How Morality Shapes Personal Identity

What makes us who we are? Is it the experiences we have, the memories we hold, or the behaviors we display? Is it a combination of these factors? These fundamental questions of identity and self have concerned humans across all cultures for millennia. Psychologist Nina Strohminger at Aeon offers an intriguing answer: moral character. Continue reading

Quote: On The End Of Trends

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only “aesthetics.” A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it’s always been that way; it’s just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it’s not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad’s rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it’s a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behavior rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.

[…] “Aesthetic,” a word that doesn’t prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than “trend” or “genre,” and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.

— Adam Harper writing in The Faderas quote in The Atlantic

I for one welcome the end of rigidly defined, strictly enforced subcultures — assuming such a thing really existed in the first place. One of the most defining and influential aspects of the Information Age is the widespread access to all sorts of aesthetics, ideas, fashions, styles, and other cultural and intellectual outputs. With so much to command our attention, how else could any individual simply stick to one narrative, idea, or aesthetic preference?

Why keep only to rock music, sports fandom, or comic books when you can have all of the above and then some? Why feel that you need to be part of some cohesive and internally conforming subculture — akin to membership in a formal club with strict rules and guidelines — when you can follow the patterns, practices, and preferences you want based solely on what you genuinely enjoy; social circles built around particular interests need not be mutually exclusive from other activities and interests. There is no reason why loving sports and fitness puts you at odds with nerdier pursuits like video games and science fiction (or why those things should even be the exclusive purview of nerds to begin with).

For that matter, highbrow and low-brow pursuits can sit perfectly comfortably with one another: the idea that one must be a high-class auteur to enjoy orchestral music and Broadway plays is at odds with observed reality. Yes, there are some correlations between one’s class and identity and what one tends to enjoy doing — though that has as much to do with economic barriers to certain activities more than anything — but that is not always the case when people have freer access to the sorts of trends and interests they genuinely would enjoy if they had the time, resources, exposure, etc.

Of course, as usual, it is more complicated than that. People like categories and labels, however much they try to convince others (and themselves) otherwise. By neatly organizing these things, as well as other people and ourselves, we make all the information and stimuli out there easier to manage and keep track of. This is especially salient in an age where we are bombarded by ideas, concepts, designs, and other data all the time.

It is perhaps understandable then that people are threatened by, or even resentful of, perceived outsiders encroaching on their traditional territory: their subculture was fundamental to their identity before the walls began breaking down and the lines blurred, allowing people who once lacked any stock or interest in these activities to take part more easily than before (again, the increasingly mainstream nature of nerd culture is the most recognizable example, but hardly the only one).

Moreover, in the social media context, wherein everyone feels the need to sell or present themselves to a wider network of contacts and friends, listing one’s preferred musical or film genres, political persuasion, or religious adherence is a way to stand out and feel validated. As a social species, we need our peers — from loved ones to even strangers — to have some sort of impression, reaction, or conception of us: as intellectuals, sports fans, artists, blue collar laborers, etc. How will we adjust to the ever-growing circle of social connections to worry about and be accountable to? How will we adapt to the fact that so many previously exclusive and inaccessible things are increasingly available to all?

At this point, I am just expressing a stream of consciousness, so I am sure I missed something. What are your thoughts guys?

DNA Tests Reveal Ancient Europeans To Be Dark-Skinned

We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of early humans (aka cavemen) as slightly tanned but otherwise mostly European-looking. But a recent study reported in NBC challenges that assumption, finding that as fairly recently as 7,000 years ago, Europeans were dark-skinned as Africans.

A 7,000-year-old European man from a transitional time known as the Mesolithic Period (from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago) whose bones were left behind in a Spanish cave had the dark skin of an African, but the blue eyes of a Scandinavian. He was a hunter-gatherer who ate a low-starch diet and couldn’t digest milk well — which meshes with the lifestyle that predated the rise of agriculture. But his immune system was already starting to adapt to a new lifestyle.

Researchers found all this out not from medical records, or from a study of the man’s actual skin or eyes, but from an analysis of the DNA extracted from his tooth.

The remains of the Mesolithic male, dubbed La Braña 1, were found in 2006 in the La Braña-Arintero cave complex in northwest Spain. In the Nature paper, the researchers describe how they isolated the ancient DNA, sequenced the genome and looked at key regions linked to physical traits — including lactose intolerance, starch digestion and immune response.

The biggest surprise was that the genes linked to skin pigmentation reflected African rather than modern European variations. That indicates that the man had dark skin, “although we cannot know the exact shade,” Carles Lalueza-Fox, a member of the research team from the Spanish National Research Council, said in a news release.

Meanwhile, The Guardian gets to another big, social implication:

Another surprise finding was that the man had blue eyes. That was unexpected, said Lalueza-Fox, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin colour. The results suggest that blue eye colour came first in Europe, with the transition to lighter skin ongoing through Mesolithic times.

On top of the scientific impact, artists might have to rethink their drawings of the people. “You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eye colour,” Lalueza-Fox said. Details of the study are published in the journal, Nature.

It’s no secret (though perhaps underplayed) that modern humans originate from Africa, and thus would have had similar pigmentation and physiology to indigenous African (although note that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most diverse area in the world, so there is no quintessential African look, and many different skin shades and phenotypes are represented). 

However, the revelation that Europeans were — fairly recently by evolutionary standards — once indistinguishable from many modern Africans challenges popular attitudes towards race and human identity. We have a tendency to apply our modern biases to historical retrospection, and to over-emphasize physical differences that are superficial and ultimately artificial. Notions of race, nationhood, and what constitutes “European” or “African” are all social constructs of our very recent making.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that such concepts are worthless or negative, per se — although, needless to say, the potential for harm is great — but it does cloud up the facts about humanity’s origins and history, and overlooks how fundamentally arbitrary and transient our racial and national identities are.

Reflection on Atheist Identity

The label “atheist” is so odious and stigmatized that even many atheists themselves shun it (admittedly, myself included sometimes). Interestingly, most national polls report a higher number of people who “don’t believe in God” than people who explicitly identify as “atheists” (usually by a margin of 2 to 1). The position of non-belief is less disquieting to the irreligious than the term used to describe it – the quaint result of generations of demonization, condemnation, and prejudice. The negative connotation of atheism is so pervasive across the public consciousness that not even the godless themselves can shake it off and be at ease with it. Continue reading

Two Men, One War, Thirty Three Years On

Before I get into the title subject of this post, I think now is the chance to share some information about myself and my background. It’s rather voluminous, so feel free to just scroll down to the video below if you prefer.
For those who don’t know, I am second generation Lebanese and proud of it. I speak some Arabic, eat a lot of the cuisine, and was raised with some of the traditional values and customs. Otherwise, I’m pretty well assimilated into my country of birth (the United States), especially since my background – like that of most members of the Lebanese Diaspora – is Christian Maronite, a group that has long been westernized (my surname, for example, hardly passes for Arabic).
In fact, many Lebanese people don’t even identify as Arab. Though we share the same language, ethnicity, and some cultural elements, we arguably have much more in line with Mediterranean people – our food, dress, dialect, faith, and history are more tied with that of the Greeks, Italians, and other Southern European people. It’s partly due to these ties that millions of Lebanese live in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (where my mom was born), France, and other extensions of European-Latin civilization.
Indeed, many Lebanese trace their roots back to the ancient Phoenicians, who were based around present day Lebanon, and who colonized many coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea. I remember growing up and being told we were of Phoenician decent, and how the Lebanese peoples’ renowned financial and business acumen come down from them (they were prominent merchants and seafarers).
Of course, as with all matters of culture and identity, I must be cautious and note some disclaimers, not least of which being that I am speaking as a member of the Maronite Christian community. Identity is a malleable and variable thing – even within societies can be found more distinct subcultures, often far removed from the rest. So note that I am in no way speaking for all sixteen million or so Lebanese people around the world, especially since we’re far more divided than it might seem.
Lebanon is infamously split along sectarian lines, as it has been throughout history: most Muslim Lebanese, for example, don’t have as strong an affinity for the west as we do; however, even that depends on the sect we’re referring too: Sunni Muslims are far more similar to the Christians than the Shia are. Then you have the Druze, who are in a whole league of their own: depending on you ask, they are either an offshoot of Islam, a sect of Islam, or something else entirely.
Within the Christian community, too, there are denominational splits: Catholic Maronites are – or were – the traditionally dominant sect. Indeed, the French, who controlled Lebanon for several decades, favored them largely due to a shared faith and culture (this further solidified our westernization, such that French is a very popular language and we maintain strong cultural and political ties). But there are also various Orthodox, Protestant, and Apostolic Churches as well, and some of them resent this privileged position as much as the increasingly-majority Muslims do.
By now there are over thirty sects within Lebanon, each with variety of dynamics between one another. Some Christians ally with some Muslims; some religious groups try to stay neutral or build a multi-faith coalition; still others frequently change sides. Politics is messy, fractional, sectarian, and feudal: besides faith, family ties and political dynasties are the only other source of relative cohesion.
Religion is such a big concern that Lebanon hasn’t done an official census since 1936, for fear of shaking up the political status quote. Muslims are widely considered to be a majority now, yet the political process still remains set up in favor of the once dominant Christians. During their rule, the French tried to sort this out by helping to establish a unique form of government known as Confessionalism, whereby political positions were to be guaranteed for the main religious sects: Christians get the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Minister slot, and Shias the position of Speaker of the House.
Now Muslims are a majority, but Christians are by and large wealthier and better connected. Tensions are high and people are scared. Memories of the Lebanese Civil War remain fresh in everyone’s minds – that brutal conflict was a culmination of long-standing political, social, and religious grievances hat lasted two decades. It was so complex that to this day, no one really knows how exactly it started. It involved dozens of factions with mutable relationships to one another, as well as foreign powers such as Syria, Israel, France, the US, and the United Nations.
Anywhere between 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed; many more – including my father – left, and at least a million were maimed, half of them permanently. The country was so badly damaged that to this day, you can still see the pockmarks of bullets on some walls, and many buildings remain ghostly, gutted-out shells.
Before 1975, Lebanon was widely regarded as the “Switzerland of the Middle-East,” with its capital, Beirut, compared to Paris. It was the center of banking, finance, tourism, and the arts. It looked set to be one of the most successful nations in the region, a prosperous gateway between East and West. Now it’s a wrecked and only precariously stable country.
Hezbollah, the Shia militia backed by Syria and Iran, is a virtual state-within-a-state, leading Israel into a war in 2006 that reset much of the rebuilding that had been done. Assassinations and gun fights between militant groups continue intermittently. Like most developing countries, Lebanon seems perpetually perched between chaos and stability, progress and regression. We’re a largely resourceful and fiscally prudent people, and that may help trump our other legacy of religious strife.
That leads me, finally, the to the main theme of this post: a short video shot in 2008 by a cinematographer Eric Trometer that briefly and poignantly explore the civil war through the eyes of two men that fought it – on opposite sides. It’s great to see a more intimate and raw exploration of this relatively unknown conflict.
I must admit that this was very nearly a tear-jerker for me. I generally feel a lot of empathy with other conflicts and human dilemmas across the world, but seeing it with respect to the nation of my heritage is deeply impactful. It makes me want to go to Lebanon not only to visit – which I sadly never have – but to help make it a better place (I often wonder, half-facetiously, how well I’d fit into the faith-based political paradigm as a non-religious person).
Most importantly, however, it gives me hope. Amid all the squabbling and even outright fighting amongst themselves, some people – even former enemies – are looking to make peace and build the nation together. They saw first hand the horrors of human hated and stupidity, and want to make sure others never have to learn it the same way. It’s a story that pertains to so many communities across the world, and I sincerely hope it succeeds, even with the odds against it.
I’ll end this long tract with an image I also found rather touching and inspiring. Though it’s probably just an peripheral example, I still think it makes for a nice glimmer of well-needed tolerance.        

The Ship of Theseus

I thought I would pause from making long posts in favor of presenting something more concise but hopefully no less thought provoking. In fact, I am considering interjecting brief philosophical questions in-between my longer notes concerning social and political issues;  I may even create a series of scenarios centered around a particular ethical theme.  Doing so will not only diversity my material, but allow me to update my blog without having to expend time and energy into essay-like submissions (let’s face it, do you guys really want to read several pages of my ramblings every other day!?)

Anyway, on to the topic in question.

The Ship of Theseus is a paradox which raises the following question: if an object has had all it’s component parts replaced, is it still fundamentally the same object? What if a ship, after a long period of gradual refurbishing, eventually had all it’s parts replaced? Would it still be the same ship? This topic is pertinent to the concept of identity – what constitutes self, and how do we truly define an object?

There are many similar concepts and variations to this paradox.

Heraclitus was famously quoted as saying that  “upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.” Basically, you never step in the same river twice, as it is always different water.

Thomas Hobbes put an interesting spin on  the ship scenario as well: what if all the planks from one ship were taken, after being replaced, and used to construct another? Which ship, if any, is the “original?

The question becomes more complicated when you consider the fact the average age of a cell in the human body is less than ten years That means that we come to replace our entire cell structure several times throughout our lives. We are cellularly and biologically completely different. This extends all the way down to the molecular and atomic level too – in around seven years, the human body completely replaces all the atoms that comprise us.

It’s strange to imagine how much we change and transform throughout our lives, without even remotely noticing (besides the typical growth that occurs prior to adulthood). Physically, we become completely new beings every few years, yet we’d never realize it. That’d be difficult enough to fathom without considering what all this means about who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be.