, with repercussions for our broader understanding of life and our pursuit of genuine flourishing.

 

 

“I’m confused. Does he have three houses or one?”

At risk of explaining satire, the following is the ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘ parallel universe take on how internet commenters might respond to a depiction of a typical working life. My personal favourite: “Well, the main problem I think is that he does not have any kind of shop at home, so he has to go to that office to be able to feed himself.”

Forum post: “I just read an article about a guy that has 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms in his house. Apparently he makes $40,000 a year, but then he has to go to a big office and spend 8 or 9 hours a day filling out forms and going to meetings all week long. He does that all year around. Apparently, he’s been doing it for 20 years or so. I admit it sounds a bit crazy, but it also seems intriguing.”

I’m not sure I could do it. It’s like .. I mean, it’s 8 hours a day! How long do you have to do this for?

I think he said twenty years. So when he’s done can he go back to his family?

By Jove, that’s like a prison sentence.

I don’t see how it is possible to do that and work in his own shop as well. How does he have time to take care of his home. What about friends?

There’s more: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-blog-comments-look-in-a-parallel-universe.html

 

“In springtime the dragon is useless”

A good friend recently gave me a copy of a book called ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘ by Simon Leys, the pen name of the late Pierre Ryckmans, the renowned Belgian-Australian sinologist, literary critic, and writer.

The ‘uselessness’ theme is not incidental.  In his foreword the author quotes Zhuangzi:

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

In case there was any doubt, the first chapter ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ demonstrates Ryckmans’ deep appreciation of useless:

“In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to the “smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.

What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): the successful man adapts himself to the world.  The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

I’m already into the second chapter, which includes an amusing private exchange between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ irreverent attack on Mother Theresa.

I’m especially looking forward to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, amidst a wealth of other literary commentary; but I suspect the most intriguing section will prove to be the significant minority of the book dedicated to Ryckmans’ work as a sinologist, exploring Chinese political and literary culture from the misunderstood Confucius to contemporary political dissidents.

I’ll leave you with a poem from Tao Yuanming, quoted in Ryckmans’ essay on Chinese aesthetics:

I built my hut among people
And yet their noise does not disturb me
How is this possible, I ask you?
Solitude can be created by the mind, it is not a matter of distance.
Plucking Chrysanthemums at the foot of the hedge,
I gaze toward the faraway mountains.
At dusk the mountain air is beautiful,
When birds are returning.
Truth is at the heart of all this:
I wish to express it, yet find no words.

Thank you greatly for the gift Mark, I know I will enjoy it!

Self-defense as an ethical ideal

The pacifist dilemma is that non-violence leaves us, as individuals and communities, subject to oppression. One of the favoured examples against non-violence is that Ghandi’s ahimsa only worked because the British were not truly bad people. Ahimsa would never have succeeded against a more brutal regime like that of Nazi Germany. From a spiritual perspective, ahimsa is not about what ‘works’; arguing that non-violence ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ presumes non-violence is about ‘working’, which it is not. Pacifists are generally resolved to embrace the bitter consequences of their philosophy, harbouring no illusions that their path can be both moral and utilitarian.

True pacifists deserve respect, but there is nonetheless a perfectly reasonable ethical distinction to be made between violence and self-defense. If my life and my health are good for me, then I have a right to enjoy these goods. Accordingly, no individual may have a countervailing right to harm these goods or take them away. Unjustified aggression is therefore ethically illegitimate, and the target of that aggression is right to defend against it, to protect their own life and the lives of others.

In defending against unjustified aggression, the target of our defensive actions is not the person, the aggressor, himself. Rather, our aim is the act of aggression, the violence. Hence a legitimate use of defensive force must be constrained by these ethical limits:

– it must be proportional to the threat.

A sense of threat is always somewhat subjective, but in ethics as in law, there is a ‘reasonable person test’ by which defensive actions will be judged. If someone shoves you at a party, it is not – all things being equal – proportional to hit him with a bar stool.

– any injury caused must be an unintended side-effect of self-defense.

In order to stop someone from hurting you or another innocent person, an appropriate use of defensive force may result in injuries to the aggressor. These injuries, though foreseeable, are considered ethically acceptable so long as one’s overriding intention is to defend, not to injure. In medical ethics this is known as the principle of double-effect, the recognition that good actions sometimes have foreseeable yet unintended negative effects.

Some people see self-defense as an excuse for violent retaliation, an opportunity to injure others with moral impunity. This is not true self-defense. If we do not abide by the principles of self-defense, we cannot walk away from a violent confrontation with a clear conscience.

At the same time there is something elegant about this view of self-defense: in merely defending the sphere of your own life and rights, it is the aggressor who bears moral responsibility for the harm and injuries that befall him as a result of his own violent intentions.

Why learn a martial art?

Melancholics have a hard time communicating the value of their interests and ideals. We’ve learned through experience that we are in a minority, that the things which motivate us do not tend to motivate others and vice versa. I was amazed to learn that ‘everyone is doing it’ is actually an implicit motivator for some people, designating the gold standard in life-choices. I’ve only ever interpreted such statements ironically; and though I follow the crowd in many instances, knowing that ‘everyone is doing it’ counts as a disincentive.

But one of the themes of this blog is to begin communicating the value I find in my various, seemingly useless interests, pastimes, and ideals. In other words, can I explain to you why I do things that give me neither money nor social status nor an efficient path to commonly identifiable individual or social goods such as ‘getting fit’ and ‘making friends’?

This time the topic is martial arts. Specifically: why have I spent more than half my life putting time and effort into something that is unlikely to ever prove ‘useful’?

I started learning Taekwondo as a young teenager after my parents gave me a choice: either join the local TKD class or sign up with the local soccer team. Soccer is probably fun if you are somewhat fit, coordinated, and sociable. But since I was none of those things I chose TKD.

The training did improve my fitness, strength, and flexibility, but it did so under the guise of learning a deeper skill – the ability to defend myself against other people.

After a couple of years a friend introduced me to a very different martial art, a rare, difficult style of kungfu from Southern China that was taught informally within a closed group. It was immediately clear that this style of kungfu was deeper than anything I had learned in TKD. The training was much more complicated and intense, the tactics far more committed and aggressive, and the techniques significantly more powerful.

I’ve been training in this art for more than sixteen years, and my motivation, understanding, and interest have changed a great deal in that time. Sometimes I wonder what I get out of it, why I am still motivated. Is it simply that having put so much in, it would be a waste to stop now? Or has it become so habitual that I no longer need a conscious motive?

My recent post on violence and the masculine ideal helped bring out an answer, an enduring value in martial arts that is independent of any particular style or any degree of proficiency. That value is often described simply as ‘self-defense’, but is better described in a more nuanced way as the practised ability to ward off and resist violence.

This is the lasting appeal of the martial arts: they train skills and techniques that in and of themselves increase our self-mastery. They develop latent physical and mental potential in the paradigmatic and pragmatic context of human violence.

Paradoxically, evidence suggests that learning a martial art may make people less inclined to engage in violent behaviour. Anecdotally the logic is obvious: people who learn martial arts spend many hours training techniques and practising them in a controlled environment with willing participants. If you just wanted to get in fights, you’d be better off joining a football team or being obnoxious in popular night spots after 2am.

For me, self-mastery is the core value behind martial arts practice, and provides an answer to the existential challenge of unjust human aggression. I do not want to find myself ever the victim of an attack that could have been avoided or defended with a reasonable degree of preparation on my part. Unlikely as such a scenario is, given the low risk lifestyle of a philosopher who’d rather be enjoying sleep at 3am than getting glassed in a drunken pub fight, I nonetheless have the pleasure and the challenge of training these same skills for their own sake.

The development of these skills has indeed been one of the most challenging and rewarding things in my life. It has been a more consistent part of my life than any other interest, occupation, or training. It has been a source of inspiration, frustration, achievement and dismay, especially for someone whose passion for the art has always outstripped his aptitude. I can’t imagine life without it, and yet my efforts and dedication will always feel insufficient. It is humbling to think that what I get out of it is limited by what I have put in. There will always be more I could have put in, and I can only admit fault in being a less than ideal exemplar of the art.

Perhaps that is why the value of this ideal is hard to communicate – I keep returning to the subject of my failure and inadequacy. But ask yourself whether you have something in your life that makes you want to persevere and work hard in full awareness of your faults? Is there anything that makes you feel inspired and humbled at the same time? Do you have something into which you can keep investing while knowing that the returns will never feel like ‘enough’?

Without exaggerating the hopelessness of the situation, I think this is where philosophy and martial arts coincide. Whether you seek to master a skill or know the truth, you’ll find the horizon always stretching out before you, always out of reach. My teacher tells me he is always learning, and perhaps that is the key to such pursuits: to love the path, and find comfort in being someone who learns rather than someone who has just arrived.

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.

More to life

Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.

More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life.  For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on.  I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.

I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.

These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality;  something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.

The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.

Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality.  At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.

But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it.  It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need.  In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.

It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to.  We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us.  In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky.  That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.