Shouting at Shadows — Facebook is Plato’s Cave

I was thinking about Plato’s Republic — like you do — and wondering why the allegory of the cave is taught so often. Then it occurred to me, we are living in versions of Plato’s cave.

You would think with all the knowledge at our fingertips, we would be more enlightened, but Plato/Socrates was right:

Socrates: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human being living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners, there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets….

and they only see their own shadows or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave….

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing by the shadows of the images.

This is the world we live in right now. Facebook is Plato’s cave. We all sit, looking in only one direction at the digital shadows that dance in front of us. Sometimes we cast the shadows ourselves.

This led me to the question: who chained us here?

My first thought was that it was Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. We’ve been chained to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on by the owners and operators of these companies. They are the ones tending the fire that casts the shadows. And we know that they try to manipulate us to be happy or unhappy, maybe even the way we vote. But the reality is, they didn’t chain us here. We sat down.

It also occurred to me that these aren’t our only caves. As we move through our days, markets, advertisers, politicians, and even the new media try to get us to sit in their version of the cave. We all move through these caves, and we pay admission to them.

The current election cycle, with its madness, is dedicated to making us think that the shadows are the truth. I don’t mean this in the conspiracy theory sense, but more in the observation that we don’t really get to see the world as it is, because it is not perceived as the thing that sells.

In the Republic, Socrates talks about what happens to these prisoners if they are brought out of the cave and into the light.

Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects with are now shown to him?

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will be conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

We wonder why people disregard evidence that goes contrary to their belief, but Plato recognized this weird behavior over two thousand years ago. The only explanation is that we are living in these caves.

The Internet has given everyone the ability to chain themselves into the cave of their choosing. They will not need to be confronted with facts and ideas that go against their beliefs — that is unless they want to crusade against misguided shadows. If they hear a shadow somewhere saying something that is “wrong,” then they will comment. (Never read the comments.)

It is interesting  that people will say terrible things to friends, family, and strangers online, through comment threads and on message boards. they will use the worse language and imagery they can think of and treat each other terrible. You often hear people say words to the effect that they would never say those things in the physical presence of people. I think it is because on the Internet we are all shouting at shadows.

It is easy to say something terrible or hurtful to people when they are just shadows. While it would be best if we could all take off the chains and step into the light, the second best option is to remember that the shadows are cast by people, who are chained just like us.

 

Modern Works: Should I Stay or Should I Go? “Leap” By Tess Vigeland

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really WantLeap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever thought about just saying ‘Forget it, I am not going into work tomorrow?’ even if you didn’t have something else lined up? This book is about people who have done just that.

Tess Vigeland starts with her own experiences in leaving Public Radio’s Marketplace without a plan B in place. Much of the book is structured as a memoir, but it is designed to help people ask the questions of themselves about whether they should stay or go. One of the most interesting ideas is whether or not quitting something is as bad as it is made out to be. We are all taught early on not to be quitters, but there are times when it makes sense to walk away.

This is not a how to book, but there are plenty of references in it for people who want to follow up with those kinds of reading. Instead this is about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to make a change when you need the change to happen — even is there is no plan B in place.

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Locke and Responsible Citizenship

In reading Locke some ideas have come back to the front of mind that I want to talk about here briefly, perhaps with more to come in the discussion about Locke’s essay.

In political discourse today, we sometimes here assertions such as “all taxation is theft” or “all government is based on violence.” Locke’s essay talks about why and how people form governments: the primary reason is to solve disputes in an impartial way and to help ensure everyone’s freedom. In “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,” Locke writes about how people can exist in a state of nature and then form governments as a way of managing affairs among a larger number of people. The government, then grows out of the desire of people to have a society that uses reason to extend beyond the state of nature.

So, when someone says that all government is based on violence, it means that they do not have an understanding of what government is or what it is supposed to do. Similarly, to say all taxation is theft on the part of the government is to assert that the government is some kind of other entity.

In a representative democracy, however, the government is us. We are the ones that are doing the taxing and spending the taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to do that, and mistakes will be made, but to assert that all taxes are theft implies that the speaker is too lazy to be involved in the government at even the most superficial level to make sure that the money they contribute is spent correctly. Alternately, making the assertion that all taxes are theft could simply be a reflection that the speaker is a freeloader who wants all of the benefits of living in our society, but doesn’t want to pay their fair share. It is the person who goes out to dinner with the group, orders the expensive meal and then disappears before the check shows up.

As for government being based on violence, again this is an assertion of the lazy. Government is based on the agreement that everyone needs to play by the same set of rules to keep society going. It is not important that the policeman has the gun; it is important that the policeman has a set of laws that everyone has agreed to in order to keep the society running. While any individual can say that they did not write or create a particular law, that is a cop out for the self-indulgent. A person, particularly one living in the United States, has the ability to work to change the laws or, if that fails, to leave. But either do one or the other.

Don’t sit around whining about how the government is bad. We are the government, and we get what we put into it. We live in an age where outrage and extreme views are attention getting. We live in an age where everyone has a broadcast platform, thanks to the Internet. Sadly, there are not enough editors and reasonable readers to challenge the extremism. While we all seem to have a good sense of our rights, no one wants the responsibilities that come with them. Yes we have the right to free speech, for example, but we also have the responsibility to speak up when we think things are going wrong.

Government is an agreement that we all make. If there are problems with the government, then it is because we are shirking our responsibility to make sure it runs well.

How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Locke Should Be Read Before Arguing About Government

As the next U.S. presidential election cycle gears up, the country has begun a conversation once again over the role of government in people’s lives. ‘Conversation’ is perhaps an overly polite term and implies informed talkers. In reality though, I’d like to make everyone take some time out to read at least the first couple of chapters of this book.

Most of the debate seems to center around expediency for anyone involved, and it seems that people are not really thinking hard about this. Locke didn’t have television, facebook, or twitter, so I guess he had more time. Maybe if people really took time to think about things we’d not be locked into slogan shouting and could make some real progress.

The first two chapters of “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government” talk about where political power comes from and why we have government. Locke starts from the very beginning going back to the idea of the beginning of time to talk about Adam and about mankind existing in a state of nature.

What he is trying to get at is where does government come from and what does it mean.

“Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death,  and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good.”

“To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and person as they think fit within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Locke is trying to put the pieces together to say even though people should be able to regulate themselves, once we get enough people together, then there needs to be some kind of government to help insure that freedom to live as each person sees fit. The civil government exists to resolve disputes so that things do not always go to the most powerful and so that judgements can be rendered in an objective way.

“But thought this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possession, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”

There are some absolutists who would take issue even with this kind of restriction, but Locke argues that we have a duty to preserve ourselves and to not invade others rights. So what we do, or as Locke says, what God has done,  is create civil governments to “restrain the partiality and violence of men.”

This government is not, as some have argued based on a monopoly of violence on the part of the government, but rather, to use Locke’s words an “agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic; other promised and compact men may make one with another, and yet still be in the state of Nature.”

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the U.S. political conversation is that starting premise. The many sides seem to view one another as enemies, and increasingly forget that the nation was born out of people agreeing to come together in one community, one body politic. We may disagree on what the best path forward is, but I think we need to remember we all agreed on a good starting point.

 

Modern Works: “Back Channel” By Stephen Carter, a Spy Novel and Study in Politics

Back ChannelBack Channel by Stephen L. Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back Channel was one of those books that gave me a new perspective about something that I thought I already understood. The book is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. It has an unlikely protagonist who, through a series of odd events, ends up in the middle of the negotiations around the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

What I had never considered before was that there could be people on both sides who thought that 1962 was the time for a war between the United States and the USSR. As the novel portrays it, there were people on both sides who felt that each country could win the war, so they thought that moment was the time to take the chance.

In a afterward, the author alludes to this possibility without going into details. I will need to do more research to understand it, but as the novel portrays it, it goes beyond the simplistic conspiracy approach to the world of international intrigue and into a setting of calculations around world politics.

The novel itself was entertaining on its own merits, and Stephen Carter is a good writer. I may check out more of his books after this. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in spy novels and cold war history.

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Modern Works: The Martian By Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. In a world where Sci-Fi has become focused on computer hacking and cyberspace, it was fun to come back and read a book about rocket ships and outer space.

What made this book a classic is that our hero, Mark Watney, has gotten stranded on Mars. Only a freak accident and great luck kept him alive through a crisis. Now, after the crisis, he has been stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue for four years — so it is up to his brain to do the rest.

While the circumstances of his survival could lead the reader to think “Gee, this guy his really lucky,” it is soon apparent that luck is a door that swings both ways.

The thing about Mark Watney is that he is smart, but human. He gets sad, frustrated, and full of despair. He gets hurt. But he keeps going and keeps working to figure things out. All the same, it is nice to read the hero say “Just once I’d like something to go as planned, ya know?” It’s nice because then we are there with him, and maybe could be like him.

The book was recommended to me by engineer and scientist friends, so the science in it is good enough to satisfy even the technically minded. If you are, or have ever been a science fiction fan, then you should read this book — especially if you liked authors like Asimov, Ellison, or Heinlein.

If you have ever felt like you have been stuck on a strange world as you move through your life on this one, then you also should read this book. Because the message, delivered by a hero we can relate to is clear:

“Okay, enough self-pit. I’m not doomed. Things will just be harders than planned.”

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