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In Defense of Motions and Gestures

photograph of heart tattoo being done

Behold. One day of the year. They all grin and greet each other when every other day they walk by with their faces in their collars. You know, it makes me very sad to see all the lies that come as surely as the snow at this time of year. How many “Merry Christmases” are meant and how many are lies? To pretend on one day of the year that the human beast is not the human beast. That it is possible we can all be transformed. But if it were so… if it were possible for so many mortals to look at the calendar and transform from wolf to lamb, then why not every day? Instead of one day good, the rest bad, why not have everyone grinning at each other all year and have one day in the year when we’re all beasts and we pass each other by? Why not turn it around?                             

-Scrooge from Steven Knight’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Forgive me. I promise I know which holiday we’re celebrating and what month it reads on the calendar. It’s just that this very same “Humbug!” sentiment has been steadily creeping further and further into winter and appears dead set on choking out hope, smothering all joy, sapping the color from the world, and turning everything a pallid, lifeless gray. (Or maybe that’s just COVID and the inability to taste or smell.)

Regardless, I refuse to accept that it’s only rubes and suckers naive enough to willingly celebrate the occasion. I don’t mean to be an apologist for the harm the commercialization and serialization of Valentine’s Day brings. There are a great many reasons to loathe this Hallmark Holiday (as our own Madalyn Sailors has just pointed out). But at least some of the animus feels undeserved, misdirected, and ill-conceived. Surely a bit of heart is in the right place.

No small part of the hate aimed at this day of love seems to be the product of deep and intractable cynicism – what the School of Life paints as “a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped.” Having been chronically underwhelmed, we’ve hardened our hearts to the torment of eager anticipation consummated by utter disappointment. Once bitten, twice shy. We won’t get fooled again.

Now, hard-won experience grants us the power to see past the ruse. Aren’t we all just frauds and phonies for confining to a single day all love’s labors – a single day to declare our undying adoration, pledge our unwavering fidelity, and stage the grandest of grand gestures – only to wait until this precise moment next year to enact the exact pantomime all over again? Are we not simply admitting that things could be different if we could just find our resolve a dozen more times each year? Does this day not make fools and liars of us all?

If right, upstanding, moral action is to be found in moderation between extremes – neither cowardly nor capricious, neither despondent nor devout, neither guarded nor gullible – then we should resist the allure of this dead-eyed cynicism that hollows out sentiment and replaces passion and optimism with contempt and scorn. Mind the golden mean.

What’s more, we have plenty of good old selfish reasons for resisting this siren song of sour grapes. It will come as no great surprise to anyone that thinking the worst of others proves detrimental to one’s health. As Isaac Asimov cautioned, these psychological defenses pose a serious threat to our mental well-being:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

It all comes down to a habit of mind; perception is reality. By deadening our insides and numbing ourselves to the inevitable injustices this world will bring, we insulate ourselves from hurt and disappointment. But we also forgo the experience of hope and the opportunity to dream. Our coping mechanism becomes all-encompassing.

So, act as if. Mark a big, bright ‘X’ on your calendar. Make the space. Find the time. Schedule it. Perform it. Embrace the ritual. Because making the effort matters, even if it’s forced. At the very least, you owe it to yourself. And who knows, it’s always possible people might surprise you.

Breaking Up With Valentine’s Day

photograph of heart graffiti over crack in wall

At first blush, Valentine’s Day seems a harmless celebration: a quaint, centuries-long tradition promoting love and romance between couples. But a closer look beneath that thin veneer reveals significant blemishes. Combined with modern-day consumerism, Valentine’s Day becomes a trial for single people and a farce for couples. All the imagery of candle-lit meals shared between lovers staring longingly in each others’ eyes excludes many. Truthfully, everyone pays more attention to the holiday’s customs than the intentions behind them.

There may not be one perfect representation of love, and that is precisely the problem with Valentine’s Day: it portrays only one view. The reality is not everyone can be (or wants to be) in a romantic relationship. Singles often feel frustrated on Valentine’s Day because they fail to meet relentless societal expectations: fall in love, plan a wedding, pick out baby names. This narrow interpretation of love limits Valentine’s Day to a particular set of checkboxes that only fit some people. (If being on one’s own was considered a good choice, surely we’d be celebrating “Single’s Day.”) But Valentine’s Day presents a meaningful opportunity to platonically connect with a friend, relative, or other loved one. It’s wrong to assume that romance should always be celebrated and that singleness should always be pitied. Ultimately, Valentine’s Day cannot speak for a broad population which varies in preference, relationship status, and long-term plans for their romantic lives.

If someone celebrates love and romance on Valentine’s Day, they should do so authentically. While it may feel right to put together an impressive display, it is important to remember why we do it: is it truly because you know this person will value it, or because you value your effort in giving the “right” gift? Tradition and representation often form the image we have in our heads. Don’t settle for the stereotypical gifts – the flowers, the chocolates, the hearts, the stuffed animals – just because we’ve been taught to do so. We have to stop placing the Hallmark rituals above the genuine interests of the person we seek to connect with.

These normalized ideas about how the holiday’s celebration come at a young age, when schools hold annual Valentine’s Day parties that communicate (intentionally and unintentionally) the celebration’s supposed importance. Again, this seemingly harmless tradition puts lasting thoughts in our heads about what love and romance are supposed to look like. Our infatuation with the holiday fuels false expectations that can frustrate and disappoint partners. The pressure and strain are real. But it’s inauthentic to measure the value of a relationship based on the material goods exchanged. And often, companies feed into the consumerism that upholds Valentine’s Day standards. Companies benefit, while couples miss out on a valuable opportunity to share sincere gifts. Ironically, Valentine’s Day cheapens the love it is supposed to value.

In order to promote genuine connection, Valentine’s Day must make room for everyone’s unique interests and desires. It should be inclusive of everyone: couples who celebrate, couples who don’t, and singles. Further, if a couple chooses to celebrate, each person should share their preferences with their partner. If we fall back on the idea of what celebrations like Valentine’s Day are supposed to entail, couples will lose out on the possibility of genuine connection. No one should assume what their partner will appreciate; to know that takes a certain depth and attention in a relationship. The consumerism in this holiday will only encourage couples to skip this crucial aspect of their partnership. If couples celebrate the love they share and ironically do so at a cost to their relationship, perhaps we should forego the holiday altogether.

Grief and Saint Augustine (and WandaVision)

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WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision on Disney+.

In 2019, Martin Scorsese ruffled fan-feathers when he explained why he doesn’t watch the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema….It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” This particular sentence might sound odd to those watching the latest entry in the MCU: the 9-part limited series WandaVision on Disney+, which aims to explore experiences of intense grief and loss (even as it offers up yet another batch of costumed superheroes tossing about punches and witty one-liners).

First introduced in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Wanda Maximoff is a super-powered magic user who (along with her brother) betrayed her villainous compatriots to assist the Avengers in saving the world. In the same film, several magical items came together inside a high-tech regeneration chamber, creating Vision, an android who could fly, fire beams of cosmic energy, and alter the density of his molecules to phase through solid matter at will. Over the course of several films, the two characters grew close and fell in love, but their relationship ended tragically when Vision sacrificed himself (at Wanda’s hand) to prevent the death of half the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.

As fans of the MCU know, the story is a little more complicated than that (for example: Vision’s sacrifice turned out to be in vain, though his surviving teammates later managed to undo most of the damage in Avengers: Endgame). But the events of WandaVision begin with Wanda racked with guilt over killing Vision and mourning her many losses: her parents died when she was ten, her brother died in the climax of Age of Ultron, her powers precipitated the catastrophe that sparked the events of Captain America: Civil War, and Vision (because of some time-traveling) actually died twice at the end of Infinity War. In response to all of this, Wanda’s reality-altering powers accidentally engulf the town of Westview, New Jersey, warping it into a pastiche of various television sitcoms that Wanda enjoyed with her family as a child. Within this waking dream, Wanda is not only reunited with a reconstituted (though memory-less) Vision, but the now-happily-married couple also welcomes the birth of twin sons.

(Explaining superhero stories always sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?)

The point is that, in various ways, WandaVision seeks to explore the painful consequences of loss and other traumas. Rather than shying away from the psychological damage done to survivors of death and terror, the show centers the experience of several characters grappling with the pain of prematurely saying goodbye to those they love. Wanda’s grief over losing Vision is mirrored in the storyline of Monica Rambeau, first introduced in 2019’s Captain Marvel and now working as an intelligence agent. Midway through the series, the audience learns that Monica was one of the people who Wanda failed to save by killing Vision in Infinity War (but who was also resurrected five years later by the Avengers in Endgame). During the interim, Monica’s mother died of cancer — something Monica learns mere minutes after returning to life and mere days before encountering Wanda in Westview.

In the penultimate episode, an antagonist leads Wanda through several of her own memories, forcing her to confront many of the most traumatic moments in her life (including the death of her parents). During these flashbacks, a scene from the early days of Wanda and Vision’s relationship took the internet by storm: while comforting Wanda after the death of her brother, Vision encourages her that even within the waves of grief buffeting her in her loss, there must still be something good: “It can’t all be sorrow, can it? I’ve always been alone, so I don’t feel the lack — it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief if not love persevering?”

As you might imagine, philosophers have some other answers to this question.

Sometimes, philosophers have discussed grief as a hindrance or distraction from the “proper” objects of our attention. Consider Seneca, the Roman Stoic, who advised the daughter of a dead man to “do battle with your grief” by considering the most logical approach to find peace after her loss:

“…if the dead cannot be brought back to life, however much we may beat our breasts, if destiny remains fixed and immovable forever, not to be changed by any sorrow, however great, and death does not loose his hold of anything that he once has taken away, then let our futile grief be brought to an end.”

Often depicted (not undeservedly, at times) as unfeeling or cold, the Stoics sought to control their emotions (and all other impulses) so as to live a life governed entirely by reason. This did not mean that the Stoics considered grief (or other emotions) inherently bad, but rather that they saw how emotional dysregulation of any kind could upset the careful balance of human psychology. Certainly, at its worst, grief can threaten to overwhelm us — just as Wanda Maximoff’s story depicts.

On the other hand, philosophers have sometimes described grief or sorrow as simply constitutive of the human experience. For thinkers like Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, the painfulness of human existence meant that sorrow and loss was simply unavoidable, so the strong must confront their grief and bend it to their will. For philosophers with a more religious or existentialist bent, the reality of grief might be borne from the sinfulness of a broken Creation or from the failure of free creatures to grapple with their own mortality. Consider how the 18th century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard explained “My sorrow/grief is my baronial castle, which like an eagle’s nest is built high up on the mountain peak among the clouds. No one can take it by storm.” On these perspectives, grief is not something that can even possibly be dissolved, but rather must be harnessed and (hopefully) understood.

WandaVision’s treatment of grief is a line between these extremes: neither rejecting the emotion as inappropriate nor reveling in it as inevitable. It is a line akin to the picture found in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo, who describes in his autobiographical Confessions how the death of a loved one caused him such great distress that he nearly felt like he would die himself. Because of the love he felt for this unnamed friend (“I had felt that my soul and his soul were ‘one soul in two bodies,’” he says in IV.vi.11), Augustine was devastated by his death; regardless of death’s inevitability, “The lost life of those who dies becomes the death of those still living” (IV.ix.14).

And although Augustine (much like his Stoic forebears) infamously sought to curtail the public expressions of his grief after his conversion to Christianity (lest he suggest that the state of a departed soul was not improved by its transition to the afterlife or, even worse, pridefully demand the solace of others), Augustine never argues that grief is, in principle, sinful. In a particularly vulnerable passage, Augustine confesses how, after the death of his own mother, he found a private place and “let flow the tears which I had held back so that they ran as freely as they wished” (IX.xii.33). His love for his loved one persevered (and, in fact, drove him to an even deeper love for God).

Ultimately, WandaVision ends with Wanda realizing how her uncontrolled grief has led her to hurt the people of Westview (something a more Stoic approach to death would have avoided). Tearfully, she accepts (along with Kierkegaard) the inevitability of her pain and chooses to free the town by saying goodbye to her imaginary loved ones. But, just as Wanda’s memories and magic remain within her, so too does her love persevere; in their final moments together, the dream-Vision encourages Wanda once again: “We have said goodbye before, so it stands to reason–” at which point, Wanda sobs “…we’ll say hello again.”

Saint Augustine would indeed agree; the only real problem with Wanda’s grieving love was how she chose to express it.

In an attempt to clarify his criticism of the MCU, Martin Scorsese later published an op-ed in The New York Times where he explained how he always believed that “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” To be blunt, on such a definition, it’s hard to see how the love and pain of Wanda Maximoff fails to qualify.

And, unbeknownst to Wanda, several lingering plot threads suggest that hope does indeed remain for a genuine family reunion, but fans will have to wait for future MCU installments to see what happens next. In the meanwhile, it stands to reason that we might all benefit from reading a little more philosophy (and not just the bits about “identity metaphysics”) to help us think through our own complicated experiences of grief (and love).

Jacinda Ardern, Christchurch, and Moral Leadership

Jacinda Ardern, leader of the NZ Labour party, was at the University of Auckland Quad on the first of September, 2017.

Shortly after the Christchurch massacre on March 15, in which a white supremacist gunned down worshipers at two Mosques in the New Zealand city killing fifty people during Friday prayer, the NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke with US President Donald Trump, who had called to condemn the attack and offer support and condolences to the people of New Zealand.

Ardern later told a press conference that “[Trump] asked what offer of support the United States could provide. My message was: ‘Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.'”

Following the attack the connection between casual racism in public discourse,  often serving populist political ends, and an emboldened white supremacist movement prepared to commit violent acts was widely discussed (as explored in my previous article).

Yet, all Donald Trump’s past behavior, public remarks, tweets and policies indicate that such a request would have been incomprehensible to him; indeed the weekend following the massacre and Ardern’s request for “sympathy and love” for Muslim communities, Trump fired off a tirade of tweets in support of Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, reprimanded by Fox News for making racist remarks about Ilhan Omar, the U.S.’s first Muslim Congresswoman.

Ardern asked for “sympathy and love.” And sympathy and love was at the core of her response in the agonizing aftermath of this massacre. For that response and the leadership she extended, Ardern has been internationally lauded. Indeed, Ardern has shown what moral leadership looks like by bringing a natural and genuine love and sympathy to the affected community and the country. She set the tone and spirit of the nation’s response with language of inclusivity that refuted and negated the perpetrator’s attempt to create division.

Fronting the press immediately after the attack, looking visibly shaken, Ardern said of the Muslim community, and of all migrants and refugee communities in New Zealand “they are us,” and of the perpetrator she said “he is not us.” The simple language of inclusion of “they are us” and its sympathy and compassion, immediately disavowing the othering of Muslims, was a rejection of any suggestion that those who had been targeted are outsiders in the community of Christchurch and in the society of New Zealand.

Ardern visited Christchurch to support affected community. As she met people Ardern placed her hand on her heart, a traditional Muslim gesture, and said “Asalaam alaykum,” (peace be with you). She wore a hijab as a gesture of solidarity with the Muslim community, showing that ‘they are us’ does not mean ‘they’ are the same as ‘us’, but that the category of ‘us’ is inclusive of different religions, ethnicities, and cultures; and that New Zealand is proud of being a multicultural, open and inclusive society. And she held survivors and grieving families in her arms and cried with them. Ardern’s leadership — her words and her actions — visibly helped the whole community feel connected to the victims and gave non-Muslims a cue for identifying with the Muslim community. The following Friday, exactly one week after the massacre, the call to Friday prayer was broadcast on public radio and television networks.

There is no doubt that Ardern’s response to this tragedy stood out across the world as exemplary leadership, strength, compassion, and integrity. We should be able to expect good moral leadership from our political leaders, but in this era of populism, defined as it is by the characteristic tactic of appealing to the lowest common denominator, such leadership is rare.

Love or virtues that might pertain to, or emerge from it, such as compassion and sympathy, are not always obviously operative in our moral philosophy, ethical systems or political sphere. Contemporary analytic moral philosophy tends to work with concepts right and wrong more than concepts like love.

Love of one’s neighbor is of course a central tenet of the moral teachings of Christ, and the spirit of universalization that maxim evokes is present in some form in most ethical systems from religious to secular. There is a version of universalization present in the familiar systems of moral philosophy: in utilitarianism we treat the interests of stakeholders equally, and we do not favor those closest to us – in proximity, or in family, culture, religion etc. The Kantian categorical imperative, too, is based on a method of universalism, so that one finds one’s moral imperative only in what one could will to become a universal law.

In these systems, both of which attempt to make moral judgements objective, a concept like love would appear sentimental, and these systems of moral philosophy are designed specifically to remove elements of sentiment that might have been thought to confuse, distract or subjectify moral thinking. Yet for the philosopher Iris Murdoch, love was an important concept for ethics. She writes: “We need a moral philosophy in which love, so rarely mentioned now by philosophers, can again be made central.” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge, London, 1970, 2010, p45.)

Murdoch wrote about love in morality as being related to acts and efforts of attention – of attending to the humanity of others. Indeed, as against the blindness of racism, the notion of a ‘loving and just attention’ for Murdoch is part of the capacity to deeply acknowledge others as one’s fellow human beings. This is precisely what racism cannot do. Racism is radically dehumanizing. It is a moral failure to see the other as ‘one’s neighbor’ – that is, to see them as one of us, as part of the human family, or as sharing in a common humanity. (See Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999.) She observed that an effort to see things as they are is an effort of love, justice and pity.

Ardern’s response was to refute, and to deny, this racist denial of humanity – without entering into dialogue with it. That ‘loving and just attention’ of which Murdoch speaks is visible in the context of Ardern’s response in the way she attended to the victims and their families. This includes the focus of her attention on the suffering of those who were affected, and also the quality of that attention, which brought out their humanity at a time when someone had sought to deprive them of it – not just by murdering them and their loved ones, but by proudly justifying it as ideology.

The refutation of the ideology of racism is the affirmation of the humanity in each other. It is not clear that affirmation can be fully realized in arguments that, morally, have as their object, right and wrong; but Ardern has demonstrated that the moral sense of a common humanity can be realiszed through sympathy and love.

Meanwhile this week The White House escalated its assault on the Muslim American congresswoman Ilhan Omar after Donald Trump repeatedly tweeted video footage of September 11 and accused Omar of downplaying the terror attacks. 

“Incels” and the Right to be Loved

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If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear the word “incel” and never use it without scare quotes. Of course, there have always been people who are involuntarily celibate, but when they band together as a named subculture, something’s seriously amiss. I’m pretty sure I’d see it that way even if there weren’t four recent cases of men venting their sexual frustration by slaughtering people—one having done so explicitly as an “incel.”

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