Blame & fear

Amazing, the human brain, consciousness layered over instinct, habits of thought, the ways we feel, rationalize, justify, seek for why. In the wake of tragedies, we tend to react with fear and blaming; it is as if we could only discern who or what to blame, perhaps we could learn how to prevent it. So we “reason.”

But all too often, what we are doing is not using reason. Instead, people tend to blame whoever or whatever best suits their own, already-decided view of the world and use “reason” to justify their feelings, a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” on which Daniel Kahneman has much to say. Cognitive biases inherently interfere with objective analysis, which is sometimes a lovely and rich part of the human experience but which also leads to terrible misuse of analysis. We usually act based on biases rather than on logic (see this page for a long list of biases). So many ways to justify our often-mistaken and uninformed beliefs or responses.

Anthropologist and philosopher René Girard offers insights into the desire to blame–a sociocultural desire, deeply rooted in the way humans behave when in groups and, he believes, one of the foundations for the development of religious rituals, among other things. As we endeavor to “make sense of” impossible events, to “discover why” they occur, we seem naturally to turn to blaming. Apparently, designating a scapegoat consoles us somehow, allows us to believe we might have some control over what is terrible, not unlike sacrificing a calf to propitiate an angry god.

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I lived just outside of Newtown, CT for a few years in the 1980s. I still have friends there and I know the area well. It was a safe town, and it is still a safe town; only now, it is a safe town in which a terrible and statistically-rare occurrence happened. That sounds rather dry and heartless: “a statistically-rare occurrence.” Yet from the logic standpoint–if we are being reasonable–it is simple to discover that by any measure, U.S. schools are the safest place a school-age child can be. Fewer than 2% of deaths and injuries among children ages 5-18 occur on school grounds. I got these numbers from the US Center for Disease Control. Keeping an armed policeman at every U.S. school (as recently proposed by the president of the NRA) might possibly make an incrementally small difference in that tiny number. Might. Possibly. Rationally, would it not make more sense for us to address the 98% and decrease that number? Though I am all in favor of hiring more people to safeguard our cities, the only real value of such a move would be to reduce a mistaken sense of public fear.

Because we are afraid, and fear is keeping us from rational and compassionate behavior. Fear can be useful–it probably helped us survive in the wild, and it continues to serve good purpose occasionally; but human beings ought to recognize the value of fear is limited in a civilized, community-based, theoretically-rational society. Rational, compassionate behavior on the part of our nation would be to remove the lens of public scrutiny from the people of Newtown and allow them to deal with grieving in the privacy of their families and community. We cannot come to terms with private loss, nor ever understand it truly, through network news, tweets, photographs on our internet feeds, or obsessive updates on ongoing police investigations.

Fear also keeps us from finding resources of our own. It blocks us from our inner strengths. The families and friends of the victims and the killer need that inner strength more than they will ever require public notice, no matter how well-intentioned the outpourings are.

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Blame. Whose fault is it? Children and teachers and a confused and angry young man and his mother have died violently, and I’ve been listening to the outcry all week–even though I have tried to limit my exposure to “media sources.” Here are the scapegoats I have identified so far: the mental health system; semi-automatic weapons; violent computer games; the 2nd Amendment; the media; autism; school security; the killer’s father and mother (herself a victim); anti-psychotic drugs and the pharmaceutical industry; divorce; god; U.S. legislation concerning weapons and education and mental health; bullies in schools; the NRA; the victims themselves, for participating in a godless society; poor parenting; narcissism; the Supreme Court; President Obama; the CIA. I’m sure I have missed a few. (Andrew Solomon’s recent piece in the New York Times also touches on our default blame mode; his list coincides pretty closely with mine; see this article.)

Scapegoats serve several purposes. They allow us to say we, ourselves, no matter how guilty we feel, are not at fault. They give us an excuse for disaster, something to punish or something to attempt to change through controls we can think through and develop (“logically”). And in fact some good may eventually come of the changes and the control we exert, but such change is likely to be small and long in arriving. Mostly what scapegoating achieves turns out to be bad for us, however, because what it does well is give us something to fear.

Fear motivates us to read obsessively every so-called update on the killer’s presumed (and, ultimately, unknowable) motives, to argue over the best way to address the complex and intertwined issues that each of us perceives to be the root cause of any particular tragic event. Our fears make us consumers of media, and our information sources respond to our need to know why and our desire to blame. Our fears drive us to purchase guns to protect ourselves even though statistics continually prove that more U.S. citizens are killed accidentally or intentionally by someone they know intimately (including themselves, especially in the case of suicides–which Solomon also addresses in the essay I’ve cited) than by strangers or during acts of robbery, terrorism or massacres. “News,” as we have come to know it, is predicated on reporting things that are dramatic and therefore statistically unlikely. Suppose our information sources kept an accurate hourly update on weapons-related or motor vehicle-related deaths…would we become immune to the numbers? Would we say “That’s not news”? Would we be less avid consumers of such “news sources”? Would it comfort us to know we are more likely to be struck by lightning twice than to die in a terrorist act on U.S. soil or be killed by a deranged gunman in a mall or school?

Can we delve into our inner resources of rationality in order to fight our fears?

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I think not. Fear is not easily swayed by facts. Instinct trumps reason psychologically and cognitively in this case. Fear is so emotional that it requires a deeply spiritual, soul-searching response perhaps–instead of a reasoned one. Perhaps that is why so many of the “great religions” include stories of human encounters with a god, godhead, or cosmic intelligence which humans “fear” (though the term is used to signify awe and recognition of human insignificance rather than the fear of, say, a lunging tiger). In these stories–the Bhagavad Gita and Book of Job among them–a human confronted with the godhead recognizes such fear/awe that he can never afterwards fear anything this world has to offer. In the face of what is beyond all human understanding, there is no reasoning, and no human “feelings” that psychology can explain.

Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Words well worth recalling in times like these.

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Finally, this:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Namaste, Shalom, Peace, Al-Salam. May your find the strength within yourself to make your way compassionately through this world.

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Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

“Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.”

             Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The philosopher argues that while empiricism, psychology, and neurology (brain science was still in its infancy in 1951, and I think Merleau-Ponty would have been fascinated by current medical science involving brain studies) are valuable and offer insights into philosophy, they fail to uncover the origin of being. He also argued that philosophy could become less relevant if philosophers continued to ignore phenomena. Granted, many of us could not care less about the origin of being; but this philosopher claims there is no way to truth if the questioner does not recognize the limits of his or her own perspective first, including physiological limitations that earlier philosophers ignored. Because of radical, rapid developments in science and medicine during the 20th century, and the impact on medical and environmental ethics, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is significant today.

That for us in the quote above means within each individual’s perspective; that in-itself, derived from the Kantian ding an sich, means we possess the ability to ken that the other is unknowable even as we treat the other as an object empirically, physically, intellectually–hence the paradox. Those readers familiar with Kant will recognize similarities with noumenon.

One of Merleau-Ponty’s analogies involves a house. We name it: house. We perceive only one aspect of it in time: what is visible with our human eyes or our other senses. We see the front of the house while knowing the house has a back, sides, a foundation, and interior–none of which are visible to us simultaneously, given our physiology. Yet we are capable of believing (not merely assuming) that there are hidden facets to the house, the pipes, the insulation, electrical wiring for example. And we can believe in a world that embraces all of these facets, even what we cannot see, hear, touch but all of which we can “know.” The house can be a physical phenomenon, one I encounter with my physiological senses; and it can also be imagined by me (intellectually) whole or in part–the house for-me as opposed to the house in-itself–and the person next to me will experience the house for-her and even the house in-itself in a different way due to a whole spectrum of physiological, psychological, and intellectual perspectives. Are any of these perspectives “true”? Are any of them “false”? The facts of empiricism do not explain the mystery of our knowing what we cannot empirically know through induction. The hypotheses of intellectual philosophy do not acknowledge the being-here of the physical experience and the complex psycho-socio-neurological goings-on that make up cognition.

What appeals to me about phenomenology is its awareness that we are limited by our perspectives to the fields of our physical, physiological, psychological, and intellectual points of view–including the empirical, science and its “facts.” And yet, this philosophy admits of our ability to imagine beyond these limits, to speculate; we function amid apparent paradoxes such as the simultaneous existence of unity and monadic separateness, perspectives that overlap, interconnect, communicate with and relate to those other than our own perspectives (or phenomenological fields). Phenomenology accepts that the philosopher’s thinking must be conditioned by situation. Thus, if I understand it aright–and I may not–phenomenology admits of us being in the world-as-itself.

Hence:

“Be here now,” as Ram Dass famously advocated in a book all of my friends had in their libraries in the 1970s.

Ram Dass' Be Here Now

Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’m over-simplifying. Yet I see a correspondence between the phenomenological approach and some aspects of (so-called) Eastern knowledge-practices/philosophies. The idea of consciousness as a network of intentions. The statement that “consciousness does not admit of degree.” The notion that actions and observations matter.

And now I am like the Zen practitioner…as far as phenomenology goes, I have “beginner’s mind.”

Learning the literary analysis

It’s end-of-semester time when I meet with students to coach them through revisions of their final papers. A fair number of those assignments are literary analysis papers, and the students I tutor tend to view these essays with dread stemming from confusion. I have learned a few methods of deconstructing and demystifying the literary analysis, but I understand these students’ frustrations. I felt them myself many years ago, as I learned literary analysis the hard way, under the tutelage of a formidable and exacting professor.

Actually, I had not thought much about learning literary analysis until a few days ago, when I had the chance to read some of my own early essays. In the bag of ephemera that contained my father’s essay on Martin Luther (see this post), there are also a few of my letters and college papers that my mother saved for some reason. How revealing it was to read my early forays into fiction analysis–and to see the comments my professor made on my work. Very astute, critical comments that confronted me, a naive 17-year-old who was accustomed to getting high grades on English papers, with all that I was assuming, leaving out, or asserting with faulty logic or lack of evidence.

It’s interesting that I rose to the challenge. I was shy and easily intimidated, and very young. The reason I did not feel utterly crushed by the professor’s comments is that this was a seminar class, discussion-based, with a great deal of face-to-face conversation among teacher and students. My professor was the most assertive, self-confident, and supremely logical woman I had ever encountered; I was intrigued by her. How on earth had she gotten that way? Was she born into it? Had her family encouraged her to be so direct, forthright, critically observant? Her vocabulary was precise. Her expectations were high; yet she insisted we teenagers had ideas that we were capable of expressing verbally and on paper.

Many students disliked her intensely, considered her too blunt, wounding, hypercritical. I respected her acuity and her breadth of knowledge. I didn’t want to emulate her, but I wanted to read what she had read and understand it as intently as she did.

I don’t think she would mind my revealing her identity, as she’s well-known for her passionate learnedness and her controversial ideas about education. You can find her on a TEDtalk on YouTube: Liz Coleman, long-time president of Bennington College. When I was a freshman at the experimental Freshman Year Program at The New School for Social Research, she was the program dean and my Art of Fiction teacher.

The title page of a much-lacking freshman attempt.

The title page of a much-lacking freshman attempt.

She did not coach us on thesis statements or methods of breaking the analysis into chunks of ideas supported by evidence from the text. Instead, she quarreled with our assertions, asked probing questions of our thin but possibly promising claims, and confronted us with the obvious. I was astounded by this approach to education, 180 degrees different from what I had encountered in high school. After Liz made her comments on my One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest essay, I picked up the book and immediately read it again–something I had never done before.

I had drawn parallels to the Christ narrative, a rather obvious way for a beginner to explore Kesey’s novel, but had completely failed to recognize that if you’re going to draw such parallels there comes a point where you need to recognize what the novelist does with the idea of “sacrifice”–what is gained (if anything) by it, and what purposeful and ironic twists the writer does to that narrative, and to what end(s). I was onto something when I wrote about the ‘earthly’ aspects of the characters but lost that thread in my allegorical pursuit.

My professor pointed out that I had “seriously limited the impact” of my paper’s argument–at that time, I had no idea that a literary analysis actually a form of argument–by transforming the novel into something it wasn’t, ie, a retelling of the Christ narrative. I love what she next wrote:

“That’s just not adequate to one’s experience of a novel in which earthly pleasures (the more earthly the better, it seems) are so unequivocally celebrated…[Kesey’s] vision of triumph has very much to do with being alive–his communion is with the juices of life.”

The communion with the juices of life! She wrote that to a 17-year-old. I’m not sure I got the full impact then, but I sure learned a great deal from her feedback both on the page and in class. And I did begin to write better, more argumentative, more logical papers. It wasn’t the simplest way to learn how to do a close read; but then, a close read of classic literature should reveal complex insights. I had to fight my way through my own assumptions and bad logic. I had to learn to read again, and at first I felt that analysis would destroy my joy of reading; but that’s only true if you are unlucky enough to have a professor who insists that the students’ interpretations align with the teacher’s opinions.paper002

Dr. Coleman has strong opinions about literature–and education, and political engagement, and many many other subjects. Yet I never felt she was pushing her interpretations onto us students; it seemed to me she was pushing me to do better work, to think more clearly, to read with more enthusiasm, with an alert mind. My engagement with literature, art, and much more owes a lot to her…I had always loved to read but had been in many ways a lazy reader.

I’m pretty much cured of that now!

Hinges, Hopkins, “Buckle! AND…”

Thinking about poetry again, at long last. A colleague directed me to a lovely little online post in which poet Catherine Barnett describes her attempts to create a physical analogy of poetry as hinge: here on the University of Arizona site.

Barnett writes:

As a poet, what interests me about a hinge is its two defining qualities: a hinge—like other devices—connects objects; it serves as a point of connection, a joining, a joint. But so is glue, a screw, a nail, a hasp, a clasp, a knot, a lock. What distinguishes a hinge from most other forms of connecting is the fact that it allows relative movement between two (or more) solid objects that share an axis.

In a poem, a hinge word or moment or gesture allows you to have both continuity and gap; unity and difference; such “hinges” keep the parts of the poem in some working relationship to one another and at the same time allow the poem to retain some of what Aristotle calls the unities of time and place.

How radically or loosely you want the hinge to open is a matter of temperament.

I love that idea of temperament juxtaposed with relative movement, continuity and gap. I’ve long mulled over the concept of joinery as a metaphor for some of the things that happen in poetry (even if “poetry makes nothing happen,” I do wish people would remember Auden’s next phrase that “it survives/In the valley of its making”). The hinge offers another analogy that Barnett hints at though doesn’t fully develop in her brief piece. I felt inspired to explore a poem that I think demonstrates the concept of the hinge.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Aside from the fabulous alliterative sound-joy and astonishing rhythms of this poem, it offers powerful, realistic description of a bird that manages to operate symbolically if the reader chooses to interpret it that way (as Hopkins surely meant his readers to do). I propose that there are several hinges in this poem, most spectacularly the center line in the center stanza, exclamation and capitalization marking the spot. It is at this point in the poet’s observation that pride, plume, brute beauty suddenly buckle: the falcon wings fold, plunge, AND…the bird breaks into the dangerous shine that makes the viewer’s heart leap at the sight.

Perhaps there is a moment when the bird’s shape resembles a cross in the sky. Perhaps the sun behind the gleaming feathers sends out shimmers like flames, the glory of God illuminated. Or it’s just a falcon, handsome and gliding on the big wind, but that hinge in the poem’s line serves to alert us to the gap (the hinge-like action of wings an unintended simile) and the continuity of the poet’s observation.

There are other hinges that work in the piece, such as the hyphen in its odd place at the end of the first line, promising “king” but leading instead to the string of D sounds that drum through the second line; the closed hinge of “Stirred for a bird” opening wide into the surprising exclamation that hangs of the axis of a long dash “–the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

I’m not sure I’m going to attempt Barnett’s original idea of making a poem physically into a hinge (though I have some tantalizing thoughts about ways one could accomplish that); I hope eventually to write about the joinery analogy. Meanwhile, however, I’m spending the evening with Hopkins’ “Windhover” in my mind. A pleasant way to open, or to close, a mild day late in autumn.

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