“Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand”

May 3, 2021 • 2:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Philosopher Daniel A. Kaufman edits an online magazine called The Electric Agora which bills itself as a “modern Symposium for the digital age”, and which “publishes essays, videos, reviews, and humorous pieces, lying at the intersection of philosophy, the humanities, science, and popular culture.”

He posted a piece yesterday entitled “Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand” in which he laments the loss of shared conventions of thought and behavior that allow for a tolerant, civil, and liberal society. He writes,

The 25 propositions below say things that pretty much everyone in the United States understood until five proverbial minutes ago. I collect them here, not just as a reminder of how much things have changed in such a short time, but because together, they represent a wisdom about life that is needed today more than ever before.

Most or all of the 25 would gain my assent, but I’ll comment briefly on just two of them here.

Proposition 23, “Terrible people have produced and continue to produce great works of art and popular culture, the value of which persists, regardless of the character or conduct of their creators“, seems relevant to the biography of Philip Roth that Jerry mentioned, and also captures some of what might be a consensus in the discussion amongst WEIT readers on that post.

Proposition 24, “The point of engaging with arts and entertainment is not to develop a deep, personal investment in the character of artists and entertainers whom you don’t know and never will“, I would extend to athletes as well. Two of my favorite athletes are Patrick Ewing and Derek Jeter, both now retired.

I followed Ewing and the Knicks closely during his heyday with them. At some point, perhaps after he retired, I saw some news item connecting him to some tawdry behavior at a strip club, and how this might affect his wife. My first thought was, “I didn’t know he was married.” And that’s the way I wanted it to be– I admired his play, not his personal life. (I’m not saying there was anything much wrong with his personal life– after all, “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto“– it’s just that I didn’t know, and had no need to know.)

Derek Jeter was long New York City’s most eligible bachelor (women regularly showed up at Yankee Stadium holding “Marry me Derek” signs), and he regularly was photographed with the beautiful and famous women he dated. But he himself essentially never commented on anything outside his life in baseball, and even in that realm he was always circumspect, and focused on “any year we don’t win the World Series is a failure”-style deflection of questions. And I liked this– he spoke on the field, with his play.

Both Ewing and Jeter were outwardly stoic and taciturn. Perhaps I liked this about them, but I’ve no idea if this is what they are “really” like; even more I liked that this kept the focus on their sport, and not their private lives.

There are 23 more propositions, all worthy of comment. Go read the piece, and choose a proposition or two to comment on here for fellow WEIT readers.

h/t Brian Leiter

69 thoughts on ““Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand”

  1. I like this one best I think:

    “[8] Not discounting individual cases which may vary widely, as a general matter, no one living in the US and born after the Second World War is less “safe” or experiencing greater hardship or deprivation than those belonging to the generations behind them.”

    As with Pinker’s Better Angels, it takes a pretty deep misunderstanding of history to think modern western people have comparatively hard lives. Just taking disease as one aspect, Covid may be hurting a lot of livelihoods, but it’s no smallpox. No polio. I think of my Uncle’s very light polio-related symptoms and think ‘there for the grace of medicine, go many.’

    (Not to mention the having walk uphill both ways to and from school…)

    1. Depends a bit. In a few important areas things seem to have deteriorated. It appears to be that all gains from automation, computers and internet, as well as the cultural learning to operate these things have only benefited a miniscule elite. It did not lead to more free time, or higher salary for most people. On the contrary, employees check mails long after work, are more or less always on the grind in a gig economy, and cannot usally afford a house like their parents did, despite better education or more certificates.

      I don’t know or intent to offer a calculation whether it is truly better or worse one time or another in recent history; only that it is a tad chequerd.

      1. It did not lead to more free time, or higher salary for most people.

        IIRC, the first is either a truism or truthiness (depending on your level of cynicism) which stretches back to hunter gatherer days. Agriculture didn’t lead to shorter work hours. Bronze working didn’t. Iron working didn’t, mass production didn’t, etc…

        With humans, basically, whenever we get more efficient at something, we just spend the same amount of time (or more) doing it and produce more, rather than spending less time doing it and producing the same.

        Kinda sad to think about that as it applies to the future. Say we design good AI running van Neumann machines, eliminating the need for human ‘grunt’ work and eliminating things like food scarcity altogether. In that future, our great-x-grand children will still be working 9-12 hour days to make it up the corporate ladder, or to make tenure, or to get their book published, or at whatever new talent-employment thing humans spend their time doing then.

      2. Yeah, that’s not true.

        At least, it’s not true in general. Sure some people find themselves effectively at work when they are at home or elsewhere but these people would probably have been working late nights at the office in days gone by.

        The housing crisis has nothing to do with automation, computers and the internet and, in fact, could be alleviated by technology. If you can work from home, there’s no longer a need to be located near your office in a high price area.

    2. It is true that on average people are better off in the physical sense than any previous time. The metrics presented by Pinker and others are hard to argue with. Yet, what about mental health? It is much more difficult to measure this component of the “good life” as compared to physical well-being. Impressionistically, it seems that mental problems, such as anxiety and depression, are off the charts. Perhaps, the impression is wrong. It may be due simply to the fact that as opposed to previous generations, people are more willing to openly discuss these conditions. But, to the extent that this impression is grounded in reality, what could be the cause of it? It may be that material well-being and the pursuit of it create in many people a sense of uncertainty, the fear of losing what one possesses or the failure to live up to societal expectations. In any case, I think the hypothesis that there is a negative correlation between a society’s growing material wealth and mental health warrants extensive research.

      1. Hunger and pain constitute fundamental features of mental health, experiencing either or both of them leads to depression and anxiety, and both have been reduced (that is, mental health has been improved) by advances in material well-being.

    3. “Born after the WWII” sets the standards relatively low, though. One can make a similar point about the whole world: Physical hardship measured via life expectancy was worse for 19th-century continental Europeans than it is now in any country of the world. (Life expectancy for Germans was somewhere in the 30s in the mid-19th century).
      For many younger people today, the comparison is the generation of their parents and grandparents, and physical safety is taken for granted. Psychological well-being has deteriorated for people born after ca 1965 in the Western world and also parts of the ex-Soviet sphere, more so the 80s, as jobs became less secure, well-paid industry jobs went abroad and class inequality worsened.

  2. Pascual Jordan was a member of the Nazi party. Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark railed against what they called ‘Jewish physics’. They, especially the last two, may not have been pleasant people, but we use their work.

        1. You got me. I thought “Isaac Newton wrote a rape manual?!” I was going to challenge you to cite a reference but fortunately I decided to Google it first.

  3. Interesting, Greg. Thanks. I would maybe add these: The results of human activity will never be perfect.

  4. [15] Offense, insult, and hurt feelings are not particularly important, other than to oneself and to one’s intimates. This does not mean that you should go out of your way to offend others but rather that if you are offended, you shouldn’t be surprised if those outside your friends-and-family circle aren’t inclined to make a federal case out of it.

    What happened to “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”

    1. Because words do hurt and do a lot of damage. That saying was developed, most likely, to allow people to be cruel to others and say that it’s the victim’s fault for getting mad about it.

      1. Words do damage if you allow them to. It’s worse getting flayed or having your fingers cut off, or the like. In other words, the level of damage that has become to be considered “hurt” has changed. We can all be thankful for that, and I think those who consider words hurtful should perhaps be taught (in a gentle way) what the word “hurt” really means.

        1. Spoken like someone who has never been told that they are useless, will never amount to anything, should have been an abortion.

          You’re right, it’s not a physical pain. Physical pain goes away after a while. Emotional and mental pain may never go away and leave a person just as crippled as a massive physical injury.

          There is no difference in saying that “It’s just words” and “Black should just ignore the racial slurs against them.”

          You are ignoring the very real, and very permanent damage that words do to people. Yes, we SHOULD be able to ignore words. But when those words come from a parent… no, an 8 year-old cannot just “ignore” hateful words from a parent.

          You want to know what “hurt” really means? Try telling your 8-year-old child that the reason he doesn’t see grandpa is because grandpa wishes his father had been aborted before being born. You want to see “hurt” try BEING the person that your own father wishes had been aborted before birth.

          I would much, much rather lose a couple of fingers than this.

          1. Just want to say that Grandpa sounds like a real asshole. And yes, words can do damage, just as physical injury can. Cruelty is cruelty.

        2. No, words can do mental damage. I accept that. We should accept that. However, given that vigorous open debate and voiced disagreement is necessary for a thriving free state, it’s just something we have to grapple with. Playground harsh words are like playground skinned knees – they really do hurt, but tolerating some of it is probably better in the long term than wrapping our kids in bubble wrap.

          I always figured the ‘sticks and stones’ rhyme was intended to help kids mentally deal with hurts, not pretend no hurt actually occurred. Sort of like saying “walk it off” to an adult. Nobody is saying walking actually reduces the injury. It doesn’t. But the encouragement may help you function with the minor injury rather than it temporarily debilitating you.

          1. My mother used to quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

        3. Words have been known to drive people to suicide. Words have been known to persuade people to through other humans off tall buildings simply for being gay.

          Yes being flayed alive is unimaginable hurt but that doesn’t mean lesser forms of hurt are not valid.

      2. It was an ideal to strive for, not reality. The ability to shrug of insults allows you to achieve more and it also reduces the number of insults you receive. If you dwell on the insults, you lose mentally and status wise.

        1. The opposite of developing the ability to shrug off insults, which is certainly a skill that can be developed, is actively seeking new words and ideas to be insulted by. Though this is often done to seek power or status, in reality, it needlessly gives others power over you.

      3. Words do hurt, but the saying was developed to help you cope with it better. The words that hurt most are those said by intimates, not the ones said by strangers. The current craze about microagressions and the like is about word choices of strangers that wouldn’t even have counted as offensive 10 years ago.

  5. I wondered about #11 “Even for those who live in modern, developed, peaceful nations and who are financially well off, life contains more suffering than happiness.” As a 78 year old optimist, I feel like life in general has been a good thing, punctuated by brief bouts of intense sadness. Maybe suffering is waiting up for me at the end?

    1. Regarding #8: I think of my great-grandmother who married during the Civil War. She lost her first two babies before they were five, her husband suffered a catastrophic financial loss and they pulled up stakes and headed west, where her fourth boy took up with bad company and she successfully beat the bushes for signatures on a petition to pardon him from prison, her husband died, she gave birth at 39 to another son who did not survive, in the primes of their lives, with families, two sons died of influenza in 1918. She lived to the age of 96 and died in 1939. There was a woman who’d suffered a few things.

    2. For me personally, this was the only one on the list I completely disagreed with. My life has way more happiness than suffering. I hope the statement in #11 isn’t true for most others.

  6. 26. Someone who uses the n-word in an anti-racist or didactic context is not a racist because of that regardless of their race.
    27. Context and intentions matter.
    28. Anyone regardless or their race or identity can be racist or bigoted.

  7. I also found number 8 to be a very good and true one. And why it no longer is in the minds of people can be explained pretty easily. People are consumed with their own existence and their own importance. Also, they know very little of yesterday, of history or anything that happened before themselves. The generation that lived through the depression which was quickly followed by WWII was the greatest generation clearly and we have nothing that comes close. I thought at one time, those of us who faced the draft and Vietnam was a little like that but really, it never came close.

  8. [14] Safety is an instrumental good, not an intrinsic one.

    Can someone please explain this one to me? I’m drawing a blank.

    1. I read this as either a ding on “safe spaces”, or a reference to Ben Franklin’s Safety vs. Liberty quote.

    2. Kaufman is a philosopher– these are terms of art in philosophy. An instrumental good leads to intrinsic goods, but has no value on its own. So, money is an instrumental good because it allows you to purchase flowers which you give to your mother, whose ensuing happiness is an intrinsic good.

      Here’s a place to start exploring the terms.

      GCM

  9. [3], [4], [5] Some of these bring to focus a behaviour of the woke, wanting to control fully what someone else is, asserting to know better what someone else believes, what motives they have and their political orientation. When they say someone is this-and-that, it must be fact, even if the person says otherwise or protests. When it comes to themselves though, they want to be in full control there, too, or else!

  10. [25] The best comedy is almost always laced with cruelty.

    I fundamentally disagree with this. it is quite possible to be hilariously funny without targeting a group or an individual.

    1. Concur. I should think it would take more comic genius to be funny without being cruel. How many comics are cruel to themselves, or at least make fun of themselves?

      Some years ago Key or Peel or both claimed that everything and everyone was subject to humor. Oh? How about a toddler with two cancerous eyeballs that must be removed in order for the child to survive?

      1. Plus the fact that if they survive their retinoblastoma, they are more prone to osteosarcoma as young adults than average.
        I concur, I fail to see how to get humor out of that.

  11. “[20] Politics should matter less to you than your family and friends”

    I’m not at all sure that this is true. Yes, there are political zealots who do extreme things and manage to get themselves in the news. But, do they represent more than a tiny sliver of the population? I don’t think so. Even the vast majority of the ardent Trump supporters do not spend every minute think about their dear leader.

    Moreover, there are many instances in history where politics meant more than family and friends, at least on the surface. Every time throngs eagerly signed up to go to war and were supported by the folks at home, this was the case. After all, war is the continuation of politics by other means. The Civil War is a classic example where many families were rendered asunder to the extent of killing each other for political reasons.

    Kaufman’s knowledge of history is deficient. Those people that get deeply immersed in politics do so precisely because they believe that they are ultimately helping family and friends.

    1. This reminds of this EM Forster’s quote:

      If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

      while I am not sure I agree 100 %, I take the point.

    2. Perhaps you should read the point more carefully.

      Politics should matter less to you than your family and friends

      [my emphasis]

      It’s not saying that politics does matter less than family and friends. That’s clearly not true for a lot of people. It’s saying that ideally it should matter less. It’s a statement of how he thinks the world should be, not how it is.

      That said, I’m not so sure it is correct. I’m reminded of a scene from an episode of the West Wing (the one where Leo McGarry’s marriage breaks down). His wife asked him whether his job (chief of staff to the president) is more important than their marriage. He thinks about it for a second and answers yes.

  12. [2] Who and what you are is only partly self-determined. And it’s not the larger part.

    I agree with this statement, but disagree that it used to be common knowledge. The bootstraps myth of American rugged individualism, and blaming the poor for their situation, both conflict with this statement.

  13. Number 16 is a good one. The internet changed everything about people and their behavior toward others, particularly perfect strangers. Even the idea that one must like what another person wrote down is beyond understanding. People now believe in every kind of nonsense in creation simply because they read it on facebook or twitter and how wrong it may be is not considered. The future of politics and elections are at the whims of the internet and who is the best liar.

  14. Can anyone tell me when and where this “tolerant, civil, and liberal society” was? Up until 1984 I could be put in prison for spending the night with my boyfriend even though I supposedly lived in an advanced Western country. Was that a tolerant, civil and liberal society?

    Sure there is a lot of intolerance and incivility from many different groups now, but can somebody tell me of a time and place when things were better?

    1. Yes, this is very true.

      I often challenge:

      – Name a time when it was better to be black in the USA
      – Name a time when it was better to be a woman in the USA
      – Name a time when it was better to be gay/lesbian in the USA
      – Name a time when it was better to be a transsexual in the USA

      Answer: There never were any better times.

  15. “Terrible people have produced and continue to produce great works of art and popular culture, the value of which persists, regardless of the character or conduct of their creators“ – indeed! The BBC still has one of Eric Gill’s statues outside Broadcasting House, despite the extraordinarily terrible behaviour of that particular artist! If you’re easily shocked, don’t follow the link to Gill’s Wikipedia article: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Gill

  16. I liked the piece and agreed with most of it. I’d add “Men and women are actually different.”
    2. I know nothing about sports and always miss those points. Patrick Ewing I’ve heard of – fantastic golfer from what I understand, never missed a goal near the hole in one: SLAM DUNK of a chap by all accounts. The rest…..? 😉
    D.A.
    NYC
    https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

  17. I don’t think I accept that these 25 items were shared by everyone 25 years ago – or ever, for that matter. Human society has always been at odds with itself, and is likely to continue to be. I also suspect that these could have been written 50 years ago, and would have applied equally as well – life before the civil war was worse; life before the revolution was worse; life before the Battle of Hastings was worse; etc. Everyone understood things before, now they take offense at everything, etc. Not really new developments for us at all.

  18. Kaufman’s maxims [4], [5], [7], [15], and [16] (“You don’t accost random strangers on the street and unload your personal meshugas on them, because it’s not their business and they don’t give a damn. Nothing about these reasons fails to apply when you replace ‘street’ with ‘internet’.”) all focus on a key, defining feature of “woke” psychology, which is narcissism. This behavior seems to be everywhere now, but it is nothing new: Christopher Lasch diagnosed it in “The Culture of Narcissism” (1979) and Robert Hughes in “The Culture of Complaint” (1993). So the origins of this psychological pattern must pre-date the internet and electronic social media, although digital devices probably spread it to its current epidemic level in our brave new world of the 2000s. [I put the narcissism of the woke offense brigades and of the MAGA cultists in the same axis of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.]

    The interesting social-psychological question is: what originally gave rise to the culture of narcissism, complaint, and the great awokening? Lasch saw it as a specifically American development, arising from an interplay between late corporate capitalism, the seeming decline of dignified work, and the 1960s collapse of respect for authority of any kind. That insight may apply just as well, or better, in the 2000s.

  19. “Terrible people have produced and continue to produce great works of art and popular culture, the value of which persists, regardless of the character or conduct of their creators.“

    Fine if you have distance between you and them. If you’re just an observer, it’s easier to put aside whatever they’ve done.

    But if you’re actually interacting WITH them, I’m not a big fan of the idea that just because you’re good at what you do, that gives you the right to be an asshole.

    I am recalling my one and only interaction with Georgia O’Keefe, which was not merely unpleasant, but potentially physically dangerous to me. Her behavior was completely uncalled-for.

    I have also had several pretty bad interactions with “famous” people in my field, but nothing that put me at risk of injury. It’s a lot easier to handle those with just an eye roll.

    L

      1. I was working as a wrangler at Ghost Ranch. The ranch foreman had purchased a green-broke filly that he wanted to tame for his children, and he asked me to put some miles on her. She was fairly gentle, but didn’t know where to put her feet, and was wary of new terrain.

        I took her out, accompanied by the granddaughter of the head chef, who knew the area better than I did at that point, since I’d only been there a couple of weeks. We entered a rocky area full of large boulders and scree, and GO’K came flying out of nowhere, waving her arms and screaming, “Get off my property!!”

        The filly spooked, and I almost got thrown into one of those boulders. I managed to keep my seat and get the horse calmed down, but if I’d been thrown into the rocks, I could have been badly hurt. I asked my companion who that was, and she told me. I had no idea she was a famous person, I thought she was just nuts. She could have calmly told us to leave, without all the histrionics.

        L

  20. I certainly agree with Proposition 23, which is why I maintain a strict church/state separation between aesthetics and politics (and, by extension, between works of art and the character of the artists who produce them).

    About the only proposition I have a some hesitation with is #8 regarding “no one living in the US and born after the Second World War is less ‘safe'” than earlier generations. By and large, I believe this to be true. My reservations in this regard are two-fold: First, those of us born after WW2 are the first generations to live under the possibility of near immediate world-wide nuclear annihilation. This could happen if hostilities between nuclear-weapons-equipped nations were to spin out of control. Or it could happen by accident. Or it could happen if rogue states or actors, not deterred by mutually assured destruction, were to obtain control over such weapons.

    Second, there is the increased potential since WW2 of catastrophic environmental degradation.

    1. I think your last sentence is false. We are far more aware of the damage we are doing to the environment. Probably nobody gave it a second thought at the time of WW2.

      1. Oh, I think awareness has increased, but I don’t think that falsifies that the risk has also increased — from things like the rapid acceleration in deforestation, atmospheric carbon, and ocean pollution/collapse of fisheries.

  21. “One should care more about one’s intimates than about total strangers.”

    I must necessarily agree with that carefully crafted locution, what with the inclusion of “total.”

    What about “semi-strangers” who, the more one gets to know them, become less “strange,” and then become acquaintances, and then quite congenial acquaintances. Is there room for nuance here?

    I take it that one’s intimates reasonably includes ones family, and perhaps extended relatives. I don’t think it all that rare that it happens that one contemplates certain obstreperous and contentious relatives, and considers that, were he not related to them, he would be relieved to never have to associate with them (and would much prefer the company of acquaintances of various degrees of familiarity). Fortunate are those who don’t have to deal with such relatives.) As the old saw goes, one can pick one’s friends, but not one’s relatives. Does the gentleman have a pearl of wisdom to offer in this regard?

    I had a major confrontation with a relative over her use of the “N” word. One of my other relatives later told me she was trying to figure out why I was so bent out of shape about the matter. She speculated the reason was that I had dated a Black person. Otherwise, why should I care so much how she refered to any given Black “total stranger”?

  22. “[5] You cannot make another person like or respect you. Nor can you make them act as if they do. And if you could, it wouldn’t mean anything and shouldn’t satisfy you.”

    Yes, you can make them act as if they respect you. Many powerful people are surrounded by those who pretend to respect them. Some of those powerful people really get off on forcing others to claim beliefs they do not hold, or deny the ones they do. It is an act of submission, and the submission of others is a strong motivator for some.

    1. [18] On most occasions, in most circumstances, manners matter more than morals.

      This is one of several of these propositions which make no sense to me. I would rather have a friend with good morals than with good manners. I would rather spend time teaching a child high moral values than teaching him or her how to behave pproperly in polite society. More than that, I think that if we are truly moral, we must often speak up and risk appearing unmannered, and I admire those who dare to stand up against injustice rather than sit politely.

      1. One of my big pet peeves is people being severe a!@h%^&s, but because they speak in a mannered way, without any curse words, they insist they are being civil compared to a respondent who is in the right but, god forbid, is not so mannered of speech, and most other people agree with them. I find that frustrating and disgusting.

  23. Chinatown is still a masterpiece of film noir that deserves to be seen by every would-be cinemaphile even though Roman Polanski is a known child rapist.

    Separating out the art from the artist really should be a no-brainer. People can create profound and enduring cultural artefacts even if those people were horrible people who should be kept away from civil society at all costs. I think the controversy is whether we should continue to support and fund odious individuals once the horrors they inflicted come to light, and the continued support of the art may seen as a tacit endorsement of the artist’s behaviour.

  24. Interesting post – it worked particularly well as a list – indeed, I didn’t even recognize it as a “listicle” (?) – when it might well be the basis for a book.

    Question : I didn’t understand the one about people born before or after WWII – little help?

    And I apologize if I keep saying this over and over, on this general topic – so I’ll try to let this book title do the talking :

    The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups
    Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

    https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Collapse_of_Parenting.html?id=vvcqCgAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description

    … if one puzzles over the now _recognizable_ observation of a child yelling “shut up” at their parents as they e.g. buy a new article of clothing _for_the_child_, this book will be enlightening. Especially with regard to the counter-intuitive notion how treating kids like grown-ups – e.g. giving them a device such as a iPhone with all the functionality, instead of an old-fashioned flip phone that barely sends text messages. There is every reason to expect such behavior – that sometimes can be dismissed as “oh, kids say stuff” – to build on itself right through into adult life and …. read the book – it has examples from Dr. Sax’s clinical experience.

  25. P23, first thing I thought of was Wagner. Hitler liked him so nobody should listen to his music whcih never made any sense to me. Michael Jackson may have been one of the strangest people to ever walk the earth but you should be able to admire his talent and his music without dragging all the personal baggage into it.

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