Rhetorics of Winning

With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.

Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team.  But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.

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Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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The Creative Brain

The Creative Brain

I’ve been out of town since Friday, so I haven’t been able to write much. But one of my friends came to the rescue and sent me this link to a fascinating article. It is a fun, but informative and insightful look at the human brain at its most creative and touches on similarly aligned issues, like the link between genius and madness.

While a little long for a quick read, it is well worth the look.

John Cleese and Creativity

As I have a few other writing projects taking up my time and creative energy this weekend, I haven’t gotten around to writing a worthwhile blog post. Instead, enjoy a lovely lecture by Monty Python’s John Cleese explaining the difference between the “closed zone” of everyday life and the “open zone” of creative expression and how to encourage the open zone–as best as one can.

As one can expect, Cleese sprinkles his clear explanation with humor, so at the very least, you’ll learn how many folk singers it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Enjoy.

What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

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New semester

I moved back into school today to start the next semester. A new semester has always had more of a “New Year” feeling than actual New Years, since school provides a ready-made change of scenery and lifestyle.

[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/]
[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/%5D
That said, I try not to treat “resolutions” like “revolutions.” Often, this time of year–especially the first week or two at the start–gets annoying. Everyone has a hundred hopes, impossible plans, and vague outlines, all aimed at turning them into a new person. I respect the hope and spirit that goes into this, but as with many things, the hope outshoots the reality. Would-be gym-goers, dieters, meditators, and volunteers slump back into their old habits, like a well-worn couch, and lose momentum until “next year.”

It’s happened to me a dozen times. To people I know. To people I don’t know, but see peppering the gym this time of year, then slipping away like a trial product that never goes big. According to a recent study by the University of Scranton, used by Time and Forbes, only about 8% of those who try a resolution say they usually make it.

Other research has different numbers, but the conclusion seems pretty clear: resolutions don’t come easily.

One thing that may hamper our ability to reach our goals is an inherent limitation to self control. Recent research seems to indicate that we can only use so much self control before we succumb to temptation. Or, at the very least, we get more likely to succumb. That pizza, ice cream, and beer hits us much harder after a long day at work.

Sometimes we even rationalize it, saying “Well, I worked hard today and kept up my diet, so I deserve a little something.” The psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who studies willpower, critiques this particular tactic that she calls “moral licensing” in an interesting video.

Moreover, moral licensing and limited self control aren’t the only things that impede resolutions. The stubborn resilience of bad habits, our inability to visualize future selves, competing priorities, guilt-saturated procrastination, and more set strong roadblocks between us and progress.

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Introverts and the holidays

First of all, happy New Year. Perhaps 2013 was a down-and-out scrape to get through or an idyllic gallop on the pig’s back. Whatever the case, it’s ended and a new window aglow with resolutions awaits. But since New Years resolution posts have already flooded the internet, I wanted to write about another timely topic: being an introvert during the holidays.

I don’t handle holidays well. The noise, social obligations, tedious traditions, ostentatious meals, and blitzkrieg shoppers exhaust and overwhelm me. Each year as Christmas crawls around, my stomach knots up with dread. And the past few years I’ve reached saturation points, where at the end of a long string of busy days, I crash like stretched out spring ripping back into place. I cannot put on the act any longer.

With the holiday season on the wane, I can say that I survived this year. It took an effort, but in the end, this was the best holiday season I’ve had in a while. Perhaps some of you weren’t so lucky. In that case, here are a few ideas that helped me.

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Wallace and Education

I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com

With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.

But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.

As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.

This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.

Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”

Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.

This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.

Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.

Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”

What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason

We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.frowny-face

If anything, emotions make life interesting.

But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”

Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government. 

Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions. 

Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.

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Solitude and Loneliness

A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella. Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog

“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”

I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”

We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.

And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.

But what’s the difference?

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