The Being of Silence

Many, many years ago, I picked up an old used copy of a book, The World of Silence, by Swiss philosopher, Max Picard. At the time, I didn’t know who Picard was, but the book looked interesting and had a preface by Gabriel Marcel, a philosopher whose work I did know. So, I bought it.

Max Picard wrote in The World of Silence, “Silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself.” He goes on to observe, “One cannot imagine a world in which there is nothing but language and speech, but one can imagine a world where there is nothing but silence.” Similarly, in a much more recent book, Seeing Silence, Mark C. Taylor observes, “Not merely the absence of noise, silence is the stillness that sounds and resounds in all sounds and echoes in every word.”

Not a mere absence…

To say that silence is not the mere absence of something else—whether of speech or even more so, as Taylor wrote, “noise”—is to say that silence has a kind of Being of its own. Silence is not nothing—i.e., a no-thing.

There is too little silence in the world we share in these times. I think first of Ukraine and all places consumed by violence, where there is the constant noise of aircraft, explosions, and gunfire. I think of children who bury their heads under their pillows to try to drown out the yelling and screaming of arguing parents. All too often the absence of silence is marked by fear or frustration, hatred and anger.

Outside of the noise of fear, the world itself is just very noisy. I live in a major metropolitan area where the noise of traffic is commonplace. It seems to me that so often people need to live in noise to drown out something else, perhaps the voice of their own mind or conscience. We need noise to drown out our silence.

I have observed people who turn on the television for background noise while paying no attention to what is on, simply because they need the noise. Before texting became limitless (without charge for exceeding monthly allowable characters), I would count the number of people on their way to work in their cars who were NOT on their phones talking with someone, because such were very few. It seemed people could not be alone with themselves, even for a brief time.

Silence is lacking in the world of the everyday. It is too intimidating. In silence we have nothing else to do but contemplate. Maybe that is too hard.

Then there are those anywhere from war torn areas to a mother raising children alone who would give anything just to have a few moments of silence. Time to hear nothing. Just to be.

Another challenge to the Being of Silence today is that anything but the hustle and the bustle (and the noise that accompanies it) is viewed as non-productive and lazy. The idea of balance and symmetry in life between production and creativity on one hand, and rest and rejuvenation on the other, as a way of life, is lost on the “hustle culture” of today. Taking a vacation is a reward for hard work, not the other side of the coin of mental and emotional health. Even worse, embedded in our collective psyche is the idea that retirement is a reward for a lifetime of input into the system. Something that you only should have if you have earned it. Yes, retirement from a lifetime of labor is certainly a just reward to a lifetime of labor. But what does retirement represent? How about freedom to wake up each day and determine yourself, not be determined by your employment? How about the idea of the value of rest and relaxation, for itself, and the pursuit of personal interests?

Why are these things only a reward for the later years of life and not goods that we should experience as a part of life?

(Side note: I find it strange that the same people who idolize and absolutize individual freedom are also remarkably resentful of those who do not, or are perceived to not, “produce” and put into the system. It seems there is no “collective” until they think themselves as having to do something you are not. Let us be clear. The “economy” is the collective today—entirely depersonalized and in which you and I are a commodity).

A world driven by obscene profit for some strives to convince the masses that their only value is their productivity. And “productivity” is defined as contributing to a system from which they are the beneficiaries. Anything other is less than productive or not productive at all.

But what if silence, what if simply doing nothing to contribute to the machine, is something that is necessary to well-being? What if your value as a person demands that you take time away from the noise?

We can’t change the world without changing ourselves. But we can change ourselves even if we can’t change the world. Venture out from the noise of contemporary life. Find silence. I have no prescription as we all have our own circumstances and escaping the noise cannot be achieved in the same way for us all. Another irony is that we escape into noise from the heaviness of life, and we even hide from silence. Yet, it is into silence that we can find the escape we need from the burdens of life. Yes, it can be hard. We have been taught and conditioned that silence is wrong—unless you earned it.

But it is in silence that we can find ourselves. It is in silence that we can finally hear a world far more beautiful and meaningful than the one that is trying to drown it out. Mark C. Taylor is right. Silence, not the mere absence of noise, it is the stillness that sounds and resounds in the deepest depths of our being. Silence can exist without a word. But it is only silence from which word can come forth.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Joy, In Spite of…

A friend of mine wrote a book. Well, he has written a few and edited some more on top of that. But one of his most recent is, in my estimation, a book that pretty much everyone should read. If you are looking for fluff, shallow affirmation, or a feel-good self-help sort of book, move along. But if you would dare look into the dark depths of human existence, stare it in the face, and still find meaning and joy in life, then read my friend’s book.

 A great thing about this book is that while it is chock-full of philosophical, literary, and artistic depth, it is accessible and readable for non-specialists. My friend is Brian Treanor, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. The book to which I refer is  Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living.

Disclosures and disclaimers: Brian has not asked me to write anything here on his behalf or to promote his book. I am choosing to write this here because I think this book is very important and certainly worth reading in our times. My thoughts here are my own and, while I think I interpret Brian reasonably well, any shortcomings here do not reflect defects in the book, just my ability to articulate its meaning. All that said, this post is not a review of the book. I did a full review for the journal Worldviews. Here, I want to focus my attention on a sole sentence at the end of chapter two.

“Joy does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil; it denies their absolute significance.”

Brian Treanor, Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living (p. 45). Emphasis original.

A little background will be useful. Most of us come into this world being cared for, our every need being attended to. We experience love from parents, siblings, family, and friends. The world is a beautiful place. We are dwelling in light. This is a naïve joy that has not yet encountered the darkness or the weight of hardship. Inevitably, though, we have that youthful, naïve joy snatched away from us. The darkness finds us. Reality is not the least bit fun and it, as Brian writes, “would counsel despair.”

But he asks whether despair is the “last word” or even the “only word.” We can remain in the dark; but, in hope, Brian proposes that it is possible to live “after dark” and that it is likewise possible that we can teach ourselves to do so. After the dark, perhaps we can find a “second naïveté” after that initial one has been shattered and consumed by the dark. Brian says that “goodness, beauty, life, and meaning” are stubbornly persistent. So, while we do not try to slip back into innocence and deny that the darkness ever was, we nonetheless stubbornly persist in the belief that joy remains.

With that background (first naïveté → darkness → second naïveté), I return to the quotation cited above. Joy in life does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil. Joy denies the absolute significance of these things. First, I want to point out the importance of the word absolute here. The character of the reality of death and evil in the world is truly absolute. It is simply not possible to sidestep them. But while the reality of death and evil is absolute, their significance is not. Death and evil cannot not be real, but what they mean, that which they sign-i-fy, is not all there is.

Significance, here, is a loaded word. Significance is what something means, the truth to which something points. Death and evil do indeed have significance—undeniable (and dark) truth. Death points to our finitude and absolute contingency in this world. Evil in the world points to so many things, such as our failure to live up to the best of our humanity; or that often bad happens and there is no “why” that, if we could just find it out, we could find solace. But this significance is not absolute. It is not the only meaning in the world or even the greatest, most powerful meaning.

Yes, from the moment we are born, each and every one of us is on a short journey to the moment of death. But there are many more moments in between those two moments! There are moments of joy and moments of sadness. But shall we let the sadness deny the persistent reality of the sources of joy? Perhaps the joy that we can have is what Brian Treanor has called melancholic joy. Melancholic joy does not deny the sadness, but neither does it allow the sadness to deny joy and force us to despair (despair denies any and all hope).

What good is good anyway?

I have an acquaintance who, after experiencing a tragedy, nearly slipped into despair. After her tragedy, she fell into the temptation of believing death and evil had an absolute significance. She would point out other horrible tragedies, such as a news report of a man who had shot his wife and child, and then turned the gun on himself. Citing every bad thing she could find that happened day to day, she concluded that there was no point in doing good because we can never eradicate evil. Why volunteer at a soup kitchen, for example, or donate to good causes when evil would just keep pushing, insisting on itself. Doing good had become meaningless.

But is the primary point of doing good to eradicate all evil? Is it an all or nothing situation where one or the other must be absolute? If it is, then it is indeed pointless to do good because it will not succeed. The point of doing good, however, is no more, no less than doing good is a good thing to do and it is good to do it! Every good we fail to do is good that may have been, but never was. Or worse, a good that is not done leaves a gap to be filled by evil. For example, every hungry person that we do not feed when we could have, is a person that remains unnecessarily hungry. Every act of kindness not done robs a fellow human of being reminded that they have worth.

This is not a quantitative game or an aim to aggregate good. Good is just done for itself, even if that good is the only one that ever was. Embracing that “stubborn persistence of goodness, beauty, life, and meaning,” even in spite of evil, ugliness, death, and absurdity, is worthwhile for itself, and the alternative is only to add to the latter. I think Brian is right. Entering into a second naïveté is something we should make every effort to do. Perhaps our joy must be melancholic, but it is no less joy. We do not deny the absolute reality of things we wish were not, but we can and must deny their absolute significance.

I will take melancholic joy any day over no joy at all.

Hermeneutics and the Anthropocene: Notice on a Recent Publication

I am pleased to pass on to those who may be interested a notice of a journal article published in Analecta Hermeneutica, Vol. 13, 2021, titled “(Environmental) Hermeneutics at the Heart of the Anthropocene: Ricoeurian and Gadamerian Perspectives,” authored by me and Dr. Cynthia Nielsen of the University of Dallas. The issue can be found at the website for the International Institute for Hermeneutics.

Dr. Nielsen also manages the blog Hermeneutical Movements.

Be sure to check out the entire issue! There are excellent articles by Richard Kearney, Jens Zimmerman, and many others!

The Euphoria of Teaching

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash

Next to being with my wife and family, I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than teaching. The feeling I get can rightfully be described as euphoric and, to be honest, a little high. I pondered choosing the word euphoria to describe the effect that teaching has on me and considered finding a different word. “Euphoria” can have negative connotations, such as when a feeling that is created is not based in reality. Hence, it is only temporal and will pass when reality sets in!

I chose to stay with the word “euphoria” for two reasons. First, despite sometime negative connotations, one can feel euphoric for quite legitimate, reality-based, reasons. Physical exercise, for instance, can produce feelings of euphoria immediately afterward. Achieving some important and hard-won lifegoal can create euphoric elation and deep satisfaction. Such can feel almost unreal as it may have come only after a long and arduous journey in life. Euphoria simply means happiness and can come from either valid or invalid sources.

Another reason I chose this word is its etymology. It comes from a Greek word that means “healthy” and that word comes from another Greek word, which means “to bear.” In medicine in times past it can refer to the successful administration of a treatment, so when a patient who was ill recovers, the treatment is said to be “well-bearing.” Happiness and good health are often thought of together. All things constant, a healthy person is typically a happy person. Unhappiness of any kind can have a deleterious effect on the body. The body and the mind are intimately connected and interwoven. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Vessel Van der Kolk, M.D (2015), is a profound and scholarly, yet eminently readable, study that demonstrates this connection.

So, I chose to relate euphoria to teaching because, for me, teaching is “well-bearing.” Teaching is a cause of happiness and well-being for me. It is not unusual that, following a class, I frequently tend to feel euphoric—that is, a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. I would also describe the feeling I have as calming and grounding. Sure, sometimes I am simultaneously physically drained. Unless you teach, you don’t know how teaching can really take it out of you. But it can! Even amid the tiring effect of teaching, the euphoria is present, nonetheless.

Why does teaching create euphoria in me? I don’t really know for certain. I enjoy teaching, of course, but I enjoy lots of things that don’t make me euphoric. So, I don’t really know but I will speculate. One possible source of the euphoria I experience is that teaching is performative. When you teach you must know your audience and know what response you want to draw out of them. To teach is not to merely transmit knowledge from my mind to the minds of my students. Teaching is not listing out all the points or facts for the students to memorize that they will later regurgitate on a test. When you teach, you want your students to learn, which also means you want their lives to be transformed for the better (hint: learning is more than coming to know things, it shapes character). Especially when teaching philosophy, as I do, or any of the humanities, seeing students “light up” or “get it” and knowing that it is going to stick with them throughout their lives is what you are aiming for.

It is true, very true, that to teach is in some sense to perform. I want my students leaving class thinking about wanting to come back to the next class. When I teach it is necessary for me and my style of teaching to interact with my “audience.” When there is a connection made between a teacher and students, a connection rooted in the content of the class, an environment is created that facilitates learning. So, I suspect that one source of euphoria in teaching for me follows a “performance,” especially when I perform well, and the “audience” responds well.

Another source of the euphoria, I am sure, is that my life has been forever transformed by teachers I have had. Knowing that I am now in that position and something I say or do, even small, will stay with a student the rest of their life, making a positive difference for them, is at once a trepidatious and deeply satisfying part of teaching. As with the performative aspect of teaching, a teacher is giving something of themselves to a student along with the knowledge and wisdom they seek to impart. My teachers did that for me, and it is elating to me that I can honor them by giving of myself for my students.

Finally, I think my teaching euphoria comes from the fact that my students also give something to me. They may not know what they give to me, but sometimes I have no doubt that they benefit me far more than I do them. They give me many things, truth be told, but one thing is hope. Students in the world today have so many things to struggle with and against. The world they are being given can be ominously bleak in many ways. Sure, we can find things to complain about with “those damn millennials” or “those Gen-Z kids and their attitude.” But don’t let stereotypes make your perception of reality become misshapen.

Interacting with my students, I see people who care about things that need caring. Despite all the struggles in the world and their personal or internal struggles, they have mettle. I always finish a semester with a hopeful sense that knowing this group is growing and going out into the world is a good thing. That is a flame I want to fan, not extinguish. And when I know that simply by being present to my students, I gave them a little more juice to go be good in the world, I am content.

That, my friends, is the euphoria of teaching.

Personal Choice and Freedom of the “We”

Can an act that affects other people be “my personal choice”? This is an important question today since “personal choice” is regularly invoked, especially on questions related to Covid-19. To wear a mask in public or not to wear a mask in public? It is my personal choice. To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated? Also, my personal choice. Many say, “I have medical freedom” or “my body, my choice.”

First, let’s define some terms. By “choice” it is understood that there is at least more than one option available to the individual doing the choosing. That is easy enough. “Personal choice” gets a little more difficult because it can be understood in more than one way. One way speaks to personal agency and subjectivity. A person has a range of options from which to choose and has the capacity to view those options and pick what she or he wants. The choice is “personal” because a person freely made it.

That is not the sense I mean here when I ask the question, “Can an act that affects other people be my personal choice?” Here I am not referring to the chooser—the person who chooses—but rather the nature of the choice itself. When made, does any outcome or consequence of the choice remain bound only to the chooser or are other persons involved, especially if unwillingly. For example, it may be my personal choice (in the first sense) to smoke cigarettes in a public venue, like a restaurant; but the fact is my choice is not strictly personal inasmuch as I am not the only one the choice affects.

Not very many years ago here in North Texas, cities around the Dallas area began to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Most restaurants already did not allow smoking, so the ban mostly affected bars and clubs. I recall the discourse around those bans, mostly from those opposing the bans, who argued that businesses should not be told by government what to do and that if a business allowed smoking and someone didn’t like it, they could go somewhere else. In the name of freedom of choice, a business owner could choose to allow smoking and a non-smoker could choose to go elsewhere. Ironically, if a business voluntarily (even without a state mandate) requires you to be vaccinated or wear a mask, these same people cry foul, claiming that their freedom of choice to go where they choose is being taken from them.

Wisely, in this case, it was understood that this was not an issue of personal choice, but a matter of public health. Someone may make a personal choice to smoke but smoking around others or admonishing them to leave if they do not like it, takes smoking in that context out of the realm of personal choice (in my second sense) to that of the public good. In the smoking example, the personal choice of the smoker strips personal choice away from others. Claiming “my personal choice” here is not valid, I argue.

I think the same applies for requiring masks or vaccines (whether mandated by government or by owners of public spaces). Not doing so affects others in ways that, in the second sense of personal choice, individuals cannot make a personal choice, because the consequences of that choice do not remain in the realm of the personal—i.e., others are affected.

But wait, you say! Why can a business say wear a mask and if you don’t want to, you can go elsewhere, but a business can’t say that about smoking? One reason is simply that it is a false comparison. The focus is misplaced. It is not about the mask or the vaccine. It is about the fact that you cannot rightly or morally subject someone to a deadly virus just because you think that it is your personal choice not to mask or get vaccinated.

The problem is that we have a deeply flawed view of freedom. When you are talking about your personal choice, you are talking about freedom. In a recently published, and excellent, set of essays called  On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson observes in her introduction:

This book takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ that we are dependent upon each other, as well as upon nonhuman forces that exceed our understanding or control…. The question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.

Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (pp. 10-11).

I have personal freedom and personal choice. But what am I going to do with it? What values inform my choices? Freedom built upon an “I” focuses only on values of personal gratification. It places the person at the center of the universe of importance. It measures freedom solely in terms of wants of the isolated, autonomous individual.

But as Nelson’s words suggest, the individual is not isolated. We are “enmeshed” and that is not something that can be brushed aside. Thus, any concept and ideal we have of freedom, it must be built upon a “we” and our choices take the “we” into account. So, I have freedom and personal choice. But informed by the “we” means that I use my freedom and make my choices with care, compassion, taking thought of my fellow citizens. In his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre insisted that “existence precedes essence,” by which he mostly meant that in our freedom, we are responsible. In light of this he wrote:

When we say that man [sic] chooses himself, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all people. In fact, in creating the person we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of humanity as we think it ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

When it comes to wearing a mask in public or being vaccinated, one cannot say that those are in the realm of “my personal choice” unless that person thinks his freedom to choose is all about himself. The self-centered “my personal choice” represents a rather immature, even childish, temperament. Freedom without obligation, freedom without responsibility, freedom without care and compassion, is anything but the freedom that creates a union.

So, is it your personal choice to not wear a mask or get vaccinated? Yeah, sure. But that kind of personal choice ends at any point your contact with another human being begins. At that point, it is no longer personal. You cannot subject me to a consequence of your choices. Mask and vaccine mandates represent a freedom built on the “we;” where freedom is exercised with regard to those with whom you are enmeshed. Referring back to Sartre, a choice that cannot be good for all, is not good for you.

Bollocks and the Blockchain

Dr. Todd Mei

[A note from David Utsler: I am pleased to welcome Dr. Todd Mei to Discursive Dialectics with a guest post on this timely and interesting topic. Dr. Mei is a public philosopher, business consultant, and podcaster. See the links at the bottom of this post to learn more about him and his work.]

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

The word “blockchain” tends to elicit two reactions:

  1. Excitement for those who are keen to see how the putative next phase of the technological revolution will pan out according to a decentralized ledger system (a.k.a. Web 3.0).
  • Bothered Reluctance for those who are tired of hearing about the promises and enthusiasm generated by cryptopunks and cryptocurrencies.

Before you decide where to hang your hat (if you have not already done so), there are a few important things to bear in mind when trying to get a better grip on the promises and pitfalls of blockchain technology.

This blog will cover a few of the essentials in order to provide the reader with a better sense of the current landscape and whether one might want to live one’s present and future lives by embracing the blockchain or just taking a “wait and see” approach.

The Basics of Blockchain

The blockchain is essentially a digital ledger or record of transactions that is permanent, un-alterable, and public. Its public feature includes two noteworthy items.

  • On the one hand, its record is transparent and made available to the public (with certain privacy guards in place).
  • On the other hand, its public nature means that no central authority has governance over it. For example, instead of being stored on servers owned by a corporation, the blockchain is stored on the computers and systems, or nodes, that send, receive, and validate information via the blockchain.

What’s So Good about Blockchain Technology?

As public and un-alterable, any transaction is available to confirm by those interested in doing so. The ledger is essentially a series of connected snapshots (or “blocks”) of activities undertaken by people, much in the same way that cameras might keep a record of what people do in the public sphere. But instead of recording the public lives of people, it records people when they engage in activities that the blockchain facilitates.

What kind of activities might these be? Most of us are familiar with the idea of buying Bitcoin, where someone can send Bitcoin through a digital wallet to another person to the recipient’s public digital address. But there’s more to blockchain than just buying Bitcoin.

Activities can also include those made available through companies or a conglomeration of interested people (e.g. DAOs, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) who want to fund certain services and products—anything from financial exchange to pizza! (I’ll come back to pizza in a moment.)

One way of seeing the benefit of this public ledger: businesses and people conducting financial transactions via a blockchain cannot hide what they do. If the blockchain existed in the late 1990s (and was widely used), a company like Enron would not been able to “cook the books” when it manipulated the value of its holdings based on an appraisal system called Mark-to-Market. (Illicit activity that uses the blockchain to fund crime or terrorism is distinct issue.)

One main reason why businesses and people would want to use a blockchain for financial services boils down to what its decentralized structure offers—namely, removing the middleman who makes money from providing such services.

Think of any service you use—Paypal, SWIFT, Zelle (for merhcants), Ebay, and of course banks. Imagine there being no transaction fees when using them. Instead of middleman organizations providing services, financial transactions would be provided via a decentralized platform (such as liquidity pools). This decentralized system is called DeFi (decentralized Finance) where, as Arun Padmanabhan explains, its

platforms are structured to become independent from their developers and backers over time and to ultimately be governed by a community of users whose power comes from holding the protocol’s tokens.

There are DeFi platforms, for example, that allow users to trade currencies without transaction costs. Indeed, one of the rallying cries of DeFi is doing away with monopolistic-like control over products and services in order to allow for a more community-focused and community-run system. Remember the example of buying pizza via the blockchain mentioned above? Consider what the founder of the first blockchain pizza organization stated:

“Bitcoin Pizza is the first decentralized pizza brand uniting our favorite neighborhood pizzerias under one roof to take on Big Pizza.”

But Does this Really Matter to Me?

There are at least three ways of thinking about this question.

1. One is to consider how often your daily life is affected by the transaction fees claimed by middleman services. Many of us have limited exposure to such fees except on occasions when one needs to pay for something where the vendor does not accept more conventional forms of payment. In fact, we tend to think of such fees as natural to how things work. Banks need to make money, and charging fees for their service is one way of doing this. But does it have to be this way? . . . and should it?

2. Enter a second, and perhaps more far-reaching, consideration: Has the overall cost of transactions fees within an economy “artificially” raised the cost of doing our everyday activities?

Ever heard of discount rates, operating fees, and interchange fees? These are the costs that businesses pay to credit card issuers for their services. They add up quickly and substantially; and any business owner will come to see that to prevent such fees from eating into profits, they should be built into the costs of business. At the risk of being repetitive—imagine a DeFi financial system without these costs.

3. Finally, another consideration: If the blockchain can prevent bad financial practice, is that really a benefit to me?

When bad financial practices are widespread or substantial enough, they can influence the economy itself. If the blockchain ledger system were around in 2008, would it have prevented the housing crash? There are good reasons to think it would have. Justin Lacche speculates,

Blockchain, integrated directly into mortgage contract agreements, would have provided the metadata that with the correct, investor-friendly reporting, would have shown folks that these wonderfully-rated, and seemingly can’t miss investments, were based on millions of people who understandably wanted the American dream, but were in no position to make the next monthly payment the second their variable mortgage rates tripled.

But, of course, what blockchain technology promises in terms of decentralized finance may be too good to be true. Before we examine this dilemma, let’s first address a rather large elephant in blockchain technology.

How Do Cryptocurrencies Relate to the Blockchain?

Photo by Executium on Unsplash

The short answer is that when Bitcoin first emerged it was purely a speculative commodity. People were investing in Bitcoin because it was a product of the blockchain, and its limited supply also incentivized its speculative value, much in the same way many pyramid schemes work—get on the pyramid early to sell the goods at a higher return to those trying to get on the pyramid (after you).

However, with the emergence of Ethereum, the relation of cryptocurrencies to the blockchain have reversed. Cryptocurrency influencer, Sebastian Purcell, puts this well:

[Ethereum] was the first platform coin in the world—literally reversing the idea of Bitcoin. Rather than have blockchain power a coin [as with Bitcoin], make the coin power a blockchain. That way, the blockchain is freed up to run other applications on top of it.

Call this the crypto transition.

In other words, buying a cryptocurrency today is largely a way to fund and invest in projects. Ethereum is hoping to realize the promise of a decentralized network that can reach a certain transaction processing benchmark. And there are many more projects (DAOs) of a smaller nature that one can find and consider for investment.

In short, now cryptocurrencies are largely the way to invest in projects using the blockchain. It’s the equivalent of getting involved with a company’ stocks when they have an Initial Public Offering, it’s just that the platform is decentralized and is therefore an Initial Decentralized Offering.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”

There are at least two worries about the blockchain and whether it can be a success.

Execution

In order for a decentralized system to be efficient and workable on a large scale, it needs to have a robust processing speed (transactions per second). Other problems involve security and the impact on the environment, which the standard verification process (i.e. proof of work) notoriously affects. Ethereum, for example, is far off from meeting these goals. Is it even possible? You can read more here.

Takeover

One can imagine governments or corporations finding ways to regulate and control blockchains to the point that its democratic promise of decentralization is co-opted and slowly morphed into more of the same—i.e. big business, monopoly-like control, unethical use of private information.

Or the blockchain project can be made obsolete by virtue of being out-competed by other digital (i.e. non-crytpo) currencies. (Better technology does not always win out.) While a cryptocurrency is digital, a digital currency need not use the blockchain and cryptographic technology. It can instead act as a store of value and as a store of information for a central authority in order to gain better control over markets and individual behavior. Imagine, for example, such an authority tracking your spending behavior or even coding digital currency so that it can only be spent on certain items by a certain deadline.

It brings to mind a new inflection and meaning to the marketing tagline, “What’s in your wallet?”

I think this question will become more prominent in the next five to ten years as questions about the blockchain will be answered.

If you have found this blog helpful, please share and follow me on Quora; or subscribe to my website dedicated to public and applied philosophy at philosophy2u.com.

About Me

Todd Mei is former Associate Professor of Philosophy (University of Kent) who specializes in the philosophy of work, ethics, and classical economic theory. He is now a consultant for businesses and is a podcaster for Living Philosophy, a public series exploring ideas about life and the inspiring second-lives of people.

Barbarism and Savagery or Civil Society? One of the Meanings of January 6, 2021

I am currently working on a post on the idea of national unity. National unity is something that is absent in American life right now. That post, when published, will explain that topic more thoroughly. But, for now, I wish to highlight an important fact that national unity does not mean uniformity. Quite the contrary, the ideal of unity necessarily requires difference.

E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One)

The United States of America is a country that arose in pluralism, as John Courtney Murray observed in his, probably now little known, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960). Unlike European countries and other places had “previously existent” unity disrupted, Courtney notes that “pluralism was the native condition of American society” that needed a solution that would ensure unity in pluralist roots (that solution is The Constitution, by the way). Hence, the national motto, E Pluribus Unum. America is truly one nation that came out of many people. American pluralism was and is represented in many pluralisms: religious, ethnic, ideological, and so forth.

It would be an error to think American unity means abolishing all difference, all the things that make us pluralistic, asking everyone to leave behind everything about themselves and to become something else that we all are supposed to be (determined by whom?). Quite to the contrary, American unity presupposes there is a place for everyone and that in our difference (not in spite of it) we can have a shareable national vision.

No doubt, this is not an easy task. One of the requirements for success is the art of reasonable conversation. Here I offer some more insights of John Courtney Murray, specifically what he writes about the difference between barbarism and civil society. (Hint: America is supposed to be the latter).

(Disclaimer: My use of Murray in this post is not meant to imply complete agreement with Murray’s book. But I do find it fascinating how, writing in 1960, some of his insights speak so truly to our contemporary challenges some 60 years later).

First, it is important always to define terms. Barbarism, Murray reveals, has its definition stretching at least back to Aristotle. Barbarism is “the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.” And “conversation” is defined in its Latin roots as both “living together and talking together.” How apropos of American life. Indeed, we must learn to speak together because we need to live together. And by “living together,” I am going to assume in the “domestic tranquility” spoken of in The Constitution.

Murray goes on:

“Barbarism threatens when men [sic] cease to live together according to reason, embodied in law and custom, and incorporated in a web of institutions that sufficiently reveal rational influences, even though they are not, and cannot be, wholly rational. Society becomes barbarian when men are huddled together under the rule of force and fear; when economic interests assume the primacy over higher values; when material standards of mass and quantity crush out the values of quality and excellence [Murray is remarkably in line here with critical theorists such as Adorno and Marcuse, although it might have troubled him to think so]; when technology assumes an autonomous an existence and embarks on a course of unlimited self-exploitation without purposeful guidance from the higher disciplines of politics and morals….” (Murray 14-15).

Barbarism happens when we cease to live together rationally. And of speaking together:

“Barbarism likewise threatens when men [sic] cease to talk together according to reasonable laws…. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice [it should be understood here that by “passion,” Murray means lacking rationality. He is using the word more in its Aristotelian sense of the non-rational part of the soul. He does not mean, as we often do in common discourse, being “passionate” about something we care about]; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared [much like a former President who thought everyone was always all about him]; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when parties to the conversation cease to listen to each other, or hear what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories….” (Murray, 14).

I would like to expand on the meaning of some of the things in the quotation, but for time’s sake, I am going to assume you get the general point.

The entire idea of conversation and learning to live together must absolutely assume difference. If we all already got along and thought the same way about everything, there wouldn’t really be much to talk about, if by talking we mean seeking to avoid barbarism and savagery. In fact, my claim here is that it is the barbaric and the savage that wish, by fear and power, to impose uniformity and to exclude, even by force and violence, those who are not them.

The insurrection at the Capitol one year ago today is just such the kind of barbarism that Murray was writing about.

Donald Trump at his “Save America Rally,” premised on the made-up notion that the election was stolen, said, “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” When Trump said “country,” he did not mean, I contend, America. Not, at least, if you mean a country that is “out of many, one.” No, Donald Trump’s country and the country of those to whom he was speaking is something else entirely. His country is not the country of The Constitution. He made this clear enough when he told the insurrectionists to go home, that he loved them, they were very special people, and reminded them that the election was stolen. No, it wasn’t antifa or BLM, as he later claimed. He knew they were his people and he spoke directly to them.

I remember watching the Constitutionally mandated certification of the election and seeing Vice President Mike Pence interrupted to be swiftly taken from the building. A few minutes later we all learned, and watched, what was going on outside. Brainwashed thugs, wrapped up in the flag of our country, placed our Capitol under siege. I wrote my thoughts on that horrible event the day after. I think what I wrote then is just as true now. Our country experienced a treasonous insurrection. Whatever else is wrong with America (and there is plenty), we are still a democracy, no matter how imperfectly. Had the insurrection succeeded, I am convinced that today we would not be. I still fear the very real possibility that democracy could be lost. In the long march of history, civilizations have arisen and fallen after existing much longer than our own, relatively, short history.

What we saw on January 6, 2021 was an act of barbarism. It was an act motivated by the desire to rule by fear and power. It was an act by those who do not know how to have conversation, to live together and speak together.

This is not about differences in politics or being right or left. It is true, I do think the right in this country, at least in its most public face, is morally bankrupt and corrupt. I remember a right that used to be intellectual, that had a commitment to real American values. It should be the case, though, that reasonable citizens of various positions can “reason together” about our disagreements or what we think will best serve American ideals. We may have different beliefs about economic theory, or we may have varying political philosophies, but we can recognize one another as fellow-citizens who love our country.

Regardless of the differences among us of whatever nature they may be, the insurrection of our Capitol and the attempt to overthrow our democracy should horrify us all. Just because it was wrapped in flags and with shouts of “America,” there is nothing about that event that was American. What happened one year ago today was hideous and disgraceful. You cannot both love democracy and think that January 6, 2021 was anything other than sedition. May its perpetrators be brought to justice.

The insurrection at the Capitol is representative of the struggle between barbarism—carried out by a savage mob—and civil society.I don’t care if you are conservative, liberal, or any other stripe of political commitments. Let’s stand against sedition and treason together.

Virtue and Freedom of Speech (Don’t Be a Schmeck)

Just because you can do it, does not mean you should do it. This is a most basic moral principle of basic moral principles as can be. This is also wisdom. If I heard it once as a child from my parents, I heard it a thousand times over—there is a place and time for everything. Knowing the right place and time to do or say something is every bit as important, probably more, than the ability to do something. In addition to wisdom, not simply doing something because you can do it but knowing when, where, or whether you should at all, is a sign of maturity.

Alas, we live in a world of increasing numbers of adults who have less wisdom and maturity than developing pre-adolescents.

An anecdotal case in point: I am sure you are now familiar with the fellow from Oregon (Jared Schmeck) who made the news when he took part in a Christmas Eve call with President Joe Biden and First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. At the end of the call, in response to good Christmas wishes from Biden, the man responded with, “Merry Christmas and let’s go, Brandon.” If you are unfamiliar with the phrase—this clever craze that is sweeping the nation—you can read about it here. The short version is that the phrase is code for “fuck Joe Biden.”

As is often the case when someone is called out for such behavior, Schmeck first said he was only joking and has nothing against the President. Even if I take him at his word (which he later gave reasonable people cause not to…more on that in a minute), a Christmas Eve call with the President and First Lady in the presence of your children wherein you say a phrase that means “fuck Joe Biden” is not a very good joke. And that stuff I wrote above about knowing place and time? Yeah, that, too. He also said, “It was merely just an innocent jest to also express my God-given right to express my frustrations in a joking manner.”

Now, to prove it was a joke and he didn’t mean anything by it (sarcasm), he posted a video of the call to YouTube (linked in the NPR story). He also went on Steve Bannon’s podcast in a MAGA hat to say that he believes the election was “100% stolen” and that Donald Trump was his president. Sorry fellow, I think you knew exactly what you were intending by your childish little end of call jab. Yep, you were really owning the libs there, you great big patriot, you. Good sir, while I won’t contest whether you truly felt you were “merely” using an “innocent jest” to express your frustration (it may have well been that, too), you know as well as anyone who watched you do it, that you thought you were being clever, getting one in on Biden. You thought you were super cool to say “let’s go Brandon” (“fuck Joe Biden”) to the man himself. Own it. Man up. Don’t be such a snowflake when people call you out.

Schmeck also claimed he was now “being attacked for utilizing my freedom of speech.” Incorrect. You are being “attacked” for how you chose to utilize your freedom speech, for what you said and how immature and tacky it was, not for exercising that right to free speech as such. Is the art of critical thinking and how to make even basic distinctions even taught anymore? That question was rhetorical, by the way.

Here’s the deal, Schmeck. People are using their right to free speech to voice their “frustrations” or views about what you said. That’s the thing in a social order that protects free speech. If you want to say “fuck Joe Biden” to, well, President Joe Biden, people get to express what they think and feel about it. Free speech means everyone has it, not just you.

But this is where we touch on the real issue, isn’t it? What my rather lengthy anecdote illustrates is that the real question, for those who wish to be wise, is not about free speech, merely. Any freedom, any liberty, any right is never only about that you can do it, but how you exercise it. I have written elsewhere on this blog and over at Philosophy2u.com on rights and liberties. All the same applies to the right to free speech.

The standard scenario is that someone says something foolish, people respond pointing out how foolish what is said is, and then the individual whines that their free speech is being attacked. Imagine if someone gave me a gift (let’s even say it is tax-free) of one million dollars (cue Dr. Evil voice). Then I go spend my one million dollars on lavish fun and excitement and burn through that cash within a few months. You are my friend and say, “David, how could you waste that much money and lose it all so quickly?!” I look at you, feeling hurt and misunderstood, and I respond, “But it was my money and my right to do with it as I please! You are attacking my right to spend my own money!” You would likely say, “Of course it was your right to spend it how you wanted, genius; you were just pretty dumb about it.”

That is, to my mind, a very serious problem in this country. People are fixated on “me, me, me” and their precious rights, but those rights don’t seem so precious that we have serious and honest discussions about things that should accompany the free exercise of rights. Did you exercise it wisely in a way the situation called for? Did you exercise your rights with virtue and character? Did the exercise of your right harm a fellow citizen or family member?

The freedom of speech is precious. People must always be free from fear of government retribution for expressing their views and opinions. To silence language is to silence Being. There is nothing else so unethical, so horrific. But don’t you think if the freedom of speech is so precious as it is that we ought to take more care in how we exercise it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I like good old fashioned political mudslinging (to quote an undergrad history professor) as the next person. Moreover, I think such has its place in a flourishing democracy. But I fear we have become rather neanderthal about it all. The right to express yourself in speech is indeed your right. Co-extensively, it is your responsibility to honor this right by exercising it well.

My parents always said to me, “Think before you speak.” As I stated at the opening of this post, just because you can, does not mean you should. There is a difference. That difference needs to be understood in this country.

Of course, you have the right to free speech. Just don’t be a Schmeck about it.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Musings on 2021 and 2022

Betty White did not make it to 2022. That seems almost a crime. I remind myself that, given where she started, she got considerably further than most of us will. Still, Betty White not making it to 2022 and to her approaching 100th birthday, when she was in apparent good health, does make one sad. The thing about people like Betty White, however, is that she will live on in memory and in the good things she gave us by just being the kind of person that she was. If this were not true, the news of her passing would not have hit us so hard.

So, here we are now in 2022 and time moves on despite how we might feel about it. I have some grave concerns about the coming year. While I have hope and will do my part to make it a better year than the last two, it would be naïve to think that potential dangers cannot come into actuality.

The first anniversary of a seditious insurrection is five days away.

(A side note about that: it was not a “protest” over the belief that an election was fraudulent and they had to save the country. This is America. There are laws and there are courts in which to make such challenges. Make no mistake, this was an attempted overthrow of democracy done intentionally on a day enshrined in our Constitution to peacefully transfer power. This was not by any stretch of a sane imagination a protest protected by the Constitution, it was a direct attack on the Constitution. Those involved, especially those who planned, orchestrated, and incited it, should be tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Those in positions of government power who were involved, should not only be removed from office, they should, likewise, be imprisoned).

As January 6 approaches, I can’t help but thinking it was not the last attempt to overthrow democracy. These kinds of human beings do not go away, and they do not give up. They do not stop unless they are stopped.

We still have a deadly virus in our midst and the amount of ignorance over things such as vaccines, the effectiveness of mitigation strategies such as masks and distancing, is mind-boggling. It is like everything that has always been the case with vaccines has somehow been forgotten. I wrote about the faulty premises of vaccine refusal here.

The division, fragmentation, and hostility in our country still grows. Threats to education and the teaching of history in our schools (under the guise of being against Critical Race Theory, which they know nothing about) is pervasive. Banning books from schools and libraries under similar false premises is also pervasive. The rights of LGBTQ persons are constantly under threat, not even to speak of their safety. Roe vs. Wade is in danger of being overturned.

Point being, we live in a dangerous world. What I have listed is just a few of many things that one could list.

As we head out to 2022 and leave 2021, we live in challenging times. Like my friend, Donna Halper, wrote on her blog yesterday, we are “Saying Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to 2021” and hope that 2022 will be brighter. 2021 was a tough year for many. I consider myself very fortunate, individually. I did something in 2021 that I never thought I would do again. I got married. Those who have met my wife wonder, quite rightly, what a woman of her caliber sees in me. She is, in my estimation, way out of my league. I am in good health. I am surrounded by good people I am proud to call friends. Yet, for many reasons and like many people, I am happy to say goodbye to 2021.

As I reflect on the idea of being happy to say “see ya later 2021,” it is much more than just looking back on a trying year. It is also a looking forward with hope that 2022 might be better. There would be little point to a “good riddance” to 2021 if we didn’t think 2022 couldn’t be different. Of course, we don’t know yet what 2022 holds for us. It could be just the same or, Zeus forbid, even worse. But it can also be better.

To make it better, we can all do only those things we individually can do. That being the case, we should do what we can.

What am I going to do?

I will continue to teach. My students inspire me and give me hope for our world. So many of them are extraordinary. But they deserve to get a bit of hope from us. One way I can do that is to teach. Teaching is much more than just transmitting knowledge like so much data, teaching is to exemplify character and virtue. Teaching is about helping your students become the best persons they can be. Teaching is to inspire to reach for the possible and not give up.

I am also just going to endeavor to be a better person. To bring a smile to those I encounter. I want to be the kind of person that, when others encounter me, they leave a little better for having met me. I have certainly been made a better person by knowing the goodness of others. Knowing what others have meant to my character, I feel the obligation to be to others what my exemplars have been to me.

My wife and I have been discussing what we want our 2022 to be and what we can do to realize those aspirations. One thing we have discussed is to volunteer more and find more ways to get involved in our community.

We also cannot be negligent to stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed. I want to find ways within my means to continue to stand against what I see as the continued rise and threat of a kind of authoritarian fascism.

Let us look back on 2021 and assess it and learn from it. Then let us turn to 2022 in the hopes that when December 31, 2022 comes around, we can say, “That was a good year.”

When in doubt what to do or how to be? Just be like Betty White—laugh, make others laugh, love, and don’t take yourself too seriously. WWBD. What Would Betty Do? Not a bad place to start.

A Rainbow of Joy and Hope: Transgender StoryTime, Denton, TX November 20,2021

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Yesterday, I was privileged to be present at an event that had been at risk of not happening (and that would have been a shame). Yet, the threat against it became a catalyst that caused it to grow from one small library program (among hundreds) to a festive community celebration this year that drew many times over the number of people who would have attended the original event.

The background has now been widely reported, so I will only summarize some key points:

The Denton Public Library (DPL) hosts “Rainbow Storytime” three times a year and, according to the Library, “Its intent is to provide an inviting atmosphere for families to hear stories together featuring books focused on self-acceptance, learning, and friendship.” The DPL event typically coincides with days associated with “‘different’ or marginalized groups.” This time, it was taking place alongside the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a now 22 year-old observance that remembers those who have been (often brutally) murdered because they were transgender.

Due to the efforts of groups inside and outside Denton, the library decided to cancel the event out of concern for the safety of library staff and families (such concerns tend to arise when you receive hostile and threatening phone calls). Don Huffines, candidate for Texas governor, took pride that his efforts resulted in the event being cancelled. Just a few days before, he posted a press release on his website calling for the cancellation of the event and that all city employees who approved the event be fired. Tough talk, big man.

(Side note: Just perusing his website, I can’t help noticing that Huffines has very strong convictions and opinions about many things he understands poorly to not at all).

Another website, which I will not give publicity to, called the cancellation a victory over a “child grooming” event. The group took credit for this “victory.”

Had all of these fine “family values” people actually thought it through, they should have known not to mess with a loving family, especially a mother! Amber Briggle* (mother of a transgender son) immediately began looking for other options. A local Denton coffee house and brewery, Armadillo Ale Works, stepped up after hearing about the cancellation and offered their business as a venue.

So, while Huffines and others were claiming victory and taking credit for shutting down Rainbow Storytime, those on the side of justice, love, care, and compassion were not to be dissuaded. The result was that a simple library event that would have passed quietly by turned into a huge celebration. On the event Facebook page, 151 checked in as of the time of this writing. Being there myself, seeing that Armadillo Ale Works was packed front to back and many people listening in from outside (as a large garage door was open to the patio), I would conservatively estimate at least twice that number turned out overall. The Facebook page had a total of 453 responding (some going, some interested). Assuming the entire world isn’t on Facebook, doesn’t always tell Facebook when they do something, or didn’t switch from “interested” to “attending,” it is reasonable to assume upwards of 400 people were present.

What did I witness? I saw families. I saw children gathered around to hear stories of love and acceptance. I witnessed love and acceptance in action. I witnessed laughter and smiles.

What didn’t I witness? Hatefulness toward anyone (even those protesting across the street—more on that next). Self-righteous pontificating. Anger. I did not witness anyone trying to make children transgender or to “sexualize” them as many claimed this was about.

There were protestors across the street, as I said. I would say roughly about half-dozen. They didn’t really do anything much. They didn’t even really say anything. All I heard the couple of times I was outside before and after the event were pre-recorded prayers playing over a speaker.

Who I did not see was the lady who posted a protest flyer in the comments of a post I made talking about the event a couple of days ahead of it. I also did not see Don Huffines who still, incidentally, has his victory press release on his website about getting the event cancelled. I would like to see Huffines take credit for helping to make Transgender StoryTime a much larger success than the event he interfered with. I can’t say with certainty, but the impression I get is that Huffines doesn’t really care one way or the other, he just used this as a means to play to his base and get some free press.

So, why was I there? Why am I writing about it on my website? Why does a philosopher care?

Why was I there? History. I look back on the history of my country and think on a time when certain people were enslaved for the color of their skin. I think about the fact that just shortly before I was born, black people had to drink from water fountains separate than those of white folk. I think of all the violence and hatred toward homosexual persons our times have witnessed. I think of how, in my very own lifetime, women could not get credit or own homes. Despite all of the advances we have made in these and other areas, ignorance and hatred endures. And, very sadly, transgender persons are among those who are marginalized and who so often have to live in fear. The amount of ignorance I see about what it means to be transgender and the fear and hatred that follow this ignorance astounds me. In short, transgender rights and LBGTQ rights are emblematic of the struggle for the soul of the American vision. Equality. Freedom. Peace. Tranquility.

Whether it is the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, or your gender identification, you have the right to be free of fear and oppression. You have the right to live just as freely as anyone else.

I also attended because I feel it is my responsibility as a philosopher. Sure, philosophy is about clarity of thought and critical thinking and argumentation. Philosophers have much to contribute in terms of ideas and arguments for LGBTQ persons. Philosophy is (or can and should be) a type of activism. But I also needed to be there, to put my philosophy in personal action. Also, although I am a philosopher, that is not all I am. I also just want to be a caring and compassionate human being that can look at someone who lives in fear and tell them I want to help make it okay.

Some fear replacement. “The Jews will not replace us” chanted white supremacists. Or they think those of us who believe that transgender persons have rights to be who they are want to make everyone transgender. Ironically, those who fear being replaced or marginalized are the ones who engage in marginalization. I am a cisgender heterosexual male. I have encountered no LGBTQ person or organization who has the least desire to make me anything else. No one wants to “pray the straight away” in me. They just want to live as I do. I stand with them.

“I knew he was different in his sexuality/I went to his parties as a straight minority/It never seemed a threat to my masculinity/he only introduced me to a wider reality.”

Neil Peart

It is long past time for a wider reality. Transgender StoryTime was a win. It was a win for love. It was a win for the future. It was a win for children. It was a win for families. Among the nearly 400 persons in attendance, every color of the rainbow was represented and stood together as one. Transgender StoryTime was a win for a wider reality. It was a win for joy and hope.

*Full disclosure: While I am acquainted with Amber Briggle, having had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions, I have known her husband for many years as he is a professor where I completed grad school. The Briggles have not requested that I write anything about yesterday’s event and will likely find out about this post around the same time you, my dear reader, will have seen it.

Some resources:

https://lovetothemax.net/

Transgender kids are just kids after all | Amber Briggle | TEDxTWU – YouTube