Sarah Perry – Every Cradle is a Grave


Two ideas are hard-wired into our minds. We believe life is good and that forcing people into existence is a positive thing not because of rational thinking. Genes make us think this way, because this is how they progress. Without these ideas, an organism kills itself and doesn’t produce offspring. Genes die, and genes’ purpose is to continue.

People always killed themselves. Some cultures even claimed it’s virtuous in certain situations. We’ve made huge ‘progress’ (Or, more correctly, changes) over the years thanks to doubters who kept tearing down ideas and replacing them with new ones. The general ideas about the value of life and birth remained the same, though. One famous philosopher talked about how we shouldn’t have kids, but is there any major literary work that asks this question?

You can’t blame Perry for not digging deep enough. She’s in the toughest stage of philosophy. Ethics and the meaning of life are both hard subjects, and going against your own genes is even harder. Few people made that journey – many who tried just said suicidal people got some chemical imbalance and called it a day. If her exploration is sometimes a little shallow, it’s only because she has few sources to draw from.

Her section about suicide is the most disappointing one. It’s a shame, because it’s also the most important one. Of all the ideas in this book, assisted suicide is the most practical one. The suicide prohibition is harmful and no different than oppression of minorities.

We treat suicidal people like criminals. Voicing misogynistic or racist thoughts is less dangerous than voicing suicidal thoughts. People can be hospitalized against their will for wanting to die. No suicide prevention is willing to actually talk to suicidal people, to deal with the arguments behind why suicide is a valid option. At least when people argue against misogyny, they got science and philosophy behind them. When people talk about suicide, they write people off as ‘irrational’.

There are a lot of ways to look at this tricky subject. Suicide is a private action that causes great distress to the environment. Perry doesn’t delve enough into why suicide should be protected. The main arguments suicide are the value of life and the harm it causes to others. The harm it causes to others is especially important, since ethics often blur when freedom, pleasure and pain mix.

While Perry explains briefly the principle of consent that transform murder into assisted suicide, it’s not enough. Suicide causes extreme pain and we need more allegories, more rephrasing of why it’s okay for a person to kill themselves. There’s a whole chapter about the suicide contagion which feels a little pointless – sure, it’s a thing but not as central to the debate as other things.

The chapter about social pain is fantastic and too short. It’s a new way to approach the problem of suicide and is informative even if you don’t believe in the right to die. The common narrative is that people kill themselves because they’re depressed is common and pretty comfortable. It makes the problem more complex – how do you solve depression? – but it erases responsibility. Perry’s idea that people kill themselves because of failed social belonging demands a revolution in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention should start earlier, and constantly happen. If people kill themselves because they don’t belong, we need to create a more welcoming, a more social society.

This type of idea is easy to explain, since people experience a lot of social pain. Suicide is causing social pain, actually – you reject people, deeming them not worth the time. It’s also the only moral type of suicide – suicide prevention by improving life, rather than stopping the act itself.

Suicide is a difficult subject. There are the practical side of how we make assisted suicide available – who’s fit, who loses the right to die, whether there’s an age of consent. The issue of how people feel after someone dies to suicide cannot be ignored. No matter how integral the right to die is, suicide leaves a huge pain (In fact, it’s considered the worst way to lose someone). Perry doesn’t do enough to explore such an alien idea to many.

Her writings about antinatalism is far better. She does write off the subjective perspective too easily, though. This higlight the core difference between the right to die and antinatalism. Both rely on different versions of morality. The former values freedom and the subjective perception, the other one is about preventing harm.

So even if life is overall bad, the fact people perceive it overall to be worthwhile is important. People who behave in a ‘suicidal’ way, according to her, may just be optismitic enough to believe it’ll be worth it in the end. Maybe they take these huge gambles because they value life so much that even if the gamble fails, life is still worthwhile.

Nevertheless, her anti-life arguments can’t be written off easily. They demand questioning our genes. Picking apart our daily schedules is important even if you believe life is worthwhile. By showing us how much time we waste on doing nothing, how much of our life is actually unpleasant she motivates change. If you truly think life is worthwhile, then you must act in ways that’ll prove it. If social pain encourages suicide, we must build a more friendly, communal society. Our morality relies more about not doing harm than actually doing good. What kind of society is it where we only avoid harm but don’t do good? A good life isn’t defined by lack – happiness due to absence rarely lasts. We’re happy when we have friends, but we’re not happy because we’re not being bullied.

The chapter about the natural world is also essential reading. It’s a radical and rare view of nature – not as a friendly, optimal place but one whose behavior is actually anti-life. So many animals die so young. Yet we don’t interfere when the female mantis eats the male’s head. How do animal rights work in this context? Why is it wrong to kill animals, or to ignore murder but okay to ignore it when it the organism aren’t human beings?

What makes the book so valueable is that even if you don’t agree with Perry’s thesis – many won’t, since they either love life too much or they can’t resist their genes – the ideas here are still useful and thought-provoking. It’s not just about how bad life is, but what to do with it. The last chapter, “Living in the Epilogue” is both horrifying and comforting. If things are really that bad, we can at least speed up life by enjoying it. Also, who has it worse? The person who’s about to die or the person who has 90 unwanted years ahead of them?

It’s an incomplete book, but antinatalism and suicide are difficult subjects. Perry at least confronts them instead of writing them off. Maybe someday in the future – if we have one – this book will become slightly outdated because of some basic sections. For now, this is a book that stares at difficult subjects in the face, provides tough answers and plenty of room for discussions or to move forward. You don’t have to agree with Perry to enjoy this. Many of her ideas can be used to improve society. As she said in the beginning, and something we often forget – we’re all humans, and what drives ethical philosophy is compassion for others.

4.5 cradles out of 5 graves

Advertisements

Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

deschoolingsociety
Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game

Enders-game
Orson Scott Card is your stereotypical conservative. He supports the War on Terror, doesn’t like Obama and would be very cruel to his son if he were gay. You’d think that such a person cannot write about accepting the different, or about how war is actually harsh. If you believe what they write about conservatives in the papers, then Ender’s Game should’ve been propaganda. It was supposed to be about how everyone but White American Males should be tortured, killed and then tortured some more.

Despite his religious fanaticism and homophobia, Ender’s Game is the complete opposite. It’s a novel that constantly sets up ideas and question them. Almost nothing is idealized here besides community living and that’s not even a big part of the story.

The most interesting thing about the novel is how it flips the story of the Boy Genius. Ender is a subversion of the Gary Stu. He is what every nerdy outcast want to be – an intelligent person who can use his mind to save the world.

The path to being a hero is harsh. Ender may have brains but you need more than a brain when you solve problems. Psychology is just as important. Card establishes the fact that Ender is gifted and examines how his personality changes when he’s pushed to his full potential.

Card doesn’t give Ender the easy path and he cares more about Ender himself than his skill. It’s actually the army officials who treat Ender like bad authors treat their cool characters. The army officials only care about his skill and pile on the challenges. They think that since Ender is so talented then he can face anything. It’s why bad authors who write talented characters tend to have ridiculous situations in the novel.

Ender solves every challenge he faces. He never fails and never has to deal with failure. Still, success is never easy. Card shows us the struggle, how stressed Ender is and the fact that failure is still possible no matter how talented he is. In fact, the stronger you are than the harsher that failure will be.

The portrait of war is also accurate. It’s mostly training and there aren’t spilling guts or torn limbs, but there’s more to war than this visual. It’s more focused on the psychological aspect of war and how harsh it is.

When there’s an enemy nothing else matters. Comfort, community, happiness and love are great but they’re meaningless when your life is under threat. Card’s greatness is that he doesn’t use this as a justification. He’s always aware that even if torturing Ender is necessary so he will defeat the buggers, it doesn’t make it any less damaging to him. The conclusion is that we have to sacrifice and that people like Ender have to go through these thins, but he doesn’t want to hide its effects.

The absurdity of military life isn’t mentioned here. It’s odd at first, because the Absurd is arguably the defining characteristic of the military. Then again, the story happens during an emergency. The Absurd of the military happens whe bueracracy cares too much about plant life, but here they don’t have time for that.

This was called by some a kiddie version of Starship Troopers, but isn’t that one pro-military? Ender’s Game is often more anti-war. It’s viewed as necessary in a situation of conflict, but the conflict itself is undesirable. No one wants it. There’s no conquest full of glory. It’s w ar for survival nobody wants but we have to go through.

More interesting is how the Enemy is portrayed. Card’s view is one that’s more commonly associated with left-wingers. By the end of the novel, the focus is on understanding the enemy, not defeatng it. The Buggers were an enemy, but they were also another intelligent form of life with their own unique culture. Once they’re destroyed it’s completely lost.

War is often a result of miscommunication. What causes it is when the methods of communication are so different they’re nearly impossible to bridge. The novel potrays this in how the Buggers communicate. Instead of speaking a different langauge, they have a whole different method of communication. It’s nearly impossible to communicate with them and that’s why the humans can’t do anything but fight them. It seems that violence is the one form of communication that’s universal, and the only message it can convey is hatred.

It’s a complex view of war, and it’s amazing Card can have all these ideas here and still make the story simple. It only shows that depth isn’t related to how the story looks, but what’s underneath the techniques.

In terms of style, Ender’s Game is written like a pulp novel. It’s a very easy read with simple, direct prose. The minimalism isn’t even stylish. The prose leans closer to Asimov, utilitarian without any quirks. That makes the story crystal clear, but it also makes for a dry tone.

The events of the novel are strong enough to stand on their own, but it lacks spice. Narrative techniques are nothing without events, but you use these techniques to show the meaning of events. Card leaves nothing to the imagination. Every thought, every psychology is stated clearly. He’s lucky his content is deep enough on its own, or else it would be annoying. Then again, it might just end up like a Foundation – a fun, straightforward Sci-Fi novel that doesn’t say much.

Ender’s Game is worth all the hype. This is the sort of book that you should give to your kids. They can relate to it and there’s cool stuff that will grab their attention. It will take your children seriously though, and give them something to think about. Even if Card is clear on what everything is, there are enough shades of grey to leave readers questioning rather than having their views affirmed.

4.5 hive queens out of 5

The Left-Right Political Axis

First I was a leftwinger. Then I was a rightwinger. There was a time I preferred calling myself either Liberal or Conservative. There was even a period where I thought Neoconservativism might be the thing for me. Every time I found a team to be a part of, it felt good. I looked at the other side and called them names, like genocidal maniacs or ignorant racists. Something about that demonizing made me feel weird, though. I wanted to be right, but all I heard from my fellow team mates is that the other side is terrible and gay. Just because someone else is wrong doesn’t make me right.

In the latest elections in my country, the campagnes were an embarassment. I had no idea who to vote for. All they could do is sling mud at each other. I looked at the propaganda films and was shocked. Is that how adults behave? Are the leaders of our country trying to convince me using silly jokes instead of talking about the issues?

The problem was never the Liberals or Conservatives. The problem was in this division.

My first arguement was that neither Leftwing nor Rightwing presents a coherent ideology/philosophy. That was a silly statement. There is no Communist Manifesto for any of them, but the Communist Manifesto doesn’t easily sum up Communism. No school of thought is uniform. Capitalism, Existensialism, Buddhism, Antinatalism, Feminism – these are big, complex ideas that take various forms. Some have more variety than others. Antinatalism, for example, is a very simple idea to grasp. Still, expecting a word to easily sum up an idea is foolish.

So that’s not what was wrong with this axis. What was wrong was how it created sport teams.

It causes a divison into sport teams. There are Leftists, and there are Rightists. They’re fighting for power in the government. This means that the main concern of each side is not improving the country but gaining power and defeating the Other.

Left and Right are presented as a dichotomy. You’re either Democratic or Republican. You have to choose a team. Once you choose a team, you have to stay loyal to your team. That means never, ever agreeing with the opposite team.

vlcsnap-2015-08-31-19h21m34s025How people react whe encountering different opinions

Once a team takes hold of an opinion, the other team must not agree with it. Gay Rights is often attributed to the Left. That’s why I see Rightwingers here being hesitant to support it. Instead of trying to promote Gay Rights, many of them talk about how the Left uses it to ‘gain power’. There is some truth to that. The Left uses it to paint the Right as narrow-minded, homophobic and evil.

Another example is how people on the Right will rarely criticize the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Despite all their supprt for the army, they won’t criticize a group who refuses to help defend the country. If you so believe in defending the country, you should be just as harsh on those who refuse to serve because they’re reading a book. Because the Ultra-Orthodox are on the Right side though on subjects such as security (I’m pretty sure most of them object to a Palestinian state), people on the Right remain silent on their parasitic behavior.

These teams have stopped promoting issues. Neither the Right nor Left is doing anything with Gay Rights. All they’re doing is using it to pain the opposite team badly.

In truth, there are no opposite teams. It’s all Spaceship Earth. All people should have an interest in What Is Best for the Country. Of course people will disagree on What Is Best because everyone comes from different backgrounds. Yet how will we know what is best, how will we improve our country if we don’t try to improve our understanding?

Both the Left and the Right want to live in a secure country. The Arabs want it, too. Unless someone is suicidal, no one really wants to live with rockets flying over their head all the time. The question is, how we make the country more secure? Sadly, the Right and the Left are too attatched to their answers. The Right is too afraid of the Arabs. The Left is too afraid to acknowledge there is racism, homophobia and hatred outside our walls. These people don’t want to find the right answer. They want the answer they already have to be right, no matter what.

So long as we want our answers to be right rather than to find the right answers, we’re looking for enemies to beat down instead of learning.

I’m not a Rightwinger nor Leftwinger. There are some ideas I consider myself a part of, but even then my version of them is my own. Do not ask what box to put me in. Ask what’s in my box instead.

Further reading: Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided