A Stoic Response to the 2016 Election

November 9th, 2016  |  Published in commentary

Earlier this week, Quartz published a piece about how philosophy has failed in its essential role of helping us to make sense of our world by focusing on academic navel-gazing. My initial reaction was that, yeah, they should be doing a better job. My second reaction was that as someone who values and studies philosophy, there is no “they”, it is my job as much as anyone else’s to rectify the situation. Without further ado, here is my first attempt at that rectification.

If you are anything like most of the people I know, you are reeling from last night’s election results. I won’t go into much detail about what I think happened except to say that I don’t see it as an endorsement of bigotry by the majority of the country (although there is definitely a strong bigot contingent). Instead, I see it as the reaction of people for whom our economy (our whole country, even) simply has not been working for quite a while now. In particular I am talking about people in rural areas who have been seeing their jobs, communities, and way of life steadily deteriorating for decades and for whom a vote of more of the same was simply not an option. I am not trying to condone their choice, only to point out that it would be both wrong and counterproductive to write them off as simply ignorant rednecks. The people who voted for Trump are just as American as I am and this election is a statement that they feel something is very broken with a large part of our country.

That being said, what about all of the progressive urbanites who are in a state of collective shock right now? I believe that stoicism can be of some help here.

First of all, let me start by saying that if you base your understanding of the word stoic on how it is commonly used, you may need to add a second line to that definition. Stoicism as a philosophy is not about ignoring or enduring unpleasantness. Instead, it is about recognizing that unpleasantness is inevitable and finding ways of having a joyful and fulfilling life in spite of it.

The first tenet of stoicism is that one can view the world as being comprised of things which are in your control and things which are not. When put this way, it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t  a good idea to allow your happiness to be determined by those things which are outside of your control (since they will eventually turn against you). Furthermore, if you think about it, there is really very little that you actually have any control over, really just your actions and your judgments. That means that just about everything else in the world is outside of your control, including the weather, what other people think about your actions, and literally everything that has happened up until this moment. So what does that mean for last night’s election? That it is outside of your control. Whether or not you voted and who you may have voted for are irrelevant now. The vote happened and the results have been accepted by the candidates. Whatever you did or did not do, we now live in a world in which Trump is president elect.

So what now, progressive urbanite?

Grieving, obviously.

The election results are not good news and it is neither my job nor my desire to sugarcoat that fact. However, I would encourage you to grieve fully and quickly. Get it over with. If you’re still stuck in a pit of despair in two years when the midterms come around you’re not going to be of any use to the ideals which you hold so dear. (I could also suggest that you practice some negative visualization prior to last night, but that would violate tenet number 1, above.)

Okay, with that out of the way (hope you’re feeling better), what’s next? Let’s look at the things which are in our control. Fortunately, it is a short list:

  1. Our actions. If you are unhappy with the election results, then you need to organize. For example, you could:
  • Build organizations and communities to mitigate the effects of what you fear Trump might do, whether by providing support for those who his policies might hurt (such as security for minorities or ensuring access to women’s health services, whatever the law may say in a year) or by denying him a political mandate (protest, talk to your representatives, do not be silent and therefore tacitly complicit).
  • Prepare for the midterm elections. Trump isn’t nearly as frightening as Trump+House+Senate. In two years you have the possibility of restoring some of those checks and balances, but to do so you need to start organizing now (hence why it is so important to get the grieving out of the way).
  • There are, of course, many other options, ranging from trying to get rid of the electoral college to secession. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but if you are upset, you should do something.
  1. Our judgments. This may seem to be much less important than our actions, but I would disagree. Whether or not you agree with my bit above about the reason for the election I hope that you realize that Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and that unless that cause is addressed, we have little to no hope of making any real or lasting progress. If you believe that what happened is the result of bigotry, then you should attempt to alleviate that bigotry (a difficult task, no doubt, but bigotry often stems from fear of the unknown, so it can be addressed). If you agree with me that there is a significant contingent of people for whom our system is not working, you can work on that. Or you can work on the ~50% of registered voters who did not vote this election. In any case, you might be asking why this is listed under judgements. This is listed under judgements because in order for you to make any progress on the above issues, you aren’t going to have much success if what you think is the problem and what is actually the problem aren’t the same thing. Writing off everyone who voted for Trump as a bigot or everyone who didn’t vote as apathetic is not going to make it easier to change their minds, much less influence their actions. So the best course is probably to let go of your judgements, and to build new ones on better foundations.

I realize that this may not seem particularly comforting or helpful to you, but it’s what I have to give. I believe that this is going to be a difficult time for all of us, but that it is something that we can get through, collectively.

If you are looking for a good introduction to stoicism, I would suggest William Irving’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Also, it is worth noting that this post didn’t follow my normal process, which usually involves letting it sit for a day before revising and posting. As such, it likely has more errors than usual, which I may or may not correct in the future.

Have a tranquil day.

Tom Dillon

9 November 2016

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On Goals

January 27th, 2016  |  Published in commentary

The most recent post on what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs, thestonemind (which I would recommend even to non-climbers), talks about goals and some of the pushback that the author has gotten in regards to his advice to let go of them. Towards the end, he adds a bit of nuance, saying:

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

To me, what he is talking about is the difference between internal and external goals. I define internal goals as goals where I have control over the outcome and external goals as goals in which I don’t. What does this even mean?

Well, to say that I want to ride my bike as fast as I can is an internal goal, since even if I have a flat tire which slows me down, what counts is the effort I put in, not the result. On the other hand, if I say that I want to be the fastest person on the trail, that is an external goal. If a professional cyclist happens to be riding that day, I’m just not in the sort of physical condition where I can do more than keep up for a short period of time. Likewise, if I have a flat tire, my goal is dead in the water. As you may have guessed, I view the first sort of goal as good and the second as counterproductive.

So does that mean that I should pay no attention to how fast everyone else is riding? No. When I get passed by someone, I do my best to catch up with them, even if I have no expectation of passing them. What’s more, I’m thankful for their presence, since without them it is unlikely that I would have pushed myself as hard.

Another example comes from Kendo. It doesn’t matter how good your opponent is, you are only in charge of how well you fight. All your opponent is doing is keeping you honest, really. Well . . . not really. Every opponent, whether they are more or less skilled than you, has something to teach you, and the only real way to lose is to fail to pay attention to the lesson (unless you are in an actual duel, in which case dying would count as loss, too). I would argue that the same can be said of any climbing route, bike ride, or board game. They all offer you the chance to get to know yourself better.

Unless you get hung up on external goals, that is, too invested in how the other person is doing to have a chance at success yourself.

 

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Organization: what it is and why it matters

April 17th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

When we talk about organizing and organization, we often think about it in terms of optimizing an existing organizational structure. This is all well and good, but the concept of organization has become so ingrained in our culture and language that it is often assumed as a given and little thought is given to what it means to organize and how the resulting order differs from disorder. So I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, what is organization? Following the word’s etymological trail leads one eventually to the greek organon which apparently translates literally to “that with which one works”. In short, organizing is the act of creating something that is useful, an infrastructural element of getting things done. One could think of it as the fundamental aspect of toolmaking. All of this is good if you’re making a musical instrument (something else that pops up when looking into the history of the word), but how does it function when applied to people? Sure, forming a task force to get something done fits the notion, but a couple of interesting ideas come from it:

  1. Organization is a multiplier of force. For example, take a mob of people who want to effect some sort of change. As a mob they have certain amount of ability to influence the world. Now, arm the mob, give them all guns. The mob has exactly one more option, violence (and even that isn’t really anything new, any mob is capable of violence with or without weapons, arming them just makes that option more effective and more likely). Okay, so go back to the original, unarmed mob. Instead of giving them weapons, organize them. Get them talking to each other, have them work out what it is they want and delegate tasks to individuals or subgroups. All of a sudden, the mob (although it is no longer a mob, really) has as many options as it has ideas, and the amount of ideas in proportion to its size. Instead of adding to its options, the mob has multiplied them. This is specifically why governments are leery of any well-organized group, they are more dangerous than an armed crowd ever could be.
  2. Mindset. Unorganized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the individual, organized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the group. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is in fact the difference between powerlessness and power. Many of the issues that we find troubling in our world are not problems at the individual level but problems at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or world level. Dealing with problems on those scales as an individual is difficult, if not impossible (which is why superheroes seem to be such a dangerous fantasy to me, almost no one can deal with those problems on an individual level).

All of this is not to say that there aren’t problems with organization. Take for example the Stanford Prison Experiment, which suggests that it is possible for our individuality to be overridden by group identity. Despite this, I don’t honestly believe that there is a better option, yet.

In short, organization is a process by which useful things are created, multiplying the options of a group and providing the potential for hope against long odds.

So why am I going to the trouble of working all of this out? Aside from the subject being interesting in its own right, I’ve wanted to write something about organizing in a post-privacy society, and so this post was a necessary prerequisite. I’ll try to get that (more interesting, I promise) post written in the next week or two.

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Power

May 14th, 2008  |  Published in Misc, Society, writing

I remember being young (no older than eleven, as my parents’ divorce was still in court) and wondering what power was.  I was thinking about it in a purely one-on-one sense, if someone told me to do something, what was it that made me do it?  This led to the question of whether someone could force you to do something.  I didn’t have an answer for it then, but while I was reading an article about the lies that we tell our children (which is a good read, by the way), something clicked.  No matter the situation, power is an agreement.  Whenever someone (or a group) instructs you to do something either directly or indirectly, you have a choice.

The parties in the agreement are not always equal, for example when the government tells you to pay your taxes, you can refuse, but you will probably go to prison.  The natural reasoning that comes out of this is that society is held together by a bunch of agreements, a sort of social fabric.  This in turn brings up several issues.  First, our society is much more stable than, say Roman society, with relatively few coups and such.  My only thought is that perhaps as society is more complex than it was then, that the social fabric is more resilient than it was back then (or possibly that the coups are simply more subtle).  The second is that there must be a limit to the resiliency of the social fabric.  For example, with measures such as the PATRIOT Act, the agreement between the government and it’s constituents has been severely altered.  The government has removed it’s responsibilities to its citizens while doing nothing to relieve citizens’ responsibilities.

The theme of power and responsibility is one that I am quite fascinated with, and that I have started to explore in Uprising, but it feels good to make it explicit.  For those of you who are more familiar with the philosophical canon than I am, I apologize for going over topics that have doubtlessly been covered at great depth by better minds than mine.

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The Purpose of Speculative Fiction

April 28th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Misc, Rant, SciFi, Society, writing

I honestly started this with the intention of writing about Google Analyzer, but by the time I got to the end, I realized that I was talking about something else altogether. So I apologize for any meandering or lack of structure, but at the same time hope that you enjoy it.

It seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about information overload, if not here, then in comments and other miscellaneous places. My take on it is that the human brain is an excellent filtering device – every instant that we are conscious, we filter out a good deal of sensory information. This isn’t a bad thing, as the alternative would be paralysis due to a tidal wave of trivia, and after all, it happens on a subconscious level, so we are never even aware of it.

Why does this matter? Because, much of technology today is all about bringing us more information, not necessarily better information. Take the internet, if you break it down, it’s probably something like 75% porn, 24.9% other irrelevant crap, and .1% useful information. That we can get anything useful out of it is in itself a wonder. We are in a process, however, of increasing the amount of raw data that we have access to, mainly through things like cheap cameras and automatic recording systems (every time you purchase something with a credit card, it creates a massive paper trail, or rather, data trail, it is only a matter of time before we do that for everything). This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does stem from the way we approach technology.

Currently, if you want to solve a computational problem, you simply throw processing power at it until you solve it. Very little resources are spent trying to improve the process, only trying to ensure that Moore’s Law will continue to hold true. So how do you improve the process? I’m not precisely sure. Improving processes is something that happens in non-intuitively connected leaps, and as such is something that is difficult to focus on. What I can say, though, is that the one area that will always pan out is basic research. By this I mean research that isn’t meant to solve a specific problem, that isn’t there to create a product, stuff that simply says, “we need to know more about . . .” and goes from there. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the more basic the question, the more we will have to be creative to answer it (read the analogy of the cave a couple of times and you’ll understand). The second is that Descartes was right, from every premise comes other premises. Every time you learn something new, when you connect it to the rest of your world-view, you can learn even more.

Unfortunately, it seems that basic research is not exactly a priority. Who would have said, a hundred years ago, that man would make it to the moon only to lose interest? Why don’t we have more large colliders? The list of questions is endless. Unfortunately, it seems that our curiosity as a species has been smothered by bureaucracy and self-interest (which is another discussion altogether, I’m afraid). I am hopeful, though, that our curiosity can and will be rekindled (as the alternative is extinction). The reason that I say this is that so long as people ask “what if?”, so long as people continue to read (or otherwise experience) speculative fiction, there will always be hope.

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