Your Life is Not a Joke

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I'm obsessed with podcasts, and staying home with Solomon this semester has allowed me to feed the addiction. I've listened to S-town twice, I'm 100 episodes away from being completely caught up on TAL (This American Life, for the layfolk), and I listen to more news and commentary than there are actually occurring events in the world (slight exaggeration).  So when I heard about The Hilarious World of Depression -- a podcast that features famous and obscure comedians talking about their "struggles with depression" -- I opened up the ol' podcast app and hit subscribe.

Here's the thing, though: the podcast isn't at all funny. Depression, it turns out, is a serious downer of a topic, and -- for me -- it's actually kind of draining to listen to people talk about it. 

Which is weird, because I'm also kind of obsessed with depression.  For reasons I won't totally go into here (in keeping with the general thesis of this post), I've had enough personal experience with depression to want to really understand what the hell it is. It can appear in real life like this baffling, beastly, invisible madness, and demystifying it seems like one of the only ways to really fight with it head on. Since this podcast literally just consists in a bunch of talented public speakers opening up and sharing their experiences and insights into this mental strangeness, I thought the result would be a clear-headed take on something I've struggled for years to even understand.

But it wasn't. 

Instead, it comes across as a series of interviews with people I don't relate with on many levels, talking in general terms about a thing that's impacted their life in predictable ways. They're brave to do it. They give good advice (even if a bit simplistic: meds can help, other people don't really get it). But there's something...off about the whole way the discussion unfolds. Something, I think, that had to do with a bigger cultural gap in understanding when it comes to mental health and mental pathologies.

Okay, so the podcast sort of fell flat for me. Not a big deal. But then, the other day, I came across two related bits of cultural commentary. The first was a comedy special called "Three Microphones" (it's on Netflix), where this guy -- maybe he's a famous comedian, I don't recognize him -- does stand-up mixed with what is literally him talking into a microphone as if reporting on the contents of his therapy sessions. The second, a comedy special by Chris Gethard on HBO called "Career Suicide," features a comedian telling sad stories with funny moments in them about the progression of his depression and mental illness throughout his life.

Two things before we move on: (1) I only comment critically on these specials because they are comedy specials. Public objects of entertainment / art that have been created an offered as such by their authors. (2) In critiquing these objects, I don't mean to critique the experiences of the authors, and certainly don't mean for my comments to be taken to apply more generally, to the experiences of individuals who have not created and offered such art objects. Okay. The critique:

I don't like these comedy specials. And not just because they aren't funny (which they aren't, really). They are self-indulgent and boring, for one thing, and they seriously lack perspective. In short: they are exactly what one should do in therapy, and exactly what one should *not* do on a stage in front of a bunch of people. That's not to say that one shouldn't talk about things like depression. Obviously not. And it's not to say that one can't joke about it, or even joke about it in an insightful way (Louis CK's got some incredible bits in "2017" -- also on Netflix -- where he takes on exactly these issues), but I don't think these specials do anything to advance the cultural conversation on depression and mental illness. Of course, there's the obvious point that we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed to talk about mental illness, and some might argue that these comics are doing just that. But we shouldn't be afraid to talk about science or 19th century horticultural technology, but that doesn't mean anyone who gets up on a stage and does so in the name of comedy is offering us something of value.

I want to reiterate the narrowness of my original point: I just didn't think these specials were funny. But now I want to make it slightly broader: I think this has something to do with a failure to understand -- to really grasp -- what depression is. I don't think we know as a culture. I think we're in a sort of odd position with respect to it. The symptoms -- sadness, a felt absence of meaning, a lack of joy -- seem more human, more like a moral or spiritual problem, than the pathologies we're used to treating. That's not to say that it's not a mental illness, that it doesn't have physical causes, or that it can be explained in any psychological or scientific terms -- but it does seem deeper, more messy and human and bound up in the lived social experience of being a person than, say, a bacterial infection. Anyways, these specials illuminate just how poorly we understand the condition, but they do so, unfortunately, by demonstration. 

I think the problem may be as simple as a mismatch in media, and a failure to pick the right venue to deliver an important and heartfelt message. That doesn't excuse the artistic shortcomings of the specials (which I think are hard to get through, and which I don't particularly recommend), but it may make it easier to appreciate the good intentions that went into their production.

What I've Learned About Religious Belief from My Time Thus Far in Academic Philosophy

Like many committed believers, I got into philosophy via apologetics, and I got into apologetics via the almost constantly felt need to justify my religious beliefs (in the more ordinary sense of that term). Both to myself and to those who questioned me about them.  

By the time I reached college, then, I was reading Aquinas, Augustine, and the others. I was even reading Aristotle and Plato as if they were -- as many Christian thinkers sometimes pretty boldly assert -- pre-Christian philosophers, or philosophers whose ratio was just missing an essential bit of fidei.

This trajectory, then, set me up for a kind of eventual disappointment when it came to contemporary philosophy of religion and religious belief. Having been raised in a post-enlightenment, modern western culture, I've come to associate "latest" or "most recent" with "best," "authoritative," and "comprehensive." I sort of assumed that contemporary philosophical thinking about religion would be to the classics what the iPhone 7 is to the SE, an all encompassing update that's only missing the unnecessary bits.   

I don't think that anymore. 

Not because I don't think contemporary philosophy of religion is very good (I think some truly great religious thinking has been produced -- in academic philosophy and elsewhere -- in the past 50 or 100 years). But because my whole view of religious belief, and the role of intellectual traditions of such belief, has sort of shifted. 

The most important thing I've learned, of course, is always to keep a skull on your desk. 

The most important thing I've learned, of course, is always to keep a skull on your desk. 

I no longer model my view of philosophy on the naive view of science (or some of the more technical sciences) that I still have. I think the analogy is bad for a number of reasons I won't get into here, but suffice it to say that I take the aims and content of philosophical theorizing to be vastly different (though not, of course, incompatible with) science. 

I also don't particularly value contemporary intellectual consenses of any sort, or -- at least -- I don't defer to such consenses as much as j once did. This, I suppose, is a more general point, but the flux of history, the influence of irrelevant factors only recognizable in retrospect, and the vast layers of culture and ideology manifest in the most bizarre certitudes sometimes, and I feel that this recognition (one that came mostly through exposure to different contemporary and historical traditions, and to developments and disagreements within those traditions) has provided some reflective distance that, if nothing else, provides a certain amount of comfortable skepticism of the moment in history in which I find myself. 

I've also just been exposed to many exemplars of religious belief. People I respect as much as I've respected a home intellectually, who carefully and honestly have come to hold traditional religious views. 

With that prelude, then, here are a couple of views I've come to regarding religious belief, based on my experiences as an academic philosopher.

(1) There are bad reasons to believe in God, and these often bleed into mistaken conceptions of God, his nature, and the true nature of religious commitment in the world.

This is an instance of a much broader principle I've come to accept. Something like: practical commitments to the truth of various claims easily distort one's perception of important truths.  It's also the result of having come to recognize, in myself, the tendency to unconsciously assume that the reasons I have for a claim are either decisive, or that claim is false. Sometimes, just in coming into contact with other, better arguments for religious propositions I held, I came to appreciate the intellectual freedom we have from the standpoint of faith (though this freedom is not, of course, unique to the standpoint of religious faith). This training allowed me to separate my conclusions from my arguments, and my identity from both of those. It made me more comfortable with abstract thinking, especially when I learned how to better utilize it's tools so as not to feel vulnerable to the attacks of those whose aim is simply to separate believers from deeply held views. (I also came to realize there are far fewer such people than I had feared as a younger, less mature believer -- or at least fewer people with this as an explicit aim.)

Experiencing this freedom allowed me to really think hard about my motivations for belief in certain of my religious commitments, and convinced me that my motives were often less pure than I had assumed. 

(2) Academic philosophy has convinced me that theism isn't obviously irrational, and that there aren't any easy answers regarding God and religion

I assumed, before I entered my PhD program, that advanced study in philosophy would reveal the truth about religion in a straightforward, and strongly clarifying way. As in: I thought that by the time I graduated, it'd be obvious whether there are good arguments for God's existence, what from the tradition is worthwhile and what is outdated, how one ought to go about deciding what religion to follow, etc.  

None of these things are even remotely obvious to me. As I said above, there are some reasons for beliefs (and some views) that I used to hold that now seem silly, but beyond this very narrow set of discardable hypotheses there's a massive amount of viable theoretical ground. 

 (3) I've also come to appreciate the appropriate role of rational autonomy in these questions -- not as a tether to certitude, but as a way of aiming, in a more holistic way, at the truth

Perhaps it's partly a result of the aforementioned training (and the intellectual flexibility that I've developed as a result of this training), but I think there are also good theoretical reasons to reject the view of the thinker as her own intellectual authority. Coming up against my own intellectual and epistemic limitations on a weekly (or even daily) basis probably helped drive home this point as well, but we are all creatures that are both fallible and essentially relational. We function better in society along almost any given practical, physical, and emotional measure. It stands to reason, then, that we will flourish intellectually when we acknowledge similarly social features of our intellectual lives.

This means, in my experience, that autonomy (or total intellectual independence) isn't some sort of rational ideal, but is, instead, the possession of a perspective from which we ought to strategize in order to reach the truth. This is the bit that has freed me up the most, I think. Instead of bearing the constant burden of rationalizing or abandoning each and every religious commitment I have on my own, I now see my faith -- even the intellectual aspect of it -- as the sort of thing I can live out in community. I now see my intellectual "stance" as it were, as one of faith seeking understanding.

SB Police Dept. Launches "Transparency Hub" Website

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Regular readers will recall a few posts some time back about a high profile case involving SBD. At the time, there was a great deal of concern amongst residents regarding the climate, culture, structure, and practices of the department, and residents and local media called upon the department and the mayor's office to increase the level of transparency regarding local law enforcement.

I came across this (apparently new) website today, and it looks promising at first glance.  (Full link: http://police-southbend.opendata.arcgis.com/)

Scrolling through, I see information regarding the Board of Public Safety (mayoral appointees who oversee some disciplinary actions involving SBPD officers) -- including documents and information from past meetings, and information about when and where it will next meet. I also see some sort of search feature that makes at least some law enforcement data public, some tools to make that data more user friendly, information and tools regarding (at least some) incidents involving a use of force, and access to legal documents from some past litigation that the city and the department have been involved in. Finally, it appears as if you can access the recent privately commissioned report on the SBPD, and the departments restructuring plan (something that residents requested a few months back, but were unable -- until now -- to access).

I haven't explored these data, tools, and features, and I'm not in a position to be able to say how comprehensive they are. Regardless, it looks like this website is a step in the right direction, and I'm glad to see the city -- especially the SBPD and the mayor's office -- follow up on some of the discussions that have been going on for a long time now.

If readers have a chance to explore this site, or if they have any information regarding how this tools compares with others used in police departments around the country, please comment below with that information.  Again, I'm cautiously optimistic (it doesn't seem like the tool can decrease the level of transparency at the SBPD), but very interested to hear more from those in a better position to evaluate it.

Weakness

The world I live in is filled with strong people. Healthy people who go about their work, who "play hard" and "work out" and move about more or less unencumbered within the contingent range of physical autonomy that we embodied beings enjoy. I'm one of these people. I move about with an assumption of independence, with the freedom to go or stay, with access to virtually any structure, space, or environment that is publicly accessible.

But every now and again I'm separated from this world.

Credit 

I'm suddenly subject to physical restrictions I hadn't realized could be imposed. I find myself in an alien environment, where stairs, a curb, or the space between the pavement and my car door looks like the flat rock face of some glaring and unfriendly mountain. 

My condition isn't rare, or even all that serious, really. I've got chronic back pain caused by structural spinal and muscular problems. Most days it's not to serious, "A three or four out of ten," I'd say to my physical therapist. But every couple of months a wave of pain hits my lower back and -- sometimes literally -- knocks me off my feet. And wherever I am -- the grocery store, my apartment, the library -- I'm suddenly in the alternative version of that place, wondering how I'm going to make it back to my car or get to my doctor's office, wondering how I'm going to navigate the sprawling course of tactical challenges.

Things look strange in this alternative world. I've already mentioned the conceptual shift, how physical objects become obstacles. How the distances between objects, and how forces like gravity, become elements in the quest of navigation. How simple structures become boundaries. But the people in this world are strange as well.

Everyone I pass is someone I might potentially need to rely on, someone I might have to ask for help. I've literally shuffled along the sidewalk with my son in my arms, thinking, "Her? Could I ask her to hold him if I started to pass out? Do I trust her more than I fear falling down with my infant child?" They are also someone from whom I'm suddenly, desperately hiding my pain. I don't know why I feel the need to do this. I'm not ashamed of my physical weakness, or that's not entirely it. But it's something I don't want to have to explain. It's something I don't want to bother others with. After all, what could they do? 

So I move in extraordinary pain. I move in ways to mask that pain, to hide the fact that there's really only one or two ways of moving that actually work for me at the moment. I lean on my son's stroller, or grab a handrail or a bench. I stop and furrow my brow, as if thinking about where in the world I desire to go next. "Oh, you can go ahead," I tell the women at the base of an ominous looking staircase, "I just remembered I have somewhere else to be." 

This all makes me empathize with those who find themselves more permanently restricted.  

I don't understand what it would be like to live in that world -- my visits there are always fairly brief, I'm always just vacationing until Recovery brings me back to the world of Unrestricted Mobility.  I don't really want to understand it, to be honest. (Due to a fear, I think, that my spinal condition isn't as temporary or fixable as I've convinced myself.) But these visits have given me a tangible sense of the different kinds of needs present in our community. Of how hard it can be to communicate just what those needs are, of how frustrating it can be to have to do that, of how different things look from the perspective of immobility.

The thing that's so striking to me, too, about these experiences are how quickly the perspective itself vanishes. Days after I regain sufficient control of my body, the needs, worries, along with the entire conceptual scheme melt right back into the more ordinary experience of wellbeing. I hope -- pray, even -- that I bring something of the experience back with me, but if I do it's somewhere below the level of consciousness. I find it almost impossible to even willfully imagine myself back into this world, like it takes place in one of those dreams that become instantly and permanently inaccessible upon waking. 

How to Report on University Policy

Maybe people don't realize the metaphoric implications of talking about graduate funding and incentives as "carrots" and "sticks." Hopefully this illustration helps.

Maybe people don't realize the metaphoric implications of talking about graduate funding and incentives as "carrots" and "sticks." Hopefully this illustration helps.

Several people have brought to my attention this piece that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is bizarre.

I covered the changes to graduate funding on this blog here and here. When I covered it then, I did not take any position on the program itself. I did not claim that it is well designed, likely to succeed, fair to graduate students (in principle), or the opposite. And I won't now offer any such opinions either. 

What I will say is that the administration -- in particular Dean McGreevy -- was not then, and is not now, being honest about how Notre Dame designed, communicated about, and implemented this change. And now we're reading a story about the program that literally just takes the word of McGreevy (and a single professor in McGreevy's home department) at face value.

Reading the piece is like reading a university press release.

Departments were given adequate time leading up to the change, they tried out new course designs and structures, they changed requirements well in advance of its implementation so that students would be well into their dissertations by the end of their third years. 

As far as I can tell, these are lies or wild exaggerations.  

I spoke with DGS's during the implementation of this process who knew even less than grad students about the details of the proprosed program. And those details couldn't have been communicated up to a year in advance (as was implied by the article), because they weren't finalized until after the program was officially rolled out. 

And then there's the question of why the piece seems to suggest that this program is an incredible success (it's called "exemplary" and it is suggested that it has overcome persistent challenges and outperformed all similar programs that have come before it). 

The program is less than a year old. The only effects of it so far have been massive confusion within departments, who have mostly scrambled to scrap as many requirements as they can so that students in their first and second years will not find themselves in the positions that current 4th and 5th years have found themselves, who were expected to have met rigorous requirements up through the end of their 3rd year and sometimes into their fourth year, and who are now being told that funding beyond year five (no matter the circumstances) is "not guaranteed" (**THWACK!** That's the sound of a stick).

The article that appeared in CHE is irresponsible from a journalistic perspective. It took the words of the administrator who designed and implemented the program as fact, and -- so far as I can tell -- based the assessment of the effectiveness of the program on the word of a single professor in the home department of that very administrator (what was he supposed to say?!).  

It makes it sound like the program has achieved something when the program isn't even old enough to have generated any data that would support that claim.

I wrote to the author of the piece (Professor Leonard Cassuto), and I would encourage others to do the same.

 

To: <lcassuto@erols.com>

Dear Professor Cassuto,

I recently read your piece on the College of Arts and Letters new funding structure at Notre Dame.

I'm a graduate student at the university of Notre Dame (I'm in the philosophy department), and I wanted to let you know that your piece seems wildly inaccurate from my perspective. I realize that it's likely to strike me in a different way than an average (or more disinterested) reader, but the piece read as though you'd just interviewed Dean McGreevy and someone in the history department and took their word on how the program was designed and implemented.

From my perspective, the program was designed in a hurry and implemented with virtually no preparation. For instance, you say that departments started experimented with alternative course offerings in advance, and that they had been told to start changing structural requirements before the program was rolled out -- but I know for a fact that our department didn't not know the full details of the program even weeks before it was announced as fully implemented (they couldn't have, since the details were not even finalized until *after* it was rolled out).

Some of my concerns (and the concerns of other grad students) were summarized on my blog here: http://paul-blaschko.squarespace.com/blog/2016/2/22/funding-woes, and here: http://paul-blaschko.squarespace.com/blog/2016/3/4/funding-woes-part-2

As I said there, I have not taken a position on whether the program is (or is likely to be) effective (I'm a grad student in philosophy, not an administrator or a social scientist, or an expert on graduate education), but I do think that much of what Dean McGreevy told you is simply false, and much of what was implied by your article was -- as a result -- inaccurate.

I'm happy to talk to you about this at greater length if you'd like, or to answer any questions you might have by email.

Thanks very much,

Paul Blaschko, 

University of Notre Dame

Matt Walsh's ND Talk Was Lazy, Conservative Catholics Need to Do Better

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Yesterday Notre Dame's Young Americans for Freedom (or, YAF, pronounced like you're sneezing)  invited Conservative provocateur Matt Walsh to speak on the general state of cultural decline, and why "liberals" are to blame for it. I decided to go after speaking with a couple of YAF's (*excuse me!*) leaders in LaFortune the other day. They were thoughtful and intelligent, and we had a great conversation about what it's like to be politically conservative on campus (Notre Dame's campus and campuses more generally). I'm really interested in that topic, partly because I considered myself a political conservative throughout my college experience. (I don't now identify with either side of the political spectrum. When people ask, I say, "Well, I'm Catholic. And in academia. We probably don't agree on anything.")

In any event, I went to the talk hoping for...something. I guess I was hoping to peek inside culture amongst conservative undergrads. I have an insane amount of respect for ND students, and I've found that it's almost impossible to get students to talk about political commitments that aren't currently known to be academically fashionable in the classroom, for good reason. I do think there's a fair amount of thought policing that goes on in academia -- if I were a business major and a republican at ND, why would I risk letting a TA who has almost complete control over my grade, and who may have been sympathetic to this piece of writing, know that? (Seriously?! You'd have failed Murray for what he's written? I'm glad I've never had you as a TA!) Better to keep your head down, I suppose. 

I was also hoping for something from Walsh. Some arguments, perhaps, or some real substantive cultural criticism from a political position I don't fully identify with, but that I find tempting in a number of respects. 

And what did we get?

What might have been the laziest, most caricatured version of the "liberals are heretics" schtick that anyone who keeps an eye on the Catholic blogosphere scrolls through a couple of times per week. 

I mean, you can watch the talk for yourself here if you want. I could also paraphrase all the interesting bits in a couple sentences:

  • Notre Dame -- Our Lady's University -- has invited pro-choice speakers to campus. Shame on Notre Dame. 
  • Notre Dame has a Gender Studies Department! Shaaaaaammmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeeeee. 
  • But Notre Dame just illustrates a bigger problem, which is that Catholics -- because they aren't properly catechised -- are susceptible to liberal ideology, which is basically SATANISM. And what's the problem with liberalism? 
  • LIFE: liberals want all or most babies dead. Imagine a heap of dead babies as high as Mount Everest. Liberal (satanists) eat that shit up. They LOVE it. They'd probably worship it if that wouldn't give away the fact that they are in cahoots WITH THE LITERAL DEVIL. 
  • MARRIAGE: Oh the gays! They want to get married, so they deny the existence of Absolute Truth. This allows them to put their feelings in the place truth should hold in cultural debates, and is the reason why people were fooled into rejecting the ultimate rational argument against gay marriage, namely: it's definitional. Gay marriage is definitionally impossible. Like a round square. Or something. 
  • GENDER: Ha! Heard a good one the other day! There's a gender called "Gender Flux" and one called "agender" -- these FOOLS don't even respect BIOLOGY. 

That was about it. I mean, he hated on compassion for a while. (Christ doesn't care about how you feel! He cares about your immortal soul. So let's all be dicks about stuff. That's how you really care about your friends. Shame them into salvation.) He also bemoaned the fact that we're not all a bit more obsessed with mortal sins like pornography and masturbation. 

And that was it. I think I've captured the essence of it. 

Okay, so let me be really clear about something. I don't think Walsh's claims are all (or even mostly) false. People who know me will likely be surprised by how plausible I find some of the more controversial things Walsh said. I think a lot of these issues are live, and I think respectable intellectual positions have been marginalized by trends in the mainstream (which has been moving swiftly and steadily to left on social issues in a way noticeable even during my lifetime).  

I also get why people like watching Matt speak. And reading his blog. Especially conservative college students -- especially conservative college students who feel unwelcome for their political views on campus. 

It feels good to watch someone get in the ring, dressed up in all the symbolic gear that lets you know they're the good guys, and kick ass.  

Unfortunately in our culture, we're at a point where all one has to do to "kick ass" in this way is to say socially unacceptable things that resonate deeply with underrepresented intellectual positions. 

Maybe we shouldn't be encouraging transgendered people to undergo surgical transitions. 

Or, maybe marriage ought to be defined in the law as between a man and a women.

Or, maybe mortal sin is a thing, and maybe that's something we should pay attention to. 

Okay, so you're not going to convince any opponents by merely asserting (without argument) these claims, but the fact that someone even has the guts to get out there and say it. That they'll even say it on a college campus. I mean, that's all conservative student groups are looking for nowadays. 

And -- again -- I completely understand why.  

College can be an alienating place (trust me, I know), and academia can be even more alienating for those with views outside the academic mainstream. 

But, you guys, we've got to do better. 

Walsh offered no arguments. He didn't analyze any of the cases he offered in anything approaching a convincing manner. Take the "ND invites pro-choice speakers to campus" point. Well, ND allows student groups to invite any speakers they see fit. They don't need to. We're a private college campus. But the administration thinks there's value in this policy. In a "free speech" policy. In allowing student groups to invite controversial speakers, regardless of their ideological commitments. Is this a good policy? I don't know. Let's debate it. 

  • Pro: Of course! Allowing all views to be represented is good for everyone on campus. Those who disagree will come up with stronger arguments if they are exposed to real life interlocutors. Those who agree may find themselves disagreeing with the particular grounds that speaker has for supporting the view. And it's always better for the power to invite speakers to be with the students. If ND started policing campus invites, who would make those decisions? If ND is the sort of place Walsh (and the Cardinal Newman Society and the Sycamore Trust) say it is, why would you want to concentrate that power in an (already corrupt) administration? So, behind closed doors, a secret group of ideology police might have decided that Walsh's speech wasn't of value, could have refused to let YAF (*I'm getting over it, I swear!*) invite him. I'm glad that didn't happen. I wouldn't want that to happen in the future. I think the "open speaker policy" is a good one. 
  • Con: Notre Dame is a Catholic University, and an influential one at that. She shouldn't give a platform to those who self-consciously reject important church teachings. Instead, she should spend her time bringing to prominence positions that get less of a hearing in the mainstream culture. Perhaps New Wave Feminists (pro-life feminists) could be invited to give secular reasons why abortion is immoral and ought to be illegal. Or perhaps we should just stick to those avowing such positions for reasons internal to Catholicism. In this way, ND could be a "light in the darkness" -- could minister and evangelize, rather than cater to a culture that has already gained too much influence over it. 

Who wins? I don't know. We'd have to put these positions into dialogue. Is "free speech" more central to ND's identity than "evangelization"? Are the two commensurable? Is there an in-principle answer to questions like this (something like 1. All Catholic universities have a duty to _______, 2. ND is a Catholic university....) 

I don't know. I'd love to hear those arguments. But we didn't get anywhere close to that with Walsh's talk. 

And that is the fundamental problem with this event.  

In my view, lazy conservative pep rallies do more harm to conservative causes on campus than they do good. I mean, yeah, we got fired up. And, yeah, we saw the clown man say all those taboo things. But there was nothing edifying about what happened last night. There was nothing intellectually stimulating. There was a lot of back patting, a lot of shaming (more than I'd anticipated!), and not much else. 

I should say, in closing, that I'm really glad that YAF exists. Seriously. I'm alarmed by the current climate in academia for conservative students, and I think it's laudable for students to be politically active -- especially when their position is so marginalized. Good for YAF for organizing, good for them for choosing to bring in a controversial speaker, good for them for their organizing efforts (the social media campaign for the event was impressive, their leadership is clearly thoughtful, intelligent, and efficient). I really hope to see more of their events on campus. For their sake, though, for the sake of the positions they avow and seek to defend -- I hope that speakers in the future will be more willing to wade into substantive issues.

Now there's a provocative idea. 

Are We All Entitled to Our Own Opinions?

A couple days ago, I wrote a bit about the fact / opinion distinction. This distinction, I argued, can be attacked from two different directions. First, we might emphasize the the truth-evaluative nature of beliefs, and so see no use for the category of "opinion." This is especially common for those reacting to a tendency amongst college freshmen (and other targets of unwanted intellectual pressure) to retreat into the domain of "opinion," as if it were some safe-zone where considerations of truth (or, perhaps, absolute truth) don't apply. From this direction, it seems like getting rid of "opinion" talk might help us get traction on issues involving the common good. "You don't get to have whatever opinion you want on climate change, it's happening and it's harming millions. Those are the facts, and your opinions can't insulate you from them." 

On the other hand, we might want to ease up on the "fact" talk. It's certainly true that such talk is often wielded like a weapon. "Biology is a fact," someone might say, "It doesn't matter how you feel. You're a [man, woman, intersex (?)] individual and you've got to come to terms with that fact." 

In the piece I wrote a few days ago, I suggested that clearly distinguishing between "facts" and "opinions" -- even if we explicitly acknowledge the distinction to be a heuristic -- can go some distance toward answering these worries.

There's actually some historical basis for all this.

Saint Augustine often divided up the epistemic landscape into those things about which one can permissibly have an opinion, those things about which we ought to have beliefs, and those things about which we can have true understanding. Simple matters of empirical fact fall into the first category ("You were born in 354 A.D."), more complex political matters fall into the second ("The fall of Rome was exacerbated by moral decay"), and theological truths fall into the last ("That God is a Trinity").

Anyways, I want to add a couple things to what I said the other day.

First, I want to add some substance to the categories I offered. Then I want to offer a sense in which it is clearly true that "we are all entitled to our opinions," but then qualify that entitlement in a way that might help us get around some of the difficulties raise above (difficulties for which some might want to do away with the category of "opinion," or reject the principle that we are ever "entitled" to opinions at all).

I think the categories are most helpfully thought of as ways of qualifying assertions, or -- perhaps alternatively -- clarifying the conversational import one believes a particular assertion ought to have.

Consider a particular assertion, i.e. "Climate change is real." When uttered in a debate, or in a conversation aimed at convincing a peer of the truth of this claim, my assertion may well be characterized (by me) as a fact. Alternatively, it might be characterized as an opinion. I can say, "It's a fact: climate change is real," or "In my opinion, climate change is real."

It seems silly to think that such modifications are meant to impact the truth-evaluative nature of the claim. As in, it doesn't seem plausible that qualifying an assertion with "In my opinion..." is supposed to mean something like, "Subjectively speaking..." or "Though I'm not claiming that what I'm about to say is true (or universally or absolutely true, or true for anyone other than myself)..." Speakers will sometimes retreat to such views (i.e. Terrified college freshmen, relativists whose minds have been corrupted by theory), but it seems far more plausible that that this qualification means something more like: "It seems to me, though I do not take myself to have decisively settled the matter" or "Though I'm not in a position to fully and explicitly justify or prove this claim..."

And, fair enough. There are tons of things that seem plausible to me, things that I assent to (and perhaps even believe -- though I'm not going to get into that issue here), that are appropriate to share in conversation even if I can't argumentatively establish them on the spot, or even if I don't take myself to have decisive reason for my attraction to the truth of that claim.

Indeed, it seems like this is the way the term opinion gets used in more formal / institutional contexts.

An op-ed is an expression of a view that: (a) is relevant to some issue at hand (possibly because failing to have a view on this issue will result in the loss of some great good, and taking a stand is no more risky than losing this good), and (b) goes beyond well-established "facts" into interpretative territory. I can't justify or rationalize my view completely in 750 words, such a writer might say, since it reflects values that I realize my audience may not share, judgments on less than certain evidence, and other "subjective" elements that I'm not able or willing to fully defend -- but it's important to share with you nonetheless.

And that seems totally reasonable.

So, to firm it up a bit, I think an "opinion" is a belief one asserts in an exchange with the intention of revealing some information about one's own take on an issue of mutual importance, without the implication that one's audience should take such an assertion on faith, or expect the one asserting to be in a position to fully defend it. A "fact," on the other hand, is an assertion that one takes to be the sort of things that everyone in one's audience ought to assent to -- either because they all have similar commitments and information on the matter, or because it's so basic (or obvious or self-evident) that one could not refuse to acknowledge it without irrationality.

Are there "facts" in this sense? Surely. 2 + 2 = 4, the world is sphere-shaped, etc. But there's also some point in asserting something "as fact," even when it goes beyond such easy cases. "The advisor took a bribe from Russia," is uttered as a statement of fact -- one intended to be assented to by one's audience (though, of course, one's audience may object, "I don't trust you," "I think you're mistaken about what you think you saw").

And, again, I think these are vitally important categories in maintaining the health of our epistemic ecosystem (or economy, or whatever social-epistemic metaphor you please).

Are we all entitled to our opinions?

Of course. Indeed, we may all be entitled to our beliefs (or at least, to whatever beliefs we don't have any sort of control over). "Opinions," in the minimal sense I've articulated, are just seemings -- claims about how the world appears from a particular point of view. Perhaps we're not always entitled to express our opinions (there may be good reasons for keeping one's thoughts to oneself in certain contexts), but the opinion itself seems to be something we just have.

Ironically, this entitlement ought -- I think -- to inspire the very reaction those most averse to "opinion" talk want to elicit. To categorize one's assertion as an "opinion" is, implicitly, to recognize the subjective limitations of it as a view -- to admit that one is not in a maximally good epistemic position with respect to it. So the attitude one should take towards one's opinions ought to be one of humility -- "In my opinion, X" should be seen not as a way of ending discussion or rational inquiry on the issue of X for oneself, but as an invitation to explore the basis of that opinion more fully. Exploring an opinion with an interlocutor, though, is something very different than "Being educated" or "Being shown the facts" or "Being proved wrong."

In this way, I think there are more or less appropriate ways for both parties to treat opinions, and I think we'd do well to recognize this.

"Silence" and Spiritual Discernment

***SPOILERS BELOW***

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I saw Scorsese's Silence over the weekend, and -- like many -- came away feeling fairly confused. I didn't really get what the point of the movie was, whether it had a message or what exactly it took itself to be commenting on, and -- strangely -- I couldn't decide if I even liked it. There were so many things not to like about it (it's running time, the brutal violence around every corner, the underwhelming performance by Andrew Garfield), but somehow those things seemed inessential to the question of whether or not it had succeeded. Which is odd. Usually, those things are the only thing I think matters about a film. Did this film, as a film, live up to its cinematic potential? With Silence, that didn't seem to be the most pressing question.

I'm not going to summarize the film here -- there are plenty of excellent summaries in the various reviews that you could easily google. Indeed, I'm just going to reflect on a single moment -- a pivotal moment in the film -- so what follows assumes familiarity with the story, and will include a "spoiler" (sort of...I'm not sure that this film is capable of being "spoiled," which is a credit to it as a film). 

Here's the moment. 

Fr. Rodriguez (played by Garfield)  is brought before five torture victims, Japanese Christians, and told -- for the millionth time -- to symbolically stop on an depiction of Christ. If he does so, he's told, the victims will be released from their torture. He's also encouraged to do so by the ex-priest Fr. Ferreira, who repeats many of the same lines Rodriguez has been told throughout his captivity (i.e. That these people are suffering for him, that he has the power to relieve that suffering, that his stepping on Christ is purely symbolic, etc).

And then he does it. 

He looks at the image of Christ, and hears -- internally -- Christ's voice, telling him much the same thing. To paraphrase, Christ says: This isn't about you. It's about me. God didn't send you into the world to be a blameless sacrifice, he sent me to do that. You can go ahead and step on me. I can handle it. 

This moment, for obvious reasons, has attracted the lion's share of critical attention (at least for those who are interested in deciding questions relating to the spiritual and moral value of the film -- whether it encourages or excuses apostasy, whether it is an embrace of a sort of postmodern anti-faith or hagiography of the Japanese martyrs). And it's critical to put it in context.

Rodriguez is a Jesuit. The primary spiritual practice of the Jesuits, invented by Ignatius himself, is the "Spiritual Exercises" or the "Discernment of Spirits," a practice wherein you introspect your affective states in order to see what the source is for some particular "spiritual movement." In prayer, I'm left elated after saying the rosary, but I feel empty and hallow later -- perhaps a sign that repetitive prayer is having more of a psychological effect than a spirtual one. When faced with the burden of caring for the poor, I'm repulsed at first, but later find a deep sense of peace and gratitude, a sign that my impulse to continue doing so is from God, and that I should heed it.

Obviously the practice is much more complicated than this, but you get the point. When faced with an important decision, introspect and evaluate one's options against the background of one's spiritual life, consolations an desolations, etc. 

With this context, I think we can avoid the dichotomy that so many commentators on the film seem stuck with. Was that the voice of Christ? Or was it a temptation that Rodriguez gave in to? Is Scorsese claiming that apostasy admirable? Or are we supposed to think Rodriguez is despicable for giving up the faith after having so long maintained it? 

Here's a third way (and the reading I endorse): Rodriguez is a deeply flawed individual, as are we all. His particular flaws, though, are mostly the characteristic flaws of his profession: a clericalistically tinged pride, the belief that he should be the one to die for his faith, that the peasants he encounters should apostize to save their lives (notably, something for which he seems to think they would be blameless, or, at the very least, quickly absolved), but that he -- an altus Christus -- must take it upon himself to die for the sake of those in his spiritual care. 

In short: Rodriguez goes through most of the film with the mistaken perception that he must act not merely Christlike -- but as Christ himself would act. He seems to get confused at times, not realizing the danger in the tension between imitating Christ and seeing his actions as Christ's. His deepest flaw, on this reading, is his habitual failure to realize that it's not all about him. That it's always been all about Christ. The relationships of the peasants to Christ is one he is there to aid, not mediate. He is not there to save the people of Japan, he's there so that Christ can work through him.

So then the voice. 

Is it Christ's?  

Naw. Or, at least, it's not that simple. 

On my reading, it's Rodriguez's recognition that he shouldn't let his false conceptualization (of himself as Christ) be the reason for his failure to do what he takes to be right (regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to do, objectively speaking). It's a moment of weakness in which he's more of a true Christian (like Kijichiro)  than he has been throughout the entirety of the film.

 

One of the things I love most about this movie is that it's full of Christian exemplars who are presented without the distortion of hagiography. And this seems apt. If saints and martyrs are meant to view something particular (and particularly laudable) about Christian life, they ought to be presented in all their particularity. I spent so much of my life reading about the lives of saints who were more like absolute ideals, that to see so much love for Christ and his Church depicted in a world resembling our own is deeply refreshing. 

Let's Stop Hating on the Fact / Opinion Distinction

A few years back, I came across this really good essay by Justin McBrayer. My reaction to it was...disorienting. 

I grew up in a conservative Catholic household during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. These guys railed relentlessly against what they took to be destructive patterns and trends in contemporary culture (naming and denouncing a dizzying array if "isms" that were apparently to blame for a general state of moral decay), so I was used to the charicatured critique of "relativism."

"No one cares about truth anymore."

"Everyone's convinced that what's true for them may not be true for me."

"There are absolute truths, no matter what anyone wants to believe..." 

Etc, etc. 

In college, I came to think that these denunciations were a bit too simplistic. Sure, there are college freshmen who will assent to whatever form of moral relativism their professor hands them in the course of an argumentative exchange, but there was something deeper underlying positions that Catholics dismissed as "mere relativism" or "hedonistic secular humanism" (yeah, it got pretty intense) -- or so I came to be convinced. 

Which is why I've always sort of recoiled when people say things like this. When a TA claims that his students are all relativists, I always suspect maybe he didn't frame the issue quite right. When someone comes out with an op-ed -- especially in a national newspaper, and from a non-conservative perspective -- in which such a claim is prominently featured, well, I just don't know quite what to do.

Anyways, it seems like the argument in pieces like this is something like this: 

  1. The distinction between fact / opinion isn't principled
  2. The distinction has pernicious effects (for instance, it leads to the tacit view that claims in certain domains aren't factive or objective) 
  3. So we should abandon the fact / opinion distinction

Why think (1) is true? Well, let's look at what the distinction is supposed to amount to. A fact is an objectively true proposition, something we can all agree on -- something that is supposed to serve as the basis of agreement, something that informs our debate. What's an opinion then? For whatever reason, we tend to think of it as the opposite of a fact: something that's subjective, unproveable, unchallengeable -- something that we can't disagree about. 

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It probably doesn't help that the examples we get of things on which you can have opinions are things that aren't clearly truth evaluable.  That there are four people in this room, that's a fact. That this Picasso painting is beautiful, well, that's just, like, your opinion.

Now, I agree that if this is the way the distinction is spelled out, we're heading in the wrong direction. Especially if we start thinking that broad realms (i.e. "Morality" ) is domain in which we can all only have opinions (and in which we are all entitled to an opinion).

But to dismiss the distinction because it's been poorly understood and articulated is to miss something crucial regarding the reason why we have the distinction in the first place. 

We need to have some way of separating out those claims which are meant to serve as the basis of our disagreements -- the core consensus upon which our discussions can take place -- and those which aren't. This is because, in throwing out the fact / opinion distinction, we're actually more likely to elevate opinions to facts than we are to reduce facts to mere opinion. You can see this confusion playing out in the extremely clouded mediascape everyday. The sorts of "news outlets" we have cropping up like weeds all over the internet (horrendous quasi-bloglike things with no clear organizational principle and no obvious qualifications beyond hosting prose that sounds like the sort of thing a large segment of the population is pre-disposed to believe)  can be used to illustrate. "Opinion" pieces are no longer labeled as such, and it's not because we all just assume that mindless rambling on the internet is all basically opinion (I see the self-undermining features of this post -- I take full responsibility), but because we often think that such rants are so blatantly obvious, so self-evident that we're not really even sure what sort of support such information would need (or where, in principle, to look for it).

This is why, whenever you see someone post something you disagree with, a rebuttal is just a few clicks away. No explanation, no attempt to motivate it, just the appropriate slice of one's worldview served up in a 400 word summary -- clear as day so that idiot can read it and weep.

My point is that getting rid of the fact / opinion distinction leaves us without the conceptual tools to combat this. We've been so focused on rampant relativism, that we've missed the creeping absolutism. I don't care if we don't use the terms (perhaps "opinion" -- antiquated and tainted, as it is, by the smell of print journalism), but we need to regain some sense of the argumentative tools that are necessary to live in a society that essentially depends on discursive interactions for its stability and social order. We've got to conceptualize our commitments in a way that leaves room for disagreement, that encourages us to take such disagreement into account in the way we process information.

Or at least, that's what I think. For what it's worth, that my opinion. 

 

 

 

Politics and the Theater of Authenticity

I've been reflecting on charges of hypocrisy in politics lately, and there are plenty to go around. Democrats -- who gutted avenues of legitimate resistence to Obama appointees -- are now trying to create new avenues to resist Trump's. Republicans, who refused to vote on Obama's appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, are now shocked and appalled that democrats would do the same. Further, "You didn't protest when Obama enacted such policy" is somehow supposed to undermine political opposition to Trump's executive actions, while "Don't call yourself pro-life if you refuse to recognize the lives of refugees as in need of protection" is supposed to somehow be a response to defenses of increased national security measures.

Why does so much political discourse consist in simplistic charges of hypocrisy? 

I don't know, but here's a guess. 

Political representatives publicly engage in theatrics meant to rationalize the action that they (and their party) are taking, while privately engaging in a political calculus based on judgments of power -- political (will this get me elected), economic (will this make my donors happy and thus help the party), and personal (is this in line with my ambitions and the goals I've set to achieve those ambitions). There's also the fact that they are legitimately constrained by those they represent (voting against the interests or expressed views of their constituents does violence to their mandate and puts them in a risky position politically). Because so much of the public understanding of political dynamics, policy, and the actual role of our government in domestic and foreign issues is so cartoonish, these rationalization have to adhere to facile narratives, and, indeed, more often devolve into a sort of tribalistic expression (I voted NO because OBAMA is BAD, I voted YES because REGULATIONS KILL JOBS). 

Because of this, the public record is full of simplistic, fundamentally untruthful explanations of why certain political action was taken. The only way that one can respond to such explanations then -- sort of angrily denouncing the whole system and establishment -- is by pushing hard on the inconsistencies that inevitably arise. You can't respond to the actual motivations that went into a vote, because that would appear disingenuous (and undermine the system as a whole -- bad for your opponent as well as yourself). You can't provide nuanced critiques of the position as stated, because the position as stated is often not even filled out enough to critique. It's cartoonish and based almost entirely on propaganda (and select facts that are largely irrelevant to the actual issues at hand).  

This is why politicians just constantly sling mud. 

And I think much of *our* political discourse (that is, the discourse of non-politicians) simply imitates what's going on in Washington. That, and it's fairly useless to provide facts and nuanced critiques of a position when the champions of that position -- as well as their opponents -- are rationalizing and critiquing it will what amount to a series of non-sequitors or emotive expressions.  

The net effect of all this, though, is that it eventually degrades trust in the government, makes bipartisanship impossible, and undermines democratic systems and institutions that might otherwise work. 

So while democrats and republicans throw themselves into the work of polarizing their base (and expanding that base through such tactics), they end up undermining and eroding democracy. This explains why so much effort on both sides goes into protecting the respective establishments. If an outside figure acquires enough power to actually disrupt the establishment, the game is over and everyone loses their jobs. I'm not suggesting that this is all held together by simple-minded self-interest (though that's certainly a part of it), there's also this delusion -- common among politicians -- that power in their hands is somehow safer and more likely to lead to good results. This last bit -- the utilitarian calculus of power -- also goes some distance toward justifying the instrumental approach so often taken to truth-telling and principled descision making.

 

 

 

*********** 

Sidenote: I was once asked why I "troll" politicians on Facebook, instead of sincerely engaging them in reasoned debate or genuine dialogue, and I think what I wrote above goes some distance in explaining this. Often, the most truthful thing that someone without any political power can do, given the dynamics described above, is to push back on a politician's stated rationale -- to undermine it by showing it to be fundamentally false. You can do this fairly easily by laying out the reasons why he or she actually holds the position, and contrasting this with the stated position. But getting the right uptake on such a narrative -- that is: getting the real reasons out there in a digestible narrative that is able to rival the one put out by those in positions of power (with their access to media, staffers, other political levers, etc) -- is extremely difficult. Often, you end up talking to a small group of already convinced critics. So, often, you need to enact the narrative. Slowly, bit-by-bit, in exchanges with the politician in the public eye (on the news, at council or committee meetings, etc). And in doing this, you risk simplifying your own criticisms (to the point where they are in danger of becoming disingenuous rationalizations) so as to gain enough ground to counter the established narrative. I think one can do it with integrity, but it's incredibly hard and requires tons of time, organization, and discipline. By the end of the process, it starts to become obvious why so many political figures take the easy way out: the results in terms of public support and political power are often the same, and if one's willing to take an instrumental view of the value of truth, you might think integrity's not worth the effort...

Constituting One's Self: Authority and Constraints

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So far as I can tell, Korsgaard's view in self constitution (I'm about 3/4 through it)  is something like: action is constitutive of agency insofar as our capacity for self-directed movement against the background of certain perceptual and environmental constraints depends: first, on the freedom we have as agents to formulate conceptions of the work and our place in it and see those conceptions as binding for us, and, secondly, to identify something (movement, internal utterance, mental or physical behavior or performance, etc) as an action is to say that it contributes to the maintenance of our being or form -- it's what it means for us to be the kinds of animals that we are. 

 

That's convoluted (both the original view and my description of it), but I think Korsgaard is on to something. 

 

In my view (which is shared by a number of theorists who have so far been unable to articulate the view in a fully coherent, let alone persuasive, way), the essential link between action and identity is narrative, which I'm here defining as something like: the descriptive whole into which all the actions of an individual fall in a systematic and intelligible way. The idea is something like: we are constituted -- as Korsgaard thinks -- by our actions, but these actions are only intelligible in light of some narrative that encompasses all such actions into one intelligible, coherent whole. To be a whole self, a complete self, is to possess the authoritative self-knowledge of that narrative, and to be able to act in accord with it (and endorse it fully) into the infinite future.  

 

In this way, then, for Korsgaard and for me: (1) Selves are constituted by authoritative actions of the individuals whose selves they are, (2) these actions are not wholly free or unconstrained. 

 

For Korsgaard, the actions are constrained by one's natural form (rational animal, etc), and by some sort of survival / reproductive imperative (among other things, like more imperatives). For me, the actions are merely constrained by the extent to which they constitute intelligible parts in the whole of the narrative of one's life / self. 

"No" Vote Right Outcome for Commerce Center Project

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Last night the Common Council voted, 5-4, to defeat a proposed twelve story high-rise by Matthews, LLC. You can read stories about the decision here, here, and here.

I think this was the right decision. Here’s why:

(1) Neighborhood Plans Empower People

Matthews’s project was radically out of sync with the East Bank Neighborhood Plan, a document created in 2008 setting out a vision for the East Bank Neighborhood. This document was created with input from developers (Matthews’s own firm was represented), local businesses, and individuals from the neighborhood. It required several days of collaborative discussion and more than $50,000 of city funds.

The City of South Bend has many planning documents like this one -- there’s one for the downtown area, one for the parks, several for the various neighborhoods -- and these documents serve as a sort of community-building charter, a direct mandate from members of the community, regarding how we all see our city developing. These documents are often cited when “public input” is needed to justify a decision or a project.

If the council had approved the project, despite the massive incongruities with the plan (the building was roughly three times higher than the limit laid out in the plan), this would call into question the legitimacy of other such plans. It would weaken the force of arguments that such plans justify decisions, and it would send a clear message to the residents of South Bend that public input isn’t taken seriously when making big decisions like this one.

(2) The Council Wasn’t Presented with Enough Evidence

Matthews’s project started as a proposal to win some regional cities grant money. The original project was very different than what ended up coming before the council last night. Originally, the building was supposed to be around 75 feet, but -- after he won the competitive grant -- Matthews went back and almost doubled (and then tripled) that number. Throughout the process, documents were repeatedly requested to substantiate claims (such as the claim that 12-stories was the minimum necessary to make the grocery store and pharmacy possible), and -- even after such documents were provided -- serious questions about the feasibility of the project existed. If, as Matthews claimed, the Common Council is and ought to act as the ultimate zoning authority in the City of South Bend (a claim that councilmembers have themselves questioned), they are making the right decision purely from a zoning perspective. The proposals and supporting documents -- in the opinion of several city officials and experts who were consulted -- just weren’t far enough along. It would have been irresponsible for the Council to green light a project with so little evidence of its likely success.

(3) The Developer Wasn’t Willing to Compromise

At the meeting last night, Dr. James Mueller -- the Mayor’s Chief of Staff -- read a letter from the mayor requesting that the council support his administration’s negotiation efforts. Specifically, the letter set out a compromise that the mayor’s team had reached with Matthews: the city would offer 95% tax abatements for 10 years (meaning Matthews’s would only pay 5% of the taxes on the property for a decade), in exchange for the reduction of the building by one story.

One story.

Matthews didn’t want to reach a compromise with the mayor, the common council, or anyone else, and that’s his prerogative. As a developer, and as he himself put it at a previous meeting, he’s in it primarily to make money. Fair enough. But if his primary interest is to make money on the project, then the Common Council’s job is to protect competing interests, such as those of the neighbors, other businesses (several of which opposed the development), and the community at large.

From the outset, Matthews was warned that pursuing this project as a PUD was unlikely to succeed, and was told that city offices would be opposing him on the grounds summarized above. He chose to take a risk, and to decrease his chances of success by refusing to find a compromise, so the council’s decision to defeat the proposal is entirely reasonable and appropriate.

(4) This Decision Sets the Right Precedent

Anyone who attended these meetings will tell you that they were long. Discussion of this project -- in committee and in front of the full council -- was exhaustive. And it needed to be. When the council is asked to consider projects of this magnitude, they have a responsibility to investigate every aspect of it. One of the worries with approving this project is that the council would again be flooded with PUD requests of a similar sort (i.e. those designed to get around existing zoning restrictions), and that time and resources that could be spent on other issues would have to be re-directed towards the consideration of such projects. In voting no on this project, the council sent a clear message that these sorts of projects must proceed through the proper channels.

(5) Defeat Allows the Process to Move Forward

The council could have continued conversation on this proposal last night, but given the in-principle issues with approving the project, it’s much better that they simply rejected it. This gives Matthews time to pursue other avenues (such as asking that the East Bank Neighborhood be amended with input from local businesses and residents), or to start thinking about alternate plans. There are several such viable plans. For instance, Matthews is poised to acquire the remaining properties on the site that he does not currently own. With these parcels, he could easily build a shorter building with the same amenities. But Matthews acknowledged that he wasn’t considering those options (and wouldn’t consider those options) unless the current proposal was defeated. By refusing to drag out the process, the council has effectively invited Matthews, the neighborhood, and other developers to start thinking of more creative ways to meet the needs of the East Bank Village, while maintaining its unique and distinctive identity.

The Evidence of Narrative

Been reading Miriam Shleifer McCormick's book on epistemic responsibility the past few days, and really enjoying it. One of her main contentions is: (PB) it is possible, and rational, to form a belief for purely practical, non-evidential reasons in certain circumstances.

PB echoes William James's classic claim (against Clifford and the evidentialists) that "Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds." 

According to McCormick, there are really just three conditions that define circumstances in which the formation of practical beliefs are acceptable: (a) the evidence on the matter is silent or neutral, (b) the beliefs in question would contribute to the agent's sense of meaning in her life, and (c) the formation of the belief does not rely on practices that undermine truth. McCormick thinks these conditions define acceptable circumstances in which to form practical beliefs because:

  1. The norms of belief are ultimately grounded in human flourishing (and connected with truth insofar as true beliefs are generally what our proper functioning belief-forming mechanisms will produce)
  2. Meaning-making practical beliefs can contribute to human flourishing without undermining the truth
  3. Therefore, if formed in the right circumstances, we have no normative basis on which to repudiate practical beliefs

Something like that.

I agree with much of what McCormick is up to in her project. However, I want to consider a possibility that she quickly (too quickly in my mind) passes over. That is: that meaning-making beliefs are truth-conducive in a way that can go beyond the consideration of evidence available at a particular time. Consider the following case:

The Night Of: Nasir Khan has been accused of murder, and the evidence is damning. He was captured on film with the victim hours before her death, he admitted to taking drugs with her at her house just before the murder, he was found with a bloody knife (the victim was stabbed) just blocks away from the crime scene. And yet, he insists that he's innocent. After deliberating for a few days, the jury cannot come to a consensus and is finally dismissed. When asked why they failed to convict, one of the jurors who held out on the possibility of Khan's innocence puts it this way: "All the evidence was there, but something didn't seem right. Why would a kid with so much potential, and no real motivation to kill that young lady, just go berserk and randomly start stabbing her? It didn't make sense to me. He had to be framed or something."

Here, we have what I would think of as a "meaning-making" belief, but not one that is potentially justified in terms of its role in the flourishing of an individual or community. The belief seems to serve as a framework for interpreting the available evidence, rather than as the sum of all the individual bits of evidence. And this is where I think the real challenge for evidentialism lies.

When it comes to belief formation, we have at least two separable categories to consider. We have the data -- what's often called the evidence -- and the framework that makes that data intelligible (both as data, and as data potentially supporting one or another particular conclusion). Now, a lot of folks would like to see the evidential relation as going just one way -- [data --> state of affairs] -- but this ignores the crucial fact that the plausibility of the state of affairs in question, the conclusion to one's deliberation, can itself influence what appears to a subject to be data in the first place. That is to say: evidentialism within a paradigm or framework may well be true, but the foundations of that paradigm or framework are themselves in need of supporting reasons that we cannot conceive of as evidence -- at least so long as our conception of evidence depends on the paradigm or framework in question.

So what could possibly fill the gap here?

This is where narrative comes in. Narratives are complex, highly structured descriptions of events that are typically unified in terms of the exercise of individual or collective agency. They make sense of -- or render intelligible -- otherwise disparate phenomena, unifying them into a single whole with reference to a core framework that is able to explain the various constituent parts.

So narratives are not evidentially neutral, or simple "meaning-making" mechanisms, that can contribute to our overall wellbeing but are otherwise unrelated to the truth. It's not that we are simply story-telling creatures by accident, and that our flourishing depends on narratives in the same way that it depends on having spices available capable of exciting our tastebuds in various ways. Rather: our identity as believers depends crucially on our ability to "make-sense" of the world around us, to organize the disparate elements of experience into data, and to sort that data into evidence, that all of this is possible only by drawing on our capacity to narrate our (individual and collective) life.

Hopefully, it'll become clear where this general sort of view will (and where it will not) dovetail with McCormick's. On the one hand, I agree with her central claim, (PB), but this is not because I see practical reasons for belief as separable from (but normatively unified with) evidential reasons. It's because I see evidential reasons as ultimately dependent on practical reasons. The main cost of my amendment is that it radicalizes and otherwise merely odd view. But the benefit of my account is enormous: it allows the rationally permissible practical beliefs to be normatively unified with evidential beliefs at a deeper level, one that does not require us to give up their truth-conducivity, at least when considered more globally. 

The Narrative Theory of Epistemic Responsibility

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Here's the puzzle, in the form of an argument:

  1. We must have voluntary control over our beliefs, in order to be held epistemically responsible for them
  2. We don't have voluntary control over our beliefs
  3. We can't be held epistemically responsible for what we believe

Various proposals have been offered in light of this puzzle: (a) we aren't epistemically responsible for what we believe, (b) we are epistemically responsible in virtue of some form of indirect voluntary control, (c) voluntary control isn't a necessary condition on epistemic responsibility. These views -- at least in the forms in which they've been offered -- are all unsatisfactory. I aim to offer a more satisfactory response. A view that incorporates (but goes beyond) view (b) above.

Here it is. 

Upon recognizing experience as inherently meaningful, we are forced to conceptualize our selves, others, and the world at large in ways that make sense of the significance of experience. But this process requires us to locate ourselves -- in relation to those other two things -- within ongoing narratives of meaning. This processs -- a process that I call "self-conceptualization" -- is equal parts discovery and constitution, though these aspects are no separable from one another. I constitute myself as Catholic because I discover, through my experience of the world, that I'm living in a universe best captured by the Catholic narrative. My suffering is meaningless unless united with Christ's, and when so united a source of strength, intelligibility, and compassion.

We constitute ourselves, then, through self-conceptualization, and this is a process that depends on the faculties we possess that are supposed to make experience intelligible. The process itself, though, is a process of telling a (more or less accurate) story. A story that incorporates our experiences -- of ourselves, others, and the world -- in a coherent, intelligible, and meaningful whole.

Responsibility comes in, then, when we consider two things: (1) how virtuous are the faculties by which form our self-conception? In other words: to what extent are we reliable narrators of our lives and experiences? And (2) how broadly accurate are the pictures we form of ourselves, others, and the world, through this process of self-conceptualization? How well do allow us to act intelligibly and effectively in a world populated by ourselves, others, and -- perhaps -- non-personal sources of experience?

The concept of narrative, then, figures into both of these sources of epistemic responsibility. Regarding (1): these faculties are essentially those that allow for us to tell more or less accurate stories. Regarding (2): the extent to which our self-conceptions are accurate depends directly on those abilities as well. Interestingly, too: the central virtue of our self-conceptualizing faculties is appropriately sensitive trust, in oneself and others, since it is this trust that allows for experience to appear intelligible to us in the first place, and is also a prerequisite for the organization of that experience into meaningful content that can serve as the basis for belief and action.

Next Steps

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Understandably, I've seen a lot of shock and confusion in my Facebook feed. We're numbe with shock. We weren't prepared for this. The experts were wrong. The models didn't predict... 

Fine. Take a breath. Take another.

But now what? 

We can't leave. Or, we shouldn't. This is my country and I'm not going to let a narcissistic bully -- a heartless, sexist, xenophobic coward -- chase me off. Fuck him.

I've seen a lot of people post about their grief -- about their fear for where the country is headed, about what the future holds. And I respect all that. I'm not there. I'm mad as hell. When I see the bad guys wield power unjustly, a switch flips in my brain and I can't think of anything but how we can collectively wrest it from their hands and distribute it to the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.

Point is: I cope differently than many of my friends. And I don't care how you're coping.

Here's what I do care about. 

Before this wears off -- before your anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, despair, and grief run their course -- make a fucking plan.  It can be simple. List five things you're going to do politically -- five things that you can accomplish -- to fight to improve the lives of those in your community.

These could be local political goals -- policies you'd like to see raised at a City Council or a School Board meeting. They could be at the state or the federal level -- campaigning for someone you'd like to see in the state senate, volunteering for a voter education organization, protesting at the White House. I don't care.  

But don't let this moment pass. Don't let your heart harden, or your passion burn itself out. Commit yourself to action, and record your thoughts and feelings, so you can remember what you're fighting for in the long, frustrating days ahead.

Here are an example from my own list:

  •  Attend school board meetings at least once per month (starting on November 21, 2016) , and learn more about how I can participate in those meetings. Learn more about the structure of the school board and the school corporation. Research best practices regarding the treatment of teachers. Research what districts are doing with low family involvement and high percentages of impoverished and at-risk children. Advocate for reasonable policy and deep change where needed to address systemic issues of inequality. Develop relationships with the school board members and contact them as needed with questions and concerns. Bring at least one new friend to every other school board meeting I attend.

Here's another: 

  • Continue to work with the growing coalition of South Bend residents who want to see more accountability and transparency in the SBPD. Push for the release of the privately funded report that was conducted last year of the department. Continue to push for the formation of a citien review board (in addition to the Board of Public Safety), and continue to push for restorative justice for the victims of the SBPD, as well as better understanding amongst community members of the real, systemic injustices that oppressed communities (even here) have long faced.

Again, add details as you see fit. Remind your future self what it feels like to be you right now. Look up your representatives' information. Write them a practice letter tonight (or -- my favorite -- tag them in a public Facebook post), letting them know how you feel, what you intend to do, and that you're not going away. Discuss your action items with friends and family.

But whatever you do, commit yourself to action.  

We may be in for four long, dispiriting years, but the next opportunity for political change is likely less than a week away.  

We can't wait to be offered the chance to share our vision of how things ought to be, we've got to fight with all we've got to realize it today. 

 

 

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11:12 

The Blaschko Party Line

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I've had a couple people ask me who all I'm voting for, so I decided to post the info here. Unlike my post about the school board, these aren't endorsements (or, they are, but I'm not offering them as such since I'm not an expert / authority, and I'm not backing up my recommendations with links to my research) -- it's just info that people who know me may find useful. 

I researched candidates I voted for fairly extensively. I didn't vote in some races / on some questions -- mostly because I couldn't find adequate info on them.

I would *love* to talk more about the races / candidates -- so please just comment here or in FB and we can discuss!

Anyways, here it is. 

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A friend who is an attorney provided this really helpful insight into the process of selecting / appointing and "retaining" judges at the various local levels:

 The judge thing is always tough because there isn't ever much info readily available.  It's just Hurley and Hostetler that are up for retention locally, and Crone and Riley up for the Court of Appeals, right?  None of those will have an opponent because those are appointed and not elected by popular vote (only their retention is something that gets voted on by the general public).  To become an IN Court of Appeals Judge, you have to apply and interview with the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission, who gives a list of finalists to the governor, who then makes the final decision based on that list.  The process is the same for the St. Joseph County Superior Court judges, only it is a local nominating commission that selects the finalists instead (not all counties use this process in Indiana--FYI).  For whatever reason, the judge for the Circuit Court in St. Joseph County (as we see in this election) is an elected position, as is the Probate Court Judge (I think that election is maybe 2 years away?  Can't remember for sure--I think that one is a 6 year term).  I don't remember why these judicial positions are treated differently, but I bet you could find out from a Google search.

As a local attorney, I can only speak to the reputations I hear and my experiences (if any) I have had in these judges' courtrooms.  I have only been in front of Judge Hostetler so far.  He handles civil cases and is a very professional, knowledgeable judge in my opinion who is pretty involved in the local community.  He also was one of the three finalists this past Spring for our most recent IN Supreme Court vacancy, which I think says a lot.  Judge Hurley handles criminal matters and since I do not practice in the criminal arena, I don't have any experience with her.  I have heard positive things about her though.  I also do not do appellate work, so I wouldn't have dealt with the Court of Appeals judges.  However, I had the pleasure of meeting most of the Indiana Court of Appeals judges this year, and found them to be very knowledgeable and professional as well.  Terry Crone is actually a South Bend native and a former St. Joseph County Circuit Court judge.  He practiced law here prior to that.

Voter Suppression in South Bend?

From a friend of mine (who wants to remain anonymous) on her experiences attempting to vote in South Bend:

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I tried to vote early today. I registered to vote with the DMV several weeks ago before the deadline, and also waited in a long line there to get a new Indiana driver's license in order to meet the stringent Indiana residency and ID requirements for voting.

The only requirements for voting, as listed on the Indiana state government website, are to be a registered voter and to present a US or Indiana issued ID.

I showed up with my Indiana driver's license. After seeing me and my successful registration in the computer, the staff member said my status was listed as "pending", and told me to go upstairs four floors to new voter registration so that they could flip my status from "pending" to "not pending". (It was unclear what exactly was "pending", since my registration from a few weeks ago had gone through and they could see it in the computer. She did not clarify despite my asking several times what, exactly, was "pending".)

I obliged and went to the fourth floor, where a voter registration employee found me again in the computer, and said that in order to vote, I'd need to bring a letter that the DMV had sent verifying my information. (!) I said that there was nothing about this in any voter rules, including anything listed on the Indiana government website or any other materials. I offered several other forms of proof of Indiana residency, and also offered to come back in a few minutes with my passport. But the employee said that I could not vote without an extra letter from the DMV verifying the veracity of my registration or information (it was not clear which purpose the letter was supposed to serve)-- a letter that has not arrived weeks after receiving my Indiana license, and possibly might not arrive in time for election day.

I'm lucky: I have a flexible job that will permit me to go back and try this again if I receive that letter. And I will wait in any line and deal with whatever barriers they throw my way in order to vote. But others might not be so lucky-- others that took off work to try to vote, and were rejected for reasons not listed anywhere on any official documentation.

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A bad voter suppression update, I'm afraid. After making several calls to county and state officials this morning, they all had similar explanations: local and state voting officials were flooded with registration requests at the last minute and thus many on-time registrations from several weeks ago were still "pending". Bringing a county-issued letter to the polling station is sufficient to switch one's status from "pending" to "not pending". There are several things wrong with this:

(1) Early voting has already started. If my experience is generalizable, hundreds of thousands of legally and punctually registered voters will not be able to vote because of their "pending" status.

(2) I have received no such letter in the mail, weeks after registering at the DMV. Many others probably have not either.

(3) The letter is not legally required to be able to vote, according to several online sources and the letter itself, which apparently instructs the receiver to retain it for their own records. The only requirements for voting are being a registered voter and having a state or government issued ID.

So this is a multi-step voter suppression technique. First, define a category in between "registered to vote" and "not registered to vote" and call it "pending". Then, hold countless residents who registered on time in that category. Next, do not send the official document that will switch residents from not being able to vote to being able to vote. Finally, deny residents voting rights at the polling stations without saying anything about these supposedly required documents on official election material -- documents that the county has not sent out, thus denying countless legally registered people their right to vote.

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This is subtler than the techniques that are being used elsewhere in our state, but no less worrisome.

When Shayla and I first arrived in South Bend something similar happened to us. We wanted to vote in the local and state elections, and made sure to register ahead of time -- but when the time came to vote, we were told that we had to have a official Indiana IDs. I had a temporary driver's license (my permanent one was in the mail), and wasn't allowed to vote. I was super surprised, since I'd voted in MN elections just by having someone vouch for me (and presenting a bill with my name and address on it). To be honest, it's ridiculous that we even have to register almost a month ahead of time. 

Do others have stories of possible voter suppression here in South Bend (or IN more generally)?

Does anyone know of anything that's being done about it, or anything concerned Hoosiers can do to address it?

Share Your Thoughts

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For quite a while, now, I've been thinking about how incredible, smart, and thoughtful my friends are -- and how many of the things they say to me really deserve a wider audience. So -- after talking to a couple of these friends -- I've decided to open my blog up to contributions by guest authors. As of right now, I'll just be publishing one-off pieces here and there that are submitted to me, but I'm also open to establishing on-going relationships with guest contributors (so let me know if that's something you're interested in). 

 

For now, please let me know if you're interested in posting something on the blog. It should be fairly brief (750 - 1,000 words, or in that range), and should fit the style of the blog. Posts that apply abstract, theoretical, or otherwise big-picture intellectual considerations to everyday subject matter like politics (local, state, or national), general culture are one way to "fit the style" of the blog, but there are others. Polemical content is preferred, but I will also accept generic thoughtful, well-measured argumentation.

 

Email me with questions, or proposed topics or posts. I'm happy to proofread / provide feedback. 

Commerce Center Development Project

I've been seeing a lot of pictures of this building in my FB feed lately... 

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It's what Erin Blasko of the South Bend Tribune calls a "massive high-rise," proposed for development on what is now the parking lot of the Commerce Center. Despite all the (great) coverage, it's not super easy to know what's going on with this proposal -- so I decided to give a quick summary.

What is being proposed?

The Commerce Center

The Commerce Center

Dave Matthews (of Matthews LLC) is a local developer who has shaped much of the East Bank Village (and the greater SB area more generally). He wants to build a "massive high-rise" on what is currently just the parking lot of the Commerce Center (he currently owns the Commerce Center and the lot). The high-rise would house 240 residential units (apartments), and would have a Martin's grocery store and a pharmacy on the first level. It would also require a large parking ramp (current estimates have it topping the Commerce Center by something like 30 feet), that would be built above ground -- nestled between the high-rise and the Commerce Center.

The relevant lot is between Lasalle and Colfax, just west of the East Race River. 

The relevant lot is between Lasalle and Colfax, just west of the East Race River. 

Why doesn't he just go ahead and build the high-rise?  

Well, because he can't. For two reasons: (1) there are currently zoning restrictions on the lot that wouldn't allow him to build such a massive building, and (2) the East Bank Village Master Plan has language suggesting that buildings of this sort shouldn't be built in the neighborhood (even if a zoning workaround is legally feasible).

So, Mr. Matthews has asked the South Bend Common Council to approve an special exception in this case, so that he could re-zone the lot as a PUD (a "planned unit development"). This would allow his office to basically come up with their own plan for the space (which would later have to be approved -- possibly by the Common Council (I don't know who all has to approve PUDs)), essentially bypassing the current zoning procedures and processes.

 What are the pros and cons of the current proposal for residents in this area and the surrounding neighborhoods?

Pros: 

  • Groceries. We all know how badly we need a grocery store that is accessible (hopefully walkable from) downtown.
  • More residential development (which may lead to lower rent prices over time) .
  • This would likely be the first step in developing the area between The Pointe and Howard park (the riverfront area), and we'd likely see something in the next few years go in on the Ole' Sand Pit.
  • Matthews LLC has a history of investing in the community and the neighborhood, and moving forward with this project would continue that history / relationship (which has largely been beneficial to residents in the area). 
  • GROCERIES OMG! 

Cons: 

  • Height. Residents at The Pointe would have a towering building put up right next to them. Shadows would be a concern (as they were when a 9 story high-rise was proposed for the Ole' Sand Pit a few years back), as would the significant changes to the skyline and feel of the neighborhood.
  • Precedent. The East Bank Master Plan is a document that took time and effort to produce. It had mechanisms for public input, and lays out a vision for this area (which is supposed to be a sort of "Riverfront Arts District" type place). Having the Common Council vote to allow the site to be re-zoned would sidestep both this Master Plan, as well as the procedures we have set up for zoning. 
  • Height...because twelve stories (!)

Where could things go from here? 

The most pressing issue is what the Common Council will do next. So far as I could tell, the Zoning Committee (which met yesterday) is going to forward it on to the full Council for consideration at the next Common Council Meeting (which I believe will be held on November 14th). I'm not sure whether they will forward it with any recommendation (favorable, not-favorable, etc). Public comment will be heard at that meeting, and anyone wanting to have a voice in the process should give their input (in person, at the meeting, or by calling or writing an email to their Council-person(s)). 

Obviously it's up to you what you want to say. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that there are multiple ways to support this project. Here are just some of the positions one could take: 

  1. I support the project fully, as is. Please vote to re-zone as a PUD and let's get this high-rise built! 
  2. I support the project, but would like to see it go through the proper zoning channels, and would thus ask the Common Council to vote down the request to re-zone the area. 
  3. I support the project generally, but not the height. Please vote no so that the height issue can be fully addressed via the proper channels / procedures. 
  4. I support the project only if the height issue is resolved. Vote no, so that we can make sure the project is in line with the East Bank Village Master Plan. 
  5. I do not support the project at all. Please vote no. 

Again, it's up to you how you'd like to weigh in, but know that these next couple weeks are the time to do it. After that -- you may not get the chance to do so. 

Vice Presidential Candidate to Speak about Injustice in South Bend

Ajamu Baraka -- a longtime human rights activist and Vice Presidential candidate on the Green Party's ticket with Jill Stein -- will be speaking at the Chicory Cafe in South Bend on Monday, October 24th from 11:30am - 2pm. Mr. Baraka was contacted personally by activists in South Bend worried that establishment politics were getting in the way of an open, transparent, and accountable dialogue on some of the recent problems regarding police / community relations. Baraka, who has a personal connection to the region, agreed to speak on the topic of "Systemic Injustice and the 'Two Party' System."

Mr. Baraka has a long record of civil rights advocacy, and -- with Green Party Presidential Candidate, Dr. Jill Stein -- has called for sweeping reforms in areas like domestic policing, mass incarceration, and sentencing policy for criminal offenders.

Confirmed speakers at this event include Councilwoman Regina Williams-Preston (who co-organized the event), local activists Blu Casey and Nia Okereke (local organizers with Black Lives Matter and the Nu Black Power Movement), a representative of the local chapter of the Green Party, and Mr. Baraka himself.

For more information, please visit the Facebook Event that has been set up for the event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/703188643163252/ 

At a Glance:

  • Longtime human rights activist and Vice Presidential Candidate (Green Party) to visit South Bend
  • Event will take place on Monday, October 24th from 11:30 - 2pm at Chicory Cafe
  • Councilwoman Regina Williams-Preston and other local activists will also speak at the event
  • Public is welcome and advised to visit https://www.facebook.com/events/703188643163252/ for more information

Images:

Ajamu Baraka, VP Candidate - Green Party

Ajamu Baraka, VP Candidate - Green Party

Jill Stein, Presidential Candidate - Green Party

Jill Stein, Presidential Candidate - Green Party

Green Party presidential campaign logo, 2016

Green Party presidential campaign logo, 2016