Civic Courage

I had the most amazing conversation this morning, with my friend Vera Schweder, who invited me to breakfast at her flat. Among other things (some of them pastries) she introduced me to the concept of civic courage. She wasn't sure that was the right terms in English, but I have found it several other places, mostly in translations from Russian or other East European languages. This is what it takes to tell someone in authority over you something they might not want to hear. She said it takes this even to tell a waiter that he has brought you the wrong food.

I absolutely love the term, and it also just opened up a whole way of thinking about democracy and the cultural differences that I've experienced. In America, it is actually next to nothing to complain politely about food in a restaurant, while in England there are low-ranking academics who would stand up and protest in a department meeting but never dream of sending food back. So this means that while the courage aspect is no doubt a personality trait, the extent to which it is expressed is culturally variable. One of the reasons America is so different from Europe is that the political systems and most organisations are designed to facilitate communication. This is part of why America has a more mobile society, and part of the reason it has more innovation --- good ideas can come from anywhere.

But it also means an American can seem more threatening and courageous than they really are if they come to Europe. Will has told me that Europeans think Americans share particularly with each other because they are nationalist, but I've always known that really we would share with anyone, but it's just easier to share with each other because both sides expect it. Sharing is of course a two-way street -- if you talk to someone but they never tell you anything then you stop.

Once I visited one of my English friends in his flat during my MSc in Edinburgh and we had a nice conversation over tea and he said afterwards how wonderful it was to talk because he knew you could tell Americans anything. And I reflected but couldn't think of a single thing he'd said that was even slightly exhibitionist. I knew that one of my other English friends definitely felt voyeuristic when she talked to me, you could see her look kind of excited and guilty when she said what she really thought about things (again, nothing an American would hesitate to talk about in a public coffee shop!) But with this guy, I really never figured out what he'd been referencing. I think this aspect of the English culture has changed a lot since 1992, though of course so have I having lived in Europe so long. But there is still a big difference. And I will say also, although I've never known enough people from South America, from the ones I've known I'm often reminded that we are American together, this is something they share even on a different continent. It is something New World. Maybe it's something from our ancestors, about people who would go settle a different continent. But all of us are experimenting with governments, no one brought royalty from Europe. And, of course, I suppose all of us have been influenced by the Native Americans, but I don't know much about how.

But I do think the fact as an American I never even had the notion you need the term "civil courage" means something about how our societies are organised. In fact, I think if we called that concept anything we'd call it a part of our civic duty. It's nothing to be proud of if you tell authorities what they need to know. It's the norm, and it's something to be ashamed of if you don't.

After breakfast I went and saw a movie in the Viennale called L' Homme qui marche. I just wanted to see something arty and intellectual while I waited for Will to get here, and I picked it out of a German-language programme (fortunately I know the little key to look for: meU - mit english Undertitles) It was about someone who was so brilliant but crazy that he lived as an artist for decades but then died of starvation in Paris. It was ironic since he'd escaped the USSR where of course artists were paid. Unless they were killed. The movie must have been hard for the Parisians to watch, since they think they love and support the arts, but I think one of the points is that sometimes genius comes with so many crazy ideas it is impossible to support, it isn't viable. The old theme of genius being hand in hand with madness.

The English description of the film in the on-line Viennale catelogue is totally wrong, don't read it. It's not that they got the English wrong, they got the plot & the themes wrong -- what kind of a cinema buff wrote that? But fortunately (?) it was based on a real story, so you can read about the actual artist and his life on wikipedia: Vladimir Slepian The movie didn't show him at all in his painting part of his life, but showed him from when he was becoming a writer until the end of his life. He is in an artistic scene in Paris and there are fantastic scenes of French political discussions from the various ages he witnesses but says nothing during. And a chain of interesting friendships and cafes. The trailer also doesn't do it justice, but it's hard to put French film pacing into two minute summaries. It really was an engaging film!

I promised some weeks ago to tell you another great concept I learned, this one from Dennett, about "chmess". The conversation was about philosophy, and its relation to science. I was talking about how it seemed like some philosophers only saw philosophy as a collection of techniques and didn't really care what they proved. This was what turned me off it at Chicago -- I was interested in the topics, but I couldn't stand the students I knew who were studying it, at least I couldn't stand arguing with them. Dan replied that he had recently written this paper about chmess. Chmess is the game of chess, only with one difference --- the king can move two squares, not one. He said that there were thousands of papers written proving this and that about chess, but it would be ludicrous to write the thousands of identical papers you could write about chmess. But unfortunately, this was what some philosophers were doing. They'd publish papers pointing out errors in each other's previously published papers, yet none of these papers was actually about anything anyone really thought or cared about.

As an aside, Dan, Will and our mutual friend Phil Kime that introduced us were the first "useful" philosophers I ever knew. I used to think the attitude that you should apply philosophy to something actually interesting was rare. But at the KLI we've had a parade of really interesting people doing real work advancing biology coming through who are called philosophers, and I can see that they do use some of the philosopher's tools to help check their reasoning is right. It's been a fantastic year so far intellectually (and aesthetically, but you knew that if you've been here!)

Anyway, I was talking about the concept underlying shmesh with Vera. We were talking about people who spend huge amounts of time watching TV or playing computer games instead of doing something (possibly, instead of worrying). I spoke about some of the people I'd known at MIT. Marvin Minsky used to complain about the "trillions of processors" that were wasted for hours ever Sunday afternoon watching sports. Rod Brooks once told me before an exam that he felt guilty for making 700 undergraduates that were that smart think for two hours about stuff that was so meaningless. Vera and I talked about the ambition to both examine (or at least teach) undergraduates and accomplish something useful at the same time. If you could give them problems that were both suitable for practice and learning but might also lead to new discoveries, wouldn't that be better? I do this a bit with my dissertation students, but I've never had the chance to teach anything I knew or cared enough about to really do this in a course. But maybe I will get a chance in the coming years.


Joanna said…
"Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about."
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) Linguist

This was Bath's quote of the week this week, seemed appropriate given the beginning of this article.