Saturday, May 05, 2012

Emotions (II) Illusion vs. Wisdom

Western post-enlightenment culture provides us with poor guidance for understanding the place of emotion in our lives. We steer between two extremes: the Cartesian exaltation of linear thought, which rejects emotion as a distraction, and the dregs of nineteenth century romanticism, which leads us to see emotion as a source of free wisdom. I believe both these attitudes badly miss the truth: our emotions do indeed provide us with an important path to wisdom, but it doesn't come free. It takes more than just listening.

The best theory I have ever read about the origins and uses of what we call emotion comes from Rupert Ross's book Dancing with a Ghost, which talks about the complex and subtle pattern matching our minds perform. Ross writes of his early work as a fishing guide, when he learned to match the subtle sign of weather, season and temperature with his knowledge from past experiences. In his description of the process, Ross notes the step by step methods we more often associate with "reasoning", and the Cartesian methods for discovering information simply do not have the speed necessary to deal with life in the wilderness. But that speed comes at a cost: where we can step back through a line of reasoning to discover where we made an error, the kind of non-linear process Ross speaks of does not permit that. We can choose to trust what we feel, or not. For the First Nations people who live on the land, the environment provides continual instruction. Those of us who live in a constructed media environment do not experience the immediate truth of the physical world. We receive too many messages manipulated, or invented outright, mainly for the purpose of manipulating us. In other words, we take in a lot of garbage. And as the old computer saying goes, when garbage goes in, garbage comes out.

If the old romantic idea of simply trusting our feelings ever made sense, our current media environment, stuffed with lying political rhetoric, deceitful advertising, and subtle manipulations of every kind makes that impossible today. At the very least, if we hope to gain wisdom from our emotional reactions, we need to check them both against what we know about the world, and against other things we remember feeling.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Emotion (I) Attunement and Entitlement

Please note: this post discusses the work of Hugo Schwyzer

One of Hugo Schwyzer's recent posts defended womens' use of the word "creep" as a necessary and appropriate assertion of boundaries. He writes:
At the heart of the "anti-creep shaming campaign" is a concerted effort to discourage women from relying on their instincts to protect themselves from harm... [the word creep] forces men to reflect carefully about how they make women feel.
Predictably, Hugo's detractors reacted to his comments with outrage, but they did not appear to address the deepest irony in Hugo's comments directly. Because, in fact, the instincts behind the word creep lie at the very center of what Hugo describes as his power: his claim to have a gift for emotional attunement. As he puts it in one of his posts on the subject:
I was a “student of my mother’s emotions.”...  I did become very, very good at taking her emotional temperature.
In a followup, he wrote:
At six I had become acutely aware of my mother’s feelings; twenty years later, I was a chronic seducer because I imagined I was “so good” at “reading” women well. 
By his own account, during his life as a "chronic seducer" and drug abuser, he behaved in very dangerous ways: dangerous to himself, and even more to women around him. When he his addiction led him to complete despair, he attempted suicide, and by his own account tried to make it murder-suicide, deciding that a woman who had come to him for help had reached such a hopeless state that they both needed to die together. If I had to make a case against the proposition that the "instinct" that leads women to label men "creeps" keeps them safe, I would produce Hugo's own story as the first piece of evidence.

Hugo does not appear to have given up his sense that his ability at emotional attunement has in some sense entitled him to the attention he could persuade women to grant him. In an interview with Clarisse Thorne, at Role Reboot, he said this:

I do understand why some men who have found it difficult to meet women are angered by what I’ve shared. When I write about my destructive past, even in passing, some guys hear me saying something like “You shouldn’t even get a chance to try the naughty things I spent so many years doing before I came to my right mind.” That’s true for anyone who shares a story of redemption.
In the end, though, no one is “owed” sex. Other people do not have a moral obligation to get naked with you. And what bugs me most is that the envy, if that’s what it is, is so often tinged with a sense of entitlement.

I don't envy Hugo's life. But I find his use of the word entitlement in the above quote interesting. Despite his acknowledgement of the destructive nature of so many of his actions toward women, he never admits that if indeed he has an unusual ability at emotional attunement, he severely abused his gift.

In other words, it seems that he believes that the "instinct" that leads women to label men "creeps" provides a critical defence for women, he has, or thinks he has, a private back door around that defence. Despite his acknowledged history of dangerous behaviour, he has expressed no sense that he ought not to have that back door, or at least he should never have used it.

Friday, March 02, 2012

All things are lawful for the pure

In one of several comments on the death of Andrew Breitbart, Rod Dreher writes:
Breitbart was an exceptionally effective practitioner of a poisonous form of polemics that are as widespread on the left as on the right. Of course one of the defining characteristics of this dark art is the genuine conviction that when They do it, they’re evil, but when We do it, we are justified because We Are Good And They Are Evil, And Anyway, They Started It.
As an observer of internet controversy, I know too many examples of the double standard Dreher talks about here. I recently criticized the personal denunciation pages set up to attack the blogger Hugo Schwyzer, and got the same response:
The fact that detestable people can and do employ them does not make them into a priori “abuses” which are supposedly off limits for legitimate protest.
This would work as long as we could agree on the identity of the "detertable" and the "legitimate", but, of course, if we agree on that, we would not disagree on anything else.

From the personal to the global, these distinctions have infested political rhetoric for some time, as Rational Wiki notes:
U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s which drew a distinction between "authoritarian" dictatorships and "totalitarian" dictatorships, saying one was less bad than the other and the U.S. could morally work with "authoritarian" dictatorships as allies (such as the military dictatorships in Latin America) but had a moral obligation to oppose "totalitarian" dictatorships (such as the Soviet Union).
This naturally raises the question: why do people accept these distinctions? Where do they come from? I suspect that the conviction that "our" goodness justifies "our" worst acts, while "their" evil makes even "their" best acts suspect has two origins: the legal doctrine of intent, and the religious emotions connected to the idea of purity. Our legal traditions allow us to hold people responsible for the things they intend to do. This doctrine underlies the legal defence of insanity, on the grounds that someone in the grip of a delusion did not intend to commit a crime. It also gets used to excuse dubious behaviour: driving drunk, even when it results in a death, almost always draws a lighter sentence than other forms of homicide, on the assumption that drunks do not intend to kill.

Our habit of looking at the things people do in light of our assumptions about why they do them collides with another habit of mind many of us have, or at least carry traces of: the sense that rightness, in a factual or moral sense, carries a sense of purity, of heightened ethics, with it. When we embrace an idea with emotional excitement and believe ourselves in the right with the Creator, or with History, or Reason, or with any force we regard as transcendent, we can easily feel in ourselves an emotional satisfaction, a comfort, a complete sense of rightness. Combine that sense of rightness with the belief that the ethics of an act depend the motives for it, and you have ripe conditions for the emergence of the dangerous conviction that all things are lawful for the pure. In the context of a political or personal conflict, this creates the profoundly perverse implication: because the pure may achieve their results by impure means, the questionable morality of a "pure" person's actions can actually confirm them in their belief in their own personal purity. The logic goes that they could not do what they have done, or get away with it, without pure hearts. And, of course, the less ethical our behaviour, the more we want to find an excuse for it.

Ultimately, the argument that we did the right thing because we did it for what we consider a good end is a dud, and a harmful dud argument at that.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Subways and suburbs

When I read comments posted by defenders of the suburban dream, I usually find some variant on space mentioned. A large back yard, a big house, a quiet street, room to breathe: these define the allure of the suburban experience. And real estate developers have used these talking points to sell suburban tracts since before the explosion of suburbia and the attendant highway building that followed the Second World War.

Subway construction requires dense development and predictable travel patterns. Subways require tens of thousands of workers leaving small houses or apartments, or parking their cars at suburban parking centers, and taking the trains to work in dense commercial or industrial centers. If subways require density, and suburbs require open space, then the suburbs, by their very nature, should not have a subway, right?

Well, at least according to Rob Ford, wrong. I do not know whether or not Mayor Ford wants to build a subway just to keep transit out of the way of private cars, or whether he agrees with Joe Warmington, the Sun columnist who seem to think that building subways to Scarboro shows we consder the people who live there important. Mr. Ford's stated position holds that we can build a subway with private money, and that if the city builds the line, the dense development will magically appear. I have one question for the people who believe this: why do you want dense development appear in a place so many people found attractive precisely because of its open space?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darwin day

Alternet reports that today, Sunday Feruary 12 marks the 203rd birthday of Charles Darwin and asks how we plan to celebrate. I gave some thought to Charles Darwin and the nature of evolution as a learning system. In a talk at Knowledge Technologies in 2002, Uche Ogbuji said humans have as much information in our brains as we have in our DNA. Keeping knowledge in our brains gives us an advantage, because for DNA to update itself with new information, the individual organism has to reproduce and die. I took this knowledge with me into First Nations justice work, and I had the opportunity to learn from First Nations people about the intimate connections between all things in the world. As they taught me, I remembered the world of abstract language-based knowledge, and I took another tentative step forward. I came to understand that the knowledge encoded into our DNA does not simply reflect us: it also reflects our environment. No one species evolves in isolation, rather and entire ecosystem evolves, moving forward and producing information about how to fit together. Our DNA and the living processes that refine it do not produce individuals or even individual species: they produce ecosystems.

What I encountered as the bleeding edge of European science, the intersection between cognitive theory and evolution, the First Nations people I worked with understood as traditions they had loved and reverenced from time immemorial. So on the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin, I conclude thus: like Columbus, Darwin sailed to far places and brought back information his contemporaries and successors used both for good and for ill. But can we truly call either man a discoverer for walking on ground lightly trod by others for thousands of years?

Friday, February 10, 2012


I usually agree with Royson James, the Toronto Star urban affairs columnist, but I think his column on subways versus surface light rail transit has a logical flaw. He writes that he, unlike Rob Ford, will agree to pay for the subways that mayor wants Toronto to build. He indicates that Mayor Ford thinks the public will not agree to pay for the subways.

I agree with that part. It seems to me that Mr. Ford and his supporters have the approach to subway building that many teenagers have to household budgets: they want subways the way a fifteen year old wants the cool new cell phone. The parents have a credit card, so why can't they have it now? Mr. Royson, by contrast, takes an adult approach: if everyone gets a new phone, we can't afford a sixty inch plasma TV this year, so which do we want most? That puts him well ahead of the simplistic argument that we should have subways simply because people want them, regardless of expense, but I would argue he doesn't go far enough. Unlike families, cities operate in an environment of existential competition. If your son doesn't like his phone or the TV or the car, he can't usually go to live with the family next door. But cities do have to attract, and keep, businesses and the talented work force businesses require. Those businesses and people have alternatives, so the city has to provide good facilities at an acceptable cost. If a city fails at that task, its residents can face a bleak economic decline.

A city council contemplating a major capital investment such as a subway line needs to do more than simply agree to pay for it. They also have to do the work of planning, to make sure the money they spend buys services that enough people will use to justify the expense. Otherwise, the city tax base ends up saddled with debts for unused infrastructure, which means residents and businesses pay more taxes for the services they do use. This in turn creates an incentive for businesses and workers to locate elsewhere, leaving a declining commercial and residential base to carry the debt. This explains why, in urban transportation as most other things, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Against this hard economic logic, claiming the people want subways, or even that current Toronto residents will agree to pay taxes in order to get subways simply does not suffice.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Bicycle trails

(via I Bike TO) This evening, the civil servants charged with planning bicycle transportation will hold an open house at Northern District Library. They plan to present a proposal to fill the gaps in the city's bicycle network with trails. In many respects, I welcome this proposal. I have just a few questions: the civil servants and politicians charged with designing these facilities describe them with the word "multi-use". Does the city plan to provide genuine multi-use trails with a clearly delineated bicycle component,  or will they simply go with a "shared" facility, which throws the burden of keeping traffic separated on the users, and which often creates conflict and even endangers users. When I go to the open house this evening, I have no doubt I will find out.

A trail defined as multi-use mixes pedestrians and cyclists. The West Toronto rail path, one of the best examples of such a trail, actually functions as more of a linear park than a simple trail; it offers benches and grassy areas, and the cyclists passing by mingle with the dog walkers, joggers, and children playing. The civility that distinguishes Toronto at its best often makes this mix work, but does not eliminate the inherent problem with the design. Bicycles travel too fast to mix safely with pedestrians. An cyclist can easily move about three times as fast as the average pedestrian; the average urban motorist only moves about twice as fast as a cyclist. As events last summer tragically proved, collisions between cyclists and pedestrians can have tragic results.

The designers of the Martin Goodman Trail on the waterfront tried to solve this problem by dividing parts of the trail into pedestrian and bicycle pathways. This works quite well on some parts of the trail, less well on others. How well this separation works depends on both the effectiveness of trail marks and signs, and on the willingness of trail users to cooperate. Ideally, a trail divided for bicycle and pedestrian use would separate the paths in much the same way as road designs separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Such a design would reflect sound engineering principles, by making the safe choices the easiest and most obvious, but would also affirm the status of bicycle paths, routes and lanes as transportation corridors, like roads and subway lines, rather than recreational facilities. Cyclists ride to get to destinations. We have places to get to, and like other users of the city transportation networks, we have time pressures and deadlines to meet. If the bicycle facilities the city provides do not permit us to ride fast enough in safety. we can always use the roads, but that eliminates the safety advantages the city has attempted to provide by building the trails.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Feluccas on the Nile
source: CIA World Factbook
Goldblog recently linked an article by Eric Trager regretting the recent trajectory of the Egyptian uprising. He regrets that
...a befuddled Obama administration has failed to do anything to stop the coming disaster.
Considering the billions of dollars in aid the United States poured into Mubarak's Egypt, I have to wonder what more Eric Trager or anyone else thinks the Obama Administration could have done. President Obama, after all, represented a country which had enabled the abuses of the Egyptian government under Mubarak for thirty years. Americans had to expect the voices of their government would not carry a lot of weight when the dictatorship crumbled.

Mr Trager makes his perception of the extent of the "disaster" clear:

...their photogenic faces carried the promise of a more democratic, friendly Egypt.
But the activists were never who we hoped they were. Far from being liberal, their ranks were... an alliance of convenience for opposing Mubarak and, later, for denouncing the U.S.
Thus, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in March 2011, a group of leading activists refused to meet with her.
 In his desire for "a more democratic and friendly Egypt", Mr. Trager joins a long line of writers on American foreign policy who misunderstand the consequences of American policies at a basic level. Rightly or wrongly, American policy in Western Asia conflicts at a basic level with the hopes and priorities of millions of people who live there. In many countries in the region, the more the government follows the popular will, the less it will support American policies.

The article concludes on a gloomy note:
ONE YEAR after Egypt’s heroic revolt, Washington has no heroes in Cairo, only headaches.... a year after the ebullience of Tahrir, an alliance between military autocrats and radical theocrats is viewed, sadly, as a best-case scenario. 

Slaves exposed for sale
source: Library of Congress Collection
 Whether or not you agree with Eric Trager's assessments here, some perspective might help. American independence served to extend slavery for at least a generation, and led to increasing and increasingly brutal encroachment into territories of North American aboriginal peoples. If Americans, despite all the bad consequences of American independence, claim the founding of their country as a step forward for human freedom, on what basis do they denounce the Egyptians for the ways they have used their new-found freedom?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Observing a web controversy...

In December, I posted about Hugo Schwyzer's resignation from the Good Men Project. At that time I said I saw his resignation as an act of integrity; I still believe that. I also mentioned, in passing, that his self-exposure made me uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable for two reasons: he has exposed other people while talking about his own history, particularly in the details he posted about his second marriage, and he has discussed past conduct he now rightly considers highly unethical. He has written about violating his trust as a professor with "consensual" sexual relationships with students, and last year he revealed that when he hit bottom as an addict he tried to kill both himself and a girlfriend. After Clarisse Thorn interviewed him for the web site Feministe via an interview by the controversy blew up into three posts (here, here and here), generating over a thousand comments. The discussion has echoed around web logs since.
A great many people have good reasons to feel anger at Hugo.  But as the discussion has developed, an increasing amount of the rhetoric has come to address Hugo's whole personality and presence, rather than his actions. The discussion started with an important issue of principle: should a man with Hugo's past have a role teaching feminism, or the kind of visible leadership role he played when he spoke at the "slutwalk" in LA, or indeed a role of any kind in the feminist movement? A good number of people have answered this with very clear, and very angry "no". As happens to often on the internet, the rhetoric and the combativeness have escalated: Hugo has collected men and women partisans who have made  outrageous comments about his critics, and put up a series of crude "sock puppet" comments on Feministe. Hugo himself has failed to make any moves to reconcile with the racialized women web-loggers he has offended. His critics, on the other hand, have escalated their rhetoric, from demands that Hugo withdraw from feminist organising and teaching to "let’s make sure to get Hugo where it hurts." [*], "We really despise Hugo Schwyzer. That's basically it. " [*] and "like that isn't exactly what hugo does - posts a picture of his supposedly handsome smug face all over everything to distract people." [*]

It seems clear that some feminist spaces that welcomed or tolerated Hugo won't welcome or tolerate him any longer, at least for the forseeable future. But I have to wonder how much Hugo really minds that. If you read his web log, which I have from time to time, he clearly lays considerable emphasis on moving on and not turning back. He quotes a poem called "Men at forty" fairly often on the subject. If he has concluded, at some level, that the time had come for him to move on from his stance as a feminist supporter or "male feminist", he has some compelling reasons. For one thing, teaching history, with or without a womens' studies or gender studies component, at a small community college does not carry the economic certainty it used to. A revolution in education led by online providers has jeopardized the future of entry-level colleges such as Hugo's employer. Moving away from feminism, and indeed moving away from college teaching, lets him avoid the coming dislocations and look for something else.

Consider his current pattern of highly provocative self-exposure shown by his posting articles on Jezebel and the Good Men Project (before he left it), as well as the post on his second marriage and, of course, the posts on his unethical behaviour. That  may simply mean he's shown bad judgment; certainly I think he's made some very bad choices in the past. But it may also mean partly that he has chosen, whether consciously or not, to close a door behind him. Ironically, this whole discussion may have opened another door for him: as the discussion of Maia's article at Alas shows, a substantial addiction/recovery community views matters such as Hugo's conduct in a very different light than the people at Feministe and associated web logs do. By denouncing him in such public and at times in such an extravagant way, Hugo's strongest detractors may have given him a boost with a new audience.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One good movie

In my case, I picked The Descendants. The movie had good reviews, I really like most of the actors. And the subject interests me: as I understand it, ultimately, the movie deals with the fallout from colonialism. In this case, colonialism meant the American missionaries who brought God and the Stars and Stripes to Hawaii, and whose children and grandchildren stayed and did very well for themselves. I had heard a little about this story, and I would have liked to see a movie about it.

But I did not. I haven't gone to see The Descendants. I almost certainly won't go. I may well not even rent the DVD.

I did not see this movie because I wanted to see it. I refuse go on buying cultural products from the bankers who finance films, and the artists who make them, even as those bankers and some of the artists undermine the freedom of the Internet that I depend on. So I picked one film and stayed away from it.

The Internet matters to me. It matters as a symbol of a new way of doing things, and as proof we can do things in a new way. It matters as an engine of commerce, and an engine of change. It matters as a repository of a vast array of beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, strange art and science and knowledge. It matters because this storehouse offers everyone on this planet, from the wealthiest to the most humble, access to the heritage of knowledge and beauty that belongs to every person as their birthright. For eons through our history, great men and women made art, and discoveries and innovations, and only a few people had access to their work. The Internet has changed that. I do not want to see this tool damaged or destroyed at the behest of the minority that make a living, often a very very good living, performing and promoting and selling the arts.