Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

Lies and More Lies

In light of the fact that the New York Times recently reported that Trump was guilty of 87 “misstatements, exaggerations, and falsehoods in a week” I thought this post from a while back worth repeating, though, as I say, those who follow this man are convinced that every criticism that is leveled against him is a lie by “those damned liberals.” As I also say, we have lost sight of just what lies are — they are not just those statements we dislike, they are those statements that seek to alter the truth and tend to mislead.

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Lying becomes merely a word that is used by the minions to discredit criticism of their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the “successful businessman” standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he alone says, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our Infallible Leader.

Lies, Lies, Lies

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Truth becomes merely a word that is used by critics to shame their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the successful businessman standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he says alone, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our infallible Leader.

Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.

Three Favorites

My blogging buddy Keith suggested that his readers list the three most popular posts each of us has written since we started writing them and I thought it might be fun. I note, however, that mine are not as uplifting and positive as are Keith’s. But I will list them and comment anyway.

I will start with my personal favorite, as far as I can recall, and that is “Lincoln’s Hope,” which had a number of “hits” but not as many as the top three.

The top of the list, by far is a post I wrote about Freud and Violence which I wrote in February of 2013 and which continues to get 20-30 hits a week. It has had 1,990 in all and that amazes me. The only thing I can figure is that a great many college students are copying the post and submitting it to their psychology professors for class credit! I hope they received the grade they deserved! On a more serious note, I expect there are a great many folks who, like me, seek to understand a phenomenon that has become all-too-common of late. I hope the post helped. I know that, like my posts generally, it helped me sort out some stray ideas and make some sense of a topic that I seek to understand better.

The next one is “The Big Bang, Science and Ethics” which I wrote after a particularly interesting and funny eposiode of my favorite “sit-com.” It addresses the question of just what science is at a time when so many people reject the findings of science when it shakes their favorite convictions and when so many confuse science with technology — which it is not.

The final one, also written in 2013,  is “Road Rage” which I wrote after a particularly nasty confrontation with a driver of a red pickup on a county road nearby when my wife and I were stopped admiring the wild turkeys in a field nearby. It made me think of all the rage there is on the roads and, indeed, in the world at large. This is a particularly disturbing fact at this time of the year when we like to think that we all hope for peace on earth and good will among all human beings. In any event, that’s what I wish to my readers, rage or no rage.

 

What’s Real?

One of the latest signs of the decay of our civilization is not the widespread playing of video games, as such, but last year’s mega-competition in Seoul, Korea which was viewed online by 27 million people worldwide involving teams of players engaged in the complex, and violent, game of “League of Legends.”  The winners take home a large, garish trophy and $1 million in American dollars. This year’s finals are scheduled for “several cities” in Europe in October and the number of viewers is expected to be even higher.

It’s not enough that we know the watching of violent games tends to leave an impression on young minds that imitate what they see. It is not enough that we know the games engage only half the brain and leave the other half — the analytical half — undeveloped, thus shrinking language skills and making thought difficult at best. It is not enough to know that the games can (and do) become addictive. It is not enough to know that the young begin to develop a weak “reality principle,” as Freud called it, an awareness of what is real and what is not, and can become lost in a make-believe world.

Now the games have become organized to the point that there is large-scale competition for the first prize that will encourage the kids to spend even more time on the games than they already do. What we have here is the combination of two negative influences, playing electronic games and the measuring of success in dollars and cents. These trends are already in place in this culture, to be sure, but now that the games involve huge amounts of money, are watched streaming on computers around the world, and are being covered on such TV networks as ESPN, the trends will almost assuredly become unstoppable.

Indeed, John Anderson, one of the senior talking heads on ESPN recently commented on the League of Legends competition semi-finals (which was carried on ESPN3 and outdrew several major sporting events in this country). He started out by saying that he had been encouraging his son to put away the gaming devices, read a book or go outside, ride his bike, climb a tree, or even open a lemonade stand. But now he is “reconsidering his parenting skills” in light of the amounts of money involved in winning these games. To which I simply say, don’t do it John. You have the right idea and should not give in to the forces of temptation that will almost certainly lead your son into a dead-end. There’s not much future in store for someone whose only skill is manipulating a toggle switch — except, perhaps, as an operator of heavy machinery or, worse yet, drones designed to kill and maim the “enemy” as identified by his superiors, i.e., to follow orders and do what he is told. The games when played blindly will lead to real blindness to the world.

John’s instincts were sound. His son should read a book or go outside and play. Be a young man and grow in mind and body. Don’t become a slave to greed and ignorant of what is going on around him. A weak reality principle, as Freud would say, makes us susceptible to delusions and imaginings that take us further and further away from those around us and the things that are truly important in a good life. It also makes us more prone to violence.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

Chickens and Eggs

One of the most difficult things to establish is the relationship between cause and effect. Which came first? And can we say with certainty that the one that came first is the cause of the second? To establish cause and effect, one would have to show that, say, A comes before B and B would never  have happened without A. Further, it would have to be shown that every time you have an A you have a B. Logicians say B if, and only if, A. The reason the cigarette manufacturers, for example, were so successful for so long in denying that smoking causes lung cancer is that many folks who do not smoke get lung cancer and some folks who smoke do not get lung cancer. For years it was known that there was a correlation, but that alone does not satisfy the strict requirements. Eventually, the correlation was so high and so prevalent, it could no longer be denied — especially when it was revealed that  the tests conducted by the cigarettes companies themselves showed a very high correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

In this regard, I have always wondered about the correlation between entertainment and the development of a taste for violence in this country. In a word, does watching television increase the desire for violence in the young, or do the kids already crave violence and television simply “gives the kids what they want?” Can television, for example, actually manufacture “wants.” I suspect it can. Further, I do think we all have a hidden desire for violence. Freud thought it showed itself in humor: we laugh to release unconscious violent, even sadistic, impulses (think of the pie in the face or the chair pulled from beneath the unsuspecting sitter). It’s possible that watching violence over and over increases this desire. Quite possible. After all, were all learn by imitation.

If we take the case of football in this country as an example, we can see some interesting factors that may help us decide the question one way or the other. Professional football has now surpassed baseball as the nation’s favorite sport. As we know, football is filled with violence, whereas baseball is not. That may be part of the appeal of football, though it is difficult to say. But, then television networks such as ESPN discuss football year around, even during the off-season. When there are no games, they discuss the draft, outstanding college players who might “declare” for the draft, free-agency, the latest instance of domestic violence involving yet another football player. And so forth. To be sure, there are other athletes in other sports who engage in domestic violence, but I am talking about the amount of air time that is given to discussions about football and football players and the undeniable fact that the sport has grown by leaps and bounds — as have the incidents of violence in our country. There certainly appears to be a correlation.

The number of fans in football has grown drastically in the past few years. That’s a given. There is more time on television devoted to football in the past few years. That’s also a given. The question is whether the networks are simply giving the fans what they want or whether the industry is indeed manufacturing a desire for more football. Which comes first? And which causes the other? To help answer this question, I turn to a related sport, namely, soccer.

Soccer has never been as popular in this country as it is the world over. Soccer season overlaps with football, for one thing. For another, there seems to be a lot of time when nothing much is happening, and there really isn’t much violence. But I note that in the past few years ESPN has given more and more time to soccer, covering Olympic soccer (amidst much jingoistic hype) and lending increasing amounts of air time to showing highlights (especially moments of violence on the field) to international soccer and the professional soccer league in this country; they are clearly promoting the sport. Recently, 60,000 fans showed up for the inaugural match between two professional teams in this country. That number of fans for a game of soccer is astonishing. Is it just possible that the desire to watch a soccer match has been manufactured by the television networks?? I suspect the answer is “yes.”

But, the cause/effect relationship is very hard to establish, as I noted at the beginning. So I can’t say with assurance that the networks are manufacturing desires in their audience. But the correlation is interesting and worth watching. If the networks start showing more and more women’s basketball and the interest in that sport starts to grow, we might have even more reason to suspect a causal relationship. But, then the women who play basketball aren’t nearly as violent as the men and that might detract from the interest the typical fan might otherwise have in these sports. Perhaps, the folks at ESPN need to encourage a bit more bashing and thrashing to help things along –as in, say, cage fighting. Clearly American audiences want to see violence. The only question is whether the networks have nurtured and encouraged this desire and made it stronger.

Hope As Illusion

I am not a psychologist nor, indeed, a social scientist of any particular stripe. But I do like to think about people, the things they do, and the society in which we all live. Further, I am a bit of a sports nut. I have always participated in sports — in fact, they kept me sane (!) through college and graduate school — and continue to do so today (?). And I watch a lot of sports on television, as my wife will attest! So I was delighted to see that a group of kids from South Chicago recently won the United States portion of the Little League World Series (which is actually a world series, since it involves teams from around the world and not just in the United States). As of this writing they will play Korea (that’s South Korea) for the Little League world championship. It’s a great story, though, like many others, I was disappointed to see Mo’ne Davis and her team defeated and unable to continue to play. Now there was a great story.

But when I heard this morning on ESPN that the championship by the team from South Chicago brought “new hope” to that city, and particularly that section of that city, I did wonder. Seriously? New hope for South Chicago because a group of kids won a few baseball games? Get real.

And that’s the issue. Sigmund Freud talks about the need for all humans to develop what he called a “reality principle.” We need to be able to separate reality from illusion. The notion that this championship can bring new hope to a huge portion of a large city in America is pure illusion. South Chicago is a place where most people would not choose to live. I know. My wife’s grandparents lived there and we visited them on weekends while we were at Northwestern. We were always careful to leave before dark. Students at the University of Chicago are warned not to walk alone in the streets around their campus. It’s simply not safe. That’s reality.

It is certainly the case that involvement in sports can save many a kid from gangs and drugs, which are common in South Chicago. Let’s hope their involvement in Little League Baseball will save most, if not all, of the kids on this particular championship team. But to state as a truth that this win gives the city “new hope” is, as I say, pure fiction. It is the sort of hyperbole that television engages in to tug the heart-strings of their viewers, keep them watching, and help them escape their drab, wretched lives (as Tom Lehrer would have it). We should be used to it by now, but we need to recognize it for what it is: it is pure escapism, an attempt to substitute illusion for reality. Sports are simply a fragment of life itself. After the LLWS those who live in South Chicago, like the rest of us, will have to get back to reality, though television is always there to help them escape whenever it gets too tough. After all, the Chicago Bears are supposed to be very good this year!

We need to be concerned that we fail to develop that all-important reality principle that Freud talks about. We need to keep reminding ourselves that games are just games and sports are fun and games, but they are (for most of us) merely an escape from reality. They cannot become the whole of reality, though I am beginning to suspect that for many people who are immersed in such things as “fantasy football” that ship has sailed. Reality can sometimes be unpleasant and even downright painful. But it is what it is. And it isn’t fantasy football or a winning team that gives us all a thrill but should never pretend to provide a substitute for the real thing.