Sunday, December 6, 2015

Angst versus Anxiety

When does worry qualify as "Angst", and when does it qualify as "Anxiety"?

OK, I’ll admit right away that I am not a psychologist. But I very much like to think about the subject, especially when it verges on philosophical issues. So I would here like to consider how these two psychological terms, Angst and Anxiety, might differ.

I watch a lot of Woody Allen films, and it is clear that he often refers to having feelings of Angst. Some of this is no doubt to colorfully enhance the neurotic stage persona he has developed in most of his films over the years. Google defines Angst as “A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” This comports well with the kinds of concerns that Woody Allen typically expresses as a character in his films. But the Google site goes on to list “Anxiety” as a synonym for Angst, which to my notion is not entirely true. indeed, the same site goes on to define “anxiety” as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

My take on the difference between there two terms is that “Angst” properly refers to some type of metaphysical dread, while “Anxiety” refers more to a practical kind of fear, or set of worries, that are limited to practical existence. The above cited Google definitions seem to support this interpretation, at least to a fair approximation.

The reason I find the distinction a useful one for myself is that many times, when I confess to a friend as having Angst, the friend often responds as if to say “Oh come one, just admit that you are just a ‘worry wart’ about some practical issue, such as keeping your job, fixing up or selling your house, meeting a potential spouse, not losing money in the stock market, etc. Don’t try to make it seem more highbrow by using some hoity-toity “Kierkegaardian” term like Angst.”

One of my favorite jokes can bear on illustrating feelings of Angst:
Question: What is the difference between an Optimist and a Pessimist?
Answer: An Optimist believes that this is best of all possible worlds. A Pessimist fears that the Optimist is right.

Here are some examples of what kinds of thoughts might prompt Angst:
-- The fear that life is meaningless, or that there is, in some sense, a void at the heart of existence.
-- The deep concern about a possible existence that follows this life. As Hamlet worries in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy : “To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause”.
-- The worry that we might be “reincarnated” as some kind of creature, maybe an animal such as a crustacean or even as some alien creature from a distant galaxy.
-- The rather bizarre worry that there is in fact some kind of God or Deity, but He/She is a “perfect stinker”, or otherwise not totally in control of existence.
-- The fear that somehow we will all have to “pay” in some so far unspecified or unknown way for any misdeeds (whether slight or major) we have performed in this life.
-- The fear that our life is really just a simulation of some kind, and we will awaken from it as from a dream into some form of existence that is unimaginably different than what we now experience.
-- The worry that we do not even have any idea about what to worry about, metaphysically speaking.

I do not want to minimize the concerns that surely everyone has that fall into the perhaps more prosaic category of Anxiety. While perhaps some of us maintain the Angst kind of concerns almost all of the time in the background (perhaps subconscious?), probably conscious or subconscious practical worries pester us too: Health concerns for our families and friends, worries that our jobs and financial situations are secure, and so on. It is just that these kinds of worries are of a different kind than those represented by Angst.

What, if anything, can be done to alleviate feelings of Angst? I do not know. I seriously doubt that any kind of counseling could help, since my guess is that most counselors or psychologist would be ill-equipped to discuss the metaphysical issues behind the dread. If one were a believer in one of the existing world’s religions, then perhaps in some cases a session with a priest, rabbi, minister, or imam might help. But for those of us who are skeptics and lack any religious affiliation, we are left to deal with these feeling on our own.

In particular, I want to say that I doubt very much that any kind of medical treatment, such as a prescription pill, can help in an acceptable way. Indeed, the person who experiences Angst probably feels that it would be undesirable to alleviate his/her concerns in this way, since that would simply be a refusal to face what may be the most important questions we can ask of life. And furthermore, he/she probably feels that considering the question prompting feelings of Angst may in fact be the very purpose of life.

As far as what can be done about feelings of Anxiety. I suspect nothing at all can be done about these, because my guess is that many of these are valid concerns. Having such anxiety might even be a good thing, especially when the worry is accompanied by some kind of a plan of attack in case the worry materializes.

Finally, I do not mean to imply that somehow the people who experience much Angst are in any way superior to those who do not, or are they somehow deeper than those who are mainly beset by only Anxiety. I myself have significant degree of both Angst and Anxiety, as no doubt do a great many people in the general population. Some others will perhaps feel that the tendency to experience Angst is either an affection or an unfortunate affliction. Well, I do not feel that way about it. I have had people tell me that they pity me for having these metaphysical concerns, for indeed they are not decidable in any way that I know about, certainly not by accepted methods of science. So, they say, why allow oneself to dwell on them. Three things to that: one, is I doubt that such a person has any real choice in the matter; second, that in some ways it is, perhaps paradoxically, a privilege or a benefit, because it evokes the joy of wonder to speculate on such “Angst-inducing issues; and third, that some of us feel that it adds to the meaning of life to consider these things, and that it is even necessary for us to do so.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Please, stop using the word “Islamaphobia”.

It is an amazing, but confounding and daunting, cultural phenomena in the United States today---perhaps in the Western world---that so many educated people, especially those on the political left, are quick to brand any criticism of islam as “Islamaphobia”. This is unfair, and wrong on so many levels it is hard to decide just how to start an analysis of it. I will try to sort all of these typical accusations out, and will discuss what I believe are the errors in them.

First of all, Islam is a religion, obviously not a race of people, and it should therefore be perfectly legitimate to analyze Islam’s precepts, and to present opinions about what is bad and what is good in it.

I’ll put my cards on the table right off the bat, and admit that I find this religion to be almost certainly false, and also backward and harmful to humanity at large. I have read the Koran, albeit in English, and to my disappointment, found it to be lacking the richness and the interesting stories in, for example, the Old Testament. Further disclosure---I am severely critical of said Old Testament, and am an agnostic about whether there is any kind of God or Deity---even tending toward atheism with respect to the God of any of the world’s major religions. But this is all irrelevant to the issue at hand, since I believe a person should be free to believe any religion, but should not be free to force that religion on other people.

There appears to be a prevalent, but confused, idea that “multiculturalism” demands acceptance and support for any religion that is not predominant in our own culture. I have posted another blog on this site that discusses what is wrong with this, but will just say here that multiculturalism is a wonderful thing as it pertains to importing art and music from other cultures, but when it involves ideas that violate human rights it is not a good thing. And the Islamic precept of Sharia involves many such rights-violating ideas, such as prescribing capital punishment for apostasy, practicing homosexuality, adultery, etc.

Another oft-heard attack on those who criticize Islam is that the critique is “racist”. Let’s try to figure out just what such such charges might mean, even though on the surface such a position is absurd since neither muslims nor Islam refers to a race. I suspect the basis is two-fold: (1) the muslim population is perceived to generally be darker skinned than the majority of people in the western world, and (2) the muslims are on the whole much worse off economically than many in the west. Both of these ideas are perhaps basically correct, on the average, and people of a “liberal” persuasion value---quite rightly-- tolerance of other cultures, the more so when the other culture involves these two factors. And everyone is aware of the very bad treatment in the past of certain dark-skinned people by the west.

But consider this: the widespread poverty in so many muslim populations is arguably in part due to the precepts of Islam. Hence criticizing Islam is actually an act of kindness toward muslims, since if one feels Islam holds them back, the removal of the strictures of that religion might well help them in the long run (maybe even to some extent in the short run). In any case, it is clearly true that negative reviews of Islam are not intended to hurt or offend Muslim people.

The term Islamaphobia is indefensible for another reason. If one were inclined to show hatred or disdain for muslim people, that could quite properly be termed “Muslim-phobia”; but even then the suffix “phobia” would be dubious since it suggests fear of the subject it refers to. It would not really be fear, but dislike. However, this is more of a nitpick, and I think we could let “Muslim-phobia” be used, without a strong protest, for bigotry against muslims. And that would indeed be a bad attitude to have, for the very reason that I give above, namely that reasonable people should wish the best for muslim people, except in cases where a group of Muslims tries or wants to overthrow the constitutions of the countries in which they reside.

It must also be realized that the implementation of Sharia concepts (in the form of a Sharia court) cannot coexist in a western democracy. Consider the case where  woman living in a European country commits adultery, and is brought before a Sharia court and condemned to death. Whether she is a citizen of that country, or a prospective immigrant that is not yet a citizen, such a sentence cannot be allowed to be carried out because that “crime” is not punishable by death in a liberal democracy (in fact, it is not even considered to be a crime, although some may condemn it morally). The same would go for a person charged with the “crime” of being gay, or of being an apostate. All western democracies forbid “cruel and unusual punishments”, most forbid capital punishment for any crime, most consider the right to a fair trial by the standards of the countries constitution, and most all adhere to the principle of of separation of church and state (which is immediately violated by the idea of a Sharia court).

Another common response to critics of Islam involves pointing to the horrid crimes done in the past in the name of Christianity---slavery, the crusades, witch hunts---which is not only the world’s other dominant religion, but the religion which invites a degree of disdain among the cultural elite in the United States and in much of the western world. But the difference is that the zeal for the committing of these crimes has been mitigated by the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Of course, those crimes can still point to the evils done when religion is made part of the state, and actually serve as additional fodder for criticizing theocratic Islam. And furthermore, every school child should know that pointing to evils done by some faction does not excuse the evils done by another one.

As far as I know, no one in the West is arguing for an actual physical war against Islam per se. The only war that seems justified to me is a “war of ideas”, which is in part justified by a true concern to improve the lives of the world’s Muslims.

So in summary:
--The term Islamaphobia is rarely, if ever, justified for use by people who care and value liberal democratic ideas.
--Muslim-phobia would be the correct term to apply to a person who is bigoted toward muslims.
--People should stop trying to excuse the bad actors of Islam by saying Christians (or followers of other religions) have been as bad. While this might even be arguably true, it is no longer relevant today.
--People in the west should feel free to criticize the precepts of islam, and engage where, an avenue exists (e.g., blogs), in a “battle of ideas”.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In partial praise of the power of ideas

Who was it that defined humankind as the “rational animal”? Someone in the Athenian philosophical circles, I think. But in any case, it is certainly a big fat target for ridicule, since there is apparently a great deal of irrationality in the world today, what with the 20th century’s terrible wars, and the middle east’s quagmires of recent times. One could go on and on listing all the folly and needless human suffering, fueled by passions unchecked by reason. I recall somewhere that Bertrand Russell wrote many years ago that universities should not try to teach reasoning to people, because “they would only reason wrongly”. I was in college at the time, and quite under Russell’s spell; but even then I felt that he was being unduly cynical. Now I think I can partly see his point.

There can be little doubt that a great deal of the suffering by humans has been caused by the various world’s governments, which in turn are usually directly linked to certain ideologies. Examples would be communism, nazism, and fascism, all of which have led to enormous human misery, although there might be those who would argue that the fault was not the respective ideologies per se, but rather the opportunistic exploitations and distortions of them by evil politicians. I do not wish, in this post, to delve into this issue. Rather, I want to sound what may be a hopeful note, and suggest there is some evidence that good ideas can slowly--all too slowly, to be sure---win out with time.

In a recent post, I discussed how Sam Harris made an appearance on the Bill Mayer show, and made a plea for liberals in the west to intellectually engage with the world’s Muslims, to attempt to convince a critical percentage of them that such backwards precepts as embodied in Sharia Law are “bad ideas”. Though the discussion was tarnished by angry and irrelevant outbursts by a certain other panelist, Harris’s point still came across to those who would listen. But I think many have belittled the notion that such things as Sharia and jihadism can be effectively combatted by words. I believe such belittlers are underrating the power of ideas.

I would like to point to three examples in the western world: the acceptance of gay marriage, the general agreement that the use of marijuana should be decriminalized, and the increasing attitude that the death penalty should be abolished. I am not saying that these examples command universal approval, but are being widely accepted to an extent that would be unbelievable just a few decades ago. All of these have of course been extensively debated in various forums and editorial pages, and no doubt the modern accessibility to the internet has contributed to the relatively rapid acquiescence.

The reader will no doubt infer that I feel these examples are largely good; indeed, I would be including them in a post that praises the strength of ideas unless I felt they were good. I have believed that the first two examples represent good changes in the state and society for all of my adult life (with caveats). The third, involving the prohibition of capital punishment, I have gradually come to agree with , after hearing and debating the issue for many years.

Well, I hate to now sound a sour note, but feel I have to point out that there are other ideas that are being bandied about that in my opinion are not so good. For example, as a “libertarian” (or “classical liberal”) I am a firm believer in the virtues of the free market, i.e., laissez faire capitalism. But in this case, the public is barraged by opinions to the contrary, notably, in the press and the media. For reasons that are not clear to me, these tend to be largely anti-capitalist.

If capitalism is such a great idea, why hasn’t it garnered larger acceptance? I suspect the reason is partly that it runs afoul of the prevalent “identity politics” . The three examples considered above all involve, to a considerable extent, situations and freedoms that are given to other people than ourselves, and are hence removed from the passions of ID politics. I can only hope that in the not too distance future, a critical percentage of people will see that the free market in fact benefits all, and will become an idea with a wide degree of acceptance.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The differences between a "Leftist" and a "Liberal"

It is an almost constant source of annoyance to me that all too often these days people in the US on the political Left persist in referring to themselves as “Liberals”. This is nonsense. The essence of “classical” Liberalism is to minimize the power of the state, and to limit it to simply protecting individual rights. In particular, Liberalism extols the virtues of the free market, i.e., capitalism. But the dominant position of the modern Left is anti-capitalist. I can only guess that it is at least partly the fault of academia (in the liberal arts areas), which tends to be dominated by a statist philosophy, and is also staffed by a high percentage of people of the “Baby Boom” generation, who were taught in the 1960’s onward that they were automatically on the side of the angels, and hence get to call themselves by a self-congratulatory name. After all, “Liberal” sounds like a good trait---as indeed true liberalism is!--but quite often the only way the people on the Left are “generous” is with other peoples money and property.

I need to qualify what I mean here by individual rights. I refer to what libertarians term “Negative Rights”, a concept which means that your rights can only be violated by another person, group, or agency initiating force against you. Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying that the state’s only purpose is to prevent people from initiating force and thereby causing injury to innocent people. Positive Rights would mean that a person has the right to another person’s property or labor in the absence of a mutually acceptable exchange being involved. True Liberals should not recognize the existence or “Positive Rights” in a free society.

The other term in common use by the American Left is perhaps even more annoying. Namely, the term “Progressive”. Well, everyone is in favor of progress in some sense, but it is the height of arrogance to refer to ones personal political philosophy as embodying progress in a form that all would agree with. At least this term, and its application, has a historical precedent, going back to the early 20th century (for example, Theodore Roosevelt was associated with the Progressive political party).

Classical liberalism today tends to go by the name of “libertarianism”. But there are two flavors of libertarians:

One type argues that freedom is desirable because of the beneficial effects it has on society. These are usually termed “consequentialist” libertarians, for obvious reasons. For example, the Free Market is praised and advocated, because, it is argued, Capitalism this leads to an economic situation that is to the benefit of all the citizens; or, at least, that it is optimal. The late Milton Freeman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ludvig von Mises would be seem to examples of this camp.

By contrast, the other kind takes an Individual-Rights based stance, and argues that the purpose of the state is simply to vouchsafe individual rights, and it is irrelevant whether this leads to optimal consequences for the society that the state serves. Here rights are to be understood as “Negative Rights”, in the sense that each individual has a right to not be the victim of force initiated against her/him.

An an example, consider the issue of marijuana legalization. The consequentialist type of libertarian would likely argue that people should be free to use any drug for personal enjoyment, as long as the effect of this freedom does not prove harmful to society at large. But the deontological libertarian would profoundly disagree, noting that making a law against using marijuana violates a persons’ right to put anything at all in his/her own body. But he/she would quickly add that some activities would involve violating the rights of others, if done under the influence of such a drug (for example it would be, quite properly, illegal to drive a car while stoned).

Now, it is still true in a sense that the deontological libertarian believes that his/her philosophy is indeed good for everyone, because a government that properly represents individual rights, benefits all. But it may not maximize some societal traits that some might consider “Good”, such as preserving traditional marriage, maximizing the GNP, or discouraging future drug use , etc.

As for me, I am a firm advocate of the deontological brand of libertarianism.

Why is our society today divided almost 50-50 into the two poles of Left and Right? First off, one must realize that libertarians are not “Right Wing”. As the recent book on Liberalism by science writer Timothy Ferris points out, the political spectrum is really better represented by an equilateral triangle, with two of the vertices representing Left and Right, and the remaining vertex being Liberalism (or, to a good approximation, libertarianism).

The Wikipedia page on Libertarianism points out that “Liberal” only means left wing in the US. In Western Europe the term means “laissez faire” economics and individual freedom.

An occasional misconception is that libertarians are “rugged individualists”. While it is probably often true that “rugged individualists” are libertarian oriented, the converse is certainly not the case. Libertarianism generally recognizes the immense value of Society to the individual, and notes that we would be little more than wild animals (and short lived, being poorly equipped for survival by our natural bodily features) in the absence of it. In fact, the power of society, apart from how it is represented in the state, is something that is unfortunately little recognized by left and right.  Disapproval by society is often all that is needed to deter a great deal of anti-social behavior. For example, a business owner that refuses service to some group of people, on grounds that are generally considered bigoted, will not long survive in the marketplace, because a critical percentage of prospective customers with tend to shun that particular business. Of course, the stronger the majority of society that considers such an attitude bigoted, or unfair, the more rapidly will the “bigoted” shop owner’s business fail.

It is only fair to say that both left and right take libertarian positions on some issues. For example, those on the left are usually in favor of gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and separation of church and state, all by themselves pillars of libertarianism. Those on the right quite often favor free market economics, in alignment with libertarianism. Indeed, one often hears libertarians say that they are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”, which perhaps gets across the approximate idea, but requires considerable qualification.

Finally, I believe that most every reasonable person assumes what is essentially a "libertarian" position in private dealings with individuals that he or she associates with. I cannot recall anyone threatening violence against a colleague or friend lest---for example-- they give a third party money for lunch. The "live and let live" attitude that is basically the idea behind libertarianism seems to be universally adopted in private practice in the western world today. Oddly, it seems to get lost when abstracting or generalizing this philosophy to the state and society at large.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

It seems that there is massive confusion in the West about the valid domain of multiculturalism. I believe that it should not entail condoning another country’s government in cases where human rights are blatantly violated. 

In particular, “Sharia Law”, as applied by governments of some Islamic theocracies, involves blatant human rights violations. For example, that law apparently prescribes stoning an adulteress to death, killing homosexuals and apostates, and many other outrageous or excessive punishments (take a look, for example, at the Wikipedia article on Sharia Law). It seems that the approval of such rights-violating governments is all too often extended by leftists and progressives, and who are generally quick to denounce criticism of these governments as “Islamaphobia”. I for one am mystified as to why that is the case in the United States today. Should not leftists and progressives generally denounce governments and cultures that, for example, treat women as second class citizens? I can only guess that their seeming approval comes from a misguided, and mindlessly applied, “multiculturalism”.

Multiculturalism should rightly celebrate such things as the variety of the world’s music and arts, but should not extend to the approval of governments that violate human rights.

Our disapproval in these cases should never take the form of military intervention; what is needed is engagement in the realm of ideas.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Freedom of Speech in France

I was stunned to learn that apparently freedom of speech in France does not extend to “Holocaust denial”. In other words, it is a crime in that country to deny the Holocaust. I believe this is a huge mistake.

The recent mass murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff were done by two muslim terrorists, who were evidently enraged to violence by cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published by that organization. The French government, quite rightly, does not legally forbid the publication of such cartoons that might be offensive to certain religious or ethnic groups, the justification being freedom of speech. Citizens do not have the legal right to not be offended by words (spoken or on paper) against the group they happen to belong to. But by making Holocaust denial, or any particular general topic, off limits, the free speech argument is rendered hypocritical.

In a video a French government official says that the reason for this limit on free speech is that scholars the world over are all agreed that the Holocaust is a historical fact. Well, that may be true---but it is irrelevant. The justification for free speech is not that one should be allowed to say (or write) anything at all as long as it is true. One should be allowed, for example, to say that the earth is flat, or even that some particular ethnic group has this or that negative characteristic (though that would be unkind, and I would not like someone to say or write such things).

Now, there are instances where speech is quite properly limited. One should not be free to engage in personal, libelous attacks on individuals, nor should one, in a mob frenzy context, be allowed to clamor for killing some group of people (e.g., the police). A common example of disallowed “speech” is falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Clearly, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo did not involve any of these disallowed forms of speech. 

Legality aside, I would say that the cartoons were perhaps unkind, and predictably hurtful to some groups; but that does not constitute being guilty of any crime against muslims, and certainly is not deserving the death penalty. Any persons who respond to an offensive cartoon or words by violence and murder, have committed a capital crime, and should be prosecuted and punished accordingly, with no leniency to account for their having being offended. One should not have the right to not be offended.

I suspect that the proscription of Holocaust denial by the French is an attempt to avoid offending the Jewish citizens that had direct family experience with the Holocaust. While I do not wish to encourage Holocaust denial, and I would avoid any hurtful words to any people of the world, making the denial a crime undermines, and renders hypocritical, the position that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were protected by the rights of free speech.