Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction Uncategorized

The Case Against Narcissism: Donald Trump and the Horror of Being

About a year ago, I came across an article about how mindfulness can be bad for middle class white people sometimes. At the time, I was taken aback by the sheer hubris of The Guardian writing a “story” about this- like, you can just imagine them “recovering” over their Starbucks Vente Soy No-Whip Chai Lattes, right? But in the wake of the Trump presidency, and the growing question of what it means to be accountable and to whom one is accountable, the same article floated back into my mind, framed somewhat differently: can the simple condition of awareness cause pain?


In my own, brief existence, there has never been a moment when it is clearer that we are what we believe, and that those beliefs together produce a reality in which each of us individually must exist. This observation has taken the political world stage as we watch Donald Trump go to town on this thing we think of as “truth.”  But it would be naïve to assume that this phenomenon has suddenly sprung into existence. Rather, Trump calls our attention to this collective act of being by rejecting it outright. In the analysis of why Trump rejects consistency, most media and individuals have concluded that it must be because he doesn’t want to acknowledge anything that might reflect badly on him, or his brand. His fragility and defensiveness, his overly literal solutions (such as the wall and the ban), and his overly literal measurements of what is allowable (when he doesn’t pay people or businesses he hires, when he talks about assaulting women),  are all taken as evidence that Donald Trump is mainly interested in Donald Trump. I would like to assert the opposite: Donald Trump is on the run from Donald Trump.

Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time, is famous for two things- for introducing the idea that we, humans, are concerned with being, and for being a Nazi. How, one often wonders, do the people who have so much insight into the human condition always end up being such lousy examples of human beings themselves? It may be that those who are most sensitive to world disclosure are the same as those who generally make the conditions of the lives of the people around them worse.

World disclosure, identified by Heidegger in Being and Time, is the process by which any entity (living or non) gains meaning. However, the warning here is that this is not the cultural notion of meaning. Rather, it refers to becoming intelligible in the world.  The assumption here is that an entity’s existence does not automatically make it intelligible. A baby looks at many things and few of them are disclosed to it, in the sense of “world disclosure.”

And yet, moving beyond Heidegger perhaps, although certainly still to do with being, a human is unique among entities, for at the same time he is disclosed to the world, that is the moment when he becomes complicit.

There’s that word again, that seems to rise like a tide of self righteous anger: complicit. Still, it’s worth remembering that we are complicit not only in suffering, but in the all. And perhaps that is still terrifying, but it’s a different kid of terrifying. Just a few days ago, an article was rising on this tide and floating through my feeds. The woke misogynist, this article argued, was the guy who identified as feminist, even spoke like a woke man, but was in the end, merely a hypocrite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, undeniably Part Of The Problem. And, bracketing the grievous act of sexual assault for the moment, we are confronted with a question that this article shies away from addressing: in the messy relationship between ideology and practice, what does it mean to be? For the unspoken rare universal truth is that no human escapes the grasp of hypocrisy entirely, we all struggle to embody the change we want to see in the world, and we all fail sometimes. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he’s really a feminist who just slipped up,” no, the question is “who or what is a feminist accountable to?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what is accountability?”

There seem to be two conflicting definitions. The first is the degree to which a person’s deeds match the belief sets they explicitly subscribe to, and the second is the degree to which a person shows up for and on behalf of other people. These are not the same thing by a long shot. The former, the consistency between a person’s alleged belief sets and his actions, is measured most often by the category of potential victim: feminist accountability is judged by women, anti-racist accountability by people of color, and so on. This measurement is then adopted by the larger group as a social conviction.  The latter, the comprehensiveness with which one is accountable to other people, is measured through the response one has to the expression of experience by another. This latter definition requires first the ownership of experience, and second the expression thereof not couched in any kind of rhetoric, but rather true because by definition, experience cannot be false. We cannot have false experiences, and in expression, they are only false if we are lying. To take the tremendously upsetting example from the article as a way of showing this point, the experience of sexually assaulting someone may not be that of committing a sexual assault, even if that is exactly what is happening. If a perpetrator of sexual assault says, “I did not experience sexually assaulting someone,” that is true. If he says, “I did not sexually assault someone,” that is false. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he doesn’t experience it as sexual assault,” no, the question is, “what is the relationship between experience and accountability?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “how does experience become intelligible?”

Through the process of world disclosure – that is when an entity becomes intelligible to the world – it becomes an element of that world, in fact it collaborates in the very constitution of the world. For that reason, the mere act of awareness is world-constituting. This is a process that can be described in technical terms, philosophically, but it can also be described in the disquiet of a middle class white woman who breathes in and out and counts her breaths. It can be described in the pain of a sexual assault victim in Brooklyn, New York, who faces the deeply disturbing gap between the ideals we hold up and the actions we take. Our very thereness makes us complicit in something far more horrifying than the narrow and deep suffering of people who are not us. It makes us complicit in constituting reality.  A person is because he or she is intelligible to us, and if we did not recognize him as such, he would live in a different reality, based on a set of conditions that are still entirely imaginary, that we have constituted together and subjected him to.

This is not a new claim, but it is quite a large one. The border between a person and the conditions in which he or she lives is porous, and the conditions themselves are constituted by all people together, but not to equal degrees. The President of the United States of America, alternatively called The Leader of the Free World, has, according to many, the largest amount of complicity. My assertion is that his own complicity in the constitution of reality already terrified Trump before he was president. Consider that if people are partially or wholly a product of the conditions in which they live, then accountability to belief sets is far less relevant than accountability to each other. We are constituted by each other, and that is true because of the fact of our existence, not because of any choice we can make. What we owe, we owe to each other and not to anything greater than or external to each other (take that, nation state).
And if, as is reasonable, we find this complicity terrifying, some of us will react, unreasonably, by avoiding accountability. What does avoidance of accountability look like? My assertion: narcissism. Consider that once we have disallowed the measurement of meaning to be a reflection of our complicity, the ways we have left to measure value are identical to those which Trump uses:

-How much human effort can we get on our own behalves for how little of our own resources? This is the measure of the value of work.
-How many other bodies besides our own can we claim for our own use at the cost of the least amount of our own emotional labor? This is the measure of the value of status.
-And of course, the literal barrier, the wall, as a measure of the value of protection.

The reason why these things are all absurd and offensive behaviors in our view is that we take into consideration accountability to each other. We do not, on the whole, sexually assault each other, because we constitute each other, and because we hold ourselves accountable for our own role in creating the conditions that define our experienced reality.

And finally, we reacquaint ourselves with the plain truth that this complicity is not a choice, it is true because of the fact of our existence- it becomes true as soon as we exist, and it remains true as long as there is human society. Indeed, even after death, what we have done and thought and shared continues to constitute people and the world.

But accountability is a choice. A person can run from the very notion of himself to avoid the complicity the fact of himself creates. Of the multitude of ways a person can run from himself, I have briefly approached two: to hold ourselves accountable to rhetoric instead of each other, and to measure meaning in the intentional absence of each other, using the literal mechanism of more and less. Trump does not want to be held accountable; no one is surprised by that statement. But what Trump does not want to be held accountable to is his own complicity, which requires him to avoid the very fact of himself. Donald J. Trump is not a narcissist, he is exactly the opposite. No one’s home.

As in the case of  the sexual assault perpetrator, the question is not, “Do we forgive Donald Trump because he is acting out of a place of pain, fear, and guilt?” The question is, how do we approach Donald Trump from the perspective of a man running from himself, instead of a man who is only interested in himself? And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what does the fear of being mean?”

If what we are seeking is a more accountable society, forgiveness is never the question because on the societal stage, ethical jurisdiction and accountability are not the same. The relevant measurement of the perpetrator is not how right or wrong his experience is, as if his experience can be right or wrong. It cannot be either of those things any more than it can be false. Rather, the measurement that is a reflection of societal accountability is the one which tells us how the experience of perpetrators of sexual assault is produced. We hold ourselves accountable for the production of that experience, and we send him to prison not because of his experience, but because of his action.  If you think your own moral judgment of an admittedly immoral human helps constitute the change you want to see in the world, well — that’s just narcissism.

Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction Uncategorized

The Administration of Identity Vs. The Experience of Identity (A Series, Part 3 of 4)

Image result for define "trigger warning"

Triggering: Preventing normal function by causing a person to relive past trauma.

I have been engaging in the ongoing debate around trigger warnings in a very limited way for a straightforward, if judgmental reason: I do not think the debate is being had on behalf of the ideas it tries to claim jurisdiction over (yes, I know, I really like using the word “jurisdiction.” Mainly because it has the word “dick” in the middle). There is a simple solution to the question of trigger warnings, and the fact that we have not embraced it seems to me to suggest that we’re in this thing for the wrong reasons to begin with. Let’s take a look.

The question is, purportedly, whether or not we should institutionalize the use of trigger warnings by creating a policy at the institutional level that promotes their use in the classroom. We will start with the assumption that there is nothing inherently wrong with trigger warnings, because the people who argue that the world is simply an unsafe place and folks need to learn how to live in an unsafe world are obviously correct, but are not really saying anything about trigger warnings. Some people drink tea as a coping mechanism and you don’t hear anyone saying that people do not deserve to drink tea because they should just get used to an unsafe world.  The fact of the unsafe world is the premise for the trigger warnings, not the argument against them.

The argument allegedly for trigger warning policy cannot be pinned down because the various strands contradict each other:
– Some supporters claim that trigger warnings are a coping mechanism for people who experience PTSD, and are only legitimate within the context of a psychiatric diagnosis. In this case,  in order to be entitled to trigger warnings, you also need what is essentially a ‘doctor’s note.’ Moreover, it is understood that the trigger warning allows the student to engage with the material in a different way that is better for him or her, but does not excuse the student from engaging with the material.
– Some supporters claim that teachers or professors should ask at the beginning of the semester for students to provide introductory information, including what, if any trigger warnings they would like.  Detractors assert that students should not feel obligated to reveal any of their past traumas to teachers/professors. It is not clear whether or not, in this case, students should be allowed to  simply not engage with the material.  The definition of what is a trauma, and what constitutes coping with it is entirely decided by the teacher and the student in this case.
– Finally, I have seen a few arguments that support trigger warnings for the express purpose of allowing students to avoid engaging with material they might find triggering. It should be noted again that “triggering” does not mean “uncomfortable” or “upsetting,” but rather, “preventing a person from normal function.”

The argument allegedly against trigger warning policy is that any policy which encouraged trigger warnings would have to have a definition of what constitutes “triggering,” and gives easy rise to institutional bias or discrimination.  Also, frequently, the “unsafe world, get over it” argument that I rejected above. There is something to be said for the fact that universities are explicitly places for freedom of ideas, including offensive ones, but not much — we live in a time when pursuing education past high school is mandatory for many people, and it’s plain silly to say that people who have to be there have to be traumatized. This argument carries into the individual classroom as well: either students have total authority over deciding which content they will or will not engage in on the basis of their own past traumas, they have a doctor’s note, or the teacher ends up having to make a call about what is “legitimately” traumatic.

The trouble across all these arguments for and against is that it is difficult to design a system for the administration of trigger warnings, less than whether or not trigger warnings are in and of themselves worthwhile. The solution to this problem strikes me as pretty obvious. Simply create a policy which requires annotated syllabi. Providing small summaries of what to expect in the media that students are required to engage with can only help them contextualize their work for the purposes of the class. And, by default, such a syllabus would also solve the problem of “trigger warnings” by offering short summaries of the content the class will be working with. Not to mention, a good percentage of my professors would have been better professors if they’d visualized the class well enough in advance to know what we were going to be reading (GUYS COME ON THAT IS [PART OF] YOUR JOB). Given the straightforwardness of this solution, one wonders why it’s still an argument at all. There shouldn’t be anything fundamentally controversial about summarizing. Yawn.

So the question I have is why are we still arguing about this? And the answer that I come up with is: People are arguing about experience of identity, instead of the administration of identity. It doesn’t matter what you personally think a traumatic experience should or should not be and it doesn’t matter what you personally think feeling safe should or should not be like. I mean — it matters — but not to this debate and not to questions about categories of identity. We can all agree that no one should be subject to whatever it is they experience as trauma or lack of safety. We can also probably mostly agree that the fact that no one should doesn’t ever mean no one will. Therefore, there is no actual debate about the worth of trigger warnings, because even if they’re only effective a small percentage of the time, that’s still a small percentage of a problem we all recognize being solved. But when we argue about the experience of identity, it becomes a lot more personal: suddenly it’s about who gets to call their own experiences legitimate, which is not an okay position to be put in or to put someone else in, at all, ever.


Hey Dylan Media Non-Fiction PC Games Uncategorized

1979 Revolution: Black Friday (PC Game) [Open Letter Series]

[Note: This is a reply to a letter written by Dylan Holmes over at his blog, as part of a game blogging series we are doing monthly. This month, we are discussing 1979 Revolution: Black Friday – a game about Iran in 1979. In addition, his response to this letter can be found here, and I finish the letter series hereAll the spoilers.]

maxresdefaultHey Dylan,
I will begin by agreeing with most of your thoughts. I agree that the cinematic aspects of this game are of far higher quality than the ludic aspects. More specifically, yes, there were a lot of mouse movements that were annoying as all get out. I agree that the information is presented in a compelling way, the world building is pretty good in that regard.  I get the impression that maybe the group of people who designed this game are not particularly interested in being a games studio — when I went to the website to link to it above (in the note), I saw that they partnered with a studio that may have done a lot of the non-cinematic parts. Lastly, I am also still glad that I played the game. I think what this game succeeds at, possibly against pretty decent odds, is that it is about something historical for the sake of making us aware about something historical and yet it is not edutainment.

But by far my biggest issue is that the choices often don’t affect the outcome of the game. I ended up playing this game in fits and starts, and therefore I noticed:

1) It didn’t appear to make a difference whether I got the documents out during the first scene or not.
2) If I chose to save Ali instead of Hossein, Ali died anyway, which lends the impression that there is a right answer.

I don’t know if there were other examples, but there might have been.

The choice to copy the Walking Dead game, or more specifically to introduce “so and so will remember that” is probably better for people who don’t usually play games and who need instructions on how to understand what is happening if they haven’t had an experience interacting with a narrative in that way before.  This might be more defendable in a case like this one, where the target audience might not be gamers (which is not true of The Walking Dead game or Dreamfall Chapters). But this of course gets back to the question we were talking about earlier this week — what the role of authorship is in games.  Notably, we say “game designer”  and not “game author,” which does seem to denote a different relationship between the creator and the content.  There seems to be something sort of gloating about the text on the screen,  as if the designer is saying “Ah, so that’s what you’ve chosen,  well let me tell you what that means.” Most gamers do not want to be reminded so blatantly that their agency is usually limited by the programming, and either way, it does sort of bring the player out of the world and into the meta over and over.  At the end of the day, I am somewhat forgiving because I think the flaws of this game are a result of naiveté and  lack of experience.

As for the story,  I would have preferred a straight “break the story” procedural. It is a continuous problem in media that they underestimate the understated. The trouble with blatant violence is that it is the least complex way to deal with power dynamics in a narrative, and therefore it ends up feeling a little cheap. But the world building was so good in this game that the ham handed (as you put it) use of violence didn’t take away too much from the immersion for me.