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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Forgetting

I dedicate a significant amount of time in my courses to thinking with students about our "digital selves" and our "digital lives." Most students-- most people, for that matter-- tend to think of the aggregate data that constitute their digital selves (social media profiles, Google searches, Netflix or Amazon preferences, banking transactions, medical records, online chats and text messages,smartphone location services results, etc, etc) as some sort of a shadow or reflection of them, but not really them. However, as I've written before on this blog (see: The "Real" and "True" You), there are a number of ways of looking at that aggregate data as more true and more real version of ourselves than our flesh-and-blood, "meatspace" selves. For example, our digital self, unlike our meatspace self, never forgets.  It may have an incomplete memory (though that is becoming less and less the case these days), but the memory it has is perfect.


Friday, February 05, 2016

Merit

The first text I assign in my social and political philosophy course is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled "The Lottery in Babylon." In it, Borges' narrator tells the story of his former home, Babylon, where (over the course of many years) a lottery evolves from being a voluntary game of chance into a mandatory determiner of, quite literally, everything: guilt and innocence, life and death, vocation, marriage, where one might live or what one might eat for lunch.  The number of drawings is infinite, the narrator tells us, No decision is final, each branches out into the others.  Under the Babylonian lottery, there is no natural or causal connection between actions and their consequences, between crimes and their punishment, between accomplishments and their rewards. Because the lottery is free, open and mandatory, it is also perfectly, mathematically "fair."  Several mythic and quasi-religious explanations for the lottery's operations emerge over time, each of which attempt to impart it with some ultimate meaning, but the narrator summarily dismisses them all in his final line: Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mortality

I am fairly certain that I watched a man die in the street in Memphis last Saturday night.

[TW: disturbing content follows]

I say that I'm "fairly certain" because, the truth is, I still do not know for sure.  In the past several days, I've recounted the events of that night to a few friends, hoping that one of them could give me a plausible alternative story that did not result in a man's death, but so far no one has been able to provide one.  The not-knowing-for-sure what happened has been an especially weighty burden to bear, though not even close to as heavy as the fairly-certain-I-do-know.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Risk

In the January edition of the New Yorker, there was a story ("The Hit List") about the so-called "Islamist war" on secular bloggers in Bagladesh.  It begins with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy: atheist, rationalist and advocate of scientific understanding.  (Roy: "The vaccine against religion is to build up a scientific approach.") It is a truly terrifying read for any blogger, myself included.  In my own discipline of professional Philosophy, there has been much discussion recently about the risks involved in doing digital or "public" philosophy, motivated in large part by the racist threats philosopher George Yancy received after publishing a piece in the NYT's The Stone (an op-ed section dedicated to philosophy) entitled "Dear White America." Anyone who has ever expressed an unpopular opinion in public (or anyone who has ever read Plato's Apology) knows that ideas can be dangerous.  As Sarah Vowell wrote (in one of the best opening lines to a nonfiction text ever): The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Utility

Roughly 90% of the courses I teach are in moral and political philosophy, which means I am regularly given cause to lecture on utilitarianism. In my experience, almost all students arrive in the classroom as what I call "default utilitarians." I say "default" because I think, in most cases, their's is not so much a considered position as it is evidence of the way that the social, political and economic forces of their world shape them as subjects.  I teach J.S. Mill's short 1861 tract Utilitarianism, one of the chief virtues of which is that it carefully and systematically addresses what Mill views as common misunderstandings of utilitarianism.  Among these misunderstandings is the conflation of "utility" (that which tends to produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people or, correspondingly, reduce the greatest amount of pain for the greatest amount of people) and "expediency" (that which promotes self-interested ends).  In all fairness, Mill doesn't do a very good job of making this distinction clearly or effectively, but in an Intro-level class it serves well enough to force students to think about whether or not their evaluations of the "happiness" their choices might produce is self-interested or not.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Practice

Inspired by fellow philosopher-bloggers Adriel Trott and Jill Stauffer, I'm going to try to post every day for the month of February.  Every summer in June, I do the 30 Day Song Challenge on this blog and I am always surprised how satisfying I find it to write every day.  Of course, it's much easier to do when there is structure and a theme (as there is in the 30 Day Song Challenge), but I've been encouraged by my Stauffer's and Trott's' work over the last couple of months and am willing to give this a go.

One thing I know-- and also teach my students-- is that writing is a skill that requires practice.  Even if you have a "natural" talent for writing, even if writing comes easily to you, practice is still necessary.  Each June, when I post every day, I discover new idiosyncratic tics and habits in my own writing that need correcting.  Just calling them to myown attention isn't sufficient, I need to practice not repeating those mistakes.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Against Political Futility

Yesterday, at a rally in advance of the upcoming Iowa caucuses, GOP Presidential candidate and frontrunner Donald Trump said (in his outside voice): "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters. It's, like, incredible."  My first thought was: yes, that IS incredible, as in not credible. It's almost as just plain unbelievable as it is unbelievable that Trump would think it or say it. My second thought? Yeah, he probably could. 

I suspect that I'm not the only one who sometimes wonders what is the point in trying at all to maintain some sort of serious, active, and critically engaged civic posture anymore, much less try to cultivate the same in others? This Presidential  election season is a bona fide circus.  The Republicans have a leading candidate for President who basically believes, and says out loud, that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue just to watch him die.  Another thinks that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. And, to be fair, it's not that much better on the Democrats' side, where the Official Party Line is that this whole dog-and-pony-show is nothing more than fait accompli. Madame Secretary has the pedigree, the bankers' backing, and the entire technocratic, Machiavellian genius of the DNC election-machine behind her in what they all assume to be, in reality, a war of attrition.  Oligarchs gonna oligarch.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Professional Philosophy: 99% White But 100% Anti-Racist

Since this is my first entry of 2016, I want to begin by noting that this year marks the 10th anniversary of blogging for me here at RMWMTMBM. There have been some prolific years (2008-2010) and some lean years (2012), but I'm proud to have kept this site more or less active and, with a few minor stylistic/aesthetic alterations, pretty much constant in terms of content for the last decade. The original tagline I chose for this blog-- "where philosophy, music, politics and pop culture get equal deconstruction"-- is as descriptively accurate today as it was ten years ago, I've made a lot of friends through this site and engaged in countless invaluable conversations because of it.

It's been a good run so far.

[SIDENOTE: I've been inspired by fellow philosophy professors and bloggers Jill Stauffer (Haverford) and Adriel Trott (Wabash) to try my hand at blogging every day for a month.  Stauffer did it in December here and Trott is doing it throughout January here.  I've resolved to do it in February because, well, fewer days.  So stay tuned.]

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Recruiting Philosophy Majors

One of my favorite things to do at the end of the semester involves sending emails to those particularly excellent students I had in class and trying to recruit them to the Philosophy major.  I don't think I tell students often enough during the regular term that they're doing good work, or that they have real talent, or that I'm genuinely impressed-- I'm working on that!-- but I really do try to make a point of doing so after I finish grading and before we all go on break for the holidays or the summer.  The Philosophy major is not always an easy sell, even to students who have a talent for it and are predisposed to love it, for a number of (cultural, social, economic, et al) reasons.  It often takes just a little push, a professorially-sanctioned hey-you're-really-good-at-this confirmation, the relay of a few helpful details that prospective majors might take home to reassure Mom and Dad that they won't just be serving "fries with that" after all, in order to make it possible for talented Philosophy students to see the major as a real possibility.  So, at the end of each semester, I send an email.

Those of you who know me will know that OF COURSE I HAVE A TEMPLATE ALREADY for these Philosophy-major-recruitment emails. And, since several hundred of you downloaded my "Recommendation Letter Form" (a super-time-saving template for writing rec letters), I'm going to assume these things are useful.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Technology and Human Values

If this were a post on Buzzfeed or Upworthy or some other such listicle-driven site, the thumbnail caption would read: "You won't BELIEVE the AMAZING things these COLLEGE STUDENTS did in their PHILOSOPHY class! Check it out!"

That would be a 100% true description, but I will attempt to be more measured in what follows.

This semester, I assigned what I called a "Technology and Human Values" Final Project in two of my courses, which required students to devise a merely-possible technological solution to a real-world, "value-laden" (social, political, or moral) problem.  What they have generated is really, and in several cases unbelievably, impressive. So, I thought I might share the assignment, some background for why I designed it, and a few examples of students' work. You're more than welcome to steal it (though not the students' work, of course).