Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fiction for Empathy in Bibliotherapy

It's wonderful to see there are people out there making a living and a career out of the very insights and understandings of literature as developing empathy I've been developing for several years now. I've written about these things here and here and here And now it's even made it to CNN.

The flight from fiction in our culture means reduced empathy creation. Yes, certain movies and even TV shows can contribute to empathy-creation, but I think that books allow us to more deeply investigate and understand the complex motives of people, and thus learn to understand and therefore empathize with them.

What we need is the kind of bibliotherapy being practiced in the CNN article. We need to read fiction that deals with different races, men and women, different sexual orientations and genders, different cultures, and different socioeconomic levels. In doing so, we would stop discriminating against people just because they are members of different groups.

We shouldn't hate people because they are black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rich or poor, etc., etc., etc. The socialists are just as evil for hating a group of people because of their socioeconomic status as are the racists for hating a group of people because of their race. Literature allows us to understand different groups through examples of particular individuals we get to know well, and thus literature breaks down collectivist (and therefore evil) ways of thinking.

The above statement seems to contradict some of what I say here. Indeed, certain kinds of empathizing do in fact make us more tribalist/collectivist in our thinking. But there is something else at work when we learn to empathize with other groups, and other groups, and other groups. If our empathy breaks down the Us-Them, Self-Other dichotomy, then empathy contributes to moral growth. If it only reinforces group cohesiveness such that there is necessarily a hated other against which one compares one's group, then empathy contributes to moral decay.

Literature can thus contribute to virtue-creating empathy if we are open to reading works presenting and representing peoples from other cultures, etc. This can and should be done in our classrooms. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that any work by someone from another culture, etc. than our own is worth reading. The works have to be complex, high-value literary works, regardless of who wrote them where or when. After all, boring garbage is hardly going to create any sort of empathy for anyone.


Saturday, July 02, 2016

My Name's Blurryface -- a cultural-textual analysis

For those who don't keep up with contemporary music, the band Twenty One Pilots has a song titled "Stressed Out" that is well worth analyzing and understanding.

Here are the lyrics:
I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
We're stressed out

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it
Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I’d probably only sell one

It’d be to my brother, 'cause we have the same nose
Same clothes homegrown a stone’s throw from a creek we used to roam
But it would remind us of when nothing really mattered
Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we'd fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they're laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money
Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah
The song, overall, is not simply about adults missing the simplicity of childhood; no, it's more about adults missing their childhood dreams of adulthood. This is emphasized in the repeated refrain:
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"
 The dream of being an astronaut is much like, say, my dream of being a fiction writer I have had since I was at least 12, when I penned (literally) my first novel manuscript. I abandoned the idea to major in something sensible in college (recombinant gene technology), only to return to it my senior year and truly follow it after dropping out of my Master's program in molecular biology. Yet, after graduating with my Ph.D. in the humanities from UTD (which I attended for the creative writing program), I was faced with the reality of student loans.

Indeed, the song mentions student loans:
Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter
 Little did we know that by going to college to achieve our dreams, we would rack up so many student loans that we would have to settle for some job well outside our dreams just to pay off the loans. The songwriter recognizes the trap that's been set, the (inadvertent) lies we've been told about adulthood. We were told that student loans were an investment in our future, yet what they in fact turn into is a weight that discourages us from taking risks and living our dreams. With debt, we are too afraid to live the dream life we imagined for ourselves, instead settling for a safe corporate reality to pay off those debts. And after so many years doing just that, how many of us just settle in and continue that life, even after those loans are paid off? How many end up with credit card debt, car payments, and mortgages to replace them? Debt piles up, we get safe jobs with safe incomes to pay those debts, and we never live those dreams.

That is, fundamentally, what the song is about.

 We can see this even in the opening lyrics:
I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think
 Modernism was founded on the cult of the new. We are told even now that everything has to be original. It's one of the lies we're told, and the songwriter calls us out on it. Our brains are structures to only like certain sounds, chords, etc. We are restricted in our vocabularies, and people prefer rhymes in their songs (though the violation in that very line is an ironic reference to the fact that rhyming is a convention that has in fact been violated in popular songs just as it has been in much poetry).

Why does he care? Well. caring what other people think is human all too human. As children we don't care what too many people think---our parents, primarily, but certainly not too many others--but as adults, we care more and more about what more and more people think of us. We care what our neighbors think of us, what our co-workers think of us, certainly what our bosses think of us. As he points out, it matters for success. If he came up with sounds no one's ever heard, chords in a new order, and unrhymed songs, how popular  would the band be?

Indeed, we are bolder when we are younger. We take more risks. We become less risky as we get older. Our fears and insecurities multiply. We find ourselves responsible to more and more people (those to whom we owe debts, which only multiply as we get older, and include far more than the lending companies).

What does this do to us?
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
What is a "Blurryface"? A face that's out of focus and becomes indistinguishable from other faces. That is, a Blurryface is someone who is perfectly interchangeable with just about anyone else. Those who care what others think and live their lives according to what others think. Those who live their lives in response to all of those people who say "Wake up, you need to make money!" Your dreams must die, you have to wake up and be responsible and live the corporate/bureaucratic reality. You cannot be what you once dreamed, whether it be an astronaut or an artist. Because those aren't responsible aspirations.

The rest of the song emphasizes this "going back in time" to the dreams of childhood. There was a safety there, of course, but there was also a realm of possibilities that we seem to go out of our ways to destroy. Perhaps it's a romanticization of the Modernist period (and the Romantic period before that) where artists seemed able to live their dreams, but at the same time, there were people clearly doing that, where it's less clear that those possibilities are as available now as then.

The songwriter here has thus identified a pervasive feeling in our culture. Many of us feel that there is something not quite right. And Twenty One Pilots has given that feeling a voice. Growing up, we were told many things that have turned out to not be true. They were perhaps believed by our parents and the other adults who sold those things to us, but the fact of the matter is that perhaps most of us are terribly disappointed that the reality has completely failed to live up to the hype. There are those who will use facts to point out that we are living in the best of times materially, but we simply cannot dismiss the pervasive feeling that something's just not quite right.

And what happens when an entire culture feels this level of discontent? Can that culture long survive?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Complexity Theory and the Study of History: Overproduction of Elites, Food Shortages, and Power Laws

I have written quite a bit about cliodynamics, the scientific approach to studying history, in the past. Peter Turchin has done quite a bit of work in this area, writing most recently about the inevitable collapse of the European Union.

Turchin's overall thesis is that an overproduction of elites results in inequalities that lead to the collapse of empires. And, as Egypt suggests, not just empires. However, one of the leading complexity theorists, Yaneer Bar-Yam, has developed a complexity model that suggests societal collapse comes about due to food prices increasing. More, network theory predicts power law distributions of revolutions/political collapse.

These are not necessarily conflicting views. Certainly the argument that there is a power law distribution of historical events like revolutions could easily complement the models of Turchin's and Bar-Yam's. It is also not impossible that the same dynamics that result in food prices increasing could result in the overproduction of elites and inequalities to increase.

Bar-Yam's thesis is particularly interesting, though one does wish he understood economics a bit better, especially around "speculation," which actually helps to smooth out prices and make them less volatile. At the same time he's right about the complete idiocy behind turning food directly into fuel, which unnecessarily drives up food prices, especially around anything involving corn (not just for direct consumption, but as feed for chickens, pigs, and cows, driving up meat prices). And he leaves out various farm subsidies, which politicians argue keeps prices down, but which in fact drive prices up (when New Zealand eliminated its subsidies for sheep farmers, wool and mutton prices dropped even as farmer incomes increased).

It would be interesting to map the food price-driven patterns of unrest with Turchin's patterns to see what overlaps there are and to see if one could find similar causes resulting in these two effects. I also don't know that Turchin has looked for power law distributions, but he certainly should. I would certainly be surprised if Bar-Yam's version didn't result in power law distributions. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My New Journey

I've begun a new journey, and while I'm on that journey I will be absent from the internet in many ways, including from posting on this blog, my other blogs, and Facebook.

I'm currently getting the training required to get alternative certification to teach elementary special education in Dallas ISD. Now you may wonder why it is that I'm not getting it in English. The reasons are many, and involve such things as DISD isn't offering this program I'm in for English teachers, because they don't have a shortage of English teachers, and my own personal arrogance surrounding my refusal to get certified in anything in which I have a Ph.D. because that requirement is incredibly insulting and ridiculous and is the most egregious example of protectionism imaginable.

The reason I chose elementary special education is itself multifaceted. Part of the reason involves my having an autistic child. Part of it involves my brother having dyslexia. Part of it involves my experiences as a substitute teacher taking special education assignments. I took high school and middle school assignments and saw that many of those students had not received the help they needed to mainstream them early on. I saw some overlooked entirely. At the same time, I enjoyed working with the elementary SpEd kids, and I seemed able to reach them. All of those contributed to this decision.

So I'm spending the summer getting alternative certification. I'll spend a year as an "intern," and after that I'll be hired full time.

So the next year promises to be busy. And something has to go.

Economics will be going. Indeed, pretty much all of my scholarly work, including book reviews. I've enjoyed doing those things, but they have not otherwise benefited me. They brought me nothing but personal satisfaction. And that doesn't pay the bills.

Poetry and plays will be the primary focus. They also bring me personal satisfaction, but poems are less burdensome, and the plays are the reason I will be doing everything I can over the next several years to save up to get and run a theatre. (Donations and volunteers are welcome!)

And of course I'll continue learning about autism and posting on it. After all, it will benefit me in my job and in my home life and on my blog. And you never know---one of these days someone may want to hear what I have to say on the topic. My expertise is, after all, both personal and professional, both subjective and objective.

And politics sucks. All it does is divide everyone. That's its great evil. Of course, sometimes we have to differentiate ourselves from injustice, and that too requires politics. There are some people and some things from whom we should divide ourselves. But I'm going through a phase of relative indifference to everyone arguing about which sinking ship to jump onto.

I'm going to focus on beauty, family, and money. That is, things of value.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Life of Unity -- Reflections on Obsessions and Personal Life

Starting in 1971 (the year I was born), my maternal grandfather, Virgil Inman, started keeping a diary/journal. On my trip to South Bend, my grandmother gave me 1971-1976 (those she had read) for me to transcribe and edit and try to one day get published.

My grandparents were avid birders, and my grandfather's diary seems to be almost entirely about birding. We see lists of birds he saw on this or that birding trip. The most mentions of people involve those who were birding with him, talked to him about birds, and/or were members of the Audubon Society. There are few mentions of his family, and the day of my birth results in a brief mention of that event before he starts writing about birds.

In many ways this and my other blogs are my own diaries/journals, and in many ways I have done exactly what my grandfather did in his. Just search this blog for Anna, Melina, Daniel, and Dylan, and see how relatively few hits you get compared to Nietzsche, Shakespeare, poetry, or spontaneous orders. My obsessions are what I write about much more than anything personal. And if you do search for my family members' names, you will find that much of the time I am writing about some topic in which I use them as an example.

I'm not sure how interested anyone would be in reading about more personal things. I don't know how interested anyone is in reading this blog at all. Its topics evolve, change, jump around, and will continue to do so, I'm sure. I've decided to focus more on theatre, on playwriting, and as a result, I'm sure what I write about here will reflect that change.

I have also written before about how I am my interests, meaning if you have been following this blog, if you have been reading what I have been writing, you have about as intimate an understanding of me as possible.With most people you can disentangle the different parts of their world; with me, you mostly cannot. There are a few exceptions--too much of my employment, for example--but I don't typically write about work. I would if my work and my employment ever managed to overlap. Which is the goal, of course. Because unless and until they do, I will remain unfulfilled in life.

For many a job is a way to make money and life is almost completely fulfilled through relationships with others. My personal relationships are few, and mostly involve my wife and children, who do in fact fulfill pretty much any and all of my needs when it comes to personal relationships. But my wife understands the degree to which my identity is tied in with the writing/work I do. Still, they are prioritized over that work, as evidenced by the fact that I spend time with them when I should be working, and by the fact that I will be starting training for a job I'm taking just to have an income.

Still, I want to live a more fulfilling life. And that's why I have decided to concentrate more on being a playwright and on doing what I need to do to run my own theatre to perform my plays (following a strong tradition of poets/playwrights over the past several centuries) so I can at last concentrate on the writing/work I think is truly most important for me to do. Perhaps I can even get the theatre to a place where we can be a theatre family, so to speak. Complete unity of everything important in my life. That is the ultimate goal.

I'm sure my grandfather would have loved to have such unity as well. For his job he worked with computers. But there's no mention of that in what I've read of the diary so far. And I've only ever heard brief mention of the work he did to make a living over the decades. But there was never any question about the birds. I imagine he would have loved to have been an ornithologist so his life could have achieved unity. I'm too much like him for him not to have wanted the same thing.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Journey

This past week and a half, I took a trip to South Bend, IN to visit my grandmother. We actually stayed with my Great Aunt Mercedes in Coloma, MI, and drove back and forth. That gave us several trips through rural west Michigan, including a day trip to St. Joseph/Benton Harbor to see Lake Michigan. The downtown area of Benton Harbor is very rough-looking, but the lake shore of both cities is being developed with museums and other arts venues to attract visitors. Another day several us went to Shipshewana to visit Amish country to eat and shop.

My great aunt lives in a farm house with 19 acres left of what was once a pretty big farm where they used to raise apples and cherries and raised various vegetables. She still raises some vegetables, and she has a small strawberry patch the children picked. Melina, Daniel, and Dylan all had a great time, and they all said they would love to live out there.

Among visiting with family and friends I haven't seen in a while and being out in the country and seeing Shipshewana, where we saw a store for sale for less than our house is worth, and the lake front of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, I came to realize something that has been simmering under the surface for a while now: I'm absolutely miserable living in Richardson. What I find miserable is this suburban pseudo-existence of just barely getting by doing nothing I want to do, always busy and getting nothing done. I'm neither relaxed nor accomplished. In the country one can relax; in the city, you are surrounded by action. But the suburbs have the absolute worst of both worlds. It's neither relaxing nor is it close to anything at all, meaning you have to get in your car to do anything.

Add to this the fact that I'm getting ready to get alternative certification to teach elementary education special ed in Dallas ISD. This is certainly something I can do, but it's not what I'm supposed to be doing.

And that's what I've come to realize this past week. What it is I'm supposed to be doing. It's not teaching, that's to be sure. No, what I'm supposed to be doing is running a theater so that I can perform my plays. I would love to do it in a small town like St. Joseph or Benton Harbor, which attracts just enough people from places like Chicago and South Bend that it could be successful and get a reputation. And the towns are the right size to have things to do and have shopping close by and still have some easy living.

So that's the goal. I'll have to teach for a little while, but the goal is to own and run a theater somewhere. I need to write plays and direct my plays and provide myself with a real purpose. I appreciate the attempts people have made at helping me do just that with scholarly work on economics and higher education. I've learned a lot doing those things. But they are not what I'm meant to be doing. I'm a writer. I'm a play writer. It's time I took my life into my own hands and made that reality into something.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Why Has Community in America Collapsed?

I recently saw a TED Talk in which the person was talking about the seeming rise in DTSD among soldiers. He noted that there are fewer soldiers than in past wars, that the experiences are far less traumatic than in past wars, but that PTSD is much higher now than previously.

What is going on? The speaker suggested that what was happening was that soldiers who had formed close social bonds with their comrades came home to a society that is radically fragmented. They moved from a tribal situation to a radically individuated situation, and that it was that which was traumatic.

I think he's mostly right.

American society is deeply fragmented. I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among political views, though that's certainly a contributor (and a consequence). I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among racial and ethnic groups, though that's certainly a contributor as well.

I'm talking about individuals becoming increasingly alienated from each other. We not only do not rely on each other, we are actively discouraged from doing so. We are encouraged to mind our own business--and we then in turn empower government to do all the minding we used to do in our neighborhoods. We even tell our children to mind their own business, as though their friends and families and neighborhoods aren't their business. If other people aren't our business, what is?

There is a certain libertarian thread that emphasizes exactly this kind of minding one's own business that is very common and popular. We are told not to judge anyone for anything they do--and while this has of course resulted in growing acceptance of a variety of lifestyles and ways of being human, cultures and cultural practices, etc., it has also meant not seeking out commonalities and not creating communities. You cannot have a community of people who mind their own business. If you want to destroy a family, have the parents insist the children should mind their own business, and have those parents insist their spouses mind their own business. The fact is that family members ought to be one's business. We ought to be concerned with the way people behave. That shows we care about them.

The irony of this libertarian emphasis on minding one's own business is that in creating more radically individuated and thus isolated people, the social fabric disintegrates, leaving a space for governments to come in as the solution. We need social bonds and to work together, and if those natural bonds disintegrate, governments will offer ways to force those bonds, or the social outcomes those old bonds once made. Neighbor pressure to keep your property looking nice has been replaced with local government passing ordinances to keep your property looking nice, with professional busybodies to enforce them by driving around and looking at everyone's property. The problem with the government solution is that, even with local government, there is a lack of local and tacit knowledge. One's neighbors, when one is close to one's neighbors, knows more about your situation than does some bureaucrat. The bureaucrat doesn't even care about your situation--they just care about being obeyed no matter what. The neighbor knows what your situation is, and adjusts their expectations (and complaints and pressure) accordingly.

This attitude of minding one's own business extends even to our institutions that have historically provided the kinds of social bonds that create community. For example, my wife and I have grown completely frustrated with the church we have been attending because, though we have tried to be involved through such things as having Melina in the children's choir, we have felt almost completely unwelcomed there. Not in an active way, but rather just completely ignored by everyone. It's as though they could care less whether we were there or not. Another example would be our local schools, where we send our children without really ever getting to know the teachers or fellow students, let alone fellow parents. Once the centers of our communities, our schools have become yet another institution of practically faceless, impersonal bureaucrats who seem annoyed more than anything if anyone wants to help or contribute in any real way.

Zoning laws separate neighborhoods from any sort of social meeting places. I have to get in my car to go shopping. If I want to hang out at a cafe, I have to get in my car and go there. And the people there won't be the people from my neighborhood. Even if I get to know a few people at the local Starbucks, I won't know them outside of Starbucks. I won't know where they live. I certainly won't be invited over to their homes. With mixed neighborhoods, where there are local cafes and stores where you see the people from your neighborhood all the time, you get to know people and as a result, you end up looking out for each other more. Zoning thus keeps neighborhoods from becoming true communities by isolating various aspects of our lives from each other.
Licensing also contributes to this problem. It' worse than ridiculous that you have to get a license to hold a yard sale or for your children to have a lemonade stand. These are among the opportunities lost to connect with your neighbors and transform them into communities. Local businesses are less likely to crop up as a result as well. So not only is are community bonds suppressed, but community economies are depressed.

The problem is that there are inevitably anti-social people who don't want any of these things taking place in their neighborhoods. But why should only the anti-social elements of society get what they want? Just because they are going to complain about what's going on, while nobody's going to complain about what's NOT going on? This is a problem of the "seen" taking precedence over the "unseen" that all too often plagues the insights of economics and sociology. We are trading the "tyranny" of community for the tyranny of government, persuasion for force. It's a pretty stupid trade.

The real problem is that when people come to understand that there is something missing in their lives, they then look to government to fix those things when the source seems to come from the outside. We are missing something in our societies, and we then ask the government to provide all the things strong communities once provided. The problem is that when governments do things, they tend to crowd out private solutions. And that undermines the creation of strong communities even more. Licensing and zoning are the consequences of anti-social complainers, and they work to make us all more anti-social and isolated.

The fact is that humans are naturally social, naturally community-minded, naturally compassionate. If we find a group of people not behaving that way, behaving rather more selfishly and anti-socially, we need to ask what is happening in their societies, in their institutions, in their governance that is causing people to behave this way. What is actively encouraging them to behave in ways that are, quite frankly, unnatural? We love to blame "capitalism," but we have had capitalism far longer than this situation. Further, the system we haven't isn't even free market capitalism anyway, but is rather extremely regulated capitalism. Those regulations, as we have seen, have more than just economic consequences, as bad as those are. They have social consequences as well.

We all know there is something deeply wrong with American society. What is wrong is that we have been actively replacing community with government. We are regulating ourselves into isolation. Natural connections are replaced with government regulated interactions. Yes, my traveling several miles to sit at a cafe is a government regulated interaction precisely because I cannot sit at a cafe anywhere near where I live. My having to get in my car to grab a few avocados for dinner rather than walking to the neighborhood fruit stand is a government regulated interaction. We do not even recognize we are being controlled and being separated from each other, but we are. The consequence is more and more government regulations to try to make up for the losses caused by government regulations, causing more and more separation.

The increase in PTSD among returning soldiers is the canary in the coal mine. How many must stop singing before we get the message?