Monday, March 31. 2008
What makes compassionate communication so radical (or, at least, seem so radical) is its wholesale disposal of judgment. Compassionate communication shelves all attempts to categorize behavior as good or bad, right or wrong, valid or invalid, correct or incorrect, deserving of reward or punishment. They call it "jackal" language, and contrast it with the NVC dialect of "giraffe," in which one only speak of feelings and needs, without evaluation or judgment.
For a lot of people this is a complete stopper. Ostensibly, it's an affront to our sense of moral consistency: "Of course there is right and wrong! Some things are good and some things are bad, and that's just the way it is! To say otherwise is to deny reality." We will usually whip out some example of moral injustice so heinous that no one will care to argue the other side. Traditionally, it's the Nazis: "Ya think Hitler wasn't wrong to wipe out six millions Jews?" Nobody has much appetite for feeling empathy for poor Adolf, whose name has become synonymous with Evil.
Set aside for a moment the necessity for moral absolutes, and contemplate our motives for clinging to judgment. In a moment of complete honesty I heard one person at the workshop say, "But what's the point of even talking with the other person if we can't demonstrate that they are wrong and I am right? Isn't that the goal of having an argument?" Ahhhh . . . Yes, indeed, that is the point of having an argument . . . and that's precisely the problem. Arguments are not about communication or connection, they are ultimately about one thing: getting my way. We cling to right-and-wrong binary thinking because we want to preserve our capacity to compel others to our wishes. As soon as you say, "You're wrong," you are making a demand.
"And what's wrong with making demands? Some errors demand correction. Some people are assholes, and I have no problem demanding they stop being assholes."
The problem with demands is that they don't work very well. They don't work well because people don't like them. Nobody likes demands. This is reflected in our sense of politeness and propriety: a polite request such as "Could you please move to one side while I pass through" is usually readily accepted, but if you restate the exact same statement as a demand and it becomes rude: "You! Get out of my way!" Even if a request is reasonable and easy, people will dig in their heels the moment they feel even a trace of compulsion.
John Cunningham had an elegant formulation for this concept. "I wouldn't say that jackal language is bad and giraffe is good . . . Because that would be a jackal way of looking at it, wouldn't it? I would just venture to say that giraffe is more effective at getting my needs met." I thought this was a good way to side-step the whole contradiction of judging judgment. "Compassionate communicate gives you an alternative way of perceiving the world, and you can choose to use it or not, as you see fit."
Friday, March 28. 2008
Tonight I went to a lecture by John Cunningham on compassionate communication, aka non-violent communication (NVC), as the opening part of a weekend workshop. I had initially been exposed to compassionate communication as a part of the "alternative parenting" spectrum of philosophies. Parents who get involved in La Leche League or Attachment Parenting or Waldorf Education also seem to hover around compassionate communication as a more "enlightened" model of relating to their children and people in general. Janet's API friends would invoke NVC language occasionally in their discussions, and I was cautiously intrigued. I say "cautiously" because, I confess, it appeared rather nutty on first blush: a sort of starry-eyed, liberal, pro-social-non-violent, utterly unrealistic notion of human nature. Just the name "non-violent communication" was a turn-off: a holier-than-thou attempt to position itself beside Mahatma Gandhi, and also slyly imply that your language is violent, you white-male-paternalistic-empirialist-pig-dog-brute, you.
But I read Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, which seemed to be moving along the same philosophical lines, and his careful reasoning and hard-hitting research convinced me that a radical rethinking of how relationships work was not so nutty after all. (You can read my evaluations and critiques of Unconditional Parenting here, here, here and here.) If an unconditional, non-judgmental approach could work for parenting, perhaps it was equally applicable to all relationships. So I had to give compassionate communication a fair hearing.
John Cunningham gave a very good overview of compassionate communication and its underlying philosophy. Here are some of the take-away points from the lecture:
That's compassionate communicate in a nutshell . . . I have lots more to say about this, but this is the meat of what it's about.
Thursday, March 27. 2008
My friend Joanna was going to be at the PSFK Conference in New York this week, and she turned me on to the blog of one of the speakers, Grant McCracken. I enjoyed it â€“ it's the sort of cultural commentary and philosophical review that I like both to read and to write. So of course I have to start things off by critiquing it mercilessly.
McCracken had a today about the NFL's proposed rules to ban long hair, and was bemoaning it as an instance of individual expression being curtailed by cultural powers-that-be. I commented on it:
Americans are by and large "instrumentalists", then, although they might delude themselves into thinking otherwise. The only reason we pay attention to Troy Polamalu at all is because he can really play ball. His "expressive" hair is rather accidental, a slight differentiator for his personal brand. It's his instrumental value that provides the bedrock of our interest in him. I doubt he would disagree, either. He might not like the League trying to quash is his personal branding, but he would rather be remembered as a great NFL player than "that long-haired guy."
People who try to define themselves by their "expressive" nature -- their looks, their tastes, their arbitrary whims -- are usually the people who don't have any instrumental value to speak of, either because they are adolescents who haven't yet had enough opportunity to distinguish themselves by their achievements, or because they are losers. If expressiveness has utility, because it leads to great art or self-confidence or candor, then we can admire it. Otherwise it's just trade dress.
Americans are supposed to be individualists â€“ we are focused on personal achievement and personal fulfillment, rather than defining ourselves by our membership in collectives. Yet that celebration of the individual sometimes blurs into a celebration of individuality for its own sake . . . as if there was some inherent virtue in being unique. This "expressive individualism" seems hollow to me. I do believe people find all kinds of enjoyment and virtue in self-expression . . . but to believe that "expressing yourself" is inherently good and meaningful is merely narcissism.
Wednesday, March 26. 2008
[I sent this letter to the Wall Street Journal Letters to the Editor for publication.]
In response to your March 22 editorial "Certifying Parents":
So the California courts think that every parent who home schools their children should have government certification, to ensure the quality of education their children receive. Ok, fine. I can understand wanting to control standards for education. Just do one more thing: pay those home-schooling parents the $8,000 per child that is currently going to the public school system from which they are opting out. I think many home schooling parents would gladly undergo whatever certification testing is required, in order to recoup their substantial tax investment in the public schools.
Whenever the public tries to hold the public school teachers accountable to the results of the school, the teachers unions immediately complain about having insufficient resources to do the job, and the unfunded mandates imposed by No Child Left Behind. Well, if the teachers don't like unfunded mandates for themselves, they shouldn't seek to impose them on home schoolers, either. You want professional-grade teachers for every child? Pay for it. Otherwise, leave the home schoolers alone.
Tuesday, March 25. 2008
My critiques of Ray Kurzweil's vision of the future are not wholly honest. I have at lot at stake in these debates . . . and not merely because I want to believe my consciousness is more than mere computation. Kurzweil's vision of artificial intelligence has been eclipsed by his vision of human immortality. He really, truly honestly believes that human beings alive right now can become immortal, merely by living long enough for the accelerating scientific knowledge to eliminate death. Or, as he puts it, "Live Long Enough to Live Forever." And this is not merely idle speculation on his part; he is personally pursuing every radical intervention he can find to prolong his own life, including radically reducing his caloric intake and taking every conceivable supplement and pill he can find that even vaguely promises to extend life. He seems to be succeeding, too; he has already staved off impending diabetes and high cholesterol, and cuts a trim figure at age 60.
I give him a lot of credit for actively living his philosophy. He has, as Richard Rose would put it, "made himself a living laboratory," putting into action whatever his philosophy dictates. Not content to merely predict the future, he intends to meet it himself. And the guy has a long enough track record of technological brilliance to think he's got a shot at beating death. His credibility has me half-convinced. I don't know if he personally is going to make it, but it is not inconceivable to me that humanity might seriously tackle super-longevity within the next century or so.
You would think that this would be good news. "Hey, guess what? You might not have to die!" So why does the thought of physical immortality fill me with dread? Why, instead of cheering and planning for century upon century of life, does this feel more like the end of the world?
The most obvious answer is mere envy and laziness. I know for a fact that I will not be nearly as industrious as Kurzweil in his quest for immortality, and that I am doomed to die. Even the remote possibility that I could live forever if I worked hard at it twists a knife in my Puritanical, American work-ethic soul. For all of our biological imperative at self-preservation, it's so much easier to accept death as inevitable than to seriously consider escaping it. Damn his eyes for making me think about it.
But there is also something morally bent about this quest for immortality. It feels wrong. For starters, it cultivates a mind-set of supreme selfishness. "I will subjugate everything in the universe to the sole goal of preserving Me." Billionaires like Bill Gates, who might have spent their vast wealth helping millions of people, may instead squander their fortunes trying to enshrine themselves for the future. Personal immortality is the ultimate in Ambition, something that could suppress all manner of goodness in lieu of a mad, megalomaniacal dash to become a god. This is hardly a new theme, either. How many science fiction and fantasy novels have hinged on some super-villain committing world-destroying atrocities in an attempt to secure their immortality? Kurzweil is not Voldemort, but that's the general moral direction we're headed in: "To hell with other people â€“ let's save me, Me, ME!" It's rather like running for U.S. Presidency â€“ anyone who is able to achieve the office automatically disqualifies themselves from deserving it. We may wind up preserving the worst specimens of our species.
Nor does this spirit of selfishness end once immortality is achieved. An immortal would also have to be invulnerable for him to enjoy any peace, because otherwise they would perpetually dedicate themselves to preserving their eternal life. Even the remotest possibility of death suddenly becomes unbearable: the immortal wouldn't ride in a car, or ride a bicycle, or travel to places where foreign diseases may lurk, or associate with other humans who might murder you. The immortal would lock his doors, draw the blinds, and live out his eternal days in perpetual paranoia. Some life.
Even if we could somehow transfer our consciousness to indestructible, immortal machines (as Kurzweil predicts), I think the futurists have vastly underestimated our potential for ennui. After a few centuries, I think most people would be sick to death of themselves. Most religions do not merely promise perpetuity to the departed. They also offer transcendence â€“ the chance to leave behind their limited sense of themselves and find union with God. And eternal life without transcendence might be an altogether different sort of afterlife. It might, indeed, be hell.
Monday, March 24. 2008
Ray Kurzweil bugs me. The futurist has been predicting for the last decade or so that some lucky people alive today will see the day when machines become smarter than humans. Thanks to the exponential growth of computer processing power, he foresees the coming of "The Singularity" â€“ the point at which self-aware machines take over their own evolution and leave humans in the dust. Rather than seeing the rise of artificial intelligence as a dystopia, a la The Matrix or Terminator, Kurzweil believes that the explosion in intelligence will sweep up mankind, ultimately making us immortal when our consciousness can be transformed into non-biological media.
Seeing our eventual immortality in machines has always struck me as wrong â€“ both erroneous and wrong-headed. In his Are You a Robot? lecture, Kenny Felder explicitly argues against the notion that lots and lots of really fast computations will ultimately result in consciousness. Consciousness, he said, was a completely different phenomenon than computation, and a bazillion calculations per second does not translate into the conscious experience of life and thought. That position resonated with me philosophically, but I until recently I hadn't seen anyone else try to back up that concept with harder science.
In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, though, Mark Anderson does flesh out the current science that challenges the notion of singularity. I was gratified to see that he starts exactly where Kenny did: "This notion sweeps under the rug a messy philosophic problem: An algorithm is only a set of instructions, and even the most sophisticated machine executing the most elaborate instructions is still an unconscious automaton." But even setting that aside, he pointed out the scientific puzzles that could derail the notion of immanent AI:
None of this disproves Kurzweil's vision. Humanity, together with our very powerful computer friends, may yet sort it all out and construct consciousness. But it may take a few centuries longer than we expected.
Sunday, March 23. 2008
Kenny forwarded to me a presentation by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced a massive stroke and got to experience first-hand what it's like to lose portions of the brain's functioning. It's an interesting talk, so go ahead and watch it if you haven't already.
Saturday, March 22. 2008
My heartfelt thanks to everyone who inquired â€“ sympathetically, encouragingly, mildly annoyed, or pointedly skeptical â€“ about what the hell was going on with my blog, and wasn't I supposed to be writing more now, anyway?
Well, yes, that was the idea. But I've learned a few things since I embarked on this quest to start a new writing career:
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