Complex ambiguities

Rebecca Solnit from Ploughshares, May 2016: “We live in a time when …purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past. They draw on polls and false analogies to announce what is going to happen next, and their frequent errors… don’t seem to impede their habit of prophecy or our willingness to abide them. ‘We don’t actually know’ is their least favorite thing to report.” [My italics.]

I am the sort of reader who loves to hear experts announce “We don’t actually know.” But I recognize I am in the minority–in this respect–in my culture. That most Americans are willing to abide such speculative prophecies worries me a bit, and I do what I can in the classroom to waken my students to the possibility of erroneous thinking, even on the part of supposed experts and aggregate sources.

Yes, once again I am teaching argument to freshmen…the classic example of what Solnit calls naïve cynics:

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities.

Scholarly argument should ideally create discourse, not embattled absolutism on things that cannot ever be “proven.” In fact, I have forbidden my students to employ the word “prove” (or any of its conjugations) in their argument papers. They know my rationale for this lexical excision; I also warn them away from “always,” “never,” and “everyone.” But they are not yet experienced enough critical thinkers to recognize that my practice is also to encourage research and nuance, to shove them (gently) out of their naïve cynicism into the world of no-easy-answers, no-slippery-slope-thinking; a world of wonderfully complex ambiguities waiting to be more fully explored.

I think of my oldest child who, many years ago, was insistent on knowing ahead of time how everything was going to turn out: “Does the movie have a happy ending?” “Does the Little Red Hen get anyone to help make her bread?” “Can I win this game?”photo ann e. michael

Raising a child who is temperamentally anxious requires a form of parenting that offers comfort but admits to unknowingness. (Next up on my reading list: America the Anxious, by Ruth Whippman!) Solnit says the alternative to naïve cynicism is “an active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses.”

I don’t think I have ever heard a more accurate description of what being a human entails.

Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

~

If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

~

I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

~~

Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

~~

A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

~~

Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2

 

 

 

Enter the philosophy paper…

My “day job” at a small university is part administrative, part teaching, part assessment, and largely tutoring in writing. The last of these requires a peculiar balancing act, because my directive says I must not tutor discipline content; I have to tutor students toward “clear expression” while staying within the areas of grammar, spelling, vocabulary use, assignment interpretation, thesis writing, paper structure, and documentation. As a job description, that all sounds quite clearly delineated and objective enough, but writing well cannot happen when the writer fails to understand content material. Enter the Philosophy paper.

In any discipline, it’s difficult to separate tutoring “clear expression” in terms of grammar and vocabulary without also tutoring content. With philosophy that process is especially challenging, because to a large extent, philosophical understanding (content) relies on grammar (rhetoric). A student can contradict himself simply by neglecting to type the word “not” in a sentence, rendering his attempt at argument void. Or a student may announce she will use one approach to prove her claim and then prove the claim, quite adequately, with a different (and opposite!) approach.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Cases like these cause me to ponder. How can I coach the writer without offering a content-based answer? Philosophy itself supplies the method: inquiry.

“So, you say here that because Locke believed in Natural Law, he would not apply Natural Law in the case of the social contract. Can you explain that statement? Because it seems as though you are contradicting yourself, unless you accidentally added the word ‘not’ or unless you have more to say after this sentence…maybe, why he would not do so?”

“Here, you do a pretty good job explaining why beauty is in the eye of the beholder, although you need to pay more attention to your use of the comma. But back at your claim in paragraph one, you say you will prove beauty is transcendent–and your definition of transcendent doesn’t work with your argument in paragraph three…do you mean beauty is not transcendent? Did you forget a word, or are you missing a paragraph of explanation?”

When the science students or economics students bring papers to me, it is, I admit, much easier for me to stick to grammar and mechanics. The same sorts of logical structure or argument issues crop up, however. Sometimes, I feel as though I am right on the borderline, and sometimes I think I’ve teetered a bit too far into content tutorial–especially when the students are writing about history, philosophy, literature, or philosophy. Yet would any philosopher disagree that you cannot completely disentangle grammar logic from any other kind of logic? They stem from the same root.

Critique: an anecdote

A group of friends gathers once a month to read and share and critique one another’s poems. They know one another well enough that they can be empathic, honest, and helpful; also, they are trusting enough to bring poems that really aren’t “working.” The critique’s the best way to get some understanding of why a poem is not working.

Recently, one member shared a poem that was somewhat philosophical in its overtones. The rhetoric of the poem was shifting, getting away from her, and she knew it. But she couldn’t figure out why, or how to correct the problem.

The talk moved away from critique and into values–for awhile. So the group was no longer exactly discussing the poem, or poetry, at all.

And yet, through the conversation, the writer recognized where at least part of the poem’s problem lay…which was in image and in structure (as illuminated, perhaps, by value and by rhetoric).

Reason can lead to beauty.

Philosophy & English are friends

At my day job, I do a great deal of tutoring in writing at the college level. Most students who sit down to work with me expect that I will help them learn to use commas and apostrophes, to write thesis statements and to unclutter their sentences. I do that, but the most important part of tutoring writing at the college level is actually rhetoric. One of the things I constantly tell my students is that Philosophy and English are friends.

Many freshmen have no idea why either course is required for a bachelor’s degree. I hope that the ones who find their way to my office for writing help finally understand–however reluctantly–that composing essays and learning critical thinking skills do merit their attention and do, in fact, transfer to whatever set of skills their majors may require of them.

This past week, my sessions featured the “Analysis for Rhetoric” paper and papers for several different Philosophy professors, including essays based upon readings of Garrett Hardin (the famous “Lifeboat Ethics” essay) and Mortimer Adler. Most of the time, I helped my students read rather than write. It isn’t possible to write effectively about a text one does not understand, and rhetorical analysis is new to most college freshmen. Between the not-knowing-how and the not-understanding, most of the student attempts at paper-writing end up weak and wordy.

With no foundation in rhetoric, essay structure disintegrates. Even sentences often operate with a rhetorical function that few 18-year-olds understand until it is pointed out to them: sentences that offer parallels, for example, or if/then speculative structures, or the this-therefore-that causative rhetoric. If the student hasn’t yet figured out how to analyze a text for rhetorical strategies, he or she certainly cannot structure a credible paper about it. What I have learned is that many people know what they want to say but cannot relay it to a reader who isn’t psychic. I have to keep reminding narcissistic young people that, amazingly, the professor does not share their assumptions or “know what they mean.” Sometimes I use Lego blocks to give a visual, concrete example of linking, scaffolding, and therefore building an essay in a fashion the reader can follow.

After years of tutoring, I often do know what the student is trying to say; but I pretend I don’t. If I say it for them, they don’t learn how to say it themselves–and that isn’t teaching.

~

Two excellent books to study regarding how grammar structure relates to elegant writing are Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences and Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic work The Trivium.

Reasonable, calming…

Campaign rhetoric is  hardly deserving of the name. The commentator who attempts to persuade or question through the means of valuable, thoughtful rhetoric endeavors to avoid fallacies and ballyhooing. But such commentators are scarce as hen’s teeth. Apparently, we citizens of the USA are not considered intelligent enough, are not respected enough, by our politicians and their media handlers to be worthy of genuine discourse or reasonable argument. We are also far too emotional and prone to grand-standing and stereotyping, the media-savvy promoters must imagine. With a certain amount of dismay, I admit there may be some truth to that pathetic view of the average US voter; but I want to believe we are better than that.

In the thick of a presidential election, therefore, I find it pleasant to retreat to the calming, reasonable, optimistic (though cautioning) prose of Marilynne Robinson. For those of you who, like me, feel a sickening pressure around the whole election brou-ha-ha, I suggest a few hours reading and re-reading her recent book of collected essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson makes no secret of her perspectives as a Christian, Protestant, US citizen, and reasonable, thinking, person of letters (humanities canon through and through…). She also establishes how her perspective widens rather than narrows her views, offers her “gentler” interpretations of the Old Testament and of Calvin’s writing and teachings, and argues her opinion with an erudition, elegance, simplicity and wisdom that is exceedingly rare today, particularly during presidential election years…and among people identifying themselves as “Christians.”

In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” Robinson parses the difference between rationality and reason and reminds us of what the word “liberal” originally meant (and how its meaning has changed and become vague). By the way, though a rational person in terms of her use of rhetoric, Robinson is squarely in the arena of reason, which she defines — with sources, thank you — as less numerical and more courageous and intuitive, ie human, than the merely rational.

Is her work ever political? Is it ever not political? It depends upon  how one defines “political.” Robinson is deeply engaged with the human community. I think she would agree with Lewis Mumford on the city’s best purpose as being there to protect the welfare of its citizens, even the least of its citizens, and would agree that one of the most significant values of civilization is the creation of art. Certainly she here asserts that the highest purpose of nationhood is to establish justice (civic, human justice), to keep domestic peace within the nation itself, to secure freedom and liberty for all members of the society equally, and to keep the populace safe while promoting the common welfare of all the people.

I believe she is well aware–though she doesn’t say it even  once in this book–that this stance makes her a classic patriot, a defender of the US Constitution, even as it also means that she can easily be branded a “liberal” for her well-argued stance that the USA was not established as a capitalist nation but as a generous democratic one devoted to the public welfare (ie, “good”), and what the difference between those theories are.

Just a week or two ago, I visited the US Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The performance offered there (“We the People”) and the interactive and non-interactive exhibit halls do a good job of reminding US citizens that the Constitution is a living document that established a government like no other before it, a document amenable to change and interpretation even as it establishes fundamental rights. Let us look at the Preamble and connect it with Robinson’s essays and ideas:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Reasonable. Generous–even Liberal. Secure for the people–no caving in to irrational fears; offering human justice because divine justice is not for us to determine; defense, not aggression; attentiveness to the general welfare (not of the privileged few)…and liberty: the chance to live as safe a life as God and the randomness of earthly environments allow without the oppression of other human beings to weigh us down.

You really have to read Robinson’s measured, calm prose and clear reasoning to feel the optimism; I cannot do it justice. I will just say that reading her book has made me feel much less depressed during a time when lack of discourse and logic has made me almost lose my hope about the democratic process.

Molte bene, Marilynne.