About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “You don’t know you don’t know.” Today’s post is a continuation of my thought in that post. I want to think about how to respond to people who don’t know they don’t know.

This week, I had a chance to spend time with one of my old best friends. Because she is finishing her degree, I asked her if she was applying for jobs this year. Her answer was negative. I asked her why. She said she didn’t feel that she was ready yet. There are still so many things that she needs to learn, she explained, and she’s not sure if she could teach someone else. I totally heard her. From her statement “I am not ready yet,” what I heard was her awareness of overwhelmingly limitless knowledge, the apparent limits of knowledge she currently possesses, and her intense hunger to overcome the limits and learn more.

Then I got curious about what other people would hear from the same statement. Would some people take my friend’s words at face value and think that she is really not ready to teach? A woman who did nothing but study philosophy all her life, is getting a Ph.D from two universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and taught philosophy classes in the past, is not ready to teach Introduction to Philosophy to 17 year olds? To me, to think so is ridiculous. Well, if your argument is that being a scholar and being a teacher are two different tasks and the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, and if that’s the reason why you accept my friend’s statement at face value, I understand. That’s a valid response. We can talk about your point more in detail. But, if you take my friend’s words at face value because you don’t know you don’t know – in this case, your response will be like,”oh, I’ve been teaching 10+ years. I know how to teach. Too bad you don’t know how to teach yet” – then, your response reveals nothing but your deplorable ignorance. It clarifies that you shut off yourself in the narrow world of your minuscule knowledge and turn blind eyes to the vast expanse that exists outside your ken.

Today I am thinking about how to respond to this kind of self-righteous knowers. Usually I try to ignore them. First, it is their problem, not mine. I am sure they are denying themselves a lot by being self-complacent, but I don’t care about your loss, unless you are my students. Second,   talking to them and trying to reason with them – without avail, of course – makes me feel like I am brought down to their level. Yes, I advise myself to expose myself to deep thought. Then I will forget tedious, trivial, time- and emotion-consuming negative feelings that these self-claimed knowers create. But I am human, and I confess that it does not feel good to be treated like an idiot by someone who is clearly more idiot than me. Ugh.

About Changing Your Facebook Profile

Facebook is so powerful and influential. It is so in many different ways, but today, I want to talk about Facebook’s political influence.

We’re all horrified by the Paris attacks that took place last night. We’re all deeply hurt by the loss of innocent lives and indignant about the merciless, inhumane killers. To respond to this universal sentiment, Facebook enabled a new feature as of this morning: we can put our Facebook profile pictures behind the French flag. If you use the new feature, you will see something like this.

french-flag

This morning, one of my friends asked me what would be wrong with using this profile picture. A difficult question, but I want to do my best to answer it.

I want to start by comparing the profile behind the French flag with a similar profile picture change that Facebook launched in the past. Remember this profile picture for Planned Parenthood?

planned parenthood

Yes, when Planned Parenthood was attacked by right wing thinkers and threatened with being defunded, Facebook enabled this change to allow its users to show solidarity with Planned Parenthood. Now, innocent Parisians were indiscriminately slaughtered by terrorists, and some Facebook users want to show solidarity with the victims. What’s wrong with that?

Well, I see a huge difference between the two profile pictures. With Planned Parenthood, there is a clear divide between the victims of patriarchal violence (Planned Parenthood) and the perpetrator of the violence. By standing with Planned Parenthood, you oppose patriarchal thinking, and these two are mutually exclusive. I am not sure if they are really mutually exclusive, but you can certainly think so, and I respect that view.

But with the French flag profile, things are not that simple. It is not 100% certain yet who orchestrated the terrorist attacks, but many think that ISIS did. If it did, the new Facebook profile suggests the following: ISIS attacked France. You may now think, “well, that’s a fact. Isn’t it? What’s the problem?” The problem is that we live in this world already fraught with Islamophobia. In that world, the ISIS, that extremist group, is taken erroneously as the representative of the diverse Muslim cultures and populations. To many, therefore, the new profile picture would mean “Muslims attacked France.” This is how right wing conservatives understand and even welcome the new profile change, I think. But here is a subtler but more profound problem. Is France, the whole nation, attacked by Muslims? The logic of the image that separates the victims and the perpetrator and expresses our sympathy for the victims – the logic reinforced by the Planned Parenthood precedent – would lead us to think so. Then, the new profile picture makes us think of France and Muslims as oppositional terms, as if Muslims are an external force to France and they are an enemy to each other.

I know that people who adopt a new profile simply feel bad about the victims and want to show support for the victims. But the way you express your support and sympathy matters. Your sentiment is honorable, but the vessel through which you express your sentiment distorts your intention. The new profile picture inadvertently but inevitably sends the message that France belongs to Christians and white (at least non-Arabic) populations. There is no room for Muslims in France. Let’s think first before we act.

Reversing instinctual thinking

wedding-anniversary-gifts-dtl1

At weddings, I notice an interesting pattern. A bride’s family and friends tend to put the bride’s name before the groom’s, and the groom’s family and friends tend to put his name before hers. If the bride’s last name is White and the groom’s Williams, for example, the wedding is often referred to as the White-Williams wedding by people on the bride’s side and as the Williams-White wedding by people on the groom’s side.

Maybe I am wrong about weddings. Maybe my sample size is too small. But I am sure you can add your example where people tend to prioritize a person, a group of people, or a thing with which they are familiar and naturally sympathetic over its counterpart. It is this tendency that I want to discuss today.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with prioritizing the bride over the groom, when I am the bride’s friend. After all, I know her better than him, and I am her friend, not his. It is natural and understandable that my heart pulls me in one direction. Yet, I think it is important that if I attend my friend’s wedding as a guest, I extend my sympathy to the groom and try to treat the bride and the groom equally. I will try to say something to show that I am interested in him and respect him as the partner that my friend chose. It does not feel right to me to concentrate all my attention on the bride and dismiss the groom, an action that I will definitely make when I let my heart dictate my behavior. Because – not “although” – my heart is with one person and not with the other, I think it is important that I make conscious effort to reverse my heart’s pull and strive for an equal treatment of the two people.

This afternoon, I am thinking of social, political implications of reversing our natural, instinctual thought. I think that inviting people to think about an equal distribution of resources makes a good example. When I call for it, people often say, “oh, you’re not realistic. What you ask will never come to pass. It is just natural that some people are wealthy and others are poor.” I think that this kind of responses misses an important point. A just society does not require that everyone has the exactly same amount of resources. That you own $100 and I only $10 is not a problem on its own. What a just society requires instead is that the process in which you amass $100 and I $10 is fair and legitimate. If the social structure and economic operative system in which you and I amass different amounts of money are fair, perhaps it is fair that we own different levels of affluence. So, when I call for an even distribution of resources, I am not saying, “let’s put in one pot all the wealth there is and divide it by the number of people there is.” That will be an unrealistic suggestion. And I am not suggesting that. What I suggest is that we think about how wealth is created and distributed. To determine if the end result of a game is fair, we should examine first the rules of the game. If the rules are fair, maybe it is fair that different game players are placed in different situations.

Here is a connection between my wedding talk above and my point on an equal distribution of wealth. When you get by in this society – meaning, you can make ends meet and don’t run the risk of becoming homeless – it is such a strong temptation to think that the rules of the game are fair. That’s what you are naturally and instinctually led to think in your position, just as you call the wedding the White-Williams wedding, when you stand on the bride’s side. But, if you recognize that the boy Williams is a beloved son and friend to other people, you will understand why some call the wedding the Williams-White wedding. Rather, you may want to call it that way to cultivate a habit of fair treatment.

It is understandable that our heart leads us in one direction and we want to follow it. But when the heart’s imperatives run amok without being questioned, we will end up in a jungle where the survival of the fittest is the only viable principle. I want to live in a more civilized society. And I think that our civic duty to create a more just, civilized society can start by putting a brake on any thought that arises instinctually. Let’s look at it with suspicion and try to reverse it, if necessary. This is why it is important to recognize that your White-Williams wedding is to others the Williams-White wedding.

Some scattered thought

1. I think that at a funeral or a memorial service, I would like to hear more anecdotes and stories from the dead person’s life than the facts that would appear on a police report.  “This person was born in this place on this date, lived here, and got degrees from this and that schools. S/he worked at such and such jobs and served such and such functions. ” I  mean,  this kind of facts and information are helpful to a certain extent to understand the dead person, but I think that funerals and memorial services are ultimately for the surviving people. We attend those events to gain from the remembrance of the departed an impetus to live on, and for this reason,  what we need is not so much facts about the dead person’s accomplishments as their personal stories that reveal who they really were and allow us to learn a lesson or two about life. 

At my uncle’s and aunt’s memorial service today,  what I really appreciated was that the guests shared their intimate stories of how they knew and interacted with John and Lynne. From those stories,  I got to know what kind of fight they fought with life,  how they dealt with the challenges,  and most importantly,  what they “appeared” to others when the reality of their experiences was totally different. These are lessons of life that a police report would never teach us.

2. Before my aunt passed away, what I knew about her was really limited, but after her death, I feel that I know her much better. This is mostly due to the fact that I met her family and spoke to them. They are really, really nice people, and it sucks that we meet really awesome people under such a sad circumstance.

Indecent Proposal: Renting Indian Women’s Wombs

indecent proposal

A couple of days ago, I watched an interesting movie. Indecent Proposal, a 1993 movie starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford, is a bad (sorry!), but enjoyable and quite thought-provoking movie. Here is a brief synopsis. Young, beautiful Diana Murphy (Demi Moore) marries her high school sweetheart. They are happy together, but they have no money. One day, billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) approaches the young couple on the verge of bankruptcy and offers one million dollars on the condition that he spends one night with the beautiful Diana. Understandably, the couple hesitates, but they agree out of dire financial needs. The movie focuses on post one night stand repercussions. The couple’s marital trust is called into question and gets fissured. Diana begins to date with John Gage and ultimately asks for a divorce from her husband, although she revokes it at the last minute and reconciles with her husband.

I cannot rate the movie highly as a work of art, but I really enjoyed thinking about the question that the movie raised: can money buy love? The young couple David and Diana think no, and that’s why they accept Gage’s offer. He can buy the right to “fuck” Diana one time, the couple reasons, but he cannot buy her heart. Her heart will firmly stay with her husband, so it is okay. One million dollars are a lot of money. Once they are out of poverty, they can be happy again. So, let’s take the bitter pill and forget about it. On the contrary, the billionaire Gage thinks that yes, money can buy love, and that’s why he makes the offer in the first place. In one scene, Diana asks Gage why he wants her. “You have money, and you can buy any beautiful woman you want,” she says. He responds, “I want you, because you said you are not for sale. I think everything is for sale.”

The movie is entitled “Indecent Proposal.” Many will find Gage’s proposal indecent, distasteful or immoral. And the movie appeals to that common sentiment. We audiences find ourselves thinking “Oh, I will never sell my husband or wife for money. One million dollars, two million dollars. No way. Forget it.” I agree. I feel that way, too. When the young husband David throws his fists like crazy at the helicopter that takes Diana and Gage away to a remote location for their night together, we vicariously throws our fists, too.

But let’s pause here and think. Why do we respond to Gage’s proposal with revolt and disgust? There can be many different reasons why people disapprove of his proposal, but one reason that the movie presents is that, as David and Diana initially thought, money cannot buy love. Put differently, there are limits to money’s purchasing power. We put a price tag on almost all goods, and they are for sale. Nevertheless, there are limits. The young couple was right initially, in thinking that there are things in life that cannot be bought. At the same time, however, there is something that they totally missed. It is that they underestimated the power of money. Or, to put the matter more precisely, they assumed -wrongly- that there is an invincible wall that separates what money can buy from what it can’t. This is a misconception. Money and money logic threaten to seep into every part of human life. There isn’t part of human life that remain impenetrable to the attack of money logics. David and Diana, in accepting Gage’s offer, think that he can buy Diana’s body for one night but not her heart, but the truth of the matter is that the body and the heart are not two separate things. There is no wall between them. Once Gage’s money buys her body, it will insist that it buy her heart as well. Consequently, the one night stand with Gage becomes a powerful attack on her heart, as the body goes in one direction and the mind soon follows it. The movie shows that Diana, after the fateful one night with the billionaire, gets drawn and emotionally attached to him, to the extent to almost end her marriage. This is the truth regarding the power of money that the savvy John Gage knows all along. That’s why he was almost shamelessly confident about his proposal. He knows that once she sleeps with him, she will become his, both in the body and the heart.

surrogate mothers

Now, this view of the movie reminds me of one interesting article I read a few days ago. The New York Times posted the article “India Wants to Ban Birth Surrogacy for Foreigners.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/world/asia/india-wants-to-ban-birth-surrogacy-for-foreigners.html?_r=0) According to the article, the Indian government recently decided to prohibit renting Indian women’s wombs to foreigners. The article does not explain why the government made that decision. I hope that the reason has something to do with what the movie Indecent Proposal suggests: that is, there are limits to what money can buy, and Indian women’s bodies are not for sale. What surprised me was people’s reaction. So many people seem to think that the Indian government’s decision is too radical. They seem to think that instead of totally banning Indian women’s surrogacy, it should just regulate it. In their view, birth surrogacy is a win-win situation for both parties: the affluent infertile western couple gets a baby, and the poor Indian surrogate mother gets money. So why not? By allowing birth surrogacy, we actually help the poor Indian women.

To people who show this kind of responses, I want to make John Gage’s offer. “I will give you one million dollars. Let me sleep with your husband for one night.” If your answer to my proposal is, “you b*tch, go to hell,” I gladly accept and totally understand it. You don’t have to write me a philosophical tract on what money cannot buy and the danger of translating all human values into monetary terms. You intuitively know that money cannot and should not buy everything, and I am glad you do know it. Then, pray tell me how and why your intuitive knowledge suddenly stops short in the face of poor Indian women. We’re talking about a proposal to rent a woman’s body, not just for one night but for 9 1/2 months. About 300 nights. When your spouse’s body is not up for sale, what makes you think that Indian women’s bodies are for sale? If you think that you love your wife or daughter or sister so much, your love transcends money, and thus she cannot be bought or sold, what makes you think that an Indian woman, who must be somebody’s wife, daughter, and sister, can be bought or sold? With Diana, we see that where the body goes, the heart goes as well. Imagine a woman who conceives and nurtures a life for 300 nights. Could you imagine the love and the sense of attachment thus developed in this process? What makes you think that this love and this attachment can be explained away in monetary terms, when your love and your attachment cannot be translated into money? In apologies for birth surrogacy, all I hear is “no, they are not really humans. Their love does not weigh as much as mine.”

Life Goes On

fall bicycling

Today, I want to talk about the belief that life goes on. Yeah, about that unfounded yet established belief that there is a tomorrow. We know that this belief is unfounded, because, who knows what will happen tomorrow? But at the same time, we tenaciously stick to it, because, without that belief, our life just collapses.

Yesterday, I and my husband got the terrible news that our uncle and aunt passed away. They were avid bicyclers, and on a nice Saturday, they went out for bicycling. What could have been in their minds on their last day? Well, it is getting cold here, so they might have gone out, thinking it might be the last day of bicycling without special winter gears. Or, they might have gone out, simply because bicycling was their Saturday afternoon routine. Anyway, no special thought. They went out, with the amount of special thought that you have when you go to the bathroom. Once outside, however, something terrible was awaiting them. A jeep jumped on them from behind. My aunt passed away instantly, and my uncle at the hospital.

My uncle and aunt were experienced bicyclers. They knew what they were doing, and I am sure they did everything right. But even when you do everything right, life can deal you a bad hand. That’s what happened to my uncle and aunt yesterday.

The initial shock that I experienced at the first moments after getting the news has subsumed a bit, and today, I am reconstructing their last day. In my imagination, I see them raising a hand with a soft smile to wish passers-by a happy Halloween. Their windbreakers might bulge in the pockets, filled with energy bars and small bottles of water. In their house, they might have left some dirty dishes in the sink. They didn’t do dishes, thinking that they didn’t want to lose daylight and would do it in the evening when they return. Similarly, they might have left some unpaid bills on their desk. The bed might not have been made, magazines open on their living room table, coffee in the thermo only half drunk, and a hungry cat anxiously waiting for his owners to come back and feed him. All these small details suggest that my uncle and aunt left their house, without ever questioning that they would return to it.

Today, nothing reminds me of the fragility of life more painfully than these details. If they had known that they wouldn’t be able to return, they would have made bed neatly, cleaned the kitchen, and taken the cat to a neighbor. Whenever we think, “I will do this later,” we draw upon the belief that there is a later moment. But how do we know that? I feel that a lot of – if not all – what we do depends on this belief on continual life. For example, I sometimes yell at my husband, because he promised to take out trash and didn’t. My anger originates in the belief that life goes on: because I expect to live with my husband for a while, I don’t want him to form a bad habit. Because I expect to live many years with my body, I don’t want to overuse it today. But things can all change tomorrow. I know it, but I choose not to face it head on. If I do, there wouldn’t be room for such things as responsibilities, morality, effort for meaning, or even sanity.

Since the contingencies of life and the certainty of life’s uncertainty cannot be explained away in a human language, I feel that it is silence that explains my beloved uncle and aunt’s sudden departure most eloquently. I am humbled by life. And in the trash that is not taken out, and in the dirty dishes that are piling up in the sink, I see a will to life. That irrepressible hope for tomorrow.

Rest in peace, John Fauerby and Lynne Rosenbusch.

Beethoven piano sonata opus 26