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

Better Questions for People about Their Home Library than the Ones that are usually asked

My library is, in my estimation, not huge. At least I think it is small relative to what I would like it to be. It is smaller than other personal libraries I have seen and certainly not over the top for an academic. Still, I get it. It is bigger than what you will see when you walk into most homes.

That doesn’t mean people without large home libraries don’t read. Many go to these quite remarkable spaces known as “public libraries.” There are more books there than you could read in several lifetimes. What is fascinating about these places is that they will just let you take a fair number of books home. They simply ask that you bring them back in a specified amount of time so others can access them, too. It is really a brilliant concept.

Also, there are these electronic things like “Nooks” or “Kindles” and other such devices. I don’t really understand them. Sure, I get the utility and convenience. It is easier to transport these thin devices from place to place than carry a book, plus you can have several books on a single device. Since the advent of the internet, I have read text on a screen and do so every single day. That part is not alien. I just like the tactile experience of a book and there is something deeply satisfying about turning a page. But, if you read books, I am not going to quibble with the medium. Just read.

I digress. Yes, I have a home library that, let us just say, takes up some space. I have ten shelves that are maybe six and half feet high and thirty inches wide. Then I have some shelves of the same height, but narrower, plus assorted books scattered here and there. On many of the shelves there are books arranged on top. Within the confines of the shelves there are many books not yet properly shelved but stacked in front of the other books in the general area they need to be.

And that is just what I had before I got married a few months back (well, okay, I have added books since then). My wife brought a substantial number of books along for the ride and several shelves of various sizes. Bottom line, we have a lot of books. I would count them, but that cuts into my reading time.

There are two questions I typically get asked. The first I am sure you are familiar with and perhaps have yourself inquired of friends with a lot of books: “Have you read all of these books”? The first thing you need to understand about this question is that it can cause a fair amount of distress and even despair to a booklover. Of course, we haven’t read them all! And we have had to come to grips with the fact that we only have one lifetime, and several lifetimes would not be sufficient time to read all the books we would like to read. Please don’t ask if we have read them all because, well, it is painful.

To the point of this question, Umberto Eco wrote a lovely little essay entitled “How To Justify a Private Library” (this essay is contained in an enormously fun book of short essays entitled How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays). The late Italian philosopher, semiotician, and newspaper columnist was said to have had 30,000 volumes in his personal library. He considered such a library a “working tool” for research rather than a “storage place” for books already read.

Even the ones already read, to me, are books to return to, especially those I need for research. I won’t ever return to all of them, but the possibility that I might need to is reason enough to keep already read books. This brings me to the second question I have been asked: “Have you ever thought of getting rid of some of these books?” The first time I was ever asked something like this, I admit I didn’t understand the question. But the short answer is, no, I have not entertained the idea even once.

Regarding non-fiction books, clearly to have them available for ongoing research is necessary. But fiction, poetry, plays, biographies are all books that on occasion invite me back, even if it is for that one paragraph that impacted me in some important way. I like having them around.

I will add in a bonus third question: “Why do you spend all that time getting book learning when life experience is where the real knowledge is found”? There are numerous problems with this question. First, its unspoken premise is entirely wrong. It seems to place book knowledge and life experience knowledge at odds where you one is to be preferred above the other. The unexamined idea is that “book smarts” is of no genuine value because it is not the “real” world.” My answer to this is simply that even if book knowledge had no utility value, it wouldn’t matter. Some things are okay to do just because you enjoy them. But books expand vocabularies and introduce one to ideas they might not have been exposed to otherwise, among many other benefits.

Another problem with opposing reading to life experience, is that if you limit your knowledge to what you can personally experience, your knowledge is impoverished indeed. It is like saying one should never travel, if they have means, but stay only where they have always been because that is all you need to know (actually, come to think of it, a lot of people do think that way, which is the root of a great deal of damaging and dangerous ignorance we suffer because of in our day). Books are much easier to access than traveling and can introduce you to worlds that exist beyond you that you otherwise would remain ignorant of.

A little secret: where do you think the things people write about come from? Books contain the experiences of others. My world is expanded, and my horizons broadened by reading in ways my own personal experience could not, alone, provide me. The question of book knowledge and “real life” knowledge is not an either/or matter; it is a both/and. It is not as if I have to choose what I learn from only books or only walking out my door. I can do both.

Okay. I don’t want to merely curse the darkness in my objections to the questions I am frequently asked when someone sees my library. I want to light a candle by suggesting some questions that are better asked of people with a lot of books.

Instead of asking me if I have read all of these books, how about asking, “How many of these books have you been able to read so far?” We can go exploring and I can tell you about the books I have read or stories that might be associated with how I came to a particular book. You might discover a book that you want to get yourself (don’t ask me to loan it to you, I confess I am a bit of a jerk about loaning my books. Few have earned that privilege).

I have a few books that are very old. How about asking me how I got hold of a book with a copyright in the 1800’s in such good condition? For example, I have a complete 1st edition set of the Harvard Classics in pristine condition. The story of how I got those is a hoot and a holler.

Ask me if there are any books that I have been compelled to read more than once (even though reading a book twice means one less book in my lifetime that will get read). There are some of those I will show you, and you can ask me why I’ve read them twice (or three times).

Now, not to be a curmudgeon. I know that often when people exclaim “have you read all these books?” that it is just a reaction of awe toward so many tomes. But the question can also come across as having somewhat of a disdain for such home libraries. If I haven’t read them all, why do I have them? If I have read them all, why do I still have them? The underlying assumption seems to be that there is no point to having so many books.

All I can tell you is that I like them. Books surrounding me is one thing that makes me happy and I like having them around. Read or unread.

I look at my unread books and see them as worlds yet to be explored. Unread books are promises and possibilities. But, you say, if you read one of those books and it does not deliver on the promise or possibility, you have wasted your time. What if it is a dud? Yeah, well, you don’t stop going to restaurants just because you go to one you thought would be good that turned out not to be to your liking, do you? Do you stop watching movies because you watched a dud? Why are books any different? And most of the time, it was worth the journey.

As to books I have read, as I have indicated, they are places that I might want to return to one day. Just like a place I have traveled and go back to, I might find things the second time I didn’t experience the first time.

So next time you walk into someone’s home and discover they have a large home library. Try not asking the same questions they have heard a thousand times. Ask more useful questions. You might learn something new.

Those of you who have large personal libraries: what are some questions you would like to be asked?

Escape from Canada!!! (A Tale of Danger and Adventure)

My wife and I were in the pet store the other day. There was one young couple and their little girl just ahead of us and no one behind us. After the couple made their purchase, they spoke rather animatedly with the store employee for some time, of what we really didn’t pick up (social distancing interferes with eavesdropping considerably).

When they moved on and we finally approached the checkout counter, we were informed in a voice of great intensity and seriousness that the couple ahead of us had just “escaped from Canada!!” Yes, that’s right, they had just escaped from our friendly neighbors to the north and finally made it to this vast expanse of freedom known as the Great State of Texas.

My imagination was immediately stirred to visions of harrowing escapes in the dark of the night in dangerous conditions, such as those depicted in certain episodes of the television series based on the book, The Handmaid’s Tale. What horrors did they witness that these folk, young child in tow, would take such risks to flee? And from the account given by the pet store employee, they barely made it out.

(Apparently, they drove down here freely in their SUV and movers brought their stuff, but that hardly makes for a captivating story).

The pet store employee went on to say that these Canadian refugees told her the current state of affairs in their homeland is “horrible,” such that they could no longer remain. My wife and I were intrigued. What the hell is going on in Canada?! One hears about people fleeing to Canada for various reasons, but fleeing from? (I guess because of their healthcare system where basic care is provided to everyone, some have had to journey to America for elective procedures they didn’t want to wait for, such as a nip and tuck, but I don’t think that counts).

So what nightmares did our friendly Canadian refugees escape from?

Per the pet store employee, they said: “You can’t go anywhere unless you are vaccinated.” And by “anywhere,” we were told they said places such as restaurants and nightclubs, that is, places of a social nature. Now, I must honestly say I have not looked into what is going on in Canada in any great detail. As far as mandates enforced by the Canadian government, I know that all federal employees must be vaccinated, and proof of vaccination must be shown for interprovincial travel by plane or train. Stories reporting on this are a dime a dozen. That the Canadian government has mandated vaccines to go to Tim Horton’s is something I have not seen. My hunch is that individual businesses are requiring proof of vaccination because maybe they think that their employees and patrons have the right not to be needlessly exposed to a deadly virus that causes horrid suffering and death. But I honestly do not know.

But, taking this report of our newly minted Texans, formerly of that gulag of a country known as Canada, at their word, I must admit I am shaking my head. Now, we can agree or disagree about the rationality or legality of private businesses requiring proof of vaccination. We can discuss rights versus duties in a civil society. We can discuss the balance of personal medical choices and public health. We can even discuss whether your sacred political right to go to Smoke’s Poutinerie or to the nightclub to dance without a vaccination trumps the health risks posed to your fellow citizens during a time of a planet-wide deadly and highly contagious disease.

But to claim that conditions are “horrible” when those conditions are simply the restaurant you want to go to requires proof of vaccination? Sorry, pal. Not the same. Likewise, when you have both the freedom and the means to pack up and relocate and tell your tale to the lady checking you out at the pet store, you are not oppressed. You were not in danger.

Fans of Letterkenny will get this…

How selfish have we become and how solipsistic, that being inconvenienced is perceived as oppression? How entitled are we when concern for the health and safety of fellow citizens takes a back seat to my jelly-filled Tim Horton’s donut the very moment I want it?

Such a conception of rights seems to me so deeply childish.

Perhaps our Canadian refugees who escaped the horrors of inconvenience will find a home where they think the “I” is absolute and for which the social order exists solely to serve it.

Hope

What is the essence of hope? I will define hope as the conviction that what is not yet realized or possessed is possible. To lose hope is to give up on possibility.

Photo by Mahdi Dastmard on Unsplash

Hope is the belief that the current state of things is never permanent. Even if the current state of things happens to be good, hope knows there is always growth. Obviously, hope is tied to aspiration, as one who has no hope—no conviction of the possibility of what is yet unrealized—cannot aspire.

Hope is not some version of the power of positive thinking wherein such a power on its own can produce a desired end. Hope is surely not wishful thinking. It is not what I would like to happen if I could have things my way. Hope offers no guarantees. Hope does not promise that life or the world will get better. Hope only insists on the possibility.

It also seems to me that hope, true hope, can only aspire to the good. One does not hope or aspire to evil. Hope, in its very idea, is oriented toward something brighter. Hope, one might say, is of a hopeful character! Of course, one can use the word “hope” in a perverted way such as hoping one’s enemy will come to misfortune and pain. But that seems to me to be more of a disordered desire than the kind of thing hoping is.

As much as hope is tied to aspiration, it would seem to be likewise tied to agency. One is no more going to do what one is not convicted is possible no more than one will aspire to it. If you do not act like you have the conviction on the possibility of something, no one is going to believe that you do.

Hope, as a conviction about the possible, is always future-oriented. One does not hope for what one already possesses. Imagine winning a Nobel Prize and, in your speech, saying that you hope you win the Nobel Prize. Yes, that would be absurd. Hope is lived in the space between the there and the not there yet.

Do not think, however, that because hope is oriented to the future, insofar as it is about the possible, that it does not touch the present. In light of what I wrote above about agency, if I hope for the possibility of something in the future then I have cause to act now to bring it about. Hope is a great motivator.

Hope, also noted above, is not a guarantee. Hope offers only possibility. What is hoped for may be or, just as well, may not be. In other words, the possibility that hope is aimed at is contingent. It does not come about on its own. What hope does, however, is to empower me to strive for the possible that I desire. To hope is to cooperate with possibility.

I defined hope as the conviction that what is not yet realized is possible. Characteristic of hope is that it is aimed at that which is good and that, while it is oriented to the future, is what motivates the one who hopes to act in the present. Another important characteristic of hope is the awareness that perfection has not yet arrived and will not, either for each of us as individuals or for our shared political life. There will never be a time when there will not be something good to which to aspire. There is never a time wherein you can say you can’t or don’t need to become a better person or that, collectively, we can say we can’t or don’t need to become a better people.

Another way to say it is that there is never a time when there is no longer possibility.

The idea that there is nothing left that is possible, that all possibility has been realized is, I think, a strange (and sad) idea.

I want to be a person of hope. That is to say, I want to be a better person. I want to believe that there can be a better world for others. Is justice possible? Is peace possible? I think here of Aristotle-esque reasoning. If something is not impossible then we admit of its possibility. No matter how improbable or unlikely you might think achieving these are, it is against reason to say that things like justice or peace are impossible. To say that justice or peace are impossible is to claim that they by necessity cannot be. So, since I cannot logically say that it is necessary that justice and peace cannot be, it must be the case that they are possible.

What is possible I can hope for. So, I will hope. Won’t you join me?

The Right to Your Own Opinion

A very, very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, during my undergraduate years, I had a professor who asked the class if we agreed that everyone has the right to their own opinion. We had a conversation and by the end he offered an alternate idea. No one, he said, has the right to one’s own opinion, but everyone has the right to seek the truth in her or his own way.

I suppose I better say right away that I think the statement, “you have the right to your opinion” is a true statement. You have that right. I have that right. But I do believe that my professor from yonder years was onto something. Hear (read) me out.

Consider the following ramblings.

If you hold an opinion about something, I assume that you believe your opinion to be the truth. An opinion, even if it misses the target, is aimed at truth. No one of sound mind holds an opinion one believes to be false. Such is contrary to the point of an opinion.

If you hold an opinion with which I disagree, that means I hold the opposite or something else to be true. A conversation might then ensue between us wherein I seek to persuade you of the truth of my opinion and the falsity of yours and vice versa. It could be that one of us is successful in persuading the other. In the interest of truth, the one who is persuaded changes her or his opinion because it is believed there is sufficient reason to do so.

 At least it would be nice if things went that way. I think our aim all too often is not to pursue the truth with one another, but to win the argument.

The point is that one cannot separate “opinion” from the desire and search for truth. There is no point to opinions without reference to truth. When my professor said, “Everyone has the right to seek for the truth in their own way,” he spoke with insight. I might rephrase his words in this way: “Everyone has the right to one’s own opinion and, therefore, the responsibility to seek the truth.”

In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, Glaucon was attempting to get Socrates to state his opinion on a matter of which Socrates said he did not have adequate knowledge. Glaucon pressed him and Socrates said, “Do you think it is right to talk about things one does not know as if one does know them?” Glaucon replied that even if one does not have knowledge, one should still be willing to state an opinion, nonetheless. To this Socrates exclaimed:

“What? Have you observed that opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things?”

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Whether it is the right to an opinion or any right, we focus on our individual right while conveniently leaving out the corresponding responsibilities that accompany all rights.

Seriously. When was the last time you heard someone proclaiming, “It’s my right!!” who went on to speak of the duties the right carries with it and their commitment to fulfill those duties?

Yeah, me neither.

If our own times serve as any indication, Socrates was correct. Opinions divorced from knowledge are indeed ugly things.

Wisdom and Prudence

To Socrates, I add that opinions divorced from wisdom and prudential judgment are ugly as well. I may have the right to express my opinion, but I must ask myself whether it is wise to do so in any given circumstance. I ought to use good practical judgment whether now is the right time or the right place to exercise my right, or to the right people. In other words, it is good to exercise my right with virtue.

“It is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle…anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give and spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” 

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.

I’m with Aristotle on this. Anyone can have an opinion. But to have it with goodness is laudable and noble. Otherwise, it is as Socrates said—ugly.

“You have the right to your own opinion” is shorthand for you have the right to think for yourself; you have the right to struggle through a question or issue and form your viewpoint; you have the right not to be forced to think as someone else does. “You have the right to your own opinion” does not mean you should spout off whatever you want, wherever you want, to anyone you want without regard to truth (which is why you want to spend reasonable time seeking knowledge about something before opining a viewpoint about it).

The right to your own opinion also entails the responsibility to exercise it prudently and with a view toward the common good. The idea of rights, your individual rights, presupposes the exercise of said rights within a community. If there was only you, you could do what you wanted and there would be no cause to think about rights, right?

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says, for example, that citizens have the right to bear arms. Does that mean you can just carry around a gun with no training into a crowd of people and start shooting whoever you like? No, you must exercise your right responsibly and you cannot just injure or kill who you want to. Understand, there is no right that does not carry the weight of responsibility. And reason would dictate that the right to bear arms should be regulated. To what extent is another discussion, but given the harm guns can cause, it is only reasonable to regulate their use.

Now, it is not the case that the right to your own opinion should be regulated by law in the same way that guns should be. No doubt things such as hate speech or using an opinion to incite violence and harm are matters for regulation. Regardless, the principle that rights carry responsibilities still applies no matter to what extent those responsibilities should be regulated by law.

Understood in the light of what I have written here, I think my professor from days gone by was on track. Do you have the right to your own opinion? Sure, you do. Just don’t be foolish about it.

That is my opinion on the matter.

Don’t worry ladies. Texas is going to be rape-free.

Photo by Enrique Macias on Unsplash

I have written before when Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, says things that do not hold up well under even light scrutiny. His latest is no different. When asked, in light of the new bill SB 8, why “force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term” he responded:

“It doesn’t require that at all. Because obviously it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion, so for one it doesn’t [require] that. That said, however, let’s make something very clear. Rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”

As a philosopher (and a person with a heart), statements like this tend to make me a little nutso because they are so laden with disingenuity it is staggering. Although a brief quotation, there is a lot to break down.

Let’s start with the question itself, which was why force a victim of rape or incest to give birth. He claimed the bill does not “require that at all.” Why does it not? Well, because the law allows for abortion up to six weeks. Setting aside the well-known fact that a woman typically will not know she is pregnant before six weeks, there is something else (and just as insidious) to point out. What surely motivated the question was that SB 8 does not provide an exception for rape and incest victims. Abbott’s reply was essentially that it does not force victims of rape or incest because, gee, victims have the same amount of time as anyone else to get an abortion.

Let’s be clear, Governor. After six weeks SB 8 does indeed force a victim of rape or incest to carry a pregnancy to term. If you are going to pass a law, stand by it. Don’t sidestep. With all that such victims go through, your response that they have six weeks just like everyone else is not only ridiculous, it is heartless and cruel. Be clear, also, that SB 8 has no provision or exception for rape or incest. No distinction is made between women who have an unintended pregnancy from mutually consensual sex and women who have been raped.

Changing the subject

The next thing Governor Abbott does is a rhetorical sidestep. Despite the fact that the question concerned the victims of rape, he decides to talk about rapists—and how tough he is going to be. So let’s not talk about what SB 8 does or does not do for victims of rape or incest, let’s shift our focus to the rapist.

The Governor is very serious here, you can tell, because he says, “…let’s make something very clear.” And if you watch the clip, he says this in a very serious tone. So, I am going to take him seriously and break down what he goes on to say.

First, he tells us rape is a crime in the state of Texas. That’s good. Very glad to know that. So, since rape is a crime, what is he going to do? This next statement is outlandish. Yes, I am still taking the statement seriously and my response here is a seriously proportionate one to the claim. Since rape is a crime, Texas is going to work “tirelessly” (this means that what he is about to say must be a high priority) to “make sure” (no shadow of doubt here) to do what? He claims that with tireless resolve his administration will make certain that they “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas….” Not some. Not as many as they can. All. Every last one.

Aristotle would say this statement is made universally about a universal. The “universal” is “rapists.” There is no particular category of rapists or any individual rapists, but simply “rapists.” Universal. How many rapists will be eliminated from Texas streets? All of them. Universally. This is a bold statement. Governor Greg Abbott has made a promise that not a single rapist will be left on the streets of the state of Texas because they are going to “aggressively [go] out and [arrest] them and [prosecute] them and [get] them off the streets.”

Back up just a step to SB 8 and the question the reporter asked, which was why force victims of rape or incest to carry a pregnancy to term? In light of Governor Abbott’s bold claim, the question no longer matters! Why? There will not be victims of rape (what about incest that is not rape?) because there will not be any rapists! Now there is a bold vision!

If (when) all rapists are not eliminated from the streets of Texas, Governor Abbott should be held to account. To make such a strong, absolute claim, he is obligated to see it through. I, for one, would like to see this aggressive, tireless campaign to make sure no rapist is left on the streets of Texas, but instead arrested, prosecuted, and put away for good.

What’s the plan?

What’s the plan Governor? Is there a timeline? How is every rapist in the state of Texas going to be eliminated from our streets? There will be a lot to prosecute and put in prison. Are you going to make room by allowing those convicted of non-violent crimes out of prison? You cannot achieve such a bold vision without a plan to make it happen. So what is it? How are you going to pay for it? You are going to need a whole lot of law enforcement across this massive state devoted to this aggressive plan.

My Governor has a hard task ahead. Texas is rated as the 15th most dangerous state in America for rape/sexual assault (Alaska is no. 1). The statistics reveal that 55.2 rapes and incidences of sexual assault occur per every 100,000 people. In a state of 29 million people, at the very most we are looking at a little more than 16,000 rapists. (If anyone wants to separate sexual assault that is not legally defined as rape, fine, go ahead. Given Governor Abbott’s bold campaign to eliminate rapists, it is reasonable to say he should get all who commit any form of sexual assault off the streets.). Now, assuming some rapists commit the crime more than once (and I don’t know any statistics here) that 16,000 number will be lower. Regardless of the number, getting rid of all of them is no small job.

Some might say that not all crimes of rape are against women. Men are victims of rape, too. This is true, but not a relevant point. Certainly, Governor Abbott cannot restrict eliminating rapists from the street to only those who rape women.

Really, the point is this. In response to a question about SB 8 forcing women who are raped to give birth, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that these victims are not forced because they have six weeks like everyone else; and, besides, it is not going to matter because he is going to get all the rapists off the street. Texas is going to be a rapist- and, therefore, rape-free state.

Bullshit.

Regardless of your beliefs and convictions concerning abortion, one cannot reasonably understand Abbott’s words as anything else but that. Complete and utter bullshit.

In Praise of the Mundane

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

C.S. Lewis wrote a poem entitled In Praise of Solid People that for many decades has remained a favorite of mine. The opening stanza reads:

Thank God that there are solid folk

Who water flowers and roll the lawn,

And sit and sew and smoke,

And snore all through the summer dawn.

The poem continues to describe such solid folk as ones who “feel the things that all men feel” and who “think in well-worn grooves of thought.” In the poem, Lewis notes that there was once a time he would have scorned the simple lives the solid folk lead. Yet, he learned to appreciate and admire their stability and how, unlike many who suppose themselves to be more enlightened, they are not “fretted by desire.”

I remember back in my early to mid- 20’s that this poem inspired me to write a poem I would call In Praise of the Mundane. That poem was never written. I may have started a line or two, but that was a long time ago and I really cannot recall. However, the title and the idea behind the title have remained in my ethos and general worldview throughout my life.

The word “mundane” is usually associated in people’s minds with boring or dull. But the word itself comes from French and Latin words that basically refer to what is this-worldly or ordinary. Many things we would consider mundane certainly fall in the category of unexciting. We get up, we go to work, we pay the bills, we engage in routine activities. Not exactly a thrill-ride.

There is something to be said, of course, for working hard as you look forward to your days off or getting a vacation away from it all. We engage in the ordinary so we can, if just for a brief time, enjoy the extraordinary. But what I want to communicate here is that there is something to be said for the mundane. Not all that is mundane is dull or meaningless routine.

Back all those years ago. I used to use the terms “continuities” and “discontinuities” to express my ideas. Continuities have a certain comforting familiarity about them that give our lives some stability and peace. Continuities would align with things we could call the mundane. “Discontinuities” are those unexpected things that come along outside the ordinary ebb and flow of living.

No one likes bad discontinuities—a job loss, tragedy, divorce, disease, etc. But I have observed throughout my life that some people thrive on discontinuities that they perceive are to be preferred to the dull, predictable continuities of everyday life. Give me something exciting rather than the mundane.

In “praising” the mundane, I do not intend to set up the mundane over the exciting discontinuities of life. As with most things, there is a place and time for both. And that is the point. Life should have a balance of both, each in its proper place.

Another way to think of it is that it is good to have a foundation of familiarities, but also a willingness to venture out into the unfamiliar and expand your world. After all, there is so much wonderful world out there to be discovered.

By familiarities, I refer to those mundane things like familiar places and faces, routines that keep us on track, and those activities we find comforting (like reading a book or taking a walk). The unfamiliar, by contrast, would be most anything that lifts of out of ourselves and challenges our comfortableness.

These are the continuities and discontinuities in life. Both do us good.

I would argue, however, that the discontinuities should be tethered and secured to the continuities. Even more, life can flourish and thrive with only continuities and no discontinuities, but the converse is not true. If you have nothing but discontinuities in your life (of either the positive or negative variety), and no continuities, you will likely go insane. Floating in space might be super cool and exciting, but if there is not a ground to which to return and plant your feet, floating in space would be rather terrifying I would think.

Another way to refer to discontinuities would be the “highs and lows” of life. No one likes the lows, but some want nothing but the highs. Zeus forbid they find pleasure in the ordinary! Everything must be new or exciting. All the time.

Look at the blue line as continuities. You are moving ever upward and growing as a human being, but the pace is slow and steady. But if you stay the course, you will look back and see that you have ascended to great heights. Now look at the orange line as discontinuities. If you depend on those for your happiness, you are always going to be up and down. When the good continuities come, you will be on a high. Those can’t be sustained indefinitely, so you go back down. But if you maintain your connection to the blue line, you can derive great pleasure from the high points on the orange line and you can weather and survive the low points.

This is why I praise the mundane. Give me that regular cup of coffee in the morning or a walk in the evening with my love. Give me a book or some music I have listened to a hundred thousand times over, decade after decade. Give me the familiar taste of a garden tomato. If I never have a high again, I am content. Whatever lows may come my way, I will be okay. Your mundane will likely be different from my mundane. Ask your doctor (or your heart) which mundane is right for you. But what mundane you settle into, look for contentment in the ordinary, in the mundane.

Do I want new highs? You bet! There are places I want to travel and things I want to see. There are things I know I will want to do even if I don’t know what they are yet. I want new experiences. You can live a thousand lifetimes and still never experience all that world out there to be discovered. I want to discover as much as my means and abilities will permit.

But I write here in praise of the mundane; to be one of the “solid people” Lewis wrote of. I am happy living in the mundane—the worldly, the earthy. Where my feet find the ground.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Love Your Food and Your Food Will Love You

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Growing up in rural Indiana, I was no stranger to farms. Farms and fields were part of the landscape that environed me. My parents kept a small garden from time to time. One of my favorite things to do was to pick a tomato or pull a green onion right from the ground. There is really no flavor quite like a freshly picked vegetable (washed, of course).

We live in a culture that worships food; or perhaps worships the glamorization of food. Being a “foodie” is hip. The most popular cooking shows are something considerably different than what they once were. From Julia Child forward, cooking shows were about, imagine this…cooking. People watched these shows in order to learn to make new dishes. To be sure, the personality of the star of the show had to draw viewers, but one could watch these shows and learn a little something about food and cooking.

In more recent years, cooking shows shifted from a focus on food to more outlandish themes. For example, in what I would describe as “The Apprentice” type shows, you might have a number of young aspiring chefs in a competition to see who had what it takes. The experienced chef and judge in such shows would tend to raise his voice in anger to belittle the young up and coming cooks. Viewers “consume” (pun intended) this sort of abuse with delight. Then like The Apprentice or maybe a show like The Bachelor, the aspiring cooks were lined up, judged, and viewers saw the winners and the losers.

This is not a post about cooking shows, so I won’t go on, but I should add that there are still many good cooking shows on. But the kind I am talking about that draw the big ratings have amazingly little to do about food when you step back and think about it.

My point is that while we live in a culture that does seem to idolize food, I wonder how much we really have any kind of a relationship with our food.

What?!?! A relationship with food! What are you talking about?!?!

Say What?

I’ll be honest. I am not sure myself entirely what I am talking about. Like Socrates, I do not know, and I know that I do not know! I am still learning. But I think I am referring to having some sort of connection to the sources of your nourishment. I do not intend to moralize about what sort of connection everyone should have to their food. I would like to suggest, though, that having some kind is something good.

One of my personally favorite ways to connect to food is cooking and, in particular, food prep. The thing is, I know how easy it is to throw a bag in a microwave or have one kind or another of some boxed or frozen food. I am not without sin in this. I know in this world where we move so fast and have so much to do, taking time to prepare a meal is something for which there is little time for most of us. But I find it therapeutically soothing to slice vegetables, prepare spices, marinate something, choose my cooking utensils, and so on.

I find food prep most enjoyable when listening to music. I have diverse musical tastes from classical to metal, but as I have told Grace Rowland, the front woman of the Austin based folk group The Deer, their song Hawkmoth has a perfect tempo for vegetable chopping and slicing.

You can also watch the news or a favorite television program. Best of all, I would say, is engaging in conversation. We tend to think of the communal nature of food in terms of gathering around the table to eat together and this is very true. But for me sharing conversation or some laughs with family and friends around preparing for a meal that we will likewise share together, is a rich experience that connects me both to my food as well as being connected to others by food.

There is also deep satisfaction in growing food. The process of planting, nurturing, harvesting, preparing, and eating has many rewards. I would also add sharing the food you grow with others to that list. I find the sensory benefits of growing food very satisfying. It is intoxicating for me to run my hands through my rosemary or basil plants and then breathe it in. The combined tactile and olfactory sensations remind me what is important in life. Picking some fresh herbs and then immediately using them in a dish is a simple joy.

What am I supposed to do?

But, you say, what if I am not really much of a cook or I cannot garden? Not to worry, there are other ways to have a thoughtful relationship with food. Here are a few suggestions:

Go to the grocery store and take your time. Going to the grocery is not usually considered a leisure activity. We want to get in and get out! Who wants to waste precious time grocery shopping! To be a more thoughtful shopper, however, you must take some time. Author Michael Pollan and others have pointed out that, as a rule, the outer perimeter of a grocery store tends to have healthier (or even “real”) food. The more you work your way into the center, the more you have processed and boxed “foods,” many with labels touting how good it is for you. So spend some time in the grocery store and learn what is really there and seek to become a more thoughtful eater.

Educate yourself about food. There are plenty of good books you can read. Marion Nestle is a highly respected author I recommend. Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan or The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason are a couple that I have found very helpful. If you prefer shorter books, Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Food Rules are easy reads and chock full of good information.

If you wish to dive into some more heady literature, go take a look at The Philosophy of Food Project housed in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas headed up by Professor  David M. Kaplan. Take a look at the bibliography section for a “smorgasbord” of literature to explore.

Eat more slowly and with others. I mean “eat more slowly” in two ways. The first is simply wean yourself from fast food and eat it infrequently. But mostly I mean to literally eat slowly! We hurry through a meal too quickly all too often. We eat to not be hungry and to get the nourishment we need, but that is not all eating is for. Eat for pleasure. Savor good flavor. Look at eating as an experience and an event, and get all five senses involved. We have been conditioned to think that leisure is for the lazy and a reward for which one is worthy only after a lifetime of toil. Something does not have to produce something else to be good. Some things are just good because they are good. Eating slowly and intentionally is one of them.

Have a relationship with food? Connect to food? I don’t know what to call it. I do know that being more thoughtful about food and engaging it (whether by growing it or becoming a thoughtful, educated shopper) opens up new worlds of understanding.

If nothing else, learning to appreciate the goodness of life and respecting that goodness is enough.