Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Childhood Angst

Can children be existentialists? What I'm asking isn't so much whether or not it's possible, but should we allow it? 

If I dare to claim to define some central ideas here, the part about living authentically and embracing the freedom that comes with taking responsibility for all our choices with no excuses, that side of it is, I believe, pretty useful for everyone. But what about the darker edges of the philosophy? Life is objectively meaningless, and, since being unceremoniously dropped here, we're each of us alone in our quest to find meaning for ourselves. Things don't all work out in the end somehow; wonderful people can suffer many tragedies, one right after another. Nobody's controlling the game to make sure the good are justly rewarded. It's all a crapshoot.... And then you die. And, according to some, getting your head around the finality of our existence is key to the authentic life.

Is that too harsh for the little ones?

At what age is it acceptable to have conversations with children about this topic? What if your children bring up a sense of dread and angst at the possibility of their own demise. Is it better to acknowledge death, foster illusions of permanence, or deflect the issue entirely? Which will have the least detrimental effect?

A friend's daughter is suffering some anxiety; she's a worrier. Maybe it's because she has a gene for rumination. Or maybe she's a typical bright, creative kid.  One study, albeit with a very small sample size, found a link between intelligence and anxiety.
"Those with anxiety disorder tended to have higher IQ scores than healthy people, as well as higher levels of activity in regions of the brain that aid in communication between parts of the brain. These regions are thought to have contributed to the evolutionary success of humans. . . . High levels of anxiety can be disabling, and patients' worries are often irrational. But every so often there's a wild-card danger. Then, that excessive worry becomes highly adaptive. People who act on the signals of that wild-card danger are likely to preserve their lives and the lives of their offspring." 
But another study with an enormous sample size found a strong link between creativity and mental illness:
They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. . . . Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.*
It can be weirdly comforting to know that anxiety has links to positive traits, but more important than understanding why it starts, is to figure out what to do now. How do we help our children when they worry they'll run out of food or get hit by a meteorite or get hit by lightening or get conscripted into a war or get abducted on the way home from school? We feel helpless. We are helpless. The reality is we can't guarantee our children's security. We do our best to try, but there are no guarantees we'll be successful. Should we pretend there are? How much control can we really have over this - over their security and over their sense of security? It can help to believe we can fix everything for our kids, but I wonder if it's healthier to recognize how often we can't.

We really like to find patterns in the world, connections that make it all seem predictable. If everything works through a rational cause and effect system, then we can have a measure of control over the outcome. If we can observe the effects of different actions enough to see where the connections are, then we can behave in a way to provoke a specific outcome. But however we might look back at a sequence of events and connect the dots to try to understand how we got here, sorry to say, that only works in hindsight. Our lives are largely unpredictable. We live with a comforting illusion that we can control events, but then random acts steer us in a different direction.

Things are generally predictable, but not specifically, and that trips people up. Like Mlodinow explains in one of my favourite books, people are like molecules. Heat them up, and we can safely predict they'll all spread out, but we can't accurately predict the trajectory of any individual molecule. So we know that, generally, a university degree leads to a better job, but we can't know if your university degree will get you anywhere. This can be a little daunting, so we seek out other factors that caused the unexpected effect. We fight hard to grasp at an illusion of control over our lives, but, for better or worse, we encounter the absurdity of the the world. But if we can accept that some things just are and can't be controlled or fixed or prevented, it can actually make it easier to live through the random events that mark human existence. 

I suggested to this friend that acknowledging death is the best course over pretending we can guarantee a long life or ignoring the heart of the concerns. He responded, "I'm not going to tell my 8-year-old that we're all going to die." And coming from that angle, my suggestion sounds crazy. And yet, after some time to consider the situation, I maintain my position because doesn't she already know that to be the case?

I asked my 11-year-old what she thinks about the idea of talking to kids about death and what she thinks about kids having lots of anxiety these days.  She said,
"I think kids should know the truth instead of thinking that the whole world is a perfect place. Because it's not. We've got a lot of places that have a lot of problems right now. I worry about stuff that's going to happen, but I worry about it too soon."
I think she's hit on something important about worry - that it's often a concern when it's a matter of inappropriate timing. It makes more sense when it's right in front of us and very likely than when it's further away or less likely. Anxiety can give us an adrenaline rush that helps us stay up late to hit a deadline when we need it, but it's fruitless when it's too far in advance.

My concern here with an avoidance of existentialist thinking is that our culture's drive to protect children from anything remotely painful might be creating a society of people with lowered resilience who struggle to cope with the most minor setbacks, like students weeping over an essay because they can't think of a topic. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, or, at least, it's only recently that it is being openly displayed to teachers. 

Maybe previously we were all ashamed of feeling anxious, so we hid it. If that's the case, then it's a positive that we're seeing more of it.

But I wonder if it's the case that, previously, our anxiety over having enough food or money or supports in the face of plenty and a general fear of losing everything we've worked for was met with "Yup you might. Get over it!" comments that convinced us to cut-off those thought instead of dwelling on them and talking about them and bringing our concerns to person after person who would share their deepest fears, thereby giving credence to our worry and further embedding the pathways in our brain that allow worry to flourish! Flippant reactions might have a similar effect as current CBT methods in which people might be told to stop negative thoughts by imagining a big red "X" over the negative idea, then replace them with alternative thoughts, and then those troubling ideas will eventually decrease in frequency and intensity. Flippant reactions to worry can have the same effect of "You're fine!" in response to a tumble on the playground instead of rushing in with peroxide and bandaids. We rush in an awful lot these days.

We've gone down a different road of listening to everyone's feelings to the point that now we have a generation of second-order anxiety: personal anxiety plus anxiety over our children's anxiety. Have we fostered discussions of our concerns to a point that they've become normalized and entrenched in our brains? We feel like we worry for good reason about our anxious children because sometimes anxiety can turn into something worse like self-mutilation or suicide ideation. And then then we worry that worrying about our children's anxiety might actually make it worse! I think it was easier for my parents to acknowledge the worst case scenarios because they were born in the '20s and lived through the depression and then WWII. They experienced the worst and survived. We've been too sheltered from real trauma in our generation's past to be able to acknowledge that it could be a very real part of our future and to just get on with things. We're here today, and we have food and shelter, and we haven't been hit by a meteorite, so do your homework already!

Worrying about what might happen (like a child's anxiety turning into something worse) helps us feel like we're doing something productive about something we might have little effect over. But it could just an illusion of productivity. The tricky business is figuring out when we can have an effect and when we can't. We might stand back as parents and watch our kids fight through various stages of depression and anxiety, trying one therapist or medication after another wondering if doing nothing would have been as effective. It's complicated. But when they're beginning to express some fears over things clearly outside our control, a brush-off might be the trick. 

I can be a pretty intense worrier, and I actively work to decrease those thoughts. When I was growing up, I was terrified of the cold war. I was absolutely convinced we were all going to waste away from radiation poisoning if we weren't lucky enough to be hit directly.  This cartoon didn't help. It's of a middle age couple slowly dying, yet in denial the entire time, desperately trying to look on the bright side: "I should put some skin lotion on these spots. They should soon clear up." No wonder I had nightmares. But we lived, and all that worry was for naught. It did nothing to affect nuclear disarmament. Nothing.

I recognize this might not work for everyone, but what helped me cope as a child and now, what I believe prevented a journey into deeper anxiety or spells of crying in front of teachers, was my mum's very Epicurean acknowledgement that, "We all have to die of something," as she'd light another cigarette. Epicurus explained that, of course we're going to die, but we're not dead now, and, when we're dead, we won't know about it anyway; therefore, it doesn't make sense to worry about death. My mum was the kind who required a bloody appendage stapled to any request to miss a day of school. She'd soften the blow by tacking on, "But it likely won't happen for a long time....But, then again, we never know!" It had the effect of making me very productive. If death could be around any corner, then maybe I should drag myself from the TV to seize the day. And it helped me see that we're all in this together, Kings and paupers alike.

Recognizing the randomness of our lives, and how little control we have over it all, and the reality that death is inevitable, can actually help us live a more satisfying existence. I didn't wait for a magical age to share this with my children, but aimed to answer questions and concerns as authentically as possible throughout their lives. It's not all bad news. The worst might happen tomorrow, but if you're alive and well today, then let's celebrate that fact.

from this cite of awesomeness

*I'm not sure the difference between being an author and being a writer, but for the sake of my mental health, I hope I'm in the former group.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On Reading and Writing

I teach grade 12 university-level philosophy, and I teach it as a university prep-course. So we read primary sources, and we write essays longer and more complex than the standard five paragraphs. And then I brace myself for the complaints.

Why do we have to read about other philosophers? Why can’t we just explore our own philosophy?

I heard this one in art courses too, back when I actually taught art: “Why can’t we just discover our own style?” And I don’t just get it from the students but from parents too. “School should be about self-discovery,” they argue. “These other people are mainly dead, anyway. They don’t matter any more.” And then the real problem surfaces: “This is too hard for them. I can barely read it!”

I answer this the same way every year. First of all, I acknowledge that reading primary sources is the hardest thing many of them have ever been asked to do in their lives of Wikipedia-driven research methods, skimming, and cutting corners. Most textbooks are even summaries of summaries with lots of sub-headings and pictures and cartoons to allow weaker readers to decipher meaning from a variety of cues. Sometimes they're so simplified, they're devoid of real meaning. And here I am with the nerve to cruelly hit them with black text on a white background full of big words, sometimes olden-day words, and long, complicated sentences. These aren’t books they’re given, but just pieces of essays: a bit of Mill, some Thoreau, a dash of Aristotle.... And they’re assigned after reading several bits of essays and discussing what they mean together as a class. We take baby steps but all within one semester - the one semester that's most vital for university admittance.

I give them a strategy: Slow down! Stop at the end of every sentence and write down the main idea in your own words AND what you think about it. Is he on to something, or is there a problem with this line of reasoning? Then after a couple days, I give them my cheat sheet on the reading with the main idea of each section in my own words, in point form, with page numbers. If they couldn’t wade through this first reading successfully, they had a back-up. Baby steps.

But I do insist then learn to read for real. Why? Because the more they tackle difficult texts, the better they'll get at it. It opens avenues for understanding ideas that would have previously been inaccessible. Once they get it, once they see that they CAN struggle through a text and understand it on their own (and learn that it IS a struggle), then they can attack any reading material.

And I insist they learn about other philosophies before discovering their own theories. This raises a good Plato vs Aristotle debate. Plato suggests knowledge is inside us to be brought forth through contemplation and a good teacher who can ask the right questions and turn our eye in the right direction, while Aristotle would have us go out into the world to explore and experiment and put ideas together in a new way that’s our own. The schools are leaning more and more towards Plato’s ideal, but I’m firmly in the Aristotle camp.

My argument is a bit of a Pascal’s wager focusing on the possibility of error because we really don't know what's best. If it’s actually correct that we learn more from exploring past ideas, and we don’t do that with students, then students have lost the chance to learn that content since they’re unlikely to pick it up on their own. But if it’s actually correct that we learn more through questioning our own thoughts, and we keep trying to explore dead people's theories anyway, then we haven’t harmed anything in the process. Students can still sit and think after we’ve shown them other people’s ideas.

What's curious to me is how often they think that getting my help with a reading is cheating. I ask, "How do you think you best learn without help from someone who's learned this before?" Somewhere they've gotten the idea that they should be able to just know the answers, or find them themselves online, but they shouldn't have to ask any questions. I tell them I'm looking for a course on Heidegger right now because I'm stuck in the readings, and no online summary can help. I need a real live person to answer specific questions about specific lines. That's how we develop an understanding of a new topic. I believe that if you can do everything you attempt with ease, then you're not challenging yourself enough.

Furthermore, without the basics, many students run into issues that have been discussed for centuries. Learning about previous arguments gives them a head start towards developing better ideas. Most of us entering a new field don't know what we don't know; we don't recognize our weaknesses until we start to explore the strong ideas passed down and debated and discussed and tweaked for millennia. And the reality is, some people don’t have many ideas to share. They're a blank slate. They need a starting point, typically something they can argue against to get them really thinking.

And there's always the ability to impress others with a well-timed quote from a famous philosopher thrown into a conversation that makes people look at you a little bit differently.

And then we get to their own ideas.

Can you sign my drop form?

A chunk of the class drops out before the summary of that first reading is due. They didn't expect to have to read and think. It's too hard. And I worry about their ability to manage in university. But that raises the question of whether it’s better to give them easy work so they have high marks to get in to university, or to give them challenging work so they can be more successful once they're already in university where failing a course means throwing money down the drain. If they can't get into university in the first place, then having the skills that would have been useful there are wasted, right? And this is an elective course; shouldn’t it be just for fun?

Can't it be fun and intellectually demanding? Aren't they the same thing?!

Ideally, we’d be challenging students significantly in grade 10 - the last year that isn't scrutinized by university entrance committees. That should be the year of rigour when we really push reading and writing skills, ensure a strong knowledge of grammar and syntax, and demand clearly cited primary sources. But it’s pretty inconsistent because, as a profession, we don’t share the same learning goals. Many teachers believe grammar comes to us as we read and doesn’t need to be formally taught, and then I have to explain principal clauses to my grade 12s.

And it's hard to watch students struggle. It's hard to be the one who keeps pushing them to keep trying something that's difficult. Despite my course getting a little easier year after year, and despite using similar assignments, students are stressed out as never before. They need to skim and toss off a bit of writing quickly because they have so many other obligations in their lives. They have to work in order to afford university, and they need to be involved with many activities because it looks good on their applications. On top of that, they take 8 courses in a year that we encourage only 6. They feel like they'll be behind if they take a 5th year, so they cram too many courses into their last year rather than spread them out. I tell my 10s to take 8 courses in grades 9 and 10, then 6 each in 11, 12, and 5th year. Take the most courses possible; it's the last chance to take advantage of free education! But they're in too much of a hurry for that nonsense. It's all a huge competition, and there's a scarcity of rewards at the end.

I’ve known students who had 80s and 90s in high school, then actually failed classes in university. These are bright, hard-working students who were ill prepared. And that discovery costs them real cash dollars. This is the wall they hit due to grade inflation: 80s are the new 60s. My exams are a little easier every year because I do bow slightly to parental pressure. I’m teaching less depth, marking easier, and the grades show it. If my average were in the high 60s, like everyone's were fifteen years ago, then I wouldn't have a course to teach. Nobody would take it because they need high marks for university. But kids who might have had 60s and taken a different road a decade ago, are going to university with 80s and ending up on academic probation. That can be an expensive lesson for them, and it's not really their lesson to learn.

Some universities are reporting rising failure rates and professors offer solutions not dissimilar to my own:
"25% of high school students with A-averages in high school face being kicked out of universities in first year . . . We need to engage students by making everything more difficult . . . force students to think about things, to learn instead of memorizing."
One Trent University prof, Alan Slavin, noted a dramatic failure rate increase in his own classes, and, after some research, found it's mainly "an Ontario thing":
"Professor James Côté and co-author, Anton Allahar, in their recent book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, blame a general student disengagement with learning as source of the problem. However, most of the students I see are not so much disengaged as poorly trained for university expectations. Students’ ability to do analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization and regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. . . . There is always a certain amount of material that must be memorized, but knowledge of facts makes up only a small component of one’s learning. More important is the ability to relate these facts in new ways, to see them in a new light, and to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve new problems or create new forms of art. This ability to analyze and synthesize is what makes good scientists, writers, philosophers and artists. It is the ability needed to drive a knowledge-based economy."
Can't it be both student disengagement and poor training? But, from what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful. He blames this on changes to Ontario curriculum over the past twenty years that have made it much more content-heavy such that, from grade 1, time isn't spend in learning to understand concepts; there's only time to memorize.

Why essays? We should just learn the ideas and make posters about them. Why do we have to follow a format? What are in-text citations anyway? Other teachers are okay if we just put a list of urls at the end. Teachers shouldn't have set expectations, but should change their rubrics based on what each student can do.

Learning how to write within a consistent format is like learning the rules of a game in phys ed. We could let people determine their own rules and make up their own games, but we’ve established some useful techniques already that have been working for us. We offer some variations from time to time, but the basics are useful to follow. If we all understand the rules, then we can all play together, and people from all over the world can join in.

Over centuries, we've figured out a way to convey information in a clear manner such that, if everyone follows the general structure, we'll all be able to understand one another. If writing is clear, coherent, and precise, then we can discuss each other's ideas unhampered by questionable metaphors and illustrations. A poster or story or stream of consciousness piece or interpretive dance just can't clarify ideas in a focused way like an essay can. There is still room for creativity in an essay, but it's in the ideas themselves, not in a collage on the title page sewn to the essay with yarn. I fear that leaning on other media is a fool's game of hiding weak ideas.

When papers are written clearly, with flawless grammar and spelling, and a subtly demarcated format, then the style of communication can fall into the background, paving a road for the ideas to travel. Like learning formal theory in art, some people have all the elements of design IN them. They can just sit down and create things that are appealing aesthetically and interesting. The rest of us need to learn some guidelines, sit with them, and get them under our skin by using them over and over before we can take off from there.  Unfortunately it's been my experience that the extent to which people believe they can just write free-form in a way that’s coherent to others has no correlation to how good they are at it.

Back in the old school days, we learned how to cite sources using index cards and an assignment that sent us all to the public library when we were in grade four. I still have that project on Cats in Ancient Egypt. It was exciting to be dropped off on a Saturday and meet up with others there to look up books without a teacher or parent watching over us. And citing sources was an expectation of every grade after until, by high school, it was second nature. Now, because there's not the space for this in earlier grades, it's a hardship in high school. But having one consistent way of clarifying where information was found is necessary for readers. And MLA (or Chicago or APA) is the way we've decided on as a group. We all just have to get with the program on this one.

Citing sources properly, with all the necessary information, has never been more important as it is with internet research. If it's not clear who wrote an article, or if their name is "squeekee478," then it could be a questionable source. Scouting around a website, following the "About" link and the "Contact Us" link, is an imperative part of good research skills in this century.

Without set standards and expectations to work towards, we're not really teaching. I can encourage a student to throw a ball over and over that never hits the side of the barn. Without the goal of establishing the best technique, and getting students to work to master closer and closer approximations to the target behaviour, I'd just be watching random unfocused attempts. The attempts might get them closer to the target eventually by sheer chance, but the established techniques could get them there faster and with greater precision. Unpacked, what I hear some students saying is, "I should never be evaluated on something I’m not naturally good at without effort." But then we're not evaluating what was learned. (Keep in mind an evaluation of an essay is JUST an evaluation of how well you write not on who you are or your value in this world.)

These are standards that can get worn down with every complaint. What keeps me firmly rooted is the occasional student who has come back from university to visit and to tell me that this course really helped them have a step up. They watched others struggle with a 4-page essay, and thought, "Four pages? That's nothing!" I tell parents and students that, but they're dubious.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Sex Work

Bill C-36, which passed into law almost a year ago, begins like this:
"Whereas the Parliament of Canada has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it...recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution..."
The new law criminalizes buying sex, advertising, or otherwise benefiting from the sex trade (minimum cash fines and up to a maximum of five years in jail - ten for pimping), but it doesn't criminalize selling sex if only the sex worker benefits. It's theoretically a move to protect sex workers, except it limits their ability to advertise without walking the streets, and it limits their ability to discuss services in a public place. It took out restrictions for running bawdy houses, but it can charge men as they enter or leave.

But is prostitution necessarily exploitative?

Marlena Evans has an interesting piece at The Toast about working as a prostitute in order to pay her way through university. I'll look at the issues from the position of the prostitutes and the clients separately. I'm assuming it's a given that trafficking and pimping are obviously heinous acts that should be shut down by all means possible, but it's the grey areas that need a second look. And I'm not touching the potential for infidelity involved. Lots of things make it easier to cheat but aren't illegal. My question is: Is it necessarily exploitative or harmful to society if some people offer sex in exchange for money?

The Prostitutes: Is sex work necessary for women to survive, and is it necessarily harmful?

Evans presents her own case as proof that prostitution isn't necessarily exploitative, or at least, no more exploitative than a standard minimum wage job. And higher wages means she can work fewer hours.

She undermines the stereotype of prostitutes as struggling to feed their children or a drug-addiction. She's doing it to advance herself at school, a reason that's seen by her clients somehow as selfish.
"...people laugh about student poverty — they joke about cavities and scurvy as though one’s early twenties are merely a dry run for real life and one cannot actually starve to death."
She explains how working in the sex trade is significantly better than working in fast food.  I've had many students over the years share tales of working for exploitative managers that break ESA laws openly relating how unlikely it is that any kid will risk even a crappy job to complain - because the jobs are all crappy.
"If I got sick too often working at the fast food place, I had to provide a doctor’s note. I suffered abuse from customers who lumped me in with the automated machines. My gifts and talents were utterly squandered as I stood, sometimes for hours at a time, staring at the door, waiting for someone to come in and put me to use, knowing that if I got caught reading or writing or even listening to music I would be reprimanded. All of this and I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent and utilities in the same month."
Objectification and degradation anyone? We have a workforce of wasted talents following corporate-driven orders to behave in specific ways during their shifts (and sometimes beyond) for less than a living wage. We have many university students - the best and the brightest - who have to work 20-hours/week to pay rent and tuition even though it affects their grades and any ability to reach their potential. These are real problems in our country. I'm all for getting rid of exploitation, but it's a red herring to suggest it's just a problem in one type of business.

Some argue that a guaranteed minimum income will reduce society to a bunch of layabouts squandering their talents, but Evan's example shows quite the opposite. Some people are currently being held back from honing their talents because of their economic situation, so a guaranteed income would increase their ability to add to the greatness of our people. One Canadian study found this financial plan increased health and emotional well-being, and that the only people who quit their jobs were new moms and students, arguably the people with the greatest potential to benefit society if allowed to focus their talents without fear of economic reprisal.

Evans also gets at a different means of exploitation:
"I’ve been assaulted by countless men. By a man who was a client? Only once."
We have a vision of sex workers as throwaway women allowed to or willing to or coerced into bearing the brunt of assault, which somehow acts to keep the rest of us safe. But considering sex work as the one place that exploits is an illusion. Sexual harassment and assault is still a problem in and out of many fields of work. There are worse jobs women can do that nobody questions. Sexual oppression is in the fabric of our society. I'm not convinced the existence of the voluntary sex trade, as Evans describes it, increases that reality.

ETA: By way of contrast, see Hedges interview with Rachel Moran who calls prostitution "being raped for a living." Her experience isn't of voluntary sex work however, and I believe, as Evans suggests, that "voluntary sex work" is not an oxymoron. I believe it's condescending to suggest that all sex work is necessarily coerced even if prostitutes believe they've made a free choice. To honour people's different experiences, to believe women, means believing that they have the ability to distinguish a free choice from coercion. It's insulting to portray women as unwitting victims when they themselves feel empowered to choose sex work over fast food. Moran argues, “The nature of sex is mutuality, And where you don’t have mutuality, you have sexual abuse.” I'm not sure what "mutuality" means, but perhaps I'll dissect that quote another day.

The Clients: Will prostitution always be a reality, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

With prostitution available, people (predominantly men) can get a physical and emotional connection otherwise lacking in their lives. Many people are unable to find a mate or any physical contact at all with random strangers. They shouldn't have to live without any human connection because they're deemed less desirable by those in close proximity. This is an argument that many people can accept, especially after seeing The Sessions.

But some people seek out a prostitute for the lack of constraints this type of relationship has on their lives. They want to do something beyond the boundaries of a monogamous relationships: to have a variety of partners or acts available, to avoid any emotional responsibility, or even just to avoid having to clean themselves up a bit. When Hugh Grant was with Elizabeth Hurley and got caught with a significantly less beautiful prostitute, people speculated that Hurley wouldn't "go downtown." The infidelity aside, what makes it wrong to seek out sexual release in a specific way without courtship and commitment?

It seems we can accept the need some men have for the sex trade only if all other avenues have been exhausted. It should be a last resort for people in need, not a first choice for guys who like some convenience, variety, or just don't want to put down the video controller long enough to develop behaviours conducive to dating. But is this just a puritanical belief or a valid ethical position? Is this simple, easy sex option harmful to society in general?

A couple years ago, Wente wrote an article suggesting that men won't grow up and fulfill their potential if they don't have to work for sex. I'd completely write that off except that famed psychologist  Zimbardo furthers a similar thesis. The easy availability of sex today might prevent some men from rising to the challenge of getting a date, and, some argue, that challenge is what brings men to live up to their potential thus furthering society. But I'm not convinced that's a problem. I'm going on an assumption that most men who would only improve themselves for the reward of a stable sex life a relationship might offer are not necessarily the kind of men who are on the verge of curing cancer. I don't think it's the case that we will lose half the potential of the world if men can get laid easily. I agree that this focus might be a concern for some boys, but I don't agree with Wente and Zimbardo that it should be a concern for society.

Zimbardo laments the demise of boys, that their test scores and admittance to high-ranking schools is lower than girls now. That doesn't necessarily affect society if the strongest students are still working hard, which I imagine they are. From what I've seen, when students are exceptional, they're driven by the rewards of personal efficacy in their field - of being able to finally solve that problem. Accolades and external rewards are secondary. They don't need stickers to keep working as children or a woman's civilizing touch to keep them productive citizens as adults. From that it might follow that in schools today with fewer males entering, all things being equal (which they're not), we'd see a pretty even number of men and women getting the top marks. If it's only lower down the honour roll that will see an influx of more feminine names, then we're unlikely to suffer a loss of ingenuity as predicted. I suggest that the biggest impact easy access to sex might have in society is a lack of available partners for hetero women, but perhaps it's an effective means to separate the wheat from the chaff for them in the dating pool.

If one goal in our competitive society is for workers to be as productive as possible, on-call to answer e-mails 24/7, then having uncomplicated sex lives can foster this productive work habit. I don't think that type of life is necessarily most conducive to happiness or well-being, but if it works for some, then who benefits by making it illegal?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lives of Others

I have this poster on the wall of my classroom:

It's important to know. It's necessary to understand how things work. And then it's vital to act rightly in the face of the truth.

That's the message in The Lives of Others, a gripping film with one of the best final three words since Ironman. A Stasi officer in East Berlin, with eyes and ears on a playwright of dubious intent, decides to help the man just this one time. That sets off a foot-in-the-door type of psychological effect: Once we help a little, we tend to help a little more.

The director, von Donnersmarck, was only eleven and living in the relative safety of West Berlin in 1984, the Orwellian year when the film begins. Timothy Garton Ash (there be bold spoilers!) laments the details of the film: The Stasi weren't so well dressed. The students would have been in uniform. The entire thing looked too Western.... But that kind of truth is less important than the reality of the fear and desperation of the times - the general anxiety of day to day life when we can trust no one. It becomes all too clear the reality of the slippery slope we could face if we continue to allow C-51-type intrusions into our freedoms.

Within a fictional totalitarian regime, Alan Moore explained, "Artists use lies to tell the truth," and that line had a presence as I watched. This idea is crucial in the film when the artists' lives and livelihood are at stake as they embed statistics in poetic prose. But that very risk is what makes spreading the truth all the more important.

Garton Ash asks if high culture humanizes us, and he shares this bit of trivia:
"Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie."
If anything can turn us from cruelty, it might be art. Films like this one precariously transport us to a place of heightened empathy as we live through the character's dilemma. We become a little more moral, a little more courageous in the process.

What affected me most in this film, however, was the plot driven by one man of power unable to completely have the woman he desired. People must pay the price for his loss. This is an issue no less disquieting in our pseudo-enlightened times thirty years hence where men scorned still prove menacing whether on a real life date or during on-line encounters. Women can expect sexually aggressive threats from total strangers for politely rejecting advice. Stealing away with a woman to force her hand in marriage has been illegal since the 12th century, but I fear tactics have merely gotten more subtle in their execution.