"There are four kinds of wisdom ... giving, kind speech, beneficial deeds, and cooperation."

Sunday, September 19, 2021

That which refrains from selfishness

Smoke continued to ooze down the canyons into our area, following the river, off and on throughout the first half of September. I photographed the sun, and sent the image to a friend, who complimented me on my photo of the moon. By unintentional omission, I had misinformed him.

When the Air Quality Index reaches 200, Jasper Mountain fades from view, like a ghost retreating into the shrubbery. I, too, fade from view, putting up curtains in the doorways round the living room and sitting close by the HEPA filter. A couple of times in recent years, the AQI went over 400, and many have experienced that this year, but for us the prevailing winds have kept away the worst of it.

After almost one hundred days, some rain came. Not as much as in Eugene nearby, and nowhere near as much as in Salem (as usual), but something. The air has cleared for now, and the surviving plants have perked up a little.

We generally put in a patch of zinnias for their cheery proletarian vigor. They encourage us to keep our chins up in these times.

With so much of the world now under the sway of propaganda, I have thought a lot about representation. Conclusions I have tentatively reached are maybe no more coherent, objectively, than anyone else's, but if you are interested in the mutterings of this old nun, read on.

In Baldessar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, there is a discussion of meaning, in which one disputant imputes it to words, and the other questions him in the Socratic manner:

I would know then, quoth the Count, whether this stile and measure which you speake of, arise of the sentences or of the wordes?

Of the wordes, answered Sir Frederick.

Do you not think then, quoth the Count, that the wordes of Silius and Cornelius Tacitus are the very same that Virgil and Cicero use? and taken in the same signification?

Sir Fridericke aunswered: They are the very same in dede, but some yl applyed and dyverslye taken.

The Count aunswered: In case a manne should pyke out of a booke of Cornelius and of Silius, al the woordes placed in other signification then is in Virgil and Cicero, (whiche should bee verye fewe) woulde you not then saye that Cornelius in the tounge were equall with Cicero, and Silius with Virgil?

Then the L. Emilia: Me thinke (quoth shee) thys youre dysputation hathe lasted to longe, and hathe been verye tedyouse, therefore it shall bee best to deferre it untill an other tyme.

Dang, Emilia. Just when we were about to get somewhere. 

All communication is by way of "signification," from the shortest grunt or raising of an eyebrow, to Shakespeare read or enacted. Whether implied or explicit, the form is algebraic, in order to assert --

A=B, B=C, ∴ A=C

or refute.

A=B, B≠C, ∴ A≠C

A one-word reply to a query is an implied sentence, whether it is itself a subject or its modifier (A), a verb (operator), or object/object's modifier (B). 

We say, as a cautionary aphorism concerning the pitfalls of communication, that "the map is not the territory," which is certainly true, but civilization is made up of these maps, and we rely on them in the sense that a map giving you directions to a dock on a given lake should, when followed, lead you to within a stone's throw of said dock.

A bad map (misinformation) may be a mistake, which happens a lot, or one created for ulterior purposes -- disinformation.

Disinformation is when some one gives you a map with purported directions to the dock, knowing that if you follow it you will instead drive off a cliff. This is uncivilized behavior. It makes use of the rather widely, if vaguely apprehended imprecision of communication -- words and other signage -- to undermine trust or to relocate trust to those who would deceive. If everything is at least a little untrue, then surely you can ignore the little inconsistencies in our snake oil, yes?

Examples abound. Advertising as an industry, which drives much of commerce under competitive marketing, deliberately disinforms with skillful use of fallacies.

"Guys: the red car in this commercial is fast. Fast cars bring fast females. Buy this red, fast car and you will find fast females."

Examples of attempts to repair such damage also abound.

 "Dudes, this may be a red car but where are the stats that show it is fast, and can the source be trusted? In any case, not all women can be persuaded that your owning a red car or a fast car or a red fast car is a sign that you are potentially a satisfactory mate. Maybe try being genuinely kind and attentive instead."

And so on. War theorists tell us that one who defends loses, so civility has been losing for some time now. Hence the enormous profitability of the ad industry.

Communication, being algebra, is necessarily metaphorical; that is, subjects and objects are representative rather than the things themselves, and there's a certain interchangeability, as when the Pythagoras theorem is applicable to many different rooflines. 

The assertions and refutations run on the use of equivalencies between symbols and things and also between things and other similar or dissimilar things, with some examined and unexamined premises, and maybe some intent to inform or deceive.

I think that, largely, informing is a peaceable or cooperative venture, misinforming is ignorance at work (I do this a lot), and disinforming is a form of warfare. Disinforming fills up the lines of communication with noise until the modems, so to speak, grind to a halt. How is this different from bombing bridges and railroads?

Many seemingly innocuous behaviors, especially some forms of academic or political or social gatekeeping, are made up of words that have in them no especially loaded intent strung together in sentences that have very loaded intent indeed, spoken or written to specific targeted audiences in order to create advantage to some over the interests of others -- and the end result can be that a little bit more weight is added to a given population's burden of survival -- as a long, slow process of genocide. 

The basis of much, if not all, of this campaign of disinformation is Social Darwinism. It's the view that the competition half of Darwin's discussion of competition and cooperation as the drivers of evolution is the only driver of evolution -- that "competition is the good." It's a deliberate misreading of Darwin, in order to provide a rationalization for violent authoritarianism.


Whew. Would ya like some tea? 

There are a variety of map systems that are functional, or at least internally consistent, without the intent to deceive. To give but one example, we have Buddhism (you knew I was going there, right?).

Buddha's insight, which is that an individual person is to some extent illusory, individuality being a temporary conjunction or nexus of contextual entities which are themselves temporary conjunctions or nexuses of contextual entities, leads to something like an opposite view to that of Social Darwinists. 

As the "meaning of life," in Buddha's view, lies in one's context and not in one's essentialist sense of a competitive destiny, to participate creatively rather than destructively in one's context may be regarded as the good, one evidence of which is that one may find increased well-being and contentment in so doing.

In the sermon at Benares, he posited four truths which I'd like to very loosely paraphrase thus: life is messed up (dukkha); it is messed up because we are competitive (greedy, attached); the way to stop being messed up is cooperation; here's how we cooperate (his eightfold path): right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi or concentration. 

Or as I might put it, 1) see that cooperation is better for us than competition, 2) resolve to cooperate, 3) choose information over disinformation, 4) choose cooperative behavior, 5) engage in teamwork for cooperative ends, 6) resolve to see all this through, 7) be aware of the impacts of our behaviors, and 8) get some practice in the most basic of all non-competitive activity, which is centering down.

It's often said that "enlightenment is practice and practice is enlightenment." The behavioral practices that "right conduct" is said to break down into are, usually, do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, do not abuse sexuality, do not abuse substances. In other words, enlightened behavior is that which refrains from selfishness, that is, refrains from "social Darwinism."

To see how these principles would play out in society, I can think of no better introduction than E.F. Schumacher's essay on "Buddhist Economics." 

Written by a devout Catholic, by the way.

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