Happy gays, lowering that flag, flamenco, new reading technology, understanding consciousness

by Rob Tiller

Our Jocelyn, at home

Our Jocelyn, at home

Friday was big! Jocelyn came home to Raleigh to attend an old friend’s wedding, and the Supreme Court made it legal throughout the US for gay people to get married. Jocelyn reported that the gay people she knew in New York were weeping with joy, and she was, too. I got a bit misty myself. I don’t suppose we’ll all at once get rid of anti-gay discrimination, any more than we’ll suddenly finish off racism, but this is a long step forward. It gives me hope that we can address some of other big problems that today seem caught in political gridlock, like global warming.

Speaking of racism, another fantastic development this week was the beginning of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from certain government buildings and the shelves of giant retailers. This potent symbol of unrepentant old-fashioned racism has made me queasy for years. How can it have been socially acceptable to lay out in public on a beach towel with that flag? Anyhow, last week it became dramatically less so. Sure, people are entitled to express their racist views, but they also deserve to be shamed for it.

I listened to an interesting Australian Broadcasting Service podcast called Science Vs last week on the question: does race exist? We may have assumed the answer was obvious, but it’s not. In fact, from a biological point of view, many scientists view the concept of race as meaningless. There are no consistent reliable genetic or other markers of racial boundaries. Race is a cultural construction that has been used primarily for purposes of oppression, such as slavery. Still, the idea is so familiar it seems natural, and it’s hard to let go.

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

There are, of course, different cultures, which is a good thing. Gabe and I got a taste of part of flamenco culture on Saturday night at an American Dance Festival performance by Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca. They performed a flamenco version of Antigone. I enjoyed Barrio’s dancing, which had strength and intensity, but found the movement vocabulary pretty limited. I enjoyed the singing and guitar playing in parts, but the melodic and harmonic vocabularies also were restricted, and the whole thing was over amplified.

In other culture/technology news, I recently discovered a new way to read: combining an ebook with an audio book. When I purchased the ebook Incognito, by Thomas Eagleton, Amazon proposed to upsell me on an Audible audio book for a few dollars more. I took the bait, and it was worth it. The great thing is that you can read a bit, then switch over to listening to it on another device, and switch back – and in either medium it picks up where you left off on the other. I really enjoyed listening to the book while working out at the gym, and reading some before bed in the evening.

Eagleton mostly synthesizes much of current psychological and neurobiological thinking and research, including work by Kahneman, Gazzaniga, and others, but he also has an interesting model of consciousness. He emphasizes that most of what we do and are is unconscious. The unconscious, as he views it, has a multitude of subparts, which generally work quite well without our ever knowing anything about them. Some subparts overlap and may disagree with others, which he refers to as a team of rivals. Eagleton suggests that consciousness is like the CEO of a large corporation, who has executive authority to intervene when there are major conflicts or new problems, but plays a limited role in ordinary activities. We’re mainly driven by unseen emotional forces, but the CEO is skilled at persuading us that she is calling the shots.

One pleasing aspect of Eagleton’s theory is that it accounts for the fact that even the most intelligent people make amazing mistakes and hold tight to beliefs that seem downright goofy. But if it’s true that we’re all fundamentally prone to errors of thinking, that must mean that the same it true of you and me. Knowing that could make you more humble and hesitant from striving to avoid the worst errors. That could be good. But all that careful thinking and hesitant uncertainty could lower your standing and influence in your tribe, which could be bad.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, let me point up one new progressive thing about my home state of North Carolina (among all the new regressive things): on-line driver’s license renewals. I was due for my five-year renewal, and dreading the slow, dull experience of the DMV, when I saw the announcement that NC was starting a new program of on-line renewals. That same day, I found the site, and completed the application in about 3 minutes. No fuss, no muss. I’m good for five more years!