Stranger Danger, Knocking at the Door of Society

In Austin there have been a series of bomb explosions this month from an as-of-yet unidentified perpetrator* (see update below).  Of course it goes without saying that all of us here are hoping that the person/s responsible is/are apprehended sooner rather than later.  Living in the city, what I’ve seen is that life is more or less carrying on as usual in the public sphere.  This is to be expected as people by and large still have duties and obligations to concern themselves with that forces them to carry on regardless of the danger that may be surrounding them (bills still have to be paid after all, and kids still have to get to school).  That is to say, while I know many individuals are certainly taking any and every precautions they can to be safe in a time like this, the city’s social life remains largely undisturbed.

This observation caused a coworker of mine to opine how surprised she was that everyone (referring to those of us who reside within Austin) is responding far more nonchalant about these bomb incidences than one would expect of people in similar situations.  Although I can somewhat see what she meant by the comment, I feel that it also brings up the further query of how exactly one is expected to act while this kind of situation is going on?  How do you as a person properly respond to potential danger that is far enough to be an abstraction to you subjectively, even though you rationally know it’s objectively close enough (mere miles if you’re an Austinite) that it ought to keep you on high alert?  In this regard, trying to gauge out one’s safety risk is comparable to standing in fog–those outside can see you’re in it, but you (precisely because you’re in it) still identify it as something that is some distance removed from you.

The southwest Houston neighborhoods I spent my teen years growing up in were not particularly safe places (it unfortunately goes without saying how most urban areas in big US cities aren’t).  During that time, I have been held up and robbed–and intimately known many others who have been held up and robbed–by street gangs and desperate individuals enough times to have developed a sixth sense about which way to move, what sort of characters to avoid, and how to secure my home to ease my mind on the matter as much as I can (as a precautionary rule, the little chain lock on the door does little good).  My point is that, like most city-folks, being surrounded with some degree of criminal activity is not something new to me.  Nevertheless, no matter how much personal familiarity one has with this nation’s crime rate, the news that a neighbor or coworker has been assaulted and/or robbed within walking distance of you (or that random packages are detonating in the city) will always stir a certain level of anxiety in a person’s mind.

I know people who use this to argue that the human “heart” is naturally inclined to do evil in times of desperation.  But I’m unconvinced by this line of reasoning.  Just as I doubt that man is naturally disposed to be good, I’m equally skeptical of suggestions of his innate wickedness.  Man is adaptive; his behavior situational.  Which is why I see no necessary contradiction in the fact that a person can be a callous murderer at one moment in time, and a genuinely loving parent in another.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that the three men who robbed me at gun point a few years ago probably spent that very evening exchanging pleasantries and joy with some loved one or another (quite possibly with my money; in which case, I at least hope it managed to bring someone happiness).

But this doesn’t do anything to relieve the reality that social communication is being broken down in the densely populated areas of the world.  And it leads me to ponder a few things.  Namely, what if in the future someone who sincerely requires my assistance knocks on my door for help?  Will I readily trust the person, or will I assume that it must be a clever ploy to get me to leave the safer confines of my home, concocted by individuals looking to prey on the average person’s sympathy towards a helpless voice?  I don’t know.  Ideally, I like to think I’m empathetic enough to answer the call for help.  Shamefully, I’m inclined to admit that there’s a chance I might not respond to a doorstep plea.  But it’s easy to philosophize about different scenarios when one is safely removed from the moment of action.  In the moment, a normally rational person can easily be overtaken by anxiety-induced irrationality.  I have even been told by many friends that their social anxiety has reached the point where they don’t feel comfortable having people approach them as they are getting into their cars, because their minds instantly start to recall all the horror stories of victims assaulted (or worse) by opportunistic criminals.  (I personally have also always been of the opinion that there is no inquiry that cannot be made by a stranger just as well standing several paces away from my car door, as standing right in front of it.)

For me, all of this brings up the issue of how exactly we’re supposed to create a more socially cohesive and  cooperative society, when for the sake of our very survival we have little choice but to be vigilantly suspicious of the individuals we are stuck sharing society with?

*Update, 03/21/2018:  A person believed to be responsible for the bombings was identified by law enforcement authorities today.  He took his own life as authorities moved in to apprehend him.

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Quick Thoughts on Jordan Peterson and his reading of Nietzsche

As rare as it is for me to have interactions with Kronstadt Revolt (KR) readers, the few times it does happen it’s exclusively occurred outside the actual confines of the blog (i.e. mostly emails and private messages through twitter).  My best guess is that due to my low posting frequency they want to make sure there is actually someone still typing away at a keyboard behind the dashboard menu before fruitlessly putting a comment into moderation limbo that may never be read or approved by anyone (as an fyi, comment settings are set to only moderate the first comment you post, to make it easier to control spam from bots; after that first-time approval showing you’re human, your subsequent comments should post automatically update: comments are no longer moderated at all).  Never mind that my twitter updates are about as (in)frequent as my blog posts, it is the trend that has developed, and I’m happy to interact with readers who feel the need to check in on a thing or two, here and there.

By far the most viewed posts I have on KR are the one’s about Friedrich Nietzsche (with Nietzsche’s Views on Women in particular getting the lion’s share of these views).  Given the popularity of the subject, I suppose it makes sense that the majority of questions I get revolve around people either asking for clarification about Nietzschean philosophy, or challenging my interpretation of it.  Neither of which I mind.  Considering I wrote a book about the guy’s philosophy that earns me some amount of profit, it would be absurd of me to scoff at either people asking for more details, or questioning my perspective on the subject.  (If nothing else, I can at least point them to better resources than myself on anything I personally fail to address; usually Nietzsche himself.)

Over the past few months, however, the sporadic question or two I find in my inbox about Nietzsche have more than a few times come attached with one other name: Jordan B. Peterson.  Although usually not so much in the form of a question, as an eager endorsement for me to explore the man’s views on similar topics (or just any of the wide range of social/psychological topics he covers).  If nothing else, the man has an enthusiastic fan base, which very much has grown exponentially since his name started making the rounds on the online “memosphere” in late 2016.  Since then his lectures have become increasingly popular on YouTube, and many people (mostly young men, but others, too, I’m sure) regard him as a foremost intellectual of our time, going so far as to credit him for re-instilling guidance to their lives.

In part, I’m writing this post to serve as a bookmark I can direct future inquiries to that may come my way regarding my thoughts on the man.  Let me start off by saying that I was aware of Peterson somewhat before I was actually aware of Peterson.  To put it less cryptically, I first saw the man in a YouTube segment back in 2011, where he opposed a set of atheist bus ads in Toronto, and where he stealthily mentioned that atheists like Richard Dawkins maybe should be oppressed (one might be inclined to assume he’s come a long way in the promotion of free speech given he has cultivated it as one of his leading mantras over the course of the last 2 years, however a general dislike, and outright hostility towards open atheism–let alone outright anti-theism–is not an uncommon theme for Peterson to this day, despite his popularity with centrist-to-conservative leaning atheists online).

Unfortunately, in the segment Peterson is never asked whether it’s warranted to be so hostile towards a limited bus ad campaign put on by atheist activists (on their own dime, no less), when one often can’t go 2 miles in most North American metropolitan centers without coming across scores of billboards, posters, films, books, songs, graffiti, church signs, church buildings, and motel room nightstands, all advertising on behalf of Christianity, with little worthwhile resistance from secular voices.

While I didn’t notice it at the time of my first viewing of that debate, I had also come across Peterson’s work a few years prior in the form of his 1999 Maps of Meaning, a book that left no impression on me due to its overemphasis on Jungian psychoanalysis (much of which rests on highly unfalsifiable assertions, which irks not just me, but modern psychology as well, since as a fields it has largely moved away from Carl Jung’s theses and conclusions).  The writing style in the book is also occasionally laced with a distinct tone of self-importance (i.e. repeated mentions of how grand the contents held within it’s pages truly are) that I find personally distracting.  This is just a subjective matter of literary taste (so think of it as nothing more), but my take has always been that if a work is important/intelligent/paradigm-changing it is better to let the work speak for itself, then boast about it to the reader within the very work.  And as a result I quickly forgot the book, the man who wrote it, and failed to recognize him as the “Canadian man opposed to atheist bus ads” I saw years later.  I honestly never expected to come across him again, especially not with the large following his views have garnered since my first exposures to him.

Yet, since around early 2017, he has popped back up not just on my radar, but a great deal of the sociopolitical/culture discourse, causing me to try to familiarize myself with his views again (though with a bit more concentration then before).  Peterson is a psychologist by trade, and a lot of his content deals with the dynamic behind chaos and order as prominent in the lives of individuals struggling to find meaning in their existence.  This may be why he’s been described as a surrogate father figure to a segment of millennials who feel directionless in the modern world; a viewpoint both as much harped on by his critics, as it is embraced by his admirers.  His advice can range from the practical (“Clean your room; straighten yourself out first”), to dire warnings against the influence of cultural Marxism (lately, he’s been more keen on dropping the cold war terminology in favor of a more updated “Neo-Marxism,” or just plain “postmodernism”–two distinct terms he has a habit of using interchangeably), to his more spiritual messages bemoaning the modern world’s loss of traditional (i.e. Christian) faith (essentially, he finds that there’s value in the historical/psychological meaning religion, in particular–if not exclusively–Christianity, offers to the human psyche; this social criticism of his is often tied in to his screeds against Marxism and postmodernism, too).

Because the questions directed at me about Peterson involve my thoughts on his thoughts about Nietzsche, I’ll write my quick take on what I’ve seen of him on the subject so far.  To me, the man strikes me as someone who doesn’t so much read Nietzsche’s writings, as he reads into Nietzsche’s writings (a habit I warn against in my own book) to make the philosopher’s views sound more sympathetic to his own.

Whenever he brings up Nietzsche in his lectures, it’s usually to point to the Prussian philosopher as an intellect who foresaw the nihilism that the Western world’s gradual move away from traditional (i.e. Christian) faith would lead to, and to cement Peterson’s personal views on why the preservation of Christianity (even if only as a metaphorical archetype to be aspired to) is important both for the individual, and for Western civilization as a whole.  The caveat that he doesn’t usually bother to focus on in these lectures, however, is the fact that as far as Nietzsche was concerned, Christianity itself is ultimately a form of nihilism, precisely because its grounding foundation is imagery and can therefore offer no lasting counter to the harsh empirical reality the modern age has forced on us.  Nietzsche’s subsequent objections to contemporary secular philosophers attempting to create alternatives to Christian values wasn’t due to their move away from Christianity as a moral framework, but their continued reliance of what he considered to be fundamentally Christian morals.  Hence, the philosopher’s wider intellectual project of wanting to create a transvaluation of all values, in which Christian concepts like GoodEvil, and Sin, are to be displaced by a philosophy that affirms life, rather than fetishizes death.

In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity at its core will always be (and can never be anything more than) a death cult that inverts man’s base instincts and desires into absurd notions of sinfulness, rendering it as a moral system to be entirely hostile to life.  (As a reference, I offer every page, paragraph, and sentence of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, which in German also translates to “The Anti-Christian”.)

I’ll grant that given the many hours of lecture footage Peterson has up on YouTube where he explores numerous philosophical topics, it’s possible that I missed the part where he goes into depth regarding Nietzsche’s staunch anti-Christian position, and how it’s completely incompatible with his own defense of Christian moral values as a framework for society.  But from all the footage I have seen (and it personally seemed like quite a bit at the time of viewing), Peterson seems to always evoke Nietzsche as a kind of kindred spirit, who would have sided with him against the godless forces undermining Christian morals as a sound foundation of meaning for people.  And, speaking as someone whose familiarity with Nietzsche is just a bit more than the average layperson’s, this strikes me as mistaken at best, and downright deceitful at worst.

I’ve been warned that Jordan Peterson fans have a tendency to get cheeky when they come across even the mildest push back to their favorite psychologist, so my preemptive retort is that, yes, my room is always in a state of unmatched tidiness, and my stance is so upright one would be mistaken to call me anything less than permanently erect.  Hope that settles that matter.

Private vs. Public Schools

Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools.  Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be.  I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.

It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents.  It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards).  Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat).  However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.

I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion.  What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system.  The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to  satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.

Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution.  And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day).  A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment.  To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society.  The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.

There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system.  What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements?  Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:

1.  “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”

2.  “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”

Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare.  We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools).  The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling.  If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).

Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society.  Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs.  But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin.  The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.

The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary.  Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process.  There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students.  But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class.  Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district.  And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should).  Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart.  Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.

It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education.  I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills.  Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.

My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service.  Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.

If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously.  However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.

My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents.  I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.