Tuesday 28 December 2021

Encanto: A Celebration of Invisible Labour

In this post, I reflect on what makes Mirabel, the leading character in the latest Disney movie, an unlikely hero.

On the surface, Encanto is the usual underdog story: in a family of exceptional people, blessed with magic and superhero powers, Mirabel has no special gift and is an embarrassment in the eyes of her grandmother and her much more accomplished sister Isabela. However, it is Mirabel, with the help of another outcast, her uncle Bruno, who will save the day.

To me, Encanto is about what it means to live in a society that does not acknowledge the patient, exhausting, and yet often invisible labour required in any sort of close-knit community--and often carried out by women. The weight of expectations suffocates the individuality of the members of the Madrigal family and takes the joy out of their lives. Such expectations are driven by labels that, once attached, are stuck to their owners: the strong and dependable Luisa; the “golden child”, perfect Isabela; the “weirdo” Bruno; big failure Mirabel; and the controlling matriarch, Abuela. 

Stuck in their determined roles, Abuela and Mirabel misunderstand each other. So they spend most of the film as enemies, but then they realise that there is more to the other than the label. Mirabel is giftless, but not useless. She is the glue keeping the family together, offering her sisters and cousins an opportunity to unload and be true to themselves. And it is not an easy task to placate anxious Luisa, get bottled-up Isabela to release her creativity, and encourage Dolores to make herself heard and pursue her dreams. Mirabel’s contribution is invisible because it is perceived only indirectly in everybody else's resilience: her dedication, compassion, and wisdom enable the rest of the family to cope. 

Mirabel helps Abuela too, to reassess her priorities and see her children and grandchildren as complex, imperfect people—and not as pawns in a game whose goal is to defend the family’s privilege. But Abuela is no villain: before she became a grandmother, she was young Alma, in love and full of hope. Love and hope that were crashed by tremendous adversities. Until the end we don’t even hear Abuela’s name, she is simply ‘Abuela’ as if there was nothing more to her than the role she plays. It is thanks to her interaction with Mirabel that we have a chance to hear Alma's story and appreciate her perspective.

In a recent research project on what makes for good clinical encounters, we found that young people seeking mental health support value validation and empathy above all: that is what Mirabel offers to her struggling family, a compassionate ear and genuine interest. Mirabel does not see other people as unidimensional labels, and it is when people talk to her that they realise that they can bring positive change and tackle their difficulties with adequate support. 

In our project we found that in successful interactions practitioners resist the temptation to treat the young person as a problem to be fixed and appreciate the whole person as an agent with multiple roles, interests, and goals. Being able to see each member of her family as a unique individual and to offer them emotional support at critical times are Mirabel's invisible superpowers. 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

When Unintelligence Makes a Group Smarter

This post is by Mandi Astola, a PhD student at Eindhoven University of Technology. This contribution is based on the article “Mandevillian Virtues”, published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2021.

Mandi Astola

Does one rotten apple spoil the whole bunch?
There is the saying “one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch.” This saying means that a single unpleasant person, “rotten apple,” can lower the morale in an otherwise nice group and ruin the vibe for everyone. Let us think about the literal meaning of the saying for a moment. The analogy with apples comes from the fact that rotten apples emit ethylene gas, which causes fruit to ripen faster. This is why rotten apples can make other fruit rot faster. But this also means that if you have a bunch of unripe, green bananas, you can actually ripen them faster by putting a rotten apple next to them. Therefore, one rotten apple does not always spoil the whole bunch! Sometimes it can improve the bunch, depending on what the bunch consists of.

Now let us think about the figurative meaning of the saying. Do people with “rotten” characteristics always lower the morale and ruin the vibe? If we think about group cognition, do unintelligent, boorish or closed-minded people always impact the intellectual climate negatively? I think there are many examples where our imperfections end up having a positive effect on the group or community that we are a part of. In many cases, having group members that are biased, less intelligent or less cognitively capable, can make the group smarter as a whole.

Here is one example: Some of us might have experience with overly dogmatic friends or family members. These are people who believe things firmly and are not easily convinced even when they have good reason to be convinced. However, what tends to happen when overly dogmatic people challenge their friends or family members? In many cases this results in a long discussion with heated arguments, googling and fact-checking. If this happens often enough, the family or friends group can get better at fact-checking, googling or arguing. Therefore, even if the dogmatic individual has an epistemically negative trait, this trait can play a systematic role in the whole group performing better epistemically speaking. This can be because it stimulates the group to engage in epistemic activity, perhaps to refute the dogmatic view. It can also widen the scope of possible answers to a question and make sure that the group considers all alternatives, even the ill-founded ones.

Are bad ways of thinking still bad if they make the group smarter?
Many people would say that it is a bad thing to be an overly dogmatic person. An overly dogmatic person is likely to think the wrong thing, and therefore also do the wrong thing, because they resist alternative viewpoints. One should not want to be overly dogmatic, at least from an epistemic viewpoint. And if one notices that one is becoming overly dogmatic, one has good reasons to try to work on oneself, to be less dogmatic. But if a dogmatic person causes their family to engage better in epistemic activity, then is their dogmatism still bad? Is there a need for such people to work on themselves? Or should we perhaps believe that such a person should stay as dogmatic as they are?

One might argue that we should see the trait in context, and not call it bad if it is an essential part of what makes one’s close community inquisitive in a positive way. But then again, when the dogmatic person leaves the good company of their family and goes to work, their resistance to alternative viewpoints causes problems. The rotten apple that ripens other fruits is still a rotten apple after all. What should we, then, think of such a dogmatic person’s dogmatism? How should we evaluate this character trait from an epistemic perspective?

We must learn to judge groups on their epistemic character
Examples like these show that we need to make a distinction between good and bad epistemic traits of individuals and traits of groups. The dogmatic family member clearly has a negative trait, but the family as a whole has a positive epistemic trait, for which the family as a whole deserves praise. Groups can also evolve epistemic traits and tendencies, virtues and vices, just like individuals can. Seeing the group as a whole, including the dogmatist, as a separate “person” with the trait of inquisitiveness solves the paradox of how to value the dogmatic person’s dogmatism. We can still say that dogmatism is a negative trait, but that the family just possesses an over-and-above positive trait, that of inquisitiveness.

We often tend to talk about intelligence, open-mindedness and inquisitiveness as traits that are possessed by individuals. However, we often display them in group activity. A group of scientists working together can sometimes be much more curious and accurate than an individual scientist. Many people also claim to produce their most creative work in groups with other people.

In the last decade, epistemologists have begun to focus extensively on collective epistemic activity, which is a good thing. But there is still quite some room for development in this area, especially when it comes to collective epistemic character traits, or collective epistemic virtues or vices. We should definitely develop accounts of what positive and negative epistemic traits of groups look like. For instance, in what ways can a group be inquisitive, or open-minded? And in what ways can a group be forgetful, inaccurate or lazy in their thinking?

Taking the group and individual as separate units of analysis makes it possible to distinguish between individual and collective epistemic behaviour. While they are connected to each other, they can still be evaluated differently. And this makes it possible to explain how a bad characteristic can still be bad, even if it plays a structural role in something good. Just as a rotten apple is still rotten, even when it makes bananas taste better.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

The Philosophy of Envy

Today's post is by Sara Protasi (Puget Sound) on her new monograph The Philosophy of Envy (Cambridge University Press, 2021). 

You are four years old, and you really want the heart-shaped lollipop that you have been staring at for days in the candy store window. And then, today, here it is, in the hands of your friend at school. You are so mad, and there’s this unpleasant ache, deep down in your tummy. “No fair!” you think. So, when the lollipop slips from your friend’s little hands and falls on the dirty ground, you cannot help but grin with satisfaction.

You are all grown up now, and are telling the lollipop story to your high school best friend with a mix of amusement and shame. As they laugh, you notice that today they look so cool, with their new fashionable haircut. You catch a glimpse of your shaggy hair in the mirror. That sinking feeling in your belly resurfaces. You repress a little sigh, and go on chatting, casually dropping a: “Hey, I saw Rainier making out with Sam in the cafeteria the other day. I thought you two were getting serious?” 

By the time you are a first-year in college, you and your high school bestie have grown apart. You are driven and hard-working, so you are heartbroken when you discover that the scholarship you cared so much about has been won by… your roommate, of all people! You are not an insecure teenager anymore, and you know they deserve it. But there’s this gnawing awareness that they are always a little better than you. So, you wish them all the best, and move out of the apartment. 

You have become a professor. You have spent years studying hard, looking up to people like your former roommate. You applied for more scholarships, won some of them, and were lucky enough to get a good job at a university near your hometown. When you go to your high school reunion, you are happy to see your long-lost friend. You feel a familiar pang when you note their new suit, but hug them and compliment them. And you make a mental note of buying a new outfit.

Do any of these scenarios resonate with you? Chances are some of them will. Everyone feels envy at some point in their life. Some people are more aware of their envy than others; some people are prone to feel envy more than others; some people feel more malicious kinds of envy than others; and some people are crippled by their envy more than others. Still, there is no culture that is devoid of envy, even though it takes different forms in different places and times. 

Notwithstanding envy’s ubiquity, it is a maligned emotion. It is condemned by all religious traditions, feared in all societies, repressed by most who feel it, and often kept a secret even to oneself. Because envy is a cross-cultural emotion, we have good reasons to think that it serves an important function in human psychology, and yet it has a terrible reputation. In my book I try to restore the truth about envy and argues that such a reputation is at least partially undeserved. Like other traditionally censured, but recently rehabilitated negative emotions such as contempt, anger, and disgust, envy has a role to play in our lives and may be essential to our flourishing. Once we can see the bright side of envy, its benefits and its reasons, then we can also better deal with its darkest features, its harms and its deceptions. 

My overarching argumentative strategy is to develop an original taxonomy of envy, to which I alluded in the four scenarios above: spiteful, aggressive, inert, and emulative envy, respectively. Once we know what envy is and how many varieties there are, we can look more fruitfully into how to deal with it, and into its value or disvalue. Thus, the first two chapters are devoted to laying out the ontology – what envy is. The remaining three chapters develop the practical normativity of envy – what is good and bad about envy in three main domains: ethics, love, and politics. The Conclusion tackles the axiology that stems from envy – the value of enviable things, which are more than you might expect. Finally, an Appendix traces the history of envy. 

Tuesday 7 December 2021

John McDowell on Worldly Subjectivity

Today's post is by Tony Cheng at National Chengchi University on his new monograph John McDowell on Worldly Subjectivity: Oxford Kantianism Meets Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences (Bloomsbury 2021). 

In this book, I explicate John McDowell’s philosophy with an emphasis on a specific Kantian how-possible question: how is subjectivity possible, given what we know about the world? This question is too vague until we specify what we do know (or at least claim to know) about the world. For example, if we ask: “how is subjectivity possible, given physicalism?”, McDowell might reply that with that specific worldview – physicalism – subjectivity can seem impossible. His general strategy is to broaden our metaphysical outlook: according to the picture he is recommending, physicalism is only half-right: it is right about the first nature, i.e., physical nature. What physicalism misses is the Aristotelian second nature, i.e., the nature that encompasses human intentionality and rationality. Given this relaxed naturalism, the above “how-possible” question will become much less urgent, or not urgent at all: subjectivity is not only possible but actual; it is an actual phenomenon that is inherited in our second nature.

This book aims to uncover the many faces of human subject via exploring aspects of McDowell’s worldview. More specifically, the aim is twofold: first, how does a Homo sapiens, an animal, can nevertheless be a Cogito, i.e., having the capacities for being responsive to reasons as such, and to think about oneself? Second, how can this minded human animal be a perceiver, knower, thinker, speaker, agent, person, and conceptual cum self-conscious being in the world? This takes the entire book to unpack, and here is not the place to rehearse or summarise it. Below I highlight two elements in the subtitle, namely: phenomenology and cognitive sciences.

McDowell has been engaging many western philosophical traditions throughout his career, but when it comes to the continental phenomenological tradition, his engagements have been minimal and reactive. It began with Hubert Dreyfus’ criticisms (circa 2006) based on works by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Samuel Todes. McDowell and Dreyfus had a series of exchanges on conceptualism in perception and action, but the moral in that exchange is rather limited: Dreyfus construes McDowell’s view on the mental so narrowly that phenomenological objections naturally apply to that view, but with some careful readings we know that McDowell does not hold that view. There is much to learn in their actual exchanges, but the take-home message is simple and even disappointing. Now, the phenomenological tradition is huge, and there is much more to explore in that direction. 

In this book, what I offer is only some early steps toward that aim. As a dedicated Kantian, McDowell’s overall framework is sometimes restricted by Kant’s original ideas. For example, according to Kant, varieties of synthesis are all active, but this might be in tension with McDowell’s view that conceptual capacities are passively operative in experiences. This is where Husserl’s passive synthesis can come in, though the actual details need to be worked out. Similarly, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have different notions of the body, and that can shed lights on the embodied and embedded mind picture that can already be found in Mind and World

As for cognitive sciences, a prominent example is Ned Block’s discussions of experiential imprecision and overflow in vision science. For McDowell, the richness argument and the fineness-of-grained argument are two important considerations against his conceptualism. In the empirical literature, Block’s discussions of overflow and imprecision roughly correspond to the richness and the fineness-of-grained arguments. This does not imply that the original conceptual arguments can be replaced by their empirical counterparts, but considerations from the cognitive science literature can definitely shed light on the original discussions.

I hope this has given enough incentives for you to read the book. I am glad to receive feedbacks and questions electronically; feel free to write to me about this and other stuffs! I also work on many other topics, which can be found in my personal website: tonycheng.net.

Friday 3 December 2021

Technology and Democracy: A paradox wrapped in a contradiction inside an irony

This is part of a series of posts on the new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol) and Peter Pomerantsev (Johns Hopkins University). Their forthcoming article ‘Technology and democracy: a paradox wrapped in a contradiction inside an irony’ will be published shortly as part of the journal inaugural collection.

Stephan Lewandowsky

Numerous indicators suggest that democracy is in retreat globally. Even countries that had been considered stable democracies have recently witnessed events that are incompatible with democratic governance and the rule of law, such as the armed assault on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 and the unlawful suspension of the British parliament in 2019. 

Although the symptoms and causes of democratic backsliding are complex and difficult to disentangle, the Internet and social media are frequently blamed in this context. For example, social media has been identified as a tool of autocrats, and some scholars have questioned whether democracy can survive the Internet. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that social media can cause some anti-democratic political behaviors ranging from ethnic hate crimes to voting for populist parties.

In the opposing corner, social media has been heralded as “liberation technology”, owing to its role in the “Arab Spring” and other instances in which it mobilized the public against autocratic regimes. Similarly, protest movements around the world have relied on social media platforms for the coordination of collective action.

This is the fundamental paradox of the Internet and social media: They erode democracy and they expand democracy. They are the tools of autocrats and they are the tools of activists. They make people obey and they make them protest. They provide a voice to the marginalized and they give reach to fanatics and extremists, and all of those views can appeal to supporting evidence.

We suggest that this basic paradox can be resolved only by examining the unique pressure points between human cognition and the architecture of the information ecology

Peter Pomerantsev

For example, people are known to attend to news that is predominantly negative or awe inspiring, and they preferentially share messages couched in moral-emotional language. When this fundamental attribute of human attention is combined with the social media platforms’ desire to keep people engaged, so that users’ attention can be sold to advertisers, it becomes unsurprising that online content has become outrage-provoking and toxic in so many instances: Misinformation on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was particularly likely to provoke voter outrage and fake news titles have been found to be substantially more negative than real news titles

Protecting citizens from misinformation, and protecting democracy itself, therefore requires a redesign of the current anti-democratic reinforcement structures of the online “attention economy”. In an Internet with democratic credentials, users would be able to understand which of their own data has been used to target them and why. Users would know why algorithms show them one thing and not another. During elections people would immediately understand how different campaigns target different people with different messages, who is behind campaigns, and how much they spend.

And as individuals should have more oversight and control over the information environment all around them, so should the public have greater oversight and control over tech companies in general. The public need to be able to understand what social engineering experiments the companies tinker with, what their impacts are, and how the tech companies track the consequences of these experiments. 

We consider the redesign of the internet to be the defining political battle of the 21st century—the battle between technological hegemony and survival of democracy.

Thursday 2 December 2021

The Triangular Self in the Social Media Era

This post is part of a series on the new journal Memory, Mind & Media. Today, Qi Wang talks about her research on the triangular self. Her paper, ‘The triangular self in the social media era’, is now available open access.

Qi Wang is Professor of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University. Her research examines how cultural forces, including the Internet technology, impact autobiographical memory and the sense of self. She is the author of The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture (OUP 2013) and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Qi Wang

In the era of social media, we can share online our daily experiences as our lives unfold, at any time and as frequently as we’d like, with diverse audiences physically afar. This way of remembering and sharing personal experiences is unprecedented in human history. It also uniquely contributes to how we view ourselves in a digitally mediated world. I propose a triangular theory of self to characterize the sense of self and identity specific to the era of social media. 

One form of selfhood, as traditionally understood, is how we privately view ourselves, our traits and attributes, our social relations, and our life experiences. I call it the represented self. This form of selfhood is externalized to the public sphere in the social media era. Through our online sharing actives, we strive to connect with others and express ourselves, and how we share our experiences later becomes how we remember and tell our life stories. 

Furthermore, through sharing our views and experiences on social media platforms, we acquire a digital extension of our selfhood, which I refer to as the registered self. The registered self as we present in social media often depicts our uniqueness and our ideal self-images, with the assistance of rich technology features in multimedia forms, such as text, photo, video, hyperlink, and even livestreaming and augmented reality. It is also open and communicative, to invite and engage our audience. 

Also, with short, frequent, and real-time posts of "what I'm doing right now" and often immediate reactions from our audience, we experience a sense of constant presence of others in our lives. The third form of selfhood is what I call the inferred self, where the virtual audience collectively form knowledge about us based on our social media posts and through their engaging in various ways with our posts. Working through a transactive mind, the virtual audience make sense of the disparate experiences we share online and interweave the slices of information into a coherent life story about who we are.

The three forms of selfhood mutually influence each other. For example, our personalities and motives influence how we share our experiences online. How others respond (or not respond at all) to our social media posts can in turn affect how we feel about ourselves and our self-esteem, as well as how we share our experiences in the future. 

In summary, the triangular theory of self conceptualizes the self as represented in the private mind of the person, the public sphere of social media platforms, and the transactive mind of the virtual audience. The three forms of selfhood interact in dynamic ways and together constitute our sense of self and identity specific to the social media era.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Gender and Narrative in Meaning-Making: An interview with Robyn Fivush

In this post, part of a series on the new journal Memory, Mind & Media, Katie Laker interviews Robyn Fivush, whose article, co-authored with Ariel Grysman, is entitled: 'Narrative and gender as mutually constituted meaning-making systems’ and is available open access.

Robyn Fivush

KL: Firstly, thank you for being part of the Memory, Mind & Media inaugural collection. Why was MMM a good fit for your paper?

RF: The two core constructs that we explore in our paper, narrative and gender, are inherently interdisciplinary and culturally mediated. No single discipline can fully define or even describe either of these constructs; they require a broad synthesis across multiple ways of knowing. And both are fully culturally mediated; both narrative and gender derive from socially and culturally saturated lenses that find expression in multiple media formats, from books to memes. 

MMM is committed to fostering conversations at the intersection of cognitive, social and cultural approaches to how memory works in the world, and so was an ideal outlet for our paper. Publishing in MMM allowed us to explore in more depth how narratives and gender are both constructed by and with cultural tools, including media, that shape how we remember and recall our personal experiences. Moreover, our arguments, while rooted in deep evolutionary, psychological and feminist theory, is speculative. 

MMM provided a space where we could bring together these theoretical threads to weave a new way of thinking about how narrative and gender co-create each other in the process of remembering our personal experiences within the framework of culturally-mediated narrative forms.

KL: Why did you and your co-author Azriel Grysman decide to focus on gender and narrative in meaning-making?

RF: The two of us, both individually and collaboratively, have been studying the relations between gender and narratives in autobiographical remembering for many years. Our work has focused on gender differences in how individuals narrate their personal experiences, with women narrating their past in more elaborated, emotional and relational ways than do men. But why we see these differences has been more elusive. 

We know that narratives are fundamental to how humans make sense and meaning of their world, and thus gender differences in these narrative expressions suggest that there may be differences in meaning-making by gender. We also know that gender is a foundational category/dimension across human history and societies. So the question of if and how gender and narratives co-construct each other emerges as critical in understanding meaning-making more broadly.

KL: What key perspectives does your article cover?

RF: Our core argument is that the very act of narrating is a gendered activity that constructs, represents and narrates gender as a primary category of human existence, and these fundamentally gendered ways of narrating then construct, define and reify gendered ways of being in the world. We argue from multiple theoretical perspectives, including evolutionary, psychological and feminist theory, that both narrative and gender are foundational to human cognition. 

From an evolutionary perspective, biologically based reproductive division of labor focused women on emotions and relationships, using narrative means to create community, and narratives that focus on emotions and relationships, in turn, reify these as gendered ways of being in the world. 

From a psychological perspective, gender may undergird the basic duality of agency and communion, themes that are expressed in personal narratives that structure meaning-making. 

Finally, from a feminist perspective, narrative that focuses on multiple perspectives through emotional and relational language, becomes a form of consciousness for women in ways that it is not for men. From this perspective, narratives construct gender as a form of voice, and gender constructs narrative as a form of double consciousness focused on the emotions, intentions and relationships of multiple participants.

KL: What future research does your article direct people towards?

RF: Moving beyond stereotypes of gender, a narrative approach provides a framework for understanding how gender is created along temporally unfolding narrative dimensions of emotion and communion, and how gender underlies narrative processing along these same dimensions, in an ongoing dialectical relation. To fully understand this process requires deep qualitative and dialectical analyses that explores how narratives unfold in everyday culturally mediated interactions.