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Being ‘intellectually curious’ without being a schmuck

(04/06/22 4:00am)

Freedom of speech does not entail, amongst many other things, the right for a dumb idea to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, we are told that we have an obligation to engage with all the opinions we encounter. This is invoked, more often than not, on behalf of the worst arguments. For example, a high school in Cambridge recently asked its students to think of “positive effects of imperialism.” Let’s be clear here: imperialism had no positive effects; robbery is never justified on the grounds that it benefits the perpetrator and, no, Europeans didn’t ‘develop’ the rest of the world while they plundered it. The school defended itself by saying that it is “important that our students learn about varying perspectives so that they can form their own opinions.” Note, however, that understanding the causes and justifications of imperialism does not require you to imagine its “positives.” This awful incident is a byproduct of this exact impulse to assume that every idea is equally worthy. Clearly, that isn’t true, and there is a better way to engage with ideas that aren’t.

Don’t Bring Frats Back to Campus.

(03/23/22 4:00am)

When someone’s beliefs conflict with reality, their rhetoric will emerge from two distinct minds. One mind is unreasonably pessimistic; at Duke, a peer once told me that minimum wage workers are, by definition, stupid and lazy, and so you can never expect them to do a good job. The other mind is totally naive. For example, this same peer thought that you could straighten out a worker by telling them off. Here, we see how these minds take turns guiding someone’s rhetoric; the conclusion is predictably bizarre. Obviously, minimum wage workers aren’t useless and, obviously, yelling isn’t a viable means to control them. These strange, whiplash-inducing takes can only emerge if, for some reason, you are unwilling to adjust your thinking. I’m guessing that this acquaintance had some choice thoughts about poor people, and they clearly didn’t want to question them. I often wonder why.

Why body positivity?

(02/23/22 5:00am)

Like many people, I have struggled with my body image. And like many people, those concerns were unfounded. At my ‘worst,’ I was just a bit chubby. Nonetheless, I considered myself to be overweight for a long time. Why? People called me fat and, quite frankly, it warped my self perception. This idea of ‘fatness’ became an obsession for me. For a long time, I refused to have photos taken of me. The idea of people sharing them, and laughing at my body, terrified me. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror, and I changed my posture in an attempt to hide my insecurities. At the same time, in the midst of this deep, abiding shame, I did nothing to help myself. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t change my diet because, mentally, I was defeated. I viewed my body as a point of shame, rather than a part of me; I was fat because I was weak, and I was weak because I was fat. I didn’t have the will to exercise—I didn’t think I could—nor did I see a point in eating better.

Against feeling numb

(11/10/21 5:00am)

For the longest time, I believed that the smart way to deal with sadness was to power through it. Hide your grief and carry on as though nothing had happened. I stayed productive when bad things happened to me, and that made me feel like I was healthy. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the things I try to bury don’t disappear. They hide somewhere, deep in my psyche, and they make their presence known from that black box. These shadowy feelings are harder to deal with; I set myself up for failure. It would be better to simply feel.

The race to the bottom sucks. What can we do?

(10/27/21 4:00am)

I can function on four, three, two hours of sleep. In my mind, that was a talent. It made me feel more productive back in high school. Of course, the words ‘can’ and ‘should’ don’t always overlap, and I really shouldn’t have done that. Sleeping poorly for three years straight will catch up to me. Look at what happened to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two famous proponents of that lifestyle: both of them developed Alzheimers, a condition now associated with sleep deprivation. They were incredibly successful, though, and it felt like this ‘talent’ would help me succeed, too.

People are good, trust me.

(10/13/21 12:42pm)

We all accept the idea that humans are ‘self-interested,’ but does anyone know what that implies? It’s a term whose meaning can shift at will, largely because it’s unclear what our interests are. Nevertheless, the fallback definition seems to be ‘grow my gain.’ We are taught in economics that individuals have endless demand, and so they seek to have as much as possible. This idea, and others like it, lend themselves to a cold-blooded notion of self-interest, one where we strive to take as much as we can while giving as little as possible. In this paradigm, the only time we help one another is when there is a clear benefit. Even altruism is a calculated maneuver: we give because it makes us better off. It’s not like there aren’t examples of people who act this way—look at anyone working in the US Congress. Even then, I’m not buying this definition; humans have other, better interests. In fact, I think that congressmen make an apt example to show how unnatural their actions are.

Rules. What are they good for?

(09/29/21 4:21am)

Is ‘following the rules’ a driver of ethical decisions? When I think about the times I did the ‘right’ thing, a rule’s existence, at most, served as a hint on what the correct choice was. If I was trying to convince myself to act morally, I’d simply think about what I ought to do. Consulting my conscience has, in most cases, been enough to turn me into a ‘good’ person. And in all my life, my conscience never brought up the rules to win me over. On some level, that makes me wonder what rules are good for.

Abolish weekends?

(09/15/21 4:00am)

Sitting in a chair on a veranda, staring into the distance and watching the hours disappear. For about six years, that has been the image I associated with retirement, ever since my pastor told us about his dad’s boredom as a pensioner. This story loomed over my head this summer break, especially on the days when I woke up at an embarrassingly late hour. I felt ashamed, and I wanted to work—to have something to do. Funnily enough, I did have responsibilities at that time; I just didn’t want to perform them. Part of me maintained that this holiday would end and I could simply work then. Recognizing the illogic of my behaviour, and remembering that story, left me wondering how this purgatory-like experience counts as rest. That led to another question: is the way we rest logical?

You aren’t detached from your words: A response to ‘Duke’s future’

(04/07/21 7:26pm)

Here’s a strange concept: writing that has a clear meaning but remains baffling. A piece where everything makes sense, but you’re still confused, and when all is said and done, the question remains: what did you hope to accomplish? This was my thought coming out of a recent column in the Chronicle titled “Duke’s future: Less fun, more woke, more careerist.” 

Why do we think that debate is worthwhile?

(03/23/21 4:00am)

For a few years now, the phrase ‘change my mind’ has signalled that you have found a hill to die on. It can follow an inoffensive statement and people will laugh at the ironic obstinance. What I find more ironic, however, is that we communicate an unwillingness to think differently with an open invitation to be convinced of another viewpoint. Why call for a dialogue when you have no intention of modifying your stance? 

There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ action

(03/16/21 4:00am)

Can an action like pulling a lever be moral or immoral? The intuitive answer is no. In a vacuum, where it is just one person arbitrarily moving their lever, it’d be hard to say that this has any moral value. However, in the classic trolley problem, where pulling the lever averts the death of five people by condemning someone else to die for them, that action does acquire an ethical ‘meaning’. Does it matter that we’re pulling a lever, though? The problem would carry the same implications if we pressed a button instead. In fact, if the question was “should you save five people’s lives if it meant ending another one,” we’d see the same dilemma without even describing a particular action. This suggests that actions find their morality from the context that surrounds them and the principles that underpin them. They are moral chameleons; once the trolley passes the split in the track, the action of pulling the lever loses its character. What happens if we try to give certain actions their own independent moral meaning—paint the chameleon? The intuitive answer is nothing good. Unfortunately, that seems to be a popular thing to do.

The best essays become proverbs

(02/24/21 5:00am)

Consider any truism, from “a stitch in time saves nine” to “what goes around comes around.” Nobody comes into this world with an innate knowledge of those lines, yet they feel obvious to the point of cliche; it’s hard to imagine a time when those lines didn’t go without saying. That time must have existed, though. Truisms find their origins in larger, didactic works, like Aesop’s fables or Jesus’ parables. They serve as a distillation of those stories’ cores. Every time we use a proverb, then, it’s shorthand for humanity’s favorite works. I’d contend, then, that all the best essays will become proverbs. 

'Democrat' and 'Republican' are meaningless terms

(02/09/21 5:00am)

In my previous column, I mentioned the idea of a false dichotomy between being a liberal or a conservative in the American political arena. A week later, the Chronicle published a survey on Duke students’ political beliefs, with a spectrum ranging from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” This is as good a segue as any to elaborate on how these arbitrary designations rob politics of its principles and the ability to engage in good faith conversations. 

A sequel to think before you speak

(01/27/21 5:00am)

On its way out, the Trump administration executed a record amount of people. This decision, like many they made around that time, was unusual and cruel. Understandably, this reignited the perennial debate on the legitimacy of the death penalty. A common argument forwarded by its detractors was that capital punishment is expensive. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, lists the “waste of taxpayer funds” as a “fundamental concern” when discussing death penalty abolition. 

Centrism isn’t apolitical

(11/30/20 5:00am)

Political moderates like to think of themselves as “apolitical.” They argue that, by treating both sides equally, they see the truth in each of them. Supposedly, this lets them steer clear of dogma and recognize that the truth sits “somewhere in the middle.” However, moderates tend to conflate treating ideas equally and treating them as equals. As a result, they consistently adopt positions which are neither correct, nor apolitical.

Joe Biden is a stumbling block in our stride to freedom

(11/03/20 5:00am)

I’ve been told that voting for a third party is voting for Trump. This statement is emblematic of the Democrats’ role in politics: gaslighting and marginalizing progressives. Buried in that claim is the idea that Joe Biden is the left’s default candidate. Claiming such a thing is the first step of this process. After all, if you don’t agree that a leftist’s vote belongs to Biden, then a ballot for third parties wouldn’t subtract from Biden’s total—he would have never had that vote to begin with. Progressives would simply be voting for Hawkins. Why, then, are they obligated to vote Biden? If I understand liberals correctly, it’s because he’s the most viable candidate left of Trump. When you need to stop Trump, he’s the alternative with a chance of winning. If you want to fight for progressive policies, they argue, it’d be easier to do that under the Democrats. I can understand why either of these arguments would convince a leftist to pick Biden; however, they don’t entitle him to their vote. In fact, it might be better for them to choose a third party, or to not vote at all.

Is Duke’s motto an oxymoron?

(10/06/20 4:00am)

New Atheists were the first political movement I encountered online. These were the people who actively attacked Christianity, arguing that it was evil. They would find the most unflattering Bible verses possible and use them to argue that it wasn’t worth reading. Alternatively, they’d bring up the crusades, or the fact that children die, to “prove” that God is malevolent and therefore couldn’t exist. Suffice to say, their takes weren’t hot, but they made up for that with their burning passion.

Criticizing T-reqs? You might be why we need them

(09/22/20 4:00am)

Something I find interesting about memes is that they can identify common experiences and beliefs. After all, they spread because people can somehow relate to them. They’re funny, or truthful or relatable, so we share them. Most memes, then, don’t come out of nowhere. Their success is a measure of relatability; they are a reflection of popular sentiments. I think that’s why, although meme formats may change, they often tread the same ground. People will always joke about having crushes, or procrastinating work—any topic that people can identify with.