Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Missing Because

Our culture and even our educational system  has come to value subjectivity and personal opinion so highly--and has consequently come to reject fixed standards and even reason itself--that we now value every thought for its own sake, quite apart from any reason or evidence. We hear someone say, "I don't trust him," or "That movie was really great," or "That law is unjust," and then the speaker just  drops a period at the end of the sentence, It used to be that we would hear a "because" after such assertions. "That law is unjust because it treats minor offenses and major ones the same way."

Not now, however. In fact, when high school or college students are asked to supply a reason for their opinions, many of them grow instantly angry. They are offended, They take umbrage. The conversation goes something like this:

Teacher: What do you think about the main character's decision to leave town at the end?
Student: I think he's got another wife in another town and he's going to go to  her.
Teacher: And you think that because. . .
Student (growing angry): That's my opinion. That's just what I think.
Teacher: But can you point to a passage in the story that supports your idea?
Student: I don't have to. That's my personal opinion.

Postmodernists and their fellow travelers have helped bring about this state of affairs by asserting that a given work can yield dozens of different but equally valid interpretations. It's a free-for-all with interpretations of literature, poetry, history, and of course political science. But the phenomenon goes way beyond textual interpretations right to the heart of interpersonal communication on any topic. No one is required to have evidence or a reason for what they assert. We're just supposed to accept it.

But accept it as true or merely as that person's personal belief? I think we are witnessing the derationalization of the modern world. People want to hold beliefs without any reason or evidence. Case in point are some of the conspiracy theories and urban legends that are so preposterous yet so firmly believed. Example:

"Did you know that TWA Flight 800 was really shot down by a US missile?"
"But an extensive reconstruction of the wreckage showed no such evidence."
"Oh, it was hushed up and the fake story about frayed wires in the fuel tank was spread."
"But that would require the cooperation and lying of hundreds of investigators."

Here would be a good time to ask, "And you believe the missile idea rather than the official reports because...."

The answer to that leads to another discussion, about those who like to believe in the "true" explanations for our society's events.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Think About It, or, The Meaning of Life

In "The Strange Adventure," one of my own favorite stories from my book, Seventy Stories and a Poem, the story concludes by noting that "life is about meaning, not experience." In that context, the conclusion refers to the way we interpret what happens to us--that is, what meaning we give to an experience.

But I'd like to back up from there to note that finding meaning in an experience must be a deliberate act of thought. It is quite possible to  have many experiences in life without ever finding meaning in them, simply because meaning was never sought. Experiences must be processed, thought about, interpreted, before they will yield a meaning that can be added to our understanding about life and thereby add to our personal wisdom.

It's not simply by having lots of experiences that we grow wiser or increase our understanding about life or ourselves; it's by processing those experiences in light of moral contexts, analogous situations, and broader implications that we gain something solid and meaningful.

Next time you are sitting with a friend having a cup of coffee or a dish of ice cream, ask, "What does this mean?" and see what you can discover--about friendship, life, blessings, habits, will power, pleasure and pain, and so on. Don't live a meaningless life.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Why Some People Hate Rich People

I've come to the conclusion that people who hate the rich and want "wealth distribution" have a Scrooge McDuck view of the rich.

You'll remember that Scrooge McDuck was a Disney cartoon character, uncle to Donald Duck I think, who was known principally for his three cubic acres of money. Bills, coins, gold and so on filled a building which enclosed a cubic acre. Since an acre is a bit more than 208 feet on a side, a cubic acre would be about nine million cubic feet and three would be 27 million cubic feet.

People who hate the rich are imagining all that cash and gold coins just sitting there. Scrooge McDuck used to swim in his money. No wonder these people dream of getting a beach bucketful or two for themselves. "Redistribute the cash so everyone can have some!"

The problem is, there is no bin with three cubic acres of money. Rich people don't accumulate warehouses of cash. Their money is invested, working for them. The money is in hospitals, schools, manufacturing plants, and homes. (Where do you think banks get the money to lend to people buying a house? It's not printed in the back room.)

So stop dreaming and put your own money to work for you, and eventually you'll have--more than you think.

Beware of Undefined Words

The contemporary political scene seems to be filled with terms that at once evoke strong feelings and yet do not produce clarity of meaning. In critical thinking, slinging around terms with negative connotations is labeled the fallacy of emotive language, as in, "He is a snake," "They are extremists," and "She is a lightweight." But now the political antagonists are using as emotional weapons words that ought to be useful and clearly defined.

For example, we hear everyday comments like these:
"I am for justice."
"You are a racist."
"I support human dignity."
"You are inhumane."
"These people are being exploited."

But what do these statements mean and how should we respond? I think that one way to help increase understanding is to ask the person making the comment to define the term:

"This is unjust."
"Please tell me what you mean by unjust."

"That's unfair."
"I'm not sure what you mean by unfair or in what sense you mean it."

My suspicion is that many people use these words merely as negative emoters, words intended as weapons of disrespect. There may not be a clear definition behind their use in a given context. If that's  true, expect an angry reply rather than a definition.