Technology and the Lack of Self-Command

If Marc Goodman is right, then humanity is in big trouble.  Marc Goodman is the author of the amazing book Future Crimes.  Back in the day, comparatively little self-command was required of individuals.  This is because it was far more difficult for people to commit acts of secrecy in those days than it is nowadays.  For example, adultery is hardly new.  But that poignant truth is compatible with the incontrovertible reality that technology has mightily facilitated the wherewithal of individuals to commit adultery.  The cell phone alone has been a major factor in that regard.  After all, a spouse can easily have a cell phone that her husband or his wife does not about, where the very point of having that “private” cell phone is none other than to be able to pursue sexual relations with considerable discretion.  More generally, there are a multitude of ways in which people can discretely meet-up nowadays—ways that were simply not available a mere 3 decades ago.

Again, it is obvious that owing to technology it is very easy for a person to have an alter ego and to present herself or himself as someone other than whom the person actually is.  In fact, I know someone in Europe who has 3 credit cards from the same company, where there is an entirely different name on each card.  So, the credit cards make it possible for that person to have two alter-egos.  A somewhat analogous points holds with respect to email addresses.  There is no guarantee at all that an individual is the person that she or he claims to be in the email that one receives from that person.  It is essentially effortless to have an altar ego via email.  And when having an email alter-ego is put together with having a credit card alter-ego, then it is quite clear that an individual can come across quite convincingly as being so-and-so, though in point of fact that is not the case.

Using the language of the economist and philosopher Adam Smith, the advances in technology are clearly requiring a considerable measure of self-command.  Needless to say, the question that mightily presents itself is the following: Are human beings capable of having the level of self-command that technology is requiring?  Well, that is not quite the right question; for there is a purely formal sense in which that question can be answered affirmatively.  But a most striking reality is that from the fact that a person has the capacity to do that which beneficial to her or him, what does not follow at all is that the individual will so behave.  Indeed, the history of humanity is full of instances where individuals fail to do what is beneficial to themselves.

Indeed, when I claimed in my first book Living Morally that human beings are quintessentially social creatures, one thing that I failed to appreciate is that in far too many instances a person prefers to fit-in with others than rather than do that which will very much contribute to her or his self-advancement.  Indeed, for all the talk about being autonomous that philosophers engage in, the reality is that most human beings give pride of place to fitting-in rather than to being autonomous.  So, while it is true that human beings are formally capable of being autonomous, it is simply false that being autonomous typically has pride of place in the life of most human beings.

If self-command at its very best is very much tied to being autonomous, then a quite striking reality is that even at this point in the history of human beings self-command does not routinely have pride of place in the lives of most human beings.  And it is that truth that is ever so disconcerting when one considers the tremendous developments in technology that will continue to occur.  For a most poignant truth is that technology in the hands of human beings who lack self-command is ever so likely to be used inappropriate ways—indeed, in countless many immoral ways.  Alas, that very point is the very substance of Goodman’s book Future Crimes.  If in general human beings were as creative in putting technology to good use as they are in using technology in silly and inappropriate ways, the world would already be a vastly better place in which to live.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Can Professors and Students Be Friends?

Famously, Aristotle observed that friendship at its best should be between equals.  So at first blush, it would seem that we cannot have friendship at its best between a professor and a student, since there is a very clear sense in which a student and a professor are not equals.  But the notion of equality is very, very complicated; and there is a straightforward sense in which it is very for rare for two individuals to be completely equal.  For instance, are there countless many significant differences between professors although they are all professors.  And even with two tremendously close friends, there will surely be ways in which they are not equal.

I have a friend who speaks French and Arabic, whereas I speak French and English.  And we come from two different religious traditions.  Finally, he is married and I am not.  Clearly, there are some non-trivial respects in which we are not equal.

Perhaps what Aristotle had in mind is that with friendship at its best, no friend has authority over the other.  But that move is not precise enough, since there are different forms of authority.  I read Aristotle as holding that with friendship at its best, neither friend has moral authority over the other.  And it is quite possible to have some form of professional authority over a person without having any moral authority at all over that person.  For example, there is a very clear respect in which my physician has some measure of professional authority over me, whereas I have no professional authority over him.  However, I do not see that my physician has any moral authority over me at all.  Most significantly, although I fully respect my physician’s professional authority, there is no doubt at all in my mind that my physician is fully aware that he and I are equal in terms of moral authority.

If my rapport with my physician is accurate, then it would seem that it is indeed possible for a professor and a student to be friends, where a professor has a measure of professional authority over the student but no moral authority at all over the student and, moreover, the professor fully recognizes that she or he has no moral authority over the student.  And the student recognizes this as well.

Now, it may very well be that some professors are emotionally and psychologically configured in such a way that they too readily blur the distinction between professional and moral authority, just as a physician might do so with respect to a patient.  But clearly, a professor need not blur that distinction.  And if a professor does not blur that distinction, then we get something quite interesting between a professor and a student who are friends, namely that in the face of an ever so evolving world both can mightily learn from each other and both very much recognize that very reality.  What is more, clear points of agreement prove to be quite affirming and illuminating.  The same holds for disagreements but in a rather different way.  An unexpurgated truth is that it can be very, very informative and ever so thought provoking to know that a person disagrees with one about an issue.

In this regard, my favorite passage from the novel The Color Purple proves to be ever so relevant.  The passage reads as follows:

A good listener, listens not only to what one says
but also to what one does not say.

I do not ask the very few students with whom I have a friendship any questions about their personal life.  Likewise, they do not ask me any questions about my personal life.  Needless to say, there is nothing at all trivial about the fact that we have listened to the reality that we have not asked any such questions of one another.

Every now and then, the door of personal information may be cracked open just a tad.  But then precisely what can be counted upon is that the other will say no more than is appropriate given the measure of exposure that has been allowed.  All parties to the friendship can be (1) counted upon to grasp fully how far the door of personal information was opened and can be (2) counted upon not to go beyond that point.  It is absolutely awesome if the student behaves that way towards the professor.  And it is just as awesome if the professor behaves that way towards the student.

The perceptivity that is required here is not at all different from the perceptivity that is required between any two close friends whether they are of the same age or not.  For example, I have some very close male friends who are married.  Well, unless that male friend opens the conversational door, as I shall say, I never ask the friend about his wife or make a comment about his wife, with the exception being an obvious issue of health such as cancer or an obvious display of public excellence on her part.

I conclude with the following rather sublime observation.  As Aristotle observed, the reality is that good friendships are ever so rare.  But guess what?  Good friendships are rare regardless of the age difference or lack of age difference between the two individuals.  What is more, it is a consequence of modernity nowadays that it is far less likely than it was during Aristotle’s era (when geographical proximity was the norm) that the best of friends do just about everything together.  A professor who is friends with a student mightily recognizes this; and, of course, the student who is friends with a   professor mightily recognizes this.  Each knows that the other recognizes.  This last point is ever so important.  Just as I count on a student with whom I am a friend not to ask me any inappropriate question, it is equally the case that the student who is a friend counts on me not to ask her or him any inappropriate question.  Thus, a fundamental part of each us having chosen well is none other than the fact that such mutual respect is an ineliminable part of our interactions with one another.  Well, age differences to the contrary notwithstanding between students and professors or, for that matter, any two individuals: The accurate perception of warranted trust to that degree is an ever so phenomenal basis for friendship at its best.

I have recently learned that various officials at Syracuse University think that there should be no friendship between a student and a professor, even if that friendship marvelously reflects Aristotle’s idea of friendship at its best.  Alas, the University has lost sight of the profound truth that intellectual inspiration is so very often occasioned by those whom we admire—a truth that holds equally from professor to student, on the one hand, and from student to professor, on the other.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Barack Obama: The Killings of Christianity and Islam

It is simply impossible for a reasonably intelligent person not to grasp that there is an ever so significant difference between (a) the Crusades of Christianity that took place centuries ago in which Christians harmed and killed non-Christians and (b) the killings that are being committed nowadays in the name of Islam.  And that difference is none other than the indisputable moral and biological knowledge that we have nowadays regarding the equality of all human beings.  And if the Crusades of Christianity (which took place between 1095 and 1291) were not justified, then it follows all the more that the killings in the name of Islam that are occurring nowadays are not justified.

So when President Barack Obama invokes the Crusades of Christianity as a way of suggesting that, at the very least, we are not entitled to think so poorly of Islam on account of the killings that are taking place in the name of Islam, then he thereby reveals himself to be a morally despicable person.

Indeed, there are countless many other parallels that Obama would not dare to make.  For instance, the view that morally decent men have of women nowadays is vastly superior to the view that morally decent men had of women thousands of years ago, nay even a few hundred years ago.  Accordingly, it would be just absurd to say that we should not be so harsh in judging a particular man’s horrendous mistreatment of a woman nowadays because, after all, such mistreatment of women was commonplace centuries ago.  Any man who made such a statement would reveal himself to be ever so morally callous.  Obama never says anything comparable with respect to women.

But with Islam, it somehow turns out that Obama thinks we should at the very least be less harsh in our judgment of the horrific behavior committed in the name of Islam because, after all, Christians did likewise a millennium ago.  It does not take a genius to see that Obama’s moral reasoning here is ever so defective.  More importantly, short of Obama explicitly saying that he is more committed to Islam than to Christianity, I cannot think of anything that he could have said that would have so fully revealed the depth of his commitment to Islamic ideology.

So is it really surprising that Barack Obama did not fly to France as a show of support for the rally that took place by the French people over the terrorist attack by Muslims that took place at a kosher grocery store in Paris?  Absolutely not?

Likewise, it is no accident at all that Obama was a member of Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s church for some 20 years—the pastor who said “not God bless America.  God damn America”.  In effect, Pastor Wright articulated the very conviction that Barack Obama embraces.  As the saying goes “Actions speak louder than words”.

Most white people rushed to support Barack Obama because their doing so seemed to be a marvelous expression of the rejection of racism in America.  And to this day many whites are reluctant to engage in even the constructive criticism of blacks because whites wish to avoid the very appearance of racism.  Well, let me just point out that Barack Obama is far more committed to Islam than he is to the well-being and flourishing of black Americans.  Indeed, other than Obama’s stupid remark that if he had a son, the son would be like Trevon Martin, I cannot think of anything that Obama has done that comes even remotely close to inspiring greater self-actualization on part of blacks.  And let me be clear here: I am not claiming that Obama has done this or that in the name of inspiring blacks; however, I thought he should have done something entirely different.  No, I am claiming that he has not done anything at all to inspire blacks.  Indeed, it is my considered view that he has merely exploited black Americans.

I not a Muslim.  However, in terms of raw percentages, I suspect that I have helped a far greater percentage of Muslim students than the percentage of black people in America Obama has helped.

I have been criticized for calling Barack Obama an evil person.  All that I shall say is that only a despicable human being would invoke the Christian crusades (which took place between 1095 and 1291) as a consideration that would warrant an attitude of tolerance towards the killing of innocent people that is being committed nowadays by Muslims in the name of Islam.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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The Best Letters of Reference are Comparative

Nowadays, letters of reference are almost always positive.  For fear of a lawsuit, those who write a letter of reference are extremely reluctant to say something negative or critical in the letter about the person for whom they are writing a letter.  This mentality marks a major difference between letters of reference of nowadays and letters of reference of at least two generations or so ago, when it was perfectly common for a letter writer to speak to a form of improvement that the person for whom the letter was being written needed to make.  These days, a letter of that type seem to leave the letter writer open to a major lawsuit.

Everyone walks on water these days.  The difference is only in how high above the water or how fast the person walks on water.

However, there is another factor that plays a major role in a very good letter and that is that the person for whom the letter is being written can be compared very, very favorably with other individuals for whom the letter writer has written.  For example, if Professor Schmidt wrote a letter of reference for student Susan who was accepted at Ivy League University and Susan was most successful at Ivy League University, then in a letter for another student—say, student Mary—Professor Schmidt can say that Mary is as bright and as talented as Susan.  And that claim gives the letter that Professor Schmidt is writing on Mary’s behalf considerable credibility, no matter where Mary is applying.  So much should be obvious.

But of late there is a problem that presents itself.  And that problem is tied to the simple fact that nowadays students have the opton to “waive” or “not waive” their right to see the letter that is being written for them.  It is increasingly common for students to choose the “not waive” option.  Alas, the “not waive” option is problematic precisely because the latter applicant gets to learn both the name and the qualities of the preceding applicant.  And I can see justification whatsoever whereby the following applicant is entitled to know, via his or his own letter of reference, the name and qualities of the preceding applicant.  Indeed, conveying such information to the following applicant strikes me as a clear violation of the rights of the preceding applicant.

The concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph strikes me as so obvious that I am unable to make sense of why applicants are allowed the option to see the letter of reference that is written on their behalf.  Unless I am missing something, allowing the applicant to see his or his letter of reference strikes me as a very clear violation of the rights of the person who is mentioned in the letter of reference.

If I think that applicant Alpha is brilliant owing to qualities A, B, and C, on what grounds does the following applicant, namely Beta, have the right to know that Alpha has qualities A, B, and C?  Surely Beta has no such right.

Well, if the point of the preceding paragraph is sound, then there are only two ways to go: (1) The letter writer can write a less rich and informative letter.  (2) The person for whom the letter is written can waive her or his write to see the letter.  I am prepared to argue that one reason why standardize tests are increasingly being given greater weight is that it is also the case that increasingly people are not waiving their right to see the letter that is being written on their half, which essentially leaves the letter writer no option other than to write a letter that is far less rich because the letter writer does not want to mention the names and successes of other individuals at the time that the letter was written for them.  And this is for good reason, namely that no new applicant is entitled to know that information.  And it is clearly wrong for the letter writer to convey that information without the consent of the person whose name is being mentioned.

So in the name of being more informative, we have in point of fact mightily underwritten greater mediocrity.  So much for progress.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Time for Self-Reflection

Self-Reflection stands as one of the truly marvelous aspects of my life.   And I am grateful beyond measure that I find some time for a significant measure of self-reflection each and every day of my life.  The usual pattern for me is merely to take a walk.  A good 20-30 minutes of walking occasions a wealth of insight into my character and thus my motivations as wells as my fears and hopes and also the things that I so profoundly appreciate.  To be sure, on no occasion of walking do I cover all the categories just mentioned.  It suffices that I cover one or two on each instance of taking a walk.

As I look back over my life it is rather striking how committed I am to finding an excuse to take walk somewhere; for, as I have already indicated, it is in walking that self-reflection achieves both extraordinary depth and majesty in my life.  Quite honestly, I cannot remember when I did not engage in walking as a means for self-reflection.

Insofar as I am blessed to be a person with considerable self-knowledge, the explanation for that reality is none other than those moments of self-reflection that are a routine part of my life.  Likewise, insofar as I am not a bitter person, the explanation for that reality is none other than the moments of self-reflection that are a routine part of my life.  And last but surely not least: insofar as I consider myself to be a quite fortunate person in this ever so complicated world, self-reflection has been the key to that reality in my life.

A mere email from a student or a friend may be the occasion for a walk.  Reflecting upon a wonderful conversation may incline me to take a walk.  Or, in the other direction, a very painful experience may be the catalyst for a walk.  In the first case, a walk may be the occasion to appreciate just how much a friend means to me.  In the second case, a walk may shed so very much light on the role I played in someone’s life and the trust that the person has in me.  In the third case, a walk may be absolutely key to my not becoming a bitter person; for the walk may help me to see that notwithstanding the wrong that I may have endured, it nonetheless remains the case that the wrong I endured did not in any way diminish my abilities or hamper my successes or opportunities for success.

It is my considerate view that a wealth of self-knowledge is absolutely key to avoiding major mistakes.  Far more positively, I hold that self-knowledge is absolutely key to living well.

Whilst my death does not appear to be eminent, I hope to be able to go to my grave with an ever so profound sense that I have lived a good life.  In other words, self-knowledge will play a most majestic role in taking the sting out of death.

It also seems to me that self-knowledge plays a most significant role in eliminating jealousy.  When in my youth I first read the biblical passage that “Jealousy is as cruel as the grave” (Song of Solomon 8:6), I thought to myself that passage was utterly ludicrous.  I no longer think that.  Indeed, I can see that jealousy has been the catalyst for considerable evil on the part of human beings.

The self-reflection that I engage in whilst walking has been an absolutely key factor in my being able to live a life that is essentially shorn of jealousy.

At this point in the history of humanity, with our constant pre-occupation with this or that gadget, I wonder if people give much time to self-reflection these days.  I look around me; and it appears that people cannot walk from place A to place B without texting or listening to music or chatting on their cell phone.  Of course, it is perfectly possible that whilst at home these individuals engage in deep and ever so admirable self-reflection.  But possibility is one thing and probability is quite another.  Lots of things are possible.  Yet, they are not very probable at all.  While it is possible that I will defecate in public tomorrow, the probability of my doing so is surely next to zero.

Of course, taking a walk is surely not the only way in which people can engage in self-reflection.  Absolutely not.  But there is the following question: Are people becoming so besotted with their gadgets these days that they accord precious little time to self-reflection?  I would that I could be convinced that the answer to the question that I have just asked is a resounding “No”.  If not, then there is an extremely poignant sense in which humanity is worse-off on account of technology precisely because technology has become an impediment to self-knowledge.

Living well entails being the author of one’s life.  And that is absolutely impossible in the absence of a tremendous measure of self-knowledge.  With the prevalence of technology, having tremendous self-knowledge requires far more self-command (to use Adam Smith’s term) than anyone would ever have imagined.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Modernity and Evil

There is more evil in the world today than there was in the past.  At first blush, it might seem that such a claim is absolutely absurd.  And it might be thought the very existence of slavery in the past clearly demonstrates that there was far more evil in the past than there is nowadays.  Alas, this line of reasoning is false.  And it is false for the simple reason than in terms of knowledge, human beings nowadays know far more than even some of the most brilliant people of yesteryear knew.  For example, the idea that all human beings are equally human is manifestly obvious nowadays.  Even the most diehard racist has to admit that not all members of her or his privileged racial group is morally or intellectually superior to all members of some other ethnic group.  Basic biological evidence will simply not warrant such an absurd view of superiority.

Yet, a most disconcerting truth is that in comparison to the indisputable knowledge that we have that all human beings are equally human, physical differences to the contrary notwithstanding: The degree of evil that human beings are committing nowadays is utterly astounding.

If, as most would claim, that there could have been no excuse—let alone justification—for the slavery of yesteryear, then surely what follows is that the evil of the present is far less excusable, given the knowledge that we now have of the biological make-up of human beings.  As I often note, if person of group Alpha is in need of a blood transfusion and person of group Gamma is entirely healthy, then it follows that the person of group Gamma is in the position to provide blood to the person of group Alpha.  There is simply no way to deny that truth—a truth that in point of fact would have been utterly incomprehensible a 400 years ago.

There mere fact that there is so much violence taking place in this very century is proof par excellence that there is a most disconcerting respect in which human beings are a despicable species.

Here is simpler piece of evidence in support of the above line of thought.  A most disconcerting truth that trust betwixt human beings has not mightily grown over the centuries.  Indeed, in comparison to the level of knowledge that basically constitutes a form of commonsense these days, it is arguable that there is significantly less basic trust between human beings nowadays than there was the past.

If indisputable knowledge of the equality of human beings, physical differences to the contrary notwithstanding, has not occasioned a far greater degree of trust among human beings, then there is every good reason to believe that humanity is in big trouble.

On the one hand, the respect for humanity in general has not risen to the level that it should be.  On the other, the ability of just one person to commit tremendous harm against a group of human being has risen substantially.

I often point out that one is hardly a pessimist if one thinks that a plane is going to crash, given the fact that the plane has just lost one of its wings.  Au contraire, one is quite a realist.  An analogous point applies to human beings.

Needless to say, I do not deny the good that some human beings do for others.  The support of Karen Klein and the giving to help the people in Thailand hit by a Tsunami are marvelous examples of goodwill on the part of some human beings.  Alas, it is also the case that we have far more instances of horrific behavior on the part of human beings nowadays than we do of goodwill.

Most informed people are aware of the individuals who have converted to Islam with the very aim of committing horrendous harm to others: Christopher Lee Cornell in one instance and Alton Nolen in another.  Nolen beheaded a woman in the name of trying to convert her; whereas Cornell was aiming to blow up the U.S. Capital thereby killing countless many human beings.  I am not interested in criticizing Islam here.  Rather, the far more interesting point is simply the fact that these individuals used as Islam as an excuse to pursue acts of horrendous harm.  In effect, their behavior is no different than Christians endeavoring to blow up a Planned Parenthood building.  Alas, the very fact that at this point in history people can think that it is morally acceptable to commit evil for the sake of bringing about what they take to be a good is as inconvertible an indication as we could have that the moral character of humanity has declined considerably.  In the 21st Century, there are way too many human beings who are morally indifferent to committing (or aiming to commit) acts of evil that rival the evil committed many centuries ago.  And that is rather equivalent to a plane at high altitude losing one of its wings.  Barring a miracle, sheer disaster will occur.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Self-Respect versus Arrogance

The difference between arrogance and self-respect is subtle, profound, and ever so important.  In a perfect world, everyone would have self-respect, whereas no one would be arrogant.  To have self-respect is to grasp fully that one has a most significant measure of moral worth simple in virtue of the fact that one is a human being.  To state the obvious, every self-respecting person believes that she or he ought to be treated fairly.  But then by parity of reasoning, it is also the case that every self-respecting person believes that all other human beings ought to be treated fairly.

In a like manner, every self-respecting person is motivated to perform simple acts of decency on behalf of another when (a) that other person is in need of a simple act of assistance and (b) offering that assistance would not in any way inconvenience the person offering the assistance; nor would offering the assistance require some major expense on the part of the person offering the assistance.  A classic example of a simple act of kindness would be that of entirely healthy person travelling with only a very light shoulder bag giving up her or his seat on a crowded bus or metro car to a feeble elderly person who boards the vehicle.

Significantly, there is absolutely nothing about the nature of having self-respect that requires a person to make major sacrifices in order to help others, although a person with self-respect will typically be moved to offer some form of assistance.  A very important truth is that having self-respect does not entail being profoundly altruistic.  Not being tremendously altruistic does not entail being morally callous; nor the other way around.

Last, but not least, although a person with self-respect undoubtedly has a clear sense of both her intellectual and financial wherewithal, a self-respecting person has no desire whatsoever to make a point of calling to just how well off she or he is.  And this last point directly brings us to what is characteristic of an arrogant person.

An arrogant person is one who is forever calling attention to something about herself or himself in virtue of what she or he is clearly superior to others.  To take a simple example, an arrogant person will find a way to mention that she or he owns a Mercedes even if the conservation is only about which airline has the best service to China has.  To take another example, an arrogant person with tremendous academic credentials will find a way to mention her academic credentials even if the conservation is about none other than whether it is worth seeing the movie “Sophie’s Choice”.

Now, a quite interesting fact is that people who are often lacking in self-respect will often make that assumption that an individual is arrogant merely because the individual mentioned a quite positive fact about herself or himself that was absolutely crucial to understanding what she or he said.  For example, suppose that Sara and Naomi (who are perfect strangers to one another) strike up a conversation at the airport and Sarah asks Naomi “From where did you just fly in?”   Naomi responds with “Frankfurt”; and Sarah asks “Is this your first trip to Frankfurt”.  Alas, Naomi responds with “No, I live in both countries; and so travel I back-and-forth between them on a regular basis”.  Well, with that remark by Naomi, the conclusion that Sarah draws is that Naomi is one arrogant wench.  Clearly, it is Sarah who has a problem here; for Naomi’s remark about living in both countries is simply a way of making sense of the claim that the trip to Frankfurt was not her first one.

To be sure, Naomi could simply have said “No, I have gone back and forth to Frankfurt on several occasions”.  But if Sarah could not handle the claim that Naomi lives in both countries, then there is no reason whatsoever to think that Sarah would been able to handle the claim that Naomi has gone back and forth on several occasions.  And it will be remembered that it was Sarah who asked Naomi “Is this your first time to Frankfurt?”  Clearly, a person who lives in both Frankfurt and the United States is not likely to be wallowing in poverty.  The same holds for a person who has gone back on several occasions (military personnel aside).  On the one hand, then, what we have here is not some horrendous display of arrogance on the part of Naomi.  On the other hand, though, we have considerable insecurity on the part of Sarah who opened that conversational door by asking “Is this your first time to Frankfurt?”  Accordingly, we can conclude that Sarah’s measure of self-respect is not at all what it should be.  .

Think about it: It makes no sense whatsoever for a person with a full measure of self-respect, who asked the question that Sarah asked Naomi, to be in anyway threatened by Naomi’s response.

As one can surely imagine, I want to say that no one with a full measure of self-respect who asked the question would be threatened by Naomi’s response.  And it goes without saying that if Naomi has a full measure of self-respect, she would not have simply volunteered the information about travelling back and forth between the U.S. and Frankfurt; for that would have been tantamount to showing-off.  And people with self-respect are not given to boasting.

To be sure, the line between showing-off and saying what is appropriate can be a thin one.  However, it is also the case that if a person has a full measure of self-respect, it will typically be quite apparent whether a person has clearly said more than she or he needed to say in order to answer the question that was asked of her or him, where the additional remarks only to serve to reveal the quite impressive standing that the person has.

I shall always remember the occasion when I approached an elderly black man who was on the second-floor of Marshall Square Mall.  He was doing some stuff on his laptop.  I thought that he was a professor and approached him with the following question “Sir, what Department are you in?”  Much to my surprise, he was an older guy going back to school.  But guess what?  His follow-up question made it clear that he thought the exact same thing was true of me.  So I responded as follows: “Sir, I am a very lucky person.  I was able to get my Ph.D.; and now I teach at Syracuse University”.  I said nothing else about my career; and what I got in return was not a sense of what kind of nonsense is the guy telling me, but a tremendous smile of admiration.  My response was entirely consistent with my maintaining my self-respect and equally consistent with my being ever so mindful of the self-respect of the elderly man.  To state the obvious, maintaining my career in the scenario just described did not at all require going into details about my professional life.  Indeed, it almost never does.

I shall conclude with a very poignant observation.  Nothing anchors self-respect in a person’s life like parental love.  Individually or jointly: No amount of gadgets given to a child and no amount of money given to a child will be anywhere near the equal of parental love in anchoring self-respect in a child’s life.  Losing sight of this truth will increasingly render human beings the very handmaiden of evil.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Suicide and Courage

Ironically, committing suicide may often be more courageous than committing murder.  For instance, it is common enough for people to commit murder simply out of revenge or anger or brazen indifference.  By contrast, it is ever so rare for people to commit suicide for such reasons.  Indeed, people very rarely commit suicide in order to harm a person.  Rather, they do so because have come to the conclusion that staying alive no longer has the moral significance that it used to have.  Thus, staying alive can be more cowardly than committing suicide.

But I suspect that there is going to be a significant rise in the number of people who commit suicide.  And modernity itself may be the reason why that is going to happen.  Let me explain.

Families no longer have the geographical stability that they used to have.  And one deep, deep consequence of this change is that increasingly families no longer provide the kind of direct face-to-face affirmation of the tremendously ill that once was commonplace.  All by itself, being around loving family members can be a deep, deep form of affirmation that mightily underwrites a tremendous sense of being valued in the life of an extremely ill person.

But with the sharp rise in mobility, families no longer have that kind of stability that was so very commonplace just a few decades ago.  Another major factor is technology.  I shall say something about that below.

In September of 2014, the Washington Post published the following article: “Tourism to Switzerland for Assisted Suicide is Growing, Often for Non-Fatal Diseases”.  I am not surprised at all.  Why?  Precisely because the kind of cross generation stability that was commonplace among families no longer is commonplace.   And there is very real sense in which it may understandably make very little sense for an elderly person to go on living if the person does not have loved ones around.  Merely being kept alive in a home for the elderly has little if any deep psychological appeal.  For just as there is no equal to a parent’s simple “I love you” when said with tremendous depth of emotion, it is likewise the case that there is precious little to be said for staying alive if all that this amounts to is being fed and bathed in some home for the elderly, because each family members is busy living here or his own life to really be a part of the elderly person’s life.

As I have already indicated, there will definitely be a rise in suicide.  And I hold that the rise in suicide will have a most disconcerting correlation with rise of the place and importance of technology among human beings.

It is a striking feature of technology that it does not really privilege face-to-face interaction.  It is striking just how animated people are these days merely by the fact that they are texting back-and-forth.  People are starting as kids giving more weight to texting and on-line games than to actual face-to-face interaction.  Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that parental love of itself is competing with technology as kids attach more importance to their technological gadgets than to the affirmation that comes from their parents.

As the place of technology in the lives of human beings continues to rise, suicide will increasingly seem to be an ever so natural option for the elderly.  This is because the very affirmation from this and that family that in the mind of an elderly person made life worth living will be increasingly less common.  And the profound irony here is that so many young people growing up will have enormous difficulty understanding why face-to-face interaction is so important to their elderly parents.  It is against the backdrop of that very reality that committing suicide will increasingly become an act of courage on the part of the elderly.  Committing suicide will be a very profound way for the elderly to their life in their own hands.  And that, I suggest, is precisely what those who are courageous will increasingly do in a world which, thanks to technology, increasingly trivializes face-to-face interaction.

So between the increasing rise of both mobility and technology, death will more and more and more appear to be an ever so reasonable alternative for the elderly that far surpasses merely staying alive in some nursing home.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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When a Black Is Killed: Blacks versus Whites

When a white person kills a black person, it turns out that black people trip over themselves claiming that a horrendous act of racism has been committed.  Indeed, folks like the morally despicable Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are often quick to show up and give a speech about the horrendous act of racism that has been committed by a white person against a black person.

Alas, when a black person kills another black person, we have deafening silence on the part of blacks—including the ever so non-righteous black leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Now, what on earth explains the deafening silence on the part of blacks when a black kills a black by contrast to the considerable trumpeting on the part of blacks about racism when a black is killed by a white?  Is it that more blacks are killed by whites than there are blacks killed by blacks?  Well, a most poignant truth is that nowadays far more blacks are killed blacks than blacks are killed by whites. The number of black people killed by black people far exceeds the number of black people killed by white people.  It is rather common knowledge that black-on-black crime is considerable.

Of course, the fact that more blacks kill blacks than whites kill black does not in any way excuse the killing of a black by a white, given that there is no reasonable excuse of the white’s behavior.  But that point equally holds for a black’s killing of a black.  A black’s unjustified killing of a black is no less horrific than a white’s unjustified killing of black.  Yet, we do not hear any moral outrage on the part of blacks with regard to black-on-black murders.  Instead, what we primarily get in the case of black-on-black murders is none other than deafening silence on the part of black people.

Now, it goes without saying that the wrongful behavior of blacks does not excuse the wrongful behavior of whites.  But a profound truth in the other direction is that the killing of a black by a black is no less wrong than the killing of a black by a black.  So, it is utterly stupefying that blacks get all worked up when a black is killed by a white; whereas there is essentially deafening silence on the part of blacks—including the Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson—when a black is killed by a white.  Nay, the silence on the part of blacks with regard to a black killing a black is utterly incomprehensible.  For surely, it makes absolutely no sense at all to suppose that a black person’s life is somehow worth less when the black is killed by a black person than when the black is killed by a white person.

So what can possibly explain the fact that blacks are essentially silent in the matter of black-on-black crime but are ever so outspoken when a black is killed by a white?  There can be no morally acceptable answer to that question.  None whatsoever.  Hence, it follows that we have none other than a deep, deep form of hypocrisy on the part of blacks, given that blacks are so quick to protest the killing of a black by a white; yet we have essentially deafening silence on the part of blacks when a black is killed by a black.  Indeed, we have a like silence on the part of blacks when a white is killed by a black.

Now, there can be no greater evidence that white liberals really do not take blacks seriously than the fact that white liberals are equally silent with respect to black-on-black killings, yet white liberals trip over themselves crying racism when a white kills a black.  If I really care about a person, then it would of the utmost importance to me that the individual properly cared for herself or himself.  To be sure, I will want others to treat that person properly.  Yet, it would be of first-order importance to me that the person cared for herself or himself.  In fact, it would be utterly disingenuous to go on and on and on and on about the ways in which others mistreat the person all the while remaining absolutely silent about the way in which the person to do what is appropriate for herself or himself, given that the person is in the position so to behave.  Indeed, such silence on my part would be an ever so clear sign that I do not really care about the person.  Well, it follows by parity of reasoning that white liberals do not care about blacks as much as white liberals say that they do.  Not at all.  And guess what?  It also follows either that (i) black people generally are deeply lacking in a proper sense of self or that (ii) blacks are deeply dysfunctional.  It is simply not possible that there is a genuine sense of deep pride on the part of blacks and yet there is deafening silence on the part of blacks with regard to black-on-black crime.  And, of course, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson each stands as a paradigm example of an utterly hypocritical human being.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Letters of Reference. Is There a Right to See Them?

Getting a superb letter of reference is awesome.  The surprise, though, is that increasingly many students do not waive their right to see the letter of reference written on their behalf.  Alas, the move of not waiving the right to see the letter is an ever so grave mistake.  I explain why in what follows.

The very best letters of reference are letters that make a very explicit and positive comparison to one or more former students or employees who have done quite well.  If, for instance, Janet went to Harvard and obtained her Ph.D. in two years, then a letter that ever so favorably compares a new applicant to Harvard with Janet’s abilities puts the new applicant in a quite favorable position, since a program invariably want candidates who will be quite successful in the program.  No one wants a person for whom the evidence suggests that she or he is likely to do poorly in the program.

So a letter of reference to a program that ever so favorably compares a new applicant with a brilliantly successful person who completed the program mightily raises the likelihood that the new applicant will be accepted.  And there is the rub.

If names of successful applicants from the past are mentioned in a letter of reference and the person for whom the letter is written does not waive her or his right to see the letter, then the right to privacy of the successful individuals has been violated.  No new applicant has a right to know that letter-writer Alpha compared the new applicant to one of the very successful applications for whom Alpha has written in the past.  So if the new applicant does not waive her or his right to see the letter of reference, then the rights of the previous applicant who was ever so successful have been violated.

This is why it is now my very rigid policy not to agree to write letters of reference on behalf of those who do not waive their right to see their letter of reference.  I have had the good fortune of teaching some very successful students, one of whom became a Rhodes Scholar.  But no new applicant has a right to know what I have said about any very successful student whom I have taught and for whom I have written a letter of reference.

As a radical conservative—which is what I often call myself: People clearly have a right not to waive their right to see a letter of reference that is being written for them.  And at first blush, the thought might be “What does the letter writer have to hide?”  Well, the typical thought is that the letter writer should not have anything to hide.  Alas, that answer turns out not to be quite false.  That is because the letter writer could make a very rich, and so positive, comparison between a present applicant and an ever so successful former applicant.  Well, the present applicant is not at all entitled to know what was said about the former applicant.  Indeed, suppose the letter writer thinks that the new applicant is ever smarter and more talented than the former applicant who proved to be ever so successful.  Surely, the new applicant has no right whatsoever to know that.

I have shared with students letters of reference that I have written for them.  But I have always blocked out or changed the names of the students mentioned in the letter.  However, if an applicant does not waive her or his right to see the letter written on her or his behalf, then she or he can see what was explicitly said about other students.  And no applicant has a right to know what was said about a previous applicant for whom the letter writer has written a letter of reference.

These considerations make it quite clear that wanting an applicant to waive her or his rights to see a letter need not in any way about hiding the fact that one is going to say something negative about the individual.  Quite the contrary, one may want to make an extremely positive and ever so astute comparison.   And the individuals mentioned have no less of a right to privacy.

So waiving the right to see the letter of reference is about respecting the right to privacy that others mentioned in the letter have.  At colleges and universities, the very best letters of reference from a senior full professor will invariably make quite explicit comparisons.  The very power of the letter of reference is tied to the professor doing so, which is precisely why a letter of reference from a typical assistant professor is barely worth the paper upon which it is written; for the typical assistant professor is not in the position to make rich comparisons to other ever so successful students whom the assistant professor has taught and for she or he had written a very glowing letter.

Hopefully, these remarks shed considerable light on the importance of folks waiving their right to see the letter that is being written on their behalf.  And if they do not trust the person, then they should not ask the individual for a letter of reference.

As I have already indicated, it is now my official policy not to write on behalf of folks who do not waive their right to see the letter of reference.  And that is not because I am going to say something inappropriate.  No, if I may say so, I write a damn good letter of reference, which is why I write so few letters of reference.  No, the policy of not writing for those who do not waive their right to see the letter of reference that I write for them is out of respect for the privacy of quite successful students for whom I have written a letter of reference.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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