Ryden Bee

Argument v Story

From brainpickings: "Bruner notes that the Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning."

Jerome Bruner (Harvard Psychologist), Actual Minds, Possible Worlds

Ryden Bee

An MLK Day Reflection: Doing What's Difficult

If we are going to thrive as a diverse society, and in the U.S. we are already succeeding beyond the level of most other attempts on this Earth, we must as individuals and communities expect more of ourselves.

Our authentic, deep, and active compassion for one another will not be easy. Even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened will have to accept, will have to truly tolerate with welcome and without contempt, both the what and the who that make us uncomfortable. We will have to seek out, take in, and deeply understand those whose opinions and behaviors fill us with discomfort and even revulsion, drawing the line only at those who do physical harm or perpetuate active and public exclusion.

We will also be asked to continually question ourselves and not default to assuming we have the answers for everyone. We must accept that each of us belongs to someone else's out group and that we too live on their sufferance and acceptance.

We must grant that we will not ever live in a utopia where we will be able to stop thinking about and trying to achieve equity of opportunity and inclusion, because as social animals we will continue to distribute power unevenly and act out of self-interest. We are not to be trusted to be better than what we are, but we must be trusted to together ensure that we strive always to achieve it. We must impose checks and balances, rewards and consequences, to ensure fairness and continuity of principle, and we must each bend to these for the good of ourselves and everyone else.

We ought to accept that inclusion benefits not only those excluded, but all of us -- not only by the end result of universal fairness, but also by the process of sharing, questioning, and creating from a space that honors real difference in perspective. We need one another. The challenges before us and the opportunities are otherwise too great.

The diversity and inclusion training I recently attended with my coworkers is a start in reminding us that small kindnesses regularly offered make a difference. It's a start, something difficult in practice, but not challenging in concept. It is not yet enough.

We must give up a desire for revenge against those who have wronged us and others about whom we care. We must share what we have with a glad heart. We must remind ourselves not to fear those whom we genuinely don't understand. We must grow a thicker skin so that we can exude resilience and teach by example. We must establish common ground and be willing to live in compromise. We must join together to ask that our institutions protect those with whom we fervently disagree. We must learn and live and work side by side in peace. We must do what does not come easily or naturally, in terms of our social emotional nature. We must make the out group with whom we do not feel safe part of our in group.

Those who are excluded or suffering in ways large and small can do no less, even though they deserve more. They must be willing to speak out, even when they do not expect to be heard. They must reach out and be willing to accept help from those outside of their community, to help all of us heal and to form a common cause. They must not turn their hearts. And they must strive, even when they feel put down and left out, to live a life with dignity and purpose, to dream and manifest that dream, regardless. They must find, believe in, and communicate their own value, every day, in small ways and large. We cannot ask more only from those who choose instead to live for themselves or among themselves; we must also ask it from those who have reason to rage and withdraw, to live in bitterness and despair. We must ask it of everyone, as Dr. King asked it of all of us.

The challenge before us, myself included, is to do what is difficult. We cannot invest in platitudes or point fingers. That's a big ask, but it's what we must each do to honor his legacy.
Ryden Bee

Jim Carrey, on taking risks and living your dream

"Decisions...in this moment...are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it...You can ask the universe for it...You can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance at what you love. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world...Risk being seen in all your glory."

-- Jim Carrey, Commencement Speech, Maharishi University of Management (MUM; Iowa), May 2014
Ryden Bee

Excerpt: George Orwell: Reflections on Gandhi

At this point in the essay, Orwell is considering whether Gandhi was a lovable man, in addition to being a good one. I have bolded a couple of fine instances of Orwell's acerbic humor.

"The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi — with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction — always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it."
Ryden Bee

T.S. Eliot's Gloomy but Apt Life Advice

From Garrison Keillor's amazing The Writer's Almanac (everyone should subscribe!):

In his 1948 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature, T.S. Eliot said: "Partly through his influence on other poets, partly through translation ... partly through readers of his language who are not themselves poets, the poet can contribute toward understanding between peoples ... I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry."

And he said: "The one thing you can do is to do nothing. Wait ... You will find that you survive humiliation and that's an experience of incalculable value."
Ryden Bee

Facebook Graphing Entities: Hogwarts

Now this is funny, especially if you are a member of Tribe Geek:

According to Singh, many people on Facebook list their school as Hogwarts, the wizardry school from the Harry Potter series. But their graph models give Hogwarts a low “schooliness” quotient, partly because those who list it as a school come from so many different places. “We want to preserve user expression. If someone really wants to say that they went to Hogwarts, who are we to say that they didn’t go to Hogwarts?” Singh says. “But that’s not the thing that we want to show on top when we search for schools that people have gone to.”

Wired "How Facebook Builds a Digital Signature for You (and Your World)" 7-8-13

Ryden Bee

The New Atheists: Not a New Faith, a New Ethos

One of my favorite lines in modern rock is in Midnight Oil's "Blue Sky Mine": "Who's gonna save me? Who's gonna save me?/I pray that sense and reason brings us in/(Who's gonna save me? Who's gonna save me?)" It's the irony of this prayer, the emptiness of it. If anything has a chance of saving us, I think it's sense and reason, and yet sense and reason often fail to save us, because they must be shared and put into action, and even then may be insufficient. In the context of the song's narrative, the Blue Sky Mine won't stop their polluting of the land and its workers. Only the rain can wash the streets of the mining town clean, and we're still not sure that the speaker's assertion that this means they've therefore "got nothing to fear" is anything more than forced cheer--a false projected wish-fulfillment.

Do those who reject faith in a conscious and intervening divinity then put that same faith in science? Not any more than they do in the above song. In God is Not Great, Hitchens defines the New Atheist stance in this way: "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake." Well said.

Ryden Bee

Richard Feynam: On Scientific Knowledge

This is a terrific quotation from Richard Feynman on the nature of scientific knowledge, and specifically the necessity for skepticism. My paraphrase: There is always room for doubt. If the humanities would like to take something from the sciences, as it seems to want to do sometimes these days given their relative funding and cultural prestige, they ought to begin here:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

For more on this and others of Feynman's ideas concerning scientific responsibility, see Maria Popova's discussion at Brain Pickings.

Ryden Bee

(no subject)

A Facebook friend (who happens to be a gay man in love and in a committed relationship) and I were celebrating a recent victory for same-sex marriage, when a friend of his (not shared) posted the following comment:

"But who gives a fuck really? You guys wanna be gay? Well be fuckin gay! Who cares! Our country needs to focus on more important shit than your gay marriages"

I have read this kind of argument before across the internet. Why should same-sex marriage, the case goes, be on anyone's agenda when there are so many more immediate issues with which we should be concerned? The economy, gun violence, healthcare, education, you name it. I'd be the first to agree there are other serious issues on the table, but also think that same-sex marriage rights are one of them.

Here's what I wrote in reply to "But who gives a fuck really?"

"I would say that the following are the reasons why, views expressed not just by me but by many wise people over the course of modernity: We usually dismiss the social justice due another only when we have the luxury of justice for ourselves, and when we do that we not only become guilty of a clear moral wrong and violation of a community bond (evolutionary psychology has shown in animal studies that other social animals share a basic, instinctive sense of fairness, and that this sense of fair play helps to create a bond among groups that helps to ensure mutual survival), but we also do so at our own more immediate peril (the breakdown of social order over time, or even more suddenly in moments of crisis).

Democracy has widened the scope of social justice and should, must, continue to do so. Earlier in our recent history, it brought social quality and justice to people like you and me. In the 19th century in Europe, for example, most men couldn't vote, let alone women or people of color. Only men of birth and great property had any political voice, and they used it to their advantage. In those bad old days, people had to subscribe to a state religion in England and elsewhere, or not be permitted to marry, to attend university, etc. Today, many of us have have the privilege to live diversely without legal and sometimes social prejudice on this and other points because the people who came before us, many of whom had privilege, felt that others deserved it too.

So, on this point, Helen Keller: "Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other's welfare, social justice can never be attained."

And if that basic argument for social justice doesn't move you, then the desire for a stable and peaceful society may, this from Frederick Douglass: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." And to make Douglass's point come home, I say look at Islamic extremism, which rises up from the street but is often led by men of privilege who are outlaws within their own country's system of privilege. Rather than blaming that system, they turn on the West as the scapegoat. That point being that keeping a group of people less than, poorer than, and more ignorant than is a seed that bears ill fruit.

That is why we should give a fuck."

But the cool thing here isn't that I saw wrong thinking and was able to blow my danger whistle loudly in its face. The cool thing is that this commenter was moved to explain he wanted people to be able to live and let live. If same-sex couples want to shack up, they should just do it. They don't need a law for that. Thus flying in the face of the reality that civil rights have had to be protected by law, yes, even in modern, pluralistic democracies, and that the border of what is included and excluded from legal protection is contested for important reasons.

The even better news is that in the end the commenter was also moved to like my post. There may be hope for him yet :).

Ryden Bee

Melissa McCarthy Trips the Lights: Live From New York

I'm a fan of Melissa McCarthy. I thought her character-acting in Bridesmaids carried the otherwise sappy and formulaic film. And I like a big girl who is beautiful and can hold her own, with a smart mouth and an even smarter attitude. I like that her Playboy centerfold cousin Jenny defends Melissa's talent, at whatever weight Melissa is, and says that Melissa's even funnier than she is. That's generous, and probably true. But as a woman of size, I did not appreciate the physical comedy of Melissa McCarthy's SNL on-stage opening, tripping on red sparkly stripper heels that are way too high for most women, and especially a big woman.

As a big woman, I'm careful of how I move in public. I keep my shirt pulled down. I make sure my pants are pulled up. I choose shoes that are practical. I don't think most think people understand how physically self-conscious being fat makes a person in our culture, because the fat assume that others are judging. We don't assume it in a vaccuum. I was beat up as a kid for being fat. I've been called names in restaurants and on the street. I mean men have hung out of trucks to talk about my imagined sex, in a way that debases, in a mean way, one that feels dangerous -- lots of times, not just once. I've seen women wince when they see me walk into a room, and I've overheard my share of whispers. So to see a fat woman make a spectacle out of herself is painful, whether she meant it as part of the act or not. The fact is, so few big girls make it on stage (or to successful corporate careers, or to graduate degrees, etc., etc.) that it's almost impossible not to see one who does as a symbol for the rest of us.

When Dave Chappelle bugged out of his wildly successful skit comedy series on the verge of a legendary payday in 2005 (I was such a fan), he said something to the effect of being concerned that audiences weren't laughing with black culture but at it. It was one thing for a man who loves and gets black culture to lampoon it (and celebrate it), and another for other people outside the circle to laugh -- that laughter can take a cruel edge, and the comedy can reinforce stereotypes rather than pointing up the range of differences within, and the desire for insiders to ignore what is less savory, for the sake of seeming more to those outsiders who are prone to see the group, the whole group, as less.

That's my worry about the kind of fat lady pratfall comedy we witness on SNL -- if it was intentional. We're used to seeing incompetent fat white men, anxious, fumbling, buffoonish, sometimes dancing in advertisements. Once you begin looking for them, they turn up like bad pennies. Fat women tend to be matronly or always the bridesmaid and never the bride. They usually don't get to do the physical humor, and I am struck that there may be a good reason why. There is a nasty strain of humor about fat woman, and fat girls, about how easy they (we) are, how any halfway-decent looking guy can always trade down for one (or any other of the "ugly" girl stereotypes: aka beer goggles) if he gets desperate enough or drunk enough.

Even if McCarthy's falling wasn't intentional, wasn't part of the comedy...well, that would make it worse, not better. That would give the truth to our inability to carry off things with aplomb, to perform at the same level as other professionals, when we, like every other marginalized group, know damn well we need to do it better. And that more than anything else made me want to reach out to McCarthy and give her a hand so she could stand up with dignity on the SNL and just be funny as hell with her words, with her acting, with anything about the spectacle of her body. I wanted to do anything but see her fall.