Archives for posts with tag: Social Media

One of the things people care about more than anything else in the world is ancient Greek philosophy. At parties, the person surrounded by the most rapt of audiences is the one describing their perspective on Epicureanism and its virtuous hedonism. Pestering a first date like a gadfly, inquiring into the nature of justice, is a surefire way to get them to suggest you drink hemlock; a celebratory homage to the father of Western philosophy, and a guaranteed second date if you can survive the hemlock. These are all true facts, but how did I learn that they are true facts? This is my very clever segue into Meno’s paradox, a conundrum spoken by Meno in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno.

If you know something, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know something, inquiry is impossible. We can’t seek out something we don’t know about, and why would we bother trying to learn about something we already know? For example, if you didn’t know that Socrates was condemned to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, and willingly drank the poisonous hemlock as an act of defiance against willful ignorance, then how would you ever learn? Especially if you didn’t even know who Socrates was? Alternatively, since we’re all eager amateur historians of philosophy here, and you have a full understanding of the political embarrassment Socrates caused the powerful Athenian elites which contributed to his execution, then you reading all this again is redundant and pointless.

And yet, if you didn’t know, you have now learned these things. How on Earth did you resolve the paradox? Of course, maybe I lied or was too convoluted in my explanation, and you have come away with an imperfect belief. Or maybe history is hard to translate after 2500 years and some details are surely lost to the point where any story about the life of Socrates is essentially fiction. How do you know?

Plato’s solution is a theory of recollection. Human beings possess eternal souls, and being eternal, have an omniscient understanding of the universe. We know things because when we reflect on a subject, we can acquire a fraction of the infinite understanding that has a certain feel of knowledge that separates it from belief. However, I expect that there are fewer of you who would authentically subscribe to a dead mythology than who would willingly accept the inherent sexiness of Greek philosophy, so we’ll have to do better than that.

Plato’s theory is not entirely ridiculous, and instinctual knowledge, such as a baby knowing to suckle when things are put into its mouth, could be interpreted as biological memory of evolutionary development. Our primal drives are not learned in the traditional sense, but acquired through the collective mode of our very being. This kind of knowledge, however, does not include much of what we consider worth knowing.

There are actually eight ways of knowing with varying degrees of credibility relative to the infinite wisdom of an eternal soul: language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory. Let’s go through them to see how we know what we know.

Language: You are reading this and possibly learning things based entirely on your ability to understand language. The words we have represent things in the world, and being able to name a thing or a concept allows us to discuss it. Of course, language is complicated, subjective, socially constructed and ultimately ambiguous in its communication (think of how many text messages are misconstrued because of their foundation grounded solely in language).

Sense perception: If you think about it, the only way you’re even able to read these words is because you have working eyeballs or maybe you’re listening to this on a text-to-speech program. We intake worldly experiences through our senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, touch, and seeing dead people. Now, the senses are heavily flawed and human beings are rubbish at sensory input compared to other animals, so typically we utilize the sensory input of others to verify whether our perceptions are real or imagined. The addition of intrinsically flawed data does not seem to be the best format for gaining knowledge and really sounds more like it would compound the problem rather than ameliorate it, so let’s keep going.

Emotion: I’m following a list given by this website, so if you’re wondering why I just went from one of the most defensible positions in the accumulation of knowledge to probably one of the least, that’s why. When we experience an event, we typically respond emotionally to it, giving us an impression of how that event relates to us. However, let’s think about the movie What Dreams May Come. It’s a movie that moved me deeply, but those emotions are based entirely on a fiction. The reality of that film was actors in a studio surrounded by lights, cameras, microphones, and dozens of people bustling about to create that fiction. My emotional response is so far gone from the reality of what actually was happening in What Dreams May Come that to credit it as an indicator of knowing something about the world is absurd. My emotional response is going to be my interpretation about what is presented directly toward me, regardless of the inner contexts that might be contributing to that presentation. Also there is bias, subjectivity, etc. etc. It is a bad way to know things, is what I’m driving at.

Reason: There are two types of reason: deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is A=B, B=C, therefore A=C.  So, for example, all dogs have fur, Rex is a dog, therefore Rex has fur. This method of logic is entirely based on the veracity of its premises. Another example: all pit bulls are vicious, Rex is a pit bull, therefore Rex is vicious. This is valid based on the premises, but how do we know about the premises? #NotAllPitBulls. Induction is coming to a conclusion based on the repetition of observations; A has always appeared to lead to B, therefore A causes B. So dogs have fur (based on the social understanding of what ‘dog’ means) because every instance of a dog I’ve seen before has fur. You’ll notice that reason is heavily influenced by the already discussed, incredibly fallible empiricism of the senses. In addition, it is a shaky assumption that just because something has happened before it necessarily must happen again. This comic does a good job of looking at reason as a way of knowing, and has the line, “If man had not first experienced the sky, he never could have deduced the clouds from nothing!” which again shows how dependent reason is on the senses for its viability as a way of knowing.

Imagination: The explanation given for this one is if we think of a lemon or a lime, we can imagine what each tastes like and then infer which is more sour. This creates sensation without the sensory input. Alternatively, there is propositional imaginings, where one can imagine scenarios and infer information based on those imaginings. I mean, I guess this is kind of a knowledge, but it’s speculation based on memory at best, and not really a true way of knowing.

Faith: This is really just an extreme form of belief. I don’t know why they included it since knowing by definition is antithetical to faith.

Intuition: Intuition would be interesting to consider under a mythological pretext that I’m sure Plato would enjoy discussing, but the current common consensus is that what we know as intuition is the observations of our subconscious recognizing trends in the world and suggesting them to our brain before we consciously can perceive anything. Somehow I doubt that our subconscious observations are much better than our conscious ones, as they are still relying on sensory input, so unfortunately gut feelings aren’t all that great at being a way of knowing either.

Memory: The definition given by my go-to website here defines memory as “the faculty which allows us to retain information and reconstruct past experiences.” This is obviously a better definition than what I would have given as, “the tool with which we remember things we already knew.” My definition is a redundant way of knowing, and the website’s definition is probably worse since it is reconstructing past experiences, which in turn further degrades the already imperfect, original sensory input.

Holy fuck that was exhausting. Plus, we have even more problems than flawed ways of knowing. When I described language, your first thought was surely, “If language is subjective and socially constructed, then how do we even know what we mean when we say the word knowledge?” And you’d be absolutely correct. What is it to know something? Commonly, we interpret knowledge as a justified true belief. Knowledge is believing something based on some degree of evidence that matches with the reality of the world. Sounds legit. Enter Edmund Gettier.

The Gettier Problem is more thematic than specific, and it asks us to consider a shepherd who looks out at a hill and sees his sheep. However, this is actually a dog that looks like a sheep from afar, and isn’t his sheep at all. His sheep is on the other side of the hill, just out of view. This farmer may believe that his sheep is on the hill, which is as justified based on his observations and is indeed true, but his knowledge is still based on a falsity. Or a person who looks at a clock, sees that it is 2 o’clock at a time when it is indeed two o’clock, but does not realize that the clock had stopped exactly 12 hours earlier. Gettier’s actual problem is quite silly compared to these more reasonable ones, even though it still carries the main thrust of the argument. Here it is just so you can have a laugh:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition: (d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.
Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails: (e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.
Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.
But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job

So not only are all the ways of knowing flawed in some fundamental way, but knowledge itself is indistinguishable from falsehood given the proper circumstances. This is all the more apparent when we consider the contrasting sources of knowledge that one can acquire via their Facebook newsfeed.  This Wall Street Journal algorithm pits the two realities of democrats and republicans against one another to show just how different they are. The bubbles we create around ourselves only feed us one side of the story, and when falsity stands side by side with reality, identical in every appearance, even without the purposefully fake news stories we still can only ever be uncertain about our knowledge and how we attained it, lest we fall victim to blind dogmatism.

So how do we get from one end of Meno’s Paradox to the other? We don’t, it seems. The best we can hope for is to continue learning, remaining skeptical of our own ideologies, open to new avenues of thought because being certain only proves our ignorance.

There is a Marxist belief that if something is inaccessible to the poor, then it can be neither radical nor revolutionary. Following the trend of ironic tragedy that history sardonically and incessantly throws in our face, the decrease in book reading, both in adults and teenagers, points to a culture that would struggle to read The Communist Manifesto, let alone Das Kapital. As one would expect, the impoverished and the uneducated are those who are reading the least. There are neither sparkly vampires, teenage wizards, nor BDSM-enthused misogynists to incite mass interest in Marx’s seminal works, so I suppose they too must be discarded into the dustbin of irrelevancy to revolutionary thought.

The internet has opened up social dialogue to include everyone with internet access, seemingly giving the unheard voice of the proletariat unprecedented access to speak out, yet in reality has only allowed the opinions of troglodytes to swarm rational discussion, turning it into a cesspool of vomit and bile, defiling the very notion that a reasonable outcome is possible. Unfortunately, the Pandora’s Box of the internet cannot be closed, and this is now the discourse to which one must adhere.

Donald Trump has capitalized on this phenomenon by devising his most successful populist propaganda within the 140 character limit of the Twitter universe. Hilary Clinton, not one to be outdone, shines brilliantly in her campaign slogan: I’m With Her. The “I’m” captures the essence of social media narcissism, letting everyone know what this campaign is really about; me! The “With Her” is, of course, reminiscent of the purposefully vague and noncommittal identity feminism of the Tumblr era. Both of these demagogues are pandering to their respective demographics with their own promises of revolution, yet I do not believe either of them represent what Marx had in mind.

Philosophy is notoriously relegated to the ivory tower, despite Diogenes and his abandoned cup. And while some might claim that the greatest philosophical question is why there are essents rather than nothing, the original Greek schools, including Diogenes’s Cynics, utilized philosophy as a means to discover how to live the good life. Aristotle’s Aretê or Zeno’s Stoicism both offer methods to live virtuously. Without the dogmatism associated with the religious side of this conversation, philosophy allows us to seek with constant refinement how to live; a critical necessity in this tumultuous time.

Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and possibly rabid communist, belabours the point, saying that despite the impending global consequences, we need theory now more than ever. The instinct to act is strong but must be overcome, as postmodernism has deconstructed everything without creating substitutes to put in its place. To act now would be to seek anarchy. End racism. End sexism. End capitalism, but how? And replace it with what? Ideologies cannot be eradicated, only changed, unless our revolution is to end in genocide.

How do we conduct the dialogue of this contemporary philosophy? I mean, analogies to the Greeks these days might not reach as large an audience, but I can predict with the inevitable alienation of Cassandra that referencing the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West will not carry the same lasting weight. The trials of Odysseus are eternal, and thus possess a portion of truth to which humanity will forever have access, whereas Famous will be out-of-date within the year.

The intellectualism associated with philosophy and social theory by its very nature divorces itself from the reach of the bulk of the people. Do we wade into the depths of thoughtless memes and Youtube comments to wage our revolution with the masses, only to discover that we too have become thoughtless in the process? Or do we stand above it, confident on our pillar, helping up those who have recognized the shadows on the cave wall? The disenfranchised need to be acknowledged, certainly, and their voices heard to the extent that we are aware of the depths of their circumstances, but acknowledging this does not require fetishising it. Educated progressives gnash their teeth over the large swathes of people who vote against their own interest, yet this is most often due to demagogues like those mentioned earlier who are savvy in the ways of exploiting those demographics, and know exactly how to pander to their base nature. If something is accessible to the poor, who is to say it is in their best interest?

We do not begrudge climate scientists as elitist when they claim their knowledge gives them more insight on the subject. We cynically laugh at those who do, as they are the obstacle to the required change climate science demands. Granted, philosophy and sociology are softer sciences, yet there can still be an accumulation of wisdom gained from the relevant reading and research.

Those who come up with a new economic system should know the theories of Marx, Smith, Keynes, and Friedman among others if only to know what works and what doesn’t. They should be aware of the history and context surrounding those successes and failures. A fruitful discussion of social order would require knowledge of Republic, On Liberty, Leviathan, and more: books that have shaped Western society as proper change requires an understanding of what has come before. The discussion should not burdened by a responsibility to be accessible to everyone, as not everyone has the time, inclination, or resources to pursue the knowledge necessary for that discussion. To demand that from the poor is indeed insulting to the circumstances of their existence.

I will not abide a system of thought that decries Marx as neither being radical nor revolutionary, even his own Marxism. Contrary to my condemnation of capitalism and my communist allegories throughout this blog, I do not embrace communism. Like I said, the importance of historical context is shown when we see that centralized power is no different from any other fascist government. I do recognize, however, that a knowledge of Marxist thought will be necessary for whatever economic and social utopia the future may produce. Philosophy is necessary for the future of our species; let’s not hobble it with undue limitations to its content.

Gustave Le Bon, a French social psychologist, is considered the father of crowd psychology and offers a cynical yet more than likely accurate analysis of the nature of individuals when they renounce their individuality and embrace being a part of a group. A crowd is a herd of people centered on an idea, but Le Bon posits that for an idea to be populist enough for a crowd to rally around, it must be simplified to the point where they are able to grasp it. In today’s context, it would need to fit within 140 characters. Typically, the crowd looks to a leader, as the leader is the one who comprehends the idea (or is Machiavellian enough to manipulate the crowd with the presumption of their comprehension) and can direct the pedagogy of its ideals. Those within the crowd abandon their individuality and are willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the greater benefit of the group. The 20th century was rife with examples, such as Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Hitler and the Nazis, or Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Crowds are not intrinsically moral or immoral constructs, but we will talk more on that later.

Social media is rife with the crowd mentality, as each individual zealously adheres to their chosen ideological clique, but these cliques notoriously do not have an individual guide who possesses the intellect to direct them. Occupy Wall Street, the movement borne of the social media trend, celebrated its lack of leadership before floundering within the maelstrom of differing priorities and beliefs. The Arab Spring suffered similar defeat when the movement was co-opted by the military due to its distinctive lack of leadership and the power vacuum it invariably created.

The traditional online movements, such as the MRAs, the feminists, the Tea Partiers, and the SJWs rely on memes, tweets, and Tumblr posts as their ideological directors. The crowd creates its own ideological drive, and given the mediocrity of the crowd mentality, simplifies their ideological canon even further to the point of inane nonsense. However, the crowd mentality survives and the zealotry that begets self-sacrifice offline translates to the most vitriolic diatribe as people fearlessly defend this nonsense with the online anonymity that precludes consequences.

Let’s look at an example:

l05snt4On the surface, this meme appears to illustrate the fear allegedly inherent to the female experience, and offers a means for men to potentially empathize with them. However, it’s really a very shallow surface. Let’s look to see what it’s saying.

Who is this meme for? That’s easy, it’s addressed to you. However, using the second person narrative personalizes the message, and by its assumptions about the way you treat women and the way you feel about gay men, it becomes accusatory. Being online, this accusation lacks any humanity behind it, and therefore is simply alienating. Anyone who could genuinely benefit from its message will dismiss it based on its very nature.

Ignoring what I just said, maybe it’s for homophobes in general. Except its definition of homophobia excludes women from being homophobic, despite women being only marginally less homophobic than men (34% opposing gay marriage in the US in 2015 compared to 36% of men). It also does not account for how one could possibly be homophobic toward lesbians, thereby delegitimizing its entire definition of homophobia. And really, what message is it giving to homophobes anyway? That the homophobia you experience is akin to the lived experiences of women? Would that not justify homophobic beliefs if we consider women’s fear justifiable, or alternatively, render irrational (if we assume homophobia is irrational) the fear derived from women’s lived experiences? This leads me to believe that this meme is not for women either (despite the sage who offers her great wisdom being the clear protagonist of this story), as I doubt most women would want the fear they experience in a parking lot likened to the fear a homophobe has of sharing a taxi with a gay man.

Is it for misogynistic men? Are they supposed to foster homophobic beliefs in order to develop the empathy needed for a greater connection to the female experience? I’m assuming that is not the intent, but maybe I’m giving it too much credit.

So, it’s not for anyone, its message is contradictory to its intent, and it’s oppositional and divisive by its very nature. Its target audience is the crowd. Its message of empathy, feminism, and LGBT rights is watered down to the nonsensical, yet those who reject its message are considered outsiders and enemies. Its place is in an echo chamber of stupidity.

Why would people want to be a part of this idiocy? Le Bon theorizes that being a part of the crowd masks the impotency that individuals face when large obstacles need to be overcome. There is strength in numbers, and crowds are necessarily required for revolutionary action. However, the strength of the online crowd is only an illusion, as social media activism does not lead to any kind of tangible change. The impotence that the individual is running from carries over into social media, but it becomes hidden in the confidence derived from being a part of a crowd.

Crowds on their own are neither good nor evil. Occupy Wall Street was founded on the same principles as the Tea Party movement: discontent over the plutocracy running America. Even Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump share the belief that corporate-financed politics and mass globalization are detrimental to the world at large. The fiery division results from the ideological zealotry of each crowd. Our moral judgement of the followers of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders comes from our interpretation of their ideals, however bastardized, to which they as a crowd are beholden. However, Le Bon argues that being part of a crowd enables the beastial nature within us to bare its fangs, as personal responsibility dissipates when surrounded by peers. This leads the typical crowd to veer toward less-than-savoury dogmatism, as seen in the fights breaking out at rallies. Of course, with a capable leader, such as Martin Luther King, a crowd can adhere to strictly non-violent methods and still accomplish their goals. The online crowd prefers chaos, antagonism, and memes, however, but luckily it is ineffectual enough to enact real change.