Monday, October 29, 2012

Newsflash: People Like To Fight With Other People

My whole life I've been confused about the whole thing that goes down when guys fight with one another.  You know, like when they fight in a bar, or when they fight because one guy feels insulted by another, or whatever.   

I mean, I get that someone could make you so angry you'd feel you have to hurt them.  And I get that you could be so angry that you would temporarily lose the moral sense, and thus lapse into barbarism and murderous rage. 

But the typical guy's bar fight does not seem to include a lapse into barbarism and murderous rage.  In fact, the participants often do not seem intent on annihilating one another, and they do not seem to have lost the moral sense.  On the contrary, there's a notion of fair play, of honor, of not going too far.

And that's what I could never understand.  Because if you're still operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you haven't lost the moral sense, then aren't you able to think to yourself, "surely there's a better way to resolve this than hitting another person?" 

And if you aren't operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you have lost the moral sense, why aren't you going all out?  Why not, for example, kick a guy in the balls, which is what guys tell women to do if they're being attacked?  But your typical guy's fight never includes that. 

It doesn't make any sense.  I don't know if you've read The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy.  Though brilliant, this is a book filled with grim events and sad surroundings.  You'll have some insight into the character of the main guy Henchard when I tell you that he makes the story happen when, in the first few pages of the book, he auctions off his wife and child while drunk.  

Over the course of the book, Henchard comes to regard as his archenemy a Scottish guy named Farfrae who is a kindly cheerful type, and at a climactic moment, Henchard arranges for them to fight -- to the death, it seems, at least from Henchard's own point of view. 

But guess what he does, this Henchard.  He ties one arm behind his back.  To make it a fairer fight.

When I got to that part I was seriously like "seriously, WTF?"  I mean, if you're thinking fairness, if you're thinking within the moral point of view, why aren't you just calling off the fight in the first place?  Somehow killing Farfrae with both hands is one thing, while killing Farfrae with one hand tied behind your back is another thing entirely?  It's bizarre. 

As time has gone on I've formed a few hypotheses about what is going on with this whole thing.  I'd say the most plausible one is that some people -- of both sexes -- like to fight, and want to hurt one another, but recognize subconsciously that certain things will make fights so unseemly that they won't be allowed to get away with it.  If a fight involves a guy being kicked in the balls, if a fight involves any dramatic mismatch of talents, that's unseemly.  If you're in a friendly environment, you can't fight to kill the other person:  no one will let you get away with that. 

The nod to fairness and honor is there to make sure fights get to happen.  That's what makes it all possible. 

Maybe I'm the only one shocked or surprised by the idea that people actually want to fight and to hurt one another, not only when they're in a murderous rage, and not only as part of some screwy sport, but just as a part of like fun stuff to do. 

Or maybe I'm not.  The great eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume thought that people were naturally inclined to want the best for one another.  "Would any man willingly step on another man's gouty toe?" he asked, to which the obvious answer is "yes, they do it all the time."

But Hume saw in us a wonderful warmth of human nature, in which we desire to see one another prosper.  For all my other faults, I'm basically part of this Humean Kingdom of Friends:  I smile at the smiles of others, and do not like to see other humans sad and suffering. 

The more times goes on, though, the more I realize a lot of people aren't with me here. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Am I The Problem Of Expensive Tastes? Or, Maybe We're Not Materalisitic Enough

Marie de' Medici, who probably had her own problem of expensive tastes.  By Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

When I first heard that there was such a thing as "the problem of expensive tastes," my first thought was "Uh oh, that must be me."

I've always had desires for nice things that seemed to know no bounds.  As a child, I was keenly aware of the difference between Sears and Bloomingdales, and could easily distinguish the goods that came from each.  Now, when I go to the mall, I often have a shopping paralysis:  inevitably, when I look at reasonably priced stuff, I'm like "but that is crappy/ugly," and when I find a coat/bag/shoes/whatever that's acceptable, it's hundreds of dollars more than I have to spend. 

I remember when I was a kid, sometimes well-meaning adults would ask, in a make-drive-time-quality-time sort of way, how much money I thought I'd want in order to be "satisfied."  And I would think to myself, "Is this person stupid?"  Even then I thought the question made no sense.  No matter what you had, wouldn't always want more?  I mean, even if you were just going to give it away, wouldn't more always be better? 

Then I got older and learned that most people do not regard the question as nonsensical at all.  Not only do they distinguish an amount of money they'd need to be satisfied, often, that amount was not all that much more than the money they had. 

This was, and is, mystifying to me.  I can't get inside the minds of people who answer this way.  Don't they want beautiful expensive clothes, fancy cars, amazing homes, travel?  Don't they want the nicest antique self-winding watch hand ever made?  Don't they want a pied à terre in New York, another in Paris, a resort home in Italy and a ranch for occasional horse riding out in some other random lovely place?

That shit isn't cheap, you know.  That's not an extra few thousand bucks a year we're talking about.

So what is up with that?  Do people have no imagination -- they just can't think of good expensive stuff?  Or do they think of these things and really not want them?  I don't know, of course.  But I'm guessing for a lot of people it's neither of these, and that what's really going on is that people don't want to seem greedy.

They picture "having a lot" as "having a lot more than other people," and -- correctly, I think -- intuit that there is something distressing about wanting to outstrip your fellows by stratospheric distances. 

But having a lot is different form having more.  The matter hinges on whether luxury, and thus luxury desires, are relative or absolute.  I had to do a certain amount of soul-searching to determine for myself whether my own luxury desires were primarily relative -- as in, I wanted nicer things than other people -- or absolute -- as in, I want nice things. 

I may be deluding myself, but I'm pretty sure I just want nice things.  My needs are absolute, not relative.  There are a few bits of evidence.  I always enjoy being around other people who have beautiful clothes, bags, shows, cars, etc etc etc., and my enjoyment of the nice things I have seems to increase, rather than decrease, when more people have similar, or similarly nice, nice things.

My iPhone is a perfect example.  I love my iPhone.  In terms of being a nice things, it's one of the nicest.  I love the exquisitely lovely green battery icon that pops up when the phone is charging.  I love the little raindrops on the home screen.  I love the fonts.  And I can honestly say that my love for my iPhone is increased, rather than decreased, by the iPhone's omnipresence.  This is an absolute, not a relative.

The classic "problem of expensive tastes" in philosophy has to do with the idea of fairness and equality in measuring well-being.  If you think fairness and equality should measure how well a person is doing, rather than, say goods and resources, you run into the obvious problem:  if X can't be happy without a Birkin bag and Y sets her sights on a more affordable (but still pricey!) Roots bag, then equality of well-being seems to mean things are fair and equal when X gets the Birkin.  But that doesn't seem quite right.

Understood this way, "the problem of expensive tastes" is a problem that arises within a scheme in which the resources are fixed, or at least limited, and the question is the distribution.  And it seems likely that all those people who mystified me by answering that to be "satisfied" they only needed a bit more in the way of worldly goods:  if there's only a certain amount, perhaps it would be unseemly to want not only nice things but things much much much nicer than anyone else. 

My interpretation would then be the unusual one, imagining as it does that I can have the nicest things, and everyone else can have the nicest things, all at the same time.

But though my interpretation may be unusual, I think it is apt, because there's an important moral difference between absolute luxury and relative luxury.  There's nothing inherently wrong or creepy about desires for absolute luxury:  these desires are completely compatible with real equality, even with everyone having the same.  If you want absolute luxury, you want to have your fancy car and vacation home and horse ranch, but you also want everyone to have those things.  If you want relative luxury, that's more morally complicated, because you want to have what others do not have.  You want, in a sense, to make other people feel bad.

I wonder if an increase in relative luxury desires is something we are, depressingly, moving toward.  I tried to confirm, by Googling, my memory of studies showing people really only wanted a bit more, and it wasn't easy.  Because every study I found attempted to answer the completely different question of how much a person "really" needs to be happy (answer:  about 75,000, in the US in 2012).  The implication, I suppose, being that people think they need much much more. 

Anyway, as a person who cares about absolute, not relative, luxury, I can tell you one important thing:  desires for absolute luxury have to be desires for material qualities in and of themselves, and not desires for material qualities as symbols of something else.  To want absolute luxury, you have to care about this bag, that scarf, this car, that home, and so on and so forth, to care about the particular qualities of the things you want and sometimes have, and not about what they represent.  

You can't want nice things as symbols of something else, like status.

And even though we're supposed to be so "materialistic" in this culture, I think we're not always so good at that.  We buy symbols, not things; we buy as means not as ends; we buy for novelty and not for the long haul.  Being truly materialistic would mean amassing things you love, and loving them for a good long time.  Loving them not because they stand for or represent something else, but because they're beautiful in and of themselves.

That kind of materialism never begrudges the luxury items of one's fellows.  It allows a love of luxury to be compatible with egalitarianism. 

So am I the problem of expensive tastes?  In an immediate sense, clearly yes: in a scheme of equality of happiness and well-being, I would cost more than my fellows.  In another sense, though, no: I'd like everyone to have expensive tastes.  And if they did, the problem would just go away.

Birkin bags for everyone, please!

Monday, October 15, 2012

How The Eternal Children Of Generation X Finally Became Old

Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
I used to really wonder how it could happen that people of my generation could become dated. 

I mean, I was a teenager in the 80s, which means I grew up during what turned out to be the end phase of a pretty steady march from quiet traditionalism to noisy chaos.  When we looked at our parents, we figured we knew what it meant to become old and dated:  you said things like "Turn that thing down!" "Just say No!" and "That TV show/rock music/MTV is going to rot your brain and you'll be a moron forever."

In that context, what it meant to be young and current was obvious:  a taste for noisy loud music, drugs, and general irreverence.

If that was youth, I wondered, how was our generation ever going to age out?  How could we become old and dated?  I mean, weren't we taking noise, drugs, and general irreverence pretty much as high as they could go?  Were the kids going to take these things further?  HOW?

Noise was already peaking.  The classic 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap boasted of the band as "one of England's loudest," and noted that their instruments' volume "went up to 11."  If you look up "loudest band in the world" in Wikipedia, the latest chronological entry is for 2009, where we learn that "in Ottawa, Canada, the band Kiss achieved a SPL of 136 dB measured during their live performance. After noise complaints from neighbors in the area, the band was forced to turn the volume down."  

So:  2009, and the band making the noise is a band from the 80s.

Obviously we in the 80s took drugs to some kind of logical conclusion.  It was the era of coke at every party, crack babies, the introduction of MDMA -- or, as the kids call it, "ecstasy." 

As to general irreverence. can I just point out that there was a band in the 80s called "Scraping Feotus Off The Wheel"? 

I asked myself, Where could it go from here that we can't handle?  I fount it hard to picture telling the next generation "turn it down!" "stay sober!" or "that's offensive!"  We were already loud and obnoxious.  Weren't we?

Well.  As is the nature of these things, time or culture or whatever did me a really elegant fake out by switching gears entirely.  Because we didn't have the internet in the 80s.  Or cell phones.  Or anything remotely like that.

As a measure of the technological distance we've come, can I just tell you that when I was in college, there was one pay phone per dorm hall?  If you wanted to talk to someone, you'd call their hall, and ask whoever happened to answer to go knock on the person's door.  Almost always, they were not there.  So much for that.

If you wanted to see people, you basically had to show up places and hope they'd be there.  I know it sounds ridiculous, but trust me, it had a charm of its own.

So now the answer has become crystally and painfully clear.  We became dated not through a distaste for noise and music and drugs, but through our inability to live life on and through the internet.  When it comes to the internet, I sometimes feel like one of those early amphibians who lived in water but worked up their courage to climb onto land occasionally.   When they got to the land, they were like "Holy shit, this is great! Check out the sunshine! And you can walk around!" Nonetheless, when they wanted to breathe, or spawn, or whatever it is early amphibians did, they had to get back in the water.

That's how I feel about the internet.  When I get on it, I'm like, "Oh My God, This Is The Best!"  Saturday night my friend and I went to see a production of Verdi's Il Trovatore (whoa, what an opera -- that nineteenth century, they really had things going on) -- and when we got home my friend said wasn't there something about the use of bel canto that was different from how it had been used before, and didn't that mean it was one of Verdi's later operas? 

We googled.  And we found riches and riches, and learned things about Il Trovatore we never would have known, and I felt fleetingly connected to the other people in the world who care about stuff like this and think about it and take it seriously, which can be in itself a very heady feeling.  And I thought, as I so often do, that we need some gesture, word, or sign that means "God Bless The Internet."  Everyone bow your heads together.

But living on the internet?  Social networking?  Commenting on things?  Reading comments?  Responding to stuff, interacting constantly, dealing with other people and their ridiculous opinions and things they're upset about and turf they need to defend and all that?  Seeing their photos and boasts and politics and complaints?  Dealing with the constant interactive negativity stream

It seriously makes me want to crawl back into my ocean home. Gotta go.  Bye.

So when young people say to me things like "Pinterest!"-- I feel my age.  I shake my cane, and tell them about the good old days, when you could run into people at parties by surprise, and get drunk without your asshole friends posting pictures to Facebook, and generally act like a doofus without fearing that your every move is being recorded, commented on, filed away, preserved forever like a book of rotten memories.

It was a golden era, even if it was a little noisy and stupid.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Good Things, They Do Not Always Fit Together

Lia Lee
Recently, Lia Lee died.  In her youth, Lia was a child with severe epilepsy in a family of Hmong refugees, who clashed with the medical professionals assigned to her care.  Her case spawned the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.

At 4, Lia had a grand-mal seizure, got an infection, and went into septic shock.  She lost all higher brain function.  She lived the rest of her life -- she died at age 30 -- unable to speak or move around or do much of anything, really.

When I read the notice of Lia's death in The Times, I thought to myself, "Wow, I have to read that book."  The book is, in fact, truly brilliant.  The author, Anne Fadiman, spent a huge amount of time getting to know the Lees and becoming their friend and also getting to know the doctors and reading Lia's vast transcribed medical history and so on. 

The story is heartbreaking along several dimensions, the most obvious of which has to do with the early failed efforts to bring Lia's epilepsy under control.  The doctors wrote out prescriptions and gave complex orders, inattentive to the fact that the cultural communication problems went way beyond the translation of words. 

The drugs sometimes seemed to make Lia worse in the short run.  The family not only couldn't read or use a thermometer or anything, they had no experience with Western style medicine at all.  They had their own way of dealing with epilepsy -- the disease whose name in Hmong means something like "the spirit catches you and you fall down."  In their minds, epilepsy was a mixed thing:  bad, because dangerous, but also in some ways good, because you were in touch with the spiritual realm and could, yourself, become a healer.  They didn't always give Lia the drugs. 

The result:  Lia often didn't get what the doctors were prescribing, and relations between the parents and the medical team predictably deteriorated.  When you look at it from the Lee's point of view, it's terrifying the way the doctors have the power of the state behind them to force the family into doing whatever they said.  At one point, even though Lia's parents are about the most loving and attentive parents you can possibly imagine, Lia was forcibly taken from their home and placed in foster care.  On the other hand, when you look at it from the doctors' point of view, Lia deserved the best medical care possible; her parents wishes aren't the only thing that matters.  It is a difficult situation. 

In later years, there was a rapprochement between Lia's mother Foua and her early doctors.  Here is Foua together with Dr. Peggy Philp, at a panel discussion of Fadiman's book in 2002.
One of the themes of the book and the Times notice is the way the Lee family dealt with having Lia in their lives.  She not only lived at home her whole life, she was the center of family life.  Later Fadiman said, "She was never shunted to the periphery ... I remember her most in her mother’s arms. Family life went on around her and in some ways revolved around her."

Lia's parents -- and especially her mother -- never left her side.  They fed her, and bathed her, and talked to her, and listened to her, and watched her, and soothed her skin, and moved her limbs.  Most people in Lia's mental condition live 3 to 5 years.  Lia lived for 26 years.  When the doctors sent Lia home, they told the family that she'd be dead within the week.  Boy did they prove that wrong.

The Times says of this, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is also the story of the immense benefits of tradition, which can furnish, Ms. Fadiman makes clear, a level of familial devotion less often seen among modern Americans."

Which really got me thinking about Lia's parents and their way of life, and especially about Lia's mom, who had virtually no outside life.  In the book it's not presented as a sacrifice.  According to Fadiman, in Hmong culture it's common to marry young and have lots of children, and life often revolves happily around their care.

And first I thought, "Wow, I am really immersed in the Modern/Western/Cosmopolitan/Whatever way of life."  I mean, on some level I always know that I'm immersed in that way of life.  But it's the kind of thing you don't always stop and think about. 

Because I found the idea of living the way Lia's parents lived almost unbearable to contemplate.  I mean, if you think of one day, it might seem nice:  you wake up, you attend to the children, you play with Lia for a while, you feed everybody lunch, etc etc etc. and sometimes family and friends come by.  But every day?  No going out to the coffee shop, no cocktails, no going to work even?  Wow.

And for all that Lia's familial care is a beautiful and moving thing, I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the things in our society that make it impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for most of us to imagine living this way -- those are great things in their own way, too. 

For instance, I'm addicted to getting out and seeing the faces of people I don't know, to doing things that connect me to people beyond my family and friends, to being part of a large world.  And I think of those as basically good qualities to have:  they're part of feeling like a member of the human race, loving diversity and difference, and enjoying the fact that people live in all kinds of different ways.

I'm the first to admit that this way of life we have here -- it really does make us less able to care for the Lias of the world -- I mean, people like Lia as she was after her traumatic brain injury at age 4.  If you're unwell, there really is no replacement for having someone who loves you tend to your needs 24 hours a day.   

To me the moral of that story is just that you can't have all the good things in life all at the same time.  Yes, complete immersion in family life and care for others can be wonderful.  Yes, the world we live in makes this immersion almost impossible for many people.  But that doesn't mean there's something bad about our way of life.  It just means there can be wonderful things that do not all fit together.

There's a contingent out there, I think, that wants to deny this -- perhaps because it can seem like a dark, daunting, or depressing idea.  That contingent tells us:  you can have all the good things.  It just takes compromise.  A little work, a little taking care of Lia, you're good to go.  Then the moral would be: we modern western cosmopolitans need to change, not be so extreme. 

I have no doubt that compromise among good things can be a good way to live.  But it doesn't remove the conceptual problem.  The whole point about Lia's parents is that they weren't just there for her from 5 to 10 pm.  They were there for her 24 hours a day.  I live, to some extent, on the other extreme.  Even making healthy dinners and brushing my own teeth feel like endless chores.  Again?  But I just made dinner yesterday!

If I'm right that the good things in life don't fit together, that compromise doesn't solve the conceptual problems, that shows that living in the extremes can all be good ways to live.  It can be wonderful to be there for Lia for 26 years of breakfasts and bathing and the moving of the limbs.  It can also be wonderful to be the cosmopolitan who needs the faces of strangers, a day of work outside the home every day, a fast internet connection, and cocktails promptly at seven.

Sure, if you live a monochromatic life, you're missing something.  But my idea is that however you set it up, you're missing something.  So if you want to live monochromatically, knock yourself out.