An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

Contra Cathy O’Neil, The ‘Ivory Tower’ Does Not ‘Ignore Tech’

In ‘Ivory Tower Cannot Keep On Ignoring TechCathy O’Neil writes:

We need academia to step up to fill in the gaps in our collective understanding about the new role of technology in shaping our lives. We need robust research on hiring algorithms that seem to filter out peoplewith mental health disorders…we need research to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again and again. It’s absolutely within the abilities of academic research to study such examples and to push against the most obvious statistical, ethical or constitutional failures and dedicate serious intellectual energy to finding solutions. And whereas professional technologists working at private companies are not in a position to critique their own work, academics theoretically enjoy much more freedom of inquiry.

There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives. That’s not surprising. Which academic department is going to give up a valuable tenure line to devote to this, given how much academic departments fight over resources already?

O’Neil’s piece is an unfortunate continuation of a trend to continue to castigate academia for its lack of social responsibility, all the while ignoring the work academics do in precisely those domains where their absence is supposedly felt.

In her Op-Ed, O’Neil ignores science and technology studies, a field of study that “takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology,” and many of whose members are engaged in precisely the kind of studies she thinks should be undertaken at this moment in the history of technology. Moreover, there are fields of academic studies such as philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and the sociology of knowledge, all of which take very seriously the task of examining and critiquing the conceptual foundations of science and technology; such inquiries are not elucidatory, they are very often critical and skeptical. Such disciplines then, produce work that makes both descriptive and prescriptive claims about the practice of science, and the social, political, and ethical values that underwrite what may seem like purely ‘technical’ decisions pertaining to design and implementation. The humanities are not alone in this regard, most computer science departments now require a class in ‘Computer Ethics’ as part of the requirements for their major (indeed, I designed one such class here at Brooklyn College, and taught it for a few semesters.) And of course, legal academics have, in recent years started to pay attention to these fields and incorporated them in their writings on ‘algorithmic decision making,’ ‘algorithmic control’ and so on. (The work of Frank Pasquale and Danielle Citron is notable in this regard.) If O’Neil is interested, she could dig deeper into the philosophical canon and read works by critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer who mounted rigorous critiques of scientism, reductionism, and positivism in their works. Lastly, O’Neil could read my co-authored work Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a central claim of which is that transparency, not opacity, should be the guiding principle for software design and deployment. I’d be happy to send her a copy if she so desires.

The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

Dear Men, Shut Up About ‘Due Process’ Already

From sea to shining sea, on social media pages nationwide, brave men are taking up cudgels on behalf of their brothers-in-sex-and-gender, the ones whose lives are facing ruination because of this country’s #MeToo moment, as accusation after accusation of sexual harassment and assault issue forth from women who’ve previously remained silent. In each case, their defense takes an exceedingly simple form: it is to insist on ‘due process,’ to assert that every ‘accused’ has a ‘presumption to innocence,’ that they are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ that they fear this business of identifying the men who harass and assault in impunity is all too likely to morph into that most dreaded of social epidemics: the witch hunt. Cease and desist, they say; let us wait till ‘the facts are in,’ till a ‘trial’ has taken place and ‘guilt’ has been conclusively established.

There are several–deliberate, I suspect–confusions at play here. Most prominently, this kind of response confuses the standards for a criminal conviction by the state in a court of law with the usual evidentiary standards that underwrite our usual social judgments of misbehavior. A courtroom furnishes one epistemic context; it addresses the imbalance of power that exists between the state and the accused, and puts the burden on the state to prove its point. This standard of proof is relaxed in civil cases, which only require a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and do not require guilt to be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Our day-to-day social encounters furnish yet other epistemic contexts; within them, we are, on a daily basis, subjected to ‘evidence’ of varying  levels of reliability, submitted by sources whom we trust to varying degrees; we act on the basis of these sorts of claims, assessing them using our socially acquired and developed skills of evidence evaluation; we often act on the basis of incomplete or only partially verified evidentiary claims; indeed, we have to, for stasis and inaction are not options more often than not. That is, we do not sit around, waiting for the standards of a criminal court to be satisfied before we act; social ends, desirable ones, have to be met.

Critical legal studies scholars have, for a long time now, identified one dishonorable ideological function that the law and its institutions–among which is legal language–play in our society: the establishment of a kind of ‘rationality’–the legal kind, which ostensibly aspires to the value-free, fact-laden-and-dependent kind of reasoning followed in the sciences–which can then be used to discredit other kinds of reasoning. The invocation of deployment of criminal law’s standards of evidence and its methodology for determining ‘guilt’ in social contexts outside of courtrooms is a good example of this kind of ideological maneuver. This invocation is particularly problematic when it is realized that courtroom deliberations themselves are anything but value-and-bias-free; determinations of guilt in courtrooms are as socially and politically riven as those that take place elsewhere; it is just that legal decisions lay claim to a presumption of having cleansed themselves of prejudice thanks to their supposed circumscription by ‘legal method.’

This particular technique of obfuscation has a long and dishonorable history–and it looks likely to continue for the established future. After all, maintaining this confusion is necessary for the maintenance of established power relations and for the continuance of bad behavior by serial offenders.

Hypocrisy And The Unequal Weighing Of Political Preferences

‘We’ are shocked time and again by the hypocrisy and political incoherence on display: Trump voters help elect a man who seems to act against their economic interests; they prop up a serial sexual harasser and abuser even as they claim to be fine, upstanding, family types dedicated to stamping out immoral behavior of all stripes; Republicans speak up for Roy Moore, a man accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, even as they claim to be the defender of religious family values; every new evidence of political scandal and misbehavior on the part of this administration is met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Republican faithful; and so on. (I have listed merely a selection of those examples that occur to me as an occupant of ‘this’ side of the political spectrum; the ‘other side’ will be able to supply some of its own.)

Such seeming incoherence is anything but; accusations that those who hold such views are hypocrites or inconsistent rest on a widely mistaken view about how political subjects rank their political preferences and value their political goods: it is assumed that citizens assign a ‘flat’ ranking to their political preferences, that they assign the same value to all perceived political goods, so that  a failure to provide one political good is as damaging as a failure to deliver another political good. A moment’s reflection will show that this is not the case. None of us rank our desired political goods as equally valuable–this is precisely why our political parties of choice send us survey questionnaires in election season, asking  us to rank our political priorities so that they may better focus their limited resources on pursuing those agendas of most interest to their constituents.

Viewed in this light, the seeming ‘incoherence’ or ‘hypocrisy’ of our political opponents becomes more understandable; they are not any more unprincipled or inconsistent than we are; failure to sever a political alliance is not evidence of political dishonesty; rather, the seeming offender has not committed any truly ‘deadly sin’ just yet by failing to deliver a truly valuable political good, one ranked much higher than the less-worthy ones that have not been delivered. If Donald Trump ‘grabs pussies’ and stuffs his family’s coffers while ensconced in the White House, this is of little import to a constituency that simply does not rank respect for women or financial propriety as important as the rhetorical or material protection of an established social order of say, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Judeo-Christian nationalism’ or anything else. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party can be perceived as continuing to supply those political goods, ones granted a weight orders of magnitude greater than that granted to say, the protection of women’s rights to live their lives free of harassment, then all is good. Politicians are not perfect; they cannot ‘do it all’; but if they do what we most want, we are willing to overlook their ‘minor’ failings. Especially if paying attention to those ‘minor’ failings will compromise the delivery of the truly important political goods.

There is a method to the madness.

Robert Morrison And Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche And The Buddha

Two recent books on Nietzsche and Buddhism–Robert Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, and Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy–do an exemplary job of examining, sympathetically and rigorously, some related questions of enduring philosophical interest: What is the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism? What were Nietzsche’s views on Buddhism? Was he grossly mistaken in his reading–if any–of Buddhist texts?

The answers these two texts provide are roughly similar.

First, Nietzsche had mixed views on Buddhism: he praised it for sounding the same alarm he was to a decadent culture confronting the loss of its most cherished ideals and ‘fictions’; he criticized it for what he saw as its nihilistic, world-denying aspects. This latter viewpoint, as both Morrison and Panaioti are at pains to point out, rests on a systematic misunderstanding of key Buddhist concepts and theories. Nietzsche was handicapped in this regard, ironically for someone who was a philologist, by his lack of fluency in the Indian languages–Sanskrit and Pali–essential for reading original Buddhist texts; he had to rely, perforce, on indirect access to the Buddhist corpus. Some of this indirect access, notably, was provided by Schopenhauer, who extracted from Buddhism a pessimism that Nietzsche ultimately found untenable and defeatist.

Second, Nietzsche and Buddhism share points of resonance or ‘affinities’ at several points: they both are committed to: a no-self theory of the self that denies the substantiality of an enduring self, a theory which they describe as a ‘delusion’ and which serves to underwrite many other species of pernicious theorizing; a metaphysics that eschews ‘substance‘–indeed, the no-self theory of the self serves to underwrite a no-object theory of objects or no-substantiality theory of substance (Buddhism employs the notion of “co-dependent arising” to deny independent, non-contingent existence to any thing or substance); a rigorous practice of self-overcoming or self-mastery, a key component of which is the mastery of perspectives that are free of the various illusions and delusions that contribute to ‘world weariness’ or ‘pointless suffering.’ Moreover, both can be understood in ‘medical’ or ‘therapeutic’ terms; they both aim, through their philosophizing, to ‘cure’ a certain kind of perplexity that has led to intellectual and physical ill-health. And they both do it with an emphasis on practice, on modifying and altering the very ways in which we think and live.

Both Morrison and Panaioti know the relevant literatures exceedingly well; they’ve clearly mastered the Nietzschean corpus, and engaged rigorously with original Buddhist texts. (They both seem to be fluent in Pali and Sanskrit and often contest older translations of technical terms in these languages.) They write clearly and do a wonderful job of making difficult Buddhist material more accessible. Morrison does this to a greater extent as he engages in several attempts to provide new interpretations to Buddhist terms and theses–not all of which will find approval with scholars of Buddhism, but they will applaud the attempted rigor of his interpretations anyway.

Much academic writing these days is sterile and unreadable; these two books provide a much-needed counterpoint to that claim.

Anita Hill, Harvey Weinstein, And National Amnesia

In October 1991, I, along with millions of other curious viewers, watched the Senate nomination hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. My curiosity, like that of many others, had been piqued by the presence of Thomas’ former assistant, Anita Hill, who had accused him of sexual harassment at her workplace. On the second day of her testimony, I was joined in my viewing by my girlfriend; we worked together at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey–she as a technical writer, I as a systems analyst. As we watched the hearings, my girlfriend grew increasingly animated–she commented time and again on Hill’s ‘bravery,’ her ‘courage,’ on how difficult it must have been for her to speak up. She spoke too, of the many incidents of harassment–major and minor–she herself had suffered at her workplace; she told me how all around her, women were talking–to each other, and to anyone, men included, who would listen–about how Anita Hill was giving voice to a complaint all too often ignored. And indeed, over the next few days, in newspapers, on talk shows, in usenet newsgroups, you could hear women talking about how Anita Hill’s testimony had blown the lid off the modern workplace’s biggest and most enduring scandal: the daily rituals of intimidation, humiliation, harassment that women had to undergo within its precincts. All around me, everyone agreed: this was a national ‘conversation’ we needed to be having; the world was not going to be the same again after these kinds of ‘revelations’; boyfriends and husbands were listening. (On the night Thomas’ confirmation was received, I was at my girlfriend’s house. When we heard the final 52-48 vote to confirm, she kicked the bed in disgust and anger; no one would listen to women; despite all that Hill had said, despite her transparent sincerity, the usual fog of obfuscation and denial–and in Thomas’ case, an astonishing self-pitying rant–had derailed her claims.)

It is now 2017, some twenty-six years on. The years have rolled on, much has changed, but yet more endures. We have been assured, thanks to La Affaire Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, that we are at a national watershed moment when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment, that we now have unprecedented awareness about the problems that women face in the workplace–and elsewhere–when it comes to the business of being able to simply maintain some kinds of boundaries around themselves and their bodies. Back in 1991, in my workplace, there had been many employee seminars for ‘sensitivity training’ and the like–all to increase workplace awareness about the problem of sexual harassment. The men hadn’t liked it then; the current evidence seems to suggest all those seminars, at workplaces nationwide, had little effect–the Weinstein scandal is merely the most publicized of the many sexual harassment ‘scandals’ since. There is reason for pessimism again: the #MeToo campaign is already old hat, and business is returning to normal all too soon.

We’ve been here before; we might yet find ourselves at these crossroads again. Our memories are all too fragile, all too easily effaced.