Rogue One: A Story Worth Ending

Recently, I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for the first time.  If you haven’t seen it and care about spoilers, you should just stop reading now, because I’m going to break down the plot for you.

It’s certainly not a new observation that filming a direct prequel to an existing film frees a director from the need to set up sufficient ambiguity that there could be a sequel or no sequel, depending on how well the box office sales turn out.

But it is an apt observation for Rogue One.  Because the events of the film take place immediately before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, there’s no room to squeeze in a sequel to the prequel, as is sometimes done.

I could begin with the end, but before we get to the end, let’s return to the beginning.  In the beginning, a former Imperial Scientist named Galen Erso is abducted, his wife is killed in the process, and his daughter manages to escape the Stormtroopers and is raised by a guerrilla fighter resisting the Empire by any means necessary (or perhaps even unnecessary).

When we next meet his daughter, Jyn Erso, she is imprisoned by the Empire for a lovely litany of crimes.  She is freed from a prisoner transport by soldiers of the Rebellion, a confederation of planets who are trying to stop the Empire’s spread.

They try to use her to get to the man who raised her, Saw Gerrera.  They believe he might be able to lead them to Galen Erso, the former Imperial Scientist who resigned his post with the Empire to live a quiet life of farming and then was dragged back into being an Imperial Scientist by force, losing his wife and daughter in the process.

The intention of the Rebellion is to assassinate Galen Erso because he is the brains behind the planet-killing weapon on the space-worthy battle station known as the Death Star.  Their plan to kill Galen Erso didn’t work out the way it was intended (Captain Cassian Andor doesn’t pull the trigger), but they do manage to kill Galen in an X-Wing bomber attack.

Unfortunately for Cassian (and fortunately for the Rebellion), Jyn is there to witness her father’s death, and with his dying words he explains what can be done to stop the Death Star.  Cassian is struggling with his own act of disobeying his orders by not killing Galen Erso, and with his increasing respect for Jyn even as she berates him for going out to kill her father.

More importantly, he’s struggling to stay true to the cause of defeating the Empire as he wonders whether or not following orders in the Rebellion is the best way to do that.  He’s clearly a rebel with a cause, but it’s less clear that he is a rebel of the Rebellion.  Like Saw Gerrera, he is more devoted to the cause than many in the official Rebellion.

He demonstrates this when, after Jyn’s plea to the leaders of the Rebellion to take the fight to Scarif and steal the Death Star plans results in no official action, he forms a group of dedicated fighters so that they can accomplish the mission and goes AWOL from the Rebellion.

The mission to Scarif was, in tactical terms, highly unlikely to succeed.  A few dedicated fighters can get onto the planet with a little bit of luck, but there was probably not enough luck in the Star Wars universe to get them safely back to the ships of the rebel fleet.

Their luck was good enough to get them in the door, but as with many things in life, and especially infiltrating a hostile military installation, the luck wore out very quickly and the fighting started.  The fighting, both outside the building and inside, was really a matter of delaying the inevitable.

They were hoping to gain just enough time to allow Jyn and Cassian to retrieve the Death Star plans and transmit them to the rebel fleet.  Our heroes outside providing a big fiery distraction were eventually taken down by waves of stormtroopers, and Cassian was shot as they were trying to get the Death Star plans transmitted.

Hope appeared to be dying as Jyn reached the transmitter, only to be fired upon by hostile aircraft and threatened by the decidedly generic villain.  A wounded Cassian saved the day, the plucky hero rescuing the damsel in distress at the last minute.

At the end, the tropes were piling up as if it were a stock Disney movie sequence.  But it wasn’t.

Cassian didn’t find a way to get them away from the planet before it was destroyed spectacularly by Galen Erso’s amazing weapon.  Jyn didn’t find a way to have someone in the rebel fleet pick them up.

They didn’t have a blossoming romance and ride off into the binary sunsets on a paradise planet.  They didn’t even share a passionate kiss.  The adrenaline was gone, the weakness and shock had set in, and they staggered away from the worst of the fighting.

The soldiers hugged each other as they watched the beginning of Scarif’s immolation, resting in the few minutes of exhausted silence before their inevitable demise.

The movie that seemed on track to pile up the tropes almost as high as the bodies subverts those old tropes at the end.  The heroes aren’t rescued at the last minute.  There is only a noble death.

I wish more movies would end with such a death.  It would make us confront the end of our own stories more regularly.

We would have to wrestle with the fact that even when we have a just cause and fight well for that just cause, giving everything we have, we will probably die without knowing whether or not our life’s work was ultimately accomplished by those who are carrying it forward.

Our life’s story, when we fight the good fight, is a story worth ending with a noble death.  And like our lives, movies too are stories worth ending.

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The Disappointment of Thanos

After watching the film “Avengers: Infinity War” I was disappointed.

Not by the action, of course.  That was spectacular.

And not by the acting.  Even the CGI tears were moving.

So what was it?  Thanos was disappointing.

Sure, he was an imposing figure.  Sure, he was menacingly calm and ruthless while dealing with all who were attempting to stop him in his quest.  He brutally killed his adopted daughter, of whom he was clearly very proud, to reach his goals.  That was true evil, and exactly the kind of thing we need from the big bad villain.

And yet, I think it could have been better.  I would have preferred it if his motivation had been to win the love of Lady Death.  Then we could have really seen something!  A villain who is driven by a wild, irrational, head-over-gauntlet love for the ultimate unattainable woman.

After all, Lady Death gets you.  You don’t get her.

This change of motivation would have changed the story in an important way.  Thanos would not be a boring consequentialist philosopher.  He would not merely have the mundane technocratic goal of trimming the branches of the tree of life by 50% to improve short-term galactic resource allocation efficiency.

There are many delightful ways in which we see Thanos as a villain: master manipulator of events from afar, ruthless killer up close, toying with his opponents, and even showing a certain amount of sympathy for them.

And yet his motivation was… boring.

In the blazing light of such a grand thing as pursuing the love of his life, his extraordinary will to power (it would have so enthralled Nietzsche!) would have cast an even larger, deeper shadow of villainy.  That’s my take on it.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe Thanos is the better villain precisely because his motivation is so boring.

In our world, the big bad villains are often technocrats.  They think that if we change this one regime cog in the world political machine, people will be better off.  Or that other little regime cog.  Or we add this set of tariffs, or a trade agreement.

Maybe it’s the eugenicists who believe that we’re better off sterilizing the people deemed to less worthy.  Or they think that if we have more aborted babies, the world will be better for everyone else.

We all know how this plays out.  The winners are the rich and well-connected.  Those who are sacrificed on the altar of quality-of-life are the poor and vulnerable.

In a way, Thanos is more moral than they are, our real-life technocrats.  He at least took pains to make sure that the culling would be random, not favoring the rich or powerful (aside from himself of course).

He recognized that if suffering is evil, then the ultimate good is to eliminate suffering by ending enough lives to end the suffering.  And he went about it as fairly as possible.

Granted, it was a very short-term solution.  Given the growth rates of the populations of many species, re-doubling the population wouldn’t take all that long.  So his solution is, well, short-lived.

Maybe this is an ever deeper disappointment.  Maybe, even in the end, Thanos was really just a strong-willed technocrat, doing what was necessary to bring a saving bureaucratic efficiency to the galaxy for a short time.  How dull.

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Collected Aphorisms 2017

Editorial Note:  I have been asked by a small number of people over the last few years if I were going to write a book with my pithy thoughts and aphorisms.  I probably won’t because books are expensive to produce and I would like what I’ve learned from my mistakes to be freely available to anyone who wants to use it or to critique my youthful and not-so-youthful stupidity.  So I’ve collected some of my thoughts from the past year for those who are interested to review them and ponder or laugh at how silly I am.  Whichever.  See my thoughts from 2011, 2012, 201320142015, and 2016 if you care to.  I have not written much this year, but I hope that what little I did will be useful.


February 23rd, 2017 – In a few days, it will be Forgiveness Sunday for my brothers and sisters in many of the Eastern churches. May we all forgive the sins of others as God forgives ours: with an infinite divine mercy.

March 16th, 2017 – In the desert, it is not the billions of grains of sand around you that cause you constant irritation, but rather the few that are tumbling around under your foot in your boot. How quickly we stop to pour them out if we are wise!

In the same way, when we are in the spiritual desert, it should not be the many evils around us that constantly irritate us, but rather the ones we carry with us. And how quickly we stop and seek to rid ourselves of our own evils if we are wise.

May 2nd, 2017 – In the garden, we seek the counsel of the experienced gardener and follow the advice we are given by the gardener who has been cultivating and harvesting for many years.

In the same way, we should seek the counsel of the experienced cultivator of the garden of the spiritual life and follow the advice we are given so that the spiritual harvest may be abundant for us and for all those we love.

August 5th, 2017 – In the past couple of years, I have begun to learn what a gift suffering is. The gift of suffering is not the weight of it, the agony of it, the resignation we feel while enduring it, or the rage it ignites in us…the gift is that suffering slowly separates us from our selfishness if we simply accept it is a gift, suffering for the love of others and entering into their suffering to bear their cross with them.

November 16th, 2017 – In much the same way that logic is the beginning of wisdom rather than its end, empathy is the beginning of love rather than the end of love. Empathy helps us to begin to learn to love because when we can empathize with an individual it helps to temporarily relieve us of our selfishness and open us up briefly to self-giving love. The end of love lies not in this temporary opening up to self-giving love, but in a profound compassion that no longer relies on a sense of empathy for an individual.

The end of love is to react with profound compassion even when we have no sense of empathy whatsoever, when our compassion becomes so universal in its embrace of all our human family members and so rational in its desire for their greatest good that we transcend the need for empathy as a mechanism by which we are temporarily relieved of our selfishness.

The end of love is a radical self-giving which is liberated from the constraints of our all too limited capacity for empathy.

December 17th, 2017 – The fullness of truth is ever scandalous to the human mind; we refuse to accept that it cannot fit into the overly simplistic categories used by our tiny hominid brains. It is the little pieces of truth that we find acceptable, usually the ones that don’t make us change our minds all that much.

Posted in Education, Philosophy, Poetic Prose, Religion | Leave a comment

The Once and Future Abortion Dilemma

Recently, a friend of mine shared a link from ScaryMommy regarding a dilemma posed to illustrate that not even people who take pro-life position on abortion actually believe that the embryo’s life is of equal value to a more developed child.

So what’s the dilemma?  Here are the essentials:

You’re in a fertility clinic that’s on fire.  You have time to save a crying child in one corner, or 1,000 viable human embryos in another corner.  Your choices are…

A.  Save the child crying in one corner and live

B.  Save the 1,000 embryos chilling on the shelf and live

C.  Try to save both and die in the process

I’m not sure where this hypothetical scenario originated.  I first heard it posed by Sam Harris quite a while ago.  In this case, it was posed by a writer named Patrick S. Tomlinson.

What if it’s true?

One of the interesting things about how the argument is framed is that the author claims that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A.”  Perhaps it’s my philosophical training making me instinctively skeptical, but I’m not sure that we all do.

And even if that were true (for the moment let’s assume that it is true), it wouldn’t really tell us much.  By and large, human instincts are finely-tuned mechanisms for survival.  One of those really useful instincts is that we are more likely protect beings that look and act more like us and less likely to protect beings that look and act less like us.

Some of the same cognitive errors that lead us to identify more closely with beings who look and act more like us (in-group bias and so on) are also factors that lead us to instinctively prefer to socialize with people who have the same skin color as us, or the same kinds of clothing, or the same hair and eye color.  Our instincts in this area can and do lead us to dangerous and unfair treatment of other beings.

For those of us sitting in our armchairs pondering moral dilemmas, we may be experiencing a bit of an empathy gap.  We might be thinking that what we would do in this scenario reflects our rational assessment of the relative value of the life of a child and the quite different value of 1,000 embryos on a shelf.

But in most cases, we’re wrong.  In survival scenarios, we generally function on instinct (which includes a large dose of cognitive errors) rather than reasoned judgments intended to mitigate the problems with those cognitive errors in arriving at accurate moral assessments.

Even if Tomlinson is correct that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A” and every human being agrees that they would take the actions described in A if they were in that situation, it wouldn’t tell us anything more than that our instincts lead us to that action.

Why would anyone choose option C?

Tomlinson goes on to claim that “There is no “C.” “C” means you all die.”  I can understand why Tomlinson would make this claim.  Instinctively, I think most of us would choose to find a way to live if possible.

But I also know that there are people who jump on grenades to save the lives of others, or run up into collapsing buildings to save others knowing that they will eventually die on one of those runs.  Some of us do in fact manage to choose option “C” in which we die trying to preserve the lives of others.

Let’s suppose that as an environmental activist, I were actively trying to save both the glaciers and the cows from being wiped out by global climate change.  What if I fail to save either and die in the process of doing my best to save both?  Was that the wrong choice from a moral standpoint?

At the very least, it’s not clear to me that option C, which means dying while trying to save as many people as possible, is clearly the wrong answer.  Or that we should a priori rule it out as an option.

If anything, dying while trying to save as many as possible seems to me, upon reflection, the most noble course.  And we honor those who give their lives in such a heroic manner in other circumstances (such as described above).  We don’t berate them posthumously for their awful grasp of utilitarian moral calculus.

I hope that I could choose the heroic option, but I don’t know that I would.  Instincts are powerful things, especially the survival instinct.

Why is it hard for pro-lifers to answer A or B?

I’m really not sure why Tomlinson hasn’t gotten any clear answers.  I’ve seen people who are pro-life answer either A or B to the dilemma.  Some after a great deal of thought, or reluctantly, or while undergoing a great deal of cognitive dissonance.  Maybe some people just haven’t thought about it.  I’m reluctant to assume their motivations.

Personally, the reason I don’t play his game is that I don’t agree with the assumptions being made.  As someone who has been on both sides of the abortion debate, I’m very familiar with the sorts of convenient moral dilemmas employed by both sides and how they’re framed to make the other side look stupid or dishonest or uncaring.

My experience has been that there’s a lot of irrationality on both sides, but also many compassionate and honest and intelligent people who just happen to be reasoning from different premises about a difficult moral issue.

I know this is really unpopular right now, but maybe we can try to spend less time trapping our ideological opponents with arguments that aren’t nearly as clever as we think they are, and spend more time questioning our own assumptions productively.

Posted in Current Events, Philosophy, Politics, Science | 2 Comments

The Sexist Science

Recently, I was reading an article over at VICE that contained many good points amidst the tangled web of editorial notes and reviews of a book entitled Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini.

I found myself in agreement with many of the points being made, including:

  • It’s a bit ridiculous that 3 male scientists concluded that menopause makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because older women are not attractive to older men.  The amount of sex that happens in nursing homes suggests that this is simply not true.
  • Science has been used throughout its history to reinforce gender stereotypes and keep women in subservient roles, and women have been excluded from it too often, and also frequently haven’t been given credit for their discoveries or innovations.
  • Science is popularly seen as far more impartial and certain in its proclamations than it actually is.
  • There are a lot of conclusions unsupported by evidence that are conveniently drawn by folks who want to perpetuate narratives about female inferiority, albeit only loosely based on the findings of evolutionary psychology.
  • The strength of women in various areas (physically, mentally, emotionally) has been undervalued by biological scientists on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Saini does some leaping to conclusions unsupported by the evidence as well.  Her speculation that men might be physically stronger on average not because of role differentiation and sexual selection in primates (the most likely cause), but rather because women spend more of their energy on menstruation and childbirth, doesn’t make much sense.

Our musculature’s upper limits are determined by our genes, not our energy costs.  If every man and every woman were to achieve their maximum muscular strength, there would still be an average difference in strength between the sexes.  See the Olympic Games’ results in various sports for evidence of this.

Now, higher energy costs will definitely reduce the ability to build muscle, but men and women do not on average have the same potential to build muscle because of the typical genetic differences.  Men and women are equal, but we are not interchangeable, not even in the aggregate.

Given that many people who have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men based on reactionary cultural values or religious views have used it to support their imperatives to keep women subordinate to men, and that MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) have used it to support their views about women’s excessive power in our culture that operates to the detriment of men, it’s completely understandable that any feminist would look askance at evolutionary psychology.

For a fair number of contemporary feminists who are vaguely familiar with evolutionary psychology, it’s true that they often recognize that the scientific endeavor has historically been and is now tainted by sexism, but it’s also true that evolutionary psychology is the scientific discipline that is not infrequently seen by feminists as THE sexist science par excellence.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion.  I think that evolutionary psychology can be very useful and often is very useful in understanding important things about ourselves as homo sapiens.  It would be a shame to miss out on really valuable knowledge because of the uses to which evolutionary psychology is put by reactionaries or MRAs.

Sadly, I suspect that there will always be some feminists who reject evolutionary psychology wholesale.  Some may do so because there are so many historical and contemporary examples of its misuse.  Others may do so for the less appealing reason that evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology contradicts their dogmas about the interchangeability of men and women and the causes of differences between the sexes.

For the latter group, evolutionary psychology, no matter how it changes and even if sexism is eliminated in the discipline, will always be seen as the sexist science.

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The Good News About Lying in Politics

…is that if we identify what’s causing much of it, we can find solutions.  This, of course, prompts us to ask a perfectly sensible question:

Is there well-designed and effective research that identifies what’s causing most of the lying in politics and lying about the evidence that underlies our political decision-making?

It turns out that there is (see this article in Psychology Today), and it tells us something very useful about how to combat lying in politics and lying about the evidence that informs our politics.

The research demonstrates that when we have a strong incentive to find the truth, we are much more likely to be able to put aside or at least reduce the impact of our tribal loyalties.

In the particular study referenced by Psychology Today’s article, that incentive was monetary.  We have good reason to think that providing people with a significant monetary incentive to be correct allows them to be committed to finding the truth as a higher priority than signaling loyalty to one’s political tribe.

For a variety of reasons, this will probably not work as a society-wide strategy for eliminating or massively reducing lying in politics.  The amount of money that would be significant enough compensation to incentivize folks to pursue the truth over tribal loyalty varies dramatically between and among persons.

Those who have plenty of money already will usually need a larger amount relative to their wealth to function as a strong incentive.  Those who have very little money will need to be provided enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, a process that can take quite a long time and will also be very expensive.

Those who already have enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, but aren’t so extremely wealthy that they can easily afford to turn down a monetary incentive for valuing truth over tribal loyalty, are probably going to be the most susceptible to this kind of incentive.

I’m not sure we have enough money to use it as an effective society-wide incentive under those circumstances, and that’s setting aside the very complicated questions of who gets to decide what’s true and how we manage the process of paying folks to learn it.  So what other kind of incentives might work?

Material incentives in general are subject to the same kinds of problems as using a monetary incentive, and in many cases those problems would be even more striking, particularly for rare materials and goods, or materials and goods which have very limited uses.

The wide variety of incentives that work well for a wide variety of people suggests to me that each person needs to find an incentive that works well for them, something that can provide them with such a powerful motivation to seek the truth without regard to tribal loyalty that they can make significant progress in mitigating the effects of their cognitive biases.

It also suggests to me that we need to have cultural values and norms that support a pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty.  Given how our brains work, there’s no way to eliminate completely from our decision-making the influence of tribal loyalties.  Which might not even be desirable.

And yet a powerful cultural tradition of the pursuit of Veritas and personal commitments to that pursuit can help us reduce the Animus in public life and allow us to work together more often for the good of all.

So if we want to massively reduce the lying in politics and the lying about the evidence we use to inform our politics, the best thing we can do is start today by either finding or renewing our extraordinary motivation to seek the truth even and especially when it costs us dearly-held beliefs.

The second thing we can and should do right after that is to pass our love of truth onto our children and help them find an extraordinary motivation to pursue truth above tribal loyalty as well.

In this way, we might one day find that it’s true that there is good news about lying in politics, and that the good news is that a lot of that lying has stopped.

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Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool.  His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.

His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
  2. Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
  3. Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.

Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct.  While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.

I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.

That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards.  When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement.  It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.

Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true.  In fact, it seems trivially true.  Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood.  That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.

Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments.  This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea.  If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.

On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.

Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true.  Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.

When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read.  This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.

And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult.  It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working.  What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.

Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.

I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.

I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.

Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Relationships | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Wisdom of Logan


Logan is probably not a film that will be remembered forever by historians as a profound exposition of the human condition with deep philosophical and anthropological implications.

But that’s a good description of it.  What I just wrote is not a spoiler, but much of what follows is in fact, a spoiler for those who have not seen the Wolverine films or read a detailed synopsis of the plot.  So if you’re concerned about spoilers, avert your eyes already.

In the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s revealed that Logan (birth name James Howlett) chose to accept the Weapon X project’s offer to make him indestructible, which they accomplished by bonding adamantium to his skeleton.  He accepted this offer in order to get revenge on the man who killed his lover.

One of the things we learn in Logan, which is loosely based on the Old Man Logan comic series, is that Logan suspects that he knows why his healing factor is starting to fail him.  His theory (a very plausible one) is that the metal bonded to his skeleton is poisoning him from the inside.  Perhaps his famous healing factor is overwhelmed by the task of constantly healing from the huge amount of internal toxins.

This touches on a deeper truth of the human experience, that when we take actions with permanent consequences in the pursuit of vengeance, it generally poisons our lives.  Whether we kill someone, or merely ruin their reputation, or simply hold on to our grudge against another person for a lifetime, we inevitably drink a poison for our hearts, and one that leaves us with a bitter taste for as long we have committed to drinking it.

Whatever the explanation, emotional or medical, Logan is increasingly susceptible to dying.  And, just as in The Wolverine, Logan seems to want to die.  He’s had enough.  His heart is worn out after a couple hundred years of violence and emotional trauma.  And who can blame him for his world-weariness?

I was world-weary and wanting to die after only 20 years, so I certainly can’t cast any stones at Logan for the same desire after over 200 years.

Another spot of wisdom in the film is the protagonist Laura (X-23), who is genetically the daughter of Logan.  Like all daughters, she needs and wants more from him than biological paternity, more even than mere protection from physical dangers, though he provides that reluctantly.

His reluctance to do this stems from his long experience with death, specifically, that those who are close to him often die violently.  This long experience with death has given him a kind of wisdom, the wisdom to know that to grow close to people is to suffer a broken heart, in one way or another.

This is part of what makes Logan reluctant to stay very long with the family of farmers who offered them dinner in return for helping them recover their horses.  He knows that every moment that they spend with the family, the more likely it is that the violence following him and Laura will catch up to these kind-hearted folks and kill them.

Charles Xavier’s wisdom is of a different kind.  He encourages Logan to relish the moment of serenity with newfound friends, the simple beauty of the communal meal and the pastoral environs.  He knows that life is made worth living by experiencing these beautiful moments as fully as possible, by allowing ourselves to connect with others profoundly through those moments.

Both, of course, are right.  Logan’s worries are well-founded, as we learn when the Transigen Project‘s strike force shows up in the night when all should be calm.  This strike force is headed up by a clone of Logan, a younger man with the healing powers of Logan’s youth and his adamantium claws as well.  The clone kills Charles Xavier in his bed, captures Laura, and then begins killing the family.

In the films, Logan has often seemed to be haunted by the constant deaths of those he loves and the many people who just happened to be nearby him.  He is a constant danger to everyone around him, and he knows it to his pain.

Any man who is a living weapon, as many of us are, knows something of this pain.  My own greatest fear in life is that I become a constant danger to those around me, that my strength and my cunning would somehow be lost from my control and put in the service of chaotic evil, that I would become the instrument of destruction for all those I love.

This is a terrible fear for me, but it is a reality for the Logan of this film.  The Transigen project’s emissaries have successfully manipulated Logan into leading them to those he fears will die because of him, to those he wishes to care for, to those he sometimes succeeds in caring for.

What’s worse, they have made his clone their executioner, using his DNA to bring into being his younger self, and point this living weapon at everyone he holds dear.  My greatest fear is here combined with fears common to many men, the fear of being bested by men who are like us, but younger and stronger, and the fear of the weakening that comes with age.

Though I’m only 32 years old, I already feel it.  My knees ache, my shoulder won’t stay in the proper alignment, and I don’t heal quite so quickly anymore.  My workout schedule and active life, along with my healthy diet, cannot stop the march of aging as it advances on my body.

Nor, it seems, can Logan’s healing factor stop the march of aging completely.  He aches.  His scars no longer heal quickly.  He is much more easily winded, and much more easily wounded.  This has become apparent throughout the film, and reaches a climax near the end when he is trying to keep Transigen’s strike force from killing or capturing all the young mutants seeking refuge via crossing into Canada.

Even with advanced chemical assistance and incredible persistence, he is not up to the task of facing the strike force and defeating his clone.  Nonetheless, the advanced chemical assistance does allow him to experience something close to the powers of his youth for a short time, the powers of reckless rage that we who have high testosterone levels and an adrenaline rush know from experience.

As always, reckless rage and the powers of youth are not enough to conquer all challenges, and Logan is left reeling, relying on his cunning to help him stave off his clone as long as possible, hoping that he can save his daughter’s life this day.  His daughter takes the life of his clone, but not before the clone has mortally wounded Logan.

Laura will be as Logan was: fatherless.  Had Logan been willing to step outside of his tough guy loner mode of operating and developed a relationship with Laura, as well as worked with the other mutants, not to mention being willing to hope in Eden, things may well have turned out better.

But he died for her without ever having loved her as a daughter, without having given her the gift of knowing a father’s love through many years of trials.  Like all fathers, he gave the gift of life, and like many fathers, he spent his life so that hers could continue.  And yet there was so much more he could have given, but instead he withheld it.

And is this not a poignant allegory?  How many men have made the mistake of operating like tough loners, thinking that it made them strong, when it fact they would have been much stronger had they opened their hearts to love, to trust, and to hope?

How many men have missed out on many deeply fulfilling life experiences in the quest to have a lesser strength rooted in reckless rage?  How many men have given the lesser gift of laying down their lives without fully loving rather than the greater gift of laying down their lives by fully loving?

I have.  Many men still do.  Our wisdom is not enough to free us completely of the chains of our reliance on our own strength, our insistence that we must bear the burden alone, that we must pick up the heavy, killing yoke rather than the easy and light burden of those who practice love and compassion.

Like all of us, Logan’s wisdom was not enough to keep him alive and thriving despite the struggles he faced.  And yet the wisdom he received from Charles Xavier, his ailing father-figure, was enough to allow him to die well, to finally reach out in love and receive joy and peace from doing so in his last moments.

Perhaps the final bit of wisdom in Logan is that, like all literary figures which are fully-formed and interesting, he is a mirror in which many of us can see our own flaws, our own struggles, our own virtues, and our own potential greatness.

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The Meme-Based Implicit Bias Test

The joys of memes are many, and so are their uses.  But it didn’t occur to me until recently that at least some memes could be used as implicit bias tests.  In fact, this meme shared repeatedly over the past couple days seems better than any implicit bias test I’ve taken.


The meme shows an image of what looks like a BlackLivesMatter protest.  The people pictured are holding signs and riding in a car that’s been decorated with slogans associated with the protest.  Based on the positions of the people on the outside of the car, it’s probably moving very slowly.  It looks like they’re surrounded by smoke or fog.

The written critique isn’t the problem here.  There really were people who were protesting recently who destroyed the property of businesses that were actually friendly to their cause.  It wasn’t a majority or a plurality, as far as I can tell, but it’s fair to critique that behavior.

The problem is that this picture doesn’t show that kind of behavior.  None of them are throwing rocks, or attacking anyone, or being even remotely threatening to anyone.  It’s possible that they did do something like that prior to this moment or after this moment, but there’s no evidence of that based on the picture of them protesting peacefully.

So why did the creator of the meme choose that image when there was imagery of actual rock-throwing property destruction available?  Well, it might be that the creator of the meme genuinely believes that the BlackLivesMatter movement is destroying America.  It might be that the image captures what the meme creator sees as whiny Millenial protestors.

It might be that the creator of the meme also has an implicit bias, that he or she sees young black folks protesting as destroying America regardless of context or facts.  That seems very likely, and the creator of the meme would be well-served to consider that idea.  But what does it mean when someone shares the meme?

It’s no secret that people don’t share memes to communicate nuanced perspectives or make effective evidence-based arguments.  They may well think it makes a good point within limits, though, or that it’s just funny.

It’s probable that those who shared the meme didn’t think through what they were trying to communicate.  And that they weren’t intending to communicate that black folks protesting peacefully are destroying America.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this meme communicates.

The meme associates a picture of peaceful black protestors with actually destroying America, even when there’s no indication that they’re destroying anything.  If associating those words with that image isn’t sending the message you want to send, then not sharing it seems like a good idea.

When we share memes, we’re communicating with people.  No less so than when we send professional or personal emails, or when we call a family member, or when we hug a friend who’s sad.

Whether by meme or by hug, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it is we intend to communicate and whether or not we are communicating what we intended.  I find that I make fewer mistakes that way.

P.S. It’s also worth thinking about why we might associate peaceful black protestors with the destruction of America, or at the very least why it didn’t occur to some of us that there was a problem with that association.

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Fair Questions: Why do progressives insist that Trump must be generally a bigot?

As has been documented before, there’s not good evidence that Trump is generally a bigot.  He doesn’t appear to hold overtly racist views, though he certainly seems to have an incorrect perspective on what life is like for most black folks.  He doesn’t seem to really care about gay marriage on way or the other, and he isn’t afraid to be seen holding up a giant rainbow flag from his LGBT supporters.

He’s not, as far as I can tell, running scared of transgender folks because they might be using the same bathroom as cisgender folks.  His misogyny, on the other hand, is well-documented and flagrant.  So why are progressives asserting, in many cases, that he’s a serious problem for transgender, gay, or black folks?  That his personal racism is obvious?

Well, that has to do with how progressives generally define racism and how they see racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and even capitalism as parts of a whole set of systems of oppression.  For most progressives who are basing their understanding on contemporary academic theories (largely influenced by the meta-philosophical framework of Critical Theory), these issues are inherently connected.

In their heads, sexism, heterosexism, racism, transphobia, and capitalism are all of a piece; they are all cogs in the machinery of oppression, if you will.  In the heads of other people, those issues are sometimes quite separate.  Compartmentalized, even.  There are people who want gay folks to be able to get married who also shudder at the idea of sharing a bathroom with a transgender person.

There are people who care about and vote for policies that will address racial injustice who don’t think that two men having consensual sex is the correct moral decision.  There are flagrant sexists who think it’s perfectly fine if a man wants to become a woman because that’s what he’s always wanted.  People are complicated, and they can separate these issues out.

Either they can do this because they’re not concerned about being intellectually coherent (and most people aren’t) or because they have an alternative intellectually coherent framework for understanding these issues.  In Trump’s case, it appears to be due to his lack of concern for being intellectually coherent.

He’s not an ideologue worried about the right answer, but rather a 70 year-old rich man who’s fairly clueless about recent trends in academic thought and trying to drum up support from anyone and everyone he can get it from.  He’s careless and reckless in his statements, and that’s a serious problem, but it isn’t good evidence of his generally being intolerant or hateful or indifferent to the concerns of the marginalized.

We’ll find out more as time goes on, but I suspect based on his behavior that Trump is generally not principled enough to be a white supremacist, or anything else ideological.

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