Friday, May 27, 2011

Selling Oneself Short: self-deception, dating and dive bars.


I’m sure most of you remember the scene in Good Will Hunting in which psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) calls out Will (Matt Damon) for lying to himself about why he refuses to capitalize on his talents. Will says that he doesn’t value working for the NSA (or as a math professor, or whatever), but Sean thinks that Will is afraid of failure.

Will defends his decision to lay brick (his current gig) instead of pursuing a more prestigious job in the following way:

“What’s wrong with laying brick? That’s someone’s home I’m building….There’s honor in that.”

In response, Sean points out to Will that he (Will) could have been a janitor anywhere, but chose to mop floors at the most prestigious technical school in the world (MIT) and solve equations at night and lie about it. “There’s no honor in that,” Sean contends.

In this situation, Will is able to offer a legit justification for choosing the life of a brick layer (or a janitor). There is honor in both jobs. But Will doesn’t embrace this justification, he doesn’t take it to be his own, but hides behind it. He’s really laying brick and mopping floors because he’s afraid to fail in his attempt to shoot for the stars.

Here I’m going to discuss two situations in which folks tend to (or are tempted to), hide behind legit justifications for not doing things they are scared to do.

First, consider Jennifer. She’s 26 years old, single, well-educated and gainfully employed (let’s see she’s a consultant). There are plenty of hip bars and clubs in Jennifer’s neighborhood. Bars and clubs populated by young, good-looking people. Jennifer, however, only frequents the grimy dive bars, populated by the locals who are, well, less successful than she.

Jennifer is a bit socially awkward and doesn’t consider herself to be that attractive.

Jennifer defends her bar choices in the following way:

“I go to the dive bars because those ‘hip’ spots are expensive, loud and full of pretentious people. I can go to the dive wearing whatever I like and talk to real people.”

Clearly, Jennifer cites legit reasons to prefer the dives over the hip clubs. But Jennifer never goes to the hip clubs, never. She is single and those places are full of guys who are similar to her in age, education and economic status. And, really, Jennifer hasn’t made the effort to confirm her judgment that all of the hip bars in her neighborhood are expensive and pretentious.

Might it be the case that Jennifer is hiding behind, as opposed to embracing her justification for only going to dive bars? Could it be that Jennifer doesn’t go to the hip bars because she doesn’t feel comfortable there (someone may try to dance with her!) and/or is afraid she’ll be rejected by the guys who frequent those spots?

I think so.

Now consider Tom. Tom is dating Sarah, a nice woman, but a woman who Tom isn’t that attracted to. Tom has some of the same hang-ups as Jennifer. He’s not completely insecure, but doesn’t take himself to be the best looking or the smoothest guy in the world.

Tom defends his dating Sarah in the following way:

“Sarah is a good person and I’m not shallow. We all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

As does Jennifer (and Will) Tom gives legit reasons for his dating Sarah rather than pursuing someone he’s more attracted to. But certainly Tom would prefer to date someone he’s attracted to and certainly he doesn’t think that there aren’t any attractive women who are also good people.

Could it be that Tom doesn’t think he will be able to date a woman he’s attracted to and is simply hiding behind this justification for dating Sarah?

Clearly, I think so.

To be clear, I don’t take it that I’ve provided enough information about Sarah or Tom to justify the conclusion that they are hiding behind their justifications. But I do think I’ve provided enough information to justify the suspicion that Sarah and Tom are hiding.

So, you ask, what’s your point Black Socrates?

My point is this: We often do (or, don’t do) things because we’re insecure and afraid of failure. When a legit justification for an action (or inaction) is in the offing, we often hide behind this justification instead of facing the truth.

Clearly, some people would genuinely rather lay brick than work for the CIA. Some frequent dives rather than hip clubs not because they are insecure, but because they really don’t like those clubs. And some people date people they are not attracted to not because they feel themselves unable to date someone more attractive, but because they are genuinely attracted to the personality of the person they’re dating.

I simply wish to warn you (reader) about a certain trap that people tend to fall into. Be honest with yourself. Justify your actions and don’t simply hide behind legit justifications.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dating Someone of a Different Faith: a recipe for tragedy?


Black Socrates knows someone who will think that this blog post is directed at her. It's not, but our conversation did cause me to revisit this issue.

What is a tragedy? It’s a story in which someone (or something) great is destroyed or falls apart, often for reasons beyond anyone's control. King Oedipus marries his mother, kills his father and puts his eyes out. And, tragically, he could have done no other (well, he didn't really have to put his eyes out, but you get the point). Romeo and Juliet's deaths result from a failed attempt to continue a romance forbidden by each of their families. Because of their love and the beef between their families, Romeo and Juliet were tragically led to commit suicide (obviously, ending their relationship).

In the first example, a great king is destroyed by fate. In the second, a great relationship falls apart because of a family feud. Notice, however, that while Oedipus could do nothing to avoid his tragic demise, Romeo and Juliet could, and did, take steps to prevent their tragedy. They were not completely complicit in the demise of their relationship. They fought for what they had.

Some tragedies are inevitable. Others, we can take steps to prevent.

Here's another type of tragedy: a potentially great relationship falls apart because the parties involved have different religious beliefs.

Now, my question is this: are tragedies of this type inevitable or can they be prevented?

First, let's get clear on the type of situation I have in mind. Jamal and Jasmine meet at a party, they go out a few times, have great chemistry, similar interests (surprise, surprise, they both hate Tyler Perry movies) and agree on the big issues (abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, etc). But one day, Jamal, a somewhat committed Christian, finds out that Jasmine is an atheist. He decides that this is a deal breaker and, reluctantly, stops seeing Jasmine.

I’m going to argue that Jamal should have taken steps to prevent this tragedy. That is, that one should not view a difference in faith as an automatic deal breaker.

Let’s assume for a second that the god Jamal believes in exists and does not want him to seriously date or marry a non-Christian. Jamal cites 2 Corinthians 6:14 as evidence for the latter claim:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

Remember, we’re assuming that Jamal and Jasmine are great together and could come to love one another. If Jamal knows this, it seems that Jamal should view god’s restriction as unjustified, just as Romeo viewed as unjustified the restriction that prevented him from dating Juliet publicly. He should rebel against this god as Romeo did his family.

If a tragedy does result from this situation (say god temporarily paralyses Jamal every time he attempts to go out with Jasmine), the blame should fall solely on god (as it does on the Montagues and Capulets). In other words, Jamal shouldn’t be complicit in the tragedy. He shouldn’t view Jasmine’s atheism as a deal breaker.

Let’s now consider another situation, one in which Jasmine drops Jamal when she finds out that he is a Christian.

Of course, Jasmine wouldn’t end things with Jamal because she believed it to be god’s will, but she could have other reasons. Say she just has an extreme hatred of religion and can’t stand to be with somewhat who believes in god(s). In fact, say Jasmine finds herself unable to fully respect religious people and always feels the need to correct their beliefs. She’s really feeling Jamal, but doesn’t believe that she could ever come to love him knowing that he is a Christian, and cuts things off.

Jasmine too should take steps to prevent this tragedy from taking place. Jasmine should recognize that people end up believing in god for all types of reasons: because the belief makes them feel good, because it allows them to cope with some tragedy in their personal lives, because they grew up religious and were never placed in a situation in which they were required to question their beliefs, because they fear death, etc.

While she may not respect Jamal’s beliefs, she could come to understand why he holds them and, in turn, come to terms with that part of his life. As long as Jamal isn’t a religious nut (not bombing abortion clinics and refusing to listen to hip-hop “because it’s the devil’s music”), Jasmine should not let his belief in god (in itself) be a deal breaker.

If a tragedy results from this situation (say Jasmine’s atheist friends sabotage the relationship), Jasmine should not be complicit in it.

(Of course, there’s always the issue of children. Jamal will want to raise his kids in the church, while Jasmine will likely be appalled by the idea. But, I’ll address this issue in another post. Really, I think it can be easily resolved.)

Clearly, we only have so much time in this world. Regardless of what you believe about death, you know that death will be the end of this type of existence. Folks aren’t dating in heaven.

While you’re here, don’t be complicit in a tragedy. Don’t let a difference in faith be an automatic deal breaker.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Braggin' and Boastin', Boastin' and Braggin': the ethics of tooting your own horn


If you know Black Socrates personally, you know that I'm playfully arrogant. If you ask me what I've been working on lately (in philosophy), I'll likely respond, "Something great" or "A paper that will change the way everyone thinks about [whatever topic I'm on that week]."

At the more grimy Pittsburgh dives, I've been known to declare "Clearly, we can never come here again" and "We can't live our lives like this, "and "These are not our people."

Sometimes I just let boastful statements slip out. (I won't give examples, you'd think less of me). But, generally, I'm okay with the way I am. I brag a lot, but in a self-conscious and playful way (well, most of the time).

I appreciate others who do the same (and, who can back it up, of course). I love Kanye's attitude, at times. His verse on the "Ego" remix is great. Check it:



But, as you may suspect, my way of being is often met with resistance.

My friends held a mini intervention for me on the beach in Miami (spring break, '99):

"Brandon, we know you best. You're very, very arrogant." I resisted, but was convinced after they offered multiple pieces of evidence to back up their claim.

The clearest statement of resistance has come from two of my classmates at Pitt. Here's a paraphrase of their position:

"People who are really good don't brag. The truly talented (or cool) don't need to talk themselves up, they just let their actions (or style, or work) do all of the talking. People will notice your talent if you just keep doing what you're doing. No need to brag."

The first claim is just false. There are plenty examples of talented people who brag: Muhammad Ali, Kanye, Kobe.

The second, questionable. Sometimes people take notice of talent. Sometimes not. There are plenty of talented artists, athletes and academics who are slept on. It seems that one needs to do more than just produce good work (or perform well) to garner recognition. Clearly, I think it's perfectly acceptable to talk oneself up to avoid being slept on.

My question is this: If you've got the skills, what's wrong with being arrogant (playfully or not)?

Sure, people are often put off by arrogance (by boastin'and braggin') but we can't conclude that there's something wrong with being arrogant from the fact that people are often put off by arrogance.

Am I missing something?