Sunday, May 22, 2016

Amor Mundi Newsletter - May 22nd, 2016

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From: Hannah Arendt Center

Date: Sun, May 22, 2016 9:44 AM


Subject:Amor Mundi Newsletter - May 22nd, 2016

Sebastian Junger has a far-reaching essay on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger explores PTSD in its connection to rape trauma and asks why it is so prevalent today, at a time when wars are less lethal than ever. One part of his answer suggests that at least some of the source of PTSD is found less in war than in the civilian society into which soldiers return. "Any discussion of PTSD and its associated sense of alienation in society must address the fact that many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it's over. That troubling fact can be found in written accounts from war after war, country after country, century after century. Awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up. There are ancient human behaviors in war-loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation-that typify good soldiering and can't be easily found in modern society. This can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to: after World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the communal underground living that characterized life during the Blitz (despite the fact that more than 40,000 civilians lost their lives). And the war that is missed doesn't even have to be a shooting war: "I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic," a man wrote on the comment board of an online talk I gave about war. "Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, I must admit that I miss those days of extreme brotherhood ... which led to deep emotions and understandings that are above anything I have felt since the plague years." What all these people seem to miss isn't danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender. Humans evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, and our capacity for cooperation and sharing clearly helped us do that. Structurally, a band of hunter-gatherers and a platoon in combat are almost exactly the same: in each case, the group numbers between 30 and 50 individuals, they sleep in a common area, they conduct patrols, they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival. From an evolutionary perspective, it's not at all surprising that many soldiers respond to combat in positive ways and miss it when it's gone."

Part of the problem that veterans have, Junger suggests, is that our individualist and lonely society is so foreign to the comaraderie of wartime life. He worries that western societies don't touch children enough and live too separately, or at least that in keeping our distance we are being untrue to our animal needs, needs that wartime better meets.

Hannah Arendt might be suspicious of Junger's turn to evidence from primates to argue for the need for more intimate ways of living, but she would clearly recognize his claim that western individualist societies are not as happy as they claim to be. For Arendt, we have increasingly lost sight of an essential part of human happiness-what she calls public happiness. Public happiness is the joy and thrill experienced when one acts together with others in public. It is the happiness we experience when, amidst a crisis, we work together to stack sandbags with strangers or save someone from a burning building. It is also the feeling of joy felt by participants in Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party when they act together to occupy and run a public square or organize to take over a local town council.

Arendt would not have psychologized the feelings of alienation from society as Junger does. But she also sees that we are increasingly alienated from our world. World alienation, in her telling, has its origin in the scientific revolution-the insight that the common sense world of our eyes is not to be trusted, that it deceives us. From that fundamental scientific insight, scientists like Galileo and Descartes shifted the locus of truth from the world to the individual mind, alienating man from the common world.

What Junger is touching upon in his essay is the way that the experience of war re-creates the kind of non-alienated common world that Arendt hopes to keep alive through public action and politics. What both Junger and Arendt understand is that amidst the action in concert of war and politics humans are able to bear suffering and sacrifice because they act for a purpose. Man can bear all suffering, Nietzsche writes, if he thinks it has a purpose. As the purpose of life is attenuated in our individualist society, we lose sight of what Arendt calls public happiness. And we also lose our ability to confront and live with the very real traumas of war and also of rape. This does not diminish those traumas, but it may help to think about how we can better learn to live with them. -RB

Melvin Rogers in The Boston Review raises questions about the increasingly popular claims by black intellectuals like Eddie Glaude Jr. and Ta-Neshi Coates that white supremacy is inseparable from the American system of government.

"We-and here I mean black Americans engaged in struggle as well as white Americans who stand in alliance-must confront some crucial questions. Can American democracy only work if some are privileged while others are oppressed, or are we justified in our hopes for a truly inclusive and fair society? Is American democracy constitutionally at odds with our goals, as Coates seems to suggest? Or might it be conducive to building a society in which we all can live equally and at peace with one another? How we answer these questions depends not only on which histories we consult, but also the weight we accord to the ones we use. In our historical calculus, we might emphasize the reconstitution of white supremacy, but we could just as easily emphasize the ways in which it has been foiled through multiple waves of racial inclusion. Those who embrace the former as our "true" racial reality find themselves trying to prove to those of us who have benefited from racial struggle why our success is illusory or, at best, temporary. But those who locate America's identity in its resistance to white supremacy have another problem. They are often unable to see the evidence of systemic racism, or they readily describe it as anomalous, foreign to the structure of our institutions. If the first posture seems unsatisfying because it denies human agency and gives the past too much power over the future, the second risks turning a blind eye to the ways white supremacy is often bolstered by institutional support and state violence. Both sides fail to distinguish between the somewhat different tasks of studying the past and narrativizing the past in a way that is useful for moving society in an auspicious direction."

In an article surveying the field of contemporary social science inquiry into the nature and psychological effects of power, Matthew Sweet (perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps not) reminds us that research is its own kind of power relation: 

"Who, then, is right? Are powerful people nicer or nastier than powerless ones? How can we explain the disparate answers yielded by these two sets of data? It may be that rich people are better at disguising their true nature than poor people. If being generous in public brings rewards, then rich people might be more inclined to help old ladies across roads. Selfish driving is consistent with this idea: the anonymity of the road means that aggressive petrolheads need not worry about damaging their reputations. And Keltner points out that the data come from people's accounts of their own charitable giving, and not from watching them in the act. "We know from other studies that the wealthy are more likely to lie and exaggerate about ethical matters," he says. "Survey self-report data in economics and face-to-face data in psychology capture different processes. What I say I do in society versus how I behave with actual people." But it is also possible that the problem lies not with the survey data but with the psychological experiments. Over the past year, this possibility has become the subject of bitter debate. In August 2015, the journal Science reported that a group of 270 academics, led by Brian Nosek, a respected professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, had attempted to reproduce the results of 100 psychological studies. Ninety-seven of the original studies had produced statistically significant results. Only 36 of the replications did the same. Those numbers threatened to undermine the entire discipline of experimental psychology, for if a result cannot be replicated then it must be in doubt. In March 2016 a panel of luminaries claimed to have detected serious shortcomings in the methodology of Nosek's paper. The inquiry was led by Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor with a history of hostility to the replicators. ("Psychology's replication police prove to be shameless little bullies," he tweeted in 2014, defending another researcher whose work was questioned.) When a journalist from Wired magazine asked Gilbert if his defensiveness might have influenced his conclusions, he hung up on them. Psychology's "Replication Crisis" might not yet be over. In September 2015, five social psychologists and a sociologist published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences that suggested why psychology might show privileged people in a bad light. Left-wing opinion, contended Jonathan Haidt and his co-authors, was over-represented in psychology faculties. This, they suspected, might be distorting experimental findings - as well as making campus life difficult for researchers with socially conservative views. "The field of social psychology is at risk of becoming a cohesive moral community," they warned. "Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends? We think so."

Will Knight takes a peek at a company that's imagining (sorry) a different kind of artificial intelligence:

"Vicarious has introduced a new kind of neural-network algorithm designed to take into account more of the features that appear in biology. An important one is the ability to picture what the information it's learned should look like in different scenarios-a kind of artificial imagination. The company's founders believe a fundamentally different design will be essential if machines are to demonstrate more humanlike intelligence. Computers will have to be able to learn from less data, and to recognize stimuli or concepts more easily.

Despite generating plenty of early excitement, Vicarious has been quiet over the past couple of years. But this year, the company says, it will publish details of its research, and it promises some eye-popping demos that will show just how useful a computer with an imagination could be...One of the most glaring shortcomings of artificial neural networks, Phoenix says, is that information flows only one way. "If you look at the information flow in a classic neural network, it's a feed-forward architecture," he says. "There are actually more feedback connections in the brain than feed-forward connections-so you're missing more than half of the information flow."

It's undeniably alluring to think that imagination-a capability so fundamentally human it sounds almost mystical in a computer-could be the key to the next big advance in AI."

Zenyep Tufecki, in the wake of the recent accusations that Facebook edits it's 'trending topics' section to have a liberal slant, points out that Facebook's defense, 'the algorithm did it!,' is misleading precisely because it presumes that algorithms, and by extension all science and technology, are neutral actors in the world. They are not:

"Algorithms are often presented as an extension of natural sciences like physics or biology. While these algorithms also use data, math and computation, they are a fountain of bias and slants - of a new kind. If a bridge sways and falls, we can diagnose that as a failure, fault the engineering, and try to do better next time. If Google shows you these 11 results instead of those 11, or if a hiring algorithm puts this person's résumé at the top of a file and not that one, who is to definitively say what is correct, and what is wrong? Without laws of nature to anchor them, algorithms used in such subjective decision making can never be truly neutral, objective or scientific. Programmers do not, and often cannot, predict what their complex programs will do. Google's Internet services are billions of lines of code. Once these algorithms with an enormous number of moving parts are set loose, they then interact with the world, and learn and react. The consequences aren't easily predictable...With algorithms, we don't have an engineering breakthrough that's making life more precise, but billions of semi-savant mini-Frankensteins, often with narrow but deep expertise that we no longer understand, spitting out answers here and there to questions we can't judge just by numbers, all under the cloak of objectivity and science. If these algorithms are not scientifically computing answers to questions with objective right answers, what are they doing? Mostly, they "optimize" output to parameters the company chooses, crucially, under conditions also shaped by the company. On Facebook the goal is to maximize the amount of engagement you have with the site and keep the site ad-friendly. You can easily click on "like," for example, but there is not yet a "this was a challenging but important story" button...Software giants would like us to believe their algorithms are objective and neutral, so they can avoid responsibility for their enormous power as gatekeepers while maintaining as large an audience as possible. Of course, traditional media organizations face similar pressures to grow audiences and host ads. At least, though, consumers know that the news media is not produced in some "neutral" way or above criticism, and a whole network - from media watchdogs to public editors - tries to hold those institutions accountable."


"I feel bad for the refs, who, for the most part, are company men in an industry that desperately wants to replace their jobs with automatons. Management, in this case, seems determined to put the ref's flaws on full display: Every time the ref makes a mistake - especially one that alters the outcome of a game - it's played over and over again on the giant glowing Jumbotron that hangs over his head, on the television broadcasts and then again, throughout the night, on "SportsCenter." By the time he wakes up the next morning, his gaffe will have been thoroughly dissected by the forensic experts of YouTube, who stretch every suspicious five-second clip into a meticulously edited short documentary, complete with a menacing violin soundtrack and enraged, caps-locked captions like: "NOTICE NO FOUL WAS CALLED EVEN THOUGH REFEREE X WAS STANDING TWO FEET AWAY!!!"...But all the scrutiny has also created a hitch in the way we watch sports. When Villanova won the N.C.A.A. men's basketball championship in April on a last-second shot, the announcers and referees, amid the revelry on the court, had to double-check whether the shot was released in time. After nearly every touchdown in the N.F.L., the announcer punctuates his call with a relieved "and there are no penalty flags!" - which then gives the audience permission to celebrate or moan. There's an implicit cost analysis in these moments: We pause or at least hiccup in our response to make sure that the whole thing won't be overturned upon review...The pursuit of official certainty, in other words, has bred an epistemological uncertainty. I no longer worry that a game will swing on a bad call, but I constantly worry that I will end up cheering for a fiction. The escapism of sports - an alternate world governed by its own arbitrary logic - dissipates, and I find myself switching my attention among the referee's calls, the replays and the TV's corrections. It feels as if some know-it-all child is nudging me in the ribs, reminding me that what I'm watching is a game played by fallible men governed by an arbitrary set of rules enforced by other, fatter fallible men."

As a sports fan, I'm ambivalent about the rise of replays and automated refereeing. On the one hand, I want the refs or the umps, who have one of the hardest jobs in the world, to get it right. But there's something utterly inhuman about watching someone else spend precious minutes of their life trying to note the exact moment the sliding spikes hit second base or the exact spot a receiver's second foot landed. They're paid handsomely for that, fair enough, but that's not even to mention the 'goal line' technology employed by FIFA designed to ensure that the whole ball crossed the line into the net, an innovation which removes all judgement from that aspect of officiating, which threatens to replace referees altogether. It does seem inevitable that sports, with so much money and feeling on the line, will inevitably become increasingly standardized, but at what point do the lasers, replay booths, and calls back to New York, at what point do they take all the wonder out of the game, replacing the marvel of athletic achievement that should tests the limits of what it is possible to do with a human body with a respect for rules so rigid that every impossibility threatens to break it ? When we throw out judgement in this, as in any other human endeavor, what else do we throw away?

Wed. June 1 - Wed. June 22

The Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College Presents: A Global Dialogue in Courage with Drs. Joe Loizzo and Roger Berkowitz.

What do political philosopher Hannah Arendt, spiritual leader H.H. the Dalai Lama, existential theologian Paul Tillich, and non-violent activist Mahatma Gandhi have in common? For all four, moral courage is at the center of their ethical and political visions, and is vital for the future of humanity and of our planet. Embodying the traditions of Western philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, and Indian non-violence, these world leaders stand together as torch-bearers of human wisdom and courage. In this four session dialogue, we bring these brilliant minds together to ask how courageous action can rekindle the innate clarity we need to make our lives more meaningful and impactful.

Four Wednesdays: 7-9 PM
June 1, 8, 15, 22, 2016

For more information, click here.

Each class is $25, or attend the entire course for $100.


On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "Real Talk: Difficult Questions about Race, Sex and Religion." We'll see you there!

This week on Medium

Martin Wagner reflects on this Hannah Arendt quote below in a piece titled, "The Ethics of Eichmann's Defense."

If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime - which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place - and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.

--Hannah Arendt, (From the postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem)

To view Martin's piece, click here.

About Amor Mundi 


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all HAC logoit means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.


Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Until next time,
The Hannah Arendt Center
Become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center here.
Hannah Arendt Center, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale, NY 12504
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