Aha! Moment in the Culture Wars

bullshitJournalists and commentators covering the 2016 presidential election seemed at a loss to explain how Trump’s supporters could jeer at “Lyin'” Hillary Clinton and cheer a man a man whose speeches were filled with easy to recognize falsehoods. I scratched my head until I read Brene Brown‘s newest book, Braving the Wilderness.

On page 90, Brown begins to describe bullshit. (I am not going to pull any punches with language here.) In her research in how people struggle to maintain their authenticity and integrity when engaging in debates and discussions driven by emotion rather than shared understanding of facts, she found that we all rely on bullshitting from time to time. We bullshit ourselves and we bullshit others, sometimes simultaneously. In our “need to fit in culture” we often jump into an argument and start arguing even when we don’t really know anything about the matter.

Also people are increasingly cynical and growing tired of having to sort through information to figure out “how things truly are.” So we say whatever and we put up bullshit and stop asking questions. This quickly devolves into you’re either with us or agin’ us.

Brene Brown also found her research participants made a distinction between lying and bullshitting. I found this intriguing enough to go to the source. Brown leaned heavily on the scholarly work of Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus Princeton professor who wrote On Bullshit in 2005.  I downloaded the short book and struggled through the first part, then hit pay dirt.

The liar makes his/her statement with the intention to deceive. Generally it is perceived that this person generally cares about the truth and facts, but practices deception on occasion. Ms. Clinton’s lawyerly parsing of the truth probably “feels” like a purposeful deception to many people, whereas, I imagine she sees it as walking finely along the boundary of truth.

The bullshitter, on the other hand, has a more distant relationship with the truth. He/she may not know what the facts actually are–as when we bullshit our way through a college essay exam. Or they may not have much interest in becoming informed but find themselves quizzed on their opinion. Bullshit can rely mostly on an emotional argument, and if the facts are false, they only have to fit with the bullshit narrative.

The bullshitter and the liar are both trying to get away with something. But the bullshitter is trying to make a connection, get us to like him/her, bluff, or other motive. His/her “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth–this indifference to how things really are–that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” (Frankfurt, p. 33)

We also have much more forgiveness for a bullshitter than a liar. “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.” (Frankfurt, p. 48) Trump supporters saw Trump bullshitting, but with much greater consequence, perceived Clinton as a liar. Furthermore:

The LIAR is concerned with truth values. “In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” (p. 50)

Whereas, the BULLSHITTER has much more freedom. “His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared…to fake the context as well… What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise…he misrepresents what he is up to.” (p. 53)

It seemed strange at first that Frankfurt calls the bullshitter the greater enemy of the truth than the liar. The liar still has a nodding acquaintance with the authority of truth. The bullshitter pays no attention to truth at all.

It is not clear that there is more bullshit in the world today than in previous times; however, bullshit can do more damage, because as our access to correct information proliferates, there is more skepticism about what actually makes up objective reality. This loss of confidence cascades into a retreat from the disciplines of acquiring knowledge and instead we value sincerity or authenticity.

With minds dulled by entertainment and gossip, how do we discern between what is sincere and what is bullshit? Especially when people prize their own opinions so highly.

More to the point of leadership, what is to be done in our own conversations when we encounter speakers who use “us vs them” and look askance at facts in favor of emotion? Brene Brown encourages two behaviors (besides avoiding bullshit): get curious and stay civil. This is also good advice when you are triggered. Hmm, I doubt it’s a coincidence that someone else’s bullshit can easily trigger me. “Generosity, empathy, and curiosity (e.g., Where did you read this or hear this?) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.” (Brown, p. 95) And civility is treating others as you’d like to be treated or caring for one’s identity without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Get curious. Stay civil.

 

Author’s note:  Growing up around horses, I have always found the word bullshit to be non-offensive and an accurate description of what happens when someone piles the nonsense higher and higher. Frankfurt mentions that in Britain, it is more likely to be called humbug. Does humbug have the same meaning? And does it carry the same “slightly dirty word taint”?

 

 

 

 

We Need #CharacterDay More Than Ever

The creative folks at Let It Ripple created Character Day and it is today September 13th. I mark the day on this blog. Last night I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article “The First White President.” As Hillary Clinton has said in several recent interviews, Trump is a real and present danger (to our democracy).

I want to build up the community of people who value character and celebrate Character Day. With an acknowledgement to the times we live in, I offer an example of character worth celebrating:  Persistence.

LKM#ShePersisted became a viral hashtag when Senators shushed their colleagues.  My hero is Laura King Moon. She persisted her entire career, most persistently at the California Department of Water Resources seeking solutions to intractable problems. It took cancer to take her out. Even then she persisted to the end.

The Great Unraveling

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“Unraveling” by Julie Pieper

This week I joined the reading group at the Sacramento Central Library. We are reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I have started this book many times but never finished. One of the participants made a reference to the ending and someone cried. “Don’t spoil it.” He reacted in disbelief. “Didn’t everyone have to read it in high school?” Nope, and in college I was assigned women’s literature and the Russians.

I’m so glad I didn’t read it until now because our book club is giving it a dimension I am certain would not have come up in any high school discussion. This may be the first postmodern novel as Melville challenges us to look at the whale from every perspective without judgement. In asking, “What is the whale?”, he’s also asking metaphysical questions:

  • Are whales sentient? Do they feel pain as we do? Can they seek revenge?
  • Is killing a whale for corsets and lamp oil a crime against nature?

Moby Dick has even more current day relevance as I read the New York Times Review of Books “National Delusions” by Hannah Rosin. Melville’s naming of the whaling ship the Pequod after an Indian tribe massacred by the Puritans is part of his overall critique of manifest destiny, capitalism and “civilization.” The myths we tell ourselves about that first Thanksgiving started the magical thinking that has culminated in the lying liars residing in the White House.

In Rosin’s review of Kurt Anderson’s 500-year history of the United States, Fantasyland, she writes: “Reading a great revisionist history of America is a bookish way to feel what it’s like to be born again. Suddenly past, present and future are connected by a visible thread. Stray details and aberrations start to make sense. You feel ashamed, but also enlightened, because at least you have the named the sin: You belong to a nation of blood thirsty colonizers (Howard Zinn), or anti-intellectuals (Richard Hofstadter) or, in Kurt Anderson’s latest opus, a people who have committed themselves over the last half century to florid, collective delusion.”

Those Puritans who massacred the Pequod are the same who vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores (and did). But we remember them as peacefully breaking bread with their Indians saviors and seeking freedom of religion. The long list of conspiracy theorists, survivalists, cults, and more that followed are part of an long American tradition. It’s not what you do, it is what your publicist says you do.

Apparently at the end of Fantasyland, Anderson tries to redraw a boundary: “You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts–especially if your fantastical facts hurt people.” This may not be sufficient to save us. Rosin asks if anyone has anything more powerful, like a story powerful enough to call us back from our collective delusion.

Perhaps nature, who we’ve been at war with also since the beginning of our country, will have the last word. The Koch Brothers have purchased the Republican Parties fealty on “no such thing as climate change” but the recent forest fires and mega-storms really don’t care what the party plank is. Hurricane Harvey is real. In the end if reality doesn’t wake us up from our collective dream, then maybe we don’t deserve to survive.

What is the Point of Church?

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I am part of the St John’s Lutheran Church community in Sacramento. The leaders are always pushing our community to do better. This Sunday I had to laugh when I shut the stall door in the ladies’ restroom. These two questions (pictured above) were posted there. They also provided paper in the courtyard for us to share our thoughts.

I’m sure this was planned long before Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston. However, in the light of the social media outrage over prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s seeming indifference to the plight of neighbors flooded out of their homes, it is very timely.

Even people who don’t share our faith expect churches, synagogues and mosques to do good together. When a disaster or crisis hits a community, the public expectation is that these communities of faith will organize a response. I admit, I expect this too. I emailed my pastor to ask if St John’s was going to take a collection for the Evangelical Lutheran Church response. (yes) While the media was focused playing off Osteen’s lack of response against the muslim communities collective rescue efforts, I knew that all of the mainline denominations, World Vision and others were also on the ground with supplies and money. As I walked around the church campus on Sunday I wondered if as much water fell on Sacramento and the areas ringed by levees filled up like a bathtub, would St John’s be above flood stage? What refuge could we offer?

Everyday in Sacramento we have an on-going  emergency of homelessness and our church community does a lot with other communities of faith to respond. I participate in that effort. This is not the place to boast, but I did choose this congregation to join, in part, because of their service to the whole community: LGBT, homeless, youth, and the elderly and people like me.

Could I do all of these things without the church? Of course, there are many organizations that I could give to and participate in a variety of ways to address homelessness. And in Houston we see neighbors helping neighbors without being asked. Doctors and nurses reported to hospitals to volunteer. Social workers reported to emergency shelters, and so on.

I could meditate every morning instead of reading scripture and having a quiet time. I could go on a walk along the river each Sunday morning and enjoy God’s creation. But I crave the unique experience of singing, praying, reading scripture with my community. There are many styles of worship but all for the same purpose: to praise God, confess our sins, and experience God together. Do we actually experience God? Yes, but only faintly. Yet every Sunday I participate and marvel at way the combination of ritual, music and sermon ground me again in my values and beliefs for the coming week.

I also look to the my church family to help me through life, and me them. Celebrate the marriage, food and gifts for baby, comfort and aid when sick, comfort and condolence when death comes to someone we love. Again, this can also be experienced with family and friends; however, not necessarily with the hope our faith provides.

It is true that organized religion can also hurt. I’ve experienced the incredible agape love that transports and I’ve been judged very harshly and my family shunned. Some people have been victimized by the authority given to priests and pastors. It is a community meaning it is made up of humans and sometimes the phrase “only human” applies.

The church community can also coddle its members and become another self-help vending machine. There is often very little recognition of the spiritual disciplines and the importance of an interior life in the USA church life.  I want my church community to challenge me to spiritual growth.

Listening to the replay of Krista Tippett’s interview with poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, they discussed whether we are more impoverished than previous generations as to our ability to love and be a friend. He said no, we are just out of practice. This is where the church could be more active: in naming the love and friendship that Christ called us to and modeled for us. In the past the church has been a prophet in the community. The church community should wonder what they are not doing if everyone is comfortable.

Best if we show, not tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Name?

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Gwen Amos, “Dark Angel”

I’ve recently reread Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. In the second book, A Wind at the Door, the young heroine Meg teams up with a cherubim to pass three tests. He explains to Meg that she is a Namer. In fact, all of us who are on the side of good in the world are Namers. Those who are on the side of the Echthroi, or the chaos, evil and war in the world are “un-namers.” In this story they can X creation out, including stars, thus creating tears in the universe.

Meg’s plight resonated with me because I love naming things–pets, children, artwork–and yet there is a big responsibility that goes along with it. In naming something or someone we are calling out what something truly is or who they are meant to be (except the Jack Russell Terrorizer down the block whose name is Angel). In the Genesis story (Chapter 2) God brings his creation to mankind for him to name them. This story tells us that this is our first “job” on earth.

Recently in the USA we’ve all been roiled by the specter of American nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups openly demonstrating their dark beliefs. Some are trying to normalize them by calling them Alt-right groups and making them parallel to so-called “Alt Left” groups. There is one group that sometimes uses violence called Antifa and this stands for “Anti-fascists,” which is not on the same moral plane as someone who is racist and is comfortable celebrating political ideologies that lead to genocide.

Alas our skill at naming things to be what they truly are is getting so out of practice that many people are confused. As Marilyn Chandler McIntyre points out in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, “the deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate and provide ready excuses for inaction.” (p 57) Because if your electoral power depends on those who view the other as less than fully human, then you need some way to justify not standing up to #45 and others who give them credibility.

These are perilous times. This morning Pastor Frank preached on Matthew 16: 13-20 when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say I am?” He began by calling our community of faith to be clear that there are white supremacists and nazis mobilizing in our country today. It does no good to equivocate and call them something else. Just as it does no good as a person of faith to call Jesus “Elijah” or “John the Baptist.” We must recognize the power of the living God to have the Spirit’s help in discerning what is real and what is comfortable deceit.

What strikes me as particularly confounding is the evangelical “Christian” churches belief that they are persecuted for their faith in the USA. This fear that someone is about to keep them from saying “Merry Christmas” must keep them from examining what real persecution looks like. Just listen to this story on NPR.org about Esther who was kidnapped by the Boko Haram and enslaved for sex and hard housework. (The Lament of the Boko Haram ‘Brides’ August 27, 2017) When she was caught worshipping Jesus, she was beaten and her life threatened. When we call having to live alongside people of other faiths as “persecution” we cheapen what it really means to people of faith around the world.

Let’s be impeccable with our words. And give no allowances to those who are not.

Jane’s Playhouse

IMG_2056My inspiration for this artwork began with an article from City Lab by Richard Florida about Jane Jacobs. (12/20/2016) Jacobs wrote about her pessimism for the United States’ experiment with democracy. Her main question is “how and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?” How do we dissolve to a place where facts have no meaning?

The election of #45 prompted Richard Florida to remember this particular Jacobs book, Dark Age Ahead, her last book written in 2005. This is not about Trump. It’s about all the things we’ve done collectively and individually to create the conditions where a populist backlash could succeed in electing an incompetent to the most important leadership role in our country. Of course, aided by the Russians—hence the spy—but we served up our country on a silver platter even before Putin let loose his computer hackers.

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She named the five pillars of society that if we allow to decay or fail to protect from assault will lead to a new dark age. The first is family and community. The replacement of nuclear families from extended families makes housing unaffordable for many people or upset work/life balance. Materialism, market pressures and a brand culture erode community. She takes issues with automobiles as enabling self-interest over community interest.

The denigration of education into something of value only as a means of getting a better job weakens the second pillar. After desegregation, we began defunding public education throughout the United States. At about the same time, fundamental zealots separated themselves through homeschooling and religious schools that applaud an ignorance of science and post-modern ideas. It is also the failure of schools to adapt. Reforms resulted in testing instead of using the new brain science to create better learning environments. Higher education has lost complete touch with their mission by pricing themselves so high as to create an educated class of young people loaded with a debt burden that is becoming a drag on the entire economy.

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Science is the third pillar and Jacobs was concerned about science becoming dogma. I find it more like a two-headed dog biting itself. The one head barks to leave it alone to do it’s work without the burden of moral principles or ethics and no accountability for their impact—especially pollution to our planet. All while the other head measures discovery, technology, and the increasing peril to our every existence due to climate change.

The next to last pillar is the “dumbing down of taxes.” The political chant began “no new taxes” then it became “tax cuts,” which mainly benefited the wealthiest people and corporations. Then we are surprised that such selfishness results in the greatest divide between rich and poor since World War II. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our transit systems inadequate, and schools and prisons crowded because the majority of the population no longer understands “public goods.” Anything for the community is seen as waste.

The fifth and final pillar is professionalism and ethics. Jacobs calls it “learned professions,” and includes medicine, law, architecture, engineering and journalism. These professions give us our ethics and professional standards that set behavioral boundaries. These are under attack by “frauds, brutes, and psychopaths.” Not coincidentally immigrants often hold up these values more than other Americans and aspire to these professions, so newcomers also come under attack by native barbarians.

Pick up the roof and look inside. Our citizen is watching tv and he and his daughter are connected to wifi and distracting themselves from the reality of the house falling down around them. In high school history I learned that the Roman Empire fell apart because of the rot from within, and then the barbarians were able to swiftly conquer. It is more complicated but these stories ring true today.

What then shall be done? Jacobs saw cities are bulwarks against the darkness. And she believed in protest. It’s up to those of us who understand the reality, that we are all interconnected and we all benefit from a vital culture, to shore up the pillars of society. We should do it for ourselves, and for humankind.

Art and photos by Julie Pieper.

Father Denmark Inspires Deeper Thinking

IMG_1121I didn’t want to make a thesis about Denmark’s political culture from one bike tour guide’s comments. So after stopping at the Father of Denmark’s statue I sought out a book that could tell me more about NFS Grundtvig.

At the bookshop they had two options in English and one was lighter to carry and described as more accessible. I bought Knud J V Jespersen’s A History of Denmark and read the relevant chapters. (I skipped “Economic Conditions 1500-1800”!)

It turns out that Grundtvig is even more interesting than BikeMike shared. Grundtvig lived from 1783-1872 and his life spanned from the age of Enlightenment to Romanticism to Bismarck’s Realpolitik. “All of the strong philosophical currents contributed in their own way to his thinking, and so to the creation of a particularly Danish ‘ism’—Grundtvigianism–which probably affected Denmark far more than any other European political or ideological movement.” (p 112-113)

His written histories reintroduced pagan Norse myths and gods to the Danish people. His subsequent three extended study visits to England gave him an appreciation for the value of pragmatism and freedom of thought. His most famous maxim is “First a human, then a Christian.” Ponder that for a moment.

What if everyone in the world thought in these terms?

  • First a human, then a Muslim.
  • First a human, then an American.
  • First a human, then a Republican.

How much of our conflicts would go away? Similarly if all people could acknowledge they are humans and not gods or God’s agent. Humbly accept the limitations of being human, which includes an imperfect understanding of the divine. What peace and love and understanding might be available? But I digress.

In Denmark in the early 1800s, society was mired in a stranglehold of the church institution and aristocratic absolutism. The defeat to Bismarck created an existential crisis and Grundtvig articulated a new way to be Danish. He was a Lutheran pastor who preached separation of church and state. He preferred a Christian faith that is a conversation among equals rather than a long theological sermon. Amen.

He also reformed education with his ideas about a “school of life,” which was aimed at rural youth who’d been deprived of educational opportunity. “In short the intent was no less than to transform the inarticulate masses into responsible and articulate citizens in the new democratic society, which was slowly taking shape.” (p 114)

In a series of commentaries on contemporary societal problems (in 1838), Grundtvig created the word “folkelighed” to present his central concept:

…belonging to a nation was a matter of free choice. One could choose to join or remain outside. Choosing to join the popular, that is, national, community meant accepting certain duties towards that community as a whole, not just linguistic, but in the form of taking for the whole and an obligation to include the members in a folkelig, a mutually committed community. (p 118)

Grundtvig arrived at a propitious time in Denmark’s history when they were at a crossroads. The USA and England are at a crossroads. Who will inspire us to be more fully human, to look after one another and our planet? In the absence of a philosophical giant such as Grundtvig, we will have to read his words and others from history and find our inspiration.