Thursday, August 28, 2008

Women Are Hybrids

My whole life I've felt kind of like a combination between a woman and a man. I'm not sure what I mean by that exactly, except that I like traditional guy things, like math, and also traditional girl things, like shopping for shoes and kittens.

I'm a hybrid. I've always wanted a serious career, and I've always wanted to have matching sets of towels at home. I like being a wise-guy, but I'm also empathetic.

I feel it at my job. I teach philosophy, and most of my colleagues are guys, and we have a kind of rough-and-tumble style where we argue a lot, and for the most part I think that's great. On the other hand, when I'm with my female colleagues, or my female graduate students, I enjoy chatting about clothes, and family members, and our lives, in ways I find hard to do with guys.

At first I thought I was unusual in being a hybrid. But then I realized that even though there are varying degrees, all women these days are hybrids. Women work outside the home, manage money, do all the traditional guy things, and also mother, nurture, make dinner, do all the traditional woman things.

The number of comic strips about women being "conflicted" about their family roles and their public roles shows that it really is more like being a hybrid than a new coherent entity. It's putting two things together that no one's really sure how to make them fit.

My next realization, though, was that not only are all women hybrids now, they've always been hybrids. No one has ever been the feminine ideal as it's been constructed through western history. You can see it going all the way back: women trying to live the passive life they're told is feminine, while also wanting the more active life they're told is masculine.

When you put it that way, it seems there's no way for a woman not to be a hybrid. The things we associate with humanity -- like autonomy -- are things we associate with masculinity. So to be a female person is to combine feminine virtues with masculine ones.

So it's not just me.

What should we do? Junk the ideals of femininity in hopes of forging a new coherent self? Be happy being conflicted?

Personally I think conflicted is just fine: there's enough hours in a day to teach class at 1 and shop for shoes at 4:30.

The whole unity of virtues thing - it's kind of a guy idea anyway.

So I say: let's stay hybrids, and take fly the banner of ambivalence with pride.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Long View Of Life

I've been a little under the weather the past few days, so I'm not up to regular standards of originality and so on. Nothing serious: just a few aches, pains, upset stomach, whatever.

After I wrote this post about being a culture snob, and about reading Proust, I thought to myself, "You know, you last read those books over ten years ago. Wouldn't they be worth reading again?" So I started in with Volume 1.

I'm just getting toward the end of Volume 2. And honestly, what I'm struck by is how deeply sad these books are. Even when the story is happy, the reflections are really fucking sad.

Or, at least, they're making me sad. I don't remember feeling quite this way the first time, so maybe I'm just getting old.

One reason they may have this effect on me is that Proust often takes the long view of life: he sees the arc of a human life, and humans, as if from a long way off. Here's Proust talking about some girls he meets as an adolescent. These are girls he worships from afar and is finally is introduced to. He can't help but think of their future selves, and of the future selves of all of us, and of how little we know ourselves:

"I knew that, as deep, as ineluctable as Jewish patriotism or Christian atavism in those who imagine themselves to be the most emancipated of their race, there dwelt beneath the rosy inflorescence of Albertine, Rosemonde, Andree, unknown to themselves, held in reserve until the occasion should arise, a coarse nose, a protruding jaw, a paunch which would create a sensation when it appeared, but which was actually in the wings, ready to come on, unforeseen, inevitable, just as it might be a burst of Dreyfusianism or clericalism or patriotic, feudal heroism, emergins suddenly in answer to the call of circumstance from a nature anterior to the individual himself, through which he thinks, lives, evolves, gains strength or dies, without ever being able to distinguish that nature from the particular motives he mistakes for it."

The truth of these kinds of observations makes me feel really unhappy. So much so that I wonder if my aches and pains and upset stomach aren't somehow a symptom of reading. Isn't that what melancholy is like? The long view of life is tough.

People like to say that there's a kind of moral responsibility to believe the truth. And it's cases like this that always make me wonder how far that's supposed to go. If I believe the truth about my own decay and my own ignorance about myself, I might not have the force of life required for getting up and going about the day. So can I just pretend that today is forever? Or is that irresponsible somehow?

I contemplated giving up the Proust re-reading project, but as that passage shows, even though these books are sad they're also really funny. Just typing out "would create a sensation when it appeared," when applied to a someone's paunch, made me laugh. So in addition to the obvious reasons (greatness etc.), there's that.

Maybe I'll take the books with a couple of advil. I'll let you know how that goes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I Learned From Guys

I've spent a lot of my life around guys. I don't play sports, but I've studied guy-ish things, and I work in a field with mostly guys.

Here are some things I've learned from guys:

1. Pretend to have more confidence than you actually have.

Guys just act like they know what's what, even when they don't. They don't try to be honest about their insecurities, hoping someone will reassure them. This is wise. No one knows who is pretending. And when things are tense, almost everyone prefers to deal with someone keeping up a good front rather than someone in confessional tension mode.

2. Just get on with it.

When things go wrong, it's not always necessary to figure out what happened, or understand what it all means. Often feeling OK about stuff just comes naturally if you move on. Just get on with it: go to bed, wake up, start over, forget about it.

3. It doesn't matter if the bathroom is dirty.

Unless it's really filthy, no one will notice or care. If it's a choice between cleaning the bathroom and having a cocktail, guys say, have a cocktail.

4. Dumb things like pinball, video games, comic books, and adventure movies are fun.

I kind of had to develop a taste for these mindless pleasures, but now I see their true, deep, and enduring value.

5. Bring home the bacon.

Nothing gives you independence and power like a good salary. Sure, money doesn't buy happiness. But stop earning money and pretty soon you're cooking someone's meals and cleaning their kitchen floor, while they're zoning out with Baywatch. Having your own money doesn't prevent such a state of affairs, but not having your own money gives you no way out of them.

I'm sure there are other things but I can't think of them now. This is not to say, of course, that there aren't things guys should learn from me. But that's a post for another day.

Thanks guys!

Monday, August 18, 2008

No "General System Of Mendacity"?

For various reasons I've been thinking about what happens when people act, or judge, in ways that fail to fit a coherent or systematic pattern. It's tempting to say that there's something funny, or wrong, when someone who always acts or judges in accordance with a policy or system then acts or judges against that policy.

If someone goes around denouncing various behaviors, and gets all high and mighty about it, and then engages in the very same behavior herself, or approves of it in her friends, well, it's really annoying.

Sometimes such a person is judging, or acting, in a way that is hypocritical, or morally creepy. To judge according to one set of standards for person A and another for person B just because you like B better violates the demands of fairness. So there can be a moral condemnation.

But some people have the intuition that it's more than "unfair" to do this -- that it is somehow a violation of reason. It's "irrational" not to judge like cases alike. To which one always wants to say, "what on earth makes one case like another"?

I don't buy this irrationality move, myself. But in thinking about why it's wrong, I was struck by how hard it is to even say what is going on when someone judges in a way that seems "arbitrary," or non-systematic.

Because there are actually several things that can produce the effect, and they're all different.

Of course, a person may just be judging non-systematically and letting their emotions run away with them. That's the ordinary case.

But it could also be that a person has a kind of fucked-up policy in the first place. If someone's policy or system is to judge their friends according to one standard and strangers according to another policy, then they haven't violated their policy when they judge their friends differently. They just have an odd sense of priorities in the first place.

Then, too, a person might be in the process of changing his mind. If I have a policy of judging that something is bad, but then my friend gets involved, I may decide that I was dumb to judge so harshly in the first place, and I might change my policy.

The kicker with the last thing is that not only can I change my policy, I can change it back. How much of this can go on before you start to think the person doesn't really have a policy at all?

In the second and third case, what's irrational?

Imagine R is very harsh in judging drug use: he thinks it is immoral and that the people who use drugs are evil. Then R's nephew gets addicted to drugs and R becomes compassionate and says his nephew is a good kid.

On my three readings, R might be simply allowing his love to get in the way of his judgment, or he may have a set of priorities under which love for family members generally trumps judging them harshly, or he may find that interaction with his nephew changes his mind about drug use.

It's tempting to think we can distinguish the cases by looking at someone's future behavior, but it's not so clear. After all, if R judges a stranger harshly next time, we still don't know whether it's part of a policy or he's just changed his mind back.

While I've been pondering this, I've been rereading Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Proust describes Odette as someone who acts and judges in a way that fails to be systematic: Odette lies, to her lover Swann, when she finds it useful to do so.

Swann appeals to her sense of coquettry: "can't you see how much of your attraction you throw away when you stoop to lying?"

But it doesn't work, because Odette has no policy of lying:

"In vain, however, did Swann expound to her thus all the reasons that she had for not lying; they might have succeeded in overthrowing a general system of mendacity, but Odette had no such system; she was simply content whenever she wished Swann to remain in ignorance of anything she had done, not to tell him of it. So that lying for her was an expedient of a specific order, and the only thing that could make her decide whether she should avail herself of it or confess the truth was a reason that was also of a specific or contingent order, namely the chance of Swann's discovering that she had not told him the truth."

Even with all these details, I'm not totally sure. Is Odette someone with a policy of not lying, who gets carried away by self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of telling the truth, except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of self-interest only: she only tells the truth when it's in her own interest to do so?

I'm inclined to think it's the second one myself: she has a policy of telling the truth except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest. In that case, Odette's lying isn't really an exception, at all. It's just part of the program.

We can say that there's something morally fishy about such a life program. But irrational? Not so much.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I Like Babies

I don't have any children of my own, but I have always liked babies.

I'll tell you why. Babies have the same emotional moodiness we have, but where we cover up our moods with stupid rationalizations and hit-or-miss guesses about what's "really" bothering us, babies are honest. They just have moods.

A lot of times when grown-ups are unhappy, they're just unhappy; it's not like there's some big thing wrong that a cookie and a nap won't make better. But part of being grown up means having "reasons" for feeling bad. You can't just say, "Wah!" You have to say, "It's not fair!" And then you have to explain.

Not that there aren't things that are unfair. There are, and they're worth getting upset about. But often, people just feel bad, in an elementary way, for no reason at all. And it would be nice if, like babies, we could just say, "Wah! I feel bad." And instead of recommending that anyone who feels bad for no reason had better consult a psychiatrist and get a prescription for Prozac, we could just, you know, put them in a bouncy swing, or tuck them in for a nap with some Zweibacks.

It's weird, but most of the time when I hear and see babies crying, it doesn't really bother me. I mean as long as it's normal crying. Sometimes babies cry in that desperate way that is completely freaky and panic-inducing, and that really is upsetting.

But as long as it's normal crying, my basic reaction to crying babies isn't "Ugh, that baby is crying!" but rather, "Hi baby. Unhappy? Believe me, I know how you feel. Welcome to human life."

Toddlers, not so much. Because you know what toddlers are saying. "It's not fair!"

It's the basic transition from baby to person. It's got some good aspects, but I'm not sure this is one of them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

When The Rapture Comes, Please Practice Auto and Bike Safety

There's a T-shirt shop near my house that often displays a shirt that says,


When I see it I often start reflecting on what it would be like to have God come down just for the purposes of checking things out -- you know, seeing how we're doing.

I'm an atheist, and an academic, so when I picture God he's always a cross between a fond parent and an authoritative thesis advisor.

This is corny, but one thing I'd like to show God when he comes is the Olympics. I'm not even into sports, and I know there's a lot not to like about the Olympics, but the whole people-from-everywhere all-coming-together to-play-some-games thing always knocks me out.

Today I was at the gym and the TV was showing men's Beach Volleyball, a match between Brazil and Italy. The Canadian announcers explained that Canada hadn't made the qualifying rounds, so there were no Canadian men competing in this sport. Then they explained that it was very hard to tell how the mostly local, Chinese, crowd was rooting, except when China was actually competing, and so the local guy was trying to get them to show their allegiances.

This is all kind of awesome.

Look, God: Here we have cooperation. Playfulness. Tolerance. Peace. At least for a couple of weeks, in one place. Sorry about the oceans all being full of garbage and all the suffering all, but look, we're trying, OK?

There are so many awful things you'd be ashamed to show God that it's not really fun to think of a list. I was trying to think of something really specific that I'd be embarassed about, on behalf of the human race, in addition to all the big and obvious things, and then I remembered the story in the Times yesterday about the consequences of more bicyclists being on the roads these days.

Horrific. Cars banging into people, running them off the road; drivers intentionally harming cyclists; cyclists refusing to obey the rules; cyclists acting like once they get enough people all together they can rewrite the goddamn rules.

Turns out, news flash: people are in a hurry, and they regard their own business as, like, really important.

Now this is really embarassing. Chaos, mayhem, pain, injury, death, for what exactly? Shaving a few minutes off your commute? No. Sorry. If God is coming, this will make us look seriously ridiculous. Time to act like grownups.

Anyway, after we tour the Olympics, and stay away from the traffic hotspots, I'd like to show God the internet and Wikipedia, which are both incredible sources of cooperation and playfulness. I guess the internet's got a way to go on tolerance and peace, but you know, we're trying. Nobody's perfect. Down here anyway.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bad Behavior And Tolerance In Traffic And Beyond

"traffic jam" from nicpic's flickr stream. Used under Creative Commons license.

You may have missed the excellent piece in The Sunday Times on traffic behaviors: "The Urge to Merge," by Cynthia Gorney. I almost missed it; I just happened to click on it because, even though I don't have a car, I'm kind of obsessed with traffic.

Gorney talks about two kinds of traffic mentalities, which I'm sure are familiar to everyone.

The "lineuppers" quietly get in place at the end of the line in whatever lane they know they're going to end up in.

The "sidezoomers" zoom past all those patient lineuppers, using whatever lanes happen to be open, then edging their way into the proper lane when the time comes.

The lineuppers are all, "Those goddamn #$%& ing sidezoomers! No sense of fair play! No sense of respect! I'll NEVER let them edge their way in."

The sidezoomers are all, "Meh, all this kerfuffle about nothing! Obviously, the traffic moves fastest when all the available space is used. I'm just trying to, you know, move everyone along. So CHILL, lineuppers."

To my utter delight, Gorney decides to determine, once and for all, who is right, by talking to some actual traffic experts.

Various hilarity ensues, and you should really read the article. But what I can't stop thinking about is the conclusion, which is about as frustrating and annoying as a conclusion could possibly be.

Traffic, it turns out, moves fastest when most people are linuppers, but some are sidezoomers, and -- get this -- when the linuppers just patiently let the sidezoomers in.

I know it's wrong to extrapolate from traffic, to cooperation in general, to morality and free-riders, to the overall meaning of life, but I couldn't help myself.

Think what this means for human existence. Cooperation works best when most people behave, but a few people don't, and when the misbehavior is patiently tolerated?

I find this conclusion just beyond infuriating. I mean, it's one thing if it's best for everyone to be a lineupper. And it's one thing if it's best for most people to be lineuppers, and for the linuppers to punish the sidezoomers. Or at least get to feel really indignant about them.

But the idea that not only is it best when there are sidezoomers, but that the sidezoomers can't be punished? Really. Beyond infuriating.

The fucking icing on the cake, of course, is that not only does the sidezoomer get home earlier, he's probably having a great time, listening to music, chillin', talking on the phone . . . meanwhile the poor linupper not only gets home later, but he has to get all angry and upset along the way. At those goddamn sidezoomers.

Fast forward forty years, the sidezoomer is sipping cocktails at the lineuppers funeral, after the linupper dies of a heart attack from all that indignation he wasn't allowed to express.

I mean, I know "life isn't fair," and all that, but this is ridiculous!

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Devil's Advocate And The Devil Himself

Yesterday, like a lot of people, I read the Times story about the internet trolls with a kind of horrified fascination.

I knew there were people who would say things they didn't believe, or ask dumb questions, just to get other people riled up. And I knew anonymous comments boards could be horrifically nasty and stupid.

But I didn't know there was this kind of connection between internet cruelty and real-life cruelty and harassment, like when some kids call up and mock the family of a teenager who killed himself. And I didn't know the people who act this way consider it an important or meaningful thing, or that they act together or even that they talk to each other. But there is, and they do, and they do.

I hope all C and C readers will join me in saying, "ZOMG WTF is wrong with these people?"

Anyway, here are three quick thoughts on the whole trolling concept.

1) There's a whole "back up your arguments!" "you can't just say that!" "you have to logically prove your point!" thing you find from regular commenters and trolls alike on message boards, and there's a bit of it here on the Times blog-form discussion of the story. That aspect is hilarious if you happen to teach at a university, like I do. I mean, every day I'm in the classroom asking students to have opinions, to disagree with one another, and to freakin' back up their opinions using logic. Usually I can't get a peep out of them, and when I do, they're usually trying to reconcile some other disagreeing views to show how they really "fit together." Why does this kind of "arguing" and demand for logic come so naturally online to people who shun it so vigorously in real life?

2) The obvious answer is "anonymity." I know, I know, people want to argue when it's anonymous, and they don't want to argue when they're sitting in a room together. I don't really get why this is so, but people have told me it's true, and I believe them. I get why people want to say "*%#@ you, you %$#%ing ^@#$&(@!!!" when they're anonymous, not that it's a taste I share myself. But arguing and demanding reason and logic? That is what you do for fun when no one knows who you are?

3) There are people, some of whom also commented on the Times blog post discussion, who like to say, "Well, I wouldn't do anything really bad, but I do like to stir up trouble on internet discussions by saying stuff I don't really believe in order to get a rise out of people. In order to, you know, get them to back up their arguments. I'm playing Devil's advocate."

As a philosophy professor I suppose I should be thrilled that someone wants to have a debate, but you know what? I think this sort of behavior is actually not OK. I mean, it's fine to say, of something people actually believe but you don't, "I don't really believe X but some people do, and what do you say to that?"

But to pretend to believe something so someone will have to back up and prove to you the opposite is true? Beyond sophomoric, and entering the territory of evil. First, it creates in every reader's mind the possibility he is surrounded by morons or worse. Second, it uses up everyone's time and energy on stupid stuff. Finally, it just makes us all feel like we're surrounded by a bunch of disagreeing and disagreeable weirdos.

So: playing devil's advocate? OK if you're among friends, OK if you explain you're just playing devil's advocate, and if you have a reason. Otherwise? Knock it off!!