Friday, December 20, 2013

Cultural conflict?

I've just finished reading Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead".  This is the second book in the Ender Wiggins series.  In the first book, "Ender's Game", Ender is tricked into using is exceptional skills to direct the military forces of the humans to destroy the home planet of the Buggers, an insect-like race of sentient beings.  It turns out that the Buggers were really only trying to get by, and the conflict that put them up against the humans was a cost of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

In this second book Ender is engaged in a second encounter, this time with a race of beings very different from humans, but also less threatening.  The book is well written and has plenty of plot twists and interesting characters to keep your interest, but at the root of it is another example of human society coming into conflict with an "other" that they don't understand.  These are a forest-dwelling group of furry creatures with dramatic sexual dimorphism and a completely different sort of life cycle.  The central government of the new human race has strict limits on the sorts of contact the humans can have with these new creatures (who speak several languages, including the human ones), so that there is very limited understanding at the point where Ender shows up and engages them fully (he's a special guy).  In short order he fathoms the Piggies (as they are called by the humans), meets with the different groups, comes to understand the life cycle issues, and forms a style and level of communication with them that is between equals (which takes some doing, as the Piggies are actually superior to humans in many ways).  In summary, Ender saves the day.  I want him on my Team!

My point of all this is that here is another example of the fascination people have with the idea of the Otherness of cultures that are different than ours.  There are things that happen with the Piggies that are deeply disturbing to the people, but only because they don't understand what is going on.  In some senses it is very much like the cases I wrote about earlier.

Has anybody read this book?  Are you ready to try out cultural relativism again?

Monday, November 11, 2013

All things in moderation?

The Socratic question would be, What is moderation?

Christopher Phillips, in his book The Six Questions of Socrates, explores this question from a variety of perspectives.

In one he breaks the word down into the root, modesty.  What is modesty, in a personal context?  He uses the Islamic practice of women wearing burkas as an example of modesty in that culture, and reports on a discussion by Islamic women that takes place in San Francisco (of all places).  Recently immigrated women talk about the factors in their lives that have lead them to "take the veil" or not, and these women's use of the Qaran to justify their personal  practice.  In the environment from which they have come, some report, the wearing of burkas is required of them to ensure their modesty.  Others disagree, and they have a lively debate over this.   The point of the manner of dress is not to attract attention to themselves.  Are there normative behaviors in our society we follow to do the same thing?  The way we dress, the way we speak, the topics we choose to speak about, that sort of thing?

Is modesty the same as moderation?  How are they related?  Are they related?

Socrates, Aristotle, and Confucius all promoted the idea that a middle ground in thought, behavior, and personal life is the best, rather that one of extremes.  In another episode Phillips is talking with a group of students in South Korea about the Confucian ideal of moderation, and they all agree that this is a worthy goal of living.  However, they say, it may also be important to be extreme at times, as they justify protests and rallies against the government.  They say that the process of corporeal punishment that is practiced in Korea on school children is really just a way for Korean society to suppress the natural individualism children have, taking away something important and replacing it with conformity to a norm, which only looks like moderation.   Inside, they say, the fire and passion remains but they maintain a calm exterior so as not to attract attention and to fit in.  The protests they promote while at university is their inner frustration at the system finally getting out.

Critiques of Aristotle's Golden Mean idea of moderation might suggest that his prescription of Goldilocks's "Not too little, not too much" philosophy logically leads to some very bad ideas.  A life without meanness should add a little, right?  A person who has no evil thoughts should have some, or at least a little. Too much of a good thing is too much, we might agree, but can we think of things that having a lot of is a good thing, not bad?  Charity?  Kindness?  Love?  Compassion?  Still, the Golden Mean concept is a thread of thought that winds its way throughout modern American ideals, jurisprudence, and history.

Are you living a life of moderation?  Is this what we think of as having balance in our lives?  Was Goldilocks right about something?

See you Friday...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Freedom and the Social Contract

Cultural relativism has always been a difficult topic for BQ, and I think we will let it wait for another time and place.  If you want to pursue this as a topic, I suggest you do a little reading about it, and ask me for the article I mentioned in my last blog.  Then, if you can express yourself in a short note, you can leave a message on this forum for all to see and share.

One of my favorites has to do with Rousseau's idea of the Social Contract.  He posited in his essay on Man in his Natural Environment, that as a people in nature we are completely free, and we give up elements of that freedom by joining into a society.  To what extent do we think that is true, and is it true today? 

Come prepared to talk about what we have given up as freedoms we might have enjoyed in nature.  What are they?  Is an isolated individual living in some idealized natural life free in the sense we think we have freedom today?  If not, why not?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cultural relativism, globalization, and You

The Seattle Times this last Sunday morning published an article originally produced by a group called the Seattle Globalist.  The gist of the article is that they wanted to track down the actual person who could be said to have sewn a U. of Washington hoodie that sells in Seattle for a list price of $75.  To do this they traveled to Indonesia, and by using information provided on a public website by Nike, the maker, were able to narrow down the list of possible factories to 6, and then to the one where it was made.  They were presented with a worker from the factory floor who apparently recognized the hoodie and was able to talk about it.  They were not granted permission to visit the factory floor, or even to enter the factory.

The point of the article was not to find the worker, of course, but to highlight the differences in working conditions and lifestyles between Indonesian workers (in the case of this particular garment), and similar conditions in western nations in general and in Seattle in particular.   The interviewer asked questions about working conditions on the factory floor (which were not criticized by the worker), pay at the factory (which amounted to an equivalent $190 per month), and showed street life in Jakarta in passing camera shots and in an embedded video (see the link above).  The on-line article also showed a photo of a worker's rented room which was stark and poorly furnished by western standards. 

No attempt was made in the article to draw comparisons between the worker's life in the Nike factory and life of similarly aged girls outside the factory, or to present a recounting of pre-industrial life for girls in their early 20's in Jakarta.   The interviewer did not leave the city and look at life in the  more rural parts of the country.  The article did not go into the sufficiency of the income with respect to providing life necessaries, or whether the girl had options to choose other employment, etc.

The Seattle Globalist's objective is to make people aware of the "poor working conditions" in the factories in which garments are made outside of the USA, and to encourage consumers to boycott manufacturers that use these off-shore "sweatshops".  They do not engage in cultural studies of the countries themselves, do not embed themselves in the factories and learn the stories of the workers first-hand, and do not engage in longitudinal studies of the lives of the people who are born, live in, and make their lives in countries whose cultures are so different than those of us in the USA.  It serves their purposes to layer western values onto a country and culture that is so different from ours, and to draw conclusions about what these other people should feel and do with their lives based on the norms of our culture.  

As a frequent visitor to China, Indonesia, and Thailand, among many others, I have had the opportunity to spend time and observe life in the big cities, and in the country.  Indonesia is like many of countries in that part of the world.  Rural life is agricultural, city life is industrial.   People in the country travel to and live in the cities to find work, earn enough money to start a family or to support their relatives still in the country (presumably on the farm or in some other agriculturally-based activity), often sending money home to their families to support them in general, or to pay for the education of their brother back home.  Girls in particular travel to the cities as they are not seen as being as "valuable" as sons on the farm, and because their eventual marriage will take them away from their birth families and out of their families' lives.  They have an obligation to their parents until they get married, but after that they are gone.  This is especially true in China.  For an excellent reference on this topic, check out "Factory Girls" by Leslie Chang .  Or even the classic by Pearl Buck, "The Good Earth".

So what is the problem here?  Cultures develop at different rates.  Cultures have influences on them that are different than the one we have in the USA, and these influences my be secular, tribal, cultural, colonial, historical, and environmental.  Cross-cultural perspectives are normal, but it is not necessarily philosophically justifiable to judge a culture by one's own local moral or cultural standards.  If you are interested in seeing more about this topic, send me an email and I will forward you a file to read about it.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Can honor exist without Dueling?

Can honor exist without dueling?

In times past, a man's honor was a sacred thing that he was more than willing to die to protect.  A slight to one's honor could only be answered by a challenge that would end with a winner and a dead man.  To issue a slight was to invite a challenge, and to issue a challenge was an invitation to a conflict that was sure to end in one person's life.   Honor was sacred.  Life was not worth living without honor.

Can you name some famous Americans who died in duels?
Alexander Hamilton may be the most famous.  He was Secretary of the Treasury at the time.  Can you name his assailant?  Aaron Burr.  He was Vice President of the USA!  It might be said that issuing duel challenges and winning them was a path to immortality.  What did they duel over?  I have no idea.  Honor, of course, but what sort of honor?

If you like to look up famous duels, click here.

Do we have that sort of sense of honor today?  Do we see it in the people we admire?  Political figures?  Sports figures?  People we know?  Ourselves?  If not, where has it gone?  What are we missing?  Has something replaced it?

Can you imagine that you would issue a challenge to a duel, or accept one?

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Best Form of Government

I am listening to a Teaching Company lecture series that covers a lot of topics.  In passing, the lecturer tells a story about human history and government.   His issue is the natural state of man's governance, and although we all grow up with the idea that democracy is the best form, actually history is against us in this.

Looking back at recorded history we learn that despotism is the norm, not shared responsibility through  some sort of democratic sharing.  Solon, an Athenian scholar who was elected Arkon of Athens actually created the first defining document that laid out the basic tenants of democracy, and as soon as the ink dried he walked away.  Although the residents of Athens wanted him to assume the role of what we might today call a Caesar of Athens, Solon wanted nothing to do with it.  He understood that self rule means that there is nobody who is "in charge".  Everybody is in charge, in as  much as anybody is at all.  His ideals form the basis of what the Founding Fathers used as their guidelines for the Constitution of the United States,  and form what we think of now as the natural state of man, sharing governance and sharing responsibility for everything that happens.

Socrates came later, and denounced democracy as being the worst form of government.  He felt that the best government was a benevolent dictator.  Put someone in charge that really worked for everyone, and things would work out for the best.  Put everyone in charge, and Mob Rule would ensue where the Mob would be ruled by rhetoric, not reason.

Where do we stand today?

Monday, February 11, 2013

What I Do and Don't Do

I had a killer idea for a topic the other day...  Now, what was it??

I remember I once did the topic, What is the value of marriage in modern society?  I had intended to examine the phenomena of modern marriage:  serial monogamy but not actual lifetime fidelity, shared child rearing by separated parents, delayed marriage, DINK's, domestic partnerships, same sex marriages, etc.  The topic was well received by the participants, but it turned into a sort of marriage counseling session.  There was lots of TMI sharing, which was not all that great, actually.  It soured me on domestic topics and I haven't been back to that quicksand quagmire since, but maybe hope springs eternal...

The topic I had for this week was one having to do with kids and child rearing.  What was it?

Other topics I totally avoid:

  • Addictions of various kinds (remember George DuWors?  He made a career of this one.)
  • Politics, esp. with respect to local politics
  • Relationships in general - are these Big Questions issues?
  • Zombies (unless it is in the service of BQ topics like consciousness, minds and brains, etc.)

Socrates asked What is.. questions.  What is virtue?  What is duty?  What is knowledge?  We should ask these sorts of questions about our own lives.   What is our responsibility to our do-nothing teen-age kids who are addicted to the internet and their smart phones?  (Oops, I said I would not do addictions!)  What is the best strategy for planning our retirement?  What is retirement, for that matter?  What is ..  what?  What is the What is Question that is most troubling to you, my BQ readers and attendees?

What is the value of BQ after so many years of meeting?  I see this as a fair question.  We've done the Pleasure Box Question in so many ways.  And the Meaning of Life.  And the Purpose of our Lives.  Is there room for one more?  As we transit the timeline that is our lives, is the process of introspection that BQ attempts to facilitate still relevant?  Is Socrate's Examined Life still a worthy objective?

There, that is our question!  The Examined Life!  I've long extolled that the Process of Examination is the objective, not the destination of living the examined life.  That we gather, that we discuss, that we question and probe is enough.  It is that we ask the questions that makes it enough.  That Big Questions exists is enough, and that we gather to ask and wrestle to answer the questions is enough.

What is the Examined Life, and why should we give a shit?


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

BQ on the Bubble?

On Dec. 27 I askd my readers for ideas for BQ.  I have received Zero responses.  What does that mean?

For this Friday I propose we select a topic that evening.  Topics that occur to me:

1.  Lance Armstrong
2.  The Seahawks terrible loss
3.  The pending Zombie Invasion
4.  Review of The Hobbit, 1 of 3
5.  Chip Kelly leaving Oregon for Philly

If you have other ideas I suggest you submit them.