So Much for our Norms

Comedians have forgotten to be funny. Or maybe they’ve just lost their ability to be funny and they can’t get it back. In any case, they’ve resorted to shock humor, minus the humor. Colbert’s “cock holster” comment was bad enough, but now we’ve got this picture of Kathy Griffin holding a severed Trump head. Who thought this was a good idea? How many people weighed in on this idea without saying, “hmm, I don’t know… this might be in bad taste”?

I guess that humor is just another one of the many things we have to sacrifice in order to ensure that Trump’s alt-right reign of terror ends swiftly, along with the rule of law and freedom of speech. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and we’re in a crisis, supposedly, which means that we are only allowed to care about one thing: ending the crisis. Everything else is subordinate to the goal of getting rid of Trump. Comedy isn’t permissible unless it sends a sufficiently anti-Trump message. ESPN is failing its viewers if it doesn’t report on politics. Judges should treat Trump differently than they would any other president, because we’re not supposed to “normalize” him.

Trump’s presidency seems to be ruining a lot of stuff, but it’s not really his fault. His opponents have taken his lack of restraint and scruples as a license to do and say whatever they want. Ironically, they’re actually imitating him by casting aside all the same norms that he was criticized for trampling underfoot. Good taste? Chuck it out the window. Impartial judging? Not for Trump; he’s a bad hombre. Obeying lawful orders from the president? Ha, as if any order from Donald Trump is lawful.

If we really want to preserve the norms that have hitherto prevented our country from imploding, then maybe we shouldn’t flout them at every opportunity. Otherwise, the Trump-related hysteria will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, the norms in question are the product of the white supremacist cishet patriarchy, so maybe they’re not worth preserving. Maybe all that matters is who is in power, and we should stop at nothing to oust Trump and install someone whom we like better. If the post-structuralists are right and these norms are merely the means of preserving one of many systems of dominance and oppression, then we might as well give up on civility, the rule of law, due process, the Constitution, etc. Those things, after all, were invented by white men, like Trump.

It goes without saying that I think the position I’ve described in the paragraph above is a stupid position, and that people who hold it are foolish people. But at least it’s intellectually consistent. What you cannot do is blast Trump’s disregard for our liberal democratic norms while behaving as if those norms are not applicable to you. Unless, of course, you want to be a hypocrite. Then you can do and say whatever you want.

Insofar as America needs to be “saved” from Trump, it will not be saved by people who reject Trump’s policies while embracing the illiberalism and indecency that actually make him bad. On the contrary, Americans who strive to uphold the norms and principles that made this country great can keep it great, notwithstanding the idiocy of Trump and his most obnoxious opponents. I just hope there are more of them than you would guess from what you see on the internet.

Space is not Nothing

Parmenides argued that, because Nothing cannot be, multiplicity, movement, and change are all impossible. We observe multiplicity, movement, and change every day, though. By reductio ad absurdum, it appears that Nothing must be. And yet Nothing, by definition, is not.

How, then, can we affirm the possibility of multiplicity, movement, and change without simultaneously affirming a contradiction, i.e., that Nothing is?

The answer is quite simple. We have to affirm that empty Space is not Nothing. It is not Nothing, but empty Space that allows objects to be spatially separate from one another, and that also allows them to change position. Nothing is not, but empty Space is.

What, then, is Space?

Space is not a Thing, nor is it “stuff” (i.e. unformed matter, which is ultimately reducible to Things of some kind). If it were a Thing or “stuff,” then it could not be occupied by Things. When an object occupies Space, the Space is still there; it is not displaced. If Space were made of “stuff,” then this could not be so. Two things cannot occupy the same space, so if Space were “stuff,” then it could not be occupied.

We have difficulty conceiving of what is except in terms of Things and “stuff.” But Things and “stuff” do not exhaust the possibilities of Being.  For instance, God is, yet he does not seem to be a Thing. Relations are, and they are not Things. Consciousness is, and it does not seem to be a Thing, either. Likewise, Space is, but it is not a Thing.

Of course, this raises the question: What is Space if not a Thing?

This is only the beginning of an answer, but it appears to me that the essence of Space is that it has the potential to be occupied by Things. In other words, Space is that within which Things can be. Empty Space still is, and it has the character of Space in that it can be occupied, even though it happens not to be occupied at a given time. Nothing, on the other hand, having no being, cannot be occupied. Where there is Nothing there is no potential for Things to be.

Space, then, is a necessary condition for the being of Things, as well as for the being of that which is derived from Things. But it is not a sufficient condition for Things to be. There can be Space without Things, but there cannot be Things without Space.

 

Nothing Comes Cheap

What does this day really mean? I feel obliged to think about this question at least a little bit during my day off from work. It’s a solemn occasion. We’re talking about dead people. But for what purpose are we remembering them?

My immediate thought is that this is not a patriotic holiday. We are not celebrating anything. Rather, I think we are mourning the human cost of all of the decisions our country’s leaders have made, regardless of whether those decisions were right or wrong. The stakes have always been high, and they continue to be high. If we take our responsibility as a nation lightly, then we dishonor both those who died on its behalf in the past and those who will inevitably die on its behalf in the future. Mindless nationalism is the exact opposite of what this holiday should produce.

This is a day of remembrance, but how are we to remember those who died? Should we think of them as heroes, patriots, victims? I’m not sure. I don’t think that it’s healthy to romanticize the military, and referring to all of those who died at war as heroes seems to be a way of doing just that. And I’m sure many who died went because they had to, not because they loved their country. Thinking of them as victims of forces beyond their control, though, seems to do them dishonor.

I guess that they are all three of these things and none of them. Some were heroes, some were patriots, some were victims. The point is that they died, and that, in some sense, we are responsible. This isn’t to say that we bear guilt for the deaths of people who were long gone before we were even born. Rather, what I mean to say is that the tremendous cost paid by those who have come before us is a warning to us that nothing comes cheap. If we do not heed this warning, then we dishonor those who died to demonstrate it.

Know Your Enemy

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)

We are at war with the powers of Hell. That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? And yet it is true. It is easy for us to forget that the devil himself is our enemy. We get so absorbed in the details of life that we can no longer see the big picture. When viewed from up close, we’re competing with other people, trying to achieve status, make money, develop skills, make friends, etc. In these minigames that, taken together, make up the metagame of life, our opponents are not too different from us. But if you take a step back and look at the metagame, you can see that we, collectively, are in a cosmic struggle against evil personified. Does any of us stand a chance against that?

In the Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates speaks to a youth about what it takes to lead a polis. Alcibiades thinks he’s hot stuff. He thinks he’s prepared to be in charge, despite being young and inexperienced. Socrates sets him straight, pointing out to him that his true rivals are not those within the city, but those outside who seek to destroy it. They are descended from gods, better raised and educated, better trained in the art of war. His goal in saying these things is to instill fear in his pupil to motivate him to improve himself and become worthy of the power to which he aspires.

I think that Peter is doing something similar in the passage above. He is pointing out that our enemy is more powerful than we are so that we will be appropriately cautious. Neither Socrates nor Peter, however, say that we are to abandon hope because our enemy is great. On the contrary, because we have God on our side, we can be proceed with cautious confidence.

I have pasted an excerpt from Alcibiades below. I recommend reading the dialogue in its entirety, if you have time.

SOCRATES: Well, and in reference to your own case, do you mean to remain as you are, or will you take some pains about yourself?

ALCIBIADES: With your aid, Socrates, I will. And indeed, when I hear you speak, the truth of what you are saying strikes home to me, and I agree with you, for our statesmen, all but a few, do appear to be quite uneducated.

SOCRATES: What is the inference?

ALCIBIADES: Why, that if they were educated they would be trained athletes, and he who means to rival them ought to have knowledge and experience when he attacks them; but now, as they have become politicians without any special training, why should I have the trouble of learning and practising? For I know well that by the light of nature I shall get the better of them.

SOCRATES: My dear friend, what a sentiment! And how unworthy of your noble form and your high estate!

ALCIBIADES: What do you mean, Socrates; why do you say so?

SOCRATES: I am grieved when I think of our mutual love.

ALCIBIADES: At what?

SOCRATES: At your fancying that the contest on which you are entering is with people here.

ALCIBIADES: Why, what others are there?

SOCRATES: Is that a question which a magnanimous soul should ask?

ALCIBIADES: Do you mean to say that the contest is not with these?

SOCRATES: And suppose that you were going to steer a ship into action, would you only aim at being the best pilot on board? Would you not, while acknowledging that you must possess this degree of excellence, rather look to your antagonists, and not, as you are now doing, to your fellow combatants? You ought to be so far above these latter, that they will not even dare to be your rivals; and, being regarded by you as inferiors, will do battle for you against the enemy; this is the kind of superiority which you must establish over them, if you mean to accomplish any noble action really worthy of yourself and of the state.

ALCIBIADES: That would certainly be my aim.

SOCRATES: Verily, then, you have good reason to be satisfied, if you are better than the soldiers; and you need not, when you are their superior and have your thoughts and actions fixed upon them, look away to the generals of the enemy.

ALCIBIADES: Of whom are you speaking, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Why, you surely know that our city goes to war now and then with the Lacedaemonians and with the great king?

ALCIBIADES: True enough.

SOCRATES: And if you meant to be the ruler of this city, would you not be right in considering that the Lacedaemonian and Persian king were your true rivals?

ALCIBIADES: I believe that you are right.

SOCRATES: Oh no, my friend, I am quite wrong, and I think that you ought rather to turn your attention to Midias the quail-breeder and others like him, who manage our politics; in whom, as the women would remark, you may still see the slaves’ cut of hair, cropping out in their minds as well as on their pates; and they come with their barbarous lingo to flatter us and not to rule us. To these, I say, you should look, and then you need not trouble yourself about your own fitness to contend in such a noble arena: there is no reason why you should either learn what has to be learned, or practise what has to be practised, and only when thoroughly prepared enter on a political career.

ALCIBIADES: There, I think, Socrates, that you are right; I do not suppose, however, that the Spartan generals or the great king are really different from anybody else.

SOCRATES: But, my dear friend, do consider what you are saying.

ALCIBIADES: What am I to consider?

SOCRATES: In the first place, will you be more likely to take care of yourself, if you are in a wholesome fear and dread of them, or if you are not?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I have such a fear of them.

SOCRATES: And do you think that you will sustain any injury if you take care of yourself?

ALCIBIADES: No, I shall be greatly benefited.

SOCRATES: And this is one very important respect in which that notion of yours is bad.

ALCIBIADES: True.

SOCRATES: In the next place, consider that what you say is probably false.

ALCIBIADES: How so?

SOCRATES: Let me ask you whether better natures are likely to be found in noble races or not in noble races?

ALCIBIADES: Clearly in noble races.

SOCRATES: Are not those who are well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue?

ALCIBIADES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then let us compare our antecedents with those of the Lacedaemonian and Persian kings; are they inferior to us in descent? Have we not heard that the former are sprung from Heracles, and the latter from Achaemenes, and that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes go back to Perseus, son of Zeus?

ALCIBIADES: Why, so does mine go back to Eurysaces, and he to Zeus!

SOCRATES: And mine, noble Alcibiades, to Daedalus, and he to Hephaestus, son of Zeus. But, for all that, we are far inferior to them. For they are descended ‘from Zeus,’ through a line of kings—either kings of Argos and Lacedaemon, or kings of Persia, a country which the descendants of Achaemenes have always possessed, besides being at various times sovereigns of Asia, as they now are; whereas, we and our fathers were but private persons. How ridiculous would you be thought if you were to make a display of your ancestors and of Salamis the island of Eurysaces, or of Aegina, the habitation of the still more ancient Aeacus, before Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes. You should consider how inferior we are to them both in the derivation of our birth and in other particulars. Did you never observe how great is the property of the Spartan kings? And their wives are under the guardianship of the Ephori, who are public officers and watch over them, in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the Heracleid blood. Still greater is the difference among the Persians; for no one entertains a suspicion that the father of a prince of Persia can be any one but the king. Such is the awe which invests the person of the queen, that any other guard is needless. And when the heir of the kingdom is born, all the subjects of the king feast; and the day of his birth is for ever afterwards kept as a holiday and time of sacrifice by all Asia; whereas, when you and I were born, Alcibiades, as the comic poet says, the neighbours hardly knew of the important event. After the birth of the royal child, he is tended, not by a good-for-nothing woman-nurse, but by the best of the royal eunuchs, who are charged with the care of him, and especially with the fashioning and right formation of his limbs, in order that he may be as shapely as possible; which being their calling, they are held in great honour. And when the young prince is seven years old he is put upon a horse and taken to the riding-masters, and begins to go out hunting. And at fourteen years of age he is handed over to the royal schoolmasters, as they are termed: these are four chosen men, reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, and a fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Oromasus, which is the worship of the Gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office; the second, who is the justest, teaches him always to speak the truth; the third, or most temperate, forbids him to allow any pleasure to be lord over him, that he may be accustomed to be a freeman and king indeed,—lord of himself first, and not a slave; the most valiant trains him to be bold and fearless, telling him that if he fears he is to deem himself a slave; whereas Pericles gave you, Alcibiades, for a tutor Zopyrus the Thracian, a slave of his who was past all other work. I might enlarge on the nurture and education of your rivals, but that would be tedious; and what I have said is a sufficient sample of what remains to be said. I have only to remark, by way of contrast, that no one cares about your birth or nurture or education, or, I may say, about that of any other Athenian, unless he has a lover who looks after him. And if you cast an eye on the wealth, the luxury, the garments with their flowing trains, the anointings with myrrh, the multitudes of attendants, and all the other bravery of the Persians, you will be ashamed when you discern your own inferiority; or if you look at the temperance and orderliness and ease and grace and magnanimity and courage and endurance and love of toil and desire of glory and ambition of the Lacedaemonians—in all these respects you will see that you are but a child in comparison of them. Even in the matter of wealth, if you value yourself upon that, I must reveal to you how you stand; for if you form an estimate of the wealth of the Lacedaemonians, you will see that our possessions fall far short of theirs. For no one here can compete with them either in the extent and fertility of their own and the Messenian territory, or in the number of their slaves, and especially of the Helots, or of their horses, or of the animals which feed on the Messenian pastures. But I have said enough of this: and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon? And therefore you may safely infer that the inhabitants are the richest of the Hellenes in gold and silver, and that their kings are the richest of them, for they have a larger share of these things, and they have also a tribute paid to them which is very considerable. Yet the Spartan wealth, though great in comparison of the wealth of the other Hellenes, is as nothing in comparison of that of the Persians and their kings. Why, I have been informed by a credible person who went up to the king (at Susa), that he passed through a large tract of excellent land, extending for nearly a day’s journey, which the people of the country called the queen’s girdle, and another, which they called her veil; and several other fair and fertile districts, which were reserved for the adornment of the queen, and are named after her several habiliments. Now, I cannot help thinking to myself, What if some one were to go to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of Artaxerxes, and say to her, There is a certain Dinomache, whose whole wardrobe is not worth fifty minae—and that will be more than the value—and she has a son who is possessed of a three-hundred acre patch at Erchiae, and he has a mind to go to war with your son—would she not wonder to what this Alcibiades trusts for success in the conflict? ‘He must rely,’ she would say to herself, ‘upon his training and wisdom—these are the things which Hellenes value.’ And if she heard that this Alcibiades who is making the attempt is not as yet twenty years old, and is wholly uneducated, and when his lover tells him that he ought to get education and training first, and then go and fight the king, he refuses, and says that he is well enough as he is, would she not be amazed, and ask ‘On what, then, does the youth rely?’ And if we replied: He relies on his beauty, and stature, and birth, and mental endowments, she would think that we were mad, Alcibiades, when she compared the advantages which you possess with those of her own people. And I believe that even Lampido, the daughter of Leotychides, the wife of Archidamus and mother of Agis, all of whom were kings, would have the same feeling; if, in your present uneducated state, you were to turn your thoughts against her son, she too would be equally astonished. But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants! O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’—not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.

ALCIBIADES: I entirely believe you; but what are the sort of pains which are required, Socrates,—can you tell me?

SOCRATES: Yes, I can; but we must take counsel together concerning the manner in which both of us may be most improved. For what I am telling you of the necessity of education applies to myself as well as to you; and there is only one point in which I have an advantage over you.

ALCIBIADES: What is that?

SOCRATES: I have a guardian who is better and wiser than your guardian, Pericles.

ALCIBIADES: Who is he, Socrates?

SOCRATES: God, Alcibiades, who up to this day has not allowed me to converse with you; and he inspires in me the faith that I am especially designed to bring you to honour.

ALCIBIADES: You are jesting, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Perhaps, at any rate, I am right in saying that all men greatly need pains and care, and you and I above all men.

ALCIBIADES: You are not far wrong about me.

SOCRATES: And certainly not about myself.

ALCIBIADES: But what can we do?

SOCRATES: There must be no hesitation or cowardice, my friend.

ALCIBIADES: That would not become us, Socrates.

Revisiting Plato

I sometimes say that I hate Plato. By this, I really mean that I hate Platonism. And by this, I mean that I hate the rationalistic idealism that I have tended to associate, rightly or wrongly, with Plato. The more of his Dialogues I read, the more I think that I have been mistaken in my understanding of Plato’s philosophy.

In college, I read just a few of Plato’s Dialogues (viz. the Apology, the Euthyphro, the Meno, the Crito, the Phaedo, and excerpts from the Republic). I never particularly cared for the dialogue format, but the primary thing I found troubling in the Dialogues I read was Plato’s apparent insistence on the primacy of perfect, immaterial forms, rather than of the material world and the entities therein. Being an inexperienced philosopher, I failed to read Plato as charitably as I should have. It appeared to me that his primary purpose was to expound a metaphysical theory, which then had some implications for how we ought to conduct ourselves in the world. A website that I recently discovered, however, has made me think differently.

Bernard Suzanne argues that Plato’s Dialogues ought to be taken as a unified body of texts written for a common pedagogical purpose. Rather than expounding a system of metaphysics and deducing the ethical consequences of the system, Plato was instead attempting to lead his readers through a process of thought that would result in the development of a well-ordered soul and the capacity to rule over one’s fellow men in a well-ordered polis. He writes that Plato meant “to help people understand what it means to put their logos (reason) to task to bring kosmos (order) in the city of men, because that’s what it means to be men, that is ‘logical’ (rational) political animals.”

If Suzanne is right, then I have been wrong in my characterization of Plato as an otherworldly idealist. His concerns are practical, rooted in embodied human life. The parts of Platonism that I view as having infected philosophy and theology for millennia (e.g. the primacy of the soul over the body, the unreality of the material world) may stem from a misreading of Plato, or at least an incomplete reading. Maybe Plato wasn’t really a Platonist.

On his website, Suzanne offers a way to organize Plato’s Dialogues that fits with what he claims to be Plato’s goal. I am following his suggestions as I read through all of the Dialogues.

Overview
of tetralogies
a i t i a
(cause)
epithumiai (desires)

phusis (nature)

thumos (will)
krisis (judgment)
èthos (behavior)
logos (reason)
kosmos (order)
Tetralogy 1 :
The start of the quest
what is man ?
ALCIBIADES
man
LYSIS
friendship
(philo-)
LACHES
manhood
(andreia)
CHARMIDES
wisdom
(-sophos)
Tetralogy 2 :
The sophists
eikasia (conjecture)
  PROTAGORAS
relativism
  HIPPIAS Major
illusion of
beauty
  HIPPIAS Minor
illusion of
the “hero”
GORGIAS
illusion of
logos
Tetralogy 3 :
Socrates’ trial

pistis (true belief)
MENO
pragmatism
EUTHYPHRO

letter of the
law

THE APOLOGY
OF SOCRATES
law
in action
CRITO

spirit of the
law

Tetralogy 4 :
The soul

psuchè

 THE SYMPOSIUM
the driving
force :
eros
PHÆDRUS
nature of
the soul :
erôs<=>logos
 THE REPUBLIC
behaviour of
the soul :
justice
PHÆDO
destiny of
the soul :
being
Tetralogy 5 :
Speech (logos)
dianoia
(knowledge)
CRATYLUS
the words of
speech
ION
logos of the
poet
  EUTHYDEMUS
logos of the
sophist
MENEXENUS
logos of the
politician
Tetralogy 6 :
Dialectic
epistèmè (science)
PARMENIDES
the traps of
reason
THEÆTETUS
the limits of
reason
THE SOPHIST
the laws of
reason
  THE STATESMAN
the goals of
reason
Tetralogy 7 :
Man in the world
kosmos (order)
PHILEBUS
the good of
man
TIMÆUS
contemplating
(theôria)
CRITIAS
deciding
(krisis)
THE LAWS
acting
(erga)

Thus far, I have read through the first Tetrology. An initial thought: these Dialogues seem to me to be more interesting from a literary perspective than the ones that I have read in the past. Of course, when I revisit the ones that I have read already, I may find that reading them with different assumptions about what Plato is up to might make them more enjoyable, for me.

It might be the case, of course, that Plato was actually a Platonist, and that his primary philosophical project was to prove the metaphysical primacy of invisible, unchanging forms. But even if this is true, this new way of looking at Plato’s Dialogues is helping me to extract what I can from Plato’s philosophy, to be more charitable toward him than I would otherwise be. And I would be a fool not to search through the work of history’s most important philosopher to find whatever I can within it that is useful and good and true.

Insomnia and Giving Thanks

We’re used to things working as we want them to, most of the time, but there’s a lot of stuff that could go wrong at any given moment. In a sense, it’s a miracle that anything ever works. When things go wrong, it’s frustrating, but it also reminds us how remarkable it is that we can usually count on things going right. I feel like I’m experiencing that right now, as I deal with one of my occasional bouts of insomnia.

Every few months, I have a week or so during which I have trouble sleeping. I go to bed and can’t fall asleep for hours, and then I wake up long before my alarm. As far as I can tell, it’s worse during the summer months, perhaps because of the longer days. At these times, I’m reminded of how little control I have over those things that are most important to me. When I can’t fall asleep, I can’t fall asleep, and that’s all there is to it. There is nothing that I can do.

Of course, it’s agonizing. I’m too tired to do anything except sleep, but for whatever reason, I can’t sleep either. All I can do is wait for morning and hope that I fare better tomorrow night. I hate this feeling.

I thank God, though, that this isn’t what it’s like every night. I thank God all the more that I only suffer from insomnia every once in a while, and that most nights I sleep just fine. After all, what right have I to expect a good night’s sleep? I have no such right. Every moment of rest is a freely given gift of God.

When I grow accustomed to things being easy, to getting what I want when I want it, I start to regard God’s many gifts as my due. Having these things taken away from me for a time reminds me that I am owed nothing. I am reminded to be grateful for God’s many gifts when those gifts are temporarily taken away. And I’m reminded to ask God for what I need, too.

So I’ll be praying that God will grant me the ability to fall asleep. I’ll also be praying that, when he does take my insomnia away, he reminds me to be thankful to him for doing so. In fact, even this momentary deprivation of sleep is a means of God’s grace, as it is driving me back towards him. So I thank God for my insomnia, too, even as I pray for him to take it away.

Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: “Offensive”

Yesterday I had a conversation with some acquaintances, during which one of the acquaintances said that she didn’t think that “political correctness” was a real thing. My other acquaintances concurred. The consensus in the room seemed to be that people who decry political correctness are really just complaining that they’re being held to a standard of civility that they don’t want to meet. I objected to this, as it is utter nonsense.

Civility has to do with the manner in which opinions are expressed. Political correctness has to do with the opinions themselves. There are civil ways to express opinions that are unpopular or provocative, but there is no politically correct way to do so. At least, not if you’re a white male. Certain elements of society have deemed certain opinions to be “offensive” and therefore unacceptable.

After I explained my point of view, I was asked for examples of politically incorrect opinions that might be expressed civilly. Several came to mind, but I didn’t want to say any of them out loud, because they might be too controversial for the setting of the conversation. People nowadays tend to think that “civil” means “unoffensive.” The problem with this understanding is that it makes civility entirely dependent on the hearer, and not on the speaker. I can choose to be offended by just about any statement. Does that mean I can place a burden on other people to modify their speech to accommodate me? Obviously not.

As far as I can tell, there’s no good reason we should ever label speech as “offensive.” The “offensiveness” of speech is determined by the reaction of those who hear it, and not by the speech itself. And who cares how people react to an idea? The emotional response that people may have to a person’s speech is irrelevant to the truth of that person’s speech. So let’s hear it. And if you’re “offended” by an idea someone else expresses, then explain why the idea is wrong instead of complaining that it hurt your feelings. No one is under any obligation to care about your feelings; they are your responsibility.

What we do have an obligation to do is try our best to speak the truth. If I have an opinion that is unpopular, sharing it and defending it is an act of intellectual courage. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as one can be made into a free-speech martyr while being nothing more than a bombastic opportunist who spews ill-formed thoughts. But if I believe, for instance, that marriage is a lifelong bond between one man and one woman, and I humbly explain why I hold this belief to people who will likely call me a “homophobe” for it, then I am doing something quite admirable. We need people who are willing to challenge the consensus, because sometimes the consensus is wrong.

Besides the subjectivity of using “offensiveness” as a way to determine which speech is unacceptable, we also have the problem of determining whose feelings matter for the purpose of gauging “offensiveness.” As far as I can tell, your feelings only really matter if you’re LGBT, a racial minority, or a woman. If someone says that men are socialized to be rapists, and I respond that they are not (because we aren’t), then I’m exhibiting “male fragility.” Indeed, if anything, any negative emotional response from a straight white male is taken as prima facie evidence that the speech that provoked the response is true. Because the biases baked into straight white males are oppressive and evil, anything that upsets a straight white male must be liberating and good.

This might sound like a caricature, but it’s not. See this article by Jessica Xiao from Everyday Feminism. The author of the article shared this article on social media and received a comment from a former intern of hers (who happens to be a white male). In the shared article, Soraya Chemaly blames all kinds of evils (e.g. rape, climate change, and the election of Donald Trump) on societal structures that privilege white men. Naturally, Xiao’s intern felt this wasn’t a particularly helpful take.

I shared The Establishment’s article “The White Male Effect Is Real and Dangerous to Us All” by Soraya Chemaly, and a sweet former intern who I really am quite fond of posted the quintessential, archetypal #NotAllMen argument, full of male fragility, hurt feelings, and a desire to be loved and respected and validated.

[. . .]

Former Intern: “Speaking as a white male and feminist, reading this article was very frustrating.”

Response: Good, this means that you experienced discomfort with your identity and took it personally  –  that’s a first step of engagement.

[. . .]

So yes, take it personally and take it very seriously when someone has a grievance with an identity you hold because you also hold the power to shape that identity, but first you need to hear and accept that negative truths about your identity exist, whether or not you, yourself, want to be associated with those negative truths.

That is the first step to dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy: within yourself.

I did not include substantial portions of the article. Most of it isn’t relevant to my point, which is as follows: When “people of color” and other groups that have experienced injustice in the past claim offense, we take that as a sign that whatever speech caused the offense should be stopped. But when a white man expresses the same sentiment in response to an idea, we take that as a sign that the idea is deconstructing oppression at the level of the man’s implicit biases. The double standard is obvious.

Of course, I want to be consistent. For the purposes of determining what speech is permissible, I could not care less about anyone’s feelings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, etc. If we’re aiming at truth, then someone’s feelings will always be hurt, because the truth isn’t always what we want it to be. In fact, we should expect the truth to upset us, because it will make demands with which we do not wish to comply. This isn’t limited to white men. Everyone has a duty to destroy and reconstitute himself constantly in order to better live in accordance with the truth.

Therefore, let’s stop referring to speech of any sort as “offensive.” All truth is “offensive” to someone, especially since we live during a time at which the very concept of truth is considered an oppressive phallogocentric construct. The meaningful terms you can use to describe speech are “true” and “false,” and the feelings a speech-act provokes has no bearing on which of these terms suits it best.

Equality Doesn’t Matter

Because it’s unfashionable to blame Islamic jihadist terror attacks on militant Islamism, social commentators have had to find themselves a scapegoat. Their chosen scapegoat is inequality. Supposedly, adverse economic conditions create a prime environment for radicalization. I’m prepared to concede this. But, unlike Karl Marx, I don’t think that people are mere products of economic forces. I think we have agency, and that we also have needs and wants besides material needs and wants. We have appetites for meaning, as well as for food. Deprivation of either can lead to the desperation that eventually results in ideological possession.

Osama Bin Laden was the son of a billionaire. Ayman al-Zawahiri came from a well-to-do family. If inequality is really what all of this Islamic terrorism is about, then shouldn’t we expect the young men carrying out attacks against civilians in the West to go after their wealthy leaders instead? And shouldn’t we be shocked that Bin Laden and Zawahiri became leaders of Al-Qaeda, despite their upper-class backgrounds? Or is this really about the need to see oneself as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil?

The simple fact is that, while economics does play a role in the ideologies people adopt, the need that people have to identify themselves with a cause is far more powerful. What’s more, it cannot be eliminated, unless we cease to be human. No amount of economic progress or income equality will take away our deeply ingrained need to do battle with and triumph over our enemies. As far as I can tell, the only way to deal with this fact of human existence is to insist at all times that the greatest enemy we have to contend with is the enemy within.

Militant Islamism does the exact opposite, identifying Evil with the infidels in the West, and Good with Islam. Any ideology that identifies evil as an external force that can be eliminated by doing away with a group of people is dangerously simplistic. And the allure of such an ideology does not depend on economic inequality. The SJW ideology that has taken hold of the minds of some left-wing students, for instance, is of this sort. Its appeal lies in how easy it makes it to be a “good” person instead of an “evil” person. Just use the right language and you’re golden. But the people who adopt this ideology are not poor, oppressed people, but students at top universities–future members of the ruling class.

Destructive ideology can be boosted by economic inequality, but it does just fine without. We need to remember that if we’re going to effectively deal with militant Islamism.

The Value of the LSAT

As someone who has yet to attend law school, I am not qualified to comment on the LSAT’s relevance to law school success. Nevertheless, I appreciated the way it made me think when I was studying for it. I can see what the creators of the test are trying to test, and why they’re trying to test it. They seem to do a good job. Studying for the test will help you to think more clearly. That was my experience, at least.

In particular, studying for the Logical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension sections helped me to read more carefully (Logic Games were fun, but I don’t think they have quite as much practical application). When you answer the questions in these sections, you are required to understand exactly what is said and what is not said in the relevant passages. This is no easy task, as you discover when you take the test. I often found that I made unwarranted assumptions about the scenarios described in problems. As a result, I made mistakes. Not only that, but I made mistakes with confidence.

In order to stop making these mistakes, I had to train myself to recognize the implicit inferences I was making. Some of these inferences were good, and they allowed me to solve problems more quickly. Others, however, were invalid inferences that led me straight to a wrong answer.

Take the following question from the June 2007 LSAT, for example:

Proponents of the electric car maintain that when the technical problems associated with its battery design are solved, such cars will be widely used and, because they are emission-free, will result in an abatement of the environmental degradation caused by auto emissions. But unless we dam more rivers, the electricity to charge these batteries will come from nuclear or coal-fired power plants. Each of these three power sources produces considerable environmental damage. Thus, the electric car _______.

Which one of the following most logically completes the argument?

(A) will have worse environmental consequences than its proponents may believe

(B) will probably remain less popular than other types of cars

(C) requires that purely technical problems be solved before it can succeed

(D) will increase the total level of emissions rather than reduce it

(E) will not produce a net reduction in environmental degradation 

As with many LSAT questions, multiple answer choices appear to be plausible. But you only get to choose one.

Let’s look at what is said in the stimulus of the question:

“Proponents of the electric car maintain that when the technical problems associated with its battery design are solved, such cars will be widely used and, because they are emission-free, will result in an abatement of the environmental degradation caused by auto emissions.”

People who support the use of electric cars hold a couple of things to be true, according to this sentence. First, they take for granted that the cars will be widely used when technical problems with the design of their batteries are solved. Second, they claim that, because electric cars are emission-free, their adoption will reduce environmental degradation caused by auto emissions.

“But unless we dam more rivers, the electricity to charge these batteries will come from nuclear or coal-fired power plants. Each of these three power sources produces considerable environmental damage.”

This is the substance of the argument, from which the conclusion is supposed to follow. There are three sources of power by which electric cars can be powered. Each of them produces environmental damage.

Next, let’s consider each answer choice, starting with the answers I regard to be the weakest:

(B) Thus, the electric car will probably remain less popular than other types of cars

This answer doesn’t work because the main part of the argument doesn’t even address whether the cars will ever be popular. It seems obvious that the argument is fundamentally about environmental damage.

(C) Thus, the electric car requires that purely technical problems be solved before it can succeed

This one fails for the same reason that answer (B) does. It just isn’t relevant to the main part of the argument. We are told early in the stimulus that proponents of electric cars regard technical problems with batteries for electric cars as one thing preventing the cars from being widely used, but there is no further comment on technical problems.

The remaining answers all address what seems to be the main topic of the argument: environmental damage. For that reason, they are better than answers (B) and (C).

(D) Thus, the electric car will increase the total level of emissions rather than reduce it

At first glance, this might appear to be a plausible answer, but it’s actually a non sequitur. The argument states that the source of power for the electric car batteries will cause environmental damage, but he does not say what kind of environmental damage. This answer choice specifies a specific sort of environmental damage: emissions. Moreover, even if the argument said that the power sources for the batteries would result in increased emissions, it still doesn’t follow that this increase would be greater than the decrease in emissions caused by the wide-spread adoption of emission-free cars.

(E) Thus, the electric car will not produce a net reduction in environmental degradation

This is the best answer so far, but it suffers from the second problem I mentioned above with regard to answer (D). The fact that the sources of power for electric car batteries cause environmental degradation does not imply that the environmental degradation caused thereby will exceed the positive environmental effects caused by wide-spread adoption of emission-free cars. We do not have sufficient information to make a claim about net effects.

Finally, we have the correct answer:

(A) Thus, the electric car will have worse environmental consequences than its proponents may believe

This answer does not make any claim about the net effects of the adoption of electric cars. What it does instead is compare the expectations of electric car proponents with reality. The stimulus notes that proponents of electric cars believe that electric cars will result in a reduction of environmental damage caused by auto emissions. This belief is not disputed by the argument. But there are some other factors which might mitigate the benefits of electric cars that its proponents may not have considered, namely, the fact that the power has to come from some other source, which will cause its own sort of environmental degradation. Thus, (A) is the only answer choice that is both on topic and true, given what is claimed in the stimulus.

After doing hundreds of problems like this, I think my brain has gotten a lot better at making the right inferences instead of the wrong ones. For that reason, I’m glad I had to take the LSAT. This is probably little comfort to people who are currently studying for it, but it’s encouraging to me.

Someone Else’s Words

If you listen carefully to yourself, you might be surprised to find that you do not understand many of the things you say. People borrow phrases from others, and in doing so, they borrow thoughts. But when you do this without understanding the thought and making it your own, you’re borrowing the thought, not as a thought, but as a tool. You need to understand a thought to incorporate it into your belief system, but you don’t need to understand it to use it to get what you want in the world. The problem is that when you adopt a thought without mastering it, so to speak, it will master you. As Carl Jung said, “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.”

For this reason, I’m highly skeptical of easily chantable phrases. Examples of these phrases include “trans rights are human rights,” “hate speech isn’t free speech,” and “lock her up.” It’s easy to shout these words or put them on a sign, but it’s not so easy to figure out exactly what is meant by them. But because they have that quality of chantability, you can use them as weapons against your ideological opponents without reckoning with the thoughts which they express.

It’s not just chants that are a problem. Even a less pithy phrase can become a linguistic unit whose meaning is never clearly defined. For instance, evangelical Christians might speak of “asking Christ into your heart” without quite knowing what this phrase means, or where it comes from. Indeed, it seems to me that evangelicals regard a great number of theologically dubious phrases as being somehow derived from scripture. As a result, the ideas represented by these phrases infect the minds of the members of the congregation.

If you find yourself resorting to a few ready-made phrases in certain situations, then you might have borrowed them from someone, who might have borrowed them from someone else, etc. Who knows where the thought originated? Perhaps in the mind of God, or perhaps in the depths of Hell. In any case, examine it and trace it back to its beginning. Figure out why you think what you think and determine whether the words you’re saying express a good thought. Otherwise, you’re just enslaving yourself to an idea that is not your own, making yourself a mouthpiece for someone else’s words.