Examples of “Forms of Life”

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Common sense physics

There was one point where I was conversing with a former thesis advisor, and he asked if I made “allowance for greater ignorance in the past.” My reply was that I did not make allowance for greater ignorance in the past, but that allowances for different ignorance in the past were more negotiable.

The criteria that he seemed to be using was that of people thinking more scientifically; he had a significant scientific background, as I did, and an example he gave was of understanding of Biblical language of the moon turning to blood in terms of conditions of the earth eclipsing the moon that make the moon look red like blood every once in a blue moon. He also talked about how someone not conceptually familiar with nuclear weapons could over-literally interpret language of nuclear weapons “flattening cities” as mistakenly believing that the rubble from buildings left over after an explosion would be smoothly flat; or mistakenly interpret “mushroom clouds” as something one could reasonably extrapolate from inspection of mushrooms.

If his contention is that we think more scientifically, and that this includes less scientific members of society and not just those with good scientific credentials, I agree. A common (or at least understandable) interpretation for a student in the sciences learning some degree of physics might be as quoted from the Linux fortunes:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” — and all was light.
It did not last: the devil, shouting “Ho.
Let Einstein be,” restored the status quo.

The perception may be that Newtonian physics is mathematically speaking the physics of common sense, by contrast to subsequent relativity, quantum physics, and superstring theory, diverge from our common sense. Certainly they are more slippery and don’t just make sense the same way Newton does to an able student with good mathematical gifts, but I would turn things around and say that our version of “common sense” is in part a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is easier for inductees, whether or not they aspire to superstring theories; for most common applications the difference between Newton on the one hand and relativity or quantum mechanics on the other, is beyond negligible compared to the other sources of inaccuracy. Mechanical engineers use Newtonian physics for most purposes, even if they consider later theories a closer fit. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics.

Something like this played out in the history of mathematics. Euclidean geometry, one of the original branches of mathematics, had both “axioms” and “postulates.” Today, in a fashion worthy of postmodernism, there is no real distinction between axioms and postulates; the basic idea is that if you are going to do Euclidean geometry you work with how that geometry is framed, and if you want to do some other kind of mathematics, you follow the non-negotiables of that other area of math. However, in Euclid’s formulation, “axiom” and “postulate” had palpably different meanings. Axioms were things that were self-evidently true and not subject to question, while postulates had more the sense of a well-tested educated guess that was used at least for the time being.

Of Euclid’s postulates, one that has received a historically disproportionate attention was the so-called “parallel postulate”, which states that given a line in a plane and a point not on that line, exactly one line passing through that point will be parallel to that line. The first couple dozen or so of Euclid’s theorems do not use the parallel postulate, and two of the more obvious alternatives that people explored were comparable to the geometry of the surface of a sphere (with “line” still being the shortest distance between two points), and a hard-to-visualize space where every point was like the center of a saddle. This latter was worked out in consistent detail by a geometer who is historically respected, Lobachevsky, who worked out the consequences of that alternative to Euclid’s parallel postulate and then published Euclid Freed of Every Flaw, on the thought that the consequences he worked out were so bizarre that Euclid’s parallel postulate had to be vindicated.

And something similar to what I have asserted of Newtonian physics is true of Euclidean geometry. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Euclidean geometry. It is the closest geometry I know to our common sense, and people trying to prove the parallel postulate (perhaps by showing its denial to have absurd implications) were defending a geometry of common sense. Mathematics today may have an attitude of “If you want to play a game of chess, play by the rules of chess; if you want to play a game of go, play by the rules of go,” but the efforts to prove the parallel postulate were in significant (psychological) measure a defense of common sense.

But the idea of geometry as common-sense was perhaps furthest from Euclid’s mind. Euclidean geometry, to the spiritual community that formed it, had something of the character of a religious movement only meant for the elite. It was meant to be an abstract and slippery mental discipline, something that the unwashed masses would be able to grasp.

If this sounds odd, or you’re looking for concrete support, I would point out that the human visual surface is not a Euclidean plane, but curved, partially like a sphere. We humans have never seen a Euclidean visual space, but only a curved geometry close to “surface of a sphere” geometry. In my low-level undergraduate philosophy class, the TA was making the point that we do not always see right angles as right (visual) angles, and stood up on the table and said that only there, standing in the middle of the tables, could he see the table surface as having four right angles. I, pest that I was, made a point of “not even that“: I said that the human visual surface is curved, and if he were to hold an ordinary rectangular sheet of paper in front of a corner, with the paper perpendicular to his line of sight, he would see all four corners of the rectangle whose middle he was standing on as obtuse angles, wider than a right angle, and not summing to 360° as Euclidean geometry would have it for rectangles and other quadrilaterals. (If you are somewhere in the middle of a rectangular room you may be able to see much the same thing by looking at the ceiling and seeing four straight sides and wide angles at all four corners.)

A picture that makes a different compromise in rendering the human visual surface.
A picture that makes a different-from-usual compromise in rendering to the human visual surface.
Contact me if you would like to own this

But to my knowledge the initial “parallel postulate” initiatives never met either excitement or a sigh of relief that after millenia of bondage to Euclidean flatness, we finally threw off the shackles of planar geometry that fails to accurately model the human visual surface, and have nowfound out the geometry of the human visual surface. Defense of Euclid and the parallel postulate was in full measure a patriotic defense of common sense, and Westerners who have no idea how many sides a triangle has, still retain a common sense substantially shaped by non-visual Euclidean geometry.

Forms of life

I would like to take a slippery concept from Wittgenstein, and paraphrase “form of life” as “a formative assumption so deep you can’t really bring it to mind.” Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift was one where at face value you could point out the dominant paradigm before and after, in that both included something that would be straightforward to take at face value. “Forms of life” do not have this merit, and the Wikipedia is singularly uninformative, telling (and unintendedly demonstrating) only one thing about them: forms of life are slippery.

In a philosophy of religion class, the postmodern professor, who would constantly say “after Wittgenstein,” was asked by one of the students to give an example of a “form of life.” He was stumped, and after a while of watching the expressions in his face, I said, “You’re trying to do something that is almost a contradiction in terms. You’re looking for something so basic it’s hard to think about, but one that students in the class will almost immediately recognize once you point it out, and you’ve mentally rejected several ideas because they’re just one or just the other.” After a bit more struggle, he said that there had been a shift from “procreation being necessary to human flourishing,” to “limiting procreation being necessary to human flourishing.” And I would take this as meeting the nearly impossible job description I outlined.

A “common sense” that is shaped by Newtonian physics, and a “common sense” that is shaped by Euclidean geometry, are examples of forms of life, and if you’ve found my explanations slippery, I’m doing the best I can but I’m not disappointed. Regarding the question of how else something can be, spaces need not be seen as individual parts fitting on one and the same absolute grid. Madeleine l’Engle comments in wonder, possibly in Walking on Water, about a Western medieval icon that showed two saints from different centuries together. As I discuss in Lesser Icons, an icon is its own space, and the reverse perspective is actually surprisingly sophisticated compared to Western expectations. The lines look odd to a Westerner because they converge to a point behind you: you are present and included in the icon. On a secular level, you can visit in someone’s living room, without even thinking about the fact that if you were to bore a hole at a particular angle and keep on going for 463 feet, you would be in someone else’s garage. Just seeing the space is like just seeing the interacting elementary particles in a rainbow or a tree, as Owen Barfield opens his idolatrous history of idolatry.

I once jokingly advised a friend, who was seeing embarrassingly confused questions about basic (Newtonian) physics, that he should answer questions out of Aristotle’s Physics, but in fact Aristotle’s physics makes sense, on a level appropriate to Aristotle, in everyday interactions. If you don’t push a book that’s resting on a table, then push it so that it moves, then stop and it stops moving, Aristotelian and Newtonian physics can both explain this, but the Newtonian explanation has a good deal more levers and pulleys involved before it can explain what we see. The Aristotelian explanation is far simpler, and simplicity is a virtue recognized by science, where Ockam’s Razor is embraced and simple explanations are preferred to complex. I do not say that Aristotelian physics is as good as Newtonian physics for predicting the results of a series of high school physics experiments, but Aristotelian physics is a sort of thing that works like common sense. If we today have a quasi-Newtonian, and non-Aristotelian, “common sense physics”, that is a testimony to how a form of life can change, or how parts of our common sense are actually rather surprising things to find in a culture’s “common sense.”

Another form of life issue, where again our “common sense” is profoundly shaped by the attitudes of nascent science that continue to be formative today, is found in C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, on a point I quote him in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer:

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”

What is here posited of Merlin is something the Orthodox Church has, in common with much of the natural law. It is very easy to relate to Nature as a machine. Even the environmentalist claim amounts to something like “Don’t crash the biosphere!” Environmentalists, as the interesting non-exception, want the human race to stop pulling the biosphere to bits. However, their primary vehicle for understanding the environment: science, and more specifically biology, and if they want to stop a particular problematic change from happening, they will (manipulate statistics and) warn about falling dominoes. Now environmentalism may be associated with New Age mysticism; however, at least from my upperclassmen-level environmental science, the view was mechanistic, with the occasional verse of a Psalm about how wonderful the natural world is. By and large, the assertion was that the biosphere has various complex interlocking systems, and it can be destroyed by (in one image endorsed in a video in my class) “throwing parts out of a car without knowing if you need them.” I don’t want to dictate to environmentalists whether or how they should proceed, but I will say that among those in at least tenuous contact with scientific ideas, the rebuttal to “We can take Nature to bits if it won’t work the way we please,” is “We can take Nature to bits and destroy a world where the human race can survive.” It’s not a reversal of the mechanical principle; it’s just a reversal of the retained moral principle.

What I would most immediately say of the Orthodox Church is that she does not have Reformers, at least among the saints. As I explore in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer, the figure of the Renaissance magus, the ancestor to political ideology as we know it, saw society as a despicable raw material which it was his place to improve. The Reformer follows in the magician’s footsteps and in a slightly tighter focus sees the society of the Church as a despicable raw material which was his place to improve. Orthodoxy does not natively have a concept of “raw material,” and if it is imported, its domain does not apply to the bride of Christ. Orthodoxy is far enough from the triplet of magician, scientist, and reformer not to even venture into the realm of systematic theology, a venture which both Western Catholics and Protestants pursued, even if the Reformers had an earful to say of the specific theology represented by scholasticism. I do not say that no Orthodox saint had a scientific worldview, even apart from worldview being a foreign concept to Orthodox which in better moments Western converts are discouraged from pursuing. However, I do say that Orthodox mystical theology is not a fertile ground for scientific outlooks.

When I was at Wheaton, I bristled when students in chapel spoke of “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge”, “knowledge about” and “knowledge of.” However, part of my conversion involved me recognizing that they were right. In Orthodoxy, the seat of knowledge is in the nous or νους, which could be called “the spiritual eye” (please note that this is my attempt at an appropriate term and not endorsed by the Orthodox Church). The dianoia or διανοια or “discursive reason,” which one uses for logic, exists and has a place, but (as I intruded on one conversation) the spiritual eye is the sun and the discursive reason is the moon. A standard churchman’s claim about academic theology is, like much of academia “hypertrophied [i.e. overgrown] dianoia, darkened nous.” This is part of why Orthodoxy is even further from heavy scientific influences in worldview, more like what C.S. Lewis’s Merlin represents than Merlin himself. Orthodox do far better than magic in working with spiritual and visible Creation.

Another rift surrounds the archetypes of the saint and the activist. It is said in Orthodoxy, “Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved.” The activist model is to some degree the air most people breathe today, a desire to change the world. I discuss this, and Orthodoxy’s rejection of the modification, in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, which contains a deeper discussion than I would see here. I would say that if a desire to better the world naturally translates to some program, you would do well to be mindful of how G.K. Chesterton won a newspaper’s essay contest. The question for the contest was, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton answered with the shortest letter to the editor in that newspaper’s history: “Sir, I am.” Here I would note a difference in forms of life that is profound, and to someone steeped in a standard amount of activist outlook, the older position can be very difficult to understand. (I might comment that my advisor was involved enough to be a plenary speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality; I do not wish to address what is right or wrong about that organization and its positions, but simply note that his approach to making a difference was partly activist in character. Or maybe it was wholly activist and he was simply showing me his institution’s hard-earned hospitality in dealing with people whose opinions one does not completely share.)

And the saint and activist archetypes are very tellingly shown in one moment at the same university as the previous moment I discuss for forms of life. In the saint archetype, care for the poor is very important: a saying that has tumbled down the ages is, “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead!” Furthermore, giving to the poor is under the saint’s archetypal umbrella of ascesis or spiritual discipline, alongside fasting, prayer, church attendance, and so on. Fasting is important, a point which is assumed when people say that fasting only benefits yourself while feeding the hungry benefits others as well as yourself. Meanwhile, the governing assumption of the activist is one of big government, with an unspoken thesis of, “The more important something is, and the more essential that it be done right, the more important it is that it be handled by government programs.”

One textbook for a class on social ethics quoted an Church Father’s exhortation to give to the poor as, without stated justification or defense, the saint giving full warrant to move care for the poor from under the heading of ascesis or spiritual discipline, to the heading of what a statist bureaucracy should be charged with.

I objected, but others did not engage with my objection. Possibly they were not conscious of the saint archetype except as a primitive, confused, and less refined precursor to what is handled much better by the activist model, and possibly they did not so much see my objection and dismiss it, so much as fail to see what my objection was in the first place.

Also in that paradigm I finally spoke up after hearing how nice it would be if we lived in such-and-such prior historical setting and didn’t need clothes. I commented there about something of the form of life that has people be in modern buildings much of the time, so (before telecommuting) certain kinds of work were handled from an office building. In terms of biological origins, the human race has for most of its time lived in the stimulating environment of dense forest, where the human body was one of many things presented to the senses. Today it is relatively easy to find out that among birding enthusiasts, people will detect birds much more quickly, and classify the birds they see with much greater and finer sophistication, than people who have no such outdoor hobby. Among people who grew up in a stimulating outdoor environment will see the whole thing with birding-like eyes. Offices, as discussed in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, are (comparably speaking) sensory deprivation chambers: no winds disturb stacks of paper, nor do birds flit around. The one remaining remnant of a stimulating natural environment is the human body, and this makes offices too often a sexual hotspot: the modestly clothed human body in such a sensory deprivation chamber is actually much more exciting than a totally nude body in a whole, active natural environment, particularly if the latter is what you’ve grown up with. And I commented that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than nudity, a point which my teacher quickly corrected to mean that one-on-one time in mixed company was more significant than nudity. But I neither said, nor meant, “one-on-one” alone. That was a retcon, and she knew it.

Examples could with some effort be multiplied, and we are going through a shift today from physical to virtual. From the side that is winning, being plugged in is much better than being isolated; from the side that is dying off it is noted with concern that plugged-in young folk are failing to develop traditional social skills. When the dust has settled on this one it may be difficult to see what could have possibly made life genuinely worth it in times when plugging in wasn’t even an option.

Possibly all or almost all successful social movements, once the desired goal becomes the new status quo, involve a change in forms of life that are all but invisible and unintelligible from the victor’s side.

Microaggression, Bullies, and Microkindnesses

Microaggression

Those of you who know the Wheaton community will know that Rodney Sisco, the Director of Multicultural Development at Wheaton College, was lost to cancer well before retirement age. He was a big person for racial diversity, a big person in the sense of being a moral giant, and a big person who left literal and figurative size 17EEE boots to fill.

I hope people will not find this comparison excessive or scandalous, but one of the comments C.S. Lewis made was that people object to the idea of God dealing with hundreds of millions of people praying all at once was based on a misconception of an eternal God, and an eternal God has just as much attention for you as if you were the only person that existed. Rodney may not have been able to pay attention to millions of people at once, but I have interacted with him at length, as have many others, and he really did treat you, whoever you might or might not be, whites included, as if you were the only other person God created. Again, he left huge Size 17EEE boots to fill.

There was recently a ceremony honoring him, with an open mic at an event streamed to Sisco family members, for people to tell their “Rodney stories.” I told a story, but even among the white minority at the microphones I did not try overall to challenge the standard framing of U.S. race relations, but instead talked about a time when Rodney took a moment I dropped off a gift to extend a full hospitable visit, and although his wife was not there, his sons also met me with great hospitality. (I did not think to say, in full candor, that they made me feel like family.) One of the sons had expressed considerable interest in being an author, and I said for him that I had given one of my books in the care of a Student Development employee to deliver to Rodney’s immediate family and especially the interested son. And this might be technically called “race relations” in the sense of three black males and one white male interacting peacably and quite amicably and enjoyably, and Rodney seeing a side of me that he hadn’t seen before in that I related as a loving elder to his children, lovingly and fatherly (something that is part of my social behavior but had never come up in my relating to him as one of my own quite loving elders), but it did not fit the framing of interracial relations as the narrative normally flows in America today.

But the whole tone and tenor was dictated with how classic diversity and race relationships are understood, and I would like to take one example of what went on that unnerved me.

There was one young woman who spoke of a “microaggression” with great hurt, and explained how someone who “happened to be a white male” dismissed an idea that she found important that cut her from the heart.

She talked about how she was physically small (I had not noticed until it was pointed out, and admittedly I am significantly taller than her, but she was still something like a foot taller than Christ), “brown” (I had mistaken her for non-Hispanic white, but she clearly conveyed that she identifies as brown), and soft-spoken (me too, even if Toastmasters is changing that). I will mention that once she started speaking, I picked up on the accent of someone who knows at least two languages well.

The idea that she articulated, and was so hurt to have dismissed, was that God cannot be limited to the ideas of a particular time and place. On that point, if I had an appropriate invitation, I might have commented that St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a masterful job of engaging that concern, and chapter 5 closes his work The Mystical Theology:

CHAPTER FIVE
That the supreme Cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It [the Divine Nature, meaning God] is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

If someone I knew who trusted me raised that concern, that is probably what I would offer to see and raise the other person. (St. Dionysius made so much more an interesting version of de-mythologizing than Rudolf Bultmann.) And I might point out that what she put her finger on has the corollary that the God Who Is Justice is not the hostage of any human conception of justice or equity, including those that are feminist or derive from any other human political ideology or identity politics. And possibly I might suggest that this point needs to be counterbalanced by a recognition that the illimitable God is the one and the same God who became incarnate in a particular time and place, and (as Orthodox understand) continues to become incarnate in Christ’s Body, the Church, at particular times, in a particular way, in sacred history.

And as to the interlocutor who “happened to be a white male,” he might have genuinely not been seeking to slap her down because of her skin color. (I honestly mistook her for a non-Hispanic white.) Admittedly, it is not the best manners to instantly dismiss something that is close to someone else’s heart, but the behavior sounds pretty much as believable to me as something a white male would have said to another white male. Admittedly this person might not have been showing the best social skills, but there is a live possibility in my thoughts that the bloke was being dismissive of an idea as such and not of a person as such or a demographic as such. There is a very live possibility that he was, in an immature way, treating her as an equal. He might have been equally forceful and dismissive in responding to a white male saying the same things, and simply didn’t think, “Female. Short. Soft-spoken. Not a native English speaker; accent suggests brown. Therefore, I need to give a very different answer from what I would normally say to someone else.” She felt self-conscious as an outsider; it is possible that his reply was not shaped by raising the question about whether she was an outsider. Now in addition his reply was also apparently overly rambunctious, rude, and quite unfortunate, and hurt her needlessly. However, the fact that he was not walking on eggshells (apologies for the microaggression against vegans) may have been because he saw her as a fellow student and community member, and treated her like he treated his peeps and homeboys.

It may in fact not have been the case that he thought “I need to be careful in criticizing her ideas because she will think that criticisms of ideas that she values include a negative verdict about her demographic.”

As far as microaggressions go, I would (again, assuming I had an appropriate friendship to be challenging her) invite her to read The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. That’s a medium-sized slice of the microaggressions I’ve faced in my own life, and I’ve sent five C&D letters after a repeated “No” was not being respected. Not all of the harassment is from white males; some of it is from at white females, and I honestly do not know or care what racial consituents were in the conversation with Fr. Seraphim’s admirers.

Bullies

The topic that I most strikingly remember about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was what it said about schoolyard bullies. The assumption I held, and that many people hold, is that bullies believe they are king of the hill and are fully entitled to engage in unprovoked aggression against other children.

What Goleman claimed at least, was that nothing of the sort was going on. Bullies by contrast believe they are victims in a hostile and malicious environment and they need to defend themselves as best they can. So when someone bumps into them in the hallway, this is no accident, but deliberate, intended, hostile, and malicious. And when a bully physically strikes hard against a person that bumps him, intending hurt, that falls entirely under the heading of the bullies’ strict self-defense and is if anything not nearly as forceful as it should be.

The training or therapy endorsed for bullying was to stop being so quick to find microaggressions. In a junior high, children are growing, their bodies are changing, and the children aren’t completely used to the changes. This makes them clumsy, enough so that a crowded junior high hallway is a place where people will bump into each other frequently. Come to think of it, I tend to bump into people when I move through a space crowded with other people, and I’m an adult (but, I am admittedly clumsy). And the unravelling of bullying comes when children stop interpreting things primarily as microaggressions, and recognize that a clumsy bump in a crowded hall is most often meaningless. (Something like this went into a bitter and geeky, “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by gross stupidity.”) And bullies are to be taught to not be so quickly find microaggressions in a situation where boring clumsiness, lack of empathy, being distracted, and so on. Not that there is never genuine hostility, but a great deal of hurts are caused by clumsiness and other equally boo-ooring factors.

I am reminded in one book, talking about sensitivity, that a long-term employee heard a remark from an executive that affected him enough so that he thought the executive apparently wanted him to resign from the company. When he plucked up his courage to ask clarification, the surprised executive was taken aback and said that the remark he made was a throwaway remark, and he did not have the slightest desire for a truly valued employee to resign. He hadn’t been thinking about, or wanted, the employee to resign. He had just been perhaps insensitive and not aware that what are intended as transparent throwaway remarks by someone who is higher socially are not always treated as the mere throwaway remarks they are intended to be, and are considered to transparently be throwaway remarks for the person who is socially higher. (Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by gross stupidity!)

And here’s the core point that Goleman does not make: if you run the process in reverse of helping bullies not find hostility at all times and everywhere, and run it backwards, there is a standard term for this reverse process.

That reverse process is “consciousness raising.” Consciousness raising is a process of teaching people to use a pair of X-ray goggles to spot microaggressions in more and more places.

There may be room for a legitimate consciousness raising in general, for majorities to recognize that some people they consider to obviously be community insiders consider themselves to be outsiders, and for people in a position of power to recognize that what are intended to be obviously throwaway remarks and not authoritative statements, are less likely to be such. I needed to adjust in listening to this woman and recognize that she saw herself as an outsider to the Wheaton community, because while she communicated very effectively how marginalized she considered herself to be, I regarded her as an insider before she opened her mouth, or rather more an insider to the Wheaton community than I was, because she was an active student, under the Community Covenant, not to mention wearing the full regalia of Wheaton’s Gospel Choir, and I was only an alumnus coming in to visit. Admittedly this was a visit where I was entirely welcome and alumni had been explicitly invited to participate, but still, I was visiting. (Other people are welcome to disagree with this perspective.) This did not change when she opened her mouth and I heard the speech of someone who speaks two or more languages well, and communicates quite powerfully in English.

Microaggressions, and for that part larger-scale aggressions exist, but seeing things in terms of frequent microaggressions is a path to hurt and alienation.

Microkindnesses

I would like to mention two moments that I have been thanked for and been caught completely off guard, having barely registered in my mind as something I had done.

The first was to wander up to a young woman, give my name and shook her hand, and then wandered off; I believe the interaction lasted something like fifteen seconds. The other was with a young woman who had suffered the creepiest tale of sexual violence I’ve heard yet, and I deliberately related to her distantly, but told her very briefly, “I’m praying for you.”

In both cases the women came to me afterwards and gave what was clearly a five minute thank-you they had thought out. In the first case, I was the one other person of several people standing around nearby, and what had registered was that I had just acknowledged her as human, and that was something no one else had done; everybody else had treated her like furniture. In the other woman’s case, I cannot repeat details beyond saying that she was very appreciative of a gesture I would offer to almost everybody, even people who were hurting me. And in both cases it took me a minute to remember what it was that had been so striking.

Perhaps instead of, or perhaps in addition to, looking to avoid microaggressions, we should keep our eyes open to do at least just a little more microkindnesses, like acknowledging another person as human. I thought of my interaction with the first woman to be socially shallow, but I gave her my name, asked her name, and gave her the salute of a handshake, all three of which recognized her as human. The woman was right that this was in fact not a socially shallow interaction, and I had, in fact, given her something no one else of over a dozen people had offered.

In another setting at church, I had begun to offer my arm for stabilization for a white-haired senior as he stepped down for receiving communion. I had been wondering if he thought of it as unnecessary (and he could well enough have gotten by without my help). This self-questioning ended when he thanked me for something that was “so respectful.” What seemed like a very minor offering to me, and dubiously necessary to me, was to him neither a minor offering nor needless.

Let’s opt for microkindnesses, whether or not we think we are touching anyone’s life at all!

I’d Love if You’d Purchase my Paperbacks

I am writing as an author addressing cherished readers, to ask you to buy some of my paperbacks.

As an author, I would like my works to survive rather than disappear with the digital dark ages. I’d love for you to have your copies of these books to at least potentially survive for the rest of your life and long after. Kindles won’t do that.

I am tring to set up all of my books as Matchbook for free. What this means is that if you pay a bit extra and buy one of my paperback books, I’m basically throwing in the Kindle copy for your commuter survival kit free.

See all my paperbacks on Amazon!

Here I Bow

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain humility—I do not accept the authority of the I-lost-count-how-many Protestant denominations and the sprawling bazaar of “Christian” books, for they have gone to the next level in unending contradictions of each other, vastly eclipsing of the the child’s play of Popes and Councils Luther complained about—my conscience is captive to the Holy Church that is inseparable from Christ the Word of God. I will not go out of the frying pan, into the lava. I cannot and I will not recant her Tradition for to go against the collected experience of Orthodox Christians and my holy guardian angel is neither right nor safe. Here I bow. I can do no other. Lord have mercy on me. Amen.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions (and Their Answers)

Frequently asked questions (and their answers)

Could I reprint or redistribute something from this site?
Could you tell me a bit about yourself?
Do you mind if I email you?
How can I navigate this site?
How is this site organized?
There’s a lot of stuff here. Where should I start?
What is the purpose of this website?
What should I do if I find an error?
Why don’t you use HTML5 Boilerplate
Why isn’t my question answered here?

  1. Could I reprint or redistribute something from this site?

    Please contact me and ask. In the past I’ve given fairly generous permission to reprint or redistribute my items, but please do ask.

    One note: For some authors, “May I quote, translate, or reprint such-and-such that you wrote?” is always answered, “Speak to my lawyer.” Which, in practice, seems to always mean, “No.”

    If you request permission to reproduce something you see here, I will never answer, “Speak to my lawyer.” I will try to answer you myself, and I am in a position to give you permission if it seems appropriate to me.

    Special exception: If you want to use the picture from Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthane? for a church bulletin, you have my permission to do so. (If you are good at manipulating images, I suggest using a shrunken version of the high-resolution version want a slightly higher-resolution.)

    Please also note that high quality reproductions are now available, and possibly the original.

    Back to questions.

  2. Could you tell me a bit about yourself?

    I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, have degrees in math and theology, have a lot of interests, and have had some pretty interesting experiences (including riding an elephant in Malaysia). I invite you to read the author biography, but most of all to browsewhat there is to read.

    Back to questions.

  3. Do you mind if I email you?

    I love to hear from visitors! Please contact me.

    Back to questions.

  4. How can I navigate this site?

    There are several ways you can find things in this website. You can choose whatever seems easiest.

    • Search. At the top and bottom of each left hand menu are a search box.
    • Left-hand menu. At the left of each page, between the search boxes, is a menu listing what the sections of this website and the contents of each section. (See the next question if you’re curious about this site’s sections.)
    • Browse descriptions. Clicking on the name of a section in the left hand menu will take you to a browseable index which describes what is in the section. Some are broken into subsections. If you find one thing you like, you might like others nearby.
    • Site map. There is a site map for the site, arranged both alphabetically and by subject.
    • “You might also like…” links. At the end of most of my creations is a set of links to other things you might like. Please explore them.

    Those aren’t the only ways to navigate the site. I try to give you more than one option in finding things. Use whatever seems easiest or most interesting.

    Back to questions.

  5. How is this site organized?

    This page is broken into four major sections, not counting the sitemap. The sections are:

    • About, which has the things that would traditionally go into an “About” section: a contact page, the privacy policy, etc.
    • Et Cetera is really an “other creations” collection. It houses artwork, humor, games, open source software, and almost anything else that doesn’t belong in one of the other sections. (It’s by far the most diverse collection, although the writing section is itself very diverse and represents a number of genres.
    • Library, which has almost all of the literature.

    Back to questions.

  6. There’s a lot of stuff here. Where should I start?

    The home page might be able to help you. Each time you reload it, the “Today’s starting point“, section will highlight a page that changes every minute. The home page can help you find a specific page in this collection.

    Back to questions.

  7. What is the purpose of this website?

    This website was created to share the various things I’ve created. This includes a wide range of things I’ve written, art, games, and computer software. (All of these are meant to have a special sparkle.)

    Back to questions.

  8. What should I do if I find an error?

    Please tell me! I’d like to fix the error both for you and for other visitors.

    Back to questions.

  9. Why don’t you use HTML5 Boilerplate here?

    I believe in using technology because it advances a human goal and not just because it’s newer. Once upon a time, I knew that XHTML was the wave of the future and I converted my site to XHTML. Now HTML5 Boilerplate is the obvious wave of the future. I like using it, but I’ve learned a lesson: someday we may give HTML5 Boilerplate the same condescending smile by which we now patronize a webpage that validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict.

    If I see a reason to recode this site in HTML5 Boilerplate, a more substantial reason than “HTML5 Boilerplate is in fashion,” I will do so. I have experience with Boilerplate and it is a remarkable achievement, just not one needed to help this site achieve its goals. Right now the website’s human goals are served well by the existing markup, and things like “Make fewer HTTP requests” optimize my pages better with XHTML markup than HTML5 Boilerplate.

    I do, as with my search box, use HTML5 / HTML5 Boilerplate features as needed and as desired. (As HTML5 advocates have said, browsers care surprisingly little about DOCTYPEs.)

    This site is designed to degrade gracefully, and it doesn’t look bad in Internet Explorer 6.

    I have used pure HTML5 Boilerplate for other projects.

    Back to questions.

  10. Why isn’t my question answered here?

    If you have a question that isn’t answered here, please contact me with your question. I’d like to answer it, and other people may have the same question—so you’d be helping me build a better FAQ.

    Back to questions.

Contact Jonathan Hayward about Jonathan’s Corner.

The Administrator Who Cried, “Important!”

Revisited after some time

Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.

There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).

That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.

I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.

Buy Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary on Amazon.

Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”

So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.

Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”

So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.

His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.

One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”

And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.

One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.

A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.

But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?

No.

Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?

I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.

There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.

My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.

As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.

While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”

In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”

Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”

To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!