Saturday, April 26, 2008

On the sanctity of memory

Yesterday, as I often do in class, I used a tragicomic episode from my past to illustrate a point. We were talking about the Lockean view that continuity of memory is what guarantees identity of person. In other words, to use the example, what makes me the same person as Tyler Hower in 1980, is that I have within my consciousness a memory of striking out at tee ball in a field at the PAL club in Huntington, Indiana, in the hot August sun. I talked about additions that need to be made to the account to guarantee that false memories don't count and to allow that I can still be the same person if I lose certain parts of my memory—something, I informed my 18-20 year-old students, would become more important to them as they became older. 
Because San Diego was also riveted yesterday by the killing of an early morning swimmer by a great white shark, I also mentioned my ignominious failure at Notre Dame's swimming test and the resulting shame and required swimming class, when a sad, homesick college freshman. On top of my other examples throughout the semester, this led a student to ask if I have any happy memories at all. Given our topic of the relationship between memory and personal identity, this was a particularly apt question; and, it made me think about why I don't talk in class about happy memories.
There are, it seems, two reasons. Unhappy memories, because of the general appeal of Schadenfreude, are just more entertaining. The students remember them, they get their attention, they make them perk up. No one wants to hear about the sepia-toned memories of my youth. But, there is a more important reason. There have been a lot of happy memories in my life, even if I don't always dwell upon them—I am a pessimist or fatalist by nature—but they have a value to me that the others don't. When I tell some funny anecdote about my childhood or college or last week, I don't feel that I have torn down a wall and let anyone see into my real self, but the happy memories, those are sacred, those are few enough that I hold them dear. Those memories would be as inappropriate to talk about to a class or a stranger on a plane (or train) as it would be invite the class to continue our discussion at my home. The unhappy memories are public, the happy ones are mine.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Everything is okay in Zimbabwe

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, has assured the world that the fact that Robert Mugabe, long-time President of Zimbabwe, the guiding hand behind its policies of giving productive land to whomever most supports the ruling party and architect of its truly amazing Weimar-esque inflation, has sent the police and military into the streets to make sure that the election he (probably) just lost will end up going his way in a runoff after all, is not evidence of a crisis or a continuing dictatorship. This is certainly the best news Mbeki has given the world since informing us all that HIV doesn't cause AIDS.
Guess it's times for an orgy in Harare.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Respect and criticism

Reading another blog this week, I was reminded of a form of argument ubiquitous in contemporary America. I hear it on television, from students, from friends, read it in the newspaper, see it all over the place.
It goes something like this: I chose to do X. You ought to respect my choices. Therefore, you cannot criticize me for X. For instance, I chose to get facial tattoos. You ought to respect my choices. So, I am immune from criticism.
Strangely, this is an argument that appeals to many people. It seems so appealing and compelling, in fact, that it often stops further discussion. Of course, it should be obvious that this argument can't work. For instance, I chose to murder the old woman (says Raskolnikov). You ought to respect my choices. So, don't criticize me.
But the problem with the argument points to something important. Part of respecting a choice, it seems to me, is holding one responsible for the choice and its effects. If I respect you for your choice to hole up in a cave with your three spouses and wait for the apocalypse, then I will hold you responsible for that decision and I am free to criticize your choice. Part of it being your decision, rather than just something that happened to you, is that it is yours, and you have to answer for it and to it. If I treat you as if you are not responsible, then I am failing to respect you. And only when you aren't responsible are you immune from criticism.