In this episode of the NeverFromConcentrate podcast, we talk about altruism, No Name kids, and the things we’d like to burn the most.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance: the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, or as I knew of them before I googled their name: ‘the five stages of grief.’ How many of these have we experienced as we come to accept the inevitability of the b-word? We deny its existence by Voldemort-ing its name, we get angry at each other when we bring up dichotomies (no matter how subtle), we bargain on what constitutes an interesting conclusion, and we question the use of talking about anything given the inevitable appearance of the B. Are we ready to accept it? I don’t know. Everything in moderation, including moderation. Let’s work on it, and see how it goes.
Minimum guaranteed income is a wasp nest of interesting and controversial ideas. I’ve had a few conversations with otherwise really objective people who seem to dismiss it reflexively. “There’s no way we could ever pay for something like that,” is the usual response. I wonder if people had the same reaction to free public K-12 schooling in the early 20th century. Without getting into financial minutiae of MGI as a policy, it’s worthwhile to just explore its similarity to universal public schools. Both ideas place a significant fiscal burden on most of the populace, while only significantly helping the lower portion (I would imagine most middle class families would be able to afford some moderately priced ‘private’ school given a significant tax-break from not paying for public school boards). Similarly, they are not both obviously the correct solution to a difficult problem, and may stand to benefit only a portion of the population. In the U.S., as late as 1940, only 50% of all adults earned a high school diploma, and it wasn’t until 1965 that there was a significant federal bill passed that addressed access to primary and secondary education. There’s a big difference between these two initiatives though, and I think it’s the core reason why MGI will never be implemented in its current form in most western countries. That difference is one of branding. Public schools are branded as gateways to a better future. Minimum guaranteed income is branded as a cheat code for lazy parasites. I think we can make significant headway by simply changing the name to something like the “Poverty Protection Grant”. Public initiatives are always about branding (take a look at the renamed ‘Relief Line’ of the TTC, purposely omitting the ‘Downtown’ so as to not offend the suburb votes), and I think this one will take a significant shift in perspective to be palpable to a largely Puritan, ‘work is good,’ public.
The ‘paradox of work’ is also an interesting topic to discuss. Part of me thinks this is all quite straight-forward: we’re terrible at predicting our own happiness. As Jerry Seinfeld said in his interview with Howard Stern (which is great by the way, watch it if you have an hour and a half to spare) “no one wants to do anything.” Who wants to go to the gym? Or go meet new people? Or write a blog post? Psychopaths and 4 year olds. How tropy is the classic sitcom husband who-hates-doing-anything-but-watching-football-with-the-guys become? By the same notion, people think that doing absolutely nothing will be blissful, but end up stuck in a whirlwind of possibilities. I think many of us are not driven enough to just choose something and run with it. We evolved in groups of homosapiens, not independently, and we’ve come to depend on external social pressure. I like to imagine groups of people like a house of cards, each supporting each other, but useless alone.
As for your Jiro-Dream-Town, I wonder whether it’s a town or a ghetto. On many levels, the idea you bring up exists: they’re called maker labs, and Etsy shops, and youtube channels. People like Casey Neistat make a good living by ‘just’ filming themselves every day. With enough skill and hard work, it’s already possible to make a decent living with ‘hobbies, and bits of leisure’, but I wonder how society will look on these people when anybody can do that? With admiration? With disgust? Will it be like the scene from ‘Her’ when Joaquin Phoenix’s friend discovers he’s dating an ‘OS’. ‘Oh you don’t work? How is that? My brother-in-law doesn’t work!’
My favourite book of the last few years is ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Harari. In it he talks about how the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries were not Theologians scouring ancient texts, but philosophers like Karl Marx who observed the society around him, and wrote down what he perceived to be bad and good. One of Marx’s key criticisms of ‘modern’ (i.e. late 19th century) capitalism is that is divorces the worker with the final output of his work. We are part of a machine, but we rarely get to see the end product the machine spits out (if that product can even be defined). All of these low-level ‘jobs’ seek to go back to that direct connection of worker and product. But is that really what we need? Maybe, after all, we’re just like the things that make us up. We’re just like the lonely mitochondria that swims within one of Usain Bolt’s cells. Completely unaware that he just won the Olympic gold.
What is perspective exactly? I think the analogy between a physical vista, and a metaphorical ‘stance’ on some issue may be a bit misleading (at least in clear weather). I agree – we shouldn’t lallygag over completely substance-free questions. That said, posing the correct question may be just as important as giving your own perspective – especially when that perspective may be completely mal-formed or missing. The first post can clear the fog, so to speak, so that we know where to drive to get the best view of the idea-landscape.
On a related note, I was listening to a podcast recently called ‘Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)’ (recorded for a Stanford University radio show) that talked about Wittgenstein as a philosopher. One of the criticisms against him is that all he did was raise questions and outline criticisms of modern philosophical perspectives, yet provided no meaningful input into alternatives. Much of his work denigrated academic philosophy as a general pursuit, but his answer to ‘what should philosophers be doing?’ was essentially ’something else.’ So what use is there for scepticism without substantial alternatives? If we were all sceptics, there would be nothing to doubt (since no one would think of any ideas). Yet, if we’re all idea generators, then we can’t meaningfully communicate and share important ideas. Perhaps this is a (meta-)topic for another day, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.
Ok back on the topic at hand. You mentioned dirty jobs. I agree, currently those are needed. But inevitably automation will replace many of the human jobs within those fields, will it not? What happens then? Will we get a new class of dirty jobs, or will the landscape of ‘career options’ be forever changed. I would tend to go with the latter. I imagine a world where the large majority of the developed countries essentially contain modern-day aristocrats. A world in which we are even more removed from the ideas of hunger, bad harvests, and self-sufficiency. I like to imagine the Wall-E space-ship, but with more exercise (since I think we are much to vain to ever allow obesity to be the norm). In that world, how does one choose a job, if even the idea of having a job is optional?
In that world, I’m thinking the ‘true calling’ gives way to our affinity towards working directly with physical objects (i.e we strive to be Jiro, not Bono), since inevitably it seems that the ‘high-level’ issues will either be truly reduced to a marginal rate, or completely hidden away from anyone within the developed society. Come to think of it, this is sounding more and more like some sort of dystopian novel, but I can’t help but go along with it. If automation and science removes the need to think about our own survival, and we’ve automated away retail shopping, food production, sanitation, transportation, etc. what is there left? Only the two extremes: either we make like John in Brave New World and fight for some broad justice, or we reconnect with our hunter-gatherer DNA and make artisan food and accessories. Is there really an alternative?
For our new topic, I want to discuss a dichotomy that I’ve been struggling with as I think more about how to find ‘fulfilling’ work. Be warned, we will undoubtedly conclude that there is no need to gravitate towards one extreme or another, and the most sensible thing is to find the b-word. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to discuss the factors at play. So without further ado, I present to you: the highs and the lows of perspective. In short, I can summarize the whole issue with a single question: thinking about my ‘career’, should I find a high-level cause to support (like ’the environment’, ‘ethical eating’, ‘original art’, ‘autonomous driving’), or should I quit flattering myself and dedicate my time to perfecting a specialized skill that provides clear meaning (e.g. making sushi, creating quality knives, or becoming a respected film maker)?
The problems of high-level perspective are perhaps unique to us as a species. Even more specifically, they are perhaps unique now in the history of our own species. How recently have we cared about anything other than the very bottom three (Physiology, Safety and Love/Belonging) rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs? I’d argue that significant portions of the human race have not cared until extremely recently, perhaps the last 50 years. So how do billions of people find ‘fulfillment’ now that their essential needs are met? Should we ignore perspective, and seek out specific skills, or find the necessary skills that let you apply yourself towards a high-level objective?
The Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, of ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ fame, is maybe one of the most famous examples of the low-level approach: find fulfillment in making the best food in the world. Perhaps the Japanese culture as a whole is geared more towards this perspective. From sushi and king-fu masters, to ‘salary-men’ that dedicate their lives to a single company. In the west, we’re in a slightly confused middle-ground. We respect and obsess over ‘masters’: from sommeliers, to barbers, to architects. Yet we also obsess over ‘shooting for the moon’ and grand ideas like environmentalism, peace, ethics, and love.
Consider the countless athletes and celebrities who spend significant time with charities. It is almost taken for granted that any ‘superstar’ (whether in sports, media or business) has their own ‘high-level’ foundation. Steve Jobs, for example, was and is criticized by many for not doing more philanthropic work. Of course there is nothing wrong with charity, but how much of this activity can be explained by our desperate need to support a high-level cause above all else? Can an artist create simply for themselves, or does the modern age make this impossible without some underlying agenda?
Should we aspire to be Jiros, or should we find our Yoko, and imagine ‘all the people living for today’?
In this episode of NFC, we talk about artistic integrity, political correctness, NOT Donald Trump, and David Foster Wallace.
Political correctness as a sort of linguistic cultural gentrification is a brilliant analogy. Our generation has been obsessed with gentrifying every place we visit, and everything we do. Does this come from fear? From ignorance? From the same cognitive dissonance that allows people to enjoy beef and chicken burgers every day while simultaneously tweeting their unabashed bewilderment over the unnecessary killing of one gorilla? Maybe.
I just watched Bo Burnham’s brilliant Netflix special: ‘Make Happy’. In one of his bits, he talks about how he worries that maybe his shows won’t find an audience because they are largely about what he knows best: performing for other people. But our generation is different, we’ve grown up performing. Social media is non-stop performance art for our friends. We have been cleaning up our lives into nicely packaged square pictures since we were teens: linguistic gentrification is just a natural extension of Instagram filters.
Political correctness has clearly been around for much longer than sepia toned selfies, but are we now more susceptible to its most pernicious elements? I think so. Humans are now, more than ever, living in urban, cosmopolitan cities that require real collaboration and not just polite tolerance. Does token inclusion really lead to commonplace inclusion, or is it just the Wizard of Oz curtain that is begging to be opened? In his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde pointed out that ‘the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it.’ Are we hiding societal issues under the gentrified veil of Instagram filters and euphemistic words?
If Political Correctness has been around for a long time, exactly how is our current version different to what came before it? We are more informed and connected than any of our predecessors, but that also comes with a burden: we are acutely aware of a million perspectives. How do you build a society with a million perspectives? It seems that lately many people have turned to political correctness as the only way to stabilize a cosmopolitan population. But maybe, like Slavoj Zizek thinks, the only way to fight issues like racism, is with progressive racism. To what extent can racist jokes build bonds within a diverse society as we realize that we can laugh at our differences? Instead of hiding behind our filters, can we instead be honest about our strengths and weaknesses? Maybe we don’t need to gentrify our lives, but we need to share honest perspectives that open our eyes to the problems and solutions that exist around the world.
Look out world, the NFC boys are back in town, and we’re ungentrifying your perspectives, mannn.
Political Correctness. For a long time, the concept of being politically correct seemed to me like an inconsequential formality – a courtesy that we as humans living in a cosmopolitan, inter-connected developed world simply must try our best to adhere to. But even as I write that definition down, it somehow seems condescending and pernicious – a thin veil that hides the ugly reality of our opinions. But that rebuttal seems like too much of a swing towards the other, cynical side of the spectrum. Surely words and phrases that people call ‘politically correct’ are more like euphemisms, rather than outright lies. So where on this spectrum does your opinion lie? How much political correctness can a society handle before it crumbles under its own feeble cowardice to call a spade a spade?
I’ll start off with a few observations of my own. I’ve been following the American primary race quite closely. In a recent debate, Marco Rubio responded to Donald Trump’s accusation of politicians being politically correct with the line ‘I’m not interested in being politically correct, I’m interested in being correct’. Rubio’s implication is that because Trump has made his entire campaign about electing a political outsider who is ‘not afraid to tell it like it is,’ he has completely ignored actual facts in favour of simple pandering rhetoric that demonizes the status quo. True as that may be, Trump’s strategy has worked wonders for him, and his message of ‘don’t listen to the politicians, I see it the way it is’ has resonated with many people across the U.S. So what’s wrong with ‘telling like it is’? Here’s the problem: most political issues are complicated, nuanced, and boring. What Trump does is turn political correctness on its head. He accuses other politicians of hiding the truth under the PC blanket, and then uses his anti-PC rhetoric to do the very same thing! In essence, both the Clinton’s and the Trump’s of the world project complicated issues onto bite-sized talking points. One does it with flowery, inclusive (yet fundamentally deceiving) language, and the other with exclusive, hateful speech. Which is more harmful? I don’t think it’s completely clear.
Here’s a point against political correctness. One of my favourite living philosophers, Slavoj Zizek, has a great reason why being PC can hurt society: it makes it harder to rebel. For example, imagine that you are an employee stuck in a mindless, unfulfilling job. In a PC-free culture, a boss creates no illusions that he is your boss. If you dislike them, that’s too bad for you, but at least there is a clear target against whom you can target your rebellion: ’this awful boss is making me do this mindless work!’ In a PC culture, where your boss may be much more friendly to you, you may suddenly have no one to blame for your predicament. Often, you instead end up blaming yourself. But what’s wrong with being friendly? Doesn’t that improve your work environment? Well, I see it as a local-global discrepancy. On a local scale, sure it improves your interactions day-to-day, but globally, the PC boss is actually doing you a disservice by removing a natural drain into which you can funnel your discomfort. Instead of rebelling and effecting change within the company, you instead sink into a self-loathing misery.
Of course, I am describing extremes of the spectrum. To help find the balance, I think it’s poignant to look at the most observant people in our society: comedians. Take Louis CK’s Saturday Night Live monologue from earlier last year, where he spends the season finale opener talking about the middle east, modern racism and pedophilia. He walks a tight rope (for a national broadcast) between being honest and unnecessarily pushing boundaries. During an audible groan from the audience, he quips ‘how do you think I feel? This will be my last time hosting..’ Yet, somehow, he manages to remain the quintessential Louis, making poignant, PC-free observations, without overtly offending anyone. Can we as a culture find the same type of balance?
In this NFC podcast, we have a special guest: Hershal Pandya. We talk about procrastinating, Stephen King, and soul crushing jobs.
Our first guest contributor! Welcome, Hershal, to the wonderful world of armchair pseudo-intellectual speculation, loosely held together by pithy titles and out-of-nowhere rhetorical questions! Isn’t it great?
I see you did some research on procrastination – I did as well. This week, I spent countless hours on the internet perusing various flavours of instant gratification instead of focusing on other, more pressing, matters (like this post). Completely unlike any other week, I swear. Here’s one article I stumbled upon. It’s a facinating read about a Russian family, the Lykovs, of ‘Old Believers’ that fled from the atheist Bolshevik purges of Christianity in the 1930s. The Lykovs escaped into the Russian Taiga, a harsh wilderness that’s cold and barren in the winter, and full of dark clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. Amazingly, the family of four (growing to six, after two more children were born in the wilderness) managed to live on their own with no human contact until 1978, completely unaware of World War II, space travel, or nuclear weapons. When the father was shown a cellophane container by a party of geologists who made first contact, he exclaimed ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’.
I bring this up to highlight two points. First, a meta one. Procrastination does sometimes lead to bits and pieces of wonderful new knowledge like the fascinating story of Old Believers. How much do I retain during a typical procrastination-induced binge? I don’t know, probably not much. But I do enjoy breaking up the monotonous routine that often seems like the way you’re supposed to live your life. Plan out your schedule, do everything the schedule says, and be a good little robot. Procrastination is the antithesis to the schedule, it’s a way for me to be anti-programming (to use Rachit’s phrase he coined during our life and death segment). Are you ok with never knowing about the Lykovs, in exchange for a few hours of more peaceful sleep? I’m not. But maybe I’m that rat that’s checking for new knowledge constantly, instead of scheduling a one hour binge session once a week? The ‘b’ word may or may not be applicable here.
Second, the Lykovs could not have procrastinated much. How could they? Their lives, and the lives of their entire family were at stake. Procrastination is a product of a societal safety net, something that does not exist in the harsh Siberian wilderness. From an evolutionary perspective, procrastination doesn’t make much sense. We procrastinators should have died out ages ago. Where are all the lions surfing the safari-equivalent of Reddit? They’re dead. As humans, we procrastinate because we can, but when push comes to shove, we get shit done. In some ways this thought is a relieving one: we are programmed by millions of years of evolution to survive, to live until we can reproduce. I’m sure everyone’s heard the advice that’s given to entrepreneurs, artists, and other people looking to start a long, intimidating journey: just put yourself out there, and commit yourself fully. Just do it, as Nike has been saying for decades. Sure, it’s trite, but it makes sense. Fear is the ultimate motivator, it triggers a response that has been hardwired into our brain: get shit done.
I have a few more thoughts I’d love to share, but in the interest of space, I’ll end it here and leave you with my one of my favourite comics of all time:
The 10th NeverFromConcentrate podcast where we talk about the Potato Paradox, Dean Potter, and the myth of Sisyphus.