Freshman Philosophy Thread

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Mongrel
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Sun Apr 26, 2015 9:43 pm

So to continue some of my blithering idiocy from unrelated posts on video games, I'm interested in exploring the idea that increasing feelings of societal powerlessness (and resultant insane flailing that results) derive from our declining ability to take collective action. Which might seem a bit paradoxical, but isn't really that difficult to grasp.

I feel like we've alluded to the idea on here and that it's come up for discussion before, but I wouldn't mind talking about it specifically if anyone else is interested. A lot of the problems that have been described as being because of the internet seem to stem more from a lack of coordination, but maybe that is chicken-and-egg with the technology? Maybe the spread of American culture plays a role, but is it merely a minor one and not as important as other factors?

Shit man, I dunno.

It's probably me reaching or projecting too much, but it seems to me like people are lonely both emotionally and spiritually, feel powerless, are more solipsistic and less able to empathize in a meaningful way. As we know too well, there's much talk online of justice for various groups, but it really seems to me like these discussions are more like tribal battlegrounds for people to earn personal glory in than any real forum for reconciliation or learning. Life online seems to consist of an energy-sapping fight over everything all the time; all adversarial, all hostile. There are places where this isn't the case, like... these boards (most of the time), but they're so rare that they're actually striking in that regard. You notice that people aren't fighting.

But I can't help but wonder if there isn't anything we as individuals can do to better foster collective action in a world where the focus is ever more on hyperindividuality and on everyone either having their own little teeny don't-fuck-with-me fortresses or roleplaying viking raiders on other people's fortresses.
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby François » Mon Apr 27, 2015 11:44 am

I don't know how much this comes into play, if at all, but most of us are told from a very young age not to interact with strangers. I'm not going to try and debate if that's overall a good thing or not, but either way, it seems to me that culturally we're conditioned to see almost anyone outside of our immediate familial environment as a threat. As we grow up, our "immediate familial environment" shifts and incorporates individuals we share various affinities with, but the hyper-defensive keep-yer-wagons-circled-so-you-don't-get-buggered-by-a-rando attitude doesn't always seem to go away.

Of course humans have always taken a dim view of the other and the different, but I can't help but think the extreme behaviors we regularly see regarding even minor or insignificant differences in opinion or circumstances might have come at least in part with the end of an era where most kids basically had the free run of the neighborhood and weren't taught to be terrified of anyone who hasn't had their resume approved by their parents. In a way, it might be like that theory about the rise of allergies being caused by under-solicited immune systems overreacting to essentially harmless particles, only on the social/interpersonal level. Folk just seem to get exposed to a narrower range of personalities growing up a lot of the time.

Or maybe I'm talking out my ass, that'll happen.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Mon Apr 27, 2015 11:51 am

Well, "Don't talk to strangers" is something that arose basically because of the anonymity of modern cities and large towns. So it's an interesting insight to see the internet as a continuation of the social conditions that began with urbanization.

I'd agree there's probably a connection there. How much of a connection vs the other factors that have knocked down communalism (American-style culture, decline of religion as a community tie, etc.), I don't know!
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Thad » Mon Apr 27, 2015 1:01 pm

I dunno, that all strikes me as really pessimistic.

Certainly the Internet DOES have its cliques and tribes and its shouting matches where nothing gets done and its mob justice and all its other ugliness. But let's not discount it as a force for good.

The Internet has been hugely important for giving marginalized demographics a place to find other people who are like them, or people who aren't like them but are willing to treat them with common decency, and help them not to feel so alone.

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And, moreover, it's given them a platform to voice their grievances, and a real opportunity to convince people outside their demographic that those grievances are legitimate.

Randall Munroe wrote:Image
People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.


Eleven years ago, George Bush ran on a promise that he was going to push a Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage. Yes, it was cynical manipulation of the base and he never actually intended to do it, but it was still a thing you could run on and get elected President.

Whereas here in 2015, the Governor of Indiana just signed a law intended to let businesses refuse service to gay people, and he won't even admit in TV interviews that that was the purpose of the law. We've gone from "stop gay marriage" being a mainstream political position to gay marriage being legal in most states, and the political argument has shifted from banning gay marriage at the Constitutional level to arguing about who's going to cater all those gay weddings.

This week Taibbi had a piece called Are Republicans at War With Their Own Future? which, in a nutshell, points out that opposition to gay marriage is a non-starter with young Republicans, who overwhelmingly favor marriage equality.

While the Internet certainly gives people unprecedented opportunity to retreat into their corners with like-minded people (and, together with cable news, has helped lead to increased polarization in electoral politics), it's also given the people who choose not to retreat into their corners unfettered, unprecedented access to points of view they would never have been exposed to otherwise. My grandma may not know the difference between a cross-dresser and someone who's transgender, and it's too much to expect that she ever will, but an increasing number of people do, and, moreover, an increasing number of people face backlash and shaming when they conflate the two things.

(The difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of backlash and shaming is a rich topic in and of itself, and maybe we can get into that later.)

And then there's the Internet's empowerment of ordinary people to hold those in authority accountable. Taibbi again: Are Cell Phones Changing the Narrative on Police Shootings? Yes. Yes they are.

And I've linked it before, but it bears linking again: Can We Avoid a Surveillance State Dystopia? by Ramez Naam (guest-posting on Stross's blog). tl;dr while Orwell was absolutely right about governments having unprecedented mass surveillance powers, he vastly overestimated their power to keep that same technology out of the hands of ordinary people. There is no memory hole; the Internet does not forget. When governments lie, somebody is going to catch them at it.

Autocrats may have a certain level of success at suppressing speech that contradicts their narrative, but even in Iran and North Korea people are getting some access to outside perspectives.

The (alleged) Lincoln quote seems apt: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

There are things I'm cynical as hell about, and there are political problems I don't think we're going to be able to solve in the foreseeable future. And I sure don't deny the Internet's contribution to political polarization.

But god dammit, look how far we've come and how short a time we've done it in. Doesn't mean we should rest on our laurels, or discount the awful things that the Internet has given rise to. But there's a lot to be really, really pleased about.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby François » Wed Apr 29, 2015 3:11 pm

I certainly agree the Internet has broken down a lot of barriers and reduced individual isolations in unprecedented ways, so it's definitely not all bad. In fact it could be argued that it's mostly good.

It's just... the net allows us to be exactly who and what we are, if perhaps louder. That goes for decent folk, that goes for saints and geniuses, and that goes for idiots and assholes. And I'm pretty sure the proportions of each among the human race are roughly constant over time, even as greater cultural mores and values change.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Wed Apr 29, 2015 11:00 pm

I don't think that the ability to take collective action has vanished necessarily, or that it never happens any more, but the signal-to-noise ratio is working against us.

What I'm seeing a lot of is people who are more-or-less well-intentioned but who operate in a world which is more solipsistic because the overabundance of information available allows us to tailor our realities however we like. It's a bit similar to the effect described among people who've consumed far too much porn. Reality winds up conflicting with an imagined fantasy in way minor or even major, and the response you often see is increased friction an conflict between people who would under normal circumstances be able to get along well enough. In the worst cases, the afflicted give up and retreat entirely back into fantasy, either as escapism (when they recognize they want a fantasy) or in bitterness (when they refuse to recognize they want a fantasy).

I mean, you look at the video game nonsense. Perfect example. Most people involved in either side are probably not totally horrible and the goal is actually very narrow and modest. It's nice that there are some situations where progress has actually been made, but I think a lot of the big successes have been the result of really strong memetics - like "Gay Marriage as a continuation of Civil Rights", which take hold virally.
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Thad » Thu Apr 30, 2015 1:10 am

Yeah, but there's a reason that words like "viral" and "meme" have become synonymous with spreading quickly and widely on the Internet.

I certainly won't discount the decades of hard work for civil rights that have led us to the point we are now -- but the rapid acceleration of the process has been surprising, and I don't think it would have happened without the Internet. (Again, Munroe's observation that public opinion about gay marriage isn't equivalent to public opinion about interracial marriage in the 1960's, it's equivalent to public opinion about interracial marriage in the 1990's is on point.) Five years ago, I wouldn't have expected gay marriage would be legal in more than 70% of all states by now. Hell, six months ago I was surprised when it was legalized in Arizona.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Caithness » Wed Jun 10, 2015 1:50 am

Okay, I'd been avoiding Slate Star Codex because I imagined it would be boring, but I finally gave in and read the pills story, which was so good it made me check out some of the other posts, and I find that I'm having the opposite problem.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Wed Jun 10, 2015 1:56 am

He has some good stuff, though I don't read everything he puts up, by any means (a couple of my friends do and they usually point out the good ones). I think I posted the Pills Story in the links thread.

He really does have an enormous brevity problem, and a few columns are cringeworthy. But I like to see people exploring new intellectual and conceptual ground - too little of that going on in a serious way these days. And he does try to lean on hard data more often than not, which I certainly appreciate.

He's actually capable of writing quite decent short columns, so it's a shame he can't manage it a bit more often.
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Tue Jun 30, 2015 4:13 pm

So I put us off on a bit of a tangent in the GamerGate thread, by talking about the responsibility of the privileged to reach out the underprivileged, more specifically about George Miller and Fury Road. Essentially, at some point, if an underprivileged, shunned, oppressed or otherwise dispossessed out-group is going to join the mainstream, then some members of the privileged group have to reach out to them, to help in some way relevant to the dispossession - redistribution, promotion of dispossessed peoples, changing of cultural norms, and so forth.

This is not some romantic nonsense like "noblesse oblige", this is basic math in that if the privileged group collectively refuses to give up any privilege, the status quo will remain in place (short of violent revolution, or forced action from a higher-level group, or something - which is sometimes exactly what happens).

But because the dispossessed are normally an out-group, the privileged may not fully understand the dispossessed or their problems. They may have only a crude image or be reliant on stereotypes, their information may be filtered through many barriers of class, or wealth, or experience, so in many cases well-intentioned privileged people fail to help and sometimes their efforts even backfire. Historically, Marie Antoinette was perhaps no saint, but she was actually genuinely concerned about average French citizens and was documented in some cases as refusing luxury so that the funds would go the government (there was a famous scandal at the time, the affair of the diamond necklace, which is a great example), but of course we know how that turned out - "Marie Antoinette" isn't exactly a byword for charity or insight.

The privileged don't always get things right, but sometimes they do try to help. The question is how much credit do you extend to a privileged person who tries to reach out to the dispossessed, even if they fail, or partially fail? It's a big question and I even have a name for this question, I call it the "Charlie Chan Problem".

If you're not familiar with Charlie Chan, he was a film and novel character created by Earl Derr Biggers who was broadly popular from the 20's to the 50's. Now, Charlie is by any modern measure, an absurdly racist portrayal of Asians. He's a living ching chong wing wong stereotype dispensing fortune cookie wisdom in an atrocious accent. On top of that he was played by a white actor, as Asian men were effectively excluded from major roles Hollywood (a problem that largely persisted until the frikken 80's (note: bizarrely, Chan had sons whose characters in the films were played by Asian actors)). However this is not just a story of the minstrel show in another guise, where the racial minority sings and dances for whitey; Chan is more complicated than that. At the time Chan was actually something a revolutionary character - here you have an Asian character presented for the first time cast as the hero and star, presented in a broadly positive light, with intelligence and many heroic qualities. The actual character writing held up this dichotomy: at times Chan's inoffensiveness and caricatured behaviour renders him "safe" for white audiences, but at the same time he was frequently shown to out-think and outwit white characters, including white villains.

The response from Asian audiences themselves illustrates the problem. During the 20's, 30's, and 40's Asian audiences in Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. were documented as responding very positively to the character. Not only that but, Chinese filmmakers themselves made homegrown knockoff Charlie Chan films, such was the character's appeal. Did Asian audiences recognize that someone in Hollywood was trying to do right by them, no matter the mistakes and stereotypes? Were they happy to take any old dry bone that Hollywood would throw them, to have their mere existence acknowledged? Was it something uglier, like the case of "the slave loving the master"? Was it all of those things and more given that people are not monolithic? Yet by the 50's, Asian film fans rightfully pointed out Chan's atrocious stereotypes and other racist trappings and over time Charlie Chan became a deeply offensive figure to most Asians who were familiar with him.

So how much credit do we extend to Biggers for Chan's creation? How much did he perpetuate oppression and prejudice and how much did he break it down? It's not an easy answer.

I think, as subjective as they are, to some extent you have to consider a creator's motives. If an ostensibly progressive character retains regressive elements, is this a deliberate compromise to make a a character palatable to privileged audiences - or to privileged publishers in cases where audiences might well accept a fully progressive character? Is the creator merely an ignorant prisoner of expected tropes and stereotype? How much credit can you extend?

In fact, that last bit is a fair question on its own, of how much information is available to the writer who wishes to portray a minority or dispossessed character, and beyond mere availability of information, how much effort the creator puts in to try to learn it.

Another example I'll give is that of Hergé, writer of the Tintin books. In the beginning, Hergé wrote as a full privileged white European with no interest in minorities other than as stock comedy figures. The first Tintin book, Tintin in Russia is pretty much an anti-communist gag reel. The second book was much more sinister though: Tintin in the Congo is by all accounts spectacularly racist, to the point where there's a modern running gag about the book being "The one we don't talk about". Beyond just using abysmal stereotypes of black Africans, the book essentially puts a funny face on a land that suffered the worst fate under Victorian colonialism on the planet, and that's bloody well saying something.

But Hergé learned better. A priest who had been to the Congo was very upset with his portrayal and Hergé was well-meaning enough to learn better; his was the classic case of the privileged, he had never really considered his ignorance until someone thought to confront him about it. Henceforth, writing Tintin books would feature an enormous amount of research and tried to be fair to every to the best of Hergé's abilities. In Hergé's case he was confronted by another member of his own privileged class, but through the priest's connections, Hergé subsequently became friends with an Asian exchange student and set out to learn about China and Asians. The resulting book, The Blue Lotus, was arguably the first truly great Tintin story and is one of the characters strongest and most enduring tales. In the best cases, the decision to be progressive will in fact yield great results in art. Even so, The Blue Lotus is not free from racist overtones: at times the Japanese, who are the clear villains (to be fair, we're talking about the fucking Kwantung Army here), stray into racist stereotype territory, though not grotesquely so.

As later works came out, the same instinct for diligence continued. Hergé did not always succeed or make the right choices - for a while, he sympathized with fascist movements, but when shown to be wrong, he would change his mind and his works would follow. Even so, he was never completely successful. Women, who barely feature in Tintin comics at all, are almost invariably presented as clueless, wooden non-characters, or (most commonly) henpecking old wives. The only major recurring female character is a gag figure, an opera diva who definitely lives up to the diva stereotype and then some (though to be honest I think she'd have been fine if Hergé had ever had any normal women characters). Tintin was and remains a "boy's adventure" comic where girls and sex have no place.

All of this is historical however. We have the luxury of very easily knowing better - how much consideration do we give an author for being ahead of their time? And how much of moral principle is eternal? There have been fully progressive figures, rare though they might be, in history. If a creator is ahead of their time, but not ahead enough of their time to avoid being horribly dated later on, was that creator really just another regressive after all?

To bring us back to Fury Road, I'll repeat what I said in the GG thread. Miller went out of his way to seek out women to talk to and to provide information and those women publicly praised his efforts and his willingness to listen. The actresses themselves were very positive about the roles they played. Of the reviews of Fury Road that I've seen which have been written by women, the overwhelming majority have seemed very positive. And it ranges beyond just women - there are also positive comments about his portrayal of older folks too.

Perhaps in fifty years Fury Road may not look very progressive for our time, perhaps people will say we should have known better and that the information was right under our noses if we'd cared to look, or find the general whiteness of the cast intolerable or something else we're missing. But based on the response from women themselves, I feel very comfortable in feeling that Miller has done his homework to try and be progressive in as meaningful and positive way as possible, all while not pandering or compromising his art and we have a stronger story to thank for those diligent efforts.

When Sarkeesian states that Fury Road conflicts with her interpretation of feminism, I can't dismiss her opinion as invalid on a personal level as she is describing her own feelings, but I can and do dismiss it as a generalization that other women do or should share her opinion. I dismiss it not because of my own feelings, but because my observed reality is that Sarkeesian's viewpoint is a small minority among contemporary women and non-existent among women who were themselves involved in the creation of the film.

My own view (here it comes!) is that I am inclined to be generous to someone, even if they might stumble or fail, or not push as hard as they might. I would consider works and creators on an individual basis - some are no more than lip service or hide ultimately regressive views behind a progressive exterior, but I think that genuine well-meaning effort to reach down from up on high and help someone below lift themselves up should be praised. Perhaps they didn't lift very high, or their hand might slip, but berating someone from trying to do the right thing seems the worst thing you can do.

That does not mean we can't qualify our praise or teach better, but simply to have open arms as our default instead of crossed ones. If someone lifts wrong (Bro do you even?), then we try to teach them to do better, we try to help those who would in turn help others, we try to broaden the circle of virtue instead of closing it off.

(Disclaimer/Clarification: I have watched very little of the original Charlie Chan material and have no particular fondness for the character or series. Charlie Chan is not some fond memory of youth for me or anything like that. Tintin however, I am enormously partial to.)
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Classic » Tue Jun 30, 2015 10:12 pm

EDIT: the referent "it" is not being lazily racist/sexist/whatever a-la the one Herge book we don't talk about anymore.

This analogy is dumb as fuck, but think of it like doing a big, round muay thai kick.

You don't go into it expecting to get it right, but once you practice it enough it becomes second nature and you can do it almost without thinking.
But somewhere along the way you're going to learn that you're not getting your heel off the ground properly and twisting the fuck out of your knee or that you can't do the arm counter-swing against this one school of fighters because they're waiting to close and clock you in your face.

It's a thing most people have to practice and there's room for interpretation on what's ideal and there's not necessarily an ideal that works all of the time.

...
Maybe someone who wasn't crazy would liken it to riding a bike?
...

I'm in no position to criticize people for having an empathy deficit, but I feel like that's what causes a lot of privileged people to fail to listen and understand the people whose causes they're trying to contribute to.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Tue Jun 30, 2015 11:14 pm

I...

I'm trying not to sound rude, but I have no idea where you're going with that? I mean, the last sentence, that I get. The rest, I don't follow.
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Thu Oct 13, 2016 4:52 pm

On Epistemic Learned Helplessness

Thread necro!

Basically, this is a p. cool essay on the positive aspects of disbelieving compelling arguments and it's pretty relevant to our I'm-entitled-to-my-own-facts internet era.

I don't know that I agree with it, but it's actually a compelling argument in favour of ignorance in the face of compelling arguments. Which is so perfect... I see what you did there, buddy!
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby zaratustra » Thu Oct 13, 2016 6:00 pm

Pascal's Mugging is proof that basic ethics has no idea how to deal with the fact people lie for their personal benefit.

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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Thu Jan 12, 2017 11:25 pm

Kwame Anthony Appiah via The Guardian: There is no such thing as western civilisation

A fun little essay on cultural inheritances. Pretty good overall, but I especially liked the way he constructed and came to the concluding sections; that was just plain great.
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Re: Freshman Philosophy Thread

Postby Mongrel » Wed Feb 15, 2017 7:34 am

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