Archive for January, 2009

The Burden of Being Authentic

One of my favorite thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre, made a lot of authenticity. In fact, his entire view of how one ought to live is based largely on authenticity. For him, and other thinkers in his vein, human society is made up almost entirely of prefashioned, predetermined roles that we learn and eventually adopt, like roles in a play, by abandoning our own self to “become” the “person” in that role. Sartre recalls a disturbing encounter he had with a waiter once that illustrates this idea well. He recalls watching the waiter make his rounds to the different tables, taking their orders, filling their glasses, asking about their dessert choices, etc. Nothing was really immediately odd about how this waiter was going about his tasks, but it struck Sartre that the man seemed far too interested in what the people wanted to eat. He seemed far too sincere about wondering if the people wanted dessert or not, and a bit too cheery about getting their check to them. Almost surely, most of the customers that had that waiter found their experience more enjoyable for it, and found the service from him exceptional. What was troubling to Sartre though, was that this man was no longer a man – he was a waiter. He wasn’t a person with person interests, person desires, and person-type inner life. He was a waiter whose existence in those moments was totally subordinate to the role he had adopted. For this man, waiting tables wasn’t just a task, it was a distinct mode of being – he wasn’t Steve waiting tables, he was The Waiter, Steve. He was being inauthentic; nearly sacrificing the whole of himself to subtly adopt some other identity entirely. He had no personal project of his own, only wanting to play the role.

This seems to me to be a spot-on interpretation of what was going on with this guy, and I haven’t been able to enjoy a cheerful waiter since I heard Sartre’s account of this experience. I hope you similarly recieve his gift of nausea at such inauthenticity as well, so we’ll be able to identify the inauthenticity in our own lives and foist it. It’s a hard thing to do, especially since so much of society has built-in expectations that one will be inauthentic. Just think: that waiter was likely considered one of the best at the restaurant. Other waiters were probably encouraged to serve their tables with the same cheer and eagerness that he had. If you wait, or work in customer service, you’re certainly accustomed to this very expecation yourself. It’s not just in the job market either. Go to Church: you’re not supposed to look sad there. You’re supposed to adopt a certain persona there, a certain role. Go to a party: you better look good. Hook up at the party? You know the drill. You know your role, and if you break with the expectations of any of these roles, the reaction will be just as if the actor on the stage dropped his persona; the audience is breathless and awkward, the show stops, but only briefly. You will be replaced in the role, and you won’t be asked to act again.

One person who I think has done a particularly good (on one level) at not succumbinig to this pressure to be inauthentic is Madonna (ironically, a professional performer). My friend Josh forwarded me a link to the video below, which I think is a great (even, in ways, inspiring) picture of the refusal to be inauthentic. Watch even the first minute of it and it’s obvious that she’s not about to play nice by slipping into the role of Congenial, Family-friendly Talk Show Guest. She absolutely refuses to join the play that’s going on.  As inspiring as her performance of non-performance is, though, in its illustration of refusal of inauthenticity, it also reveals the painful burden of authenticity itself, and here, Madonna fails utterly.  Watch for a few minutes first.

So here’s the deal. As is obvious, Madonna is certainly not seething with inauthenticity. She’s right on that Letterman’s show is as much of an act as Dawson’s Creek, and she’s not an actress. But she makes a mistake. She seems to think that refusing to be inauthentic makes you profound, and that that’s enough, but it’s not. I think (if I’m getting her right) she’s right on to think that she’s profound in her rejection, but it seems like rejecting inauthenticity is all she has and, though that makes her profound, it also makes her profoundly uninteresting. After about five minutes of watching her buck the show, you can pretty much anticipate every move she makes from then on. She’s not going to allow the game around her to structure her thoughts or language, and so is going to say whatever the hell comes to her mind, no matter what that may be. Profound, but uninteresting, unless you’re something of a voyeur, or you’re thirteen. She simply seems to have no positive project of her own, only the negative project of rejecting inauthenticity, and that reduces her to a socially uninteresting object lesson.

This is the burden of the authentic life. There are really three options for any of us. We can play along by adopting whatever roles are the closest, or the funnest, or the highest paying, or watever, or we can make our project entirely negative by focusing our lives on rejecting the inauthenticity in the world (this is where most teenagers are now, which is what makes shows like Family Guy and South Park so fun for them, because all they do is criticize and reject things for being fake and inauthentic), or we can fully embrace the weight of life, which is the burden and responsibility of being self-creating. This means not only rejecting the inauthenticity in our own selves and calling out inauthenticity around us, but of picking some positive project for our own lives and pursuing it, not out of some social pressure to adopt a part in the play, but out of our own rationally grounded beliefs, desires, and values. This is the burden of personal existence. The fool never gets there, stuck in the play. The coward never gets there, stuck in adolescent cynicism. Only the wise and strong make it, but, at the foundation of this existentialism is the belief that strength and wisdom are choices we make, functions of the will. And, if you have religious beliefs, I think there’s a lot of room in there to see them as gifts one may ask from God as well.

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Look to the right and save a human life

You’ll notice a new category of links called Saving Lives. At the moment there is one link there, though I think that it will gradually accrue more. I want to tell you about the link that is there though, because it will take you to the website of an organization that needs your money, and I want you to give it to them. I’ll tell you why.

Here’s how it works. The link will take you to a page for a charity called the Mocha Club, a terribly named humanitarian organization based on the obviously true premise that if many people give a regular, small amount of money (say, the price of a mocha…), that amounts to a big pile of money that can be put to some use. What they do is take that regluar, small donation and put it toward a worthy cause of your choice. All of the causes they’ve adopted center on the needs of African people, and fall broadly under the following headings:

Child Mothers – The Lords Resistance Army, a rebel militia group of rapist and pillagers, regular rolls into villages, slaughters the men, burns the home, rape and/or kill the women, and take whatever they want. That includes children. Especially young girls. These girls stay with the LRA as sex slaves until they grow ugly, die, have too many children, escape, or become too expensive to feed, at which point they are discarded. These discarded women, all of whom have children, collect into communities where there aren’t many men, jobs,  necessities of life, or job opportunities, and, when you’ve lived as a roaming sex slave for years, it’s very difficult to transition to a live of self-sustinance. The Mocha Club (MC) takes your money, and puts it toward meeting whatever needs arise for these women and their children.

HIV/AIDS – Statistics: in some African countries, one in three people has HIV. 66% of the worlds HIV positive population lives in Africa, and 6,300 people die per day from HIV in Africa. Aside from the gut-wrenching pain this causes for other humans, it also causes constant economic instability. MC takes your money, and gives medication to those affected, educates Africans on the nature of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (a lot of them don’t know that if you use a condom or just don’t have sex, you won’t get it), and create job opportunities for communities and individuals hurt by all this.

Education – People groups are different in Africa. Over there there is a large population of street children, who have no home, real family, jobs, or education. There are also refugees from war-torn areas, and generally poor people who can’t afford school. MC takes your cash, and builds schools, pays teachers, feeds students, and provides free education to all these people who will never otherwise be able to pull themselves out of the economic hell hole they were born into. They get educated, so they form real, guided goals, get a real job, and don’t have to eat trash any more. The most significant thing is that these people, when they grow up, are far more impassioned about these issues than you and I will ever be, and they effect serious change then. There’s a story on the site about a former street child who is now going to law school to work shaping the legal system in African countries so these issues are dealt with by the government, whose job it is to guide the society away from this insanity.

Job Creation – Job needs are desparate in Africa. For us that means people with college degrees end up working at Lowes selling paint. For them it means women are forced to pimp themselves out to eat and make rent, or otherwise become homeless. MC takes your donation and makes jobs for these people. I don’t know exactly how that works, but they see results.

Orphan Care – This is pretty self-explanatory. There are tons of orphans in Africa who no one is providing for, and MC takes the money you give them and provides for these fellow humans.

Sudan Regrowth – In the Darfur region of Sudan, at least 400,000 people have been killed in civil violence, and two million people have been displaced, fleeing their violent region to live in displacement camps. These camp sites are chosen out of immediate necessity, not because they are well suited to sustain large numbers of people (or people in general). In many of these camps there is little water, food, etc. and people suffer and die there. That’s the first half of the problem. The second half is that, because of all this murder and displacement, kids get left behind. In a village called Nayamlel, there is an orphanage of four hundred children who need food, water and education as well. The orpganage is largely staffed by former sex slaves, who also have these needs, and don’t get paid much at all (which, for them, means an almost insignificant amount of money). MC takes their money and, most importantly, digs wells for people who have been dying of thirst and disease from living off the only water there, which is regularly dirtied by animals and their funk and excrement. MC also pays for the food for these kids in the orphanage and the needs of the displaced people, like malaria medicine.

Sudan Regrowth is the project this group, The Fountain, is supporting, though you’re welcome to start a group of your own. It seems like this one is the broadest cause, since it provides food, medicine, shelter, water, and partially, education to people. That’s why I chose it.

Well, here are the logistics. The Mocha Club figures you drink mochas, and that they cost about $3.50 (fifteen cents less than a grande mocha at Starbucks, where I’m writing this). They want you to give them the costs of two mochas ($7) a month, or some increment of that ($14, $21, $28, etc.). You give them your debit card info, choose an increment and date for it to be billed to you regularly, and you’re done. Lives saved. And you can email them and quit donating whenever you want. It’s pretty hassle-free. Listening to one of their spokesmen last night, he was absolutely adamant that one person’s regular seven bucks literally saves at least one human being from dying, and this dude doesn’t even work for them, he’s a major private donor himself. So, from what I read and hear, this group is the real deal. So, please click the link on the right and join The Fountain (dig wells…fountain…get it?), and swallow your gall and mention this to other people and ask them to join it too so someone like you won’t die. I’ll be forgoing posting for several days so that this stays on the top so feel free to direct people here to learn about it.

[Note: When you join, please comment here and say so.]

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On the meaning of life (Schlick)

Moritz Schlick was the founder of a pretty influential group of European intellectuals called the Vienna Circle, and the father of a now-deceased movement called Logical Positivism, which basically held that the only route to knowledge was empirical observation (so, if you can’t see, feel, taste, smell, or hear it, you can’t know it, so no God or morality). Logical Positivism is dead now, and so I would have assumed that Schlick would only be studied out of some abstract, historical interest, but today I came across a paper by him entitled On the Meaning of Life, in this excellent book I’m reading on that topic.  Here are some excerpts from it that I thought were worth sharing:

• It is…the characteristic mark of work that it has its purpose outside itself, and is not performed for its own sake…Human action is work, not because it bears fruit, but only when it proceeds from, and is governed by, the thoughts of its fruit.

•The core and ultimate value of life can lie only in such states as exist for their own sake and carry their satisfaction in themselves…There really are such actions…we must call them play.

•”…idleness and indifference [are] the inevitable portions of divinity; merely a more human name for the sublimest state of being.” (Schiller) Only insofar as man shares in this perfection, only in the hours when life smiles at him without the stern frown of purpose, is he really a man. And it was sober consideration that led us to this very truth: the meaning of existence is revealed only in play.

•There is, however, no irreconcilable opposition between play…and work in the economic meaning of the term. Play, as we see it, is any activity which takes place entirely for its own sake, independently of its effects and consequences. There is nothing to stop these effects from being of a useful or valuable kind. If they are, so much the better; the action still remains play, since it already bears its own value within itself…Play too, in other words, can be creative; its outcome can coincide with that of work…And that is also true in the end of those actions which engender neither science or art, but the days necessities, and which are seemingly altogether devoid of spirit. The tilling of the fields, the weaving of fabrics, the cobbling of shoes, can all become play, and may take on the character of artistic acts. Nor is it even so uncommon for a man to take so much pleasure in such activities, that he forgets the purpose of them. Every true craftsman can experience in his own case this transformation of the means into an end-in-itself, which can take place with almost any activity, and which makes the product into a work of art… The individual would lead an existence, as in the profound and beautiful saying of the Bible, like the life of the lilies of the field.

•[Yet,] we shall invariably find that…mechanical, brutalizing, degrading forms of work serve ultimately to produce only trash and empty luxury. So away with them! So long, indeed, as our economy is focused on mere increase of production, instead of on the true enrichment of life, these activities cannot diminish, and thus slavery among mankind (for these alone are the true forms of slave labor) will not be able to decline.

•Unremitting stern fulfillment of duty in the service of an end eventually makes us narrow and takes away the freedom that everyone requires for self development.

•A life that is constantly focused only on distant goals eventually loses all power of creation whatsoever. It is like a bow that is always bent: in the end it can no longer loose off the arrow, and with that its tension becomes pointless.

•The meaning of life is youth. Youth, in fact, is not just a time of growing, learning, ripening and incompleteness, but primarily a time of play, of doing for its own sake, and hence a true bearer of the meaning of life. Anyone denying this, and regarding youth as a mere introduction and prelude to real life, commits the [error of shifting] life’s center of gravity forwards, into the future. Just as the majority of religions, discontented with earthly life, are wont to transfer the meaning of existence out of this life and into a hereafter, so man in general is inclined always to regard every state, since none of them is wholly perfect, as a mere preparation for a more perfect one. [Notice that, even if you believe in an after life, as I do, and even if you believe that the afterlife will be supremely meaningful compared to this one, as I am inclined to, you don’t have to disagree with Schlick that this life is also a profound bearer of meaning, and that it is a mistake to deny that and simply look to the afterlife to find meaning for one’s existence.]

And, I think for our generation, the most penetrating statement he made in the paper:

A civilization which [is only an] artificial breeding ground for worthless, idle endeavors by means of this forced slave labor, must eventually come to grief through its own absurdity.

I doubt many of us will, in the end, totally agree with Schlick here. Think, for instance of a man who enjoys, for no other reason than the pure love of the act itself, torturing others (perhaps, he especially enjoys torturing people with the last name Schlick even). I hope even Schlick would say that such a person is, somehow, missing the mark on living fully. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d just stick to his guns and say that a person is living a fully meaningful life. I don’t know. Either way, I think he’s worth hearing. The whole article is definitely worth a read, if you found the above portions interesting. Here’s the citation for the whole thing:

Moritz Schlick, Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2, D. Reidel, 1979. Translated by Peter Heath.

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A fun piece of anonymous moral wisdom

I was just reading this thread on another blog about the blogger’s run in with a chatty, societal leach of a waiter. Long story short, the waiter is going on about how he’s trying to evade jury duty (duty being the operative word here), and the customer (the writer) pins him with the question of whether he might be foisting a real obligation he has. The waiter’s retort is the usual, pathetic “don’t judge me”, and that’s the end of it. The most interesting part, though, is found in the comments to the post where Anonymous said this:

“Don’t judge me” is one of the strangest things people say. Sometimes there’s a reasonable point- “don’t judge my moral worth because of my fashion sense” or something like that. But the general “don’t judge me” point is very weird. “Why the hell not?” I want to say.

It’s a great point! “Why?” questions, unless they’re intentionally obtuse, are always (or nearly always) legitimate because we’re rational creatures, and are perfectly entitled to an explanation, when available, for whatever we’re presented with (such as suggestions, like “smell this”, “vote for candidate x”, “believe my religion”, “don’t stick your finger in there”). To demand immediate, mindless assent to any non-intuitive suggestion is totally illegitimate, and seeks to undermine our nature as thinking, reasoning beings (or, ideally thinking, rational beings), and this certainly goes just as well for more personal cases, like the one above. It seems to me that the “don’t judge me” response is an obvious expression of cowardice – who but those afraid they won’t stand up to scrutiny mind it? I, for one, enjoy moral evaluation most of the time, I normally think it will reveal that I’m admirable. I’m only aftaid of it when I fear people will find out I’m a fraud, a hypocrite, and a sinner. That worry – rather than argument, solid defense, and moral confidence – seems to lay in the back of most ‘s mouths when they’re telling you not to judge them.

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Absolutely baffling

I came across this blog post last night while scrolling through Al Gore’s gift to humanity with a friend of mine. It’s basically a compilation of interviews of anti-abortion activists responding to the question, If abortion should be illegal, what should the punishment be for women who have abortions? I (and I think my friend also) was utterly appalled at the responses, and their singular nature. Though I myself am a strong “anti-abortionist” (is anyone a pro-abortionist?), the apparently poorly-founded fervency of these people for a cause I’m also behind is frightening.

So, what should be the penalty for normal cases of abortion (assuming it were made illegal)? [non-rhetorical question]

It seems to me that, in the vocabulary of our legal system, abortion is normally first degree murder, since it is  premeditated, malicious, unjust killing of a human person, and should be classified as such, and recieve the same penalty; something like long-term imprisonment or death.

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Ever thought one of your profs might be insane?

Well, bear in mind that intelligence and insanity often accompany one another, and I doubt university job interviews focus as much on the second as the first. So it may be that the occasional crazy Phd could sneak through the system, and start grading your papers. Read about just such a case here, regarding UT Arlington professor of philosophy and law, Keith Burgess-Jackson. I hope it serves as a sign to other students that, when your prof is driving you crazy, it may be because he already is.

*Note: be sure to follow the links within Leiter’s post. They’re even more elucidating.


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A Poem from ‘Staying Alive’

I recently picked up an anthology of poetry called Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, and so far it’s great. Every now and then I’ll read one of the poems and think that I’d like to share it here, but then I remember that copyright law won’t let me. Well, today, I happened across several pages of publisher permissions in the back that allow you to reproduce the poems, so now that problem is solved. So, occasionally, I’ll post a poem here that I think is especially worth reading. Here is one by Nina Cassian.


Call yourself alive? Look, I promise you
that for the first time you’ll feel your pores opening
like fish mouths, and you’ll actually be able to hear
your blood surging though all those lanes,
and you’ll feel light gliding across the cornea
like the train of a dress. For the first time
you’ll be aware of gravity
like a thorn in your heel,
and your shoulder blades will ache for want of wings.
Call yourself alive? I promise you
you’ll be deafened by dust falling on the furniture,
you’ll feel your eyebrows turning into two gashes,
and every memory you have – will begin
a Genesis.

©Ardis, 1983; Oxford Univ. Press, 1993
translated from the Romanian by Brenda Walker & Andrea Deletant

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