In Praise of Malala Yousafzai: A Gift Unto Humanity

malala-yousafzaiMalala Yousafzai is a role model for humanity.  Most people have suffered far less than she has suffered and yet they are forever complaining and doing little, if anything to make the world a better place.  The circumstances surrounding the childhood of most people are far more favorable than were the circumstances of Yousafzai’s childhood.  Yet, most people have far less self-determination and courage than she has.

In 2012, when she was only 15 years old, she was shot three times by a member of the Taliban.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she went on to exhibit a most extraordinary level of courage and to continue her fight for the equality of Muslim women and the education of Muslim children.

Most people are discouraged by so very much less.  Indeed, there are those who are far more interested in finding excuses for complaining and pointing a finger of accusation at others than they are in doing what would make a difference for the better in the life of others.

In reflecting upon my own life, I can say without hesitation that I am both humbled and profoundly inspired by the life of Malala Yousafzai.  If ever I had a reason to put things in perspective, her life has profoundly given me such a reason.  What is more, her life provides an ever so real and profound and comparative perspective from which I can make personal assessments about my life.  Indeed, the point just made holds for so very, very many people.

If Mala Yousafzai had wallowed in self-pity who could have blamed her?  If an agonizing state of despair have filled her very being, who could have blame her?  Clearly, the answer is ever so obvious: No one.  But instead, she displayed a most extraordinary degree of moral fortitude.  Excusing conditions are almost always available.  Alas, Ms. Yousafzai is an ever so profound reminder of the deep, deep moral truth that living well is inextricably tied to refusing to wallow in excusing conditions.

Mala Yousafzai was one of two people who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  It seems to me that no person has ever been more deserving of that prize.  For her life is an ever so vivid testimony of the moral excellence of which human beings are capable and of the moral fortitude that can anchor a human life.  And at 17 years of age, she is the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  (See photo image at the beginning of this blog entry.)

Her life is the exemplar par excellence of the sublime reality that no one has to be hostage to evil.  For if, after having been shot three times, she had wallowed in self-pity and despair no one could have rightly blamed or condemned her.  Had she given up hope, no one could have rightly criticized her.  Quite simply, she did not the let the wrong—nay, the evil—done to her be an excusing for wallowing in self-pity; and that is a psychological and moral gift like none other which she gave to herself.  And that is the ever so profound moral lesson that I take from her.  It is my hope and prayer that as long as I continue to live I shall exemplify that form of moral excellence and never allow the wrong that I might suffer be an excuse to wallow in self-pity.

Countless many groups in the United States should reflect upon Mala Yousafzai’s life.  And the point of doing so is not to deny or trivialize the depth of the road that needs to be travelled in order to bring about a more just society.  Rather, the aim of reflecting upon Yousafzai’s life is to have an everlasting reminder that one can cross the bridge of moral progress with a deep and an abiding sense of goodwill.  Hence, one can make the moral journey in a manner that ever so masterfully and mightily keeps evil bay.  Such is the moral progress that turns evil upside down and renders it ever so impotent.  Mala Yousafzai’s life is a reflection of that reality and an ever so present reminder that such a morally majestic reality is within the reach of mere mortals.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Statistical Generalizations and Perceptions

People make statistical generalizations all the time.  Indeed, in many cases it takes a great deal of self-command not to make statistical inferences.  So it is whatever a person’s ethnic configuration might be.  Indeed, one of the most fascinating cases of my life took place at Marshall Square Mall two years ago.  There I am on the 2nd floor, and I see for the very first time a quite older black male sitting on the other side of the room where the hand-cleansing dispenser is located.  I immediately think to myself “He must be a professor”.  So I go over to him in order to introduce myself.  Well, I was wrong.  He was not a professor.  Au contraire, he was trying to get his bachelor’s degree.  But that is almost the boring part; for he looked at me and with the utmost sincerity asked “When do you expect to get your bachelor’s degree?”

I was hardly offended, though.  After all, if he was still in college at Syracuse University, then there was no reason whatsoever why, in his mind, the same was entirely out of the question for me.  I told him that I was a professor; and he gave me a look of utter incredulity as if perhaps I was articulating a hope rather than an actual reality with respect to my life.  As it turns out, there have been a number of occasions in recent years where a black not affiliated with Syracuse University has looked at me as if perhaps I must have misspoken when I have said “I am a professor at Syracuse University”.

Now if there are numerous blacks who have that reaction, is it unreasonable that whites might also have that reaction?  I think not.  If a black who does not know me is not racist in having the thought that I am not a professor, then I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that a white or a member of any other non-black ethnic group who does not know me is racist merely because that person has the thought that I am not a professor.

My stance with respect to whites has offended some blacks whom I know.  Indeed, on account of my stance, some blacks have supposed that I must to some extent be an Uncle Tom.  But that is a very silly view.  Indeed, if sufficiently many blacks who do not know anything about me cannot rap their mind around the reality that I am a professor and my not being utterly distraught by that reality does not reflect badly upon my moral character, then how exactly does it reflect badly upon my moral character if I take a like stance with regard to whites, who do not know anything about me, holding that I am not a professor?  And of course the point extents to any other ethnic group.

Regardless of ethnicity, what we have is none other than a reasonable statistical generalization with respect to me, as a black person, on the part of people who do not know me.

Now some blacks have supposed that I must be an Uncle Tom if I am not bothered that whites (or the members of ethnic groups) who do not know me at all have trouble supposing that I am a professor.  However, that point of view is just so much nonsense, since by definition an Uncle Tom believes that he is in point of fact inferior.  But the recognition that the whites (or the members of any other ethnic group) whom I do not know have no more reason to suppose that I am a professor than the blacks whom I do not know does not in any whatsoever entail a sense of inferiority on my part.  Not at all.

Do we have here some sort of racism on the part of whites?  Well, my response is that we no more have a measure of racism on the part of whites who readily suppose that I am not a professor than we have a sense of viciousness on the part of blacks who readily suppose that I am not a professor.  Besides, the mere supposition that I am not a professor is entirely compatible with view that I live an ever so meaningful life.

Finally, there is an interesting respect in which the fact that I am ever so comfortable with the supposition by those who do not know me that I am not a professor says something that is so very affirming about who I am as a person.  There are surely times when it is ever so important for a person be clear to others about her or his standing.  There are countless many times when such is the case for physicians.  But there is very little that I do in daily life that requires anyone having even a clue that I am a professor.  And I do not need anyone to entertain that thought about me in order to feel ever so at-ease with that individual.  And that, alas, is very much the kind of person that I am delighted to be.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas


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ISIS versus the Nazis: An Unspeakable Parallel

Evil is not impoverished.  Adolph Hitler had no qualms whatsoever about formulating an absolutely false and horrific view of the Jews.  The deep, deep surprise is that countless many people in Nazi Germany accepted Hitler’s absolutely horrific and utterly indefensible view of the Jews.  I never thought that in my life time I would see an evil that was parallel to the evil of Nazi Germany.  Alas, I was wrong.  For ISIS is that parallel.

It will be remembered that what mattered to Hitler was not truth, but the elimination of Jews from the face of the earth.  And any evil characterization of the Jew, no matter how implausible, was justified precisely because it contributed to that end.  Thus, it was utterly irrelevant to Hitler that Jews in Germany were quite loyal citizens.

If the Nazis represent evil at its most despicable, then ISIS is none other than the Nazis of the 21st Century.  And one indisputable piece of evidence of this is the utter indifference ISIS has to the killing of innocent people—indeed, the horrific killing of innocent people by beheading them.  ISIS is breathtakingly comfortable with showing such beheadings as a sign of its strength and determination.

Of course, this is all being done in the name of Islam, and thus in the name of Allah.  And so we yet another parallel between ISIS and the Nazis; for the Nazis killed Jews in the name of Christianity.

I hold that there can be no greater mockery of a Supreme Being than the attitude and conviction that it is morally permissible to kill innocent individuals in the name of that Supreme Being.

Of course, the claim of the Nazis was that Jews—simply in virtue of being such—are evil people.  And in effect ISIS holds precisely this view of non-Muslims generally.  This, of course, tells us what surely we should all unequivocally grasp about evil, namely that truth as such is utterly irrelevant to evil.  Indeed, there are two unequivocally clear signs of evil: (1) The good that a person is doing is irrelevant if the person is not supporting the cause of the group.  (2) A person essentially has no entitlement to innocence if she or he is not a member of the group or an ever so clear supporter of the group.  Taken together, these two premises explain why countless many Christians have been killed in countries dominated by Islam merely because the individuals where Christians.  There is no greater sign of sheer evil on the part of group of people than that they invest considerable time and effort in innocent killing people.  The Nazis so behaved.  ISIS is so behaving.

I have no trouble whatsoever with people standing up for what is right.  But I object mightily when the idea of standing up for what is right proves to be none other than an excuse to inflict irreparable harm upon others.  Just as the Nazis revealed the extraordinary capacity on the part of human beings for self-deception, the very same claim can be made of ISIS and many Muslims.

George Santayana claimed that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Unfortunately, Santayana’s claim misses the mark in a most profound way.  For a most disconcerting fact is that evil routinely repeats itself.  There is no substantial difference between the Nazis and ISIS.  Yet, countless are the people around the world  have failed to draw this ever so obvious parallel.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas


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Technology and the Intellectual Decline of Humanity

“Use it or Lose it. We have all heard that expression.  And that expression is so very, very, very true, whether we are talking about typing or dancing or walking or talking or calculating or driving or observing.  This is because with any activity that we choose to regularly engage there will necessarily be subtle refinements whereby we area more efficacious in engaging in that activity.  Two observations nicely bring out this point.  There is now extraordinary efficacy in the way in which people now use technology these days in comparison to how people used technology a mere decade ago.  This is because our various devices are much more an extension of ourselves than they were a decade ago.

So, while it is perhaps a bit over the top to say that “Nowadays countless many people can send a text message while having sex and never miss a beat”, there is surely far more truth to that claim than not.  This is owing to none other than the fact that we have integrated texting into our day-to-day living with the result being that there is a mastery with respect to texting that was very nearly unimaginable a mere decade ago.

In a different direction, notice that by-and-large, we have become quite accustomed to talking with a person while there is a considerable amount of background noise.  That would have been entirely unacceptable not so long ago.  But it is routine these days.  Multi-tasking, as we call it, is a routine part of our daily living.

But then there is this reality: While it is manifestly obvious that human beings have become rather masterful in the use of gadgets, it is manifestly false that there has been a dramatic rise in human understanding and insightfulness.  Indeed, it is arguable that commonsense as taken one hell of nose dive.  Here is a wonderful illustration of this very point.

Below is part of set of remarks on the syllabus that I sent out to one of the classes that I am teaching this semester.

15-page essay

As can be seen, I have in parenthesis, write after the author and title of the essay the remark “15 page essay”.  That remark do not occur anywhere else on the syllabus.  What is more, there is absolutely no place on the syllabus where I speak about a required essay for the course.

Well, approximately 18 students wrote me an email inquiring about the 15-page essay that I am requiring for the course.  To be sure, 18 out of 400 students is hardly a lot of students—just over 2%.  However, we do not always need a lot of people to say something in order to wonder “What on earth could have motivated a person to raise that question that or make that comment?”

A most fascinating insight here is that from the fact that people are now efficient in the use of technology what does not follow at all is that people are increasingly more intellectually insightful or perceptive or reflective.  That is, what does not at all seem to be true is that there has been dramatic rise in either the intellectual wherewithal of individuals or the intellectual perceptivity of individuals who routinely use technological gadgets.  Are there exceptions here and there?  Absolutely.  But as they say, the exceptions prove the rule.  The person who is unbelievably talented with respect to the use of technology but who is also exhibiting extraordinary intellectual depth is ever so rare.  And this point applies across the board, whether we are talking about adults who earning their livelihood or about students who are studying, including college students.  Indeed, it was just about a decade ago when office hours (which I have at public setting on the Syracuse University campus) were an occasion for extraordinary conversation about ideas discussed during class.  I would leave exhausted owing to the extraordinary richness of the conversations.  That is rare nowadays.

In the end, then, I can effectively demonstrate it is simply not the case that technology marvelously enhances the intellectual thought and depth of insight.  Perhaps that will happen in the very future.  But if that does not happen, then the unthinkable may occur, namely the following: There will be a very disconcerting sense in which, on account of technology, human beings will be worse off to a significant degree in terms of their intellectual on account of technology.  Nay, we will be more like zombies than the rational creatures that was initially constitutive of our biological make-up.  Put another way: As most people are using technology these days, humanity would seem to be in the throes of a deep, deep intellectual decline.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Hanna Strong, Rap Music, and the Word Nigger

If a white woman is being raped by a black man and she utters “Get off of me nigger” is she racist?  That is a question that I posed to my ethics class about two years ago.  Many black and Latino students in the class thought “Damn straight: She is racist for calling her rapist a nigger”—as if that racial epithet was somehow worse than the act of rape itself.  By contrast, my view is very simple, namely that if ever a white woman could be excused for calling a black male nigger, it is surely when she is being raped by such a person.

By now, just about every person alive in the Syracuse area has heard of the story of the Syracuse University student, Hanna Strong, calling a black male student both a nigger and a faggot.  Not a word is said about why he was called these names by her.  Was Hanna Strong just walking down the street and saw a black man and thought to herself “I think I will call him a “nigger” and a “faggot”?  Or, is there something in particular that the black male did that provoked her to use such language?

For instance, suppose that he made a very aggressive, and entirely unwarranted, sexual advance towards her.  Such behavior on his part hardly excuses, let alone justifies, the calling that black male a “nigger” or a “faggot” or, as in this instance, both.  But a very aggressive and entirely unwarranted sexual advance on the part of any male—black, white, Asian, Indian, Arabic, and so on—would certainly put things in perspective.  And it is my hunch that the black male did just that.  I think that is precisely why she also called him a “faggot”.  Let me explain.

We who are black must acknowledge very important fact is that rap music has had an impact upon the standing of the word “nigger”.  The utterance of the word “nigger” is commonplace in rap music.  And youth in America, be they white or black or whatever, listen to rap music quite a bit these days.  This constitutes a radical shift between what things are like nowadays and what things were like some 30 years ago with respect to uttering the word “nigger”.  It would not surprise me at all nowadays if every now and then a white bro in a fraternity calls another white bro nigger as simply a way of having fun.  In other words, the word “nigger” does not have the visceral negative force in the minds of white youth that it used to have some 30 years ago.  And this is owing in large part to the prominence of rap music and the use of the word “nigger” in rap music.  Indeed, that is why I think she is also called the black male a “faggot”.  For in her mind, there is a very real sense in which the word “faggot” would be more insulting than the word “nigger”, given the commonality of the word “nigger” in rap music.

Now, let me be ever so clear.  I do not know whether the black male youth made an unwelcomed sexual advance towards Ms. Strong.  Indeed, the silence in this respect is deafening.  And the silence invites the thought Syracuse University does not at all care about how inappropriate his behavior towards her might have been, but is fixated upon her having called him a “nigger”, which is taken to be far, far, far worse morally speaking than anything he might have done.  And I know that there are black and Latino people who think precisely that.  And there are white people who are ever so animated by political correctness who also think that.

I am ever so confident that such a line of thought is indefensible.  That is why I began with the example of a white woman referring to her black rapist as a nigger.  The aim of the racial epithet is be hurtful.  No more, but certainly no less.  And it is easy to think of other examples where this holds.  If a white person caught her child being sexually molested or strangled by a black person, and she called the black “nigger”: Is anyone really going to claim that her language bespeaks some horrendous depth of racism on her part?

Syracuse University is presenting the Hanna Strong scenario as if it is entirely irrelevant what the black male whom she called nigger and faggot was doing to her.  And that is simply not possible.  And the point just made holds all the more so if there was a very strident and unwarranted sexual advance on his part towards her.  There is a non-trivial difference between justifying a piece of bad behavior and excusing that behavior.  And excusing bad behavior admits of degrees.  Surely the two examples in the preceding paragraph drives that point home.

It is entirely irresponsible of Syracuse University to be so deafeningly silent with regard to the behavior of the black male who was derogatorily addressed by Hanna Strong.  And to pretend that any use of the “nigger” by a white person with respect to a black person reflects none other than a deep measure of morally bankrupt racism is just so much nonsense, as the opening paragraph of this blog-entry makes unmistakably clear.  Of course, many blacks—and perhaps Latinos—will insist that my stance reflects the idea that I am none other than an Uncle Tom.  Indeed, many would rather make that claim than notice that at this very moment I am taking a stance that is entirely at odds with the administration of Syracuse University.  I came to Syracuse University as a tenured full professor and, more importantly, I came to the University as the author of my own life.  And I exaggerate not when I say that would rather die than be anything less than the author of my own life.  And that very stance on my part does not sit well with many white liberal faculty members at Syracuse University who are much more interested in a black person who needs their help than having around them a black person who is very much the author of her or his own life.

A final comment: In the novel The Color Purple it is said that a good listener listens not only to what one says but to what one does not say.  So, let me just repeat that there is deafening silence regarding the behavior of the black male whom Ms. Strong called a nigger and a faggot.  One the one hand, if she saw a black person washing his car (for example), and thought to herself “Let me call him nigger”, then may she rot in hell.  On the other hand, though, if he approached her and through his non-verbal behavior gave the impression that “Hey, this would be a good fuck tonight”, then Strong’s ever so harsh remarks are not nearly as horrendous as so very many people want to make them out to be.  And this point holds regardless of the ethnic make-up of the any two individuals similarly situated (with all the changes in racial/ethnic name calling): Asian male and Latino woman; Indian male and Arabic woman; white male and black woman; and so on.  But as I have said, there is deafening silence with regard to the black male’s behavior with respect to Hanna Strong.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas


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Abusive Parents: An Unspeakable Evil

Adam Schechter’s remarks “Rant About Parenting on his blog Thoughts and Ramblings touched me ever so deeply.  He writes about a mother who was horrific in her dealings with her approximately 7-year old child.

It is not because I was abused as a child that Schechter’s remarks touched me so deeply.  No, I am ever so lucky.  To this very day, I bask in the majesty of parental love, although both of my parents have been dead for many years.  Rather, it is the very fact that today this day I bask in the majesty of parental love that points to why Schechter’s remarks moved me so deeply.  There are something in life for which we do not get a second chance.  And raising a child is unmistakably one of them.  And there is an affirmation in a child’s life that only that child’s parents can provide.  No parent should ever lose sight of that reality.

I have had some truly wonderful (and quite respectful) bonds with college students.  Yet, an ever so simple truth is that as majestic and as wonderful as such a bond might be, it will never take the place of the affirmation that a student receives from her or his parents.  So it is even though we are typically talking about a young person somewhere between 18 and 21 years old.  Needless to say, this point holds all the more so for a 7-year old child.

One does not need a degree in child psychology to grasp the significance and importance of parental affirmation in a 7-year old child’s life.  And that truth is at the heart of my explanation for referring to the venomous parental punishment abuse of young children as an unspeakable evil.  So it is whether we are talking about physical abuse or psychological abuse.

The joy that every infant expresses in being the object of parental love is as clear an indicator as any parent should need regarding the immutable significance of parental affirmation.  Likewise, no degree is necessary in order for a parent to see the horrendous psychological pain that a child is caused when that child is treated in a venomous manner by her or his parent(s).  And any parent who is indifferent to causing her or his child such deep, deep psychological pain is quite simply an evil parent.  That might seem like sheer hyperbole.  Not so, however.

It is psychologically impossible—or very close to that—to be raised by parents and not come away with an ever so clear sense of what good parenting involves.  So it is whether one had good parents or one had bad parents.  If one had good parents, then one had an ever so majestic role model of how to parent.  By contrast, if one had horrendous parents, then one has been given a very clear role model of how not to parent.  And this last point speaks to why I regarding horrendous parenting as a form of unspeakable evil.

If one is psychologically healthy, then following in the footsteps of wonderful persons should be rather like a marvelous moral magnet: One naturally moves in that direction.  On the other hand, if one is psychologically healthy and one had horrific parents, then it should surely be one of one’s foremost aims not in any way to treat one’s child in the horrific manner in which one was treated by one’s own parents.  In either case, what follows is that there can be no excuse at all—absolutely none—for any parent treating her or his child in a horrific manner.

Without at all justifying such anger, I can make sense of how some wrongdoings on the part of one adult occasion horrific anger on the part of the adult’s companion.  For example, there is the issue of deep betrayal, which can occasion an absolutely horrific measure anger.  Indeed, the absence of deep anger almost requires an explanation in and of itself.  But no 7-year old child has the psychological wherewithal to be anywhere near capable of that level of betrayal.  And it is that immutable reality that gets me to the conclusion that the abusive treatment of a 7-year old by parent(s) constitutes a form of unspeakable evil.  For it is not possible to be a minimally decent human being and suppose that it is appropriate to be horrific either psychologically or physically in the treatment and punishment of a child.  Nor is it possible to be a minimally decent human being and be mistaken about what counts as such horrific behavior.

Without meaning to sound blasphemous, it is seems to me virtually impossible that an omniscient and omnipotent human being could have made it so very, very, very easy for human beings to bring children into this world.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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The Human Brain: Our Speaking versus Dogs Barking

Feral children are those children who grow up without human contact.  And feral children are entirely lacking in even a modest command of any one of the languages that human beings speak.  In this regard, human beings are very much unlike animals—say dogs, for instance.  This is because a dog has and will exhibit the ability to bark although the dog has never been around another dog.  The very ability to bark is a part of the biological programming of dogs.

The very fact that a measure of interaction with other human beings is necessary in order to acquire the capacity to speak reveals just how deep the truth is that human beings are quintessentially social creatures.  It is only through a sustained amount of social interaction in which speaking is done that children learn to speak.  As already noted, no dog needs exposure to other dogs in order to acquire the capacity to bark.

Given the above observation about children learning to speak, it then follows that a society that downplays social interaction on the part of children in the name of children playing with gadgets is in fact a society that is diminishing the mastery of language on the part of children.  And that, in turn, will have absolutely devastating consequences for the future of any such society.

For in effect, there will be a kind of dysfunctionality on the part of human being precisely because their command of language is so very inadequate.  With such an inadequate command of the language individuals will have difficulty evaluating themselves and they will have difficulty evaluating others.  What is more, individuals will be flounder in their wherewithal to grasp the actual significance of what is being said to them.  Indeed, their own self-reflections, and so self-knowledge, will become roundly inadequate.

With an inadequate command of the language, a new sense will be given to the word ineffable.  Presently, the idea of ineffable speaks to something so extraordinary that words cannot do justice to it.  But with a decreasing decline in the command of language, then a most disconcerting result will be that the ordinary will become ineffable, precisely because the command of language on the part of most individuals will be just that limited.

I can easily imagine someone saying that human beings will simply rely upon technology more in order to grasp ever more fully what is being said in their interactions with others.  That is perhaps true.  Most painfully, though, that truth only underscores the reality that, in terms of a sense of development, human beings will be mightily declining further in their speaking skills rather than becoming increasingly more sophisticated in that regard.

In comparing the emails of Syracuse University students in 2014 with the emails of Syracuse University students in 2004, I can already see a dramatic change for the worse in the command which students of language.  And I am limiting myself here to native speakers of English.  In 2014, it is often far from clear whether a student is merely expanding upon a point that was made in lecture or actually disagreeing with a point lecture or even raising a question.  So nowadays I typically begin my response to an email with “Thank you for your email about such-and-such” which is then followed by either (a) “Thank you for your very interesting question about the lecture or with (b) “Thank you for your very interesting commentary upon the lecture”.  And then I go on to elaborate upon what I think the student might have had in mind in her or his email.  Of course, there is no incompatibility at all between asking question and offering a commentary.  But in the last two years I can count on one hand and not move all 5 fingers the number of students who have written an email like the following: “I have a very interesting question that I would like to raise about the lecture but first let me motivate the concern I wish to raise with a few remarks”.   Since I typically teach more than 400 students a semester, the observation here is informed by a serious measure of experience.

Well, I have identified a very straightforward sense in which the present college generation is not better off on account of technology.  Technology has necessarily done more harm than good if the use of it diminishes our powers of intellectual reflection.  And I am hardly impressed with a Kurzweil-like response, namely that computers will eventually be able to that sort of reasoning for human beings.  Alas, what is most disconcerting is that implications of that very claim go entirely unnoticed.  If indeed computers will eventually be able to do that sort of reasoning for human beings and human beings continue to decline in with respect to that kind of reasoning, then will it also follow that the moral standing of computers will become superior to the moral standing of human beings?  And this will give an entirely new and different meaning to the idea of human slavery—a meaning that no one could have possibly have foreseen.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas


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Right Credit Cards; Wrong Accent

For the first time ever two of my credit cards from the United States were refused here in France when I went to buy some amazing books at a bookstore.  And you will never guess why.  Most credit cards are refused because either (a) it is a stolen card or (b) the person using the card has passed the credit card limit.  Well, the cards I used were mine; and I do not owe anything on either card.  So, explanations (a) and (b) were out.  Accordingly, as soon as I got back to my apartment, I called each credit card company back in the states and inquired as to why my credit card was refused.  And you will never guess what each company said: “There had been no attempt at all to use your credit card.  Our records do not show that there was any attempt to process anything with your credit card number.

Well, with that information, I was more than a little puzzled and went back to the bookstore to speak with the owner whom I know rather well. You will never guess what the explanation was with respect to neither credit card being accepted.  Never in a 1000 years will you guess the explanation.

Well, what had happened was that the clerk who was processing the cards thought that I spoke French way too well to be having a credit card from the United States.  So while it looked to me that she had swiped both cards.  The fact of the matter is that she had not done so at all.  In effect, she thought that I had stolen credit cards in my possession.  I noticed the surprise on her face when I pulled out my debt-credit from a French bank.  But I assumed that the surprise had to do with the apparent status of the card.  The only reason why she did not merely pretend to swipe that card as well is that all such cards in France have a security code that the owner punches in.  So if I knew the security code, then the clerk had very, very good reason to believe that the card is indeed mine.

I am lucky in that I know the owner of the store; and thus received an explanation that I had simply not anticipated for why in point of fact the clerk did not actually swipe the cards but only pretended to do so, namely that given how well I speak French she thought that I had stolen the two credit cards that are from the United States.  And I guess that from the standpoint of sheer statistical probability, the clerk’s assessment of things had a certain plausibility to it.  What is more, there is much to be said for the precept “Better safe than sorry”.  Besides, in terms of sheer statistical probability, the statistics with respect to people from the United States speaking French are very much on side of the clerk at the bookstore’s check-out counter: Most Americans speaking French will trip-up rather quickly even with basic stuff; moreover, they will affectively announce that they are American by the manner in which they speak French.  And I had made a very complicated request in French regarding the kind of information that I wanted on my receipt.

I should mention here that while I have been to that particular book store on countless many occasions, the clerk who was processing my purchasing of the books is new.

Someone has already asked me whether I think that race was a factor.  Well, I do not think that race was a factor.  We know that credit card theft is quite high throughout the world.  White people are stealing them.  Black people are stilling them.  Asian people are stealing them.  Indian people are stilling them.  And so on.  So any store clerk needs to be on the lookout for factors that would suggest that something is not quite right and the credit card might not belong to the person.

And the truth is that both accent and command of a language do a lot of work in every culture.  That is why one of the best signs in the world that a person has a quite adequate command of a language is that one can joke with the person in that language and the person to whom one is speaking will get the joke exactly as one intended it.  For we do not joke with people when we think that they will fail to grasp the humor of what we are saying, as is often the case with people who only have a very basic command of a language, whereby they can be polite and make simple requests but with whom one would not even think of having a meaningful conversation.

Things would have been so much different had she seen me interacting with the owner of the store.  And bearing that in mind, I have learnt a very wonderful lesson in social navigation.  I have been blessed to have a very fortunate life.  But living well is not about showcasing one’s good fortune.  And that means that often enough people—even people of goodwill—will fail to grasp the kind of person whom one might be.  That truth is one of the reasons why foresight is one of the greatest gifts that any fortunate person can have.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Jealousy is as Cruel as the Grave

How could jealousy be as cruel as the grave?  Yet, that is the very claim that is made in the Song of Solomon 8:6.  I mean what harm could a person suffer that could be equal in some fundamental respect to dying.  That second question is what I used to ask myself on a routine basis when I would reflect upon the biblical claim that “jealousy is as cruel as the game”.  For it struck me as blatantly obvious that bible was simply mistaken in claiming that jealousy was as horrific as death.  Alas, some serious maturing over the years has made it very clear to me that I had not quite viewed things correctly.

If you go to a funeral you will notice that no matter how horrendous the individual in the casket had been while alive, it will almost always be the case that the speakers at the funeral will say that the person meant well.  So it is although the person in the casket raped this one and robbed that one and cheated yet another person out of lots of money.  Yet, in spite of such horrendous behavior on the individual’s part, people at the individual’s funeral will somehow manage to put a positive spin on the person’s life.  And that reality stands in sharp contrast to what jealousy is like.

When people are jealousy, they want to see your sense of self be tremendously diminished; and while the jealousy person may not cause any physical harm, a jealous person is often perfectly comfortable fabricating whatever lie that can be made to stick about the person who is the object of that jealousy.  And one form that a lie can take is none other than radically discounting whatever good that one has done—especially some clearly significant good.

As an aside, I distinguish mightily between arrogance and self-knowledge.  To have self-knowledge is be rather clear about both what one can do and what one cannot do.  Arrogance, however, is fundamentally tied to drawing attention to the good that one takes oneself to have done even the context so does not warrant such a thing.  I mean one could be in the middle of trying to comfort one’s dying parent and if the person in the room is an arrogant person who, as it happens, has just published a paper about that sort of thing in a major journal, then that arrogant person is very like to remark while one is trying to comfort one’s dying parent “Hey, you know I have just published a paper in the blah blah journal about comforting a dying parent.

When people are horrendously jealous they can be brutally mean merely because things turned out in one’s favor.  One of the most memorable moments of jealousy that I have experienced in life took place when a professor literally and explicitly accused me of being mental unstable.  Why?  Because a member of the administration had agreed with me that it would be best if a particular graduate student not work with me as a teaching assistant given some of the serious psychological problems that the teaching assistant was having.

When I talk to friends both in the United States and Europe, it turn out time and time again that I hear about a case where the friend was horrendously mistreated where the aim was none other than, as they say, “to put the friend in her or his place of subordination”.

What is fascinating about jealousy is that just about any basis for comparison can be a basis for jealousy.  Thus, a person in one country can be jealous of the career success of a person in another country.  A person can be jealous of the looks of another person.  A person can be jealous of another’s tremendous level comfortableness.  Indeed, jealousy can track ethnicity in a multitude of ways.  Or, a person of ethnicity G can be jealousy of a person of ethnicity W.  And so on.

Jealousy bespeaks a very fundamental measure of insecurity. And jealousy is quite different, indeed, from a warranted sense of moral outrage over the horrendously inappropriate behavior that a person unequivocally committed, as in the case of child abuse.  There is a very straightforward sense in which jealousy is not as cruel as the grave.  Yet, there can be no greater indication of the wickedness of jealousy, then that a jealous person would rather attribute ill-will, if not evil itself, to a good person even as that very same jealous individual finds something good to say about the horrendously evil person who died.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Syracuse Ranked #1 Party School: Here Is Why

Getting Down and Having Fun is absolutely awesome.  But something is terribly wrong when a university is ranked as the #1 party school by the Princeton Review given that the tuition for that institution is effectively $60,000 a year and so $240,000 for four years, as is the case at Syracuse University.  In effect, it costs a quarter of a million dollars to attend Syracuse University for four years.  And that is outrageous—especially since it is possible to get a very good education for considerably less money.  But why is Syracuse University now ranked the #1 party school?  My answer is that that Syracuse University has done absolutely nothing over the years to enrich the student-professor relationship.  In fact, things have effectively gone the other way around: Syracuse University accords so much weight to student accusations, that professors rightly have little if any desire to forge anything resembling a rich intellectual bond with students.

For example, a former dean of one of the colleges put a professor through an extensive examination merely because a student accused the professor of having an inadequate command of English.  And the irony of ironies is that the very example that the student used as an example of the professor’s inadequate command of English was in fact flawless in terms of grammar and punctuation and so on.  But why let the inadequacy of a charge get in the way of a major investigation of a professor.  That is the kind of place Syracuse University has become over the years—an institution where professors rule entirely out of question the idea of forging a rich bond with students owing to the fear that an obviously false charge will be taken seriously

So in the matter of rich human interaction, partying among students is essentially the only outlet that students have for forging really profound bonds.  There are exceptions here.  But as the saying goes: the exceptions prove the rule.  For example, some rich bonds between students and me have been forged.  But I am pretty certain that those bonds would not have been forged but for the fact that I have the practice of holding office hours in Marshall Square Mall.  At MSqM, mutual respect is the order of the dayand not whatever professional authority over the students who show up that I might have.  Accordingly, meeting at MSqM allows for a sense of mutual trust to develop—indeed, mutual trust based upon mutual observations.  In fact, from Marshall Square Mall students and I have gone to this or that restaurant on Marshall Street and enjoyed a meal together.

One of the great casual moments of teaching took place last academic year.  At Marshall Square Mall when I ran across one of the students in my Philosophy 191 this past Spring semester who was sitting with about 6 of his friends.  We all struck up an amazing conversation; and I invited them all to join me the following week at a Marshall Street restaurant for dinner.  And guess what?  They all showed up.

Syracuse University has not done anything at all to facilitate student-faculty interaction.  And guess what, there is no amount of interaction via technology that can take the place of warm human interaction.  Thus, for so very many students at Syracuse University, it turns out that partying is none other than the key to social interaction.  More specifically, partying is a way to minimize the drought of non-social interaction.

In effect, Syracuse University has not done anything at all to foster trust between students and faculty members; and most faculty members seem not to be willing to come up with anything on their own.  At a tuition rate of $60,000 a year, it seems to me that every professor should be able to have something akin to buffet office hours at least once a semester.  In the Star Trek series with William Shatner starring as Captain Kirk, there is that marvelous moment when Captain Kirk notes that he won the war that he was fighting because he changed the rules of the rules.

Syracuse University has become the #1 party school precisely because there is no significant counterbalance to partying that occasions rich social interaction between individuals regardless of their standing.  If the University had spent as much money bringing about rich social interaction in novel ways as it has spent on the Connective Corridor things would already have mightily changed for the better.

Alas, the Connective Corridor between Syracuse University and the city of Syracuse will in fact do more harm than good unless it is also the case that there are excellent and very visible venues of social interaction between students and professors.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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