The Painted Porch

Stoicism is valuable.

Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.

And Stoicism’s IMG_0307core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.

The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.

But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.

Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.

Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.


You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.


Stoicism is about:

        • Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
  • Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
  • Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
    • Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
  • Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
  • Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.

 

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Can you believe in gender equality but not be a feminist?

If you believe in gender equality then you’re a feminist. If you doubt that then look feminism up in the dictionary. It’s a popular argument that’s difficult to disagree with without being labeled anti-equality.

But does it follow that if you’re not a feminist then you’re anti-equality? It reminds me of the question, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” The black or white dichotomy such questions create is problematic.

Another problem is the attempt to define other people’s labels for them. A better questions is, “What do you call yourself?” And, “What’s your perspective on equality?” These questions are open ended and don’t push an agenda.

Feminism advocates for gender equality from a female point of view. This matters because the Seneca Falls Convention was held 168 years ago, but recorded human history stretches back 10,000 years. But men seem inconsistent in finding their voice about gender equality.

Feminism has changed men’s roles because women’s roles can’t change without shifting men’s place in society. But that change happens to men – we don’t have a choice. And that feeling of having no choice is one reason why men’s rights activists are angry with feminism. Feminists sometimes respond by saying that men need to understand that men benefit from feminism too. And while that’s generally true, the patronizing tone doesn’t help.

The men’s rights movement isn’t the answer, though. Their rightwing talking points fail to support women’s issues. Men’s rights activists even claim that feminism isn’t really about equality.

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Beehive Mountain, Acadia National Park

So is being a male feminist the answer? I agree with blogger Ally Fogg that feminism is a movement of women, by women, and for women. Men can’t define the issues or offer solutions. Men can’t even takes sides in disagreements within feminism without it being mansplaining. As a result, a male feminist must take his cues from women. This means avoiding certain issues and having his statements scrutinized for ideological purity, all of which constrain his ability to speak authentically about the male experience.

Fogg also points out that feminism is mainly concerned with issues men cause, not issues men face. And of course, issues that men face are for men to describe.

A return to the pre-feminist past is neither desirable nor realistic. Instead, I write in an attempt to develop a male perspective on gender equality and gender issues without the constraints of male feminism, but also without the anti-feminist and rightwing perspective of the men’s rights movement. This is a male viewpoint that runs parallel to much of feminist thought but which is also free to disagree with feminism at certain points.

Final thought: while I don’t expect people to agree with me (I’m simply defining my personal viewpoint), I also reject the moralistic judgments people sometimes make because I’m not choosing the labels they think I should choose. It is each person’s prerogative to choose their own labels and to define their own perspectives, and the attitude that someone must call themselves this or that disrespects that individual’s choice.

Is Empathy a Bad Thing?

Sounds like a dumb question. But hold on. Last week an article from The Atlantic showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. It linked to a video by Paul Bloom from Yale called “Against Empathy.” Rather than empathy, Bloom argues for “effective altruism” – a rational assessment of the big picture.

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He begins provocatively by saying that “empathy is fundamentally from a moral standpoint a bad thing. It makes the world worse.” Bloom claims that empathy blinds us to the long-term consequences of our actions. For example, many people care more about a baby stuck in a well than they do about global warming.

Bloom even argues that empathy for the oppressed is often a key reason for going to war, and he cites the 2003 US attack on Iraq in those terms. But this strikes me as a red herring. President George W. Bush used self-defense as his main reason for going to war (even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11),  though empathy for oppressed Iraqis was cited as a secondary reason.

Further, Bloom describes the warm glow of altruism as motivated by selfishness. And he has a point. People love to brag about how caring they are, and all the things they do to help others, when really they’re jockeying for social status.

But it’s also clear that Bloom is overstating his case. One man on Facebook really nailed it, commenting that, “We need empathy and we need cool rational thinking. It isn’t an either/or black and white thing.”  Empathy sometimes “can makes us can make us short-sighted,” but “a world completely without empathy would be psychopathic.”

I remember from my college days 20 years ago that the ancient Greeks found virtue in moderation. That is, vice stems from excess or absence. Cool rationality without empathy can lead to psychopathy, but empathy in the absence of cool rationality can lead to enabling, short sightedness, and selfishness (to gain social status).

Which leads to another debate. Does altruism really exist? I guess it depends on what we mean by altruism. Maybe the simplest definition of altruism is the absence of self-interest. But there’s always an element of self-interest in everything anyone does, if for no other reason than your perspective is the only perspective you have. You can only approximate someone else’s perspective by referencing your own, and that makes it easy to misunderstand others.

Rather than altruism, I prefer to distinguish between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest. This basically comes down to the difference between looking only at the short-term versus looking at both the short-term and the long-term.

The friend who posted The Atlantic article noted that, “Altruists can be baited easily.” I agreed with him and added that lack of self-awareness is a problem. I elaborated that, “the altruist, believing in the purity of their motivations, is blinded by a self-serving bias that others can exploit.”

Achieving that balance between empathy and detached rational analysis is tough. Every situation is unique, there are no simple rules, and big mistakes will be made by me, you, and everyone.

Eye in the Sky: A Not Really Movie Review

Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren and that guy from Breaking Bad (the kid, not the old guy). And Alan Rickman is in it too, which made me feel sad because of his recent death.

The premis (no spoilers!) is that British and American forces want to bomb a house in Somalia with four notorious terrorists whom they know are about to suicide bomb a crowded marketplace. But there’s a little girl selling bread next to the house, and she’ll be killed if they bomb the house. If they don’t bomb the house, however, then more people (including children) will die when the terrorists strike.

It’s a heartbreaking dilemma. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It reminds me of the trolley problem, which philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed in the 1960s. It concerns a long-standing debate about ethics. Utilitarians argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. But what if enslaving a small minority benefits the majority? Is that okay? Deontologists argue that the rules are the rules. Slavery is wrong, so it doesn’t matter if more people will benefit. Lying is wrong too. But what if the Nazis show up and ask if you’re hiding Jews in your attic? If the rules say you can’t lie then do you tell the truth?

The trolley problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is about to go off the tracks and kill five people. What if pushing a fat man onto the tracks will stop the trolley and save five lives? One man dies to save five – that’s the greatest good for the greatest number. But the rules say killing is wrong.

Foot was less concerned about what people chose than why they chose one or the other. It turns out that most people would not push the fat man onto the tracks. Actively killing one person feels worse than passively doing nothing, even if five people die. That ethics is primarily based on emotion with reasoning being more like a post hoc justification is one key finding. And that people are motivated to avoid taking responsibility for a situation is also important.

But the trolley problem is kinda silly. No one can really imagine being in that situation. The fat man’s body probably won’t stop the trolley. And you could just yell at the bystanders, “Hey, you morons, get away from the goddamn tracks!”

Eye in the Sky turns the trolley problem into a plausible, real world dilemma that anyone could imagine being in. Do they bomb the terrorist’s house knowing the girl will die? Or do they save the girl knowing that the terrorists will kill even more people? You’ll have to watch the movie to see what they decide.