Tea Parties

Like many people, I was shocked when Trump won the presidency. I thought, for sure, that Hilary would win, because who the heck would vote for a person who’s obviously a con man? Apparently, a lot of people. People whom I don’t know and who aren’t on my radar. Don’t get me wrong, I've always known that my friend circles were selective, that my Facebook feed wasn’t representative of the wider America. But I still believed that, deep down inside, I had a general impression of what other people were thinking and feeling. I was wrong.

But why? Why didn’t I see it coming?

The problem, as I see it now, is that we're more separated than I'd originally thought. Liberals hang out with liberals, and conservatives hang out with conservatives. This is understandable, as people enjoy spending time with others who share their values. But I’m convinced that there is something truly lost when we don’t engage with the other side.

When we're separated, people are demonized and causes trivialized.

After concluding what the problem was, I tried to think of ways to address it. How could I get liberals and conservatives to talk to each other? Well, it just so happens that I'd been hosting tea parties for a year prior to the election, with the sole purpose of being social. And it just so happens that my friend circle here is quite politically diverse. Once I realized that I was already creating the perfect atmosphere for dialogue, my tea parties took on a new meaning. Now they are my attempts to create a micro-version of what I want the wider society to look like.

So yea, I’m trying to rebuild America, one tea bag at a time.

One of the reasons why I think my tea parties provide a perfect atmosphere for dialogue is because every person there is seen as a human being first—not as a conservative first, or as a liberal first, but as a human being first. Labels do matter. Labels do affect how we see and treat others, even if only on a subconscious level. Furthermore, the people at my tea parties are seen as human beings who are also my friends. Knowing that immediately creates a positive connection.

“Oh, you’re a swing dancer? That’s cool, I’ve always wanted to try it.”

Or

“Oh, you’re a scientist? That’s cool. What kind of research do you do?”

This is how you build friendships. You break bread with one another, or, in my case, drink tea. And friendships are what we need. Having a conversation here and there isn’t enough.

To further foster community building at my tea parties, I try to get everyone to engage in a group activity. Last time, we played a physics puzzle game on my smartphone while it was being mirrored on my TV. Everyone was helpful and supportive. It was great. It is my hope that through these group games, my friends will form deeper connections with one another, connections that can only be built upon the foundation of laughter.

I find that there is a special bonding experience that takes place when I laugh with another person, that isn't achieved via conversation. I'm not sure why this is, but it may be because when we laugh, we reveal our characters. What we find funny is an indication of who we are as people. So if another person finds the same thing funny, it shows that we are similar at least in one important aspect. Perhaps another reason is because laughter creates positive moods. I can't speak for others, but when I'm joyful, I'm in a mental state that lends itself to friendship building. Moreover, being sociable leads to more laughter, which, in turn, fosters more positivity.

I have no idea if my efforts will bear fruit. However, even if I fail, I would've at least spent my time with wonderful people.

Humility Can Bring Us Together

Last Sunday, I had a very unpleasant conversation with an argumentative man over libertarianism. This man, whom I had not met before that day, was informed and intelligent, but was already convinced even before entering the conversation that his opinion was true and that mine was false. Needless to say, he was not genuinely interested in what I thought.

This experience has reconfirmed my belief that if people were to speak like that to each other all the time, almost nobody would change their minds on any important issue. In fact, I am certain that to speak as if your opinion contains the entire truth is one of the surest ways not to convince someone.

If we want as a nation to break down the walls that divide us, it is extremely important to be able to engage civilly with others who disagree with our views. I admit it is not easy—I certainly have not mastered the skill. But it is necessary if we ever want to live in a country where one half of the population does not think the other half is crazy.

So how do we strive toward this goal? I suggest that we start by possessing the virtue of humility—that is, I suggest we not assume that our views contain the entire truth and that our opponents’ views contain none of it. Being humble means that we acknowledge that truth is difficult to be found. It means that when we enter a debate with another person, we ought to see it as a collaborative endeavor to attain truth.

Humility shows the other person that we respect their views, that we acknowledge and struggle with the intricacies of the topic, and that we do not hold ourselves to be better than others. Humility tells the other person, “You know, I don’t have all the answers, but maybe we can find some of them if we work together.” And even if humility is insufficient to convince the other person of our beliefs, what is more important is that it makes them want to empathize with us and spend time with us. Humility can bring us together because virtues are attractive, both to those who are virtuous and those who are not.

There is no doubt that humility is especially important for us at this time. We only need to point to this past year's Presidential election to see that there are multiple segments of the population that are utterly unwilling to engage civilly with one another, resulting in a lack of mutual understanding. The unfortunate result of this is that it becomes more tempting to surround ourselves only with others who already agree with what we believe. Without humility, then, people will remain isolated in their respective bubbles while refusing to acknowledge that other people have valid concerns. I, for one, do not want to live in a country like that.

Perhaps being humble is insufficient; perhaps there will always be stark disagreements. Even so, I refuse to believe that we cannot make any progress on this issue. I have faith that we can be more united than we are now, and I believe that the way to accomplish this begins with improving our own characters.

What is the Point of Being an Average Philosopher?

Many of us hold up influential people as exemplars of human excellence. We look to the scientist, the doctor, the activist, and think to ourselves, “Now that person is doing something with her life!” Such acknowledgments of greatness are almost immediately followed by the depressing thought of the mediocrity of our own lives, which raises the question about the value of being average.

I just finished reading A Mathematician’s Apology, a book written by G. H. Hardy about the intrinsic worth of what he calls pure mathematics. In essence, he thinks pure mathematics is valuable because it is a kind of knowledge, and because it can be beautiful. More importantly, he draws on the value of knowledge to defend the value of his life. Hardy (1967) says,

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them. (p. 151) 

This sounds like a good answer to me, given that he was an excellent mathematician. But what does this mean for a person who is only average at what he does? What does this say about the value of my life as a philosopher? Though I have published and probably will publish again, I question how much this contribution is worth. How valuable is it to write a paper that only five people will read? In contrast to Hardy, I will not be known after I die. I will not leave behind a legacy.

Exploring the pointlessness of our lives is an emotionally difficult endeavor, because it reminds us not only of our mortality but also of our limited capacities. The fact is that not everyone can be excellent at what they do, no matter how hard they try. I am an average philosopher not because I do not desire to be great, but because I am simply not smart enough. This is unfortunate, but true, and I have accepted it for a long time.

Luckily, there is another aspect of a being professional philosopher where I can make a larger difference, and that is teaching. Even according to conservative estimates, I will teach around 5,500 students in my lifetime. To be clear, I do not claim that I will change the lives of every student under my instruction, but I hope to have some positive effect on at least 1/3 of them.

If I were to make a case for my life, then, it would be that I will help thousands of students throughout my career think in a more rigorous and intellectually-honest way, about fundamental questions of moral and political significance.

References

Hardy, G. H. (1967). A Mathematician’s Apology. London: Cambridge University Press.