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.





Plan B

13 08 2016

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The elderly often catch my eye. In a restaurant, on the street, in the subway. My mind inevitably wanders to a particular question: “What are their dreams?” It has been a destination of my mental meanderings as of late because at an age past the quarter-life, dreams seem to be a commodity of the past.

But dreams are not meant to live in the past. For a dream to flourish it must live in the future, and only when it flourishes in the future does it have a chance to enter into the present. A dream in the past only exists six-feet under, or at the most, six centimeters under our height.

Can a buried dream be revived? In this life, some, only some. As Niggle had to wait until the afterlife for his leaf to bloom into a magnificent tree, most must wait until the newness of life. But different dreams can be had. New dreams can be created into our futures for us to chase for us to strive. But how?

The West seems to tell us to somehow fan the flame of our dormant individual passions and create these new dreams ex nihilo. It seemed easy with youth. Hormones helped. But such individual fiats are next to impossible. New dreams are kindled, especially later in life, with friends, in relationship. The onset of life’s drudgery is often blamed on the death of individual dreams, but perhaps dreams are not the difficult thing to be had, perhaps, it is hard to meet those who will dream with you. To meet friends, companions, who help dream your dreams, who make them bigger, who refine them for good.





Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016

exclusion-graphic-1a

David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.





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.





Sex at Penn

28 07 2013

It seems that the female perspective on sex and emotion is changing. Though one article and a study on one campus filled with upper-class, affluent, driven students is not quite representative of the female species of the entire nation, but nevertheless, it does illustrate some shift in perspectives. Kate Taylor, in a NY Times article titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too“, describes the variousUpenn opinions of female students and their perspectives on the culture of sex, highlighting among them the surprising shift in the female perspective on the one night stands. An excerpt:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

In this context, some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends. Others longed for boyfriends and deeper attachment. Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.

Within the article, there are surprising portrayals of perspectives, anecdotes and the like. One even as alarming as the following:

In November of Haley’s freshman year, a couple of months after her first tentative “Difmos,” or dance-floor makeouts, she went to a party with a boy from her floor. She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.

Instead, she said, he took her to his room and had sex with her while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She woke up with her head spinning. The next day, not sure what to think about what had happened, she described the night to her friends as though it were a funny story: I was so drunk, I fell asleep while I was having sex! She played up the moment in the middle of the night when the guy’s roommate poked his head in the room and asked, “Yo, did you score?”

Only later did Haley begin to think of what had happened as rape — a disturbingly common part of many women’s college experience. In a 2007 survey funded by the Justice Department of 6,800 undergraduates at two big public universities, nearly 14 percent of women said they had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault at college; more than half of the victims said they were incapacitated from drugs or alcohol at the time.

The entire article is a worthy read, when keeping in mind the narrow sampling of interviewees. But as much as the perspective on sex seems to be of much interest, something else is at the core of the issue. Sex is only the filler of the void. The article, itself, hints at the void made visible through the oddity of the driven nature of current culture, a culture of striving toward a career for success, independence and glory. More than rules of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’, the concluding question of the article is rather appropriate. As the question turns the focus on what is really important to us: people or pleasure, success or joy, quality or quantity, it asks, “What else do you really have at the end of your life?” or better yet, “What will you have beyond the end of your life?”





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.