Saturday, August 30, 2014

On University Requirements

I have a new piece at The Pope Center in which I suggest the English major should have outside requirements, like the sciences require.

In fact, I would go farther and suggest that all of the humanities should have similar requirements as those I recommend for English. English and literary studies, art, history, and philosophy should all have requirements outside their fields, and those requirements should be drawn from the social sciences -- particularly economics and anthropology, but also sociology -- and psychology. It is important that the humanities be rooted in the most recent theories of psychology and sociology rather than being 50 years behind.

Along those lines, I think the social sciences should require philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, and biology. The social sciences are suspended between the humanities and the natural sciences, as much in the realm of understanding as knowledge, and the education of our social sciences should reflect that.

And while we're at it, we should also have some social science and humanities requirements for the sciences. It is important that they be familiar with these things so they are thinking in more complex, emergentest ways. Of course, given the typical requirements of our universities, this is hardly a problem. However, it would be nice to have a set of classes that are more focused on the natural sciences.

One could argue that I am just suggesting that students ought to have a "well-rounded" liberal education. But really, I am arguing more than that. We need to provide an education in which we are quite explicit about what it is in each of these other fields that can benefit majors in their own fields. We are talking about interdisciplinary tools that can really open up new possibilities of research. But we're going to have to train people in each of the disciplines to provide exactly that kind of education in each of those fields.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shame Culture vs. Guilt Culture

Traditional cultures are typically shame cultures. The ancient Greeks of The Illiad and The Odyssey was a shame culture, as was the pre-Christian Roman Empire (and Republic before it). History has shown that shame cultures, once they reach a certain level of complexity, become guilt cultures. Ancient Greece was moving in this direction during the Tragic Age (and was set back by being taken over by Rome); ancient Rome made the transition through Christianity (though it was already moving in that direction through Stoicism), and Medieval Europe is a fully-developed guilt culture.

But what is the difference between shame and guilt? And why is the move from shame to guilt rather than vice versa?

Shame is what we feel when we are caught doing something wrong. What is "wrong" emerges through cultural/social interactions and is typically associated with anti-social behavior, behaviors that will weaken the social network. The key here is that one does not feel bad about doing wrong if one is not caught doing it by anyone. It is important to do good in public, where everyone is watching you, but that doesn't mean one has to do good in private, where nobody is watching you.

Thus, in a shame culture, all generosity must be made as public and obvious as possible. People have to know you are being generous. The result is much more charity, if charity is seen as a good behavior.

However, in a shame culture, you could also cheat on your husband or wife, and so long as you weren't caught, it wouldn't matter. This, of course, is going to make it more likely that someone will cheat on their spouse.

While shame is a social regulator of behavior, guilt is an internal regulator of behavior. In a guilt culture, the individual internalizes the culture's morals. That is, you don't have to be caught to be doing wrong. You judge yourself, and that internal judgment is called guilt.

Thus, in a guilt culture, generosity ought to be made in private, quietly, so that what matters is the giving itself and the internal state it creates in you. Among those who have so internalized generosity as a virtue will of course be quite generous. But among those who have not done so, you may be assured that there will be less generosity exhibited. Since people aren't making a big deal of donating, not doing so won't be noticed. People will just assume you are giving what you can, quietly. The result, one would imagine, would be a slow reduction of charitable gifts over time, as free riders recognized the advantages inherent in a guilt culture when it comes to gift giving.

Of course, in a guilt culture, you are going to be less likely to do things like cheat on your spouse, because you will feel guilty for doing so. One won't cheat to avoid feeling that negative feeling.

Thus we see morals starting off as extremely social, then becoming more and more internalized over time. However, what if more and more people start becoming free riders? In a guilt culture, it is assumed that everyone feels guilty for doing bad. But not everyone does. One may not feel guilt at all (be a sociopath) or one may disagree with some aspect of the prevailing moral system. One can thus "sin in one's heart" and not sin in society -- thus acting as a free rider on the moral system. It is much harder to be a free rider in a shame culture, because what you do or don't do is expected to be done out in the open, where everyone can see you.

What we have seen in Western culture is an increase in free riders on the moral system. The end result is our insistence that no one be able to judge us about anything. While this does allow for a certain pluralism in morals and values, it also results in an eventual dissolution of guilt itself. Now people are neither guilty nor ashamed. This may result in a certain cosmopolitanism and acceptance of others' world views, life styles, values, etc., but it also creates a situation in which there is a perceived gap to be filled when it comes to philanthropy. This is where government often steps in, and the crowding out situation created by governments only exacerbate the problem. People see themselves as being generous through the taxes being taken from them, and so they in turn are less personally generous. Which creates the conditions for the argument for more government involvement to fill the new gaps.

Thus we see a trade-off. Shame cultures are potentially more generous, but shame creates far more cultural conformity (with which comes ingroup-outgroup politics). Guilt cultures are as generous as the amount of actual guilt found in the population. As this goes down over time, due to the problem of free riders, generosity may decrease, but cosmopolitan attitudes also increase.

This is why rural cultures are very generous toward each other, but urban cultures tend to be less generous overall in their giving, especially within their own neighborhoods. Urban givers tend to be more generous toward unknown others.

There is value to be found in both guilt and shame. We are a social species, and public displays of generosity in fact encourages others to be generous as well. The network effects of the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great example of this. Not only have donations to ALS gone through the roof, but charitable donations to other organizations has increased overall. Taking the challenge is a public display of generosity that leads to private displays of generosity. Shame and guilt can co-exist, and together they can make us better people overall. We shouldn't only be virtuous in public, but we shouldn't keep our virtue private, either.

I expand on this here. And, even more so, here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Effect of Fiction on Self-Regard

The relationship between reading fiction and ethics is a complex one. There is good evidence that reading fiction itself increases empathy and thus expands one's moral sphere. The more complex the work, the more liberalized one's thinking is, in fact.

But what about content? Does content matter? Do we have to read "moral content" to better develop our morals? Must we avoid "immoral content" to avoid degrading our morals?

A recent study of the effects of reading Fifty Shades of Gray on young women suggests "immoral content" may in fact have a negative effect on life choices.Amy Bonomi, the study's lead researcher, reports that there is a positive correlation between women reading Fifty Shades of Gray and having eating disorders and being in abusive relationships. Of course, having a positive correlation does not mean we have causation demonstrated, and she does point out that we don't know if such women are more likely to read the book or if the book is influencing behavior, so there are still many questions we need answered in this study.

It is certainly possible, for example, that women who have eating disorders and are in abusive relationships (or are prone to such) are attracted to literature that seems to confirm their world view. Most of us are not comfortable with the fact that there are people whose world view is such that they believe abuse -- whether at their own hands or at the hands of others -- is desirable, but it is clear there are such people who hold such a world view. It does not seem likely that a book is going to influence someone who is not otherwise prone to seeking out abuse toward themselves to pick up such behaviors. I don't believe people are that weak-minded that a single book could have such an influence. More likely is self-selection.

Of course, self-selection means reenforcing one's world view and the behaviors associated with that world view. We all like confirmation that what we are doing is "normal." And finding one other person -- even a fictional person -- who is okay with that world view can make one feel more normal.

For example, I'm a big fan of Big Bang Theory. I watch it almost every day in reruns. The characters in many ways reenforce my own behaviors and world view. I probably relate to Sheldon Cooper the most -- probably because he is written such that he probably has Asperger's. However, I like Leonard the most -- probably because he puts up with Sheldon's behaviors (and we all need a friend like that). The show is comforting because it reenforces my world view.

On the other hand, I am quite fascinated by House of Cards. If there is any show with characters who are the complete opposite of me, it is House of Cards. Especially Frank Underwood. Everything is strategy, and for me everything is analysis. I don't do strategy well. It is almost painful to strategize, and I'm mentally exhausted when I have to do so. The show actually helps me with some of the areas I need to develop. Certainly one should not go as far as Underwood, but his general ways of thinking are a corrective to my extreme at the other extreme way of thinking.

Now, is it possible that a hyper-strategic thinker might become a calculating murderer by watching House of Cards? It doesn't seem likely. More likely is that hyper-strategic thinkers will be attracted to House of Cards as a show that confirms their world view.

In any case, the relation between fiction and morals is complex. The relation between the content of fiction and morals is hardly straightforward, but I would venture to guess that the long-term effects of reading fiction is on balance a benefit to one's expanding moral sphere. But the relationship between fiction and the way one treats oneself and the way one thinks one ought to be treated is something that needs to be investigated in more detail.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Asperger's or Introversion?

Do I have Asperger's Syndrome, or am I merely introverted? I am certainly introverted. But let us consider the Asperger's Fact Sheet and the criteria. Do I meet them?

  • Do I have an "all-consuming interest and a one-sided, self-focused social approach"?
As a child I was obsessively interested in dinosaurs, then sharks, then orchids.  I would make lists of dinosaurs or sharks or orchids; sometimes those "lists" would be drawing after drawing after drawing -- in a list-like fashion. They would be labeled with data about the dinosaur or shark or orchid. Length or location or some sort of objective fact.

I am still obsessively focused, but the focus has become self-organizing network processes. I can sit and talk about that for hours and hours. And I promise you that the conversation will be quite one-sided and self-focused. Most of my conversations have been and continue to be. As a result, I work well with others on projects in which I am interested, but I don't socialize well.

  • Is it true that because I "cannot read social or emotional cues well, they come off as insensitive, pushy or strange, yet have very little insight into how they are perceived"?
 I cannot tell you how many times I have been accused of being arrogant. Even when I am insisting we need to have humility in our ignorance. I have been told I am "insensitive" when I try to solve problems. I've been told more than once I seem "strange." And my wife constantly reassures me that I have very little insight as to how I am perceived by others and that I cannot read social or emotional cues well.

  • Do I engage in "taking turns speaking, staying on a topic for a polite number of turns, and showing interest in someone else’s comments. People living with Asperger’s tend to talk at people instead of with them, and will often talk about their favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject."
I can definitely dominate a conversation. I have a tendency to interrupt when I have a thought. I stay on topics for a long, long time (or, if I'm not interested, not very long at all), and I have a hard time feigning interest. I do tend to talk at people instead of with them -- I use language to communicate information rather than to create relationships -- and I most definitely talk abut my favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject. I am sure I am tiring even at conferences.

  • "Having a normal or higher IQ allows a person to learn and know, to push the envelope in intellectual ability, and to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge, but there can also be negative effects. When someone is aware he is different, when, for all his intelligence, he cannot successfully make a friend, or get a date, or keep a job, he may end up far more prone to depression and despair than a person with a lower IQ. It has been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger’s suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers."
I have always had a hard time making friends. I typically just "befriend" the friends of friends. I got by with my brother's friends for a long time. I made exactly one friend during my Master's in English, and I lost track of him immediately after we graduated. That was two years in Mississippi. I made one friend during my Ph.D., and was mostly friends with his friends. I got my first girlfriend when I was 25. I was, in fact, quite depressed for most of the 1990s because of these kinds of relationship problems. And I continue to have problems keeping a job.

  • Meltdowns.
I used to have meltdowns. When I was interrupted at a task, especially. When things just became too much. I have had two nervous breakdowns. But I have, over the years, learned how to deal with the stressors in my life. Yet, I do have to fight off blowing up when I am interrupted at my obsession/work.

  • Clumsiness.
I walked on my tiptoes as a child -- something quite common in people with Asperger's/autism. I was a disaster at trying to play any kind of sports. Teachers complained about my handwriting skills.


There are other aspects to Asperger's, which includes thinking style. Bottom-up thinking, analytical thinking, being able to see patterns extremely well, strongly visual thinking -- are all typical of those with Asperger's and autism. I am equally very bad at top-down and strategic thinking typical of neurotypicals. Strategic thinking is extremely exhausting, and I'm not very good at it.

I suppose it is entirely possible to have every trait of Asperger's and not have it, to only be introverted. But my bet is on Asperger's being the most likely diagnosis.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Am Not an Illness

The suicide of Robin Williams has had a lot of people writing on "mental illness" and suicide of late. It is perhaps because of the utter shock that, of all people, Robin Williams committed suicide. Had it been a heart attack, we would have been sad, but unsurprised. His death being a suicide magnified the sadness exponentially.

In the immediate aftermath, it was not surprising to hear many people talk about how important it was that we have a "national dialogue" on mental illness. I heard people use that term -- mental illness -- over and over and over, and it occurred to me that that was the problem: the very concept of mental illness.

What, exactly, is a mental illness? Any more, what isn't? Unless you are a perfectly normal person -- unless you have an I.Q. between 90 and 110, can sit still the entire time you are in school, obey all authorities at all times, and are happy to work 9 to 5 and get married and have the designated number of kids -- you are mentally ill. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with any of the above, but why does deviation from it mean you're less than those people? That is, after all, what being called "mentally ill" means. It means that you are less than those who are not. They are healthy, you are unhealthy. Unhealthy things are less than healthy things. Therefore...

Now, let me put all of my cards on the table. By contemporary American standards, I'm mentally ill. I am mildly bipolar, I have had two nervous breakdowns, and I have Asperger's Syndrome. I have had a great deal of difficulty "fitting in" to society. But just because someone does not fit in to a particular society at a particular time, does that mean they are mentally ill? I have an extremely good long-term memory and I am a poet. A few thousand years ago, that would have made me the tribal poet, who kept the myths of the tribe. I would have been Homer. Nobody would have thought it strange that I was mostly withdrawn and antisocial, until it was time for me to recite the stories. I would have been greatly valued then.

Or consider someone with schizophrenia, who sees visions. Today, we medicate such people. In other times and places, such a person was a religious leader, a shaman, whose visions were valued. The story of John Nash shows us how valuable schizophrenia can be -- he rejected his medication, because he couldn't think on them. Had he been medicated early on in life, where would game theory have been?

More, the story of John Nash shows us that even something as severe as schizophrenia can be dealt with without treating it as an illness. He learned to identify what was real and what was not real. Imagine what could happen if people with schizophrenia were taught how to deal with the visions, how to control or ignore them, rather than to have them medicated away.

If it is possible for John Nash, it's possible for others. And it's possible for others who have mental differences. We with Asperger's or autism have to learn how to fit into society; the fact that I have been able to make any number of changes in how I act and interact over the years -- before I learned I had Asperger's -- shows it is possible to change and adapt. It would help if our society actually valued our differences and did not punish us for them by telling us we are less than those who are neurotypical. We are not less than you simply because we are neurologically different. And being told we are -- directly or indirectly, by pathologizing our differences -- does not help us. Quite the contrary: being told we are less, many have decided it's not worth being here on earth.

Imagine being Robin Williams. The way his brain worked is why he was so brilliantly funny. Yet, the way his brain worked was also labeled as "mentally ill." He was told that the very thing that made him who he was, the very thing that everyone loved about him and valued about him, was "wrong." He was "wrong," less than the rest of humanity. That's what the rhetoric of "mental illness" does. It devalues and it dehumanizes. That's enough to make most people want to kill themselves.

More, we make it impossible for someone who is having suicidal thoughts to talk about it. We are told that if we encounter a person with suicidal thoughts, we should tell someone. At the same time, we are told we need to be with a suicidal person throughout their suicidal episode, until it passes. But if you know that telling someone you are having suicidal thoughts will result in their telling the authorities, and if you know that one of the ways you can get locked up is if you are a "threat to yourself or others," what is the incentive to tell anyone? There is none. The incentive is the opposite, in fact. Keep it to yourself, so you won't get locked up (and become more depressed because you're in a mental hospital).

We do need a national dialogue about "mental illness." And the dialogue needs to be about how we need to stop pathologizing differences in this culture. We are well on the way with homosexuality. Now we need to depathologize the rest.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reading and Improved Empathy in Children

More research shows the connection between reading literature and improved empathy -- leading to more moral attitudes and actions. Raymond Mar shows this connection specifically with children and children's literature.

But he also shows a connection between children watching movies and improved empathy -- which does not translate to watching T.V. One would think that a story is a story, but apparently not. It would be interesting to learn what the differences are between T.V. shows and movies that make such a difference in creating empathy. Are there structural differences? Is it because T.V. shows divide your time with commercials, as the article suggests? Is it a difference in complexity? Or just the fact that people are more likely to discuss what happened in a movie than what happened in a T.V. show?

If the difference is in whether or not a discussion of the story has taken place, that ought to be easy enough to test. Surely there are readers who don't discuss what they read whose empathy we can compare to readers who love to discuss what they read.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Most Important Publication?

If number of citations in scholarly works is an indication of the importance of a piece, then my Pope Center piece Egypt's Revolution and Higher Education is by far the most important piece I have written. It has been cited in:

Daniel LaGraffe's "The Youth Bulge in Egypt: An Intersection of Demographics, Security, and the Arab Spring" in the Journal of Strategic Security.

Sevita Rama's "Remembering Their Role: Keeping Women Involved Post-Arab Awakening" in Journal of Women and Human Rights in the Middle East: A Change of Seasons for Arab Women? Issue 1, Fall 2013.

Michael Johnson's book Corruption, Contention, and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratization

Asef Bayat's book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East

Charles R. Greer's presentation at TCU

These are the things I have managed to run across online. What are the odds there are more scholarly publications out there that cannot be found via a web search?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Review of Gazzaniga's Who's In Charge? in Philosophical Practice

I have a review of Michael Gazzaniga's fantastic book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain in Philosophical Practice. I was reviews editor for Philosophical Practice for a short time. I'm glad to get to work for them again.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Varieties of Patterns in Literature

Literary texts likely have a variety of patterns in them. The existence of carefully created patterns is, indeed, one of the hallmarks of all art. Those patterns can be exhibited in patterns of symmetry and asymmetry and/or other kinds of complementary opposites, as demonstrated in the work of Hector Sabelli, who has demonstrated biotic patterns in a variety of processes, including poetry. However, biotic patterns are very complex patterns; what about more simple patterns? There are also chaotic/fractal patterns, which I have suggested elsewhere emerge in literary works as well as patterns of theme words.

 But both of these processes are necessarily created unconsciously. In all literature, but most obviously in poetry in particular, the artist also crafts patterns. Formal verse makes this process most clear. Regular rhythms and patterns of rhyme, ranging from alliteration to end rhyme, consonance and assonance, are consciously used by formalist poets. The more obvious the patterns, the more conscious the patterns. And those patterns necessarily interact with the more complex unconscious patterns of chaos and bios as well.

 All of this suggests we need to look at all the kinds of patterns which emerge and are used in literary works. This includes the kinds of network patterns being investigated by people like Franco Moretti, whose work is described here. I believe, like Moretti, that there are laws of literature and that we can discover them in discovering the patterns within works of literature. These laws are also the laws of the mind, meaning we will learn more about our own minds by learning more about the laws and patterns (but I repeat myself) of literature.