Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An Open Letter to John Maguire, ISIS, and Issuers-of-Threats Generally

     If I understand your recent video correctly, you're saying that as a Canadian I should expect terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, and that if I want to be safe, I should lobby my government to pull out of the military mission against ISIS. Presumably, you want me to fear that I or someone I care about (which, by the way, includes everyone) will be hurt or killed, so I will do as you say in order to avoid that. 
     I could just say you don't scare me, but I don't think that would be very helpful, since that's what a lot of people say when they're afraid. Instead, I want to explain to you exactly what's wrong with your threat from a logical and strategic perspective, because you're making some very serious errors in reasoning, and putting lives (including yours) in needless danger.

     First of all, you have a credibility problem, and it's not what you think. Your organization has taken great pains to make its threats credible by releasing videos to prove that it is willing and able to murder people. To be sure, you really do have a long way to go to make me actually fear you, because realistically, you don't really have the resources to make yourself a statistically significant danger. There are 30 million Canadians, after all, spread out over a vast territory; most of us are going to be pretty safe from you no matter what. Also, there are lots of other dangers that you can't control, and which are much more likely to kill me. A couple of years ago I had part of my bowel removed for Stage III colon cancer, and the chemo seems to have been successful, so I probably won't die from that, but maybe there's some lingering metastasis hiding in my organs somewhere, or maybe a completely new cancer will form, or maybe I'll have a heart attack or a stroke or get hit by a truck or freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear (this is Canada, after all). Why should I fear you more than these things?
     But as I said, that is not the real credibility problem, and in fact solving that one will only make the real one worse. You see, I already believe that you're willing and eager to kill me if I don't comply with your demands. You don't really need to prove that. What you do need to convince me of is that you will not kill me if I do comply. In other words, you need me to trust you, and that's really hard when you spend so much effort trying to make me fear you. And this is especially a problem in the case of random terrorism, where people get killed for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don't know -- or care -- who you're killing, and so you don't know that maybe the person you just killed had written letters to her MP demanding a change in policy, and had done everything you asked. So if you're just going to kill me anyway, regardless of what I do, why should I comply with your demands?
     It gets worse. Even if I do believe that you'll keep your promise and not kill me if I give you what you want, how do I know you won't demand something else later on and threaten me until you get that? You want me to trust you way more than I trust most people, and yet by murdering people and threatening to murder me, you're seriously undermining the basis for that trust.

     So, that's why I'm unmoved by your threat, and why it's not going to influence my behaviour in any way. I simply don't trust you to keep your part of the bargain if I comply. But there's another mistake I think you're making, too, and that's your failure to consider the broader context. You're talking as if you're in a position of power over me, but the kinds of things I need to fear from you are basically terrorist-type attacks. And the thing about most terrorist attacks is that they're cheap; powerful nation-states have conventional armies with military systems that are much, much more effective than car bombs and other improvised terrorist weapons. So yeah, it sure is scary to contemplate that some crazy might randomly kill me with a toaster, but here's the thing: I have a toaster, too.
     You think your group is special? You think you're badasses, and the rest of us should cower in fear of your might? Look, any idiot can improvise a way to hurt lots of people. You're not even the only ones claiming to be fighting for God. So if I should be afraid of making you mad by disobeying you, shouldn't I also be afraid of making some other crazy mad for obeying you? Heck, shouldn't you be afraid of making me mad? I have the same access to ordinary household items as any other Canadian; I can carry out terrorist-style attacks against you just as easily as you can against me. 
     Ultimately, that's why your threats do not move me. I, and people like me, have just as much ability to hurt others as you do. The only difference is that you are willing to do so, and I am not. That is not because you are stronger than I am; it is because you are more foolish, and have not yet recognized just how futile and evil violence is. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sympathy for the Nice Guy

     I have been thinking about the whole Nice Guy pathology. That's where some guy figures that the way to get women to fall in love with and have sex with him is to be the devoted, generous, kind friend she can rely on, the shoulder she can cry on about all the cruel jerks she's dated until finally she realizes that here, right in front of her, is the perfect guy she's always wanted.
     It's a lovely narrative, of course, and if it plays out that way then all's well. Maybe. I mean, a relationship founded on that kind of formula might turn out to be a little inauthentic, but most relationships encounter difficulties anyway and all's seldom completely well even in the healthiest relationships. So it's not necessarily a disaster if the Nice Guy formula actually works out, which I suppose it does sometimes.
     The real problem is when it doesn't. When the Nice Guy invests loads of effort into being so nice she couldn't possibly fail to recognize how wonderfully perfect he is, and still somehow she doesn't fall for him. Then, it's so easy for him to become angry and resentful. He's done sooo much for her, and she doesn't even appreciate it, the ingrateful bitch! And then we see that the "Nice" guy isn't really genuinely nice, but he sees niceness for sex as a quid pro quo, and she's not keeping her part of the .... bargain? There was no bargain. That's not what "nice" means.

     All of this has been talked about a great deal lately, and rightly so, but I don't know if that argument by itself is going to sink in to the Nice Guy. It just rings a little hollow to someone in his shoes. And that's because Nice Guy is really hurting, is really lonely, is really feeling that he's the victim of an injustice, and telling him he's being a jerk (even if he is) is unlikely to be effective.
     I've been there. Well, maybe not quite the same place, but close to it. Before the phrase "nice guy" took on its current meaning, I always tried to be one, as distinct from the kind of aggressive jerk who takes advantage of women for sex. I was very sensitive to the stereotype that men are always after sex, so I was always careful to keep any attraction I might have felt a closely guarded secret, so as not to make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable. Only if I got some sign or clue that a girl might be receptive to an advance did I consider I'd have permission to make my feelings known, and of course I was wary of letting my wishful thinking mislead me about ambiguous signals, so my default assumption was that girls generally were not interested in me. (I had not yet recognized that expecting the female to make the first move was no more sensible an arbitrary convention than having the male do it, and even less satisfactory if I was the only one following it.)
     I really did (and still do) value my friendships with females as rewarding friendships with equals, and I'm glad that many of them felt comfortable enough to talk to me about personal problems. It isn't that I wasn't romantically interested in any of them, because if I'd had a hint that was an option, I certainly would have been willing and indeed eager to explore the possibility (and in fact did on a couple of occasions). It's that romance was genuinely not the objective or motivation for these friendships; I was not just being nice to them in the hopes they might eventually give me sex. 
     And yet, at the same time, I really did long for a romantic relationship. I experienced all that painful loneliness and unfulfilled desire, just as much as anyone does in their teens and twenties, and it felt terrible. It felt even worse when my female friends would talk in front of me about how all men were jerks and then add "Oh, not you, Tom, you don't count!" I didn't? That was supposed to be comforting how, exactly? I wasn't a jerk, or I wasn't a man? Or is it only jerks you're attracted to? Or... what? Seriously, what was I supposed to take away from this?

     I know how I was wrong then, of course. I should have been a little bit more open. I should have been more willing to acknowledge that yes, I found girls attractive for their bodies as well as their minds. Since then, I've had my heart broken enough to know it won't kill me, and I've inadvertently broken enough hearts to know it's not anyone's fault, so if a woman tells me she's not interested, that's sad for me but I'll get over it and we can still be friends because I know she isn't to blame for me being hurt (assuming she knows me well enough to trust I won't resent her for it).
     But the fact that I was inexperienced in how to think about and deal with that pain doesn't mean the pain wasn't real. And it really was unfair and frustrating that these lovely young women always seemed to be attracted to guys who treated them with less respect than I did, and never seemed to even consider me as an option ("You don't count"), and so yeah, I really, really do understand why so many Nice Guys feel hurt. It really does hurt, and it isn't fair.
     That's the problem, the kernel of truth behind their complaint that is so very real and so painful and so genuinely unfair that any amount of lecturing Nice Guys to wise up and recognize that women don't owe them anything is going to run into the barrier of "But you don't know how I feel!"

     Dude, I do. I really, really do. You want her. You want her real bad, and not having her feels like the worst thing imaginable. But try this experiment: make yourself not want her anymore. Just decide that you can live without her, that someone else out there might make you happier. In fact, pick that someone else, maybe someone you find less attractive now, and see if maybe you can discover her inner beauty, and make yourself be attracted to her instead.
     Not that easy, is it? Turns out, we don't have a lot of control over whom we find attractive. It's not your fault. And here's the thing: it's no easier for women. Doesn't matter how nice someone is to you; if you're not attracted you're not attracted. End of story. So it's not their fault they're not attracted to you, and it's not your fault you are.
     You may be a very nice guy, and very handsome, and do everything right, and still end up lonely. Or, fate may have made you unattractive and unpleasant, and yet someone still falls for you for some inexplicable reason. It happens. There are lots of things that fate inflicts upon the undeserving. Get past it, and be nice and respectful to people without expecting anything in return. It's not a reliable way to get others to sleep with you, but it does make it easier to sleep with yourself.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Trickle-Up Economics

     That the trickle-down theory of economics has enjoyed such marketshare in the public mind for the last thirty odd years is testimony to the power of branding. Similar names for the same product, "supply-side economics" and "voodoo economics" have been less successful. "Supply-side" still used because although only a few economists actually know why it's called that, you can sound like you know what you're talking about. "Voodoo economics" doesn't afford that cover; if enough people claim to understand something, then calling it inexplicable nonsense will backfire by making them look smarter for understanding it, whether they do or not.
     The real strength of the trickle-down metaphor is in its simple and obvious intuitive imagery. Of course water trickles down from wherever you pour it, eventually finding its way to the bottom. It's a law of nature, this gravity thing, and pretty widely accepted even among Young Earth Creationists (mostly).

     The trouble with the metaphor, and with the theory generally, is that it actually mixes two incompatible metaphors, effectively flipping the force of gravity upside down. We call it "trickle-down" because we have a strong tendency to speak of wealth and social class in vertical terms: we have upper and lower classes, prosperous people are upwardly mobile, it's lonely at the top. We accept this social heirarchy metaphor unquestioningly, and in the context of describing social heirarchy, it's just fine. But metaphors are dangerous if we take them too literally, and it's a mistake to assume that the force of gravity in our social metaphor which will bring the high and mighty crashing down into poverty if they're not careful also applies to their money flowing downhill, because that's not what the original metaphor was crafted to explore.

     It is useful to think of money as a kind of fluid. We talk of cash flow, liquid assets, currency and charges. But which way does it flow? That's much more complex, because money flows in so many different directions; I might pay you today to do something for me, and you might turn around and use that money to buy something from me. In general, though, it's a safe bet that if money is accumulating in any particular place, there's a reason for it: money tends to flow towards rather than away from such places. The mere fact that it's accumulating there is at least prima facie evidence of that.
     We generally call people who accumulate money "rich". There are all sorts of reasons why rich people become rich, some of them good, some of them bad. Some people become rich by being really good at providing something that everyone needs. Others are good at gaming the system. Others inherit wealth, others steal it. If you've heard anything about Thomas Piketty's tome, Capital in the 21st Century, you might be aware of his analysis that income from capital tends to be more than growth, which means that wealth will naturally tend over time to accumulate in the hands of those who own capital. But whatever the reason, we can think of these places where money accumulates, regardless of the reason, as "down" with respect to the natural flow of money. Money flows downhill, into the pockets of those who are good at making it, and away from those who are bad at keeping it.

     In other words, money does trickle down, but down is where the wealthy are, while the poor live in the arid highlands, praying for rain.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Refining vs. Redefining

     It may be a little late to the game to be talking about this, now that a clear majority of people in Canada and the U.S. actually favour same-sex marriage, but just the other day I was talking to someone who brought up the linguistic argument. He had no problem whatsoever with same-sex relationships; he just objected to changing the meaning of the word "marriage", which (he argued) has always been understood to mean a particular sort of relationship between a man and a woman, and that if we're going to sanction similar sorts of relationships between men and men, or women and women, we should come up with a new word for it, rather than dilute the meaning of good old-fashioned "marriage".
     This seems like the sort of argument that would appeal to someone like me, because I tend to be the grammar/usage purist at dinner parties and similar events, and I place a great deal of value on using words correctly. I reliably object whenever someone tries to explain acupuncture or shiatsu using phrases like "energy lines", because energy is a well-defined and quantifiable scientific concept: force times distance. I tremble with rage at "irregardless" and don't even get me started on using quotation marks for "emphasis".
     And yet, expanding the set of relationships captured by the word "marriage" does not bother me at all. Why?

     I don't love words and grammar and punctuation rules for their own sake. All by themselves, they're kind of arbitrary, and any number of other equally effective rules could be devised. Indeed, they have been: that's what other languages are. In English, we tend to distinguish between subject and object by word order (subject - verb - object), but in Japanese, the subject is often simply implied, the object marked by a particle, and the verb at the end of the sentence goes.
     No, I care about English words and the rules of grammar because I understand how versatile they are and how they can skillfully be used to convey meanings with rigorous precision or with playful ambiguity. I don't object to people knowingly misusing a word for effect; that's not actually a misuse. I do object to habitual misuse that degrades a useful meaning so that I can't use it anymore, and have to go into a long pedantic exposition before I can get to my main point. (Okay, so maybe I seem to like being pedantic, but I'd rather be able to get to the main point. When I have one, anyway.)

     So I want the words I use to be useful. I want them to capture the meaning that is really at the core of what I'm talking about, and not merely some label for an arbitrary list of elements. Let's imagine, for example, that everybody only ever used a Thermos to keep hot drinks hot, and if you asked anyone what a Thermos was, they'd say "It's a special kind of bottle that keeps hot things hot." Let's say the word came to be defined that way (assuming it lost its trademark status, that is), and dictionaries universally adopted that definition.
     Then, someone discovers, that if you put a cold liquid in a Thermos, it stays cold longer! My goodness! What a discovery! Whatever shall we call this new function? If a Thermos is a device that keeps hot things hot, we can't call it that. Maybe Cryos or something?
     But that's silly. It's the same object, whether it's used to keep things hot or keep things cold, and moreover its actual function is neither, but to limit the flow of heat energy between the inside and the outside, whatever the temperature is. The appropriate thing to do is to revise our definition of the word, not to invent some brand new one in order to preserve an outdated (mis)understanding of what the old thing was.

     I applaud this kind of refinement of meaning. Words are tools, and I want them to be the best tools we can make them. We should be wary of discarding their traditional meanings too quickly, because very often there are good reasons for why a word came to mean what it does; the words we have today are the product of many generations of productive bickering among writers and speakers and philologists who probably raised and considered many of the same concerns we think we're bringing up new today. But we should also be willing to change the old meaning when it is clearly inferior to the new proposal.

     And that's what I think is true of the word "marriage" today. I don't necessarily accept that the word itself just meant one man and one woman before, but even if I did, I submit that that's a pretty inelegant kind of word to preserve. We know now that the legal status that goes by the name of "marriage" when it applies to a man and a woman can also perform the same function with a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Insisting that we come up with a new word for it in those cases is just as silly as insisting that we can't call something a Thermos when it's used to keep something cold instead of hot.
     Yes, I care deeply about the integrity of our language, and to me, the word "marriage" is made stronger and more useful, not diluted, by expanding it to include all spousal relationships regardless of the gender permutations involved. What that couple has is a marriage, and I don't actually need to know what their genders are in order to understand the essential qualities of their relationship.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Calm down, everyone. It's just an idiot.

     Yesterday, in our nation's capital of Ottawa, there was an incident that has drawn a great deal of attention and led to much wringing of hands. A man with a hunting rifle shot and killed a soldier standing guard by our National War Memorial, and fled the scene in a car. Shortly thereafter, the same shooter arrived a couple of blocks away at Parliament Hill, and ran into Centre Block. There were two exchanges of gunfire, after which the shooter lay dead. There were two casualties: the shooter and the soldier he had shot. Some of the staff in the Parliament block were injured, but no one else was killed.

     Now, this certainly was a significant event, and definitely newsworthy, but let's try to put it into perspective. So far as we know, one person, for reasons known only to himself, undertook heinous acts of violence. He murdered one guy, and then was shot while presumably trying to murder some others. We grieve for the man he killed, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, and the shootout on Parliament Hill is scary to contemplate not just because it's where our government does its work but because it's a location so familiar to us from media scrums and tours. (I was there myself earlier this year.)
     But that's about as far as it should go. This was not a meaningful attack on us as a nation or an act of war, because a lone deluded individual doesn't and shouldn't have that kind of power. Back in 1981, a mentally ill man shot President Ronald Reagan in the bizarre belief it would impress an actress he was infatuated with. What does it matter who yesterday's shooter was trying to impress, or what ideology he thought he was advancing? He was a criminal idiot, and that's how we ought to react to this.

     The sad truth is that people are murdered from time to time, even in Canada. It's a tragedy when it happens, and we should look to ways to prevent it, but the happier truth is that it happens less and less often. More and more of us live our entire lives without ever killing anyone. Violence may never completely disappear from human society, but it is in decline. A side effect of that decline, though, is that we are more shocked by violence when it does happen, and perhaps a little more prone to overreact.

     So what should be done?  I'm not sure we need to do much differently at all, at least not in response to this incident. It's just another data point to consider when formulating policy on a number of issues: gun ownership, mental health, etc. Probably security procedures at Parliament Hill may need to be revised somewhat, as it's a little troubling someone was able to run all the way up into the front door and get as far as the library while brandishing a hunting rifle. They make visitors go through metal detectors, after all. And yet, let's not forget that he actually failed to kill anyone else, and ended up dead himself. Although he shouldn't have got as far as he did, they did stop him.
     But there is absolutely no reason why this should have any impact whatsoever on foreign policy. It should not dissuade us from participating in the fight against ISIS, nor should it stir us to escalate our contribution. The criminal stupidity of a lone gunman should not move us to anger or fear. Let's not give him that power.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams of Certainty

     Last week, I was reminded of a dream I once had, many years ago as an undergraduate in philosophy. Perhaps it was because I fell asleep while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but in my dream I had been working through a philosophical question, and suddenly had an epiphany: all the pieces of a proof suddenly fell into place. In that moment, I knew, I really knew with absolute certainty, that I had just proved with perfect logical rigour, relying only on unassailably self-evident premises, the existence and immortality of the soul!
     And then I woke up, and it evaporated. I could not remember anything about my proof, other than the conclusion, which by itself is no proof at all. I tried my best to reconstruct it, but I came up with nothing.
     There were two choices I had at this point. I could take my dream at face value, relying on that feeling of certainty to assure me that the proof actually existed and was still out there for me to rediscover, which I dearly wanted to do. Or, I could recognize that in all likelihood, what I had dreamed was not the proof itself, but the feeling of having found it, and there was no particular reason to believe any such proof actually existed. Eventually, and with some disappointment, I had to accept that the dream was just a dream.

     Although I hadn't consciously thought of this experience in many years, it seems to have played an important role in shaping the skepticism that has characterized most of my thinking since then. In particular, if you've read through the lengthy comment threads on some of my more theological postings here, it illustrates why I have never accepted the subjective claims of certainty promised by my anonymous commenters. They assure me that if I would only open my heart to Jesus, I would then know, really know with absolute certainty, The Truth. And once I had that sense of certainty, I would need no further proof.
     But I know that sense of certainty already, and I am unimpressed by it, because I am aware of the possibility that it can be mistaken. How certain you feel about something bears little relationship to how likely you are to actually be correct, and so even if you promise me that I'll feel certain and even if I believe you that I will feel certain, none of that amounts to an assurance that I'll be any closer to knowing the truth.
     Some people are really uncomfortable with uncertainty. They crave that feeling of certainty, and feel it gives them strength, and maybe it does that. I will probably never know that kind of comfort outside of a dream, but I'm okay with that. I find a different kind of comfort in being aware of my own fallibility, in knowing that while I'm very likely wrong about most of what I believe, I am wrong honestly, and willing to correct my errors when I become aware of them. In a way, it's kind of exhilarating, like taking off the training wheels or jumping in at the deep end of the pool. It isn't that I find the risk of being wrong a thrill; it's that I've learned that the apparent safety of the training wheels or the shallow end of the pool are illusions.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Misquoting and Misspeaking

     Once again, I must bring up the proper use of quotation marks. They are not to be used for emphasis. See? I just emphasized "not" with italics. And just now, I set apart "not" with quotation marks because I'm referring to the word itself, not its meaning or reference or anything else. Putting something in quotation marks means you're quoting (hence the name) what someone said, not paraphrasing or restating.

     I bring this up because another pseudoquote just crossed my Facebook feed today, this time attributed to Vice President Joe Biden.

"No ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights."

     The image circulated with this alleged quote goes on to say, "Yes, America, our Vice President said that!" Except he didn't. He did not utter this sentence.

     I watched the video, and what he does say is almost as dumb, if you take it strictly literally: "And let me say at the outset to all the press: No law-abiding citizen in the United States of America has any fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed in any way. None. Zero."
     That is obviously false. There's lots of law-abiding citizens in the U.S. who do fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed, and lots of law-abiding citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed every day. (The practice of civil forfeiture, for example, has gotten rather out of hand, which I take to be a pretty clear violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.)

     Now, you could take Mr. Biden as meaning exactly what he said, and if in fact he does believe that no law-abiding citizen does fear infringements to their rights, then statement attributed to him in the image macro would be a defensible inference about his beliefs. But it's not a quotation. You could say "Joe Biden believes that no ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights", and that'd be fine. Just don't use quotes unless you're actually quoting the actual words he actually said. (Seriously, is that so hard to understand?)

     But I want to go a little farther and argue that this would be a silly and uncharitable inference about Mr. Biden's actual beliefs. To me, it seems far more likely that he missed a word in his written speech, and that what he was supposed to say was that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear infringement of their constitutional rights. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see a couple of similarly clumsy oratory missteps.
     Let's be fair. Public speaking is not an easy thing to do, and mistakes happen. Working from a script (which is what any written speech is going to be, even if you write it yourself) has its own difficulties; it takes time to absorb the flow of the lines and internalize their meaning, and to find your own inflections, pauses, emphases. Joe Biden may be affable and confident, but if he's a gifted orator than this was not a day that showed it. Interpreting what someone says always takes a bit of cognitive effort at the best of times, and sometimes requires us to cut the speaker some slack while we correct for errors. We should do this regardless of whether or not we agree with the speaker's views, because successful communication is a matter of trying to discern what the speaker actually means, rather than seizing upon whichever meaning reinforces our own beliefs.