Wolves, Dogs, and Civilization

A wolf has appeared in Central California for the first time in a hundred years. He left a pack in Oregon, wandered 500 miles south, passed Yosemite and ended up in the Central Valley. The scientists tracking him are keeping his location a secret. But apparently, he is somewhere out in the fields of Fresno county.

This is a great story about the resilience of nature and the conflict between the wild and the domesticated. Wolves once roamed across this region, as did the grizzly bear, who adorns our state flag. Coyotes and condors, bears and wolves figured prominently in native Californian myths.

The last California wolf was killed in 1924, about the same time that the California grizzly was exterminated. But wild nature has a way of pushing back. Civilization won’t last forever. On the borderlands, wild critters are waiting to return. Civilization is a man-made raft floating on a wild sea.

Wolves touch a primal reservoir of meaning.  Civilization revolves around the ambivalence of the canine—which reflects our own dual nature. Dogs and wolves are symbolic brothers, whose difference marks the border between domestication and wildness. 

The civilizing urge struggles against the wilderness. Real wolves are killed by hunters and farmers. Education domesticates the wolf within. 

Plato described education as taming the inner beast. Aristotle extended this in his account of beastly humans and barbarians. Colonialism and slavery can be traced back to Aristotle’s idea that civilized humans were entitled to hunt and enslave the beastly other.

The wolf often shows up in European culture, as a symbol of the wilderness on the edge of civilization.  Consider an image from Euripides drama, The Bacchae, which is a play about the wild other. In the play, the female worshippers of Dionysus nurse wolf cubs with their own mother’s milk.

The Greek god Apollo was known to manifest himself as a wolf. Homer called Apollo “the wolf-born god.” Legends held that Apollo was himself nursed by a wolf. A similar tale is told about Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome, who were suckled by a mother wolf.

These stories point toward the mysterious emergence of civilization from out of the wild.  There is only a subtle difference between the wild, unruly wolf and the loyal, domesticated dog.

The wolf-dog divide is found in Plato’s Republic. Plato described the guardians and philosopher-kings of his ideal city as faithful watchdogs. They are loyal to friends, fierce toward foes, and curious about sniffing out the truth. But Plato warns that watch-dogs can turn feral and run amok. We need to guard the guard-dogs (as I discussed in a recent column).

Plato described tyrant as wild beasts. He said that tyrants have a taste for human flesh. The tyrant is “transformed from a man into a wolf.”

This Platonic metaphor resonates through the history of European culture. The Bible warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). Political philosophers worry that “man is a wolf to man” (homo homini lupus est), as Hobbes did in his argument against “the state of nature.” Wolves and werewolves haunt us in horror films and fairytales.

But does this focus on domestication cause us to overreact? What do we miss when there are no wolves, when everything is domesticated—even our souls?

I love dogs. But in their domesticated cuteness, they lack the edge of ferocity and power that makes the wolf, the grizzly, and the mountain lion so inspiring.  What do we lack when we stay home with the dogs instead of running with the wolves?

There is something unsettling about the presence of a wolf in Central California. This demands that we think the limits of domestication. What was lost as civilization wrested the land from its native inhabitants? And what might the future hold?

We are not the masters of the earth we suppose ourselves to be. This land once belonged to bears, wolves, and lions. The rivers held salmon. Great flocks of birds crowded the wetlands. People lived here, long before European culture arrived. One wonders how long our concrete cities and cultivated fields will last.

How long will it take for wild things to return? And what are we missing when no longer hear the howl of the wolf?

Masculinity, Sex, and Shame

Trump scandal demonstrates men need to grow up

Fresno Bee, October 15, 2016

 

We’ve been through this before with Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, Roger Ailes and others. Is anyone surprised that Donald Trump is joining the bi-partisan rogue’s gallery of creeps and philanderers?

This is a culture of ubiquitous pornography. Erectile dysfunction commercials flood the airwaves. Date rape is a problem on college campuses.

The dots are easy to connect, and the solution is clear: Men need to grow up and behave themselves.

Mature men build sincere and lasting relationships with women. Moral men don’t brag about sexual misbehavior, cheat on their wives or grab women’s crotches. Moral men have a sense of decorum. They understand the importance of promising fidelity. They know how to control themselves. And they don’t enable other men to do shameful things.

When Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, Billy Bush egged him on. Howard Stern is another enabler. On Stern’s program, Trump bragged about sexual stuff, including walking in on nude women at beauty pageants he ran. Trump’s defenders imply that this is normal “locker room talk” and boys-being-boys behavior.

Maybe it is normal in the locker room at the Playboy mansion. But even then, so what? Bad deeds are not excusable simply because a lot of jerks do it. And in the real world, young men don’t get a free pass on groping girls or gawking at nude beauty queens.

Moral men outgrow naughty sex talk. Mature adults don’t brag about their sexual lives. Sex is fun. But it is a private pleasure of shared intimacy. Adults keep these things to themselves.

It is shameful to brag about something that should remain private. People should feel ashamed to do private things in public. That missing sense of decorum is part of what is troubling about Bill Clinton’s Oval Office escapades and Anthony Weiner’s shameless selfies.

Aristotle suggested that the best people would do nothing to be ashamed of. But since no one is perfect, the next best thing is to feel shame when you do something shameful. The worst possibility is to lack a sense of shame.

ARISTOTLE SUGGESTED THAT THE BEST PEOPLE WOULD DO NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF.
BUT SINCE NO ONE IS PERFECT, THE NEXT BEST THING IS TO FEEL SHAME WHEN YOU DO SOMETHING SHAMEFUL. THE WORST POSSIBILITY IS TO LACK A SENSE OF SHAME.

Without shame there is no room for remorse, regret or moral growth. Shameless people don’t feel guilty. They view fidelity and other moral constraints as external impositions. Rather than holding themselves accountable, the shameless blame others when they get caught.

Sometimes shame can be pathological. Some prudish people cannot enjoy sex or the other pleasures of the body. The sexual liberation movement of the Playboy generation broke free of pathological shame. Hurray for birth control, female orgasms and healthy sexuality. But the pendulum has swung too far toward shamelessness.

Like shame, privacy is another value that has been warped by a pornographic culture in which sex is constantly on display. Like shame, privacy can be excessive. Sometimes privacy can be used to hide terrible things. Absurd claims about privacy in the family were once used to shield investigations into domestic abuse.

But a proper sense of privacy is an important moral achievement. The ability to control your body until you find a private place to fulfill its needs is the first step in human development. Privacy provides a refuge in which spiritual development occurs. Privacy allows us the freedom to explore ideas and create intimate relationships.

Our capacity for reflection, choice and control is the source of human liberty, rationality and moral development. Animals excrete and copulate without shame in public. Human beings control our animal urges and do these things in private. Our sense of shame and our sense of privacy provide the key to human dignity.

Shameless behavior and public lewdness expose a significant character flaw. Shameless philanderers lack self-control. They lie, cheat and manipulate. It is difficult to trust a man who can’t keep his pants or his mouth zipped.

At a recent lecture at Fresno State, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out that past presidents had sexual affairs. Back then, the media respected their privacy. Those were the bad old days, when privacy also protected men who beat their wives.

It is better that misogyny and infidelity are out of the closet. But it would be even better if men respected women, politicians kept their pants on, and everyone kept their hands to themselves.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article108256852.html#storylink=cpy

Ethics of Brain Hacking

Brain hackers raise social questions about learning, understanding

June 28, 2013

 

Is it ethical to use “smart drugs” to improve cognitive function?

Legal concoctions of vitamins, herbs and nutrients are advertised as improving memory, focus and mental acuity. Some of these supplements claim they can produce lucid dream states and lessen the need for sleep. And prescription drugs are being used in illegal ways as mental stimulants, aimed at enhancing memory and concentration.

So-called “brain hackers” claim that cognitive function can be enhanced by sending mild electrical current through the brain. At least one company is marketing a trans-cranial electrical current device to video game players as an upgrade for the gamer’s brain.

Assuming that these things really work, one obvious ethical issue is health and safety. But if we assume that neuro-enhancers can be used safely, another ethical issue is fairness. It doesn’t seem fair for people to artificially enhance performance in school or in business, especially if these enhancements are not widely available to everyone.

One might also worry that the learning that occurs through brain hacking doesn’t really count. It seems like cheating. Of course, these products won’t do the learning for you. They help you focus and retain information better and faster. But you still have to do the studying. If it is acceptable to drink coffee during a cram session, is it also acceptable to use another, more powerful chemical that can help you focus even better?

If learning is primarily about creating pathways in the brain, resulting in new skills and abilities, then there is nothing inherently wrong with brain upgrades that help build those pathways more quickly. Flashcards help and so might a drug. Result-oriented learning will encourage the use of the most efficient tools. From a result-oriented standpoint, it doesn’t matter that you took a chemical shortcut so long as you actually end up knowing the thing you set out to learn.

But learning and thinking are not only a means to an end. They are also ends in themselves. Aristotle suggested this when he said that learning gives us the liveliest pleasure. One source of the pleasure of learning is the resultant mastery — the ability to perform or do something as a result of learning. But there is also pleasure in the very process of practicing and working at mastery. Is the road of learning enjoyable for its own sake; or is the point to achieve mastery as quickly as possible?

The brain-hackers want to shorten the process, perhaps underestimating the pleasures of practice and study. They are primarily focused on performance and achievement. If a short cut can be found, why not take it?

But Aristotle and others would argue that the road matters as much as the destination. Learning and thinking are also deeply social activities, which build connections with other people through the shared effort of the process. There is no mechanical or pharmaceutical shortcut to building community and developing relationships.

In a culture of high-stakes testing and dog-eat-dog economic struggle, it makes sense that people would want to hack their brains, looking for a competitive advantage.

In our culture, there are tangible rewards for those who can process and recall information quickly and accurately. Quick thinkers get better grades, bigger scholarships, and higher-paying jobs. Slow thinkers are left languishing in the dust.

But quick processing and recall skills are merely mechanical: machines can process and recall information much faster than we can.

Machines cannot, however, evaluate what is worth thinking about. The brain hackers are focused on the question of “how fast?” But they forget to ask “how come?”

There is no quick answer for the deeply human question of what matters and why it matters.

Existential questions require unhurried contemplation. But our caffeinated, video-game culture has no time for ruminating and mulling things over.

We spike our brains, filling them with images and words from dawn to dusk.

We are competitive thinkers, looking for an edge in a world that has little patience for the poets and dreamers who pause to wonder about the point of the hustle.

In the end, we may find that the faster we arrive at our destination, the less we understand why we wanted to get there in the first place.

 

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011

Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving.  All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well.  We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch.  And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.

Gift giving is a form of communication.  Gifts send social messages.  A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness.  A great gift shows that the other person really understands you.  Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?

Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality.  It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world.  Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren?  It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.

The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement.  We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way.  Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation.  Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon.  But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.

There are a lot of details to attend to.  Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate.  But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate.  What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed?  Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.

Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance.  Consider the annual Christmas card list.  When do you drop or add someone from your list?  And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health?  Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance?  Or can you just send the family picture, without a note?  These choices convey social messages.

There is also an art to being a gracious receiver.  We need to know how to say thanks.  Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed.  And you need to fake gratitude when necessary.  Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received.  In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks.  Is a text message or phone call sufficient?  Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?

If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult.  Giving and receiving are complex social practices.  Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses.  They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.  It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much.  The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.  This takes careful reflection and lots of practice.  The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude.  The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.

No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously.  All of this is learned behavior.  Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere.  Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day.  We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life.  Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.