What is so great about Snapchat?

The story teller in me finds this review of Snapchat, and its power to threaten ubiquitous social media platforms such as Facebook, very interesting.

As a neophyte Snapchat user what I can ascertain the key appeals to be, are:

  1. It’s ephemeral nature. Disappearing snaps and stories create a compulsion to share and view immediately.
  2. Stories. Adding a series of snaps to a story, shared for 24 hrs, invites followers into a narrative account of an experience.

Tell your friends a mini story about your day?! Awesome.

How to Unpack a Bad Argument

Powerful speakers use confidence and self assurance, a quick flow of words and a cutting and acerbic manner to establish themselves as experts and leaders. Too often, their views are internally inconsistent and their arguments flawed.

In my life, I’ve been frustrated in too many bad arguments. As I’ve grown older, I have learned to pick apart the ideas of others and throw back some ideas of my own but it has been a slow process.

One of the most helpful resources I have found of late, are tools of logic and rhetoric which date back to classical times. These tools have been lost from mainstream curriculum but in my view they should every school child should learn to argue clearly and with integrity.

classics

Here are a few types of bad arguments as identified by classical rhetoricians and logicians:

  • Argumentum ad antiquitatem or the “argument to antiquity or tradition”. Best known as, “it’s always been done that way,” this argument is favoured by the establishment. While tradition should be honoured, it does not immediately make it the best course of action.
  • Argumentum ad hominem or “argument directed at the person”. This means attacking the character or motives of a person who has stated an idea, rather than the idea itself.  For example,”We all know Nixon was a liar and a cheat, so why should we believe anything he says?” The relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid.
  • Argumentum ad ignorantiam or “argument to ignorance”. This means assuming something is true simply because it hasn’t been proven false. For example, someone might argue that global warming is certainly occurring because nobody has demonstrated conclusively that it is not. But failing to prove the global warming theory false is not the same as proving it true. This  depends crucially upon the burden of proof.
  • Argumentum ad logicam or “argument to logic”. This means assuming that something is false simply because a proof or argument that someone has offered for it is invalid; this reasoning is wrong because there may be another proofs or arguments that successfully supports the proposition.
  • Argumentum ad misericordiam or “argument or appeal to pity”. For example: “Think of all the poor, starving Ethiopian children! How could we be so cruel as not to help them?” It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to point out the severity of a problem as  justification for  a proposed solution. The problem comes in when other aspects of the proposed solution -such as whether it is possible, how much it costs, who else might be harmed by adopting the policy- are ignored or responded to only with more impassioned pleas.
  • Argumentum ad nauseam or “argument to the point of disgust”; i.e., by repetition. This means trying to prove something by saying it again and again. Of course, it is not a fallacy to state the truth again and again; what is fallacious is to expect the repetition alone to substitute for real arguments.
  • Argumentum ad numerum or “argument or appeal to numbers”. This neans proving something by showing how many people think that it’s true. For example: “At least 70% of all Americans support restrictions on access to abortions.” Well, maybe 70% of Americans are wrong!
  • Argumentum ad populum or “argument or appeal to the public”. Like the appeal to numbers, this entails trying to prove something by showing that the public agrees with you.
  • Argumentum ad verecundiam or “argument or appeal to authority”. This occurs when someone tries to demonstrate the truth of a proposition by citing some person who agrees, even though that person may have no expertise in the given area. For instance, some people like to quote Einstein’s opinions about politics (he tended to have fairly left-wing views), as though Einstein were a political philosopher rather than a physicist.

cicero2

  • Circulus in demonstrando or “circular argument”. Circular argumentation occurs when someone uses what they are trying to prove as part of the proof of that thing. For example,  “Marijuana is illegal in every state in the nation. And we all know that you shouldn’t violate the law. Since smoking pot is illegal, you shouldn’t smoke pot. And since you shouldn’t smoke pot, it is the duty of the government to stop people from smoking it, which is why marijuana is illegal!”
  • Complex question. A complex question is a question that implicitly assumes something to be true by its construction, such as “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A question like this is fallacious only if the thing presumed true (in this case, that you beat your wife) has not been established.
  • Cum hoc ergo propter hoc or “with this, therefore because of this”. This is the familiar thinking that because two things occur simultaneously, one must be a cause of the other.  For example, “President Clinton has great economic policies; just look at how well the economy is doing while he’s in office!” These two things may happen at the same time merely by coincidence.
  • Dicto simpliciter or “spoken simply”, i.e., sweeping generalization. This means making a sweeping statement and expecting it to be true of every specific case — in other words, stereotyping. Example: “Women are on average not as strong as men and less able to carry a gun. Therefore women can’t pull their weight in a military unit.” The problem is that the sweeping statement may be true (on average, women are indeed weaker than men), but it is not necessarily true for every member of the group in question (there are some women who are much stronger than the average).
  • Nature, appeal to. This entails the assumption that whatever is “natural” or consistent with “nature” (somehow defined) is good, or that whatever conflicts with nature is bad. For example, “Homosexuality is unnatural; it is not the evolutionary function of sexual intercourse. Therefore it is wrong.” After all, wearing clothes, tilling the soil, and using fire might be considered unnatural since no other animals do so, but humans do these things all the time and to great benefit.

antony

  • Naturalistic fallacy. This is trying to derive conclusions about what is right or good (that is, about values) from statements of fact alone. For example, someone might argue that the premise, “This medicine will prevent you from dying” immediately leads to the conclusion, “You should take this medicine.” But this reasoning is invalid, because the former statement is a statement of fact, while the latter is a statement of value. To reach the conclusion that you ought to take the medicine, you would need at least one more premise: “You ought to try to preserve your life whenever possible.”
  • Non Sequitur or “It does not follow”. This is simply stating, as a conclusion, something that does not strictly follow from the premises. For example, “Racism is wrong. Therefore, we need affirmative action.” Obviously, there is at least one missing step in this argument, because the wrongness of racism does not imply a need for affirmative action without some additional support (such as, “Racism is common,” “Affirmative action would reduce racism,” “There are no superior alternatives to affirmative action,” etc.).
  • Petitio principii or “begging the question”. This entails making the assumption when trying to prove something, what it is that you are trying prove. If somebody said, “The fact that we believe pornography should be legal means that it is a valid form of free expression. And since it’s free expression, it shouldn’t be banned,” that would be begging the question. This is also a circular argument.
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this, therefore because of this”. This entails the assumption that A caused B simply because A happened prior to B. A favorite example: “Most rapists read pornography when they were teenagers; obviously, pornography causes violence toward women.” The conclusion is invalid, because there can be a correlation between two phenomena without one causing the other.
  • Red herring. This entails  irrelevant facts or arguments to distract from the question at hand. For example, “The opposition claims that welfare dependency leads to higher crime rates — but how are poor people supposed to keep a roof over their heads without our help?” It is perfectly valid to ask this question as part of the broader debate, but to pose it as a response to the argument about welfare leading to crime is fallacious.
  • Slippery slope. A slippery slope is an argument that says adopting one policy or taking one action will lead to a series of other policies or actions also being taken, without showing a causal connection between the advocated policy and the consequent policies. A popular example of the slippery slope fallacy is, “If we legalize marijuana, the next thing you know we’ll legalize heroin, LSD, and crack cocaine.” This is a form of non sequitur if no reason has been provided for why legalization of one thing leads to legalization of another.
  • Straw man. This is the mistake to argue against a caricatured or extreme version of somebody’s argument, rather than the actual argument they’ve made. Often this fallacy involves putting words into somebody’s mouth by saying they’ve made arguments they haven’t actually made. For example, if Pauline Hanson expresses a desire to keep Australian values by limiting immigration, an opponent may argue that Pauline Hanson supports a white-Australia policy and is xenophobic.
  • Tu quoque or “you too”. This entails defending an error in one’s reasoning by pointing out that one’s opponent has made the same error. For example, “They accuse us of making unjustified assertions. But they asserted a lot of things, too!”

school of athens

These points were summarised from a resource of Glen Whitman, Associate Professor of Economics at California State University.

rhetoric

The Dawkins Dilemma

Damien Shalley is someone who randomly came across Bear Skin, several pages deep in google search listings and subsequently submitted feedback.  Considering we gain hits from all around the globe, and a following which interestingly comes largely from North America, it was a surprise to find out he lived in the same city as me in a corner of the anitipodes. Since then he has submitted various guest posts to Bear Skin on various themes of interest – art, music and even creative originals. His latest piece is a reflection on everyone’s friend, Richard Dawkins.

The Dawkins Dilemma

by

Damien Shalley

 

And there he is again, right on schedule, evolutionary biologist and social commentator Richard Dawkins. Perhaps best known for his “evangelical atheism” and his very public position that any form of religious belief is patently absurd, Dawkins loves to express his point of view during traditional Christian religious holidays such as Christmas. One seemingly cannot turn on a television during the festive season without being subjected to his anti-deist opinions. His annual analysis of why belief in God is foolhardy turned up as pre-Christmas viewing on both the BBC and the ABC in 2015, and his previous four-part analysis of why religious faith is antithetical to scientific endeavour also got a repeat airing. (He saves his strongest criticism for the Catholics in the final instalment, in case you hadn’t already guessed). Strangely enough he also resorted to spreading his views via Al Jazeera television last year. (Al Jazeera is funded by the Islamic government of Qatar). Make of this what you will.

Professionally, Dawkins is an esteemed evolutionary biologist with a knack for clearly and accurately explaining biological and evolutionary processes.   For this, he has my admiration. He may well be peerless in his capacity to disseminate this knowledge in an understandable way. I have often marvelled at how well he describes processes such as natural selection, the driver of evolution, and felt awed by his dedication to the advancement of human knowledge.

But Dawkins insists that anyone who adheres to a religious faith or spiritual beliefs of any kind – his most famous target being Christianity – is deluded and foolish. In his publicly-stated view, religious belief is not worthy of serious consideration. His primary argument against it is simple – it is unscientific.   God cannot be observed directly and “belief” cannot be quantified or measured. As such, religious belief systems defy the kind of objective analysis that a scientist like Dawkins requires and must be rejected outright. Yet one only has to scratch the surface of Dawkins’ primary argument to reveal a universe of questions for which he has no answer.

Dawkins himself is a polite and erudite man in his mid-seventies. He is impeccably well-qualified and any attempts to question the scientific basis of his arguments are quickly and skilfully shut down during debates. His primary weakness, it seems, is his intolerance of alternative points of view. In his opinion, God is a delusion, Christians are fools and forms of belief that he does not understand are equally foolish.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. The name of the debate is ?The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin?. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY EDUCATION) - RTR2YBDF

Dawkins is an adherent of rationalism and empirical analysis. He espouses a well-known and scientifically well-accepted view that our universe came into existence after a massive cosmic detonation. This explosion spread atoms from an infinitely dense ball of matter approximately the size of a melon to the farthest reaches of space. Elements created in this “big bang” formed the building blocks of organic life. Carbon-based life forms were created on earth when water, amino acids (proteins) and electricity combined to kick-start primordial existence. Human life subsequently came into being after billions of years of evolution.

This is fine as far as it goes. It is a scientifically sound premise and there is a significant amount of evidence to support aspects of this theory. We live in an expanding universe (consistent with an explosive genesis), we are carbon-based life forms, we can observe primitive aerobic organisms living in hot springs in parts of the world today that might well be our primitive precursors, and we can see evidence of evolution in the form of prehistoric fossils and observe natural selection processes in wild environments. The Dawkins position looks pretty strong. And yet, it isn’t.

Can matter originate from nothing? Can nothingness ever be the originator of “somethingness” (for want of a better word?) If our universe began when a massive accumulation of cosmic energy caused a concentrated ball of matter to explode, what was this cosmic energy and where did this ball of matter come from? Cosmologists have recently posited that in space, matter might accumulate in concentrated forms due to inversions wherein space folds in on itself in a cyclical manner. (This has been described as similar to the way in which warm air and low pressure systems create cyclones). This is another scientifically sound theory. But what is this matter which is accumulating? What is this “essence” of the universe – this foundation of creation, so to speak – and where did it come from? And why is the vociferous Richard Dawkins so strangely silent about this topic? Put simply, why can’t Richard Dawkins explain this in the same way that he so easily explains the known and understandable aspects of biology?

Because he can’t, that’s why. (Also, he doesn’t want to).

Dawkins has been at pains in the past to inform us that scientists cannot seek to explain phenomena starting from a “supernatural” standpoint. A premise such as the creation of matter by God bears no “internal consistency” to a scientist seeking a rational explanation. He cannot countenance this theological option, and within the boundaries of his scientific analysis, he doesn’t have to. But that still leaves a major hole in his analysis, as well as his conclusions about those who choose to seek additional answers elsewhere.

The fact that television programmers choose to allow Dawkins to stick his head above the parapet during the holiday season is probably more a function of their search for an audience than anything else. (He regularly attracts both supporters and critics and they all watch his shows – including me). In his latest outing, Dawkins interviews cloistered monks, an American Catholic priest and comedian Ricky Gervais, as well as looking to astronomy and classic English literature to help explain his position. He concludes after 50 minutes that there is no God and that belief in a deity is facile, that we are an accident of the cosmos, that people should live as though death will render everything in their lives utterly redundant and that Christian celebratory holidays are cultural norms of the delusional. (Incidentally, it hardly seems unusual to me that a society with a Christian history has public holidays linked to this heritage. But hey, show some respect, Richard Dawkins is speaking).

I’m not convinced of Dawkins’ argument and never have been, although I’m no opponent of science (or of free thought either). I believe that science is an invaluable tool for the betterment of the human race, and I believe that it has delivered the foundational understanding for our modern lives. Medicine, engineering, communications, education: these and virtually every other aspect of human existence have been improved by scientific advances. But I also believe that science does not, indeed cannot, answer any and all questions about human existence. And if people wish to seek answers in religious belief and social structures based on religious principles, it is not Richard Dawkins’ place to tell them that they shouldn’t.

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If you would like to submit a guest post to Bear Skin, please feel free to email me at jennifer@bishop.id.au

Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

After a brief hiatus it is with pleasure that Damien Shalley blogs again for Bear Skin, this time with something a little more personal. A Christmas reflection.

Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

by Damien R. Shalley, Esq.

for N.W.

Last Saturday I awoke at 3:47 pm feeling mighty used, having spent the previous day and night attempting to prove that a person can be sustained exclusively on fermented malt beverages. (Fun fact: You can, until you lose consciousness). I can usually manage to stumble out of bed by the crack of noon after a big session on the stagger juice, so even for me this was a grand anti-achievement. I popped a Berocca and some Nurofen Plus and attempted to reintegrate my synapses. I had a vague feeling that I was supposed to be doing something on this day, but my addled cerebellum wouldn’t reveal this secret knowledge. So I moved to my default position whilst in this condition – oblivious ignorance – whilst wallowing in self-pity and emitting quiet whimpering noises.

I hit the shower for an extended water therapy session. I revived enough to realise that I had forgotten to take off my socks. (Oh well, they needed a wash). The water was soothing but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was required to be doing something else other than rehydrating whilst curled up in the foetal position on tiles of my shower bay. On the plus side, my socks were now very clean. I lay there until the throbbing in my head had reduced to a low-key drumming. The dullness in my corpus abated to the extent that I could reach for and open the shampoo bottle without risking heart failure. Small mercies. I continued to absorb the H2O for an extended period and eventually relieved my H2 woe. I exited the shower on my hands and knees and blow-dried my socks whilst still wearing them. (Incidentally, this resulted in remarkably fluffy and comfortable socks – I would recommend this technique to the hung over). Now I was ready to face the day, despite the fact that the day was pretty much over.

At this point my resolute nausea was weirdly challenged by a desire to eat something. Food, I thought, might provide a nice counterbalance to the strange percolations that were occurring in my stomach – an organ only marginally less abused than my liver. Experts recommend eating a healthy, low-fat meal after a hangover to help one’s body cleanse toxins. Phooey! I hadn’t listened to expert advice about how to avoid a hangover, so I wasn’t going to listen to expert advice about how to treat a hangover. (I know this is circular logic, but hey, I had a hangover!) I proceeded to fix myself two fried eggs on toast. With greasy bacon. And a lot of sauce. Tempting fate much? I am not a chef and there are two things that always ring true about my culinary exploits: 1. Nothing cooked by me tastes any good, and; 2. I’m not kidding. My meal was average at best but at least it quietened my bubbling gastric system. In the back of my mind I still felt that I had forgotten something. I retired to my favourite leather recliner to give serious consideration to this dilemma – and promptly fell asleep. Food always makes me sleepy, and in my weakened state I entered the land of nod without resistance. Blissful slumber ensued – for a while.

Two loud beeps broke though the arc of snoozy zzz’s emanating from my reclining body. That’d be my phone, I thought as I returned from unconscious oblivion. I had previously forgotten to check this device because I was preoccupied with my own misery and because I secretly resented the way it ruined my naps. After fumbling with the insidious creation, a text message from a friend revealed itself. “Don’t forget Carols tonight at church, biggest night of the year! Be there by 6:00!

Uh-oh, Christmas Carols! That is what I had forgotten to remember! Caroling is not supposed to send chills of fear through one’s body but my friend is pretty demanding and if I was late to these festivities there’d be a passive-aggressive price a pay. Luckily for me it was only around 4:30 pm, right? Wrong! It was 5:25pm, I’d been away with the pixies (or Christmas elves in this case) for an hour! I grabbed some previously worn “going out” clothes from the floor of my bedroom which were crinklier than my Grandma (luckily I didn’t to find socks – serendipity!) and splashed on a lot more cologne than I should have to improve my freshness factor. And so, smelling like an accident in a Lynx factory, I proceeded to my destination. Almost.

My trusty car picked this critical moment not to start. Arrggghhhh! I popped the bonnet and found, well, an engine. I don’t know too much about cars, but my old man always told me to check your points and battery connections first if the vehicle is playing up. I retrieved my trusty red toolbox from the boot and proceed to fumble around. I tightened a loose battery connection and the engine turned over. Dad was right about something for once! A Christmas miracle! I threw my trusty red toolbox onto the front passenger seat and hightailed it to the church.

I usually drive defensively but sometimes the best defence is a good offense, so I ducked and weaved through indecisive motorists noodling through the local streets until I hit the motorway. Unnecessarily singing “Get Your Motor Running” by Steppenwolf, I made great time until, a few minutes into my run, I felt an unmistakeable urge. Maybe it was the previous dodgem’ car antics that had upset my stomach, maybe it was the hangover treatment of eggs and bacon, maybe I was worried about disappointing my friend – but man, did I have to throw up! Oh no! The urge was overwhelming and there was no time to pull over. The only thing my addled brain could think about was not vomiting on my clothes. Nobody wants to attend carols looking and smelling like the local alcoholic hobo. There was only one thing I could do. I grabbed my toolbox, flipped the latch and, well – hurled into it. Recalling Jim Morrison’s warning to “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel”, I managed to time my paroxysms to unpleasant intervals in between rapid-fire scans of the road ahead. The expulsions, amazingly, resulted in no unpleasant residues on my clothes. The same cannot be said for my toolbox. I threw it back on the passenger seat and pressed onward at speed.

I arrived at the church with a few minutes to spare but couldn’t find a park in the car park. Or in a side street. Or on a side road. The entire population of northern Brisbane was apparently attending this event. So I ventured down to a dimly lit local park. This less-than salubrious locale didn’t even have a name like most parks do, just a sign that read “No Dumping”. I pulled onto the grass in what may not have been a breach of 21 local by-laws and jumped out of my seat. Some shifty-looking teenagers were loitering around a bench on the other side of the park. I told myself that all teenagers look shifty, abandoned my car to the will of the universe for the evening and entered into a slow jog (very slow considering my condition) towards the place of worship and tunes. Halfway to the venue, I remembered that I hadn’t locked my car. Too late, too bad, I thought and continued toward salvation.

Whist negotiating a swampy miasma at the edge of the park which appeared to exist in order to prevent the unworthy (i.e. me) from entering the church – and muddying my boots in the process – I received another text message. “You idiot, where are you?” It was 6:02pm. Assuming that the word “idiot” was a term of endearment, I responded. “Nearly there, a minute away”. I was expecting to be congratulated for this achievement. I was disappointed. “You know I’m the sound tech for tonight, right? Busy all night, I won’t see you at all. Should have got here earlier, idiot!” (Idiot again. Must really like me).   In fairness, this probably was not new information. I did have a vague recollection of something like this being mentioned previously, but I had forgotten. What can I say, I drink. I extracted myself from the swamp and continued forward to the sing-along, arriving muddied, befuddled and just in time to be late. The celebration had begun. Music wafted over my sweating brow and passed through the air above the fetid mash I had just escaped.

I grabbed a song book and infiltrated the crowd in a vain attempt to show my friend that I had arrived against great odds. I was immediately struck by the fact that nobody in sight was alone. The place was packed with families, couples young and old, extended collections of relatives, groups of excited children performing boogie-woogie moves. I was truly a rogue male in this milieu.   Rogue males are not welcome in places with multitudes of children, and can often find themselves subject to unwelcome scrutiny from “proper” adults. (We are welcome at dinner parties though, and regularly get set up with somebody’s unmarried female cousin who has worked in the Bureau of Statistics or some such fascinating entity for the last twelve years whist being treated intermittently for spastic colon). My move towards front of stage was thwarted by a large and particularly enthusiastic assemblage of primary school-aged children dressed as elves. (I would later learn that they were to be part of the night’s stage entertainment. For a while there I thought I was experiencing DT’s from all the booze). I took this as a sign and implemented Plan B – strategic retreat.

The rear of the arena was actually not such a bad location to spend an evening. I have a singing voice roughly akin to an angry walrus and the term “tone deaf” was invented specifically for me. So it was quite refreshing to find an area of respite, both for myself and fellow participants who didn’t have to listen to my tonal dissonance. I staked out some territory near a sound mixing desk (no sign of my friend here either) and got my groove on.

The first carol of the evening had been a traditional religious song, nicely performed by the church choir and a live band. The next performance however, was a dance routine by some hip youngsters tightly choreographed to a funky Justin Bieber tune. I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted a carol. (I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted music). I made a mental note that I secretly hated this song. The kids in the audience were enraptured. What do I know?

“Hear the Angels Voices” arrived next, with lyrics projected via digital teletron. The words “Fall to your knees” precede the chorus lyric of this carol – I was ready to do just that at this stage because my hangover was telling me that I really needed some fluids. At this point I contemplated an excursion to the nearest 7-11 store for a litre of Gatorade, but my exit strategy was thwarted by an assemblage of performers behind me who were preparing to run toward the stage costumed as the “ghosts of Christmas past”. I felt that I was in grave danger of becoming a ghost at this point so poorly did I feel, but I stuck it out and, unbelievably, started to feel really uplifted by the performances. The songs were (mostly) familiar – Bieber be damned – and the tradition of gathering together to celebrate something as joyous as Christmas is beautiful. This is collective memory writ large, and what a beautiful memory to have. The whole occasion had an aspect to it that – dare I say it – was holy.

The night’s official festivities went on for two hours. Carols and songs, both old and new, lifted spirits. The band was tight, the lighting was spectacular, the performers were elegant and the assembled families (plus one rogue male) were entertained. This really is the way to experience Christmas.

After the event I finally caught up with my friend. We laughed together about my dumb exploits prior to arrival and made plans to meet up again soon. Christmas wishes were exchanged, and I then beat a retreat to retrieve my vehicle and get home to bed (and painkillers). As I approached my car, I noticed that something didn’t look quite right. As I got closer, I could see that the mirror on the driver’s side of the vehicle had been torn off. It was lying on the ground beside the car. “Damn kids, I thought. They’ve vandalised my car!” The driver’s side window was missing too. Parts of the shattered remnants, still held together by tinting film, were sitting on the driver’s seat. I opened the UNLOCKED door (guys, you didn’t have to break in) and surveyed the scene. They had stolen, along with some other small items, my trusty red toolbox! I don’t know whether it was the joy of the night’s carols, the Christmas spirit in general, or my hangover forcing me to prioritise my concerns, but I just couldn’t help laughing out loud. “Boy are they going to get a surprise when they open that!”

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If you would like to guest blog for Bear Skin please message me on jennifer@bearskin.org

The Crucible

It is fascinating to discover that Arthur Miller’s brilliant 1953 play, “The Crucible” which portrays the 17th century  Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, is in fact an allegory of the political climate of his day.

The play, which recounts the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of various New Englanders on charges of witchcraft, is used by Miller to allude to the blacklisting of many US citizens by the McCarthy administration. In the 1950s the US Government, led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, accused, publicly shamed and even imprisoned many thinkers, political activists, writers, artists, actors and film-directors on charges of communism and homosexuality.

crucible-open-air_1650407c

Labelled the Second Red Scare, or McCarthyism the era epitomised the making of unfair or unjustified allegations and the use of unfair investigation to restrict political dissent.  Heightened by Cold War tensions,  claims that communist spies and Soviet sympathisers had infiltrated the US abounded. It seems McCarthy did not stop a communists, but also targeted and threatened to expose prominent homosexuals and free thinkers in education institution, unions and in Hollywood.

Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives in 1956. Despite this or perhaps due to this, his play became a classic and remains and timeless reminder of the power of propaganda, the destructiveness of fear driven ideals.

witch-trial

“Witch hunting” becomes a powerful metaphor for the desire to prosecute, expose and punish dissenters or those representing the unknown element.

With political tensions heightened in our own “war on terror”, it’s still as relevant as ever to consider deeply who and what we are seeking to expose, prosecute and punish.

Animal Farm 

I have never fully understood the allegory of communism that George Orwell wrote in 1954. It seemed both childlike and conversely, overly pessimistic.

In the story, the farm animals led by two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball revolt against their human slave-masters and declare independence. Initial glory, success and freedom soon decays into bitter infighting, reconstructed ideals and a dictatorial leadership by lone pig Napoleon who behaves much like the humans he overthrew.

index

However, visiting a communist nation like Vietnam recently illuminated a few things to me about the contradictions the short novella highlights.

Despite being a socialist state, there is almost nothing in the way of social security in Vietnam  – elementary education incurs a fee, as does basic health care and retirement benefits are rare.

When the average monthly salary is only USD $150 per month the problems these expenses cause families on the lower end of the wage spectrum, are immense. Disability and illness, exacerbated by after effects of the war include, unexploded munitions, chemical poisons and genetic deformities.

images

While the people are industrious, gentle and hospitable and there is little begging or visible unrest, the country rests upon an ideology that is not clearly displayed in its social systems. The divide between the richest and poorest is immense.

It does seem that the unfortunate result of communist ideology is “some animals becoming more equal than others.”

Travel Tales 

Laptop malfunctions and some travelling has pushed me offline of late. This post comes started from a tablet (awkward to type) in an airport stop over in South East Asia.

But what bountiful fodder for musings is travel?! No wonder writers , musicians and artists have written, sung and painted from postings far afield, aboard trains, caravans, boats and from mountain tops, desserts and villages.

My travels have taken me to Vietnam and Laos – countries rich with history, narrative and art.
I can’t help but share here my thoughts in coming days.

More of a realist

I couldn’t help but share this post from favourite Seth Godin.

More of a realist

 

When did being called a ‘realist’ start to mean that one is a pessimist?

Sometimes, people with small goals call themselves realists, and dismiss those around them as merely dreamers. I think this is backwards.

I guess I’m more of a realist than you,

actually means,

I guess I’ve discovered that a positive attitude, a generous posture and a bit of persistence makes things better than most people expect.

Hope isn’t a strategy, but it is an awfully good tactic.

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You can follow Seth’s blog here.

SORT Creative Writing Workshop

For the last few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to facilitate a creative writing workshop for SORT Recycling work-for-the-dole program. At each class 6-8 men and women write creatively and share their work, giving feedback and encouragement to each other.

I have been enchanted by the creative expression of these men and women, each with very different backgrounds, interests and abilities. Their creations inspire long conversations, stories, laughter and questions.

This is the writing of Dan, a young man who has already lived more life than me. He also once ranked 28th place in the world Pokemon championships and has his own YouTube channel:

“THE REMINDER”

From womb to tomb we depend
A family name to represent
Minds think thoughts alone
Til’ the ocean takes us home
Emotions collide
Thoughts and feelings intertwine
Invincibility youth take to bed
While vulnerability leads ahead
Time we try to escape
Trying to find a better fate
But in the end there is dark
The flame of life without a spark.

 

SORT 2

 

This is the writing of Ben, a young man who grew up in remote North Queensland and Ireland who at first described himself as “uncreative”:

Untitled

when the new sprout stands tall and strong in the ground? and giving is loving and loving is sharing but keeping is dwelling and depriving and past? itis now (our time moves forward) o, itis spring goodbye the pretty birds; the wind whispering to wings goodbye the little fish; the sea current silent to scale (so the mountains are dancing, dancing eternal)

SORT (2)

 

If the eyes are a window to the soul, one’s writing is a painting of the emotions, thoughts and memories within.

What is stopping you from writing ?

 

Empathy, neurochemistry and the dramatic arc. 

 

Paul Zak, professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in California, is one the founding pioneers of neuroeconomics, an emerging scientific field that traces the biology of decision-making processes and the human brain’s reaction to incentives.

In this animated exploration of one of his most illuminating experiments, Zak discusses the surprisingly calculable effects that the classic dramatic arc (exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement) has on our brain chemistry and, ultimately, on our decisions and actions.

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses.

Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects.

Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating.

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc originated as a speech by Zak at the inaugural Future of StoryTelling summit in New York in 2012.

You can see the original post at AEON here.