On Power…

The unavoidable inequity that comes with power is one of the few societal norms more readily accepted when left unspoken rather than explained.  As John Milton shows, any attempt to explain and justify a disproportionate possession of power will by necessity render an all-powerful God a tyrant, and its rebellion Devil a tragic hero.

On Corruption…

Corruption is one of the few unforgivable social sins in the eyes of public opinion.  This, despite the fact that few of these same social moralists would ever be willing to call their own daily, small-scale, ethical compromises a corruption of some greater principles.  Conveniently forgetting that corruptions are essentially little else but a macro-view of micro-compromises.

On Honesty…

“Honesty is always the best policy.  Life and society would be much better if everyone was completely honest.”

Really?  All right, let us begin by acknowledging some truths as a baseline:

  • All laws and authorities that we rely on to survive in society only exist as long as a majority of us are willing to go along with them.
  • There is a strong probability that when you are long dead 100 years from now, few will remember you, and your greatest personal accomplishments will be long forgotten.
  • It’s most likely that your significant other first noticed your sexual desirability prior to coming even close to caring about your intellect and personality.
  • Age will obliterate your sexual desirability.
  • All the flaws you notice in yourself, others notice, too.  They just don’t care, because your personal problems don’t affect their lives.
  • On average, your children have as good a chance of becoming failures in their lives, as they do of becoming successes.
  • Money can buy happiness.  But it’s just unlikely that you will ever make enough to really know it.

Is your life better off now that these truths have been pointed out to you?

The moral indignation people have about honesty is what makes lying such a dire necessity.  What makes the dubiousness of our collective social modesty all the more palatable to ourselves is preserving lies as a daily course on the menu, and honesty as a mere condiment that we can mistake for the meal.

Is Online Anonymity a Respectable Expectation, or an Escape from Accountability?

The push to discredit online anonymity has gained some traction since everyone and their grandmother jumped on the social media craze.   For us millennial old-timers who grew up loitering around–or, more aptly, dicking around–on BBS sites like TOTSE through the 90s and early 2000s, the idea of showing due deference to another’s online moniker is seen as an almost unbreachable right of the internet (in short, doxxing is the cardinal sin of the internet).

Nowadays, however, where our online activity is evermore linked in with the various areas of the internet we roam (both to facilitate personal comfort, as well as make it easier to be targeted by advertisers about our interests and potential purchasing preferences), the topic of online anonymity has morphed into a more shady issue for some.  The concept of trolling, which (for the two of you out there who don’t already know this overused term) is essentially trying to get a rise out of people online by leaving any comment that you believe will insult, demean, or hurt them.  For people who use the internet as a legit medium of communication, trolling is always used as a pejorative, and always frowned upon as a major downside (if not the downside) of the internet.

The argument for eliminating, or at the very least minimizing, the presence of anonymous contributors online can, I believe, be characterized most fairly as the following:

Don’t you think that if you wrote under your real name your opinions would be seen as more respectable? Some would say that by writing under a pseudonym you are afraid to attach your opinion to yourself as an individual, because you know that what you are posting online is either wrong, misleading, or outright malicious.

When I first started writing this blog I took a few moments to consider how much I wanted to reveal about myself to readers.  At first, I flirted with the idea of excluding any direct reference to my gender or nationality, but this seemed disingenuous on account that it denies the reader the opportunity to get an honest idea of the factors that shape my perceptions about my surroundings.  There is still a part of me that ultimately beliefs that if arguments and commentaries are to stand on their own, then the identity of the individual providing them should be irrelevant to the reader.  However, there is something to be said about building a rapport with one’s readers by trusting them enough to disclose something very personal with them (like one’s identity, even if on an impersonal medium, like a blog).

But an equally valued argument can be made about how pseudonyms allow an individual to feel safer about expressing her/his true opinions, free of the daily restraints s/he might feel inclined to adopt in real life.  When it comes to using online monikers, I consider this to be a very salient point, and would like to add that if someone is honestly willing to engage the points raised by a writer, then it shouldn’t matter under what name s/he chooses to go by in her/his cyber-life (after all, would not a rose by any other name smell just as sweet…).

But I understand that this can seem like a cop-out to some; a means by which to rationalize one’s unwillingness to cease hiding behind the relatively safe anonymity of the internet.  Nonetheless, despite understanding where this sentiment is coming from, it’s a point with which I will cordially have to disagree, as I think the reasons for a person’s decision to remain anonymous online are too varied to be so easily dismissed.  Also, even if the stated reason is the correct one, I don’t personally see anything inherently wrong with taking advantage of “the relatively safe anonymity of the internet” in and of itself, because in a world where so much of our online identity is so readily available for determined, potentially deranged individuals to found out life-threatening information about us for no other reason that some random opinion we shared online didn’t sit well with their delicate sensibilities, having a wall of separation in place between the person and her/his freedom of expression can be a valued tool of communication, rather a deterrent of it.

All the best,

Sasha

P.S. Yes, Sasha is my name.

P.S.S.  Yes, I am in fact male, and living with what is a predominantly female name in North America.  Very trendy of me, indeed.

Agony by Eye Contact

I have always been told that I have an eye contact problem.  When most people hear this, they assume that I mean how I have trouble maintaining eye contact.  However, my apparent problem is the exact opposite; I’m told that I make too much eye contact with people while speaking with them.

It is one complaint that has followed me all throughout my childhood (and subsequent adult years), by people alleging that I am not showing them proper respect because I insist on “staring” at them as we talk.  Yet, despite numerous attempts to remedy this supposed faux pas of mine, I have never really been able to figure out what the socially acceptable amount of eye contact is supposed to be.  Hence, what results is me trying to simultaneously give someone my complete attention, while worrying that I have given her/him too much attention, and made her/him feel uncomfortable because of it.

The reason I have always been inclined to make direct eye contact with whomever I happen to be speaking to at the moment, is my desire to hear and understand every word that is being spoken to me by said individual.  I make the assumption that if you find it worthwhile to approach me in conversation about a topic, you want me to actually listen to what you have to say, and not nod my head and shift my eyes aimlessly, looking for a distraction to avoid looking at your eyes.

The strangest part is that when I’m confronted about my intense eye contact habit, and told that I’m being rude to the person whose words I’m trying to hear, my sincere request to get some constructive feedback on the matter is always met with scorn.  “You should already know why it’s obviously wrong,” is the answer I usually get (which is obviously asinine since I obviously don’t know).  The second most common answer is that it makes the person I’m speaking to uncomfortable, which though reasonable, still doesn’t validate the notion that my behavior is wrong.

Breaking the routine of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder will definitely make the person afflicted with OCD uncomfortable, but doing so is a necessary step in getting the person to break away from her/his compulsion (assuming the person wants to break from it).  In that same regard, how can I be sure that it is not society’s aversion to eye contact that is the problem here?

I know from my experience teaching in a classroom that students who actually look at me as I’m lecturing tend to retain more information, than those who never lift their heads from the paper in front of them.  This is because communication is not strictly verbal, so being told to listen with just my ears and never my eyes comes across as a strange demand to me, since I know that I will register more of what you’re saying if I look at you while we’re conversing.  Do you not want me to grasp and thoroughly contemplate everything you have to say?

And, yes, I’m aware that there are people who have different kinds of social anxieties and communicative disorders, who are physically and psychologically incapable of making eye contact with others.  But I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of people I happen to come across in casually conversation fall into this category.  Also, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I can totally understand the desire to not have people gawk at you incessantly while I’m giving a talk.  However, the issue I’m referring to here is limited strictly to a one-on-one conversation, usually started by someone approaching me to discuss a topic s/he feels is important enough to speak to me about.  The idea that it is impolite to maintain eye contact with someone who has chosen to speak with me, baffles me to no end, and honestly makes me wonder about the state of our self-worth as a people, when we are so easily unnerved and intimidated by anyone who dares to closely observe and pay attention to what we have to say.

Despite having said all this, I do constantly try to accommodate to people’s desires and limit the amount eye contact I give to a person during conversation, but I really wish someone would give me the guidelines to how much is too much, or not enough, since I obviously am not able to figure it out on my own.

Dear Noble Assholes,

Assholes don’t bother me.  Assholes who pride themselves on being assholes (and advertise their “asshole-ishness” publicly) don’t bother me, either.  However, there is a certain type of asshole that exists that does tend to irk me just a bit.  I would call this type the noble asshole.

Noble, because this sort of assholes has actually convinced themselves that being an asshole is synonymous with having an honest dialogue, thereby framing their need to be vindictive and rude towards people into a public service for the greater good of humanity.  Moreover, the noble assholes believe that being assholes just means that they are braver than you, because (unlike you) they aren’t scared to speak plainly.  Ultimately, I think it’s this sense of self-aggrandizement that grinds my gears about the noble asshole.

Because, tell me honestly, what great feat of bravery are accomplished by harping on about something as personal as someone’s physical flaws?  Do we honestly think that ugly people don’t know that they’re ugly?  That short people don’t know that they’re short?  So what great service is accomplished by calling for people to have to be confronted with these sort of shortcomings in every conversation they have, be they relevant to the conversation or not?

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I have no problem with anyone saying whatever the hell they want.  I really, really could not care less at how offensive something is (be it something said, published, or put on display), because within a free society the right to be offensive needs to be as protected as the right to be offended is.  And claiming offense cannot, and should never, serve as a tool to silence someone simply because you feel insulted by what s/he said or did.  What I am saying is that, in that same spirit, if you are being insulting don’t further insult our collective intelligence by pretending that you are doing anything else.

No, you’re not “just being honest”.  You’re going several steps beyond that, on account that anyone past the age of puberty, who isn’t on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, ought to have enough common sense (not to mention human decency) to know the difference between speaking honestly, and being an opinionated dick on matters where your opinion was never asked to begin with.

The most annoying part is that, while I went out of my way here to accommodate the noble asshole’s asshole-ish ways by openly stating her/his right to be as shamelessly insulting as s/he sees fit, this same type of asshole will always (and I do mean, always) cry foul the moment someone responds accordingly to the insults s/he so freely spouted out.  It’s a warped sense of logic, in which the noble assholes demand the right to insult you, but deny you the right to acknowledge the reality that they have in fact just insulted you.

And these are the self-proclaimed “truth-tellers” of our age?  The noble souls who can’t even grasp the basic physics of how exerting an action will result in an equal reaction.

Noble?  Truth-tellers?  There is a more fitting description for people who lack the ability to speak with others with the basic tone of civility, who lack the ability to have the foresight or maturity to understand the consequences or impact their conduct can have on others; we call such people children.  And if you behave like child, throw temper-tantrums like a child, and have the emotional maturity of a child, then I will presume that you wish for me to speak to you like a child.  Just like a spoiled, undisciplined child, who has no filter and spouts out the first thing that pops into her/his underdeveloped mind.

And make no mistake, if you are among the self-proclaimed noble assholes, I am not doing anything noble by writing all of this.  I am insulting you, and you should be insulted but it.

The State of Journalism Today

“Journalism is dead.”

“Journalism is thriving online.”

“Journalism is devolving.”

“Journalism is changing.”

“There are no real journalists left.”

“The people are the modern day journalists.”

With so many contradictory and incompatible soundbites being thrown around about the same profession, one wouldn’t be blamed to conclude that the true state of journalism is a very schizoid beast these days.  Of course, a lot of the opinions thrown around concerning journalism (as a profession, and as a practice)  will depend on a person’s viewpoint.

People who prefer a more traditional, investigative approach to journalism (à la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) will bemoan the talking head, opinionated turn journalism has taken.  24-hour news channels partially set us down the path of conditioning us to a more commercialized, on-demand source for our news consumption.  In contrast, true investigative journalism takes a lot of time and resources, especially if said journalists aims to uphold their work to a passable level of ethical responsibility (i.e. cross-reference sources, don’t force a narrative, forego personal biases when contradicted by facts, and don’t speak for the facts of the case but let the facts speak for themselves).  These are, of course, responsibilities that news channels often ignore.  That’s not to say that they do not/cannot employ or report solid investigative journalism on an individual basis, but that as for-profit institutions (who rely on investors and advertisers) their primary incentive cannot be said to lie with simply investigating (and, if need be, challenging) the truth of newsworthy cases–they lie with not upsetting the agencies and institutions that they depend on to pay the bills.

This is where the controversy surrounding retaining access comes into play.  News journalists want to be able to talk to newsworthy individuals.  By large, these individuals will be less willing to talk to journalists (and the networks/publications they represent) if they feel antagonized by them, which is why journalists have an incentive to mitigate this apprehension for the sake of the newsworthy individuals, so as to retain access to them throughout the course of their relevance in the news.  Such a setup makes it difficult to properly investigate or challenge people/events/organizations/authorities, at least to the point that it calls for to present a comprehensive, undiluted report to the public.  If Woodward and Bernstein had been concerned with having access to President Nixon, and the other perpetrators of the Watergate scandal, the presentation of the facts in that case might have been much softer to the public, than the truth of the high-level criminal act (on the part of Nixon and his accomplices) that it was shown to be.  This is why access journalism has to, by its nature, be conservative (that’s small “c” conservative, meaning an interest in the continuity of current institutional structures, not necessarily a right-wing political leaning).

The advent of exclusively online news sources (bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, and just online personalities and commentators in general), has been described as a reaction against this kind of access journalism.  Some even consider it a return to the more robust form of journalism, because it gives voice and power directly to the people, without first being filtered through advertisers, agencies, and corporate structures.  However, there is an obvious flaw with this model, too.  Namely, “the people” aspect.

This may be an unpopular opinion to state in the blogosphere, but the public in general doesn’t make for a good judge on truth (or justice, for that matter).  While a medium spearheaded by  what can colloquially be referred to as popular public interest will have little qualms about challenging anyone it deems to be wrong on an issue (any popular online comment section is a testament to this fact), the actual investigative component of good journalism will almost always be all but forgotten through this format.  That’s the part about needing to cross-reference sources, not forcing a narrative, foregoing personal biases when contradicted by facts, and not speaking for the facts of the case but letting the facts speak for themselves.

How may online news commentators and personalities hold to this standard, when what they’re reporting goes against the conclusions and narratives they already agree with and wish to promote?  Very few, indeed.  Because they don’t need to.  And that’s why it’s so easy to start social media outrages and “witchhunts” over minor individual infractions instigated by online commentators who want to play at journalism, but don’t want to do the hard work required by it.  Their audience (and with the rise of gofundme, patreon, and monetization of view counts, one can even go so far as to call this audience “their funders and investors”) doesn’t watch and listen to be informed on a topic; they watch to have their presupposed opinions validated.  The only checks that are in place here are other online commentators who will criticize you from their sites and channels, none of which really matters if you have a large enough audience to withstand such attacks, regardless of how misinformed your opinions really are.

[A quick word needs to be mentioned concerning another popular route of dispensing news (especially regarding confidential truths): the whistleblower.  WikiLeaks is a good example of a medium which will publish information obtained by clearance-sensitive personnel that otherwise would have been unavailable to the public.  Although whistleblower resources like this can, and do, play a vital role in investigative journalism, it would be technically incorrect to deem either the whistleblowers, or the medium they publish their provided information through, as journalists.  The journalist is the journalist, not his or her source or the medium he or she works for.  And whistleblowers are by definition always a source, never the investigators of a news story.]

If this post sounds like an elitist appeal that’s because it is.  Just like I believe only elite basketball players should go on to play for the NBA, and only elite authors should win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe only elite journalists, who uphold the most basic of investigative standards and integrity asked of by their profession, ought to be regarded as actually being members of said profession.  And, in my opinion, there are very few self-professed journalists striving to uphold such a standard today.  Moreover, the mediums we are depending on to get our news from seem less and less conducive to fostering any sort of journalistic integrity at all.  A trend I don’t see changing any time soon.

Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.