My Name Doesn’t Have An "S" In It

Every year, I read George Orwell’s 1984. Not because it’s a good book (although it is), but for the fact that I am paranoid as hell about everything and everyone. Which brings me to “Room 101”. In the book, there’s this thing called Room 101. Inside Room 101 is your worst fear, what really scares you. For our protagonist, Winston Smith, it was a rat-filled cage to the head (which was, if I remember correctly, what they did to some guy in that Missing In Action movie). Anyway, while contemplating how Winston Smith totally sold-out Julia, I started thinking about what would be in my Room 101. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. I thought, almost immediately, about something that I saw when I was a kid. It was a TV commercial. Back around 1982, the gore/slasher flick was king. Since drive-ins were still around, there was plenty od screen space for movies with nubile, oversexed teens, played by people who were so obviously over the age of 37, to be sliced and diced for the transgression of wantin’ to get it on in the woods. The commercial that traumatized me was the advertisement for the movie The Beast Within. I’m not going to go into details about the ad, except to say that it scared the beejezus out of me. To be totally honest, all these years later, I still haven’t seen the movie — even though you can easily score it in the 5 buck bin at just about any DVD store. I’m not sure if it’s philosophically correct to say so, but that commercial really scared the shit out of me. So, if I were 8 years old (hell, even now) my Room 101 would be that same commercial played on a loop. That commercial, on a loop, on a hi-def TV. The funny thing is, is that I had developed, over the ensuing years, not just an irrational fear of TV commercials for horror flicks, but a fear of TV commercials in general. I knew then and now, that my fear was irrational. It was, not just because my fear was generated at a time when I wasn’t fully capable of reasonable thought, but primarily beacuse having a fear of a TV commercial served no purpose. The other day, it was sunny out, so I decided to be a good, energy-conserving Californian, and hang my laundry out to dry. I was hanging up my Morrissey tee when a bee buzzed me. Naturally I freaked out. I have what any reasonable person might call an insane fear of bees. More to the point, I have an insane fear of being stung by Africanized Killer Bees (blame Mutual of Omaha for that one). I decided that the best course of action would not be to simply let the bee fly off, but to start shouting and waving my hands about in a frenzied semifore that, I suppose signaled to the bee the words (translated into bee language) “go away”. I hoped that the bee would be so stunned by the sight of a five foot tall human shouting and waving her hands in the air for no discernable reason, that it would freak out and leave. Which it did — but before I had even commenced to my anti-bee dance. Once I had stopped my impersonation of Chicken Little, and was safely locked behind a sliding glass door, I, regaining my sense of composure and reason, asked myself, ‘why the hell was I so afraid of that bee?’. My fear of a creature that is less than an inch long is like my fear of that movie commercial — completely and totally irrational. I have no good reason to be afraid of that or any single bee. It was epistemology all over again. And amazingly enough, a question that had been on my mind in that class came to mind again: is it possible to rationally hold irrational beliefs? Meaning, can we justify holding a belief that is a tad on the unreasonable side? In particular, can we reasonably hold an irrational belief if that belief, however irrational, enables us to make rational choices? Usually the answer is not only is it not possible to generate rational beliefs from irrational beliefs, but a straight-up no. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that the no’s have it. For the record, in addition to bees, I’m also afraid of clowns, inflated balloons, crickets (or any hopping insect generally), and touching other people’s electronic equipment (computers, laptops, digital cameras, anything that has batteries or plugs in). Really. I have a phobia about touching other people’s electronic stuff. I have absolutely no idea where that one came from. Now, my other fears may serve no purpose (being afraid of clowns or balloons), but being afraid of bees may serve a purpose. A person may have a good reason to fear bees, as in the case of a person with a bee allergy. Their life may depend on their fear. So, if I had a bee allergy, my thoughts (or beliefs if we’re being technical) may include: I am allergic to bees. Bees sting. Bee stings cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to them. I should not get stung by bees, and so on. Those are completely legitimate reasons for fearing bees. One who is allergic and believes these things is thought of as reasonable. Ok,so say I am not allergic to bees, which I am not. But my beliefs go something like this: Bees have stingers. Stingers will pierce your skin. That hurts. I am a total wuss when it comes to pain. I don’t want pain, etc. My life may not depend on it, but my wussoutedness when it comes to pain I believe gives me reason to fear bees just the same. Even if someone says that getting stung by a bee in nothing compared with the pain of something like childbirth. Apples and oranges, people. Nonetheless, avoidance of pain is not irrational. But someone might say my clothesline dancing was. But that brings in something that we haven’t until this point considered: the difference between irrational beliefs and irrational acts. The belief, according to the philosopher, to be justifiably true must not be based on emotion. That is, our beliefs ( those that are justifiable, anyway) are the product of a reasonable thought process. Emotions, as Mr. Spock will tell you, are not reasonable. But, I will say that what I do is, to some degree, emotionally driven. For example, I conclude, after some thought, that I will take a philosophy of language class. I have a whole host of reasons for doing so. Let’s say that some go along the lines of: taking this class is beneficial for a person studying philosophy, blah, blah, blah. I haven’t dragged in the fact that I find the whole pursuit useless, and on top of that, the professor is a little longwinded and boring. Pushing emotions aside, I take the class. Now, I take the class, which was the result of reasoned argumentation. The enthusiasm with which I participate in the class, however, is determined by other factors — many of which are emotional. I have plenty of “rational”reasons for taking the class, but I do it half-assed because I just can’t stand the class itself. What I am experiencing is a conflict between my reason and my emotion. This leads me to a question — which is actually irrational, the emotion or the belief that is inextricably tied to that emotion? How do our emotions interplay with our beliefs? Is an irrational belief such as a phobia only understandable as a psychological phenomena or can they be accounted for philosophically? It seems that, no matter how hard I try, my beliefs about clowns, bees, or movie trailers are bound to emotions. These emotions influence my beliefs and my actions that re based on those beliefs. I ask here, which takes precedence — my emotion, my belief, or my action that is influenced by one or most likely both — what I am asking, is which one is the irrational one? Try as I might to prevent such a thing from happening, my emotions (however irrational they may be) inform my beliefs and influence the decisions that I make, even the decisions that I claim are rendered in a rational manner. Our biggest problem is that we have difficulty defining words like “irrationality” and “rationality”. We are, in our everyday discourse, not always entirely sure if we are using our words in the same way that others are using them. We may imbue our words (and meanings) with poetic or religious sensibility. We are often ambiguious or vague with our language or we may be misusing our words (as in the case when we use words that we believe are synonymous, but are not). Our words often have colloquial or social contexts when we use them. When I say that I am “rational”, I am suggesting some sort of justification for why I believe as I do. This may not be the case for others, and is not alway the case for myself. As of this moment, I say that my thoughts are reasonable. But there is a problem here. All of my assertions are primed on one BIG assumption: I am rational. This presupposes that my beliefs are rational, as would be required to undertake any account of my rationality. So, what I am saying is that I am rationally holding rational beliefs, based on the idea that I had to be rational in order to hold my beliefs in the first place. That is, i have to be ina reasonable frame of mind to conjure reasonable beliefs. This is all, unfortunately, some rotten sort of question-begging. Sorry, but it seems that it is, alas, unavoidable. So let’s just forget all about it, shall we? So, to say that I have an irrational belief implies that there is some sort of irrationality in my ability to process my beliefs ( you may call this emotion, if you like). But, if I am being strict about the role emotion should play in my belief processes, then I would say that that irrationality is more likely to give me false beliefs, and that there is, therfore, no chance that I would ever get a rational belief from an irrational one. This leads me, once again, to asking, am I right on my terminology? Is the problem that I’m not thinking straight semantically? It is important to figure out what we are saying or what we mean (or “mean”) when we say that we believe anything. The justification of our beliefs depends on the clarity of our language ( that is, to paraphrase Orwell, if we don’t have our words straight, we can’t have our thoughts straight, since how we think is necessarily in words). Being clear is vitally important. So, maybe my problem isn’t so much epistemic as it is semantic. The problem is that I am dealing with an extraordinarily muddled language that forces me to think in ways that aren’t correct (worse than that, ways that can’t get correct). I’m not so smug to deny that I’m saying anything new here, but in philosophy, we deal with a very (often annoyingly) specific, technical nomenclature. Unfortunately, we live in a world where those same very specific, technical words are jointly used by ordinary people, who use words like “belief” and “thought” and “idea” interchangably. In the ordinary world, we use philosophical words like “argument”, “valid”, or “intuition” in ways that are nowhere near as precise as the philosopher demands. And as my words are imprecise, moreso are my emotions — which tend to be tossed aside by the philosopher completely. I can think (or at least attempt to think) my thoughts as clearly and succinctly in my head, but as soon as I attempt to articulate them, I lose something… clarity, meaning. And, something is added — what I FEEL. It is strange that, given that we philosophers hate emotions so, that it is our emotions that have the clarity and purity that often our rational thoughts and or words do not. My emotions are immediate and so strong, that oftentimes, they do not need words. I ran from the bee because I had to. That, perhaps, is its own justification. But, I must remind myself that the clarity of an emotion is not always so clear, and as the philosopher reminds me, my emotions can lead me to many false beliefs, including the belief that clowns are malevolent beings sent up from the deep trenches of hell to frighten the ever-loving poop out of people. So, as I look at my irrational beliefs, I ask, what have I? Where do I go from here? If I fear that my language fails me, then I must turn to my sentiments. But, my sentiments are often irrational and wrong. Which gets me right bact to where I started. Hmmm.

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Only A Sith Deals in Absolutes: On Anakin Skywalker and the Ambigiuty of Evil

I’ve been on something of a kick lately. Actually, it started around 1977. I just can’t stop watching those damned Star Wars movies! To make matters worse, all that philosophy I’ve been studying has somehow crept it’s way into my watching what should be — as described by its creator, George Lucas, a series of kid’s movies. Damn the man. In addition to being filmically stuck on George Lucas’ space opera, I’m simultaneously stuck on the problem of evil. It’s not that my stuckness on the problem of evil is limited to all that guesswork about how a all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good God allows evil — I’ve been thinking about the “problem” in a more general manner — that is, (and more specifically) how we use “evil” to describe the actions and psychological dispositions of individuals. I think that before I get into my topic at hand, it might do us a little good to understand the fantasy of Star Wars. George Lucas says, when taken in total, his movies are really the story of Anakin Skywalker (or Darth Vader if you prefer), who is modeled after the classic Greek tragic heroes. Plucked from obscurity, young slave boy, Anakin Skywalker is destined by the Gods (or by midichlorians) to become the greatest of all the Jedi. Our hero rises, but is done in by a tragic flaw. He eventually finds redemption and joins the gods (or in this case, becomes one with the Force). Lucas said he used classic archetypes as his templates (for more on these archetypes, read Jung or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). People of my generation, however, didn’t care about subtext or the references to Greek tragedy. All we cared about is the fact that lightsabers were cool. And Wookies were cooler. For the record, Ewoks are not cool. Still, even if we had never heard of Joseph Campbell, or had ever heard of the mythology behind the saga, we understood that Star Wars was a classic story of the good guys versus the bad guys, and as always, the good guys won. The second trilogy ( although chronologically filmed first), which includes the newly retitled A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, the good and the bad were clear– bad guys = Empire, good guys = Rebel Alliance. Led by the flaxen-haired Luke Skywalker, the good guys destroyed the Death Star not once, but twice and saved the galaxy from the Nazi-esque Empire led by the Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine. In a true, awsomely Jesus-like goodness move Luke resisted Vader’s temptation to join him (even after Vader cuts off his hand!), and likewise resists Emperor Palpatine’s temptation to kill his own father and stand at the Emperor’s side. Luke is good and pure-hearted way beyond golly gee. Even the roguish scoundrel Han Solo is reformed. The Empire, on the other hand, exudes nothing but evil. Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of Leia’s homeworld of Alderaan. Vader ( check this out) chokes his subordinates (killing the unfortunate Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa), tortures his own daughter (although he didn’t know at the time, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference), cuts off his son’s hand, backtracks on his deal with Lando Calrissian (quite possibly the only black, Armenian character in film history), tortures Han Solo and orders him encased in carbonite, just to name a few evil deeds. The only thing that I can think of that comes close to that kind of evil on the side of the Rebels is if you count the fact that Luke made out with his sister — but he didn’t know that she was when he did ( although I don’t think that if he did it would have made a difference). But, so far as episodes I, II, and III go, things are simple. Good and evil are very clearly defined ( I lifted those exact three words from a song). But, in 1999, George Lucas, probably in the desperate quest for more money (because he needs it), had to go and mess things up. Royally. Lucas decided that he needed to tell the backstory of Vader. Hello Phantom Menace! As we see young Vader, played by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen (respectively), we see that Vader wasn’t always evil, but a guy with a couple of emotional issues who took a wrong step and wound up the personification of evil throughout the Galactic Empire. Hey, it could happen to anybody. We see that Anakin, like many of us, wasn’t born naturally bad. We see that, when we look closely, that Vader isn’t a bad guy. Vader is a guy who, like so many of us, stepped into a deep stinky puddle of moral ambiguity and got stuck. Vader’s fall wasn’t motivated by malevolence, but by (surprisingly) the want to do good. Vader was motivated by GOOD. This is what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. Evil, according to Arendt, isn’t carried out, for the most part, by evil people who want to infilct pain on everyone. In her summation of Nazi atrocities, Arendt suggested that “evil” like the Nazis (or in this case the Empire) is a matter of people who believe that what they are doing is right. They see their actions as normal. ( Call it cognitive dissonance or whatever you like, but even in our own lives we see people who do incredibly bad things who will insist that their goal was some ultimate good). If, in the case of the actions of Vader, he believed that what he was doing was good, and if that is indeed the case, we may ask ourselves what is evil? In the philosophy of religion, there is much talk of evil. The discussion deals, in large part, with the problem of evil as it pertains to our arguments for and against the existence of God. We ask how can a loving, powerful God permit evil? But as we ask this question, we enevitably ask ourselves ‘what is evil?’. When we attempt to answer the question, we tend to divide evil into two types: 1) natural evils, which include earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, disease, and general pain, like the pain I am feling in my hip as I am sitting in this very uncomfortable chair writing this post, and 2) moral evils, which we believ requires some sort of deliberate thought or action. Moral evils would include murder, rape, ill will, or odd-numbered Star Trek films. Looking at Vader, we ask, if Vader’s actions are good in his mind, but in the “real” world evil and hurtful to others, does an act of evil require an additional intentionality on the part of the agent? That is, in order for an act to be truly evil, does it require an evil mind as well? Evil mindedness in the Empire is best typified by Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine is guided by the Sith Code which states the following: Peace is a lie. There is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken. (From Star Wars: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. 2006. by Drew Karpyshyn. Del Rey Books. pg. 79). The Sith ‘Rule of Two’ states that among the Sith there is “One to embody the power, the other to crave it” (pg. 259). The Sith value treachery, betrayal and naked unrelenting ambition. These are qualities that are, according to most of us, more than a little evil. But, even among the evil-minded Sith, there is a goal behind their outer evil — one that, in their minds, brings some good. Let’s get back to the Germans for a second. Ok, for starters, we’ll admit that Palpatne is evil. Just as it is undeniable that many of Hitler’s henchmen were in no way motivated by any sort of good whatsoever. Ok. But what about the rank and file soldiers and citizens who believed in Hitler’s vision of a thousand-year Reich? What about those people who believed that what they were doing served an ultimate good? If every German pulled out their utilitarian calculus and weighed the pain that some (and assuming a relatively few) would experience in order to get to a prosperous, peaceful German Reich, they might have, with all good intentions, thought that what they were doing or allowing to happen was good. I believe this is where Anakin’s evil lies. He is not only not evil, but not even maliciously oriented. Although the purists may kill me where I stand for saying this, I hold that Episode III, Revenge of the Sith is the lynchpin of the saga. If you can bear Hayden Christensen’s “acting” (really it’s not just him in this one), you can see that Vader isn’t evil, or at least he is in Arendt’s sense of banal evil. *There’s the scene where Mace Windu is poised to kill Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin walks in on the battle. Windu insists that, to preserve the good, that Palpatine must be destroyed. But, little does Windu know, if Palpatine is destroyed, then Anakin will lose his wife Padme in childbirth. Palpatine is the only one who can help him. Anakin intervenes, but on the side of Palpatine. Windu is chucked out the window, plummeting to his death. * Anakin kills Windu because he wants to save the life of his wife and unborn child (obviously a pro-lifer. He’ll kill the adult to save the baby). This is a genuinely good thing to want to do. So let’s say this is Anakin’s primary motivation — he wants to save his family. This is good. This is something that we all would do if we knew that our loved ones were in danger. If we were in the same situation, and we genuinely believed that our actions are good (they may even be good), we ask again, is the act evil? This question, of course, has implications not only in asking questions about the nature of evil, but also in our determination of there is any evil at all. We may conclude that very few actions that appear to be evil are in fact evil. Ok, I see the guy in the corner frantically waving his hands in the air. He’s saying that there is evil, and in fact Anakin is evil for what he has done. A miscalculation doesn’t absolve us from moral responsibility. If we can’t see that our actions are evil, then we are doubly at fault. First for our actions and second, for our stupidity. So noted. But I say that, despite the fact that the acts are prima facie evil, that Anakin’s acgtions are not evil in the true sense of malevolent motivation. His actions are, at best, ambiguously evil. That is, we can still say that his actions, however painful to others, were not intentionally so, and were motivated by good. Where did I get this answer? From George Lucas himself. Lucas says that, despite all of his misdeeds, Anakin is still the “Chosen One”. Lucas, like Luke and Padme, insist that deep, down inside of Vader, there is good. He is not as “twisted and evil” as Obi-wan Kenobi claims. Lucas says that, had he stopped his story at Episode IV, Vader would have remained a personification of evil. But, he says it was his goal to show us that Vader was as much of a victim as a villain. In the long run it seems that Vader is the victim of his own rationalization. According to Lucas, Vader’s entire motivation for everything he does is that he will not betray the Republic. Lucas says, ” Nobody evil thinks of themselves as evil. They always believe that they’re doing good…” ( Lucas explains this point of view on the Revenge of the Sith bonus disk feature “The Chosen One”). Lucas explains that people thought of Vader as pure evil, but according to Lucas he is not. Lucas says that Vader is not a heartless machine but a guy who has “lost everything”. Vader, Lucas says, is motivated by the loss of his mother, by the fact that he is going to lose his wife, at his frustration at being denied — not exactly evil emotions. Actor Hayden Christensen says (and he should know), Vader still believes that he is the “Chosen One”. He’s committing evil not knowing that his actions are hurting other beings ( we can assume that in believing that he is the “Chosen One” Vader believes that he does no wrong). Christensen says that Vader’s inability to see his acts as anything but good may be due to the fact that Anakin is naive. That’s exactly the point. It may be naivete, or rationalization or plain bullshiting — it complicates judging an act. Our actions are not simple matters of yes/no or black/ white, but are complicated and infused with all sorts of reasoning and emotions that cloud motivations — even to ourselves that we cannot simply brand one act “evil” and another “good”. Palpatine tells Anakin that good is a point of view — not an objective certain fact ( amazingly, Ben Kenobi tells Luke this same sentiment in Return of the Jedi. Strange words to hear from such a principled Jedi Master). We see (later in the film) Anakin tell Obi-wan that, from his point of view, the Jedi are evil. How can we be certain what is truly good or evil, especially when we can reduce it to a point of view or an intention, or relies on the outcome of some expected result? This may lead us to a frightening possibility: there may be no such thing as “evil”. Throughout history, theologians, philosophers and laymen alike has wrestled with the question of evil assuming that not only is evil a clear-cut morally wrong action, but also that evil actually exists. Michael Hardt of Duke University says, ” Human nature is changable. Human nature isn’t good or evil”. Evil is a thing of which we are all capable. Evil, if we call any act as such, in its most common form, isn’t Nazis, or Darth Vader or even Dick Cheney. It’s the garden variety little scheming that we all do to ever-so-gently undermine a co-worker, or sabotage a good friend’s budding relationship with someone you despise, or giving yourself a leg-up on the competition. We may say (and we may be right) that any and all or these banal evils we commit are in their own painful way, good — not just for us, but for everyone. They may be more in the way of moral mistakes than moral evils. Ewan McGreggor, who plays Obi-wan Kenobi in Trilogy 1, says of Vader, “His [Anakin’s] slide to the Dark Side… comes from very human things– that he’s in love, and he’s going to be a father, and he’s jealous… we’ve all done it. Messed up things because we’re young and naive, and not able to step back and go ‘oh no, it’s ok'” (From the Star Wars Trilogy bonus disk feature “The Return of Darth Vader”). Then again, George Lucas said that there’s a tendency in some people who watch movies like Star Wars to dismiss them as mindless entertainment. There are others, he says who take the opposite track and read too much into it. Which is what I, and every other philosopher does when we write things like this.