Where is the line between sympathy and paternalism?

In higher-ed news two types of terrifying stories come up pretty frequently: free speech stories, and Title IX stories. You’d think these stories would only be relevant to academics and students, but they’re not. These issues are certainly very important for those of us who hang out in ivory towers. But those towers shape the debate–and unquestioned assumptions–that determine real world policy in board rooms and capitols. This is especially true in a world where a bachelor’s degree is the new GED.

The free speech stories have gotten boring because they all take the following form: group A doesn’t want to let group B talk about opinion b so they act like a bunch of jackasses. Usually this takes place at a school for rich kids. Usually those kids are majoring in something that will give them no marketable skills.

The Title IX stories are Kafkaesque tales where a well-intentioned policy (create a system to protect people in colleges from sexism and sexual aggression) turns into a kangaroo court that allows terrible people to ruin other people’s lives. (I hasten to add, I’m sure Title IX offices do plenty of legitimately great work.)

A great article in the Chronicle gives an inside look at one of these tribunals. For the most part it’s chilling. Peter Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault, but the claims weren’t terribly credible. As far as I can tell (based only on this article) he did some things that should raise some eyebrows, but nothing genuinely against any rules. Nonetheless, the accusations were a potential PR and liability problem for the school so he had to go, regardless of justice.

The glimmer of hope comes with the testimony of Jessica Wilson. She managed to shake them out of their foregone conclusion and got them to consider that women above the age of consent can be active participants in their own lives instead of victims waiting to happen. Yes, bad things happen to women, but that’s not enough to jump to the conclusion that all women are victims and all men are aggressors.

The big question at the root of these types of stories is how much responsibility we ought to take for our lives.

Free speech: Should I be held responsible for saying insensitive (or unpatriotic) things? Who would enforce that obligations? Should I be held responsible for dealing with the insensitive things other people might say? Or should I even be allowed to hear what other people might say because I can’t take responsibility for evaluating it “critically” and coming to the right conclusion.

Title IX: Should women be responsible for their own protection, or is that akin to blaming the victim? We’ve gone from trying to create an environment where everyone can contribute to taking away agency. In doing so we’ve also created a powerful mechanism that can be abused. This is bad because of the harm it does to the falsely accused, but it also has the potential to delegitimize the claims of genuine victims and fractures society. But our forebears weren’t exactly saints when it came to treating each other justly.

Where is the line between helping a group and infantilizing them?

At either end of a spectrum I imagine caricature versions of a teenage libertarian (“your problems are your own, suck it up while I shout dumb things at you”) and a social justice warrior (“it’s everyone else’s fault! Let’s occupy!”). Let’s call those end points Atomistic Responsibility and Social Responsibility. More sarcastically, we could call them Robot and Common Pool Responsibility. Nobody is actually at these extreme ends (I hope), but some people get close.

Either one seems ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to that view, but both have a kernel of truth. Fair or not, you have to take responsibility for your life. But we’re all indelibly shaped by our environment.

Schools have historically adopted a policy towards the atomistic end, but have been trending in the other direction. I don’t think this is universally bad, but I think those values cannot properly coexist within a single organization.

We can imagine some hypothetical proper point on the Responsibility Spectrum, but without a way to objectively measure virtue, the position of that point–the line between sympathy and paternalism–its location is an open question. We need debate to better position and re-position that line. I would argue that Western societies have been doing a pretty good job of moving that line in the right direction over the last 100 years (although I disagree with many of the ways our predecessors have chosen to enforce that line).

But here’s the thing: we can’t move in the right direction without getting real-time feedback from our environments. Without variation in the data, we can’t draw any conclusions. What we need more than a proper split of responsibility, is a range of possibilities being constantly tinkered with and explored.

We need a diversity of approaches. This is why freedom of speech and freedom of association are so essential. In order to get this diversity, we need federalism and polycentricity–stop trying to impose order from the top down on a grand scale (“think globally, act locally“), and let order be created from the bottom up. Let our organizations–businesses, churches, civic associations, local governments and special districts–adapt to their circumstances and the wishes of their stakeholders.

Benefiting from this diversity requires open minds and epistemic humility. We stand on the shore of a vast mysterious ocean. We’ve waded a short distance into the water and learned a lot, but there’s infinitely more to learn!

(Sidenote: Looking for that Carl Sagan quote I came across this gem:

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

That about sums up my approach to discussing these sorts of issues. We’d all do better to occasionally give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and see what we can learn from them. Being a purist is a great way to structure your thought, but empathy for our opponents is how we make our theories strong.

Does business success make a good statesmen?

Gary Becker made the distinction between two types of on-the-job training: general and specific. The former consist of the skills of wide applicability, which enable the worker to perform satisfactorily different kinds of jobs: to keep one’s commitments, to arrive on time to work, to avoid disturbing behavior, etc.. All of them are moral traits that raise the productivity of the worker whichever his occupation would be. On the other hand, specific on-the-job training only concerns the peculiarities of a given job: to know how many spoons of sugar your boss likes for his coffee or which of your employees is better qualified to deal with the public. The knowledge provided by the on-the-job training is incorporated to the worker, it travels with him when he moves from one company to another. Therefore, while the general on-the-job training increases the worker productivity in every other job he gets, he makes a poor profit from the specific one.

Of course, it is relative to each profession and industry whether the on-the-job training is general or specific. For example, a psychiatrist who works for a general hospital gets specific training about the concrete dynamics of its internal organization. If he later moves to a position in another hospital, his experience dealing with the internal politics of such institutions will count as general on-the-job training. If he then goes freelance instead, that experience will be of little use for his career. Nevertheless, even though the said psychiatrist switches from working for a big general hospital to working on his own, he will carry with him a valuable general on-the-job training: how to look after his patients, how to deal with their relatives, etc.

So, to what extent will on-the-job training gained by a successful businessman enable him to be a good statesman? In the same degree that a successful lawyer, a successful sportsman, a successful writer is enabled to be one. Every successful person carries with him a set of personal traits that are very useful in almost every field of human experience: self confidence, work ethics, constancy, and so on. If you lack any of them, you could hardly be a good politician, so as you rarely could achieve anything in any other field. But these qualities are the typical examples of general on-the-job training and what we are inquiring here is whether the specific on-the-job training of a successful businessman could enable him with a relative advantage to be a better politician -or at least have a better chance of being a good one.

The problem is that there is no such a thing as an a priori successful businessman. We can state that a doctor, an engineer, or a biologist need to have certain qualifications to be a competent professional. But the performance of a businessman depends on a multiplicity of variables that prevents us from elucidating which traits would lead him to success.

Medicine, physics, and biology deal with “simple phenomena”. The limits to the knowledge of such disciplines are relative to the development of the investigations in such fields (see F. A. Hayek, “The Theory of Complex Phenomena”). The more those professionals study, the more they work, the better trained they will be.

On the other hand, the law and the market economy are cases of “complex phenomena” (see F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty). Since the limits to the knowledge of such phenomena are absolute, a discovery process of trial and error applied to concrete cases is the only way to weather such uncertainty. The judge states the solution the law provides to a concrete controversy, but the lawmaker is enabled to state what the law says only in general and abstract terms. In the same sense, the personal strategy of a businessman is successful only under certain circumstances.

So, how does the market economy survive to its own complexity? The market does not need wise businessmen, but lots of purposeful ones, eager to thrive following their stubborn vision of the business. Most of them will be wrong about their perception of the market and subsequently will fail. A few others will prosper, since their plans meet -perhaps by chance- the changing demands of the market. Thus, the personal traits that led a successful businessman to prosperity were not universal, but the right ones for the specific time he carried out his plans.

Having said that, would a purposeful and stubborn politician a good choice for government? After all, Niccolo Macchiavelli had pointed out that initiative was the main virtue of the prince. Then, a good statesman would be the one who handles successfully the changing opportunities of life and politics. Notwithstanding, The Prince was -as Quentin Skinner showed- a parody: opportunistic behaviour is no good to the accomplishment of public duties and the protection of civil liberties.

Nevertheless, there is still a convincing argument for the businessman as a prospect of statesman. If he has to deal with the system of checks and balances -the Congress and the Courts-, the law will act as the selection process of the market. Every time a decision based on expediency collides with fundamental liberties, the latter must withstand the former. A sort of natural selection of political decisions.

Quite obvious, but not so trite. For a stubborn and purposeful politician not to become a menace to individual and public liberties, his initiative must not venture into constitutional design. No bypasses, no exceptions, not even reforms to the legal restraints to the public authority must be allowed, even in the name of emergency. Especially for most of the emergencies often brought about by measures based on expediency.

Bruce Lee’s Application Of Taoist Philosophy In Jeet Kune Do

Bruce Lee - Jeet Kune Do

Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940 and died on July 20, 1973. Even though he was just 32 upon his death, he had achieved so much in his limited lifetime. He was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.[1] He was a cha cha champion in Hong Kong at age 18, a world renowned martial artist and a Chinese actor who was not only immensely popular in Asia, but who also made his breakthrough in Hollywood at a time when oriental actors were rarely accepted for lead roles. What is less known among the public is his keen interest in philosophy, a subject he studied at the University of Washington. Writing about where his interest in philosophy came from, he wrote:

My majoring in philosophy was closely related to the pugnacity of my childhood. I often asked myself these questions: What comes after victory? Why do people value victory so much? What is ‘glory’? What kind of ‘victory’ is ‘glorious’?[2]

In one of my previous posts, I discussed the similarities between the libertarian concept of Spontaneous Order and the Taoist concept of the Tao. In this post I will discuss the application of Taoist philosophy in Jeet Kune Do (‘the way of the intercepting fist’), the martial arts that Bruce Lee founded in his mid-20s, and its roots in Taoist philosophy. I will identify several Taoist aspects that form the philosophical foundation of Jeet Kune Do. First however, I will give an anecdote of his wife Linda Cadwell on Bruce Lee’s initial motivation to develop Jeet Kune Do at all.

Bruce Lee’s initial motivation for Jeet Kune Do
Bruce Lee started teaching martial arts to Westerners in his newly founded Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, a training gym in Oakland, California. Then by late 1964, Bruce Lee received a letter with the signatures of the most important elder Chinese martial arts masters in San Francisco who did not

look favourably on Bruce’s teaching martial art to Westerners, or actually to anyone who was not Chinese. So strongly did they harbour this historically bound belief, that a formal challenge was issued to Bruce, insisting that he participate in a confrontation, the result of which would decide whether he could continue to teach the ‘foreign devils’. (Cadwell, 1998, p. 8)

Without hesitation, Bruce Lee accepted the challenge. Linda Cadwell remembers the fight that followed as a pivotal point in Bruce Lee’s life:

Within moments of the initial clash, the Chinese gung fu man [Bruce Lee’s contender] had proceeded to run in a circle around the room, out a door that led to a small back room, then in through another door to the main room. He completed this circle several times, with Bruce in hot pursuit. Finally, Bruce brought the man to the floor, pinning him helplessly, and shouted (in Chinese), ‘Do you give up?’ After repeating this question two or three times, the man conceded, and the San Francisco party departed quickly. The entire fight lasted about three minutes, leaving James and me ecstatic that the decisive conquest was so quickly concluded. Not Bruce. Like it was yesterday, I remember Bruce sitting on the back steps of the gym, head in hands, despairing over his inability to finish off the opponent with efficient technique, and the failure of his stamina when he attempted to capture the running man. For what probably was the first time in his life, Bruce was winded and weakened. Instead of triumphing in his win, he was disappointed that his physical condition and gung fu training had not lived up to his expectations. This momentous event, then was the impetus for the evolution of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of his new training regime. (Cadwell, 1998, pp. 11-12)

Now that we know that Jeet Kune Do originated from Bruce Lee’s discontent with the physical condition he had achieved through traditional gung fu training, I will discuss how Bruce Lee was striving for a new martial arts that was superior to the already existent ones, and how this martial arts is ultimately rooted in Taoist philosophy.

Jeet Kune Do as a way of life
Bruce Lee had, throughout his whole life, always been intrigued by the question how to find his true potential, and how to express himself honestly. He wrote:

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential”.[3]

“When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to always be yourself, express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. They always copy mannerism; they never start from the root of their being: that is, how can I be me?”[4]

Bruce Lee believed that the answers to both questions – how can I find my true potential and how can I be me so that I can express myself honestly – are ultimately related to one another.

1. Be one with the Tao; be formless like water, and be pliable
Bruce Lee believed that the person who is trained within a particular martial arts style and who clings to it indefinitely or a person who is only trained within a particular philosophical doctrine becomes self-delusional. He thought that the person who is incapable of exceeding his style or doctrine is stiff and narrow-minded. His narrow-mindedness makes him blind to observe objectively and to see the truth. He is what Bruce Lee calls, ‘the traditional man’. Bruce Lee wrote:

One can function freely and totally if he is ‘beyond system.’ The man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is, has no style at all. He lives only in what is. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 17)

But in classical styles, system becomes more important than the man! The classical man functions with the pattern of a style! (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

How can there be methods and systems to arrive at something that is living? To that which is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way, a definite path, but not to that which is living. Do not reduce reality to a static thing and then invent methods to reach it. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

Classical forms dull your creativity, condition and freeze your sense of freedom. You no longer ‘be,’ but merely ‘do,’ without sensitivity. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 19)

You cannot see a street fight in its totality, observing it from the viewpoint of a boxer, a kung-fu man, a karateka, a wrestler, a judo man and so forth. You can see clearly only when style does not interfere. You then see it without ‘like’ or ‘dislike;’ you simply see and what you see is the whole and not the partial. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 24)

He thought that committing himself to styles limits both his potential and his self-expression. This critique is however not only limited to martial arts. He extended this critique to Confucianism, a philosophy which he considered as too rigid, and too narrowly focused on set rules and traditions. According to Bruce Lee, man ceases being a human being and instead becomes a mechanical man, a product of mere tradition if he reveres and just follows rules and mannerisms. The philosophy that perfectly fits Bruce Lee’s vision of a self-expressive and ‘style-less’ martial arts is the epistemologically anarchistic Taoism. How can a person, according to Bruce Lee and Taoism, find his true potential and express himself honestly? The answer is to become formless, pliable, and forever adaptable just like the Tao is formless, pliable, and forever in flux.

The Tao Te Ching states the following metaphor of life (flexibility and softness) and death (rigidity and hardness):

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76)

Both Lao Tze and Bruce Lee took water as the ultimate metaphor for that which is flexible and soft. Bruce Lee maintains that in order to fulfil your true potential and express yourself honestly you should become like water, formless. To be like water means to be an objective observant, relaxed and to be flowing with life – to be one with the Tao.

In the Tao Te Ching one can find the following lines:

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78)

There is a story about Bruce Lee’s discovery of what it means to be like water and to be united with the Tao. I am not sure about the authenticity of the story, but I will share it nonetheless as it helps to illustrate the significance of being formless in combat or in life:

Bruce, at the age of seventeen, had been training in gung fu for four years with Sifu Yip Man, yet had reached an impasse. When engaged in sparring Bruce found that his body would become tense, his mind perturbed. Such instability worked against his goal of efficiency in combat.

Sifu Yip Man sensed his trouble, and approached him. ‘Lee,’ he said, ‘relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movements. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’

Bruce Lee believed he had the answer to his problem. He must relax! Yet there was a paradox: the effort in trying to relax was inconsistent with the effortlessness in relaxing, and Bruce found himself back in the same situation.

Again Sifu Yip Man came to Bruce and said, ‘Lee, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself: never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.’

Sifu Yip Man told Bruce to go home for a week and think about his words. Bruce spent many hours in meditation and practice, with nothing coming of it. Finally, Bruce decided to go sailing in a junk (boat). Bruce would have a great epiphany. ‘On the sea, I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me. Wasn’t this water the essence of gung fu? I struck it, but it did not suffer hurt. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance, could fit into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Therefore in order to control myself I must accept myself by going with, and not against, my nature. I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.[5]

Bruce Lee emphasized the importance of ‘a style of no style’ that he later would regret the name Jeet Kune Do as a name implies limitations or specific parameters. Bruce Lee wanted it to resemble the Tao, nameless and of almost supernatural power. Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching states:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1)

See this video in which Bruce Lee asserts that we should be like water:

2. Break rules and conventions and have no way as your way
Jeet Kune Do does not limit itself to styles. It takes from other styles what is useful, discards what is useless, and adds what is uniquely our own. The slogan of the Jeet Kune Do logo reads two things: (a) take no way as your way, and (b) take no limitation as your limitation. As styles, rules, conventions, mannerisms limit us we should deconstruct and transcend them. Jeet Kune Do is therefore iconoclastic. Bruce Lee wrote:

Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles. As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilizes all ways and is bound by none and, likewise, uses any techniques or means which serve its end. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

What are the characteristics of a martial arts with no style? According to Bruce Lee, it becomes open-minded, non-traditional, simple, direct, and effective.

Bruce Lee contended that:

Jeet Kune Do does not beat around the bush. It does not take winding detours. It follows a straight line to the objective. Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

In Enter the Dragon, there is a scene in which an ostentatious man asks Bruce Lee what his style is. Bruce Lee answers: “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting”. Being challenged by the man to show this style, Bruce Lee cunningly proposes to take a boat to a nearby island where they can fight. When the man set foot on the boat, Bruce Lee let the boat drift away and pulls it on a line. The essence of the story is that (a) one should not be pretentious as that is not honest self-expression, and (b) a fight should be won in the most direct and easiest manner, preferably without the use of violence.[6]

You can find the videoclip here:

In order to break with traditions and conventions means that we should also get rid of our past attachments. This is what Bruce Lee meant when he metaphorically said that we should ‘empty our cup’.

3. Empty your cup and learn the art of dying
To empty your cup means to get rid of your self-delusion so that you can look at the world from a new and refreshed perspective. In order to find your true potential and your nature, you should first be self-conscious. You should know what you want, what you desire, what your strengths and weaknesses are, your pride, your fears, your accomplishments, your ambitions and eventually get rid of all that as they maintain an ego that interferes with who you truly are – a fluid personality who cannot be narrowly defined by your desires, fears, achievements etc.

In the Tao Te Ching one can read:

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16)

This is frightening for most of us, because it confronts us with our own prejudices; we may find that our traditions that have previously given us a sense of security may be baseless. However, Bruce Lee did not only want us to break with the archaic, but he also showed us an alternative – a way of creating new values and skills to supersede the old. In this respect, Bruce Lee’s views of how to progress in life is very much in line with the iconoclastic Nietzschean übermensch: we must first break with traditions and try to rise above our culture so that a higher being can emerge from our renewed self-creation. This is how I personally interpret Bruce Lee’s saying that we should learn the “art of dying”.

In a famous scene in Longstreet, Bruce Lee taught us not to make a plan of fighting, he told us to empty our mind, and to be formless like water. The “art of dying” is the “art of being non-fixed” – the art of being a different person tomorrow than we are today by letting go our past attachments including our ambitions. I believe it is similar to the Nietzschean ideal of self-creation: continuously subjecting our current values to our personal judgements, breaking down ‘lower values’ and creating ‘higher values’. The art of dying is hence a metaphor for continuously breaking down our past selves, values, attachments, pride, desires (dying) and creating our new selves (being reborn) so that we can continuously improve. The “art of dying” is therefore also the “art of self-forgetfulness”, a skill that is characteristic of the ‘baby’ who is its self-propelling wheel in Nietzsche’s story of the ‘three metamorphoses’ from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

See here the scene of Longstreet:

Bruce Lee wrote:

Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 14)

Emptying our cup precedes our discovery of new truths or new values so that hopefully we can find ourselves and become our own standard. Bruce Lee told us not to despair when we cannot find solace within our past attachments as the creation of personal values is vastly more valuable.

See here a great explanation of ‘emptying our cup’:

The logical consequence of self-creation is that one becomes his own standard.

4. Become your own standard and accept life
According to Bruce Lee, we should not worry about what others think of us. He advised us not to look for a personality to duplicate as that would be a betrayal to our selves – one might call this practice ‘other-expression’ instead of ‘self-expression’. Being our own standard also encompasses the acceptance of disgrace and losses as much as accepting grace and victories. How else can we accept ourselves and fulfill our own potential?

The Tao Te Ching advises us the following:

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.

What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”

What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13)

5. Wei Wu Wei
Lastly, I would like to discuss another aspect of ‘having no way as your way’. To have ‘no way as your way’, is also Bruce Lee’s expression for following the Taoist doctrine of ‘wei wu wei’ (‘action without action’ or ‘effortless action’). Bruce Lee maintained that when a person is truly in control of himself, he experiences his action without consciously forcing his actions to happen. Self-consciousness is initially required for the understanding of ourselves, but to be truly expressing ourselves through our actions we must move into a state where we act unconsciously. I think it is best comparable with the English expression of ‘being in a state of flow’. Bruce Lee said:

I’m moving and not moving at all. I’m like the moon underneath the waves that ever go on rolling and rocking. It is not, ‘I am doing this,’ but rather, an inner realization that ‘this is happening through me,’ or ‘it is doing this for me.’ The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 7)

This idea is expressed as follows in the Tao Te Ching:

Tao abides in non-action (‘wu wei’),
Yet nothing is left undone. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)

[1] See http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55

[2] I do not remember where I have found this quote.

[3] Idem

[4] Idem

[5] From http://www.becoming.8m.net/bruce02.htm

[6] The scene is actually based on an old Japanese Samurai folk tale. The tale goes as follows:

“While travelling on a ferry, a young samurai began bullying and intimidating some of the other passengers, boasting of his fighting prowess and claiming to be the best in the country with a samurai sword. When the young warrior noticed how unmoved [Tsukahara] Bokuden [a legendary Japanese swordsman] was, he was enraged and not knowing who he was dealing with challenged the old master to a duel. Bokuden told him;

‘My art is different from yours. It consists not so much in defeating others but in not being defeated.’

He continued to inform him that his school was called The Mutekatsu Ryu meaning ‘to defeat an enemy without hands’. The young samurai saw this as cowardice and demanded satisfaction so he told the boats-man to stop at an island so they could do battle there.

However when he jumped into the shallow waters to make his way to the fight venue, Bokuden got hold of the boats-man’s pole and proceeded back to deeper waters minus a now irate young samurai. The wise old master laughed and shouted to his would be adversary; ‘Here is my no sword school!’” (See, http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php)

History Of Fighting. Retrieved from http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php

Lao Tze. Tao Te Ching. Retrieved from http://www.schrades.com/tao/taotext.cfm?TaoID=1

Lee, B. (1975). Tao Of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications.

Little, J. (1998). Bruce Lee: The Art Of Expressing The Human Body. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing.

Some problems with postmodernism

Despite its contributions, postmodernism is also the subject of much criticism. One of the most recurrent is its tendency to nihilism, that is, to pleasure for nothing. Postmodern deconstruction may be efficient at demonstrating the randomness of many of our concepts, but it can lead us to a point where we have nothing but deconstruction. We find that the world is made up of dichotomies or binary oppositions that cancel out, without any logic, leaving us with an immense void.

Another weakness of postmodernism is its relativism. In the absence of an absolute truth that can be objectively identified one gets subjective opinions. There is an expectation of postmodern theorists that this leads to higher levels of tolerance, but ironically the opposite is true. Without objective truths individuals are isolated in their subjective opinions, which represents a division of people, not an approximation. Moreover, postmodernism leads to a concern that all claims may be attempts at usurpation of power.

But the main weakness of postmodernism is its internal inconsistency. As mentioned in previous posts, postmodernism can be defined as unbelief about metanarratives. But would not postmodernism itself be a metanarrative? Why would this metanarrative be above criticism?

Another way of defining postmodernism is by its claim that there is no absolute truth. But is not this an absolute truth? Is it not an absolute truth, according to postmodernism, that there is no absolute truth? This circular and contradictory reasoning demonstrates the internal fragility of postmodernism. Finally, what happens if the hermeneutics of suspicion is turned against postmodernism itself? What gives us assurance that postmodern authors do not themselves have a secret political agenda hidden behind their speeches?

It is possible that postmodernists do not really feel affected by this kind of criticism, if they are consistent with the perception that there is no real world out there, or that “there is nothing outside the text”, but that the Reality is produced by discourses. That is: conventional theorists seek a truth that corresponds to reality. Postmodernists wonder what kind of reality their speeches are capable of creating.

Be that as it may, in spite of the preached intertextuality (the notion that texts refer only to other texts, and nothing objective outside the texts), postmodern theorists continue to write in the hope that we will understand what they write. Moreover, postmodernists live in a world full of meanings that are if not objective are at least intersubjective. Perhaps our language is not transparent, but that does not mean that it is opaque either. Clearly we are able to make ourselves understood reasonably well through words.

As C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”. This critique fits very well to postmodernism.

Main postmodern theorists and their main concepts

Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.

One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.

Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.

In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.

Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?

I just came across this fantastic op-ed while listening to the author being interviewed.

The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.

It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.

Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.

It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.

But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.

So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.

So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.

Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.

And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.

We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.

* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.

** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.

There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.

And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.

The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.