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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Technology and Self-Worth: Replacing Humans

The capacity for self-valuing is perhaps one of the most profound differences between animals and human beings.  Of course, many animals can form ties and bonds.  Indeed, some animals can form quite substantial bonds with human beings.  But there is no comparison between the self-evaluation of which human beings are capable and the self-evaluation of which animals are capable, it being understood the former mightily surpasses the latter.  The valuing of the self that human beings do of themselves is in an entirely different realm.  And guess what?  An article in today’s New York Times (6 August 2014) makes it painfully clear that technology is going to be a horrendous impediment to the realization of positive self-evaluation on the part of human beings.  The title of the article is “Will You Lose Your Job to a Robot? Silicon Valley Is Split”.

The idea is extremely simple, namely increasingly technology perform tasks that once upon a time only human beings could perform.  The article notes what is obvious, namely that machines are replacing factory workers.  The article goes on to note the machines are replacing personal assistants and even lawyers.  So if the article is on point, then the janitors whom we have been used to seeing in buildings such as an office building or college campus will surely be replaced in the near future.  At first blush that might seem quite cool.  After all, who on earth had it as her or his dream to be a janitor?  Presumably no one.  But that truth is perfectly compatible with the reality that the janitor’s job gives meaning to the life of many an individual.  Needless to say, this line of thought can be easily extended to any number jobs determined to be mundane.  Indeed, the line of thought can be applied to jobs that do not automatically strike as mundane, such as the delivery person for FedEx and UPS.

As we all know, Google has already come up with the driverless car.  And there is every reason to think that when the driverless car is well in place, then the meaningful job of making deliveries for FedEx and UPS will surely be in jeopardy.   And for those who do not know so, the truth of the matter is that even airplane flying is primarily handled by technology with pilots merely overseeing matters.  Surely, it is just a matter of time when we will not only have the Google car but the equivalent of the Google airplane, thereby making even pilots for more unnecessary than necessary.   We will be thanking the machine for getting us through that horrendous storm?  I do not think so.

Alas, the much, much deeper question is whether human beings can handle the sharply upgraded status of leading a meaningful life.  To be sure, it is been customary to admire the great minds.  But once upon a time it would not have occurred to anyone to think that being something akin to a genius was necessary in order to have a chance of leading a meaningful life.

The question of the day is whether or not technology is pushing human beings in that direction?  Now, one response is that technology will leave human beings more free to enjoy themselves.  And there is no logical incompatibility between leading a meaningful life and having fun.  But surely we have an absolutely major problem in terms of how human being conceive of themselves if all the so-called simple tasks and even some of the complicated ones whereby human beings saw themselves as contributing to the good of society are turned over to machines to perform.

Another way of seeing the point that concerns me is that there is a form of human affirmation that mightily turns upon gratitude.  In the apartment complex where I live here in Paris, there are a number of cleaning people who absolutely delight in the expressions of appreciation that they receive from various residents throughout the day.  Surely, it is just a matter of time before machines will replace these individuals.  And it is far from obvious that these individuals will be able to turn to an activity that occasions the wonderful gratitude that they now receive from residents throughout the apartment complex.

If I am right, then the HRT “human replacement technology” that is envisioned will more likely than not be a disaster for so very many human beings precisely because that the human replacement technology (HRT) will deprive so very many ordinary individuals of the chance to lead a meaningful life if only in the sense of being the object of gratitude in the small but ever so important ways that the cleaning people an apartment complex are.

Now, some might retort that then human beings will simply be free to have fun.  But a radical change in human psychology would have to take place in order for merely having fun to be sufficient.  This afternoon I walking of the store with a fruit salad that I purchases.  As I went to show the receipt to the person at the exit who monitors people leaving the guy said “Don’t worry about it”.  That was a measure of affirmation he gave me.  In turn, the fact that I the professor was entirely unhesitant in proceeding to show the receipt for the fruit salad that I had purchased was a non-trivial measure of affirmation that I had given him.

As technology replaces human beings, those forms of affirmation that I have just described will vanish.  Will we be a better off?  Surprisingly, the answer is not a positive one precisely because, as I have already indicated, affirmation between human beings can take place even when the most routine forms of behavior are involved.  And given the nature of human psychology, there is no evidence whatsoever that in a society or a world void of such ever so simple and basic forms of affirmation is a better world.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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French Jews Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Jews wearing a yarmulke were once very common in France.  I do not mean that back-in-the day—some 20 years ago—lots of Jews were wearing a yarmulke.  Rather, the point is that it was common enough to see a Jew wearing one that his doing so did not at all call attention to itself.  One could be just about anywhere: in the well-known 6th arrondissement or in one of France’s suburbs such as Puteaux.   A Jew wearing a yarmulke could be walking down the street or riding the metro.  He could be coming out of a bank or going into a book store.  20 years ago, a Jews wearing a yarmulke was no more of an attention-grabber than a woman wearing slacks instead of a dress.

Well, that changed with 9/11.  I was in Paris a few weeks after 9/11; and one of the most poignant moments of my life was seeing a Jew struggling with whether he should wear his yarmulke or not.  He would put it on, walk a few steps, and then take it off and walk a few steps.  He did this repeatedly for at least 20 to 30 minutes.  An equally poignant moment a few years later was seeing an Orthodox Jew on the metro on his way to the airport struggling with whether to wear his yarmulke or not.  For you see, that particular metro passes through an area where lots of Arabs reside; and that young Jewish male did not want to be attacked.

But today, some 13 years after 9/11, I must report that things have become far worse than I could ever have imagined.   Muslims are now attacking synagogues in Paris.  Less than a week ago, Muslims attacked two synagogues in Paris: one in the 11th arrondissement and the other in the 4th arrondissement.  This is an unspeakable level of viciousness.

In the French newspaper Libération, there is an article on the Chief Rabbi of France, Haïm Korsia entitled “Haïm Korsia : «Une haine des juifs qui s’habille des oripeaux de l’antisionisme»” [Haïm Korsia: “A Hate for Jew that is wearing the rags of anti-zionism”].  And in that article the Chief Rabbi makes the following very direct remark: “Qu’il y a une haine des juifs en France”.  (“There is a hatred for Jews in France”.  And in this regard, it is well worth noting what he does not say.  He does restrict his claim to Muslims in France.

Indeed, precisely what seems to be true is that Muslims could not have gotten away with attacking the two synagogues were it not for the ever so tacit approval on the part of many French citizens who are neither Jewish nor Muslim (it being understood that the two groups are being mentioned in alphabetical order).  In considering Rabbi Korsia’s claim, one need only recall the case of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish male of Moroccan descent, who in 2006 was kidnapped, held for ransom and brutally tortured for three weeks.  He was 23 years old.

Rabbi Haïm Korsia continues to maintain that “il y a un avenir pour les juifs en France” (“There is a future for Jews in France”).  But I can only suppose that this is a rhetorical stance on his part.  For Jew after Jew here in Paris does not think so.  More directly, I am unable to point to any fact with regard to France that would give that would give the Chef Rabbi’s claim any plausibility whatsoever.  Most significantly, there has not been anything close to a demonstration on the part of French citizens bemoaning the wrong done to Jews at the two synagogues.  And in listening to the 24/7 news station France Info here in France, I am not sure if I have heard a single statement that would support Rabbi Korsia’s claim that Jews have a future in France.  Nor have I seen in anything in a French newspaper that would do so.  And most significantly, the owner of the Arabic store that I have been going to for simple things like milk or a box of sugar or soap power no longer engages in the small-talk with me that has been commonplace between us for more than 10 years.  And in terms of our interaction when I would stop by the store, we used to be rather like, as they say, bros from a different mother.  Not any more.  Well, let me put it this way: He did not discover that I am not Muslim.

The unexpurgated truth is that France is not the place for Jews that it once used to be a mere generation ago.  Indeed, pro-Palestinian support in France has become so strong that it would seem that the French no longer care that Jews, too, are people and deserve a place to live.  And that reality is far too close for comfort to Nazi Germany.


© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Honesty and Technology

Face-to-Face lying is difficult because the person to whom we are telling the lie can see our non-verbal behavior; and one important aspect of non-verbal behavior is voice tonality.  If, for example, a student tells me face-to-face that she or he has just lost a parent, then I expect to see a considerable display of emotion in that student’s non-verbal behavior.  Unless one is evil or psychologically deranged, it is impossible to inform a person that a parent has just died and there not be anguish and emotional pain all over the place.  Now, a very good actor no doubt could tell such a lie and deliver the right sort of behavior, including voice tonality.  However, most of us not nearly so talented that we could behavior in all the right ways as we claim that a parent has just died although in point of fact we are lying.  Besides, even good actors need to practice.

If I am right, then there is a tremendously painful respect in which technology mightily facilitates lying on the part of individuals.  For we can say just about anything in a text message or an email without having to have the appropriate non-verbal behavior including voice tonality.  And there is the rub.

With face-to-face conversations regarding a suffering that we have just endured there is what I shall refer to as “upfront non-verbal accountability” as we convey the suffering or lost that we have just endured.  However, there is no “upfront non-verbal accountability” with texting or emails.  And that reality proves to be extraordinarily convenient with respect to lying.

Of course, I distinguish between the so-called white lie and a vicious lie.  Indeed, I have argued in “Being Moral and Handling the Truth” that sometimes a lie can be virtuous, as when at a friend’s wedding I lie about having received a favorable health report from my physician when in fact she has formed me that I have but two months to live.  For surely a friend’s wedding is not the occasion to inform folks that I am about to die.

When it comes to lying technology mightily relieves people of “upfront non-verbal accountability”.  In an email a person can claim to have endured just about any harm, and it can seem rather malicious to question the veracity of that person’s claims.  If, for example, a student claims in an email to a professor that one of her or his parents has just died, it is clear that the professor comes across as a morally callous person if the professor writes back and requests to see a document that supports the student’s claim.  Likewise, if to a professor a student claims to have been raped.  There is simply no way that the professor can reply to the email with a request for documentation without appearing to a horrendous moral monster.

Needless to say, an analogous point holds with a spouse who emails home and claims that some major issue has come up at work and, therefore, she or he will be quite late coming home.

If I am right, then technology requires far more self-command than people once needed in order to live a morally upright life.  And a question that mightily presents itself is the following: (a) are people are measuring up in terms of acquiring more self-command or (b) are people are significantly failing to measure-up in terms of acquiring more self-command?

While I hope that I am indeed wrong, my gut feeling is that (b) is the case: people are significantly failing to measure up in terms of acquiring more self-command.  Indeed, I maintain that it is no accident at all that texting has achieved such enormous standing as a form of communication.  Why?  Because people can make all sorts of claims in a text message without having to exhibit the appropriate measure of upfront non-verbal behavior.  A simple example would be that in a text message a person can easily lie and claim to have the flu, whereas that would be far more difficult to do in a phone conversation; for in a phone conversation a person’s voice would sound weak and raspy.  And this point holds all the more between friends precisely because friends have a clear sense of each other sounds over the phone when they are healthy.  And while some of us may be good actors, the simple fact of the matter is that most of us are not nearly good enough that we can come across as sick in a conversation with a friend, when in point of fact we are not sick at all.

Technology has raised challenges to being honest that I do not believe that we anticipated.  For technology can serve as the handmaiden of evil to a degree that was simply not anticipated precisely because technology has mightily facilitated our wherewithal to be dishonest with others without any accountability for our dishonesty precisely because upfront non-verbal accountability has been removed.  And people are becoming increasingly comfortable with such inappropriate behavior.  And this perhaps tells us what is most disturbing, namely that for sufficiently many people compliance with moral behavior is not animated by an independent desire to be a morally upright person.  Rather, such compliance has been owing to the concern over getting caught.  Alas, when it comes to lying, technology has considerably diminished that concern.  To an extraordinary degree, technology has diminished accountability with respect to lying.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Human Nature: Fitting-In vs Being Autonomous

For all the talk about being autonomous, the truth of the matter is that most human beings are far more motivated by the desire to fit-in than they are by the concern to be autonomous.  And there is a very, very simple explanation for this, namely that fitting-in (to use a term coined by Robert Trivers) initially had far more survival value than being autonomous.  That was true millennia ago.  Nowadays, fitting-in primarily occasions a measure of general affirmation that we would not obtain otherwise.  And there is hardly a soul on this planet who does not wish to have a measure of general affirmation.

Now, to be sure, there are ways of fitting-in that do not much violate a person’s autonomy.  For example, most gals tend to dress like gals and most guys tend to dress like guys.  This is a form of fitting-in that does not much put autonomy on the line.  But where fitting-in does very much put autonomy on the line is with to respect beliefs that are constitutive of our values and assessments.  The explanation here is ever so simple, namely the following: For all the talk about the importance of being autonomous, social approval is far more important to most individuals.

The deep, deep value of any point of view is its explanatory power.  The behavior of teenagers stand as a classic example of the significance that fitting-in has in the lives of individuals.  Similarly, sororities and fraternities on college campus are another example of the extraordinary significance that fitting-in has in the lives of individuals.  Indeed, even among newly appointed assistant professors, their getting tenure after 6-years will typically be very much tied to their fitting-in unless the assistant professor is either very talented or extremely lucky.  And after 6-years of fitting-in, a dispositional configuration to fit-in is well in-place.

Needless to say, if fitting-in has significant weight in the university setting, then one can be absolutely certain that fitting-in has considerable weight generally.  For the university takes itself to be represent the very ideal of freedom of thought and expression.  So it should come as no surprise at all that fitting-in can hold across ethnic groups, be they white or black or Asian or Arabic.  And so on.  Indeed, it often turns out that a black is deemed to be an Uncle Tom by blacks if helping blacks is not the focal point of the black or, in the case of the university, if the black experience is not the focal point of the person’s research and teaching.

There is the famous John Donne song “No Man Is an Island” written more than four centuries ago, with the first and second stanza reading as follows:

We need one another
So I will defend
each man as my brother
each man as my friend
We need one another
So I will defend
Each man as my brother
Each man as my friend

If I correctly understand the spirit of the words of the song, then a painful reality is that human beings these days do not even come close to reflecting the ideal of the song, although quite unlike the knowledge that Donne had at his disposal, we now have indisputable scientific proof that the differences between us are only skin deep, if that.

Given the indisputable scientific evidence that all human beings are equally human: Fitting-in should have nothing whatsoever to do with ethnicity or skin color and everything to do with character.   And the fact that nothing of the sort is true is a very, very ominous sign.  Indeed, even if we allow that no person of group X and Y and Z has ever achieved the intellectual heights of Albert Einstein, that truth is hardly damning with respect to persons of group X and Y and Z, since most people have never achieved the intellectual heights of Einstein, including the members of the very group to which Einstein belonged.

A most poignant and disconcerting and ever so revealing truth is that in 2014, people of every ethnicity attach far more importance to fitting-in with one another than to affirming and privileging moral and intellectual excellence regardless of the ethnicity of the person who displays it.

Early on in human existence fitting-in was once a blessing, owing to the obstacles that people faced in merely trying to survive.  Alas, I am now inclined to suppose that fitting-in has essentially become a curse.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Facebook and the Need for Affirmation

The extraordinary success of Facebook is tied to one thing, namely the considerable need that most human beings have for affirmation from others.  This validity of the point is revealed by the extraordinary amount of personal information that people post on their Facebook page.  And the degree of self-deception here is mind-boggling.  So the furor over the Facebook’s emotion-manipulation study tends to strike me as a case of people getting what they deserve.  Let me explain.

It is common for people to post pictures of their newborn on their Facebook page.  But think about that for a moment.  Presumably, anyone with whom one has close ties has already received or seen the photos.  Or, in any case, one could easily send the photos to those individuals.  And nowadays it is far from clear to me that I would want some stranger looking at the photos of my newborn child.  So commonsense would dictate not posting such photos on one’s Facebook page.  Needless to say, precisely what we know is that commonsense has about as much efficacy here as does the idea of scaling a wall upside-down.  Obviously, few things are more revealing that something is terribly wrong with a given mode of behavior than the fact that the behavior so dramatically flies in the face of commonsense.

There is no greater sign of parental love than parents being there for their children and giving the children the deep, deep affirmation that will forever nourish the soul of each child.  Whatever else is true, photos on Facebook are not even a start in that direction.  To suppose otherwise is an instance of incredible self-deception on the part of parents.

Of course, there are times when we want to communicate important information to a large number of people all at once.  Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that.  And then we have a scenario like of the bullying of Karen Klein, the bus monitor.  Clearly, Facebook played a pivotal role in garnering tremendous support for her.  Alas, my point is that for the typical person Facebook does more harm than good.

Modernity is mightily deceptive.  We live in a world in which so very much can be done so very much faster and with far more efficacy.  It is well-known that technology has mightily increased the speed and context with which we can communicate with one another.  But is it stunning to me that people are becoming so blind to what counts as genuine affirmation.  Is having a conversation with someone when both individuals are in the throes of doing something else as affirming as too people having one another’s undivided attention?  I do not see how that is even possible.  Yet, “distracted conversations”, as I call them, have become the norm.

Very early on, I joined Facebook.  And the very question that I routinely asked myself was “What is there for me to post about myself on my Facebook page?”  And invariably the answer came back “Nothing”, although it is certainly arguable that I live a reasonably fulfilling life.  Alas, that is the very point.  If a person is indeed leading a very fulfilling life, what need would that person have to post comments about her or his life on Facebook?  I do not think that it is possible to have it both ways.  With a fulfilling life comes a deep, deep sense of satisfaction (not to be confused with lethargy) and affirmation.  With very rare exception, postings on Facebook do not serve to enhance those sentiments.  I left Facebook years ago.

I conclude with two questions: (1) Has Facebook had a phenomenal impact?  (2) Are human beings generally better on account of Facebook?  It is ever so obvious that question (1) gets an affirmative answer.  It is not nearly as obvious that question (2) gets an affirmative answer.  Indeed, there is no logical incompatibility at all between an affirmative response to question (1) but a negative response to question (2).  The genius of Mark Zuckerberg lies in the depth of his insight about human beings.  For he marvelously grasped that (1) could be quite true though ne’er a promise regarding (2) is made.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Consensual Sex Between Student and Professor ? ? ?

If the sex was consensual between the female student and the tenured associate male professor, then what happened that resulted in the matter becoming public?  How did the matter become known to the relevant officials at Syracuse University?  There are really only two possibilities: (1) Some other faculty member or student reported the matter.  (2) The female student who was having the affair with the professor filed a complaint against the professor.  I no more think that (1) is likely to have occurred than I think that it is likely that Israel will become a part of the European Union.  This leaves us with (2).  But I am moving too fast here.

There is a prior question, to wit: Should students and faculty be allowed to have sexual relationships? Well, Syracuse University regulations allow that a student-professor romantic bond is permissible provided that as a professor the faculty does not have any formal interaction with the student, where the professor is fulfilling university role.  And that idea seems to be right in the ballpark.  Alas, the fact of the matter is that in the case at hand, the professor had an extremely significant formal role with the student.  That is part of the reason why I think that (2) is the case—and not (1).  I also think that the professor was an absolute moral idiot.  I do not mean to preclude the student from any and all criticism.  But the weight of moral and professional responsibility mightily falls upon his shoulder; for I am guessing that the professor is about twice the student’s age.  Accordingly, the professor should have exhibited the requisite maturity of judgment and self-command. If the professor had waited until there were no more professional interactions between him and her, then he would have been protected even if the female was merely fed up with him. And guess what?  By waiting the professor would thereby have shown the student an enormous amount of respect.  Yep, that is absolutely right.  The professor would have shown the student a marvelous abundance of respect.  That would have been a most profound measure of moral affirmation of the student on the professor’s part. Whatever one’s religious convictions might be, there is a truly great remark attributed to the Apostle Paul: “Let the not the good that you do be evil spoken of”.  By exercising a measure of foresight, there are so many things that the professor could have done to make sure that there would be no misunderstanding between him and the student.  Indeed, if he had a sexual interest in her, then he could have waited until a semester was over before pursing it and then made sure that there were no more formal ties between him and her.  This would have meant waiting a maximum of fourth months.

This move is so obvious that it is utterly stupefying that the professor did not pursue that course of action. As I have indicated, there are no details here. And while the rules prohibit sexual interactions with a student when one is engaged in professional interaction with the student, it is not stated that a violation of the policy will necessarily result in the immediate revocation of tenure and termination of the person’s position.  Indeed, the professor, himself, certainly did not expect the decision that he would be dismissed, which is almost certainly why he appealed to the Syracuse University Board of Trustees (which upheld the University’s decision to dismiss him.)  When the decision by the University and the Board of Trustees are taken together, they suggest that something got way out of hand.  But as I have already indicated, I can be as confident as the night follows the day that the female student got very, very, very upset about something.  As to what that something might be, I am simply unable to say.

As should be clear, I very much stand behind the decision to dismiss the professor.  This is because it seems ever so obvious to me that certain lines should not be crossed.  And the professor clearly crossed them.

Next to pure brilliance, one of the greatest of human abilities is the capacity for foresight.  And one never ever outgrows one’s need for foresight. Over the years, I have been blessed to have some truly wonderful bonds with students; and I have meals with students upon occasion.  But I have also very deliberately kept every interaction with a student in public space.  I am not after any of my students.  And none of them are after me.  And that stance is mightily underwritten by keeping my interaction with students in public space. I can imagine some asking “What are you afraid you might do?”  Well, the answer is nothing at all.  For I am confident that I have been blessed with a considerable measure of self-command.  But so often in life, the issue is not about what one fears one might actually do; rather, the issue is much more about how one’s actions are likely to be perceived by others.  Here is a quite clear example that I have perhaps mentioned before.  Many close male friends in France greet one another with a kiss on each cheek.  Not all do that.  But many do.  And there ain’t nothing at all sexual about that greeting.  I will never greet an American male in that way precisely because it simply allows for way too much misunderstanding.  The point here is very, very simple: It is true often enough that precautions are in order; and the reason for this is not that one is so easily tempted to behave inappropriately but that one’s behavior might be so easily misunderstood in undesirable ways. The professor was a fool for (i) being sexually involved with the student while at the very same time (ii) playing an ever so direct evaluative role in her academic progress.  One does not need to be Einstein to figure out that (i) and (ii) together is none other than an explosion waiting to happen.  And guess what?  The explosion happened.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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