Paglia on postmodernism

I became curious about this social critic, Camille Paglia, as she spoke about characteristics of dwindling civilisations at some point.

Here is her interview with the celebrity-academic-provocateur Jordan Peterson. She speaks about her subject with impressive passion. Some of what she says seems arrogant and self-congratulatory but some parts of it are refreshing.

I have it set to the point where she talked about the 1960s and went straight into the no true Scotsman fallacy – which very nearly put me off watching the rest of it along with her body language that doesn’t quite match her words (psychedelics that she identifies with “totally” while also pushing them away with both hands).

But if you soldier on, she says some interesting stuff from 8:00.

 

Don’t ask why?…

A reader kindly sent me this article.

I don’t agree with its analysis, but it has some interesting points about using what vs why can have a significantly different effect.

During my stint in psychiatry, I learnt perhaps the most helpful question: what makes you say that? Notably, not a why question even though it asks about the same thing.

I also remember a brilliant psychiatrist giving a patient advice. The patient had a personality disorder and started reading about them to understand why she has it. He told her that at that point reading that could make it worse – and that interventions such as mindfulness and therapy were superior.

As for my disagreement. The article suggests introspective people are unhappy. It assumes and, with a very simple experiment, shows that asking why causes people to be sad. I think that introspective people aren’t sad because they are introspective, but sad and poorly self-aware people turn to introspection. And Negative Capability is still a thing.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

Critical thinking or empathy?

Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.

If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had

A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy

B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,

which would you choose?

I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.

In B, you side with the first person you meet.

Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*

People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.

Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.

Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?

A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.

An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.

Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.

Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.

It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.

I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)

Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?

Some other places talking about empathy:

The Atlantic, ViceThe Guardian

* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.

** George F.  brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.

Notes on The Last Psychiatrist

I love few things more than a great blog. My latest find: The Last Psychiatrist, an archived blog, mostly about narcissism.

I was so excited to learn his insights… I made notes.

What follows are his finest insights about narcissism and my comments.

Imagine a crowded subway, and a beautiful woman gets on. Hyper-beautiful, the kind of woman who can wear no makeup, a parka, earmuffs and a bulky scarf and that somehow makes her look even prettier. A handsome man about her age in an expensive suit gets up and says, “please, take my seat.” She smiles, and hastily sits down.

TLP (The Last Psychiatrist), as the author refers to himself, gives us two options as to how the woman should think about this:

  1. This was a sexually motivated act as far as the man was concerned
  2. He was just being nice

If you think of narcissism as grandiosity you miss the nuances, e.g. in her case the problem is narcissism without any grandiosity:

she is so consumed with her identity (as not pretty) that she is not able to read, to empathise with, other people’s feelings. Source

In another post, TLP explains why narcissism isn’t necessarily about grandiosity. This is a blatantly obvious point that escapes most people, unfortunately.

Being the main character of your own film isn’t necessarily grandiose. It is narcissistic though because all the other characters are only important because they help the viewer to understand the main story line.

Here are some less obvious traits of narcissism TLP outlined:

Shame over guilt (I think this is because shame is an emotion directed at the self, whereas guilt is an emotion directed at your victim)

envy over greed (greed would be a primary reason to look for something, whereas envy is only a desire to catch up because otherwise otherwise it’s a bad reflection on you. I liked how this was called “existential agency” here.)

He [the narcissist] thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X… (and that’s one of the reasons why we love brands)

The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong;  but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.

And this really brings it back to the original myth that TLP broke down beautifully here:

Narcissus mother took him to a clairvoyant who said, “He’ll have a long life as long as he never knows himself.

Narcissus kept rejecting people who fell in love with him because they weren’t good enough.

One rejected lover was furious and begged Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, for retribution.  “If Narcissus ever falls in love, don’t let the love be returned!”

Nemesis  heard the prayer and caused Narcissus to fall in love with himself: he was lead to a  pool of water, and when he looked into it, he fell in love with what he saw.  And what he saw wasn’t real, so of course it couldn’t love him back.  But Narcissus sat patiently, forever, hoping that one day that beautiful person in the bottom of the pool was going to come out and love him.

Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus’s punishment.

This brings up an interesting point: how are you meant to feel about yourself?

Let’s first look at what we want. What we pay for. A huge portion of marketing directly helps us to be in love with ourselves, because we’re worth it. They’re not even trying to hide that the feeling of being in love with yourself is what they’re selling. And it’s not punishment as we see it – otherwise we wouldn’t buy it. I suppose it’s a psychic equivalent of putting a person on heroin. You mightn’t feel it’s a punishment, but it is.

Then there are the more subtle “intellectual” publications that help you love yourself (see the distinction from being in love with yourself? Cause that would be shallow.) I wonder how many pages were dedicated to helping people see Narcissus’ infatuation as Buddhist acceptance or some other high and mighty concept.

There isn’t really anywhere that would tell you that you’re meant to not love yourself.

What happened to Narcissus doesn’t really sound so horrible in today’s culture. Maybe he wouldn’t have even retaken a selfie if he lived today and been happy with the first shot? That level of self-acceptance is just enviable! He’s winning at life by millennial standards!… Indeed, TPL calls narcissism “a generational pathology”.

TLP goes on to discuss Narcissus’ parents’ role, which I thought was priceless:

He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.

Forget about whether the prophecy is true.  Ask instead, “what would the parents have done once they heard it?”…

Next time I feel insignificant and weak, maybe I need to hold on to that feeling, because my culture will obviously infuse me with my own grandiosity without me ever trying.

TLP has another explanation for why Narcissus stayed looking at the primordial selfie lake though.

He didn’t stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair.  He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.

In other words, Narcissus didn’t recognise himself and spent all that time conjuring up images of how wonderful life would be with that person in the reflection…

And the DSM says exactly that, only it adds a grandiose twist: “preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”.

I am confused now.

Narcissus fell in love with himself, only he didn’t know if was himself.

So, as far as Narcissus was concerned, he was genuinely in love with another human being – only they were unreachable. Their personality was entirely a figment of his imagination…

Wait, that’s not Narcissus, that’s Gatsby! (Who also dies in a body of water, fair dues to FitzGerald).

Narcissus’ crime wasn’t being in love with himself at all. Phew, it’s ok to let L’Oreal and #positivethinking to get money and likes.

Narcissus’ crime was not knowing himself.

Actually, no, again.

TLP puts it better:

The moral of the story of Narcissus, told as a warning for the very people who refuse to hear it as such, is that how Narcissus came to be is irrelevant.  What was important was what he did, and what he did – was nothing.

And that’s his main crime: he never cared about anyone real. To me that’s all one ever needs to know to understand narcissism.

TLPs advice on how to not be a narcissist is to fake it. I think what TLP’s getting at is that your behaviour is much more important than your identity.

Another reason to be less demanding

“I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

I came across the idea that our self-esteem is equal to our opinion of others.

Sounds esoteric, but I reflected on it and there may be something to it.

Assumption:

A mentally well person accepts that she is an ordinary human being and that most people who surround her are ordinary human beings.

Hence,

a) if she is highly critical of most ordinary human beings, on an average day she is critical of herself

b) if she is accepting of others’ faults,on an average day she accepts her own faults

Doesn’t this add up?

I sort of talked about this when I hypothesised that people criticise others for the things they hate about themselves. Reading over it, it seems naive and slightly needy, but I still think there was a grain of truth in it.

“Yet another reason to not be a demanding pig”, I gently remind myself.

Can we have both equality and diversity?

About the infamous Google Memo… Here is a review of reactions to the controversial piece.

Facts:

  • A Google engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo entitled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. [Read original]
  • It went viral via internal communication means within Google.
  • He got fired because of it.
  • (A less relevant, but curious fact: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, offered him a job and accused Google of censorship.)

Here are some interesting articles from both sides:

The Economist (sits on the fence)

“This isn’t a question of legality or policy. This is a question of virtue-signalling” [Read]

Bloomberg (argues it was wrong for Google to foreclose the debate so crudely)

“An employee trying to grapple with these problems — clumsily but earnestly — has now been shown the door, thanks mostly to performative online outrage.” [Read]

The Financial Times (denounces the author)

“Responding to the memo is somewhat challenging because it is almost pure drivel, offering up a mix of fallacies, mindless reductions of popular social science and hand-waving at ‘research.'” [Read]

The Atlantic (addressing the error-full coverage of the matter)

“To object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x.” [Read]

The Atlantic, again (agrees memo is discriminatory)

“The memo… seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. “[Read]

Slate (is pretty enraged)

“The manifesto suggests a culture that is inviting enough for someone who views some of his fellow employees as lesser to share his opinions and be cheered on” [Read]

Business Insider (highlights authors vulnerable legal position in the context of free speech)

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents the government from restricting your speech. It doesn’t restrict your employer from controlling your speech when you are at work, citing a Google manager: “freedom of speech is the right to freely express an opinion. It is most assuredly not the right to express an opinion with freedom from the consequences.”

Quillette (has four psychologists sustain points made my memo author)

“Psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.” [Read]

Right-wing Twitter is rallying to support the author of the memo:

Google memo right wing twitter commentary

A Linked influencer, Adam Grant (argues that differences between men and women are exaggerated)

“Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.” [Read]

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (refutes Grant’s points)

“Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.”

Something that occurred to me that I haven’t seen anywhere – and this neither disproves not confirms the memo author’s argument, but it’s something that I feel is important.

Assuming that average men and average women are different in their precise cognitive and emotional strengths, this bears very little significance when it comes to outliers. For its tech roles Google hires from the very top, i.e. from the extreme “end” of the right tail. Outlier men and outlier women don’t behave the same way as average men and women. In fact, outliers are virtually impossible to study with the same confidence that we study average people.

Very curious what you think.

And let’s keep the mood light 🙂

UPD: somebody invited me to Google image “white man and white woman” and “European people history”. What Google shows is below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.28Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.46

One more point of information: Duck Duck Go search results are virtually the same. Make of it what you will.

UPD 2: Jordan Peterson, who himself was nearly kicked out of Google’s YouTube recently, interviews James Damore [Video]