Harambe and the Human/Animal Binary

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

Must Philosophy Be So White (and Male)?

Philosophy so white (and male). So claims a trending Twitter hashtag and a recent LA Times article by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, two academic philosophers. As someone who exists on the fringe of professional philosophy (I’m a writing teacher, but use philosophy in my classroom), I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. So is “philosophy so white?” Yes. But why exactly?

First off, as with any discussion of social dynamics, we should be wary of anyone who claims there’s one single answer. There’s obviously a lot of factors at play, a lot of stories which can be told. I’ll start with the most basic.

It may seem a little obvious, but one reason philosophy is mainly practiced by white men is because the books you have to read to “do philosophy” in the Western, academic tradition are mainly written by white men. Not surprisingly, people generally like to read stuff written by people who look like them. It’s therefore understandable that philosophically inclined women of color, for example, may be drawn to Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa, over Kant and Hegel. An interest in such texts, of course, would take these scholars outside the bounds of academic philosophy and philosophy departments.

Related to the above, is something that the authors of the LA Times article hit upon: quality in philosophical production is largely an aesthetic judgment, and because of the nature of the tradition, it’s easier for white men to present the aesthetic demanded. White men are, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel put it, simply better at “sounding smart” in the way “smart” is defined in the philosophy seminar room. I agree with this. What should be done about it though? It seems that the authors would like to expand the definition of philosophical skill to include a wider range of practices. For example, “woman’s ways of knowing” should come to be seen as a valid form of philosophical investigation. Again, I agree. From my perspective, more diversity in thought and practice is always good. If academic philosophy wants to remain culturally relevant, it seems that such a transition must take place.

Considering this topic though, I’m drawn back to a conversation I had some years ago with a theoretical mathematician (a sort of philosopher, I suppose). He was a pretty reasonable guy, but also adamant that no woman could do the work on which he was engaged. This belief, at least on the surface, didn’t seem to be driven by any particular hatred of women. Instead, from a reasoned consideration of his experience, he had drawn the conclusion that for whatever reason— neural makeup, social conditioning or lack of interest—women could just not do his particular brand of super high-level math.†

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this man’s claim. Let’s not do that though. Instead, let’s try to read his experience in light of Cherry and Schwitzgebel claims about philosophy. Are there modes or degrees of philosophical thought, which, by the nature of the female body or society’s innate (IE, unalterable) reaction to that body, are forever closed to women? If so, why may this be?

Of course, our monkey brains are pretty plastic. This being the case, there’s a strong argument that given the same degree of social support and personal desire, a woman, all other factors being equal, could perform any thought activity that a man could perform.‡ Obviously, throughout history the support has been missing. This should change. If it did though, would the desire be there too? Would the number of men and women doing the most abstract and obscure theorizing even out? Or, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel suggest, is the only answer to redefine “high-level theorizing,” to somehow change it into something in which women (as we now use that term) can participate? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a redefinition? I don’t have any answers. These certainly seem like questions philosophers should be asking though.


[†] More specifically, his claim was that there were a few hundred people in the world who could do his work and that none of them happened to be women. From this, he drew the larger, and perhaps unjustified, conclusion that no women could ever do the work.

 [‡] But while performing this thought activity, would they be “thinking the same?” Or does the body we think in indelible shape the nature of our thought?

Anxious Days: Neoliberalism, Tech and the Age of Anxiety

One of the many paradoxes of the 2016 US Presidential election is a wide disconnect between economic data and public perception. By any objective standard the US economy is doing quite well. As Ben Casselman ably explores in a recent piece for fivethirtyeight though, many voters feel that this is not the case. On both the right and the left, there is a widespread belief that ruin—national, personal, environmental, spiritual—is imminent. What’s going on here? What accounts for such widespread, even apocalyptic, anxiety?

This is of course a big issue (the biggest perhaps), but as far as I can tell two intertwined factors provide the best explanation. First, operating at the material level, is an increased level of connection. Whereas thirty years ago it was possible to turn off the TV, divert your eyes from the newspaper, this is, for many people, no longer an option. Our tools, and the capitalist impulses which create and sustain them, demand our constant exposure to intense expressions of pain, pleasure, love, fear. Our monkey brains, designed to operate under very different material circumstances, have trouble adapting.

By way of explanation, imagine our evolutionary ancestor. He or she sees a snake, feels fear, moves away from the snake, feels better. With Facebook and Twitter and 24 hour cable news though we can’t get away from the snake. Plane crashes, mass shootings, the new iPhone: we are constantly confronted with “the desire of the Other,” as Lacan would say, in its most intense, egregious expression. Our monkey brains simply can’t process this, leading to high baseline levels of anxiety.

So even in 10th century China—a pastoral setting if there ever was one—if the peasants were live-tweeting every rice planting, they too would be pretty stressed out. This material element doesn’t completely explain our current anxiety though. We also have to look at the ideology, or worldview, under which advanced capitalism, particularly the American version, operates.

The ideological keyword of our time has to be neoliberalism. Following Michel Foucault, we can trace the rise of this ideology (or sub-ideology) to roughly the 1970s. In broad terms, it involves the weakening of restrictive social structures (the family, the church, the welfare state, unions) and a move towards “personal responsibility.” This means that people have more “freedom”—think of legalized gambling, marijuana, same-sex marriage—but at the same time, must be increasingly willing to take advantage of this freedom. We must be “entrepreneurs of self,” taking risks in the name of profit.

This new social structure has numerous effects. First, without the leveling tendencies of the older system, some exceptional individuals are able to reach new heights of wealth and power. These figures—think of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Barack Obama—represent an ideal which works to justify the system. At the same time though, many more individuals are left behind, unable (for whatever reasons) to cope with the demands of this increasingly intense capitalist system. Here think of rural working class whites, whom recent reports indicate are facing declining life expectancy. Whereas once church, family and a paternalistic sort of capitalism provided support for these marginalized subjects, those foundations are now gone. It’s sink or swim. And they’re like stones.

Even for the financially secure though the current system offers little in the way of emotional security. Casselman’s article does a good job of highlighting this. Here we have a multi-millionaire Tea Partier, who despite owning a flourishing business, sees an economic system in ruin. We also have a young teacher, comfortably middle class, feeling that he is only one misstep away from personal ruin. Whether or not these claims are objectively true (and I would argue that they are most likely not), they feel true to the claimants because this is what neoliberalism demands we feel. To keep striving, to keep placing our bets in the casino of the marketplace, we have to be afraid: of rival capitalists or losing our job or not have the most sustainable foods on our plate.

So here, in short, we have the two mutually sustaining causes of our anxiety: the material and the ideological, tech and neoliberalism. What do we do? I don’t have an answer for that, though I do think an important first step is recognizing the logic at work. And when people blindly promote these logics (E.G. tech boosters, Republican presidential candidates), we must call them out. That seems to be the only way we can learn to chill.

Urban Cowboy and the Tyranny of the Ideal

Like some doomed, mythological seafarer, humans are fated to forever ply the waters between the real and the ideal. How we do this– how we conceive the relationship between what is good and what is possible– goes to the very heart of ethics. Let’s turn to (the Sunday afternoon basic cable) canon to shine some light on this issue.

The characters in 1980’s Urban Cowboy labor under the sign of the “real cowboy.” This is the ideal which Bud (John Travolta) aspires to embody and Sissy (Debra Winger) aspires to sexually and romantically possess. What constitutes the real cowboy remains unformed; like all ideals it exists only as an opaque network of affect-laden signifiers (a real cowboy = large hat, masculine aggression, ability to two step and ride a mechanical bull, etc). Despite this vagueness though, the idea of the real cowboy exerts great sway over the characters’ lives. It in essence drives the plot of the movie.

As a pragmatist, my domain is lived reality, that which comes to us within the flux of embodied experience. The “real cowboy” doesn’t fit within this category. You can’t touch or taste him. That doesn’t mean he’s not real in a pragmatic sense though. Ideals, whether the real cowboy or freedom or justice or Jesus, provide reference points by which we determine value. Sissy, for example, judges Bud against this standard. This is of course not a rational or systematic process; again, affect is key. But by guiding our behavior, ideals do have material impact.

It’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the ideal and the real though. Every ideal contains what Slavoj Zizek would label an “irrational excess.” This emerges in the form of a colonizing impulse. In other words, every ideal is innately destructive, seeking to destroy and remake everyday existence.

In Urban Cowboy, the destructive nature of the ideal is vividly exemplified by the character of Wes. After Sissy, in pursuit of her real cowboy, marries Bud, Wes (Scott Glen) appears on the scene. He’s an ex-con, capable of riding a real bull and engaging in an exponentially greater degree of masculine violence than Bud. Wes, it appears, is the real cowboy Sissy has sought. Of course she takes up with him, making plans to run off to Mexico together.

Wes– with his intensity and scars and psychopathic behavior– perfectly embodies the ideal ideal. He is an agent of disruption, destruction. His desire knows no bounds and the extent to which he will go to fulfill that desire knows no limit. He is the caliphate or Marxist utopia or “greatness” Donald Trump wants America to achieve. He is pure excess.

So how should we deal with Wes? It seems that one way is by refusing to fetishize him. We need to recognize that the ideal is not, and cannot be, real in the sense that Bud and Sissy’s (awesomely sexy) bodies are real. He’s an affective abstraction– a bundle of desires– and those desires, we must recognize, can and should be constantly reworked in response to our everyday lives. We can’t let our psychopathic ideals push us over the cliff, in other words.

So do Sissy and Bud manage to rein in the tyrannical excess represented by Wes? Unfortunately, I would say that they do not. Toward the end of the film Bud wins Sissy back by proving himself more adept at riding the mechanical bull than Wes, in essence supplanting the latter’s position as the living embodiment of the real cowboy. The ideal itself remains unchallenged though. This, I would argue, represents an ethical failure on the part of Bud and Sissy. Though Wes as a man is defeated, the irrational excess he embodies is left free to terrorize the honky-tonk.

Is it OK to be Stupid?

I recently said to a friend that a certain person, in my opinion, was dumb to the point of being disabled. “That’s OK,” my friend said, “some people are making their way in the world like that.” This statement is (of course) wonderfully wise and accepting. I felt an urge to argue with it though. On some affective, animal-level, I disagreed: no, I wanted to say, it’s not ok to be stupid.

Like my friend, I pride myself on being open to different ways of thinking. I don’t do this just to be nice, but because I believe, in a way which I can articulate and support, that cognitive diversity (and the acceptance thereof) is good for society. My gut reaction to my friend’s statement contradicts this. Let’s explore.

To start, I do think that it’s somewhat natural for one to favor one’s way of being over that of others. So in this regard it’s not strange that I, being an “intellectual,” value intellectual stuff like literacy, abstract thought and systematic reason. Correspondingly, I view those who lack these abilities as somehow lacking as people, sub-ideal.

This explanation doesn’t completely cover the situation though. I value lots of stuff. For example, a certain competency on the tennis court. I would never think though that it’s not ok not to be good at tennis. In other words, for me, intelligence is more connected to “being ok” than other competencies. Thinking about it further, there seems to be some moral resonance here. Being intelligent, in my mind, has become connected with being a good person.

Is this legitimate? Is there a connection between intelligence and morality? I recognize that these are two value-loaded, slippery-as-soap terms. To gain some purchase, I’ll put it more specifically: is there a connection between intelligence, however that may be defined by a specific group, and engaging in practices which are deemed “right” or “good” by that group? My hyper-accepting friend would likely say no, there is no connection. I’m not so sure though.

It seems that to do what ‘s right one must be able to put his actions in context. He must know how doing X will change the world, either for better or worse. This requires an understanding of cause and effect and the computing power to run through possible outcomes in your head (what we may deem “imagination”). Both these traits seem to be associated with intelligence as conventionally conceived.

Of course, one must also care about the changes his actions will engender. It’s not enough to know that X will hurt someone. You must also be willing to take that pain into account. This trait (what we may deem “empathy”) does not seem to be connected with intelligence. A person can be dumb as a post and really, really not what to hurt anyone. Or a genius and not care at all.

Morality has both an intellectual and emotional component. And these aren’t always in sync. For example, caring too much about one element in the moral equation can blind us to probability. Or being too systematic can make us cold to the reality of suffering.

So to draw a quasi-conclusion, it seems that it’s not just intelligence and empathy, but also a certain balance that’s key to making “right” or “moral” decisions. I don’t know if I was taking this into account when I challenged my friend’s assertion that it’s OK to be cognitively different. Certainly there’s no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and morality. If I was subconsciously making this assumption, I wasn’t being very smart. At the same time though, just the fact of this analysis shows how deeply, for me, the ability to theorize our experience is connected to what it means to be human.

The Cosmopolitian Body

There’s a scene in the movie Memphis Belle which I think really sums up the rational behind the philosophical doctrine of cosmopolitanism. If you don’t know, cosmopolitanism is the idea that all people, just by virtue of being human, possess some intrinsic “something,” and this binds us (or should bind us) all together into a single community.

Memphis Belle is about the crew of an American bomber during WWII. On their last bombing run before being sent home, and after much danger, they finally drop their bombs on the enemy target. They now have to return safely to base though. The captain, to motivate his men, says something to the effect of “OK boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam. Now we fly for ourselves!”

This, it seems to me, gets at the heart of cosmopolitan thought. The captain here is positing that at a certain point our social identity– those values and responsibilities and ways of being that are imposed on us by our community– fall away. After dropping their bombs, he and his men are no longer “Americans” on a mission from “Uncle Sam.” Instead, they are simply humans, existing in their most base animal form. They are now obeying a calling higher than community– that of survival.

I think that if cosmopolitanism is going to make any sense, we have to think of it in just these terms. Where, after all, does this magical “something” that ties all humans together come from? If you’re a theist, you can say that it is “God given.” If you don’t believe in an all-powerful creator though, this doesn’t work.

Alternatively, you could say that this shared bond arises from some sort of social contract. We all agree that all humans are family and that therefore makes it so. This is a nice idea, and theoretically feasible, but it just doesn’t account for facts on the ground. In the worst incidents of oppression (when we most strongly need cosmopolitan theory), the oppressors simply disregard the humanity of their victims. Hutus or Israelis or drunken frat boys agree among themselves (make a social contract, you could say) that their enemies lie outside the bonds of community. In short, if we take a contractarian approach, it seems that cosmopolitanism abandons us when we need it most.

So, to make cosmopolitanism work– I.E. to validate the idea that we are all, despite our cultural differences, members of the same community– we need some sort of external, non-negotiable justification. As a pragmatist, I’m not big on universal rules. It seems though that if there is any bond which connects all humans it is necessarily a physical one. We all have bodies. We all eat and sleep and (except for Macduff) come from women. Stripped of our socially-generated material trappings (clothes, cars, houses) and our socially-constructed values (love, honor, belief) we are all basically the same.

The captain of the Memphis Belle knows this. He locates his crew’s most basic and therefore most communal desire– bodily survival– and references it as a motivational point. The body is something they can all rally around. Could such rhetoric be scaled up though? Could one make the claim that we all have certain rights not because of God or the constitution, but simply by virtue of existing within a human body? Don’t hurt my body, this argument would go, because my body is the same as yours. Perhaps. Perhaps advocates of cosmopolitanism should watch Memphis Belle.

Against Bigness

There is great news out of Turkey today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has been defeated in an attempt to win a super-majority in parliament. This would have allowed Erdogan to change the constitution and greatly extend his power. For the record, I think Erdogan is a fine (if only moderately democratic) leader. Why do I cheer his defeat then?

William James writes, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets….” This sums up my understanding of the attitude which must underlie any healthy society. Bigness, be it in the form of a powerful leader like Erdogan, or the fetisization of an idea (racial or religious purity, for example), is the enemy of efficient administration. In short, for a space to be optimally governed, there has to be a constant circulation of ideas and personalities. Too much power (or faith) concentrated in any one person or idea, for too long, short-circuits this process.

On the level of macro-politics, I think the above idea can be empirically justified. If you look at the most materially advanced nations– the US, western Europe, etc.– the time any one individual spends at the top of the pyramid seems universally quite short. The same is true, interestingly, of China, which while not conventionally democratic, changes leadership every 10 years. My hypothesis is that the sharing of power among different groups of elites in these nations has factored in their success.

On the micro-level, this view also has consequences. Within any society, some groups may have too much symbolic power. Cops, for example, or the military, or priests, or even professors. It doesn’t matter who they are– when any group gets too big or too great we must challenge them, “steal in through the crannies,” as James says and shatter their aura of invincibility. The internet is a great tool for doing this. One of the goals of this blog, undoubtedly, is to assist in the smashing of idols.

Finally, on a practical level, this view has one important political implication– it makes me hesitant to support Hillary Clinton. Though I generally agree with her policies, I worry that extending the power of her group of elites may have a negative effect on the long-term health of the system. In short, the Clintons and their friends have already had a chance to make their mark and fill their pockets. It may be best not to let them back in the game. We don’t want them to become idols.