Bullshit

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

The job of a philosopher usually consists of criticizing things. These things can be theories, social constructs, ideologies or else. But among them, very seldom the philosopher herself appears publicly as an object of criticism.

Since I do not yet consider myself a philosopher – nor do I claim the contrary, I will take this time the freedom to criticize one of my worst personal deficiencies.

I am a very talkative person, and there is nothing wrong with that. I also think that what I talk about is usually interesting and I try as hard as possible not to turn my conversations into a waste of time. But, sometimes, what I intentionally say is simple, blatant, pure bullshit.

Few days ago, I was attending a seminar on a rather unknown 19th century philosopher, who has written extensively about psychology – he would have preferred to be called “psychologist” rather than “philosopher”, but karma is unpredictable and not always eager to please. I had a very great point to make about his conception of memory, or so I thought. But, at the same time, my head had been recently filled with the worry that reading something about mirror neurons could have been beneficial for an essay I was writing for another course.

The professor in the seminar about the “psylosopher” opened the session by saying that it would have been interesting to debate the accuracy of the author’s scientific ideas with respect to contemporary scientific achievements. And somehow, this input gave credit in my mind to the idea that making an intervention about mirror neurons would have been appropriate.

Afterwards, the professor asked also if what the author thought about Deja-vu was to be taken as reliable. I said to myself “of course not! Deja-vu have surely been explained by science with some mechanical process going on in our brains”. And so I connected Deja-vu with the activity of mirror neurons (which are even doubted to exist in the first place by certain scientists). The link was easy to my mind: mirror neurons are a region of our brains which is activated by doing an action as well as seeing the same action done by another person; therefore, they could be activated by mistake and mechanically give the impression that one has experienced already a situation one is at the same time participating to, generating a Deja-vu (lit. French, “already seen”).

Now, this explanation is proper bullshit. I don’t know how it came to my mind. There is no scientific evidence of any sort about it. No scientific article has ever been written about it. It’s the purest form of bullshit: a theory generated by my mind just to entertain itself.

I raised my hand and said that Deja-vu had been already explained by mirror neurons. The professor was ready enough to answer that he saw no possible connection between Deja-vu and mirror neurons and that, to his knowledge, there was no scientific research on the topic. Luckily, he kindly shifted the focus of his response on the second part of my question, which was apparently more relevant and contained a lower level of bullshit.

Why did I say such blatant bullshit? Was that mansplaining? Was that an attempt to show myself as an expert of neurosciences? Was that the compulsive need of giving an answer to a couple of questions I had no clue how to appropriately answer?

I don’t know. Maybe all these explanations at once. I am just thankful to M, one of my classmates, who always stands my feedbacks and stubbornness after each class. And to my flat mate, who had to pity my regret and obsessive self-criticism afterwards.

What I mostly regret is actually that I lost an opportunity to make a “good” philosophical point about the conception of memory of our psylosophist, and I said instead some pseudo-scientific bullshit. I lost a chance to be temporarily a good student of philosophy just to attempt to be what I am not.

So this is maybe the point of this whole story: don’t talk about things which require expertise, if you are no expert of such things. Learn from good philosophers, for they always find a reliable way to talk about everything without ever being experts of anything.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Pain

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

One day in springtime, as I was sitting in the urban train heading to Praterstern, I overheard a brief conversation between an Austrian mother and her child. She said something like “don’t do that, or you might get hurt” and he promptly replied “Männer haben keinen Schmerz, nur Frauen”, which means “men feel no pain, only women do”. The readiness of that answer caught my attention and I  wrote it down on my smartphone, right before getting out of the train.

We are not here to put on trial the innocent words of that child, are we? Right, but the message that child has given is the one he has been educated with, namely that men feel no pain, whereas women do. Taken literally, this statement is clearly wrong, independently of that child’s imaginary about men and women. But sometimes, messages aren’t to be taken as statements about the world. Sometimes, messages have an active part in shaping the world.

An education based on messages such as “men feel no pain”, will induce in children the idea that, in case they do feel pain, something is wrong with them. Afterwards, they either start doubting the truth of the statement, or they adapt to it, either hiding the pain, or repressing it. Children, however, usually lack the ability to critically question the teachings they receive, and many adults too. As a consequence, it is by far more probable that they will “stop feeling pain”.

Think about it. How many of such messages do children receive on a daily base? “Men do not cry”, “men do not complain”, “men do not show weakness”, “men do not talk much”, “men protect”, “men own”, “men are powerful”, “men ought to make the first move”, “men are easy going”, “men are uncomplicated”, “it is acceptable that men be slapped by their girlfriends”, “men have uncontrollable drives”, “men are rational”, “men are violent”, “men obtain what they want”, “men ought not to be feminine”, “men drink beer, not cocktails”, “men ought to pay for their partners”, etc.  Now, change the word “men” with “women”, negate every sentence, and you will obtain a whole set of “teachings” about women.

Many find such talks outdated, and not reflecting the contemporary reality. Still, the episode I reported took place few months ago. I still see wolfpacks of loud men, shouting at girls, hiding their lack of individual identity in the strength of the group. I see the effects of the hashtag-campaign “me too”, launched by Alyssa Milano after the Weinstein’s scandal, to spread awareness on the extension of the phenomenon of sexual abuses on women. Two simple words, no long feminist talks. But when I see them on the social profiles of friends of mine, my heart cracks.

I have heard people criticizing feminism for being the movement of prevarication of women over men. Those people call themselves “egalitarians”, for they do believe in equality of men and women. And forget about the actual status of the societies we live in.

When talking about racism in a previous letter, I said that it was impossible to claim that you are not racist, if you have been raised in a racist society. Racism shapes your mental asset to the point that even your perception of reality becomes racialized. You don’t see people “equally”, you very often see races. The only thing you can do is to be anti-racist.

From this point of view, “feminism” is similar to “anti-racism”. If you have been raised in a society where sexual harassment is often called “compliment”, where men don’t feel pain, where wolfpacks shout at girls and “men drink beer, not cocktails”, there is no way for you to be an egalitarian. That’s a lie. You MUST be feminist, and fight the oppressive system women AND men are still caged by. Otherwise you are an accessory of that system.

Many modern feminist campaigns invite men to take part in the endeavor of dismantling the oppressive gendered structures our lives are still constrained by. “HeForShe” is one of such campaigns that gained great visibility thanks to Emma Watson, among others. I praise the merits of these proposals, but I also think that a new wave of feminism should specifically focus on men. Target them. Help them. Make them find the strength they are constantly deprived by their gender role, which is at the same time their privilege and prison. We need a whole society “ForHim”, because “Männer haben Schmerz, genauso wie Frauen”. But who is stronger between those who hide their pain and inadequacy and those who have the courage to write „me too“?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Thoughtfulness

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In recent times, I have been thinking about the role depression plays in the formation of thoughtful people. As a matter of fact, it seems that many people having gone through depression develop a particular inclination towards ruminating and engaging in long lasting dialogues with themselves.

There are many forms of depression, and some of them might rather result in the annihilation of thought. Still, for those forms of depression that imply thoughtful anxiety, existential crisis, excessive self-criticism and the like, there seems to be a tight connection between the  experience of depression and “thinking a lot”.

It could be argued that depression can positively influence the depth of some people’s mind or even that depression could be a source of deep thinking. I disagree with a position of this kind: not only I think that depression plays only a negative role in the activity of thinking, by obstructing its development; I also think that depression is a bad teacher.

I consider the activity of thinking as a progressive process, whereas depression is a psychological state, detrimental of this process. Thinking in depression becomes harder, and could fall into a regress. From the outside, it might seem as if the thinker thinks more intensely: she is actually imprisoned and her thinking is not depressed because of its depressive content, or because it is “too much”. It is depressed because depression is like a disease, a distorting filter for our mental instruments of inquiry of the world outside.

Have you ever observed flies with damaged wings? They start rotating on themselves on the ground. The more they try to fly away, the faster they keep twirling, but without going any further. Depression is like a disease infecting our thinking activity in such a way that we start running in circles, like those unfortunate flies.

In a certain sense, depression increases thoughtfulness. But if ever there are progressive merits on the side of the depressed thinker, they belong to what remains of the healthy, non-depressed thoughts.

Thoughtfulness is often stigmatized in our societies as one symptom of depression. This stigma is undeserved, for healthy thoughtfulness is progressive. On the other hand, depression is not simply the excess of thoughtfulness. It is something that breaks the rhythm of thinking, and forces it in obsessive circularities.

Even if some philosophers desire to live in societies constituted only of deep thinkers, it could be the case that thoughtfulness is a matter of personality, rather than will. In my opinion, being a philosopher usually implies to follow those thoughts that are sometimes abandoned by others. Philosophy could be understood as the activity of adopting thoughts, rejoicing at the sight of their growth and fall.

Many philosophers teach us that we shouldn’t be scared to be thoughtful, if we have such an inclination. We shouldn’t neglect the inner children we keep inside, chasing fireflies in the night of what we don’t know yet. And if someone forgets one’s own inner child, it could always be the case that a philosopher passing by might raise it, as if it were her own.

It takes courage to chase thoughts. You never know the place they are leading you to. Sometimes, they force you to abandon the comfortable house of your strongest convictions. They also come with the price of loneliness. In exchange, they repay you with strength. A strength so great, you might even defeat depression.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Cultures

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Gun control in the US is a very controversial matter because it seems impossible for its supporters to reasonably discuss it with its detractors. I myself had the experience of talking about gun control with one of my dearest American friends and I felt as if there was an abyss between my general assumptions on society and hers. She said “you can’t understand, if you don’t live in the US” and I trust her. However, I still think that the legitimate use of violence should be an exclusive prerogative of states, and that its use should be restricted to a minimum and its abuse heavily sanctioned.

This letter doesn’t defend my position about gun control. I rather decided to consider a single argument usually thought to be sound by “gun fans” (from now on, “GFs”). I hope to succeed in showing that this argument is flawed and that it doesn’t support their position.

GFs are used to say that guns in the US kill less people than what smoke does in Europe. They argue that, as much as we Europeans think that it is tolerable to liberalize cigarettes, and accept the cancer-related risks of smoking, US citizens can tolerate guns. Furthermore, they say that guns are related to the valuable scope of self-defense, whereas smoke has no intrinsic value, apart from making people sick.

The first question coming to my mind is the following: do GFs think guns are good because of self-defense-no-matter-what, or do they take them to be the least among possible evils? I take this to be an important question because, if the former is the case, GFs will consider guns positive and smoke negative; if the latter is the case, their argument will be just the comparison between two negative things. Of course, if GFs themselves think of guns as negative, there is space to discuss whether gun-liberalization is truly better than gun-control.

Let’s consider that private ownership of guns is positive. The argument goes by saying that guns are positive insofar as they defend people from potential aggressors, whereas smoke is negative for it causes cancer. We can all agree that smoke is bad. What makes guns good? Well, apart from killing or threatening others, I don’t find reasons why they should be intrinsically good; no society can ever peacefully exist if it is based on murders and threats. Their “goodness” must then belong to the prevention of evils. “Liberalizing” means however that not only “good people” have access to weapons, but that everyone has. Guns’ goodness becomes relative to different individuals, but if the argument wanted to compare guns to smoke, we are confronting different cultures rather than individuals, and it is not clear anymore how can gun-culture be positive at all, if it “liberalizes evil” too.

This leaves us with the latter alternative: guns are negative, but necessary; smoke is just negative. Here I would like to shift the focus on cultures themselves. What makes smoke “cool” in European societies? Speaking for myself, I would say socialization, non-conformism and  fetishism. At the same time, there are many campaigns in Europe to warn about the risks of smoke and many smokers are struggling to find a way out of addiction. This is the paradox of smoke-culture: the state sells you cigarettes, while warning you about their dangerousness, so that you can regret being a smoker.

This awareness is apparently lacking in gun-culture: the fact that guns might be necessary, doesn’t allow people to forget about their threats and avoid serious discussions about better solutions. Moreover, smoke-culture doesn’t have the same potential of escalation gun-culture has: if your whole neighborhood owns guns and armed robberies happen usually, even a fan of gun-control would be rationally compelled to buy a gun; in a neighborhood of smokers, a rational non-smoker feels no pressure to smoke, other things being equal. This means that the claim of “necessary evil” could just be part of a vicious circle: once people start buying guns, like a domino, it becomes necessary for everyone to buy guns.

As far as I can see, the argument must be rejected both if GFs think guns are positive, for gun-culture is clearly not, as well as if guns are taken to be a “necessary evil”, for that would open discussions about the application of demands of necessity, and the comparison between smoke-culture and gun-culture would be void.

I hope to have shown that this particular argument against gun-control is unreliable, and I hope even more fervidly that the US will find a way to prevent senseless massacres of civilians in the future.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Nationalism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When I was in high school, my philosophy professor was used to remind us the difference between 19th century patriotism and 20th century nationalism. In the 19th century, people all other Europe were oppressed by distant and authoritarian rulers, and longed for freedom and independence. Patriots started fighting for the self-determination of the oppressed, and the liberation of the fatherland (lat. patria). In  the early 20th century, patriotism was replaced by nationalism, a popular movement connotated by aggressiveness and saturated by “identitarian ideology”. The word “nation” means “people”, and nationalism aimed at preserving one people’s identity, even if it happened at the cost of excluding part of the total population, depending on ethnicity, religion, political stands, etc.

I think both ideologies belong to the past and shall remain where they are, for reasons I find very convincing. Patriotism was a movement of liberation, which ended up being on the one hand the utopian dream of intellectual elites, on the other hand a tool for less intellectual elites to gain power. Even if most revolutions failed, many people obtained their independence over time. Later, nationalism got rid of the elitist character of patriotism, at the cost of spreading xenophobia and fascism all other Europe, with the unfortunate consequences we all know.

What I have been sketching, is obviously an over-simplification of history, but the message I think we can agree upon is that the world of today has changed a lot since then. Feeling nostalgia for either one of the two ideologies is not only anachronistic, it is also dangerous. None the less, we see everywhere nationalistic slogans like “America first” (US), “Wir sind das Volk” (Germany), “L’Italia agli italiani” (Italy), “We want our country back” (UK), among others. Why do people still find such ideas appealing? Is there anything intrinsically wrong in the attempt to find shelter in one people’s identity against the threat of globalization?

First of all, we shall aknowledge that patriotism is nowadays impossible to realize for obvious reasons: at least in the western world, there is no patriotic elite anymore, either intellectual or otherwise, who could make sense of the movement. So, everytime we talk about the patriotic ideology referred to the contemporary world, we need to operate an implicit translation to “nationalism”. Nationalism focuses on the identity of certain individuals in a society, united by language, habits, customs and, more often than not, religion. The main idea of contemporary nationalism is that such individuals have a special status in society, which entitles them to “come first” in an exclusive way. “America first” means that individuals with an “American identity” shall be favored in their job opportunities, education, access to health care and other facilities. Other slogans may vary in their degree of xenophobic content, but they equally express the prominence of the national identity over non-national ones.

What is wrong in thinking that people with a national identity shall be exclusively favored in their own country? Before even answering this question, we shall ask ourselves what “national identity” means. Society is much more diversified and transitory than what identity makes us think of. People responding to criteria of citizenship may not conform to religious expectations, people otherwise culturally “identical” may lack appropriate linguistic knowledge, and wealth may also vary a lot among such individuals, generating a discrepancy too often underestimated.

National identity is not a “marble block”. It’s more like a sandy seashore: the sea constantly sucks in part of it, and constantly delivers new materials. You may still recognize the seashore after decades, but erosion will eventually transfigure it.

The vagueness of identity is not the only reason why nationalism is fallacious. The most important reason, is that society “comes before” individuals and groups of individuals. A society is “already there” and we can either think about it in an inclusive way, or struggle to find reasonable criteria of discrimination. In either case, our political ideas must address the whole of society, and not only part of it. Otherwise we would obtain the “law of the majority”, which equals tyranny rather than democracy. It is precisely because we believe in the general value of democracy that we must oppose nationalism as its relativistic antithesis.

In the past I have been arguing for the centrality of identity in our self-understanding and self-confidence. I have mixed feelings about the topic. I surely think that being discriminated is a very good reason to employ the concept of identity as a means for survival and flourishing. But I have also started developing skepticism about the reality of identity. Very often, it belongs more to our minds than to the external world and, sometimes, a critical eye can demystify its inconsistency.

However, I feel confident enough to say that there is nothing wrong in being proud of one’s country, for pride needn’t be based on nationalism. Irony usually works against taking one’s identity too seriously.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Taste

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When did you first understand that you liked a particular ice cream flavor? You probably had to taste several flavors and you thought that, perhaps, vanilla was your favorite. And after a while, you could have also probably changed your tastes and nowadays you like mint the most, or chocolate, coffee, watermelon, or who knows better than you? Tastes have a certain stability, but they can lose it with time and regain a new one. They don’t really depend on choice, but they definitely depend on experience and they are embedded in cultural practices. The more you experience, the more it is probable for your tastes to change.

Now, scope of this letter is to show that sexual orientation is fundamentally different from sexual tastes. I feel the need of writing this kind of letter because many people see no difference between the taste of ice cream and the fact that some girls like boys and others do not. Instead, there is a distinction, and this distinction matters if we want to better understand the implications of sexual orientation in our lives.

First of all, I think that sexual tastes do exist. Some of them are known as “fetishisms”, but also the simple attraction to a certain body-type is a taste. As tastes in general, also sexual tastes respond to the criteria I’ve already exposed: they are usually stable even if they can vary with experience; culture and experience are the basis upon which one can explore them and eventually change them. But sexual tastes and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

When a heterosexual man – call him Juan, favors casual sex over sex with the same person, he displays certain tastes and certain habits. It has surely happened to Juan that certain sexual partners were more enjoyable than others and he has sharpened his taste in women as sexual partners. At the same time, these tastes are constrained by his heterosexual orientation. He looked for women and not men to have sex with. Someone may object that he didn’t look for women: he chased only “good-looking women” and he would have found distasteful to have sex with bad-looking women as well as with men.

But there are good-looking men also! And I don’t think that a hedonist such as Juan would have denied that certain men can be extremely attractive, also depending on one’s tastes. He simply is heterosexual rather than bisexual, and his tastes are directed at a certain category of women he finds “good-looking”. To argue for the theoretical distinction between sexual orientation and sexual tastes doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t usually strictly related. We always display sexual tastes depending on our sexual orientation.

But then, what is sexual orientation supposed to be? Why doesn’t it respond to the same criteria of tastes? This is a very hard question that experts of human sexuality are still trying to answer. I am not an expert and my aim is not to define orientation, nor taste. I just want to argue philosophically for their distinction and I think that the best way to do so, is to say that orientation shapes our lives long before we develop sexual tastes. In fact, in the scientific literature on the topic, experts are used to refer to children as “pre-straight” or “pre-gay” depending on what sexual orientation they will develop later. But these terms do not only define children negatively – i.e. in terms of what they are not yet. Indeed, some pre-gay children manifest “deviant behaviors” when they have still long to wait before puberty. The “deviance” happens with respect to cultural heteronormative standards and not to supposed “biological standards”. The only issue with homosexuality is that too often, people don’t see that all mysteries related to it belong also to heterosexuality. That is to say that, if pre-gay children manifest their “pre-sexuality” so early, the same might very probably be the case for pre-straight children, with the difference that the social context they grow up into favors their adaptation unlike for non-straight people.

Experience and culture can’t do much to influence our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and culture are both fundamental and irreducible features of our sexuality: they ground our sexual tastes and shape them. For the same reason, a catholic priest may avoid sex for his entire life and not develop sexual tastes, but he will always have a certain sexual orientation – surprisingly as it may sound. As a matter of fact, sexual taste is strictly related to sexual practice, whereas sexual orientation is independent of it.

You can’t say that Juan doesn’t know whether he is heterosexual or not because he has not yet tried homosexual intercourse. He knows he is heterosexual the same way most of us know. On the other hand, it is ok to invite Juan to a bdsm party, for he will never know how enjoyable bdsm is if he has never tried it! For the record, I never did. But now I like vanilla ice cream… who knows what I will like tomorrow?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Afterlife

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It is a shared opinion among those who are sometimes called the “New Atheists” that there is no life after the material death of the body. Being an atheist myself, I find very convincing the argument that, in the absence of any evidence of the continuation of life after death, or of the existence of life separated from its bodily existence, the very possibility of the question regarding afterlife stands on shaky ground. Why then not be agnostic or surrender to skepticism? Because I don’t take the problem of afterlife as a matter of ignorance in front of a certain question, since the question’s validity itself can be doubted in the first place. And if the question is doubtful, we need either to better formulate it or to abandon it. I chose to abandon the theoretical question about the existence of an afterlife, but that does not mean, from my perspective, that it is impossible to formulate it in a meaningful way.

In order to argue for this possibility, I invite you to take a step back and try to understand why the problem of afterlife is so interesting. When our intellect glances at the expanse of the universe and at the natural laws governing it, we are assaulted by the thought of being little and insignificant. But more than our limitation in space, what scares us the most is our limitation in time. We all must die, and death comes with the question of the sense of life. What is the meaning of life? Many religions, like the Christian one, have tried to answer by saying that our lives don’t find an end with death. I take this solution, read as a theoretical approach to the question, to be quite spooky and unconvincing.

On the other hand, the New Atheists are used to answer that the meaning of life (if there is one at all) is in the possibility of leaving a trace of our presence for the future generations or, more poetically, to do something to change the world that will continue after our deaths. But also this solution is problematic, for at least two reasons: (1) what meaning is there for the life of the subject who dies? It can be said that the world has a meaning insofar as there’s human life, or that the lasting things one discovers or creates have meanings for others in the future, but not for a single life: the individual life, from the individual perspective, stays meaningless from its point of view; (2) the new atheists’ solution is quite elitist: who can really leave a meaningful trace of one’s presence on this earth? Aren’t we approximately seven bilions currently? There are influential politicians, famous artists and writers, international pop stars, but the rest? Would we say that only certain lives have meaning and not others? Or that some lives are more meaningful than others?

In my opinion, all these problems are originated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the theoretical question regarding afterlife with the practical one. The theoretical question is meaningless from an atheist perspective, not yet the practical one. With the concept of an afterlife, religion gives hope to people, and the possibility to hold on through the struggles of life. But the New Atheists are doing precisely the same: they depict some sort of “idealistic immortality” based on being remembered, which gives hope and, through hope, meaning.

The practical question about afterlife is not only meaningful, but it looks like as if religious people as well as New Atheists give pretty much the same practical solution!

When we talk about the practical domain regarding the meaning of life, we enter a universe of relativisms, where the most different philosophies and religions try to sell their brand in the most creative and equally valid ways. However, if and only if we are willing to give a practical meaning to our lives that is coherent with atheist demands, it seems that the New Atheists’ solution is quite out of track. An atheist practical solution must take into account the limitation of our individual existence and give meaning only within the perspective of a single life, because with the end of that life, we encounter the end of that life’s meaning from the individual’s perspective. Even with such constrains, the practical solutions appear to be almost infinite: from hedonism to stoicism, from oriental religions to western utilitarianism, and so on. So far, the most convincing and inclusive solution I have personally found, follows somewhat the old-but-gold Aristotelian teaching, namely that meaning is given by the endless attempt to become a better version of ourselves, from as many reasonable perspectives as possible. Do you think it’s trivial? Maybe so, but as long as it doesn’t contemplate hell, I will be willing to embrace any more original solution you would like to offer!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha