Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Latest:Think for a Change Videos

I've been doing more videos! But I haven't posted them here...until now.

"Think for a Change (10): What We Don't Know About Ignorance"
This one is especially important to me. Charles Mills' concept of an epistemology of ignorance flipped my world when I first read about it in 2007. It's stayed in the back of my mind ever since when I learn and read and think about new things...

"Think for a Change (11): Freedom to Think Differently, or At All"

This is why I do philosophy.

"Think for a Change (12): Re: Trans Woman Attacked at McDonald's"

Unfortunately, there have been some recent events that led to recent videos and I just had to say something about this.

Thanks for reading and watching!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trust: Treading Water in the Deep

Philosophy: This week I read Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness." As philifesophical serendipity would have it, he has a whole chapter on bad faith, i.e., lying to ourselves.

Life: Lately, I've been listening to Radiolab's podcasts. With some sifting through their shows, I picked this really interesting one on deception to listen to a couple of days ago. I liked the segment on catching liars by noticing micro-facial expressions, and the last piece on self-deception (ahem, little bits of delusion) and how it might relate to personal successes. It actually reminded me of my blog post on Heroic Imaginings and Reality Checks. The middle story about Hope, the charming pathological liar, was fascinating, but it also made me sad to think about the people who trusted and supported her, and how they have struggled to trust people after all of her scams. It's not just that they can't trust others as they might have before, but that they no longer trust their own judgment of people's characters.

This podcast led into numerous conversations with friends about deception and trust, and in these conversations I felt a slight lingering of something weird come up within myself. For a while now I've left open the possibility that I myself am not a good judge of character, even though I would really like to think that I am (more on this second piece in a minute). I haven't slipped into any extreme forms of paranoia or anything, but through numerous experiences I guess, I have a heightened sensitivity to the ways that others can try to hide themselves, their intentions, manipulate situations, control another's emotions or reactions, placate, appease, etc... Perhaps more than usual, over the past year I have remained quite attentive to my doubts and worries over what other people were saying, doing, showing me, and thanks to that attentiveness, I have really worked on putting more energy into trusting people. I guess this is one reason why the vulnerability stuff from my last post speaks to me--trusting others is something I have to consciously work on.

So, to begin, we can wonder why people like me would want to be a good judge of character. I imagine it has something to do with not getting hurt, used, or disrespected. In other words, if you know that someone is a jerk, you know what to expect of them. But if someone seems nice, respectful, admirable even, like someone on whom you can depend, or with whom you can share yourself, to suddenly realize that that trust was misplaced might leave one feeling shocked, betrayed, insecure. That makes some sense, right?

This image came to mind: Meeting someone is like getting into a pool. Once you're in, you know that you're in the pool, but it's not the pool itself that can raise unsettling feelings. It's the depth that matters. I like swimming in pools when I know where the bottom is, when I can touch it with my toes. There's a certain lightness and ease that comes with being in the shallow end, like when you're only in 3 feet of water and you know that it's not going to go any deeper, but I tend to like swimming best when there's a little more depth, more room to explore. Eight feet deep means that the water is over my head if I try to get to the bottom of the pool, but I can still see it from the surface of the water.

But what happens when you get into a pool and realize that it's a pretty deep one and you can't see the bottom? Maybe it's 25 feet deep, or maybe even be more, but now it might be hard to even imagine how deep it actually goes. You can't see the bottom and you don't know what else might be lurking beneath you in the depths of this pool. There's an uneasiness attached to not knowing what surrounds you, what might come up, and that you don't have a bottom surface to ground you. What's worse, imagine that you got into this pool thinking it was six feet deep only to realize once you got in that you couldn't put your foot down and touch the bottom even if you held your breath and tried. This one's deeper that you had anticipated.

So what do you do?

Well, when you find yourself in water that is too deep for you to stand in, you have to tread. In other words, you have to learn to support yourself without having any ground to support you. It requires some skill, rhythm, breathing, technique, and if you do it well, you can tread water for quite a long time. Regardless of whether it's 10 feet or 100 feet of water that you're in, if you can tread, it all feels the same: just water passing around your feet and through your toes. It doesn't really matter where the bottom is.

I think that people can be thought of like pools. Some are shallow, some are deep, and perhaps most people don't even really know the reaches of their depth. Most people probably don't know what you might find in the deepest waters either. If it's the case that people don't know their depth, it's probably not reasonable to expect that they could reveal this to another person("Hi. I'm about 12 feet deep."), let alone expect oneself to be able to see the true measure of their depth by way of our own judgment or perception.

What this metaphor reveals, I think, is that requiring that one have "an accurate judge of character" before placing trust in another person might be missing the point. On one level, if I actually knew your depth and could see the bottom of your pool with clarity, if this constitutes my ability to judge your character, then it wouldn't really be my *trust* that I was giving you. Presumably, I would already seem to *know* you, and there would be less a sense of vulnerability, which is part of what it means to truly trust another. If I proceed in this way and think that I have trusted you, I have done so all in bad faith. I have fooled myself into thinking that I can trust you so that I feel like I do trust you. But already I have canceled out the very possibility for truly trusting.

And on another level, if one's depth and whatever might be lurking down there are some of those things that many people don't even know about themselves, this doesn't mean that we can't still swim in their pools and enjoy it. For the most part, I would like to believe, people do the best that they can, even when they don't know the measure of their depth. In order to make all of this less scary, then, one just needs to learn how to tread on her own so that she can swim, regardless of any pool's (known or unknown) depth.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whole-Hearted Vulnerability

If there is one theme that I have followed in my personal and professional and philosophical life, it is that of vulnerability. Being open and willing to be imperfect, to be dependent on and affected by others, to recognize that we are shaped by our experiences and that we close ourselves off to those experiences when we seek to control everything, especially in the effort to avert "difficult," "hard," or even painful emotions--this is the stuff of life.

For the past few months, I have been reading philosophical texts on embodiment, phenomenology, and affect. I am studying notions of intercorporeal existence, authentic love and radical generosity in the face of alterity, and psychosomatic examples of aphasia as not just a refusal to speak, but a more existential refusal of the ontological relations we have with others and the world. In other words, we are not independent, autonomous, isolated beings who can be characterized as pure minds or mechanistic machine-bodies. Rather, we exist--in body, mind, psyche, and even biochemically--in relation to others, history, culture, nature, and the world. When the conversation turns to ethics, many philosophers suggest that this leads us to notions of freedom, responsibility, and forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of my thought process during the summer before coming to graduate school. As I was familiarizing myself with theories in feminist philosophy and more "Continental" thinkers like the existentialists, there was a distinct moment when I thought, "Hasn't all of this stuff on interrelationality already been said, like thousands of years ago?" I was pretty sure that it had been, at least by one person (Seriously, though, I know there are many more).

Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha's key insights were that nothing is permanent and all things are interdependent. This means that there is a transitory nature to reality and everything that *is* comes out of a conditional, dependent arising. There is nothing eternal, independent, or separate--no soul, no essence, no simple "I" to be found. Once again, I will say that I am grateful that I was assigned to teach "Asian Philosophies" this semester, in part because I am able to have conversations with my students about what these insights mean for us in terms of our daily lives. We've talked about reframing our values, our participation in global economic markets, and even our conceptions of mental health by way of non-attachment, compassionate understanding, "seeing more clearly" the nature of things, and bearing witness to the parts of life that often lead us into dis-ease, anxiety, fear, and unhappiness--the hard facts like sickness, old age, and death. We talk about alleviating "dukkha," which is very roughly translated as "suffering," through compassion, wisdom, and non-attachment. Through practicing a bit of mindfulness and meditation, we have tried to recognize when we are motivated out of fear, aversion, confusion, or craving, even as students who need good grades to get good jobs, or boyfriends and girlfriends who might get cheated on, or (like me) food lovers who have to face that the key-lime gelato simply can't last forever. It's been a good class. I've learned a lot.

And now, I finally had time to watch this video. Some of my more "whole-hearted" friends and family members were passing it around a couple of months ago, but the delay in my viewing is not important. The message is still a good one. She's not a Continentalist philosopher who speaks with impenetrable language, and she's probably not enlightened like the Buddha, but I do think that she, as a social worker, is touching on something very fundamental about our human experiences. Turns out there may be many paths to some basics of life.

As Dr. Brene Brown notes, we live best when we feel loved, worthy, and connected to others. And yet, this is hard because it requires that we also make ourselves vulnerable. In fact, we have to face that vulnerability with an honest, courageous authenticity. And when our vulnerability enables us to feel gratitude, joy, and love in life, it also means that we must risk feeling other emotions as well, including disappointment, rejection, and being misunderstood.

Maybe there is some comfort in knowing that almost all of the people who think on this theme seem to agree on one thing: Ironically enough, it is by making oneself vulnerable that one finds the strength to deal with more difficult experiences. And more ironic still, if one's strength stems from vulnerability, one might actually be met with even greater love, belonging, and connection with others, which in turn might make even the most difficult experiences in life more manageable, or less difficult.

As great as this is, I wonder how much the less "whole-hearted" get it? Especially after trying to talk to a room of thirty 19-21 year olds for the past thirteen weeks about these ideas and frequently having to myself admit that I have hit some brick pedagogical walls when they admit that they just don't get it, these insights seem less like the kind of stuff that can be taught. We can talk about it, but that does not mean that it will be heard and understood, although I wish it would. I have the sense that these sort of things have to be figured out and experienced for oneself. And that might take some time. Probably more than a semester. Perhaps even a lifetime.

So, here's to the practice and the journey!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The End of the World: Undertaking Whatever is Hardest

This reflection was written in response to a paper by Ladelle McWhorter, which she presented at Penn State last week for a conference that honored the work of Charles Scott.

Reflecting on Charles Scott’s role as one of her most influential teachers, Ladelle McWhorter focused her paper, “Whatever is Hardest,” on the ethical question of teaching. Looking back on her own experiences in Scott’s classes, McWhorter described Scott’s practice of philosophy as one that enacts an experience and creates a philosophical event. It is a practice that opens up possibilities for seeing, feeling, and thinking. While describing her experiences of sitting through his lectures, McWhorter reflected that “something philosophical had happened to me.” This, she explains, is because Scott’s practice of philosophy is a kind of undertaking that requires a willingness to turn toward that which we do not know and what we fear that we will never understand. It is a willingness to turn toward and stand with the excess, with whatever is hardest.

Teaching undergraduate students is hard. It may even be one of the hardest things to do because, as McWhorter noted, one of the central goals of teaching is to make students aware of their intellectual and ethical freedom, that is, to make thinking in general and thinking on particular questions possible again. Nearly any teacher can attest to just how challenging it can be to get students thinking, and thinking freely. To make things even harder still, McWhorter discussed her recent experiences of teaching environmental ethics to her students. The difficulty of this task does not stem from the controversy of intrinsic value or anthropocentrism, but rather from the fact that if one pays attention to the consequences of human production and consumption and the state of our planet’s water, ground, and atmosphere, one has to face the gravity of our environmental crisis. The thousands of poisonous toxins in our ecosystems and bodies, the increase in cancer rates, sea-level rise, thawing permafrost, gigatons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, and the utter necessity of petroleum to power anything and everything in our current lifestyles, all of this leads to what was frequently referred to as “impending catastrophes of epic proportions.” Acknowledging these statistics and likelihoods while taking on the responsibility to teach young minds and answer their questions of “What do we do?” in the face of Armageddon, doomsday, the end of life as we know it—this is hard, perhaps one of the hardest things to do.

Before I continue on with the rest of McWhorter’s paper, it is worth noting what was coming up for me as I listened. While sitting through her descriptions of the very sad and scary state of affairs in which we live, it was hard not to feel at least a little bit overwhelmed, if not completely panicked. Thanks to her diligent research, McWhorter was able to paint a detailed picture with facts and numbers (often too large in size and effect to really comprehend) that illustrated the interrelated risks which threaten our lives and the planet. It must have been about forty-five minutes of relentless evidence explaining how we are hopelessly doomed because even if we deal with poison in the water, we still have to worry about rising temperatures, and so on... The magnitude of our problems, the level of crisis facing our planet, is so large and so great that describing these “impending catastrophes of epic proportions” as “the end of the world” would be no exaggeration. I can imagine how the sheer act of sitting through her paper could easily have been enough to put some people over the edge.

But as I started to shift around in my seat and feel my palms sweat, exchanging nervous glances with those next to me, I couldn’t help but notice that it was really hard to sit through McWhorter’s paper. It was hard because her descriptions put us face to face with the most difficult realities, the most terrifying statistics, and the most uncertain of futures. Much like her descriptions of Scott’s lectures, McWhorter’s paper gave me the distinct sense that “something philosophical” was happening to us. And as if this one-hour paper paralleled the experiences of her class on environmental ethics, I found myself echoing her students and wanting to ask, “What do we do? What can we do? What should we do?” When McWhorter described her answers to her students, it seemed that now they were also appropriately directed to us, those in the audience who evidenced a willingness to turn toward these difficult realities and a future full of frightful uncertainties. She said, “I don’t know.”

It was at this point when McWhorter returned to the ethical question of teaching. When the future of the world is not going to be the same for her students as it was for previous generations, different even from their parents’ and professors’ generations, what might teaching be at this juncture? McWhorter even wonders if it is wrong to lead her students in the environmental ethics class to the end of this road, where they stand together and look out onto a future without being able to see how it looks, perhaps if it is even there.

These questions are interesting for me because as McWhorter described a type of “border” relationship that separates her from her undergraduate students—they belong to the future in a different way than she does—I immediately recognized myself as living on the border. I am part of this generation that is growing up in the face of what is yet to come, but I also have my own students to whom I feel responsible to equip for the future. With the double weight of student and teacher on my shoulders, I listened closely to what McWhorter said next.

McWhorter offered her students (and me, and perhaps even my students through me) this much: You will have to live and face the unimaginable. We can’t prepare you for the challenges and problems that you will have to meet and try to overcome. Don’t let your parents and your teachers dictate your choices. In short, you’re free.

With a moment to let the words sink in, I felt something. Better? Not really. But I did feel something. Something philosophical? There was a moment, I guess, and in that moment I had the increased sense that teaching at the turn of the 21st century is an especially unique task. But there was something more. I know that I am not only teaching, but I am also a student. I am also learning. And the freedom involved in teaching and learning in this moment is a freedom of release, of openness, of possibility. It’s not just a freedom to vote or a power to choose to live green, but a different kind of freedom, grounded in contingency, and with that, not-knowing.

I can’t help but agree that one of the most important goals of teaching is to make students aware of their intellectual and ethical freedom, to make thinking possible again. This was one of the most significant reminders that I gained from listening to McWhorter’s paper, in part because it reminded me that my own thinking is also free. But I can’t forget that the paper was written and presented to honor the work of her own teacher, Charles Scott, especially in celebration of his practice of philosophy, a practice that pursues whatever is hardest. So maybe, after all of this, I actually was feeling a bit better. I was feeling better because for that hour I was put back in a place of acknowledging that I am also a part of a "lineage" of sorts of people who seek to embrace how studying and teaching philosophy as a transformative practice can open up new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. Approached in this way, philosophy is already an ethical undertaking. And there is something important contained within that attitude and approach. Part of me was relieved to know that I am shaped by and following in the footsteps of others, that despite the hugeness of it all, there is a way to move in the world. So, in addition to freedom and a bit of philosophical company, one might also find there a small sense of hope.