Are White Lies Harmless?

17 12 2016
nick-galafinakis

by Nick Galifianakis

‘If you were hiding Jews during the second World War, and the Gestapo came to ask whether you were sheltering them, is it morally wrong to tell the Gestapo that you are not, when indeed you are?’ is a question that is often posed to discern whether lies are ever excusable. Perhaps the white lie is a more whimsical example, where a woman from whom you desire affection asks, ‘How do I look?’ in the obvious case that she is having a bad appearance day. Is it ok to lie to make her feel better or is it morally correct to always tell the truth even in ‘frivolous’ situations? These are actually not easy questions, but your answer to them will reflect your ascription to a certain type of morality, lying, and most importantly truth.

Truth. In the recent American news, there has been much talk about the role and influence of fake-news and social media in the 2016 presidential election. Though there are many credible sources that say it wasn’t the determining factor in the election. There are numerous articles claiming the serious negative impact fake-news has whether it is determinative or not (NY Times, The Guardian). Perhaps, the post-modern world has really reached its apex and embraced the notion of ‘post-truth’ a word selected by the Oxford Dictionary as the International Word of the Year for 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But fake-news is not merely about philosophy, truth, or post-truth, it is additionally about our abandonment of morality in the economic sector. NPR’s Planet Money traces down one of the owners of the fake news websites in a recent podcast episode titled, “Finding the Fake-News King“. In the fascinating episode, Jestin, one of the owners of these fake news sites, reported to have made in the range of $10,000 to $30,000 a month. There is clear financial incentive here and in a world where profit trumps morality, it’s no surprise that fake-news is such a rampant phenomenon.

Money. So then is this fake-news phenomenon primarily a financial incentive issue? It’s hard to tell but one partial solution is to financially support credible news sources so that they can be empowered to report what is important rather than what sells. But it’s not merely an issue of money, there is indeed culpability in our post-truth mentality. We have taken truth too lightly in our generation. The 9th commandment of the decalogue seems like a peccadillo compared to its sixth and seventh counterpart (i.e. Don’t kill, Don’t commit adultery). Perhaps, we take it lightly because telling a lie doesn’t seem to harm anyone or if it does, not too much harm. Trump sure seems to believe it. We are all protégés of William James, whether consciously or not, and subscribers to the dominant American philosophy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism. Then, do we deny the enticing motivations of pragmatism and go back to modernist affirmations of right and wrong, that there is truth and there is untruth. That there is no such thing as post-truth. Perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt (haha). But to only think in the spectrum of right and wrong won’t help us properly navigate the moral ambiguities of white lies, or whether it is ok to lie to protect those in imminent danger, and it certainly will not help us see the foundational meaning of truth. What can help us see thus, is a biblical lens of shalom.

Shalom. Truth is not just right and a lie is not just wrong, as the world was created on truth as its foundation. Indulge me for a bit. A human is human. Air is air. Water is water. To mistaken heat and cold will lead to chaos. Honest predication, or truth, allows order, that is, shalom. It’s spacial. Then, there are promises. A word is my bond. Promises are truth connections of the past through the present into the future. We make promises in the present to guarantee a particular truth reality. Something of a temporal thing. And trust. Trust cannot exist with out the truth of promises. And without trust, there cannot be flourishing of relationships of any kind. Shalom, as Nicholas Wolterstorff defines it, “is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.” It is an affirmation of predication and predictability. Truth guarantees this flourishing. So a lie can be filtered through the lens of shalom. Though it’s not formulaic, it adds nuance. Should you lie to hide people in imminent danger? Yes! Will you be morally culpable for doing so? I’d like to say no.

Fake-news. So then, are we to blame the news for the result of the presidential election? No, but there is a profound shaking of foundations when we continue on with such false reporting for the sake of profit. It is more than getting things wrong, it’s increasing chaos and diminishing flourishing on a cosmic scale. It is no wonder Jesus included truth along with the way and life to predicate who He is.

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“The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law”

31 08 2016

acceptance_letterYesterday, over a comforting bowl of roast pork egg noodle soup, my sister and I had an interesting conversation about the recent, potentially discomforting University of Chicago letter to new students (written by John Ellison, the dean of students) about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The main thrust of the letter can be seen in this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

A debate that has been brewing for some time now as one can see from the overview well laid out by Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed article, a survey worthy of a read, with accounts of both critics and supporters of the debate. Even my local university publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reports and chimes in on the current debate of psychology, free speech, education, and human development. But in continuing this discussion, it is perhaps, helpful to refer back to an earlier accounting of the social phenomenon of ‘trigger warnings.’

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” was the title of the article by Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker (Dec 2014) concerning the rising concern for words that trigger memories of traumatic experiences. Most likely not the earliest but one of the earlier articles considering the issue at hand. Suk Gersen describes the legitimate ‘phenomenon’ of a “second rape” that victims experienced in the courtroom reported as devastating in a 1991 book by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In September of the following year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” taking the thrust that trigger warnings and safe spaces are doing more than ruining the higher eduction of America, such ‘coddling’ hurts the mental health of the next generation, the article’s point perhaps encapsulated in the two questions that it rhetorically asks:

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

And here’s another article for good measure assessing Ellison’s letter and trying to explain the use and mis-use of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in the entire discussion. But as much as the details of the meaning of words, the policies and the how’s of education, and sensitivity to trauma and emotion are all important, I think David Brooks contributes a fresh perspective in the discussion.

Perhaps it is our loss of purpose, or a life mission, that has inconspicuously contributed to the emotional volatility and lack of mental grit in the younger generation. Of course, this is, again, not to deny the reality of people having experienced trauma, but it is very much true that the mental grit of the younger generation is, to put it mildly, different. David Brooks asks veteran college teachers and administrators, in an Op-ed column titled “Making Mental Toughness“, how students have changed over time, and the answer he quotes is this,”Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.” But the insightful point that he ends on is the point that much of this is due to people’s lack of life goals, goals beyond personal comfort and success, goals that are, quite frankly, bigger than oneself.

John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.

People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If I may end with a bit of semi-introspection, Brooks’ insight is very instructive for myself as one in the position of educator and guide for younger folk. My tendency is to take out the whip (metaphorically) and try to create some grit through some old school suffering and discipline. But as tempting and easy as that may be, Brooks is convincing me to create a ‘telos’ for the younger folk, to offer a goal that is worthy of ‘throwing ourselves with abandon.’ A goal that is more than the prestigious college, secure well-paying job, the loving family, and the house in the suburbs (Perhaps the church has been dropping the ball by preaching morality without mission). For the strengthening of the modern mind, it may very well be that what this young generation needs is to find a purpose, a purpose not created from within but one that comes from without.





Origin of Politics

5 06 2016

Thursday seemed to be the last final piece of the Trump ship, making possible a unified sail towards the White House. Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, after weeks of waiting, hesitation, or whatever it was, endorsed Donald Drumpf’s nomination for the presidential race. The last few paragraphs of the coverage in the NY Times article is somewhat telling:

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said the Republican Party is now “the party of Trump.”

“Speaker Ryan’s abject surrender makes it official,” he said in an email. “The GOP is Trump’s party now.”

“Surrender”. Given the description finds its origin from the keyboard of the opposition, it cannot claim it to be an unbiased critique. But ‘bias’ doesn’t always negate truth, and here perhaps, the word surrender is telling of the nature of what the political system has become.

When modern people think of politics, the initial descriptions that come to mind are ‘corruption’, ‘power’, ‘policies’, and the like. Ryan’s ‘surrender’ seems fitting in such a climate of politics, where power is the overarching drive. Ryan to his credit seemed to be one more for principles rather than power. The Trump ship is more Machiavellian than The Prince, and it’s slogan of power can only be contended by it’s fragile desire for popularity.

Thus, ‘surrender’ is appropriate.

The irony, for one who knows a little of the classics and the origin of politics, is that power was not supposed to be centerstage of any well politically functioning society. Politics was a word representing polis or the city. It was about the city and the good of the city. Aristotle hints at what happens when power finds itself in the spotlight:

When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people becomes a  monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour.

Us moderns like to think ourselves advanced, but in the current realms of politics, I daresay, we have devolved from even the standards of the ancient Greeks. Politics will never be void of power, but politics will never be helpful if power is an object to attain rather than dispensed for the good of the city. And though I am pointing a finger at Ryan for choosing power over principles, perhaps I will stop. Because I still want to a have hope. And hope rarely thrives in the bed of blame shifting, it thrives among the responsible. And so, I stop with the blaming and move to do more optimistic pointing. Without negating the importance of the federal government, I want to spotlight the importance of the polis, the city. And Mayor Kasim Reed can do a much better job than I at that, so to conclude, here he is: “How Are Mayors Better Poised to ‘Get Things Done’?





The Art of Projection

10 08 2015

The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5th century BC) is known to have once said, “No man ever steps in to the same river twice, for it’s notprojector the same river and he’s not the same man.” Around it, he constructed a philosophy that claimed that everything was in flux, that everything was changing and change was the only constant. As erroneous as his framework was, Heraclitus is enlightening when we think of human natures propensity to project. Because even the same person cannot experience the same thing in the same manner twice (time does not say constant), it begs to ask, “How can one person understand the experiences of another person?” The best that one can do, perhaps, is to project our own experience on the details of the other person’s life as we try to understand them and their life.

And so, it seem that one of the hardest things in life, perhaps THE hardest thing, is to fully understand another person. On the flip-side, because it’s so unquenchable, perhaps our greatest longing in life is to be understand fully by another outside ourselves. Intimacy demands increasing understanding, and a best a human can do is to understand through our own experiences. The best a human can do is to project as little of our own experiences onto the other and try to understand afresh.

I want to hypothesize that the great reason for the boom of social media is loneliness. The world has grown more connected in search for the unquenchable, the search to be fully understood, to no avail. And so the world, we, continue to grow thirsty and thirsty. In our thirst, we are quick to want to be understood rather than to understand. We are quick to project rather than to listen. That is why my world was shaken by St Augustine’s three words (four in English), “Audi partem alteram (Hear the other side).” Can this be the cure for the loneliness in the world? For us to listen to each other first and strive to understand? Can we be fully understood by the powers of our ear? No, we can’t, at least not on our own. Not because Heraclitus was correct, but because humans can be fully understood just not by any other human. The cure for loneliness does not come at the ears of humanity but at the words of deity. And no, this is not a queue for pluralism here, postmodernism died long time ago. It is a hint that the solution to our world’s problems with intimacy lies with an incredibly majestic and ultimately personal God, and there is only one God such as this.





The Wisdom of Walking

15 05 2013

rjWbKIt’s been conservatively calculated that at the end of an 80-year lifetime, a person would have walked 220,000,000 steps (7500/day). That is a lot of steps. A college student by the name of Andrew Forsthoefel, after being fired from his job three months after graduation, decided to take a lot of steps, 4000 miles of it (go hear for the entire podcast: This American Life: “Hit the Road”). From Philadelphia to New Orleans to the Pacific, he walked on foot across America with one rule: no rides. But the fascinating thing about his trip was not merely the feat of feet, but it was what he heard along the way. He narrates what he was doing on this long trek:

And as for why, well, I wanted to listen. After all, I was wearing a sign that said, walking to listen. And people told me about their lives, what they’d done, what they wish they’d done, whatever they thought I needed to hear. In Louisiana, a guy who let me camp out behind his trailer told me, all you’re doing is reading a book, just with your feet.

The thing is, we are all walking, somewhere, with someone. Every one of our feet has a story (or stories) to tell, and the longer they’ve walked, more likely that they have much more to say. It kinda reminds me of a blog post by a friend of mine, where we may speak different languages, but there is always a story. So then, what stories do your feet tell? Or better yet, do you care to hear where other’s have gone?

Along the way, Forsthoefel asked many people a similar question, taking all of what they have learned in life, what they would tell their previous twenty-three year old selves. My favorite response came from an elderly Southern belle.

Yeah, I wouldn’t worry so much. I used to worry myself to death. And then now I realize the things you worry about, how many of them come true? Very seldom.

I’d go barefoot more. I wouldn’t be nice. I wouldn’t be the nice little Southern girl. I’d be a bitch.

I wasn’t passive aggressive. I was just passive.

There is, more often than not, wisdom in walking. There is wisdom in age (though age doesn’t necessitate wisdom). But I wonder for us 4Feet.35122825younger folk, how much we are listening. How often do we consign the elderly to obsolescence? More often than not, perhaps? It may do our generation some good to stop running as if we are running alone, to stop and listen to the feet that have walked before us. If we do, we may just not have to take as many useless steps anymore.





The Death of ‘Dating’ (whatever that means…)

18 01 2013

Millennials[2]In the world of generational categories, I fall in the sociological grouping called Generation X. It’s the generation that spans from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s right after the Baby Boomer generation. Known to be uniquely characterized by independence and self-sufficiency, it seems to be a favorable thing to have just made the cut, into Generation X. This is so, not only because independence and self-sufficiency are good qualities (they can be poor qualities more than we realize), but because the next generation, the Millennials are a grouping with which I’d not like to be associated. The Millennials, people who are roughly born between 1982 and 1999, are characterized, particularly in the workplace, by having problems with personal interaction and conflict resolution. Rex Huppke gives a conversational anecdote of the said characteristics of the Millennials in the Chicago Tribute article “Millennials struggle with confrontation at work“:

Gravett said that in a recent focus group with 10 millennials, the subjects said they prefer to text someone they’re having a problem with rather than speak by phone or face to face.

“I asked them why they won’t just talk to someone over coffee or something,” she said. “And they said, ‘Oh, that’s too personal.'”

Another millennial told Gravett that the boss had yelled at him. She asked whether the boss raised his voice. The millennial said, “No.”

She asked whether the boss used profanity. The millennial said, “No.”

“So I said, ‘Explain to me what yelling at you means,’ and the young man said, ‘Well, he was really firm and he disagreed with me.’ He took that as being yelled at.”

Oh boy. If having someone disagree with you is akin to yelling, your work life is going to be deafening.

Unfortunately for the average Millennial, this problem with personal interaction and conflict resolution does not seem to only remain in the professional realm but also affects them in the social world. Alex Williams writes in a NY Times article titled, “The End of Courtship?” about how the social media and online dating sites have turned the new generation into people who are novices at face-to-face interaction.

Relationship experts point to technology as another factor in the upending of dating culture.

Traditional courtship — picking up the telephone and asking someone on a date — required courage, strategic planning and a considerable investment of ego (by telephone, rejection stings). Not so with texting, e-mail, Twitter or other forms of “asynchronous communication,” as techies call it. In the context of dating, it removes much of the need for charm; it’s more like dropping a line in the water and hoping for a nibble.

“I’ve seen men put more effort into finding a movie to watch on Netflix Instant than composing a coherent message to ask a woman out,” said Anna Goldfarb, 34, an author and blogger in Moorestown, N.J. A typical, annoying query is the last-minute: “Is anything fun going on tonight?” More annoying still are the men who simply ping, “Hey” or “ ’sup.”

Williams appropriately quotes Andrea Lavinthal in identifying us as “all [having] Ph.D.’s in Internet stalking these days.” But is it really merely the fact that the Millennials have replaced the skill of personal interaction for expertise in navigating cyberspace that has led to this so-called death of dating? Possibly, if we are speaking of surface level influences. A look deep enough at the phenomenon of the ‘death of dating’ should actually quite naturally lead to the following questions: Was our idea of dating correct to begin with? What are we trying to recover? Or moreover, why are we so averse to confrontation?

The answer? I am unsure. It would be presumptuous of me to claim to know this answer to the problems of the non-confrontational Millennials and the end of courting, but it would be unhelpful to just remain silent on the issue, not to mention, I would be acting non-confrontational. A suggestion that could be made is to begin to think of our cultural problems not in terms of technology or dating, but in terms of online-datingthe notion of ‘autonomy’, which lies deeper than technological circumstances (Possibly a residual effect of the independence and self-sufficiency of Generation X). Non-confrontation go hand in hand with the popular idea of tolerance in that they both tout individualism over and against any sense of dependence. The overemphasis of individualism causes any conflicts or even minor disagreements to seem like attacks on the independent volition of the person against whom there is a disagreement. Then we eventually end up jettisoning any ideas of persuasion and pejoratively label any act that convinces another as proselytizing. All types of discussion enter into no man’s land, and friendly debate is perceived as a war zone. No wonder a disagreement sounds like a yell.

You may not be convinced that autonomy is at the root of the problem (it may just be a part of the problem), but I do know one thing that is proven to be helpful in learning how to confront, which is bold humility. It means to begin any discussion, debate, or argument with the thought, “Maybe I am wrong.” Not in the sense of losing personal conviction or conceding to the erroneous philosophy of postmodernism, but in the sense of being open to listening.  I do not know how much that would help in getting that next date with the next girl, but it will certainly lower the decibel on all voices that disagree with you and would allow for healthy confrontation. Plus, if you don’t agree, you’re probably a Millennial, not concerned about getting that next traditional date.





D’Antoni, Goldman Sachs and Darth Vader

14 03 2012

It is always amusing to see the drama of sports. D’Antoni resigned today from the New York Knickerbockers and there was a large overflow of attention on social media. The opinions of Carmelo stinking it up and not fitting in with Linsanity is something to be further analyzed, although, I do not think there would be a crisp conclusion to the question. But just to indulge myself as a self proclaimed momentary analyst (as everyone seems to do these days), I do think D’Antoni’s run and gun style of play, while it actually helps Jeremy Lin’s lack of defense, does not fit well with Anthony’s style of play, but we all know Carmelo wasn’t leaving New York anytime soon. But what is always illuminating in moments like these is the amount of public interest that arises. It was not long ago that the KONY 2012 video went viral, are we over the initial excitement for the campaign? But instead of critiquing our short attention spans, this inundation of attention that changes so frequently seems to reveal that we, our society or culture, need escape. Maybe we need these short spurts of excitement to keep us going through our mundane schedules. Almost like a drug…

One event that seems to have been eclipsed by the media’s excess coverage of the Knickerbocker resignation drama is the other resignation concerning the finance district of the very same city. Goldman Sachs’ executive director (now former executive director), Greg Smith, has resigned from his position effective today. Why’s that interesting? Maybe it’s not. But it seems to have potential to be a watershed moment in financial morality. He writes in an OP-ED in the NY Times titled, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs“, of how the culture of the firm has deteriorated to the point where client interest have been so sidelined compared to the firm’s own profit interests. It is fascinating to see that there actually existed a financial culture where client is primary sometimes over and against the profit of the firm. He describes the state of financial morality we live in now that sickens him and has moved him toward resignation:

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C.,Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

I hope that Smith’s article can be a spark that motivates our current financial culture toward a more upright and just culture. The natural cynic inside me is skeptical but I remind myself of the quote from the brilliant Conan O’Brien:

To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I’ll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

So to end with comics and levity, here is a parody of Smith’s article titled, “Why I Am Leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader“, because laughter is not just the greatest escape from banality, but it is, in a manner, a jab-hook at pessimism and at broken morality, a hoping for a better world where joy, justice, and jubilation can abound.