Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The theological issue of Donald Trump

The Republican Party has a problem. And it is a theological problem.

As you are well aware, they nominated a certain Donald Trump as their presidential candidate for the 2016 elections. They did this by the number, following all the steps and procedures laid out in advance for how a presidential candidate is supposed to be nominated. Everything in the nomination process went according to the rules, traditions and party spirit. Out of all possible candidates, the process ended up with Donald Trump as the candidate. The Republican Party nominated Donald Trump. Unequivocally.

There is no doubt with regards to this. Let's focus on theology for a moment.

If you are well versed in theology, you know that the precise nature of the trinity is a topic that has garnered a non-trivial amount of attention over the centuries. There is only one God, with a capital G, but God also consists of three parts: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three parts are all part of God, and encountering any of them is the same as encountering God, as they are all God.

However, this three-part structure is complicated by the fact that the three parts are not one and the same, but three distinct entities. While they are all connected, problems arise if you say they are all the same. While Jesus (the Son) is no doubt of a divine nature, He is not identical to God (the Father), and this has very important implications for His intervention into history. Depending on how you define the precise relationship between the two, the theological and historical figure of Jesus Christ takes on different meanings and connotations.

This might seem like a subtle point, and it is. But depending on who Christ is, you get different versions of Christianity. In one version, God appeared to humanity in the form of a man; in another, He became a man in order to administer the salvation of humanity. Both cases feature the same actors, but the exact significance of what they did differs.

Returning to the matter of the Republican Party, we see the same dynamic playing out both on and behind the scenes. Trump is, following the internal logic of the party, the presidential candidate, and as such he is of the party. But he is also, by all accounts, a bumbling buffoon who turns everything he talks about into an incoherent mess of contradictory nonsense. Which, by virtue of Trump being the party's presidential candidate, also becomes the expressed will of the party. The party chose Trump to express its views and beliefs, and Trump expresses them.

Thus, those in the party have to make every effort to ensure that the precise relationship between party and candidate is delineated in such a way that there is in fact a party left standing when this presidential race is over. And at all times the party functionaries have to be very subtle about how they make these delineations, since they must perform the contradictory tasks of being sufficiently loyal to the party orthodoxy, and heretical enough to not drag the party into sectarian obscurity. They cannot denounce Trump outright, since that would also mean denouncing the party, but they also can't support him, since he is in all things himself. He both is and is not the Republican Party.

It truly is a mess of biblical proportions.

I do believe thoughts and prayers are in order.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Trigger warnings and you

It truly is fascinating how trigger warnings have come to be the center of so much attention. In and of themselves, they are nothing to write home about - especially not in the context large educational institutions facing a large number of students from many diverse backgrounds. The worst case scenario is that a student looks at the warnings, shrugs, and then move on with their studies. It does not get more dramatic than that.

There seems to be a perception that putting trigger warnings on required reading somehow turns it into optional reading. That these warnings, somehow, enables students to pick and choose which readings are relevant to them, discarding those with the (in)correct label as somehow not required for their intents and purposes. That trigger warnings are some kind of "get out of reading free"-cards.

Let there be no mistake: if you do not read and engage with the required coursework, you will fail the course so hard that the resulting draft sets off car alarms. No ifs or buts about it.

What trigger warnings do is allow students to prepare for what they are about to read. If a book contains depictions or descriptions of sexual violence, those who have a history with sexual violence can steel themselves in preparation for those passages. When students reach the relevant point of the book, it does not jump out at them and cause them to relive their past experiences by sheer force of surprise.

Students who do not have such past experiences can just ignore any such warnings and read on as usual. Or, better, read the book with the knowledge that it indeed contains sexual violence, and that the scenes depicted or described are not to be seen as innocent everyday acts. Students can thus become more observant and critical readers - skills that are highly relevant to cultivate in an academic setting.

Trigger warnings don't set themselves, of course. Someone has to (re)read the books in question and make a judgement call as to whether this or that warning is applicable. More often than not, this someone is in a teaching position. In the process of revisiting the coursebooks, they have to critically engage with the required reading and rethink what it is they are actually teaching. Thus, their understanding of the various aspects and nuances of the coursework is enhanced, and they become better able to aid future students. Even if they find that no warnings are necessary.

Given all this, it is hard to understand what the fuss is about. Unless, of course, those who shout the most are also those who are least likely to engage critically with the subject matter, and thus brutally ignore the fact that trigger warnings in no way make required reading optional. It would be ironic indeed if those who worried about trigger warnings turning required reading into optional reading, themselves treated the reading required to understand trigger warnings as optional reading.

It is only polite to assume they know better. -

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Perfunctory writing

There are two ways to write short, topical blog posts. One is the brute force-approach, the other takes a slightly more indirect route.

The brute force approach endeavors to take readers from a state of doxa (which is to say, knowing nothing) to some particular conclusion. In order to accomplish this, the text has to provide the necessary steps to get from here to there. Mostly in the form of providing necessary background information, and some logical reasoning using this information in order to move things along.

A perfunctory writer can combine brute force with minimalism, and provide just the barest minimum required to propel self-directed readers to the desired destination. Introduce the subject, the prerequisite information, the logical steps and the conclusion - done. Those who want to understand can glean what they need from these words, and those who want to use it as a source that the thing in question is an actuality can use the fact that they are posted in a blog to great effect. Mission accomplished.

The more indirect approach does not aim to convey the bare facts of the matter, but also a specific point of view to go along with these facts. Some additional context to make the general into a particular, placing it firmly alongside other things that are obviously in the same category. You tell it like it is, as it were.

The largest difficulty in keeping this short is that the main objective can only be accomplished by the way, in passing. You do not accomplish it by merely stating a particular thing and dropping the mic; the very point is that you and you in particular is there to provide some verbiage on the matter, reminding readers about your point of view on these things. It takes a sustained effort, but is ever so effective once momentum has built up.

With enough momentum, the posts write themselves in their predictability, ever so perfunctory. -

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Optimizing for the wrong situations

Optimizing for the wrong situations is a very common condition in the modern world. Not due to any fault of the individuals who happen to do it, but because of the sheer volume of complex interlocking systems that are in existence and the impossibility to know them all well enough to avoid it.

An example is when a traveler hears about the very strict custom checks in a country they're about to go to, and efforts profusely in order to make sure everything is in order prior to arrival. Time and energy goes into the preparations, in order to optimize for these checks. Then, when the day arrives, the custom official looks indifferently at the luggage, shrugs and waves them through with a bored gesture. Not just with regards to our traveler, but all travelers passing through.

These things happen all the time. You hear something, prepare exceedingly in accordance to what you heard, only to find out that the preparations were completely unnecessary. Even though you've spent weeks or months agonizing about this one particular thing.

Again, this is not due to any particular fault on your part. It's just that you didn't know the situation well enough to know that it's not a big deal.

This will happen to you, again and again There is no real way to avoid it, other than to only do things you've already done before. Which, to be sure, is the mostest expression of optimizing for the wrong situations. -

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The great man theory of Wikileaks

There comes a time in the life of any organization where it has to choose. Either between the things the organization ostensibly stands for, or the people and circumstances that happen to be relevant to it.

In the case of Wikileaks, this time was years ago, and they made their choice.

They faced, in no uncertain terms, the choice whether to focus on the structural and systemic possibility of whistleblowing, or on those who happened to lead the organization at the time. They could have chosen the former, yet have continually doubled down on the latter over the years.

This is not a subtle distinction to make. Assange and his crew could have made a statement to the effect that he would step back and deal with things privately until the issue was resolved, leaving the day to day operations of whistleblowing and media coordination to those left in the organization. Instead, they chose to turn Wikileaks into an Assange-focused organization, rather than a whistleblowing one.

What's interesting is that there are those who to this day continue to insist that the person of Assange is more important than the structural and systemic possibility of whistleblowing. They insist so fervently that they actively aid in sacrificing every shred of credibility Wikileaks once had in an effort to see their man go free. Instead of keeping the lines of communication open and trustworthy, they prefer to drag it all into the mud and make everything slower and dirtier for it.

It is not a wise choice. But if it is the one you're making, I ask only one thing: is it worth it?