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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Applied Logic

March 20th, 2013  |  Published in commentary, logic

Earlier this month, a bit of a kerfuffle broke out between Representative Ed Orcutt and the Washington state bicycle community. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the linked article, and I suggest you read it, but what I want to talk about is logic.

Logic is the study of the connections between things, and is often not taught explicitly until college (although Geometry class might cover it). In short, logic is the difference between being told “one one two” and “one plus one equals two”. The first example is just a bunch of numbers, the second is a logical statement. Simple, right? Not exactly. The thing about logic is that it is not about whether or not the individual elements are true, but whether the connections between them make sense. Take, for example: “All pigs are green. I am a pig. Therefore I am green.” On the face of it, this argument is wacky, but the logic works out, if all pigs are green and I am one of them, then I must be green, too, right? The connections between these false statements make sense even if the content being connected is factually incorrect.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And this guy thinks this green pig nonsense is more likely to make me study logic? Maybe he is a green pig.” I’m glad you’re thinking critically about what I’m saying, but I have a point, so bear with me.

When someone makes an argument, it can be approached in many ways. I would argue that there are three basic approaches, and I will focus on those: emotional, fact based, and logic based. The emotional approach is basically evaluating an argument based on how it makes you feel, and many arguments count on this, which is why so many politicians try to induce fear or anger when they speak. Unfortunately, it is wide open to manipulation, as it makes you want to just react, rather than thinking about it. Fact based evaluation is what you most likely did when you first read the green pig argument. You most likely rejected it based on the fact that you had never seen a green pig, and that it would be very difficult for me to type this with cloven hooves instead of fingers. Logical evaluation is the analysis of connections, which entails ignoring whether or not the statements in an argument are true and instead assessing whether or not they necessarily lead to the conclusion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of one of these over all others, but rather that you should expand your evaluative toolbox and use whichever method or combination of methods is most appropriate. If something feels wrong emotionally, then there is a good chance that something is wrong with it. If you don’t have the right facts, you can be convinced that I am a green pig. If you don’t have good logic, you can be led to bogus conclusions from accurate facts.

You might be thinking that in this networked age, where an unprecedented amount of information is available, we should just be able to fact check everything. Yes and no. We can fact check a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is that when someone is trying to convince us of something, there is a good chance that we simply will not have time to check all of their assertions, and even if we did have the time to do that, we probably would not want to. And so we might just have to rely on logic. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, true assertions can lead to false conclusions if they are not linked logically, and Rep. Orcutt’s argument is a perfect example of this.

Here is an excerpt from his email (the whole thing is available in the linked post):

Also, you claim that it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike. But if I am not mistaken, a cyclists (sic) has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.

And here is a breakdown of his argument:

  1. Cyclists have increased heart rate and respiration.
  2. Increased heart rate and respiration result in increased CO2 output.
  3. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.
  4. Therefore, cyclists are polluting when they ride.

This is a solid argument. The facts check out and the logic is sound. The problem comes in when you look at the claim that he is attempting to disprove: “it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike.” On the face of it, this looks fine, if we define environmentally friendly to mean “not harmful to the environment” in an absolute sense. Unfortunately there is context. The assertion that he was responding to was: “Additionally, bicyclists produce fewer emissions and reduce healthcare costs through increased physical fitness.” (full text of original email, if you’re curious). To rephrase, skipping the bit about healthcare, “Bicycles produce fewer emissions than cars.” Which brings us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies.

There are forms of arguments that are always invalid. One of the most common is the straw man. In a straw man, a person is confronted with an argument. Instead of attacking that argument, they create a weaker argument (a straw man, if you will) and attack that instead. For example, it is much easier to attack the argument that bicycles cause no pollution than the argument that bicycles cause less pollution than cars. Rep. Orcutt never said anything about the original argument, but tried to trick us into believing that he had. His argument makes no sense and can be safely ignored.

Whew. That may seem like a lot of work to go through simply to call bullshit on a politician for acting like a politician, but once you get used to thinking like this, you will read a paragraph like that and immediately realize that there is no connection between what he is saying and what he wants you to think he is saying, no fact checking required.

On a final note, Rep. Orcutt did issue an apology, saying that the issue of bicycles not being zero-carbon “was not a point worthy of even mentioning” and went on to sound like a much more reasonable person. Nonetheless, the fact remains that he used a straw man in dealing with a constituent. Either he did so knowingly, which is a form of dishonesty, or unknowingly, in which case I would question his competence as political representative.

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Fundamentals

February 17th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

In 2008, the US economy crashed, bringing much of the world economy with it. The bulk of the crash was blamed on the housing markets, but really, it was about concentration of wealth. If incomes for the majority of the population remain stagnant for thirty years, but the median cost of a house increased tenfold and health care costs have gone through the roof, then is it any surprise that the economy crashed?

What is worrying is that nothing fundamental has changed about our economy. There are no new safeguards for consumers and wealth is still percolating to the top. Still people are starting to talk about recovery. But a recovery based on what? The idea that things will get better without some sort of fundamental change is naive at best. If you want to see what it looks like when you try to force things to get better without actually fixing the problem, I suggest you look towards Greece.

I don’t like it, but the more I pay attention to the news, the more I think that John Robb may be right, perhaps we are turning into a hollow state, after all. If you’r wondering what all of this has to do with writing, this is the sort of thing that is on my mind when I write things like Uprising and Soapbox (which I will start adding to again later in the month).

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Now I Need to Read His Books

May 18th, 2008  |  Published in News, Publishing, SciFi, Society, writing

CNN has an interesting interview with Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series of books.  I have personally wondered about a post-scarcity world for some time (I am a socialist, after all), and someone who associates himself with Ken MacLeod sounds like a good place to start.  In any case, go read it, its short and good, I will get back to writing.

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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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More New Media

May 6th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, Reviews

I should also mention that Cory Doctorow released his new novel, Little Brother, recently.  I had the good fortune to read an early draft, and it was simply fantastic.  I won’t go into too much detail, but basically the plot revolves around a hacker kid who is treated poorly (read: realistically) by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Everything is based on current tech (like a nearer-future Doktor Sleepless), lending it a feel of future history.  If that isn’t enough, its available under a Creative Commons license, which means that you can download it in its entirety (the site also has instructions on how to do a bunch of the stuff in the book).  So go on and give it a read, you won’t regret it.

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New Uprising Segment

April 24th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, SciFi, Stories, writing

I just posted a new Segment for Uprising, so go check it out

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Headline

April 21st, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Flash Fiction, novel, Society, Stories, Uncategorized, Uprising, writing

“Holy shit! Get up Ethan, you’ve got to check this out!”

For a moment, Ethan thought that the voice belonged to Holly, but then it all came back to him and he had to fight to keep from crying. Holly was dead, killed in the massacre. Other than that, all he knew was that his head felt like it had something tunneling through it and that it was way too fucking bright. If anything, he wished the headache was worse, anything would have been better than thinking about her.

Read the rest of this entry »

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