Civil war avoidance issue

Sep 04 2020

Tips for avoiding a civil war

Last Thursday—two days after two Trump opponents were shot to death at a protest in Wisconsin, and two days before a Trump supporter was shot to death at a protest in Portland—the Washington Post ran a piece about the rising tide of civil conflict in America:  

In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, Ind., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States’ political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face-to-face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers.

Note the phrase “have been filmed.” Lots of forces—political, economic, cultural—have gotten us to this point, but one of the strongest is technological: the fact that so much of life is now captured on video. Nothing has so intensified tribal animus on both sides of the divide as the fact that every day the worst things done by members of either tribe are injected into the social media feeds of the other tribe. 

Which wouldn’t be such a regrettable form of entertainment if everyone kept reminding themselves that these viral spectacles are by their nature aberrant. The reason you’re watching (say) a Trump supporter throw a fit over having to wear a mask in a supermarket isn’t because that’s typical of Trump supporters but, on the contrary, because that’s the most obnoxious thing any Trump supporter in the entire country was seen doing that day. 

Or, to take a more timely example: the reason the social media feeds of Trump supporters recently featured a left-wing protester celebrating the killing of that Trump supporter in Portland (“I am not sad that a fucking fascist died,” she said to scattered cheers on the streets of Portland) is because that was the most reprehensible thing a left-wing protester was seen doing that day. 

Agnes Callard on acting against your interests

The first thing I ever heard about the philosopher Agnes Callard is that she had once lain down in the middle of a road at night as part of her philosophical explorations. This intrigued me, so I arranged to talk with her on The Wright Show last year. I’m glad I did, both because it was a fairly wild conversation (as conversations with philosophers go) and because it made me see such common words as unruliness and aspiration in a new light. In Part I of the interview, below, Alice and I talk about unruliness (and the related concept of “akrasia”). In Part II, which will appear in a future issue of NZN, we talk about aspiration, the subject of her book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.

Unruliness, or a rebellion for its own sake

WRIGHT: You’ve written about something called “akrasia.” As I understand it, it’s doing something even though you think it's the wrong thing to do in one sense or another—morally wrong, unwise—and you know that, but you do it anyway. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about “Unruliness,” which is the name of an essay you wrote. 

The way you first came to my attention was by virtue of your having at one point in your life laid down in the middle of a road at night on the yellow line, which struck me as—yeah, “unruly” would be a fair way to put it.

I was very struck by that and I thought I should get this person who allegedly did this to explain to me why she did it. 

So this was what, 20 years ago or something?

CALLARD: Yeah, just about. I was a grad student at Berkeley studying classics at the time. 

I guess I would describe unruliness more generally as when you see that there's a certain structure of how people tend to respond or act in a situation; and then you see another possibility of just a thing that people don't do. 

Another example I gave in that essay is eating flowers. I used to be really tempted to eat flowers. I'm like, they're so pretty. I just want to eat them.

Did you ever do it?

Yes. They don't taste good. But I would keep trying. It was like, but that's not what you do. You don't eat flowers.

One does not eat flowers.

Exactly. And so there's this line in the road, and it's like, here's what you don't do: lie down on that line. And then once I get that thought, I'm like, but what would it be like if you did it? 


In ProPublica, Alec MacGillis looks at “police pullback.” Amid recent protests, some cities have seen rising crime rates, apparently a result of less strenuous law enforcement by police who feel “aggrieved by the charges against their fellow officers, public criticism of their department as a whole or growing calls to greatly reduce their powers and resources.” An episode of police pullback in Baltimore in 2015, after protests over the killing of Freddie Gray, “combined with other problems to create a breakdown of civil order in the city,” MacGillis writes. “The rise of violence there has yet to abate, five years later.” 

This week Elon Musk, in promoting his brain-machine interface company Neuralink, trotted out a pig with a brain implant that can sense and relay nerve signals emanating from the pig’s snout. In Technology Review, Antonio Regalado notes that this feat is “nothing new” and explains why some of Musk’s awe-inspiring claims about future Neuralink products should be greeted skeptically. Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, suggests that Musk should “behave like a pioneer and implant the Neuralink chip in his own brain rather than exploiting smart, sensitive pigs who didn’t volunteer for surgery, don’t appreciate that he provides pats and a straw cell, and should be left out of pie-in-the-sky projects.” (Last month I interviewed Newkirk about her new book Animalkind.)

In Inkstick, Annelle Sheline, a fellow at the Quincy Institute, argues that self-inflicted calamities in the Middle East (such as the recent immolation of Lebanon’s main port) shouldn’t distract us from “the United States’ own role in creating the instability and poor governance that plagues the region.” 

The Washington Post takes a brief look at the life of Rusten Sheskey, the policeman who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, touching off the latest iteration of civil unrest. The New York Times takes a longer look at the life of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police in her Louisville apartment in March.

In Quillette, Philippe Lemoine takes a very, very, very deep dive into how the SARS-CoV-2 virus arose in China and spread. His three pieces (a fourth is yet to come) undermine the harsher critiques of the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, as well as claims that the virus originated in a laboratory and was the product of genetic engineering (though the conventional theory that it arose in a “wet market” is also lacking in evidence, he writes). Some promulgators of those critiques come out looking not so great; Lemoine says the reporting of Jim Geraghty of National Review was on more than one occasion “highly misleading”.

In Aeon, a short TED Ed video nicely illustrates the “Mary’s room” thought experiment, conceived by the philosopher Frank Jackson. Takes on it differ, but for my money it illustrates a sense in which human consciousness is beyond the reach of science (which doesn’t mean science can’t tell us anything about consciousness at all). Years ago Jackson spoke about his famous thought experiment on the Philosophy Bites podcast.