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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Loneliness and Modernity

The Daily Beast published an article in which it is claimed that people who are constantly on-line posting about themselves are far more likely to be lonely than those who exercise considerable restraint in terms of going on-line to post information about themselves.  The article is entitled “The Online Oversharers Problem”.  Needless to say, that claim is a most fascinating claim.  Obviously, the question that mightily present itself is whether or not the claim is true or even remotely plausible.  However, I shall suggest that the explanation for such untoward sharing of personal information is not just about being lonely.

Clearly, a lot turns on the content of the information that a person is posting about herself or himself as well as the person’s motives for positing such personal information.  There are surely times when an individual shows tremendous moral courage in posting extremely personal information about herself or himself.  An example that readily presents itself is a woman who talks about the pain of having been raped and how she overcame that pain.  In posting something ever so personal, it is rather clear that the woman’s aim is to help other women understand that they can surmount one of the most horrific harms that a woman could ever endure.  And in that regard, it is manifestly clear that there is no theory that can equal the power and majesty of a concrete example.  The same can be said to hold for someone who has lost a family member or a friend who uses an on-line site to reflect upon that relationship in some remarkable way.  Indeed, if a person has had something akin to the sort of experiences already described, it can often be very much to that person’s benefit to write something on-line precisely because doing so will occasion a level of reflection which the person would not otherwise have engaged.

Of course, things do not have to be so macabre.  A person can certainly use her or his on-line postings to think in a meaningful way about lots of issues.  In the typical case, putting our thoughts in writing occasions a measure of clarification that in so very many cases we would not have otherwise achieved.  To take a very straightforward example, there is all the difference in the world between (a) thinking to oneself that one loves so-and-so and (b) saying to that person just those words in a deeply moving way.  Of course, putting something in writing is hardly analogous to saying to a person “I love you”.  At any rate, it is a profound fact that writing for an audience can ever so majestically occasion a significant measure of clarification in our views that we would not otherwise have.

Is there any reason to believe that most on-line postings occasion the kind of wonderful edification that I have just described?  Absolutely not.  And perhaps that is the ever so profound point of the article “The Online Oversharers Problem”.  To a degree that is utterly stupefying people are sharing information on-line about themselves that has no business being shared in such a context.  And when people who are capable of rational reflection routinely disclose more information about themselves on-line than a reasonable person should disclose, that simple fact about their behavior requires an explanation.  And, as the article suggests, a cry for attention is certainly a plausible answer.  Perhaps in the end that answer is, indeed, the wrong answer.  But surely what gives the article’s claim a non-trivial degree of plausibility is precisely the fact people are voluntarily sharing information about themselves in a context where they cannot verify that what they shared is being understood in the right way.  And my view is very simple: Insofar as a person has a very secure sense of self, then that individual will naturally be reluctant to share voluntarily information about herself or himself on-line unless she or she has very good reason to believe that it will be understood in the right way (leaving aside the sort of scenarios discussed earlier).

So loneliness, as such, is not the entire answer.  I suggest that the explanation is loneliness coupled with a very insecure sense of self.  Indeed, I suspect that having an insecure sense of self is more significant than loneliness, though if one has an insecure sense of self, then being lonely only makes matters worse.  And guess what?  In today’s world, it is much, much, much easier to be insecure than it was decades ago.  For one thing, communities nowadays do not have the stability that they used to have.   For another, the parent-child relationship tends to be far less stable than it once was.  Finally, growing up has nothing like the depth of personal involvement in the classroom between teacher and student that it used to have.  My grade-school teachers deeply cared about me; and I knew that.  And the same holds for my college professors.  But in recent years, a rich bond between teacher and student (be it grade school or college) has for all practical purposes become unacceptable.  So in effect there is an awful lot of very profound affirmation that this generation of young adults have grown up without and are growing up without.

I am hardly making the ridiculous claim that everything was perfect back-in-the-day.  But what I am saying is that kids typically grew up with a depth of affirmation throughout their lives that has effectively disappeared.  As a way of dealing with that emptiness, I suppose that posting on-line beats nothing at all.

The painful truth, though, is that posting on-line will never come close to equally the affirmation anchored in trust and goodwill, whether that affirmation comes from the parents, friends, or teachers—hopefully all three categories.  And the sufficient absence of affirmation in all three categories is effectively none other than a pathway to insecurity.

To conclude: There is no amount of technology that can take the place of genuine affirmation from another person.  And when we come up sufficiently short of such affirmation, we almost have no choice but to do that which gives the appearance of our having affirmation that lacked.  Needless to say, there are many ways to maintain the appearance of affirmation.  Indiscreet postings about one’s life is just one way to maintain that illusion.  Self-aggrandizement is another way.

Nothing can take the place of the affirmation that one human being can give another.   Loneliness and untoward self-disclosures have far more to do with that reality than not.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Rap Music and the Word Nigger

Young people of just about every ethnicity listen to rap music.  I know this not because of what someone told me.  Rather, my knowledge here comes directly from what I have seen and heard while walking down Walnut Park/Street (in Syracuse, NY).  Time and time again, I have heard a car coming down the street with the driver playing a rap song with the word “nigger” being chanted; and it has turned out ever so frequently that the driver playing the rap song is not a black person.  No, the person is plainly Asian or Arabic or white.  The person listening to the music has no more chance of passing for black than a 6 feet tall person has of passing for a midget.

Now, I take it as a given that black rappers are well aware of the fact that lots of non-blacks are purchasing and listening to their rap music.  Indeed, that is quite the in-thing for a group of young non-black teenagers and college folks to do when they are just hanging out together.  So, rappers know all too well the following: Lots and lots of non-blacks are repeating the word “nigger” among themselves as they sing along with the rap music.  So, this tells me that word “nigger” no longer has the necessary derogatory meaning that it used to have.  The sentence “What’s up my nigga”, when said in the right context, is not at all derogatory in the way that the sentence “What are you doing, you idiot?” necessarily is.  I cannot really think of a good context for uttering the latter question.

One thing that we all know is that the meaning of words can change.  When I was a kid the utterance “She is hot” would have been incomprehensible if it were said about a woman standing outside in the bitter cold.  After all, how on earth could she be hot if she is standing outside and the temperature is way below freezing?  But, of course, no one would be confused nowadays by such an utterance.

In 2014, it is simply false that the word “nigger” has only a derogatory meaning.  And it is woefully hypocritical to claim that while blacks can use the word “nigger” in a non-derogatory way, it is not possible for non-blacks to use it that way.  For if a black person really believes that, then out of consistency that person should also insist that whites not listen to black rappers using the word “nigger” throughout their songs.

Now, to be sure, it is always possible for a person to play on the ambiguity of a word and thus say the word as if she or he were using the word in the acceptable way all the while meaning to be using the word in the derogatory way in which it can be used.  And that is certainly true with the word “nigger”.  But that is true whether a person is black or white or Asian or whatever.  And, of course, that is true of lots of other utterances.  A person can say “You are one mean motherf?@er”; and it is perfectly clear from the speaker’s tonality and non-verbal behavior that the speaker is actually making quite a compliment.

Suppose that someone white said to me the  following: “Yo LT.  At your age, you are still one skinny ass nigger.  What is your secret?”  I do not see for a moment how it would be reasonable for me to think that the white person is being racist.  But suppose a white person said “What is a nigger like you doing flying back-and-forth between France and the United States?”  Well, guess what?  Not only would such an inquiry with precisely that wording be offensive if it were made by a white person, the inquiry would be just as offensive if it were made by a black person.

Finally, in this vein, if the fear is about whites being subtle in their use of the word “nigger” in a racist fashion, the truth of the matter is that a white person can be ever so racist without ever using the word “nigger”.  And the reality is that it is simply false that with rap music having a secure place on the American music scene, racism has increased.

It is time, then, for things to change or it looks very much as if blacks are being woefully hypocritical.  Are non-blacks listening to rap music among themselves racist?  Not at all.  Are non-blacks racist if they listen to rap music among blacks?  Surely not.

The newspaper The Guardian has an article of a white person, whose name is Christopher Jones, who was taken to court by black folks.  They were making noise outside of his home and he used the word “nigger” in addressing them.  Jones made two salient points: (1) The word “nigger” is quite common in rap music and (2) He routinely uses the word “nigger” among his black friends.  Jones was acquitted.

An unexpurgated truth is that it is possible to use the word “nigger” in a fashion that bespeaks a constructive attitude that one is concerned to convey, as with “Look nigger.  You need to get you sh@# together”.  If a white person said that to a black friend and then followed that utterance with “You can count on me to be there for you” is it plausible to suppose that we have racism on the part of the white?  I think not.  If a black person made that utterance to a black person, and then walked away uttering “You dumb motherf?@er, clearly the black person is no friend.

Rap music has become one of the defining forms of music in American culture; and it is listened to by countless many non-black people.  Against that reality, black people are either being quite hypocritical or woefully immature if they continue to maintain that any use of the word “nigger” by a non-black person is racist.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Acts of Kindness and Acknowlegement

We have a genuine act of kindnesswhen and only when a person performs a beneficial act for another and does so for no other reason than do that which is beneficial for the individual in question.  Thus, it follows that we do not have a genuine act of kindness if feeling good is part of the reason why a person is motivated to help another.  And if that is true, then kindness may very be more rare than we might suppose.  But let us be clear here: Feeling good about having helped another is not at all the same thing as being motivated to help another in order to feel good.  And this difference brings us to something rather profound, namely that genuine acts of kindness presuppose self-knowledge.  Let me explain.

Leslie may very well know that (1) she/he will feel quite good about helping the elderly person across the street.  But (1) is not to be confused with a quite different reality namely that (2) it was only in order to feel good her-/himself that Leslie helped the elderly person across the street.  With (2), we do not have a case of genuine kindness.  With genuine kindness, (2) has to be false.

If we have genuine kindness only if (1) is true and (2) is false, then it may very well turn out that kindness is far more rare than most of us would imagine.  Indeed, if we have genuine kindness only if (1) is true and (2) is false, then there may be lots of self-deception going on with respect to people thinking that they are acting kindly when the reality is that they are not.  Self-deception is very easy here precisely because the distinction between (1) and (2) is very, very sublime.  After all, the difference between (1) feeling good about helping someone and (2) helping someone in order to feel good about oneself is not a manifestly visible difference that readily presents itself upon a moment’s reflection.  In fact, there is no formal incompatibility between (1) and (2).  It is just that if (2) is true as an explanation for why the person did the good that she/he did for another, then we do not have genuine kindness on the person’s part.

The foregoing considerations suggest something rather disturbing, namely that kindness may be much rarer than we might have initially supposed precisely because people seem to be so concerned with enhancing their own status these days and the possibility of achieving that goal animates them more than merely doing good for another.

How can we know that we have performed an (a) act of genuine kindness on behalf of another as opposed to (b) an act that benefited another but was in point of fact self-serving, since feeling good about ourselves was a quite relevant factor in motivating us so to behave?  A very simple answer is that a positive answer and behavior of appreciation from the person for whom we performed the act of kindness is all that we ever need to be so very happy that we performed the act in question.  It is entirely irrelevant that the person should ever tell anyone else that we performed the act in question for her/him.  Indeed, we are quite likely to prefer that the person for whom we preformed the act of kindness not say anything to others precisely because that puts us in a light that we do not want to be in.  Thus, if we are bothered that the person does not mention to others the act of kindness that we performed for her or him than that is a very, very good sign that our motivations were not nearly as pure as perhaps we supposed that they were.  A display of gratitude is none other than a reflection of the kindness that was performed.  By contrast, expecting publicity is an ever so clear indication that while our behavior had the appearance of kindness, the unexpurgated truth is that our motives were quite self-serving.  We deceived ourselves in to thinking that unless the person makes a lot of possible nose acknowledging what we did for her/him, then the individual failed to appreciate our act of kindness.  Not so.  From both directions (namely, as recipient and as agent acting on behalf of another), I bear witness to the reality that some of deepest instances of appreciation that a person can have in life for a gift that she/he has received are nonetheless instances about which a person would deem it ever so inappropriate to be public.  What is more, this is a lesson that my students here and there have ever so majestically confirmed.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Self-Discipline and Modernity

Self-Discipline is more difficult nowadays than it was several generations ago.  And one reason why that is the case is so that expressions of social approval with regard to inappropriate behavior was much more of a public phenomenon years ago.  Back in the day—that is some 40 or 50 years ago: A perfect stranger who was clearly an older adult could say to a teenager “Young man/lady your behavior was very disrespectful of the elderly person who just got off the subway.  Shame on you.”  And the teenager would in effect say “Yes ma’am/sir.  I am sorry”.  In a word, a major factor in young people growing up back-in-the-day was none other than the fact that public approval and disapproval played a non-trivial role in the lives of young people growing up.  Older people had a certain moral authority.  Accordingly, it was simply a given that an older adult was owed basic respect unless of course the adult was obviously some sort of undesirable street person.  Insofar as there were exceptions: Well, as the saying goes: The exceptions proved the rule.

If anything is true, it is true presently that older adults no longer have the kind of moral authority that they used to have.  In fact, it is not clear that they have any moral authority at all.  Indeed, the evidence is overwhelming that most adults are afraid of young teenagers.  In the last two decades, I cannot recall when I have seen an older adult say to a young teenager “Do not do that young man/woman.  It is not appropriate for you to behave in such a manner”.

In the past, there were ways of behaving in public that were deemed shameful.  And typically any older adult to could point out such behavior to a teenager.

Needless to say, nothing of the sort is true nowadays.  Indeed, if anything is true, it is that the typical older adult is mightily afraid of teenagers.  In riding public transportation, I have watched older people these days make a concerted effort to avoid any kind of eye contact with anyone, especially any teenager.  And with rare exception it is manifestly obvious that the older people are animated by fear.

When I was growing up the very idea of a young person cursing out an older person was rather like a contradiction.  For young and old alike, such behavior was simply unthinkable.  Nowadays, nothing could be further from the truth, which is precisely why older people nowadays avoid all contact.

By and large, public expectations of basic decency have simply evaporated.  And that is most unfortunate precisely because that evaporation has generally resulted in so very many members of society being woefully lacking in self-discipline.

Self-discipline is none other than the wherewithal to behave in the right way even when one has strong inclinations to do otherwise.  On the one hand, surely a lack of self-discipline here and there is simply a part of being human.  On the other hand, self-discipline generally plays a pivotal role in leading a rather successful life.  And surely self-discipline goes hand-in-hand with foresight.  This is because there are countless many instances when exercising self-discipline is inextricably tied to recognizing how one might be affected by a course of action that one is considering or that has been proposed to one.

Thus, a person might say “no” to an offer of a glass of wine simply because the person knows that she or he will be driving home later that evening and that her or his tolerance of alcoholic beverages is very, very low.  Or, to take a quite different example, person Jack might take a cab rather accepting the offer of a ride from friend Mary who owns car.  Jack does this because he grasps that there is considerable sexual tension between him and Mary; and Jack is very much committed to respecting Mary’s marriage.  In refusing the ride, Jack thereby exercises foresight.

I do not think for a moment that we should simply embrace all the mores of the past.  There are countless many reasons why we should not.  One reason, obviously, is that some of the mores of the past were rather morally objectionable.  But self-discipline is another matter entirely.  And having considerable self-discipline in 2014 in no way require that we embrace all the mores of yesteryear.

Alas, barring considerable moral luck, it would seem that few people are likely to develop a considerable measure of self-discipline if they are not in an environment that fosters self-discipline during a significant part of their formative years.  And if that is so, then Ray Kurzweil may be more right than he would have ever imagined.  Technology may come to have the upper-hand precisely because self-discipline is essentially a non-problem for technology.  By contrast, technology is proving to be an ever constant problem with regard to human beings having considerable self-discipline.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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Technology and Self-Knowledge

Technology is everywhere.  Indeed, there are sufficiently many people who cannot even use the toilet for a “feces dump” without using their device to communicate with someone or to find something on-line or whatever.  But here is a very interesting observation: It is far from obvious that owing to the dramatic widespread use of technology there has also been a corresponding increase in self-knowledge or human understanding generally  I do not hear more insight from people who are ever so besotted with their technological devices.  Not students; not fellow faculty members; not acquaintances.  And so on.  Indeed, it arguable that there has been a decline in self-knowledge on the part of individuals.  To be sure, there are exceptions.  There are individuals who, owing to the employment of technology, are all the more insightful.  Alas, these individuals would very much seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

By 2008, the extraordinary impact that technology was having was manifestly clear.  And when I consider university life, it is far from obvious to me that either my colleagues or my students are now showing a depth of insight about themselves or their surroundings that heretofore was ever so rare.  For instance, my students do not ask more searching questions nowadays than they did 10 years ago.  They do not make more impressive connections nowadays then they did a decade ago.  Nor, again, is there any reason to believe that they have a more profound grasp of themselves nowadays than they did 10-years ago.  And lest there be any misunderstanding, these remarks apply equally to adults.  I simply do not hear more wisdom from adult folks nowadays than I used to hear.  I do not see that adults are more perceptive nowadays than they used to be.

This all raises a very simple but ever so poignant question: How can that be?  How can it be that with so much knowledge at our very fingertips, there has not been an exponential growth in wisdom on the part of so very many human beings?  And what does the fact there has not at all been an exponential grown in human wisdom—the ubiquity of technology to the contrary notwithstanding—tell us about human beings?

One thing that is made unmistakably clear is that while being rational is a human capacity that has no parallel among non-human animals, it is nonetheless manifestly false that being rational is the feature that is most definitive of what it is to be a human being.  For if being rational was definitive of what it is to be a human being, then the very ubiquity of technology should have entailed a quite extraordinary transformation for the better among human beings.

Putting the point of the preceding paragraph a difference way: It is not at all the case that technology has mightily enhanced the wherewithal of individuals to exercise self-command.  That is, people are not at all exhibiting more self-command nowadays than they did years ago.

This tells us, then, that the appeal of technology has more to do with the mere satisfaction of desires than intellectual enhancement.  Ironically, the behavior of my students bear witness to that line of thought.  Nowadays, many of them own a MAC.  And for the MAC the program Preview is for opening PDF files.  Alas, the only problem is that Preview is not nearly as sophisticated as the free Adobe Reader (of which there is a MAC version and a PC version.)  Of late, my syllabi for my courses have quite sophisticated formatting, using Adobe Acrobat.  Accordingly, the program Preview is not able to read the syllabus.  I have mentioned to my students time and time again that they need to install the free Adobe Reader for the MAC.  Well, I think that it would be easier to get most students to lend me $20.  For students are so besotted with their MAC that they simply will not install Adobe Reader.  Whatever this attitude on the part of so very many of my students is about, it most certainly is not about the exercise of rational thought.  It surely is not about having a greater degree of self-knowledge.  And this point would seem to hold generally and thus across all cultures.

This is not the context for great self-disclosure.  But here is a simple example of my growth owing to technology.  Technology has given me a more perfect clarity with regard to the kind of professor that I want to be and take so very much delight in being.  I have always enjoyed being a professor.  And technology has tremendously enhanced my insight about myself in that regard, which is one reason why there is a sophistication with regard to my syllabus nowadays that was entirely absence in 2008.  It truly a delight for me to reach out to my students in increasingly creative ways.  Do people all across the world have a deep, deep insights about themselves, thanks to technology?  All that I shall say is that if they do, then they are hiding their insights way too well.

© 2014 Laurence Thomas

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