The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

On Bearing Grudges

I bear grudges. Some of them are of impressive vintage, their provenance almost hidden, tucked away in some distant corner of my memories and recollections. Yet others are more callow, stemming from events and incidents that have barely received their marching papers. Some burn with a fierce intensity, the glow of yet others is dull, even as they continue to smolder sullenly. But they all have occupancy rights and long-term leases; they are all legal squatters, welcomed and let in, taking up space, consuming vital resources of thought and emotional energy. Residencies this prolonged must be paid for; and these long-time tenants do square their debts in a fashion.

Most prominently, of course, these grudges allow for self-indulgent wallowing in a fierce, unquenchable anger; this emotion is much maligned, and yet, its pleasures are undeniable. (Or else, we would not allow it such easy, unquestioned access to our being.)  Poke a dormant grudge, and as it stirs to life, there is almost immediate gratification; that pounding, elevated heart-rate, that fierce sense of righteousness, that pleasurable confirmation of our virtue. We were right to be offended and aggrieved; our grudge tells us so.

Grudges remind us we are alive, that we are creatures of emotion too, and not just reasonable reason. They pay compliments to our passional selves, to our capacity to experience and express our feelings; only the banal and the affectless let go of grudges, not us. Our grudges remind us, as we trudge through the endlessly repeated daily routines that blur one day into another, that something within us is irreconcilable and discordant with the placidity that seems to otherwise dominate our lives.

Grudges are an aid to our memories; they are vivid markers of times gone by, of places and peoples that once populated our lives. They point to roads taken, to friendships made and lost, to formative relationships. We know our memories are not distinct and discrete, separable into neat parcels; each informs the other.  To let a grudge go might be to let go its associations, a price we might be unwilling to pay.

Grudges offer words of caution for the life that lies ahead of us; they remind us of what offended us, what cut us to the quick, what was able to reach down into the innermost recesses of our being and find the previously inaccessible and unconscious. They suggest alternative routes and paths for our inevitable encounters with others; we have been forewarned. (They remind us too, that others, much like us, might bear grudges too. We should not glibly assume that our offences have been forgiven and forgotten; we might yet need to make amends. They aid our understanding of others; that inexplicable remark, that mysterious response, is now no longer so.)

Grudges, like anxieties, are messengers; they inform us of who we are. We struggle to understand ourselves; our grudges aid our ongoing projects of self-discovery and understanding. To cauterize a grudge might be to turn off a channel of communication with ourselves.

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Justin Caouette On Rational And Emotional Forgiveness

Over at The Philosopher’s Take Justin Caouette wonders if there is a distinction between two kinds of forgiveness, ‘cognitive’ and ‘rational’:

Cognitive forgiveness deals with understanding the act that was done to you. So, let’s say your good friend punched you in the face when you walked into his house. After the incident and after talking about it with him you realized that he thought you were the thief that tried to break into his house the week before. You now “understand” why he did what he did and you may forgive him for it after he has apologized and told you why he decided to throw the punch….you…cognitively forgave him by understanding why he did what he did…Emotional forgiveness seems to be a more difficult form of forgiveness that is much less attainable….Following the punch in the face you get angry. Even after you’ve come to a rational understanding of why he did it you may still carry the anger or disappointment in his inability to see the difference between you and the thief….it does seem possible to rationally forgive but still be emotionally hurt, in turn, not forgiving.

And then goes on to ask some questions among which are the following:

Can you forgive in one sense and not the other? Or, are these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other? Is one form of forgiving more important [than] the other? What does it mean to fully forgive someone? Does it mean that the relationship goes back to the way things were? And, if so, do any of us really forgive anyone?

Caouette is right to surmise that “these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other.” To ‘understand’ and make comprehensible the rationale behind an insult–physical or otherwise–directed at one self is to undergo an emotional experience as well. The phenomenology of forgiveness involves a kind of ‘lifting’ of a burden of sorts which is colored with an emotional response.  To consider Caouette’s example again, he assumes too quickly that the subject in question has attained a ‘rational understanding’ of why he suffered the punch. Rather, I would suggest that if he is still carrying the anger and disappointment of the injury around as a kind of emotional baggage, then he has not come to the supposed rational understanding either. That rational understanding, that fitting of your assailant’s actions into cognitive space of reasons so that it is made comprehensible, less malevolent, will only proceed if facilitated by the right kind of emotional scaffolding. Or, the space of reasons is not purely cognitive; it is emotional too. When we tell our friend that we ‘understand,’ that it’s ‘OK,’ we are not merely signaling a cognitive response, we are indicating we have felt emotional relief too and that we are now, unburdened, ready to move on.

In an older post on a related topic, I had made note of Doris McIlwain‘s remark that ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises‘ as follows:

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

From these considerations it follows that one form of forgiving cannot be prioritized over the other; the two are inseparable and proceed together.  To ‘fully’  forgive someone does not entail the relationship ‘goes back to the way things were’–that isn’t possible or desirable. Rather it suggests that we are able to now perceive the act calling for forgiveness in a broader context that eliminates the earlier shadings and construals we placed on it. Sometimes we may never forget or forgive fully but we can still hope for a diminution of the visceral emotions associated with it, in part because our continued growth as a person may result in alternative rational responses to the event in question. (There are some colorful metaphors here to play with: a drop of ink in a glass of water can never be removed, but adding more water can render the glass clear again; that is, positive history can act to cover up an old emotional wound.)

This intertwining of the rational and the emotional has been noted before, and indeed, we may read the Buddha as suggesting that we need to bring the two in harmony in our actions and thoughts. The separation of the two is useful for analytical purposes, but it should not lead us to imagine that such separation is present in the moral subject.

Notes On Meditation Practice – II

Meditation induces two interesting forms of self-consciousness that do not arise during the actual sitting itself. They are, rather, ways of regarding the practice of meditation as it meshes with the rest of the meditator’s life.

First, the meditator is self-consciously aware of the fact that he is one. The normal, ongoing processes of identity formation and maintenance now include the attribute, ascribed to oneself, “engages in a meditation practice.” This is not innocent; for better or worse, ‘meditation’ carries certain connotations with it. These include, at the least, dimly perceived and understood stereotypes about the kind of person who does meditate, and why they might do so; by becoming a meditator, some of those stereotypes become ways of regarding yourself.  For instance, shortly after I began my practice, I found myself kicking off what looked like turning into a heated argument. As I did so, I felt curiously abashed and undignified, and a thought, unbidden, came to me: this was not how those who engage in meditation practice are ‘supposed to behave.’ I was supposed to be one engaging in a practice that induced calm and dignity, but here I was, squabbling like a child. Overcome by a sudden awkwardness, I retreated from my previously grimly defended position and began winding down the argument. I wanted to retreat from this zone of my loss of composure. This has not always been the case; on many occasions, I have blundered straight into the heart of a meltdown, and emerged with very little of my former grace intact. But that new perspective on myself has not gone away. It remains, lurking on the edges of my consciousness of myself, reminding me I now engage in an activity supposed to be changing me and making me into a new person.

Second, meditation is self-indulgent and the meditator knows it. Forty minutes a day is ‘too much’ to spare; none of us, especially here in this city, have that time to spare. As such, the very act of sitting down and shutting out the world’s demands feels like a supremely, virtuously self-centered action. You deny the world its claims on you–even as you carry thoughts about it into your mind, and yet, for those twenty minutes, remove yourself from its embrace. The awareness of the sheer subversiveness of this act–in a world-context in which there is an unceasing demand for our time and attention–is a liberation. It brings with it a curious sensation of power; to step away from this world feels like an empowering act, an assumption of agency in a situation where we are used, all too often, to bemoan the loss of ours. This awareness too, becomes part of our identity; it becomes an attribute to ourselves; it changes who we think we are.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Sitting in meditation, with a regular practice, makes you a meditator; that change, by itself, without any other extravagant claims, is a significant one.

Note: The first post in this series is here.

On Avoiding An Embarrassing Meltdown In The Classroom

A week or so ago, I sensed trouble was afoot, that danger was brewing–pick your favored cliché–in my teaching work. I was growing steadily irritated, being driven to apoplexy by an insidious irritant: a student’s behavior had gotten under my skin. He could do nothing right; I found myself handing out imaginary dressing-downs in class, in my office; I experienced surges of irritation at the mere thought of my last interaction with him. I found myself avoiding eye-contact in the classroom for fear of experiencing a potentially debilitating wave of anger while trying to work through a passage of philosophical argumentation.

I was coming dangerously close to that most embarrassing of occurrences for a teacher: a public eruption of temper at a student.

In the fall of 1997, during my first semester of teaching philosophy–then as a graduate student–I had the misfortune of encountering three extremely loquacious students in my night class. Their ringleader, a loud young woman, conducted their chorus with cheekiness and verve; she cared little for the disturbance caused to the students around them. I sent several warnings and rebukes their way but to no avail; I sensed some defiance in their responses but did not push any further. Finally, one night, matters came to a head; their chattering broke out again as I wrote on the blackboard. My inevitable reprimand was now responded to with an insolent suggestion that I change my tone. To put matters proverbially, I lost my shit. I shouted–loudly–at the offending miscreant that she needed to change her ways; rather gratifyingly, even if only for an instant, she looked shell-shocked. As did the rest of the class. In the awkward silence that followed–that seemed to last forever–I went back to writing on the blackboard, desperately trying to recover my equanimity. After class ended, my student came to me in tears. I had humiliated her, shown her up. We talked for a few minutes; I explained my reaction as best as I could, pointing out to her that her group’s behavior was a distraction and disrespectful. She apologized, and then left.

Later, I realized I could have handled things differently; I could have asked her to stay back after class and discussed many of the same topics we did after my outburst.

Many years later, at Brooklyn College, I lost my temper at a student again. This time, in my office, in the course of a conversation where a grade grubbing conversation had taken a turn into the realm of the absurd–my interlocutor had told me that I had graded his paper too harshly a few seconds after informing me that he had prioritized another class’ exam and therefore had been unable to devote any time or energy to my writing assignment. From this, he concluded that I was being ‘unfair.’ My patience and mental reserves had been worn thin by days of petulant badgering; I jumped out of my chair in indignation as I angrily told him to stop wasting my time. Then, I had felt undignified; my student had been shocked and had taken a step back, appalled by this visible display of frustration and irritation on my part. (It’s a long story, but our relationship did not improve until after he had graduated.)

I dodged a bullet this time. I sent out an email to my classes in which I said a debriefing with me about the grades in the first paper of the semester was a mandatory requirement for all. One of the students to meet with me was the repeat offender; I sat him down, told him he needed to get his act together; he seemed genuinely concerned about the impression he was making, and promised to turn over a new leaf. I breathed a sigh of relief once our meeting was over. That feeling persists; the next few weeks will show whether it was justified or not.