Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Would you Poke Aristotle? Do Facebook and MySpace Warp our Ideals of Friendship and Community?

Christine Rosen warns us about the effects of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, on our ideas of community, privacy, and friendship.

On the one hand, social networking sites (SNS) allow us to do some very amazing things nowadays. They allow us to connect or reconnect with people all around the world through email, instant messaging, and video conferencing. You can talk to old friends from high school or new acquaintances in Beijing. This feature of SNS offers a kind of liberatory experience: we are now able to build relationships with people in ways that human beings have never before in our history. We are no longer bounded by region, territory, social role, family, or occupation as to the kinds of companions we can have. This allows us to meet people based on our own interests, ideas, and preferences and to share our joy with others based on those specific parts of our individuality.

Rosen points out that the technology of SNS, however, tends to reinforce some very harmful attitudes about companionship. They use the language of friendship to talk about the contacts made in cyberspace, but she thinks that these relationships are really "dilutions" and "debasements" of real friendship.

First, SNS encouage people to collect as many "friends" as they can. There are even websites that will create fake people to be your friends, just in case no one wants to link to your Facebook or MySpace page. Rosen says this suggests that it is more important to have a great quantity of friends, rather than quality relationships, on SNS. Collecting friends, then, is not about satisfying a need for companionship, but about acquiring status. The technology encourages us to be our own little celebrities, to draw attention to ourselves, and even to post more and more outrageous photos of our lives, in order to attract people who will want to be our friends (hence the proliferation of all those self-portraits taken on cell phones by young men and women, sitting around in their underwear--or less-- or flexing in front of the mirror).

Rosen worries how these kinds of attitudes will affect our expectations about our "offline", i.e. real friends and companions. One concern is that SNS teach people that friends are people to be "managed"--you can add them, "poke" them, delete them, not allow them to see your private information, etc--for your own benefit or pleasure. She worries how this kind of narcissism will translate into the way young people will treat their real peers in community. She also points to studies that suggest that people who spend a lot of time in SNS are less socially involved in their actual communities, and that those who use SNS for romantic involvement tend to have low self-esteem and emotional maturity.

Aristotle recognized that there were many different kinds of relationships that contributed to a complete human life. He thought there were three different kinds of friends:

The first are those people with whom we associate because they bring some kind of advantage or benefit to us. Work colleagues are a good example of this--someone might be useful to me in getting a promotion or a new job.

The second kind of friends are those people with whom we associate because they bring us pleasure. Drinking buddies, or members of the knitting club, are examples of this--these are people I like to see when I want to have fun and entertainment

The final kind of friends, and the one that Aristotle thinks is the most "perfect" form of friendship, are those people with whom we associate because they assist us in becoming better, more virtuous, more ethical, human beings. These kinds of friends spend a lot of their lives together, helping one another, comforting one another, trying to bring out the best in one another. Aristotle talks about the true friends as someone who holds up a mirror to us and shows us what kind of person we really are. For Aristotle, these kinds of people will be rare in our lives.

It may be the case that SNS encourage us to confuse these different categories of friends. It seems possible that our "friendsters" bring us pleasure and might be of some advantage to us (especially if we share interests in hobbies, music, books, etc). Rosen's worry seems to be that building the kind of trust, intimacy, and genuine sharing needed for virtue friendships is hardly to be found on SNS and the more time we spend on them, the less time and ethical knowledge we have to learn how to be "real friends" with someone.

Critics of Aristotle point out that he seems to think that friends are going to be very like minded, sharing ideals of what the good life will be, and working toward those ideas as a united front. But it seems unrealistic to think, in today's world, that we will find people who will be so like minded as to be complete mirrors of ourselves. Maybe its better to think of friends, as Alan Watt does, as those people who will challenge, confront, and argue with us to become better people by presenting us with differences instead of sameness. The only problem here, as Rosen points out, is that a perusal of MySpace, for instance, will reveal how very alike people are to one another. Profiles come in prearranged formats with little details to be filled in about your interest in popular culture (that homogeneity is the norm is not surprising since MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch's huge media conglomerate that now includes FOX and The Wall Street Journal). But standardization is more the rule in cyberspace. There may not be a lot available there to really even challenge us to live beyond the box which is our own little world bounded by family, social role, and territory.

Will it be necessary to develop new language of friendship for the future? And since Aristotle thought that democracy only really worked among a community of people who could trust each other as friends, what will SNS mean for the future of democracy?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Carnivals!

Check out the Engage classics and lots of great work from around the world at the newest blog carnivals:

Carnival of Feminists # 45 and the Carnival of Liberals.

This is Sparta? (Or why 300 Sucks)

The conservative position in the culture wars is usually that colleges and universities are failing the public because they no longer teach the classics and have given in to feminism, multiculturalism, and race studies. Philosopher Roger Scruton makes that argument here, adding that there is no longer a religious foundation to our education either so we are in a moral vacuum.

Anthony Kronman adds a new twist to all this. His view is that colleges and universities are failing us because humanities departments are no longer helping students to ask the Big Questions : "Why are we here?", "What is the meaning of life?" Instead, we have universities in which natural and social sciences have taken over in providing analyses of social, political, and economic life, but no moral direction. Young people today are supposedly craving this kind of value discussion and the only place they find it is in religious contexts. Higher education is failing them by not being able to talk about the really important matters--the kinds of issues that are brought up in great works of art and literature. (Disclaimer: he says that there are a few schools that do this; Reed College in Portland, Oregon being one of them. I am a Reedie and did, in fact, sit through and enjoy years of talk about Homer's The Iliad.)

Kronman's argument is a little odd. I'm not sure if he has ever stepped into a philosophy class at Yale, where he used to work, but I can imagine such questions are raised quite a bit there.

More importantly, this is a version of blaming the victim. As this article, on the book that gave rise to the conservative backlash against multiculturalism (The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom in 1987), indicates, American undergraduates are not abandoning the humanities because they would rather go into women's, black, or peace studies. Most of them are going into much more "practical" areas such as business or engineering so they can get a job at the end of their 4-6 years that will allow them to pay off their massive student loans. Universites and colleges are not failing students by cheating them of more English and philosophy courses; the country is failing universities and colleges by not providing affordable higher education for more students. The market doesn't value the kind of person who can be versed in the Big Questions, unless that person can also design a marketing campaign or build a bridge.

But there's another aspect that I find interesting about these kinds of "back to the classics" arguments. There is an assumption that the great works will teach us important lessons about human nature, our emotions, etc because they have "eternal themes". I think its clear that these works can have very different interpretations (and not all of them are good ones, of course). The question then is this: how do we know which interpretations are the good ones and which are not? Are the classics valuable because they engage us in asking these questions about interpretation? But then, aren't we asking them to give us answers we already know?

For instance, James Dillion writes a fine piece about why the movie Troy is a really bad interpretation of The Illiad ( I kinda liked the movie until I read this essay). Essentially, Troy turned a really complex story into a sappy, Hollywood love tale, removing the layers of conflict and nuance that make this a great work.

The same goes for 300. As an example, here is this famous scene in which the proverbial gauntlet is thrown down between the Spartans and the Persians:

So why is this bad? Well, 300 is indeed based on Book 7 of Herodotus' Histories (another work we read at Reed during the first year). But the historical inaccuracies in this film are quite legion and telling. Despite all the talk about the rule of law and freedom and such, Leonides acts without a lot of virtue here. Killing a messenger was indeed the mark of madness--it was considered more than rude; it was to be without xenia. One could argue that Leonides was responding to the insult of the Persian messenger and that the messenger was the one who violated the ethical relationship of host and guest that was central to both of these cultures.

Greek literature is filled with these kinds of episodes dealing with conflict and xenia. The Trojan war, as recounted in the Iliad, begins because of an violation of xenia--Paris steals Helen away from Menelaus and whisks her back to Troy. But an example closer to this scene is found in Euripides' play The Suppliant Women. There, the ruler of Athens, Theseus, is confronted by a messenger from another Greek city state who proceeds to insult the democratic way of life and then threatens Athens with destruction. However, Theseus does not proceed to kill the herald--instead he gives a speech on how important it is to obey the rule of law and the moral teachings of the gods and then sends the messenger away (but I guess those Athenian philosophers and "boy lovers" aren't men enough to kick people down wells when they are angry)

The end result of 300 is more a metaphor for our times (angry, threatened, millitant) and a reflection of Frank Miller's own conservative, almost xenophobic, views and in that way, it is more like Troy than an opportunity to reflect on Herodotus and whatever we can learn from that great work. So how do we know when we get at those parts of the works that really truly answer the Big Questions?

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Does the United States Care about Indians?

Indigenous people around the world are celebrating the final adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. However, four nations went on record before the General Assembly saying they opposed the adoption of this non-binding resolution: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Eleven other nations abstained.

The four countries that voted no claimed that the resolution was unacceptable to them because it violated ideals of "fairness" (Australia), "equality" (New Zealand), and was overly "vague" and "redundant" (Canada). The United States agreed with these other three nations and added that it was upset because it felt it had been left out of the final negotiations in drafting the declaration.

What is especially galling about these justifications is that the writing of the declaration has been going on for OVER 22 YEARS! You would think that if the rights of indigenous peoples really mattered to these governments, they would have worked harder to craft a resolution they could support.

You can find a FAQ about the declaration here. The general idea behind it is to affirm the equality of indigenous people, as well as the right for indigenous groups to work with governments to preserve their languages and cultures. Provisions that particularly rankled some countries dealt with giving indigenous culutres more control over land, territories, and natural resources near ancestral homelands. Indigenous leaders have pointed out that many of the world's untapped resources, such as oil, fresh water, and minerals are found in traditionally indigenous lands. Finally, the declaration tries to open the path for the consideration of reparations for the colonization, exploitation, and oppression of indigenous peoples.

There are many people in philosophy who argue against these kinds of provisions as well. For those who subscribe to political liberalism, human rights are owed to individuals, not collective groups. How do we deal, for instance, with the case in which Maori groups in New Zealand requested that women curators not handle certain sacred objects for display in museums because this violated their cultural norms? Isn't that asking the larger society to adopt values that go against the ideal of gender equality? For resources in thinking about the "ownership" of culture and ideas, see this website on intellectual property and indigenous people.

Also listen to the Engage interview with Allison Davis White-Eyes on indigenous rights today.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Readin, Writin, and Fightin: I Wanna Study War Some More!

Victor Davis Hanson argues that what we are missing from contemporary education is more of an emphasis on military history and the study of war. Young people no longer can talk about great battles in history, such as Marathon, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Tet, and and they don't how much of our world is the result of what occured in those killing fields. Instead, Hanson thinks, students are taught that war and violence are bad things to be avoided at all costs and there is nothing worse than organizing a military and building weapons to fight. He points out that the study of military history at our universities is disappearing and there are less and less professors who study war professionally.

Obviously, Hanson thinks this trend away from war studies is bad for us. Part of his argument is that this trend is being pushed by academics who are out of touch with popular tastes. People love war stories and movies like Saving Private Ryan and 300 and they attend military air shows all over the country. The academy ought to be attentive to these impulses.

War studies can teach the public military virutes, such as honor, sacrifice, and patriotism, Hanson says, but it also gives us historical standards by which to judge war. We are able to judge the scale of wars (the American casualties in Iraq compare nothing to Vietnam!), we learn that war is not the worst thing that can happen to a society (Hanson points out that flu in 1918 killed more people in the U.S. than WWI), and we learn that war is not always the result of a breakdown of communication, but, in fact, is sometimes a struggle against evil. Hanson writes:

"Bin Laden attacked on September 11 not because there was a dearth of American diplomats willing to dialogue with him in the Hindu Kush. Instead, he recognized that a series of Islamic terrorist assaults against U.S. interests over two decades had met with no meaningful reprisals, and concluded that decadent Westerners would never fight, whatever the provocation—or that, if we did, we would withdraw as we had from Mogadishu."

A very casual glance at the OSU Library Catalog gave me the following numbers: there are 27,961 items under a key word search for "war". For "peace", there are 5, 972 items. Its true that our history department does not emphasize military history, but we do have a strong ROTC program with military science as a minor. Anyone wanting to study war at OSU seems to have ample tools with which to begin.

In his effort to re-establish war as a field of academic study, Hanson neglects some sage advice, not from figures usually associated with the "peace racket" (I'll write more about that later), but from classical American philosophy.

I think of William James's classic essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War" where he tells pacifists that it is unwise to ignore folks (such as Hanson) who advocate for war. Instead, James says we need to listen to what they think the benefits are and then realize that those virtures and forms of wisdom can be acquired from other practices and ways of life. We need to find the "moral equivalent" of war as pacifists and it is possible.

Josiah Royce, in his work The Philosophy of Loyalty, published just a couple of years after James's essay, portrays the ways to construct a life that embodies the virtues of honor and sacrifice but without engaging in violence or other ways that will destroy the ability of others to have their own loyalties. You can get a good discussion of Royce here. (Royce was no pacificist--he strongly supported the US involvement in WWI).

Jane Addams also wrote along these lines too, at just about the same time. In her 1907 book, Newer ideals of Peace, she argues for finding civilian alternatives to war service that will inspire people to feel patriotism and a sense of collective purpose in working together for the welfare of society. She, of course, went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Check out the important chapter on this here

For all these thinkers, the insistence that we need to think about war some more for a better society is a grand failure of imagination.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Animal Cruelty on the Scale of Things: Are we all Michael Vick?

Last week, football play Michael Vick pleaded guilty to charges of engaging in dog fighting rings and will most likely end up in jail for it. The case has raised the issue of animal cruelty in our society. This piece points out that in most of the world, dogs are not treated particularly well or given the moral status that we do in the United States. It raises the question whether our revulsion against what Michael Vick did is an ethical issue or a culturally relativistic point: Is animal cruelty wrong, from a moral point of view, or is it a practice we think is wrong but is like driving on the right hand side of the road (we think its the right way to do it, but there's no good reason for believing that it should be the only way to drive)?

Philosopher Peter Singer, in this brief interview, clarifies that the issue of dogfighting is indeed a moral issue. But if we are to take it seriously, then we must start to raise questions about the treatment of many other animals, such as pigs and chickens, who suffer tremendous cruelty at the hands of human beings in factory farming. Singer argues there are distinct moral differences between dogfighting, hunting, and factory farming. Dog fighting is wrong because it inflicts needless suffering simply for the pleasure of human beings. Hunting is usually not cruel if it is done for food, since most careful hunters try not to prolong an animal's pain. The worst of these, from the moral point of view, would be factory farming, in which millions of animals are kept under indecent conditions involving filth, cramped quarters and disfigurement. From Singer's point of view, we ought to consider the scale of suffering that this industrial practice inflicts and to which most of us are complicit every time we go to the grocery store.

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