The price of being a philosophically irresponsible idiot

[excerpt from The Blasphemy Tour, Jass Richards.  Reprinted with permission.]


“We hope you’re enjoying Texas?” the show’s host said, after he introduced Dylan and Rev as his first guests of the day.

“Well, we’re a little puzzled by all the American flags. Outside on people’s houses and their lawns—we’ve even been seeing them sticking up in the middle of the forest, at people’s cabins presumably. What an eyesore.”

She didn’t notice the intake of breath.

“Well,” the host replied, “many people fly the flag because they have a son or daughter serving overseas.”

Rev hadn’t thought about that. She did now. Then said, “And why would they want to advertise such stupidity?”

“Well, it’s not stupid,” the host was trying to be calm. “Wanting to serve your country—”

“Oh please. Most of the people who enlist wouldn’t give their fellow Americans the time of day. I’ll bet they never volunteered at a soup kitchen or even gave up their seat on the subway. Suddenly they’re willing to—”

“They’re fighting for our freedom,” the host interjected.

“Yeah? How? How exactly does killing someone in Afghanistan or wherever make that guy—” Rev pointed at random to the one of the techies, of which there were suddenly several, all paying rather close attention to what was going on—“free? He looks pretty free to me already.”

The host tried again. “They’re bringing democracy to a country—”

“—they know nothing about. Most of them couldn’t even point to it on a map. Every time I see coverage of American soldiers overseas, they’re shouting at its residents in English. And then they’re angry when the people they’re shouting at don’t do what they’re told. Apparently it doesn’t even occur to the soldiers that they speak a different language. What, they think the world speaks their language? How arrogant. Or just stupid.

“Which explains why they really go,” she continued. “They get suckered in by the ads, about courage, honor, glory. ‘I’ll do what my country asks me to do,’ they say with such self-righteousness. Oh please. Who asked? Name one person who came to you and said, ‘Hey, John, could you please go kill that person for me.’

“And then they come back all distraught and messed up because they did just that. Like it’s such a horrible surprise. The six weeks of being taught how to load and shoot a gun should’ve been a clue.”

“Well, they thought they’d just be killing—”

“The bad guys? What are they, twelve?”


“I get, and admire, the desire to be a hero. It’s just that in the context of war, heroism is—” she paused, trying to find the right word, “—manufactured.”

No one seemed to understand what she was getting at, so she turned back.

“Look, you sign up to be a soldier, you kill people. At the very least, you hurt them. And they scream, and bleed, when their arms and legs are blown off. Especially the kids. Go figure. Did you think they’d get up and walk away after they’d been shot?” She spoke into the camera. As she’d been instructed.

“And now you want to kill yourself because you can’t live with what you did. Or, worse, because you can. You didn’t anticipate that? Why the hell not!”

Dylan noticed that a few people in suits had moved in among the growing crowd of techies. As had Tucker.

“How is it you have no idea what happens in war? Wilfrid Owen. 1916. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1929. M.A.S.H. 1970. Coming Home, Apocalypse Now. Late 70s. Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War. 80s. In the Valley of Elah! Every generation comes back and tells us. This is nothing new. Where have you been?

“I’ll tell you. With your head in the sand and your hands on your video games, dreaming little boy dreams of being a hero.

“Did you think it wouldn’t actually be you to pull the trigger? Zimbardo! Milgram! We have done the studies. We know what happens when people are put in that situation. And it’s not like these studies are hidden or censored. Anyone can go to a library and sign out a book on psychology, a book on group influence, peer pressure, indoctrination, brainwashing, there are lots of them. You can even get one on eBay. For ninety-nine cents.”

One of the suited men had started making throat-slitting gestures to the host, who was trying, unsuccessfully of course, to stop Rev. Tucker quietly moved to stand behind the man, ready in case—well, ready.

“And it’s not like you had to sign up. If you’d been forced to do it, that would be different. If someone had held a gun to your own kids’ heads, that would be different. But you chose to go. You chose to subject yourself to military conditioning and now you’re crying because it worked.

“So if you ask me,” she said, fully aware that no one had asked her, “you deserve every sleepless night, every nightmare, every flashback you’re now getting. You should have known. That you didn’t is your own fault.

No one jumped into the silence that followed.

“And you should have thought about it. Before you did it. But you didn’t, and now you’re a mess. Well good. You should be. That’s the price of being a philosophically irresponsible idiot. Not to have thought through the ethics of it—it’s a failure of personal responsibility.” She looked squarely into the camera again. “Again, what are you, twelve?”

“But if you question the morality,” the host pointed out, “you’re labelled a bleeding heart. A boyscout. A pussy.”

She looked at him. “Since when did ethics become a girl thing? And besides, so what? You ignore right and wrong just to avoid being called a pussy? When your loved ones tell you they’re enlisting, you don’t try to stop them? Because you don’t want to appear weak? You should tell them what fools they’re being! Tell them it’s a suicide mission no matter how it turns out!”

Dylan noticed then that many of the people, actually all of them except the one still slitting his throat, were nodding, silently applauding, or giving a thumbs up.

“And please, enough with the talk about ‘psychological injury’ and trouble ‘transitioning’. Since when is ‘transition’ a verb?

“And ‘post-traumatic-stress-disorder’—give me a break. It’s guilt. Nothing more, nothing less. Guilt for having done something monstrously wrong, something cruel, something barely justifiable. And since when is guilt a disorder?”

“So,” Dylan said in the heavy silence that followed, “You wanted to ask us something about our tour—of enlightenment?”

Vote? WTF?

So I noticed the “Question of the Day” feature on the Weather Network website, which typically poses a question along with four response options, inviting site visitors to “Vote”. I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect this sort of thing is not unusual.

Which makes it all the more disturbing.

Why? Because often the question is a matter of fact. For example, on September 5, the question was “Which of these animals is Saskatchewan’s provincial animal?” And four options were provided: Caribou, White-tailed deer, Bison, Spirit bear, Big horn sheep.

(Other times, the question is something like “Did this summer feel longer, shorter, or the same as other summers?” And site visitors are invited to “view the results”. What self-respecting adult cares or is even curious about such a thing?)

To vote means to express your preference as part of a decision-making process. Voting on facts is an oxymoron. (What, if the majority believe the world is flat, it is?) The feature should be titled “Test your knowledge” and invite site visitors to indicate the correct answer.

It would be disturbing enough if it was just an incorrect use of our language. Or, if not evidence of ignorance, then evidence of sloppiness, of inattentiveness. Because this is not some obscure little site. This is The Weather Network.

But along with relentless requests for feedback at every second site and the ubiquitous “Like” feature, the effect of such “voting” is to make us feel engaged with the world when we are so not. It instils a false sense of self-worth in people who are, let’s be frank, pretty worthless.

(Only in part because they’re taking the time to express their opinions on such trivial matters.)

(And probably not taking the time to develop and express informed opinions on matters of importance.)

Transgendered Courage

Transgendered people are often seen as courageous; they have the guts to take radical steps to become the people they really are. But I don’t see them as any different from people, mostly women, who get nip-and-tuck surgeries, botox, and breast enlargements. After all, they too take radical steps to become the people they feel they really are – youthful and sexually attractive.

I understand the mismatch between what’s inside and what’s outside. Really I do. I look like a middle-aged woman. But I don’t feel like a middle-aged woman. At all. I feel like a young gun, still burning at both ends. Mixed metaphor and all.

Transgendered people aren’t snubbing sex stereotypes; they’re reinforcing them. You’re in a woman’s body but you don’t feel like a woman? You don’t want to wear make-up, high heels, and a dress? You’re not into gossip and giggles? So don’t do any of that shit.  You’d rather play football and fix the car?  So do that shit instead.  You don’t need to get a male body.

You’re in a male body but you’d really like to wear lavender chiffon and spend the day baking cupcakes and arranging flowers? So do it.

If we had more people with the courage to just do what they wanted to do, regardless of what others think they should do based on their indefensible notion of a sexual dichotomy based, in turn, on physical appearance, if we had more people who were willing to stand up to the consequent taunts and ostracization, maybe eventually the taunts and ostracization would disappear.

We Won!

“We won!” a neighbor crows to me. Apparently she’d watched a game of some kind on television the night before.

“What ‘we’?” I snort. Okay, scoff. “You had nothing to do with it.” She probably spent the whole game, and much of her life, eating potato chips and drinking beer.

The conversation ends. She can’t think about it.

She can’t see that her enthusiasm is manufactured. That her ‘support’ for her team isn’t support at all. That ‘her’ team isn’t her team at all. She can’t see that she’s been deluded into thinking that she’s somehow part of it, that she somehow has a stake in it.

Another neighbor, who’d been watching the Olympics, says the same thing. “We won!”

I point out to her as well that she had nothing to do with it.

“Well,” she makes a lame attempt to justify her feelings, “we’re Canadian.”

“I’m Canadian. But when I get a book published, you don’t cheer ‘We got published!'”

And if you did, I’d smack you upside the head.

How can she feel even a little bit of pride and achievement? She did nothing! Not one push-up, not one lap around the track.

“Well,” she tries again, “I support the team with my taxes.”

“And you support my writing with your taxes as well. Whenever I get a grant from the Arts Council,” I explain.

She still doesn’t see it. She doesn’t see that her emotions are being manipulated by the sports corporations, who want to deliver as many potential customers as possible to the companies who buy the advertisements that pay their salaries, because the more viewers, the more they can charge for those advertisements.

Quite apart from that, it’s no coincidence that sports are dominated by men. Or, rather, it’s no coincidence that it’s predominantly men’s sports that get television coverage. It’s just another way of making sure men are the center of the universe. My god, how many television stations are devoted to just sports? Why in god’s name does sport get a regular time slot in the daily news? As if men playing a game is as important as a war! And more important than the changing of our climate (which doesn’t get a regular time slot in the daily news)!

Which makes her ‘We won!’ just a little bit ironic.

Rethinking Nero and the Gas Chamber Accompanists

One of the most memorable scenes for me from all the movies I’ve seen is the one in The Titanic when it’s clear the ship is sinking, they’re all going to die, and the first violinist of the chamber group looks to each member of the group and receives confirmation that ‘Yes, of course, we’re going to do this’ — not because it’s their job (like that sad character in McKeller’s Last Night) or because they want to soothe or distract the hysterical (who surely won’t be paying any attention), but because they’re musicians. And, despite their gig on the Titanic, music is everything. So what a way to die! To have as the last thing on one’s mind that score, to have that beautiful music be the last thing one hears, to draw the bow with one’s last breath —

So Nero fiddling while Rome burned and the people who played as the others walked to the gas chambers — not cowardice (because I’ve wondered what I would’ve done if I’d been given the order to play), not callousness, not endorsement, not mockery, not even comfort. But respect. If I can do nothing, at least I will give (you) beauty, I will honor (your) life with all of my skill and all of my art —

Dismissing Philosophers

“Yes, well, that’s a philosophical question, isn’t it.” So, what, the question’s unimportant? Because it can’t be answered with quantitative certainty? But philosophical questions can be answered with more or less strength, more or less adequacy.

Also, since there’s no absolutely right or wrong answer to most philosophical questions, the consensus seems to be that anyone can ‘do’ philosophy.  In one sense, that’s true.  Anyone can do philosophy.  Anyone can do physics too.  It’s just that incompetence, inadequacy, will be more apparent in the latter case.  Because there are right and wrong answers.  Most of the time.  At least at the lower levels.

But that’s true of much philosophy too.  It’s just that we haven’t trained people to see mistakes in reasoning as much as we’ve trained them to see mistakes in arithmetic.  (Which is, partly, why people mistakenly think all opinions are equally valid.)

Not only are philosophical questions dismissed, philosophers too are dismissed.  After all, they’re no better than the rest of us.  Their opinions are no more valid.  I’m starting to see the dismissal of scientists in the same way: it occurs when the person doesn’t understand science – after all, if you don’t understand the scientific process of hypothesis formulation and testing, if you don’t understand how scientists arrive at their opinions, you won’t consider scientific opinions any more valid.  Similarly with philosophers: if you don’t understand the relationship of premise and conclusion, the necessity of relevance…

Mainstream and Alternative

So I was browsing the movie collection at my online DVD rental site and feeling so very tired and bored with movies by men, about men, for men.  My request list had dwindled to almost zero, and I wasn’t finding anything I was interested in.  So I decided to check out the “Alternative” section for at least an off-beat movie (by men, about men, for men) and WOH.  There they were! The movies by women. About women. For women. Lots and lots of movies with women front and center. Strong, interesting women. 

So I’m thinking, what a labeling mistake.  Why don’t they just call the mainstream ‘male’ and the alternative/indie ‘female’.   (Oh.  Right.)


Being Josh

[Another old one, but it still applies…]

It’s Monday night basketball, an all-comers pick-up game, supposed to be fun and a good sweat. But week after week I steel myself against the anger, the frustration of not knowing how to correct the problem, and the despair of not being able to even begin to do just that. Eventually it happens: this time it’s Josh who yells at me to switch, to guard the new grade niner who’s just come onto the court to sub for the guy who’d been guarding Josh and Josh would guard the guy I’d been guarding.

I am distracted, as always, by the insult, the unwarranted assumption that I’m always the worst player there (even worse than the new grade niners) (although I’m thirty-five and played basketball throughout high school), and by the faulty logic that weak offensive players* are weak defensive players and should therefore guard other weak offensive players.

Nevertheless, I manage to focus on yet another problematic aspect of the shouted order: that it was an order, and it was given with the full expectation of compliance. How is it, I thus have occasion to wonder yet again, that a kid, a 17-year-old less than half my age, believes he can tell me what to do, believes he knows better than me? The answer is simple: he’s male. And I’m female. If I were a man over twice his age, he’d keep his thoughts to himself. And if he were a girl, he wouldn’t even have such thoughts.

When Chodorow wrote “Being and Doing”, a ground-breaking analysis of sexism in terms of passivity (of being, of women) and activity (of doing, of men), she got it right – but she also got it wrong. Josh is so easy in his authority over me simply because he’s male, simply because he is male. He hasn’t had to do anything to gain that authority, or the respect I feel myself giving him just before I catch myself acting like Pavlov’s dog. The confidence, the assurance, the arrogance that he must have to even think he can just tell me what to do – he has it just because he’s male. And he probably started developing it as soon as he realized he was indeed male: I’ve heard 5-year-old boys speak with the same kind of authority.

Women, on the other hand, have to do – we have to earn respect, we don’t just get it automatically. And I’m not sure we ever achieve any authority, no matter what we do.

And of course it’s not just respect and authority men feel entitled to just because they’re men: they also feel entitled to money (pay, and higher pay) and power (supervisory positions). In short, they feel entitled to dominance, just because of who, of what, they are (not because of what they do).

* I concede on this point, especially when I’m playing with people who are taller than me, who play with a slightly larger ball than I learned to play with, and who, most importantly, recognize only a hotshotting inside kind of game.

Why do you read the paper every day?

Why do you read the paper (or listen to/watch the news) every day?  Certainly not for an objective account of events.  Because surely you’re aware of editorial bias – what gets in (or not), where it goes, and how much space it gets there.  And reporter bias – who gets interviewed, what gets asked (or not), and what gets put at the beginning of the piece.

And how it’s said.  To describe an incident with complete objectivity is to give a phenomenological account.  And anyone who’s taken Phenomenology 101 knows how difficult that is.  Even to say “There is a brown house” is to have made an assumption, is to have imposed your subjectivity.  You can’t see the house.  From your perspective, standing in front of it, all you see is one, or maybe two walls.  You assume there’s a third and a fourth.  Your subjectivity fills in the gaps.  All the time.

It gets worse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Is it true that some people can’t think?

I watched The Shawshank Redemption recently and was struck by the scene where the guy says that in solitary confinement he had Mozart to keep him company, and they all express surprise that he was allowed to have a record player, and he says ‘No, in here’ and points to his head—and they all look at him dumbly. With no understanding whatsoever. Shortly before that, I was reading a novel in which someone confesses to making people up and having entire conversations between them in her head, and someone else says something like ‘Really? Being able to make up characters and tell yourself stories is a sign of high intelligence.’ What?

Is that true? Is it the case that some (many?) (most?) people can’t imagine? Or even remember? They can’t close their eyes and picture (remember or imagine) a scene, they can’t hear (remember or imagine) music in their heads, they can’t hold (remember or imagine) conversations in their head? Meaning, if they can’t do the last mentioned, they can’t think? Has there ever been a study about this? Has anyone actually conducted a survey and asked people whether they can do the forementioned?