Big Thinker: Audre Lorde

Professionally a poet, professor and philosopher, Audre Lorde (1934-1992) also proudly carried the titles of intersectional feminist, civil rights activist, mother, socialist, “Black, lesbian [and] warrior.” She is also the woman behind the popular manifesto “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in New York City, to Frederic and Linda Belmar Lorde, on the 18th of February 1934, Lorde fell in love with poetry as a form of expression at a young age.  

“I used to communicate through poetry,” she recalled in conversation with Claudia Tate for Black Women Writers at Work. “When I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry,” she said. Lorde was thirteen.  

Alongside her education at Hunter High School in New York, and working on the school’s literary magazine, she published her first piece of literature in the 1951 April issue of Seventeen Magazine. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1959, preceding a master’s degree in library science in 1961 from Columbia University. Following that, Lorde worked as a librarian for public schools in New York City from 1961 to 1968, working her way to head librarian of Manhattan’s Town School. In 1980, Lorde and her friend, a fellow writer and activist, created a publishing house, ‘Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.’ Throughout these years, Lorde was prolific and wrote some of her most recognised volumes of poetry. A full discography of her work can be found at the end of this article. 

Authorship and legacy

Expression of self and personal philosophy through literature became a cornerstone of Audre Lorde’s life and one of her greatest contributions to the discourse on discrimination and equality today.  

A proud feminist, Lorde’s authorship strived to offer an authentic depiction of the female experience; the good, the bad and the complex. She felt academic discourse on feminism was white and heterosexual centric, lacking consideration of the lived realities of Black and queer women. Thus, she put the stories of these women at the centre of her literature.  

Lorde’s philosophy focussed particularly on intersectional discrimination and academic discourse’s inability to accommodate it. She revered differences amongst humans, arguing true equality can only be achieved through celebrating rather than homogenising our different identities.  

Third Wave Feminism

Lorde was a prominent member of the women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights movements during the second wave of feminism. As a woman with many of her own labels, Lorde used her lived experience and literary expertise to shine a light on the experience and voices of other women with multiple signifiers. She implored society to confront racist feminism, the nuances of the Black female experience and the cognitive dissonance between educating yourself on feminism whilst not bearing witness to the experiences of all women, particularly women of colour whose intellectual labour and contributions to such academia have been so routinely overlooked. Thus, helping kickstart the third wave of feminism, also spearheaded by another big thinker, Kimberle Crenshaw. 

Through her words, Lorde aimed to acknowledge and capture the pain as well as the joy she felt as an openly queer Black woman. This bare-all intent and celebration of individuality is particularly felt in her work, The Cancer Journals and her subsequent public encouragement of other breast cancer survivors to wear their mastectomies on their chest, rather than accept prosthesis purely for aesthetic motivations. “It is that very difference that I wish to affirm… I lived it, I survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women.”  

Philosophy on difference

Lorde was an advocate for difference amongst human beings. For her, difference was the key to eradicating discrimination and moving forward in unity. As we constantly reevaluate what it means to be human, what we hold dear and the ethical pillars we lean on to guide us, Lorde philosophised that it was vital we harness rather than fear that which separates us from our friends, peers and enemies. Rather than homogenising humanity, the future of equality relies on our ability to relate across differences. Finding community is not about conforming, it is about accepting. It must be an act of opening up, not of shutting down.  

Lorde examined difference particularly through an intersectional feminist lens. Identifying and subverting the conditioning of women to view their differences as causes for separation and self-judgement.  

What we need first, however, is courage. To have our beliefs and perspectives stretched and challenged as we begin the journey of embracing that which makes us different from those around us.  

Intersectionality

Lorde was acutely aware of and vocal about the pressure on marginalised people to divide their identities in order to fight for recognition of their discrimination. Academia was constructed to examine, debate and interrogate ways of being. At the time, it was established by white men, and thus contributions to this school of thought were limited to the lived realities and perspectives of these men. As a result, the notion of a human norm came about, and this norm was white, male, heterosexual and often, but not always, wealthy, educated and upper class. Every deviation from this ideal was considered a handicap and treated as such.  

In her speech at the New York University Institute for the Humanities, where she debuted her admonishment: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde cautioned people of colour and other marginalised demographics against the pressure to conform to the limited criteria ofacceptable’ laid out by discrimination discourse in white academia, in order to have their needs met. She argued fighting for equality within a system with the notion of a human ideal will only lead to disappointment. True and deeply entrenched equality can only happen through an entire paradigm shift; the unravelling of a human norm in the first place.  

copy license

Stoicism on Tiktok promises happiness – but the ancient philosophers who came up with it had something very different in mind

I don’t know about you, but my TikTok is full of influencers telling me I should be a Stoic. You might know the term “stoic” as a person who goes through hardship while maintaining a steely and calm disposition, and never complains. However, a stoic is also someone who prescribes to the philosophical school of Stoicism.

Stoicism became popular in ancient Rome. Stoic TikTok exclusively draws on Roman Stoicism, mainly Epictetus (a formerly enslaved person), Seneca (a fabulously wealthy and self-aggrandizing advisor to the emperor Nero), and Marcus Aurelius (who was himself a Roman emperor).

But the school goes back much further to ancient Athens, where Stoicism was founded around 300BCE by Zeno of Citium. After Zeno, Stoicism flourished in Athens, especially under Chrysippus, known as the second founder of Stoicism.

On TikTok, you’ll see people saying that Stoicism is a great way to lead a happy and productive life. I’m a professional philosopher who specialises in ancient Greek philosophy – and it’s great, if somewhat surprising, to see how popular Stoicism has become over the last ten years. But as a philosopher, I’m not a Stoic – and Stoic TikTok gets quite a lot wrong about this way of thinking.

Despite what you see on TikTok, Stoicism was a dry, technical, ivory tower philosophy. Its ideas around happiness and productivity diverge quite a bit from what modern people consider these to be. Traditionally, it was divided into three branches: ethics, physics, and logic – much of which TikTok’s Stoic preachers don’t get quite right.

Logic

Distinctively, the Stoics emphasised logic, comparing it to the shell of an egg or the bones and sinews of a body, because logic protects (like a shell), supports (like bones) and connects (like sinews) our beliefs and knowledge. In fact, the Stoics developed a systematic logical theory which, through various historical twists and turns, inspired 20th-century logic and hence theoretical computer science.

The Stoics took logic seriously because it was needed for knowledge. For the Stoics, to know something – including how to live well – was to understand it so totally that you could defend your view against any degree of argumentative scrutiny, against any opponent. In other words, they used logic to win a sort of philosophical Hunger Games.

But Stoic TikTok isn’t really interested in a deep, rich and logically defensible knowledge of the world and our place in it. In so far as Stoic TikTok is interested in knowledge, it implies that you can get knowledge by simply reading quotations of famous Stoics or practising certain mental exercises, such as meditating on death.

Physics

Stoic TikTok also ignores Stoic physics – the principles that Stoics used to explain the natural processes in the universe. For the Stoics, everything that exists, including your soul and God, is a body. God, in fact, is “mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it and making it into the world”, as the critic Alexander of Aphrodisias told us in the early third century.

The Stoics argued that, since God is rational and active, this makes everything that exists in the world rational and organised for the best. You are part of this rational universe so, if bad things happen to you, it would be irrational to complain – as if your foot complained about getting muddy.

This idea of a rational universe is popular with Stoic TikTok, and can be seen in posts telling followers to “love their fate”. They suggest that true happiness comes from accepting anything that happens.

But does loving your fate in a truly Stoic sense achieve the sort of productivity and happiness most people want? I think not.

Ethics

Which brings us to Stoic ethics. While Stoic TikTok promises productivity and happiness, it’s unlikely you’ll achieve the levels of productivity and happiness you actually desire if you go by what Stoics believed these to be.

Happiness, for a Stoic, was a matter of having virtues and lacking vices. Everything else – including health, wealth and status – were “indifferents”, because they made no difference to your virtue, and so to your happiness.

So, even if the self-helpy advice of Stoic TikTok could make you more productive, being more productive won’t make you be happier, according to Stoic philosophy. At best, you’ll acquire health, wealth or status, but those things are indifferent to your happiness.

There is, of course, something hypocritical about Seneca arguing that wealth is indifferent while being one of the richest men in Rome; or Marcus Aurelius saying that power is indifferent while being emperor.

It is rational to prefer to be healthy rather than ill, rich rather than poor, powerful rather than oppressed. In fact, there was nuanced ancient debate in which the Stoics tried to find a middle way between a view where health, money and power are simply good, and a view where they are totally irrelevant to living a good life.

Chrysippus tried to steer this course by saying that while health, wealth and power are indifferent, how you use them is not. If I use power intemperately or wealth to indulge my most disgusting appetites, I will not be virtuous or happy. Personally, I don’t think the Stoic philosophy will ultimately solve this problem of whether health, wealth and power are totally indifferent to happiness, but it is an open question.

I’ve not touched here on the more sinister aspects of Stoicism on the internet, discussed in Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men. Rather, I’ve tried to point out what Stoic TikTok misses, because I hope people dive deeper into Stoic philosophy. A great place to start is Tad Brennan’s The Stoic Life.

Stoicism is a rich, fascinating and sophisticated philosophical tradition. But, if you’re looking for happiness and productivity in more modern terms, the Stoics might not have the answer.

 

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Image by Bradley Weber.

copy license

What does love look like? The genocidal “romance” of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon, the newest film by Martin Scorsese, starts with a terrible, distorted version of the romantic “meet-cute.”

Ernest Burkhart (played with leery relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) romances Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone). He’s a driver; she needs to get around the place. Throwing knowing looks over his shoulder as he spins his wheel, he flirts with her, and though she is initially suspicious, eventually she succumbs to his interests. A romance is born. 

It is the classic “boy meets girl” story – or at least, it would be, if we didn’t already know the real reason driving Ernest’s romantic designs. He has been put up to this meeting by “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro), his calculating and murderous Uncle, who is seeking to redirect the fortunes of the Osage tribe of which Molly is a member. Though he projects an image as a pillar of the community, King is the centre of a string of murders – and Ernest is recruited as his budding killer-to-be, with Molly as a target. 

The tension at the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon lies in Ernest’s dual role as Molly’s wife and her poisoner. Though Ernest is the film’s main character, we are given little in the way of his interior life. Instead, we understand the man through his actions, which are, increasingly, in direct conflict. Ernest acts like he loves Molly, and the children they have together; he weeps when one dies. He also injects her daily with a poison. When, in the film’s climax, the pair are reunited, he almost collapses into her arms. Nobody outright asks Ernest if he loves Molly, but they ask similar questions, and he responds in the full-throated affirmative. She is his wife, and at least some of the time, he treats her as such. 

So, do we want to accept this kind of attachment – murderous, openly destructive – as a form of love? Or would doing so fundamentally taint the concept? 

Love as a blinding force

The ethical value of love has long been debated by philosophers. Plato and Socrates both saw love as a fundamentally morally valuable emotion – one which expands our sense of the world’s beauty and possibility, and motivates us to do better. Indeed, according to this view of love, romance is the foundation of ethical action.

It’s a way of teaching us of the importance of other people, an escape from selfish solipsism that draws out into the world.

But love – as the mere existence of the term “crime of passion” proves – does not always lead us down virtuous paths. Any romance also has the capability of reducing ethical scope, not expanding it. Arthur Schopenhauer, the notorious pessimist, saw love as an essential “illusion” that consumes people utterly. He described it as little more than the desire to procreate, over which the fiction of romance gets written. On this view, love creates a lopsided sense of ethical value, transforming the world down to a single point – the love object. This in turn breeds jealousy; possession; and, Schopenhauer said, frequently madness. 

What makes Ernest’s “love” distinct, however, is that he doesn’t seem to experience the usual ethical pitfalls of romance. He’s not jealous of Molly. He doesn’t act as though he wants to possess her – at least not in the normal sense. Nor does he, in the traditional sense, go mad. Instead he acts to destroy her, an essentially self-negating series of actions where the one he prizes the most is also the one he seeks to snuff out. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures

Love in and of itself

Perhaps ironically, given his reputation as a cold, difficult and abstract philosopher, it is Immanuel Kant who provides the solution to the puzzle of Ernest’s love. Taken as a whole, Kant is paradoxical on the nature of love – he once dismissed it as a “feeling”, and wrote that “a duty to love is an absurdity.”  

But, importantly, Kant did believe we should love one another. And more than that, this was a duty to love another “in and of itself.” One of Kant’s key ethical positions is the idea that using another – treating them like a mere “means” – is wrong. Instead, he believed that we should view other people as an “ends”. Kant believed that value did not exist outside human beings – that we create value – and that we should view all others, including those we love, as the source of value in the world. We respect and love others, he thought, because we see them not for what they can do for us, but for what they are; what they value and what they care about. 

Ernest does not do this. Both of the ways that he treats Molly – doting on her and poisoning her – are for his own benefit. He has turned her into a mere object, a machine for love and money. She gives him children, and her death will give him riches and success. When he falls into her arms and embraces her, he is embracing not the whole Molly – the full, rich person, a source of value in the world – but only the parts of her that help him. 

In this way, Ernest’s broken form of love serves as a warning to the rest of us.

When we say we love someone, we should direct that emotion to all who they are. Not choosing the parts we like, or the parts that service us. But the difficult parts; the awkward parts; the fears and the pains as well as the highs.

A lover’s eyes should always be open, after all. 

copy license

11 books, films and series on the ethics of wealth and power

They say power corrupts. And for good reason. Ethics is in constant tension with power. The more power or money someone has, the more they can get away with. 

A central concern of money and power is how those who have it should be allowed to use it. And a central concern of the rest of us is how people with money and power in fact do use it. 

Here are 11 books, films, tv shows and podcasts that consider the ethics of wealth and power: 

Parasite 

A Korean comedic thriller film about poverty, the contrast between the rich and poor and the injustice of inequality. 

Succession 

An American satirical comedy-drama series detailing a powerful global media and entertainment conglomerate. Run by The Roy family, the unexpected retirement of the company’s patriarch ignites a power struggle. 

Animal farm – George Orwell 

A satirical novel of a group of anthropomorphic farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. 

Generation Less – Jennifer Rayner, FODI

In her Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2016 talk, advocate and writer Jennifer Rayner asks why is the gap between older and younger Australians – in terms of work, wealth and wellbeing – growing wider? Is Australia cheating the young?

The Colonial Fantasy – Sarah Maddison 

A call for a radical restructuring of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments. 

White Lotus 

An American dark comedy-drama anthology series, which socially satires the various guests and employees of a resort, exploring what money and power will make you do.

The Deficit Myth – Stephanie Kelton 

An exploration of modern monetary theory (MMT) which dramatically changes our understanding of how we can best deal with crucial issues ranging from poverty and inequality to creating jobs, expanding health care coverage, climate change, and building resilient infrastructure. 

Squid game

A Korean survival drama series where hundreds of cash-strapped contestants accept an invitation to compete in children’s games for a tempting prize, but the stakes are deadly. 

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women – Kate Manne 

A vital exploration of gender politics from sex to admiration, bodily autonomy, knowledge, power and care. In this urgent intervention, philosopher Kate Manne offers a radical new framework for understanding misogyny. 

The Lehman Trilogy – Stefano Massini  

Originally a novel, and since adapted into a three-act play, The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of modern capitalism through the saga of the Lehman brothers’ bank and their descendants. 

Life and Debt podcast 

Produced by The Ethics Centre, Life & Debt is a podcast series that dives into debt, what role it has in our lives and how we can make better decisions about it. 

copy license

Whose fantasy is it? Diversity, The Little Mermaid and beyond

The original The Little Mermaid, an animated fable about a young woman searching – literally – for her voice, has what may seem like only a loose relationship with reality.

Sure, the film is filled with themes of yearning, the desire for autonomy, and a struggle for independence, all of which still resonate deeply with the lived experience of its target audience of young women. But it’s also populated with a singing fish, a cursed sea witch, and a range of colourful, deeply fantastical supporting characters. 

But in our increasingly divided age, fantasy is not a simple proposition anymore. Just look at the culture war that the CGI-saturated remake of The Little Mermaid has been dragged into, with the film facing “backlash” from those who have argued that the casting of a black Ariel (Halle Bailey) represents a break from “reality”. Their argument – that this new Ariel is not the one they grew up with, a premise that rests on the idea that there is a “real” Ariel to be deviated from.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney Studios

These arguments are, in essence, arguments about the nature of fantasy – about how fantastical these stories are allowed to be. Fantasy authors can do anything. So what should they do? 

How much fantasy is allowed? 

The Little Mermaid is not the only modern fantasy story that has been plunged into debates around diversity and representation. The characters of Rey and Rose Tico from Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy faced significant backlash for being female, while the series’ black Stormtrooper, Finn, was criticised as breaking the canon. Stormtroopers were clones, went the argument – so how could one of them be black? Indeed, racist backlashes against casting in fantasy have become so commonplace that Moses Ingram, who played the villainous Reva Sevander in the Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, started sharing some of the vile messages that she received.

Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram), Obi-Wan Kenobi, LucasFilm

Those responsible for these backlashes tend to argue that the casting of diverse actors “breaks canon”, and disrupts storytelling rules. Some fans will argue that as Stormtroopers are always white in the world of the Star Wars story, they always must be. This was the explanation for the backlash that met the casting of diverse actors in the new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power – Tolkien’s world was white, went the argument, so any story told in that world should be too. Of course, these “fans” do not acknowledge the possibility that the canon of these stories could be racist, and that breaking the canon might be morally necessary. They merely hold to the story as it was written. 

This is an argument about fantasy: about how “real” these stories should be. Fantasy authors can do anything, tell any story, infuse their characters with magical explanations that fly in the face of reality. But they do still have to abide but certain rules. No-one would enjoy the world of Hogwarts if J.K. Rowling constantly threw up magical explanations that defied one another to advance the plot. There needs to be some consistency; some “reality”. 

Those who cry foul when diverse actors are cast in fantasy do so because they have smuggled a bad ethical argument into one about consistency.

They are making an ethical claim – they do not want to see diverse communities in their art – and pretending it is an aesthetic claim – that they are talking about stories, not about ethics. 

In at least some cases, we can assume that this is just a bad faith argument: that these people know in our modern age that they cannot make an openly racist remark, and so scratch around in the world of aesthetics to disguise their bigotry. But even if these people really think that they’re talking about aesthetics, the mistake is to assume that ethics and aesthetics easily pull apart. 

Your dreams aren’t divorced from the real world

In her landmark essay The Right To Sex, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan explores the moral weight of aesthetic choices. In her case, she was exploring those who express sexual preference – cis men who desire a certain kind of woman, for instance, with a certain body. But her conclusions are helpful for us here too. 

In essence, Srinivasan wants to balance the freedom to choose –  people should be able to desire whom they want to desire, and not be forced to change their desires by others – with the idea that some choices are bigoted or small-minded in some way – say, the person who only desires Asian women, or the person who doesn’t desire any Asian women at all.  

What Srinivasan encourages is an interest in one’s own desires. She suggests people explore and understand why they want what they want, and to be aware that sometimes those wants can come from bad, unethical places. In essence, Srinivasan made it clear that purely aesthetic choices are actually ethical choices – that things that seem “merely a matter of taste” can actually come from bigotry.  

So it goes with fantasy. The fantasy genre is one of dreams; of pure imagination. But that imagination is born from the real-world. And our real-world contains bigotry and hate.  

Fantasy writers dream, but they dream in a way that is influenced by morals, preferences, and real-world concerns.

This isn’t just imaginative play. This is play that is responsive to the real world. And as such, ethics should remain a concern. There are people out there who say that they genuinely desire a white Ariel – that seeing a Caucasian mermaid is of tantamount importance to them. What Srinivisan teaches us, is that we do not need to see this desire as emerging from a vacuum. It’s not “just” taste. It’s taste formed from a society that for too long has prioritised white bodies. 

It’s like the philosopher Regina Swanson writes.: “[Fantasy] writers bring form to formlessness, creating a narrative that arises from the deep inner places of the mind,” she has put it. “As such, fantasy can reveal our collective hopes, dreams, and nightmares.” Those hopes, dreams, and nightmares aren’t “just” fantasies. They’re meaningfully real 

copy license

Life and Shares

Life and Shares podcast

WHERE TO LISTEN

Thinking about investing? Chances are, you’re already playing the game. This new podcast unpicks the share market so you can better understand how the system works.

Did you know that some trading apps use the same psychological tricks as gambling apps? That the big players in financial services can pay to get “privileged access” to the ASX?

Life and Shares is a podcast from The Ethics Centre about the share market. Even if you don’t actively invest, chances are that you are already connected to the share market; as a taxpayer in Australia, a significant amount of your superannuation is already being traded. 

In this four-part series, hosted by The Ethics Centre’s Cris Parker, we’ve assembled people from different industries to help you understand the rules of the game so you can make informed decisions. We’re looking beyond the jargon to unpack how the system works and what ethical issues you could – and should – consider if you decide to play. 

Some may tell you they can pick a winning share. This series unpicks the share market so that you can make decisions you’ll be proud of. 

Available to listen now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.  

This podcast is presented by The Ethics Centre. Our work is made possible by donations including the generous support of Ecstra Foundation helping to build the financial wellbeing of Australians. This series follows the popular first season, Life and Debt

Life and Shares Podcast Trailer

WHERE TO LISTEN

Whats inside the guide?

EPISODES

EPISODE ONE: PEELING BACK THE LABEL

Let’s break down the jargon: starting with investor classifications.

Did you know that your level of wealth impacts how you can invest in the share market? In this episode, we hear from RMIT Associate Professor Chris Berg who thinks it’s “deeply unethical” that retail investors (‘mum and dad’ investors) don’t have access to the kind of products that rich people do and so are shut out of some of the most lucrative and risky investments… but accountants say there’s a good reason for that.

We also learn about the murky areas of ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ investing and how it differs from ‘responsible’ investing. If an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is labelled sustainable, is it irresponsible for it to have a large holding in a fossil fuel company? Is ESG reporting the best way to judge which companies are good to invest in?

GUESTS: 

  • Chris Berg, Associate Professor at RMIT University and Director and Cofounder of the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub 
  • Susheela Peres da Costa, Principal at The Stewardship Centre

Listen to Ep 1 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE TWO: WHO'S RUNNING THE SHOW?

If video killed the radio star, have brokerage apps killed the stockbroker? What’s the role of robo-advisers? And how are algorithms shaping the marketplace? 

Did you know that the big players in financial services can pay to get “privileged access” to the ASX? We ask Paul Lajbcygier from the Monash Data Futures Institute, is that fair?

We also hear from UNSW Professor Gigi Foster who thinks greed and profit make the market go round – and that’s not a bad thing. But on the other hand, she acknowledges there’s a growing class of people who don’t work for their wages – they just move their investments around. 

GUESTS: 

      • Gigi Foster, Professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales
      • Paul Lajbcygier, Computation Finance expert at the Monash Data Futures Institute

Listen to Ep 2 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE THREE: IS TRADING GAMBLING?

For the first two months of COVID, nearly 5,000 Australians opened an online trading account… every day. Eighty percent of them lost money.

So, is trading gambling? We speak with a clinical psychologist who’s concerned about the lack of awareness and resources for people addicted to trading. We also speak with co-founder of the International Day Trading Academy Cameron Buchanan, who admits that while trading is gambling, he thinks there’s an essential difference.

GUESTS: 

  • Cameron Buchanan, Co-founder of the International Day Trading Academy
  • Anonymous Guest, Clinical Lead at a gambling treatment centre

Listen to Ep 3 on Apple or Spotify now.

EPISODE FOUR: THE POWER OF PERSUASION

Humans aren’t rational… and yet so much economic modelling assumes we are.  

In this episode, we look at a Canadian experiment that investigated the ‘gamification’ of investment apps… and how one minor tweak to the app saw people increase the number of trades by a whopping 40%.  

We meet behavioural finance specialists Angel Zhong from RMIT University and Ravi Dutta Powell from The Behavioural Insights Team, who explain how cognitive biases impact how we assess risk and make investment decisions. 

GUESTS:  

  • Angel Zhong, Associate Professor of Finance, RMIT University 
  • Ravi Dutta-Powell, Senior Advisor, The Behaviour Insights Team  

Listen to Ep 4 on Apple or Spotify now.


Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI)

Catch up on over ten years of bold and challenging ideas from some of FODI's most disruptive thinkers

Since 2009 the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, or FODI to its fans, has curated thought-provoking topics and new approaches to wicked problems. FODI holds uncomfortable ideas up to the light and challenges thinking on some of the most persevering and difficult issues of our time, questioning our deepest held beliefs and desires.

Delve into over 10 years’ worth of dangerous ideas. Released as monthly podcast episodes, hear from our festival alumni as they share provocative ideas and conversations that encourage debate and critical thinking.

It’s time to get uncomfortable…

Available on Apple, Spotify, or whatever you get your podcasts.

WHERE TO LISTEN


But how do you know? Hijack and the ethics of risk

Hijack, the new Idris Elba-starring miniseries, opens with every airline passenger’s nightmare – a bullet, found in the bathroom of a plane. Within moments, things go from bad to worse.

The ragtag group of heroes, a collection of passengers led by Sam Nelson (Elba), a corporate business negotiator, find themselves in the middle of a hijacking plot, surrounded by criminals, and unable to get help from those down on the ground who, we quickly learn, are ensnared in the plot themselves. 

Such a format is not necessarily new – television and film have been littered with stories of hostile airline takeovers, from the big brash action of Air Force One, to the real-world horror of United 93, a tragic retelling of the 9/11 attacks. But what sets Hijack apart is its rapidly escalating sense of dread. Time and time again, Sam and his fellow passengers are faced with impossible decisions, and time and time again, they are foiled. That opening nightmarish feel only deepens – you know those dreams where everything goes wrong; where you are powerless; where the adversaries keep mounting? That’s key to Hijack’s tone, a story of ever-escalating horrors, through which Sam must try to keep himself – and his ethical code – alive. 

Indeed, this mounting sense of risk means that Hijack poses an interesting question about ethical deliberation under fire. Sam, who is well-versed in negotiation, but not well-versed in negotiation where the stakes are so high, must repeatedly make rapid-fire decisions. Does he send a text to his wife? Does Sam continue his attempted revolt after he discovers that the hijackers know who his family are, and will kill them if anything goes wrong? Does Sam rush the cockpit? And how responsible will he ethically be if he fails? How much blood is on his hands?  

Decision making turned up to 11

The problem of ethical decision-making under fire is essentially the problem of the difference between theory and practice. Sit people down and ask them what the right thing to do is, give them time, don’t hurry them, and psychological studies show that they’ll have a better chance of choosing the ethical answer.  

In a famous experiment known as The Good Samaritan, a group of priests-in-training were told to head across a university campus to deliver a speech on the importance of helping others. Some of these priests were given ample time to make it across the campus; others were told they had to rush. Along their trip, the experimenters planted a person in need – an actor, who feigned being sick, and asked for help. The majority of those priests who had been told they weren’t in a rush stopped to help. But the priests who had to move fast, and were stressed and distracted, largely ignored the actor – even though they were literally on their way to give a speech on how to care for their fellow human beings. 

The experiment shows that the more that pressure increases – particularly time pressure – the less likely we are to do the right thing. Which poses a significant problem for ethical training. How can you fight against the forces of a chaotic world?

Philosopher Iris Murdoch was aware of the everyday pressures that we meet constantly. For that reason, she considered ethical training a process which prepares us to act unthinkingly. The more we make the right decisions when we do have time, the more likely we are to shape our instincts to be more ethical, and therefore act virtuously when we don’t have time. In this way, Murdoch collapses theory into practice, treating them not as divorced from one another, but with theory informing practice. 

Which is a view that Hijack supports. Sam’s cushy day job has given him an unusual set of skills that he himself didn’t even realise that he had. All that work he conducted for years? It was training for this moment. 

Sam (Idris Elbra) in Hijack, Apple TV

The ethics of risk

A related issue pertaining to theory and practice is the unknowability of the future. Thought experiments and ethical dilemmas conducted theoretically can have clear right or wrong answers, based on outcomes. But when we’re actually moving through the world, we’re blind to these outcomes. More often than not, we’re stumbling through the ethical world, making decisions based on the hope that things will work out, but never actually knowing if they will. 

This is the ethics of risk, extensively covered by the philosopher Sven Ove Hansson. According to Hansson, “risk and uncertainty are such pervasive features of practical decision-making that it is difficult to find a decision in real life from which they are absent.”  

Hansson’s solution to this problem is to consider “fair exchanges of risk.” He forgoes the idea that we will never be perfect moral creatures. Because the world is uncertain, we can only ever move towards good ethical actors. There’s no way that we can ever always do the right thing, and nor should we expect ourselves to. Instead, we must try. That is the important part. 

So it goes in Hijack. Sam is a flawed main character, who frequently makes errors while trying to save those around him. But we, as audience members, forgive him for this. We don’t judge him for the plans that fail. We see his movement towards good behaviour, and that’s what matters. 

In that way, we can also see theory and practice moved out of contention with each other. Theory is the goal; practice is the action. We’ll never live in a fully theoretic state. But what Hijack tells us, is in the face of that impossibility, we should not throw up our hands. We should instead keep moving towards theory – a spot on the horizon that is forever escaping us, but that we never stop chasing. 


The Bear and what it means to keep going when you lose it all

Fittingly, for a show set in the brutal, immediate environment of a commercial kitchen, The Bear opens with a brutal, immediate metaphor for grief.

In the opening scene of the show, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) traverses a bridge in the middle of the night. We know nothing of this man yet. He moves fearfully, slowly. And in a moment, we see why – there’s a vicious bear across from him, reared up and snarling, and Carmy is desperately, fearfully trying to placate it. 

Within an episode, the symbolism is obvious. The bridge represents what we will soon come to see as an uncomfortable, dangerous transition Carmy has been thrust into – he has left behind a world of chef superstardom, in order to take over ownership of the middling sandwich shop left to him after the suicide of his brother. And the bear? It is the manifestation of the grief he has been left with; this terrible, unpredictable thing, that he has no idea how to confront, or how to contain. 

On its surface, The Bear is about kitchen life. It nails perfectly the stress; the heat; the ugly mechanics of what goes into our food. Anthony Bourdain was right – when you eat out, and get served a dish on a perfectly clean plate, what you haven’t seen is the often literal blood, sweat, and tears that produces it. The Bear spends its two seasons documenting those bodily fluids in sometimes gratuitous detail.  

But as its opening scene establishes, what The Bear is really about is untethering. More specifically, the way that grief untethers – the way it throws us back into a world we thought we knew but is now suddenly unfamiliar to us, as we stand under its hot kitchen lights, naked and afraid.  

What grief does to us

Carmy is a man with his own dark past. In flashbacks, we see him abused by kitchen bosses. We learn more about Michael, his dead brother, who struggled with addiction. And, drip by drip, we learn about the family dynamics and pressures that made Michael both who he was, and who he died as, and who Carmy once was.  

Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), Hulu

What we also learn is the way that grief can provide a sort of brutal reset of personhood. When we lose someone close to us – whether it be a family member, as in the case of Carmy, or a lover, or a friend – we speak often of losing something of ourselves too.  

This cuts to the beauty of human interaction – something that the philosopher Derek Parfit often wrote about. Love, be it familial, platonic, or romantic, erodes the boundaries between the self and other. Our natural inclination as humans to learn about each other, to take on the cares and emotional states of those close to us, to constantly empathise and put ourselves in other’s shoes, makes us less like distinct individual entities, and more like what the philosopher Anette Baier once called “heirs and successors to those that we care about.” 

This is beautiful, yes, but it also makes us deeply vulnerable. It means that death and suicide doesn’t just have the power to remove one human being from the world. It means that death and suicide has the power to remove part of us as well. 

The philosopher Bryanna Moore has written about this in her paper ‘The Three Moral Dimensions of Grief.’ Moore understands human beings as relationally defined. She takes a sort of refined, tweak “no self” view of personal identity. On her reading, we are not hermetically sealed entities, with some stable, unchanging identity. We are who we are because of who we love, hate, and spend time with.  

So for Moore, grief “reveals something vital about the way in which we relate to ourselves around us.” When Carmy loses Michael, he is forced into what Moore calls “a powerful reassessment and reevaluation of the self’s relation to the world.” This explains in great part why Carmy decides to take on Michael’s restaurant. It’s not just guilt that makes him want to help the brother who he could not help in life. It’s that he now no longer knows who he is. He is fresh and untethered. There is a gap, where Michael once was, but there’s also a gap where Carmy once was. 

The moral value of grief

Robert C. Soloman, another philosopher who has written extensively about grief, argues in tandem with Moore that grief’s power to untether us makes it, to some extent, “morally excellent.” Soloman starts with the idea that grief is morally obligatory. As in, if someone we care about dies, and we do not grieve, then we have done something immoral – we have failed in some way. Grief is a necessity; it isn’t just some replacement of the love we once felt towards the departed, it is that love, taking on a new form. 

For Soloman, the excellence comes from the way that grief represents an “emotional process.” It’s not just a feeling, a discrete emotional state that comes over us. It’s something that builds, grows and changes. This, we quickly find, is true with Carmy. We see him move constantly through different stages and states of grief, at times anger, at other times remorseful; always on the move, and always finding himself plunged into new emotions. 

As to what kind of process grief is, it’s one of reconstruction. When we are untethered by loss, we are then forced to get to work on rebuilding ourselves. Grief heightens and sharpens us, makes us present in activities and choices. Carmy finds himself suddenly lit up by chefing in a way that he has not been before, dealing with the chaos of his new restaurant, but immersed in it, and learning new things about himself as a result. 

It’s Moore who points out that rebuilding oneself need not always be positive, or moral. After all, there are many people who respond to traumatic events by becoming a new type of person, but a worse one – meaner, angrier, less forgiving. Grief gives us a blank slate, and it’s up to us what we then build on top of that slate.  

The goodness of grief, then, comes from the way that it makes us present; intentional. So often we move through life making choices passively; letting things happen to us. When we are left with nothing, and we must rebuild, every choice becomes heightened – we become aware of them, in a way that we were not before.

Grief can wake us up from a stupor, shake us out of immoral patterns that we did not even realise that we had fallen into.

This, we see, happen with Carmy. Slowly, sure. He makes mistakes. He hurts others. He fails. But he is, after his hard reset, aware. Paradoxically – beautifully – a death has made him, quite to his surprise, suddenly and thrillingly alive. In that way, Michael’s passing wasn’t just a loss. It was, against the odds, a gift. And there is beauty in the way that Carmy takes it in his pale, open hands. 


Barbie and what it means to be human

It was with a measure of apprehension that I recently travelled to the cinema to watch Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

I was conscious of being an atypical audience member – with most skewing younger, female and adorned in pink (I missed out on all three criteria). However, having read some reviews (both complimentary and critical) I was expecting a full-scale assault on the ‘patriarchy’ – to which, on appearances alone, I could be said to belong.  

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Barbie 

However, Gerwig’s film is far more interesting. Not only is it not a critique of patriarchy as a singular evil, but it raises deep questions about what it means to be human (whatever your sex or gender identity). And it does this all with its tongue firmly planted in the proverbial cheek; laughing not only at the usual stereotypes but, along the way, at itself. 

The first indication that this film intends to subvert all stereotypes comes in the opening sequence – an homage to the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather than encountering a giant black ‘obelisk’ that reorients the history of humankind, a group of young girls wake to find a giant Margot Robbie looming over them in the form of ‘Stereotypical Barbie’. Until that time, the girls have been restricted to playing with baby dolls and learning the stereotypical roles allotted to women in a male-dominated world. 

Barbie (Margot Robbie). Warner Bros. Pictures

What happens next is instructive. Rather than simply putting aside the baby dolls in favour of the new adult form represented by Barbie, the girls embark on a savage work of destruction. They dismember the baby dolls, crush their skulls, grind them into the dirt. This is not a gentle awakening into something that is more ‘pure’ than what came before. From the outset, we are offered an image of humanity that is not one in which the divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘dominant’ and submissive’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ is neatly allocated in favour of one sex or another. Rather, virtues and vices are shown to be evenly distributed across humanity in all its variety. 

That the violent behaviour of the little girls is not an aberration is made clear later in the film when we are introduced to ‘Weird Barbie’. She lives on the margins of ‘Barbieland’ – both an outcast and a healer – whose status has been defined by her broken (imperfect) condition. The damage done to ‘Weird Barbie’ is, again, due to mistreatment by a subset of girls who treat Barbie in the same way depicted in the opening scenes. Then there is ‘Barbieland’ itself – a place of apparent perfection … unless you happen to be a ‘Ken’. Here, the ‘Patriarchy’ has been replaced by a ‘Matriarchy’ that is invested with all of the flaws of its male counterpart. 

In Barbieland, Kens have no status of their own. Rather, they are mere cyphers – decorative extensions of the Barbies whom they adorn. For the most part, they are frustrated by, but ultimately accepting of, their status. The conceit of the film is an obvious one: Barbieland is the mirror image of the ‘real world,’ where patriarchy reigns supreme. Indeed, the Barbies (in all their brilliant variety) believe that their exemplary society has changed the real world for the better, liberating women and girls from all male oppression.  

Alas, the real world is not so obliging – as is soon discovered when the two worlds intersect. There, Stereotypical Barbie (suffering from a bad case of flat feet) and Stereotypical Ken are exposed to the radically imperfect society that is the product of male domination. Much of what they find should be familiar to us. The film does a brilliant job of lampooning what we might take for granted. Even the character of male-dominated big business comes in for a delightful serve. The target is Mattel (which must be commended for its willingness to allow itself to be exposed to ridicule – even in fictional form). 

Unfortunately, Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) learns all the wrong lessons. Infected by the ideology of Patriarchy (which he associates with male dominance and horse riding) he returns to Barbieland to ‘liberate’ the Kens. The contagion spreads – reversing the natural order; turning the ‘Barbies’ into female versions of the Kens of old.  

Fortunately, all is eventually made right when Margot Robbie’s character, with a mother and daughter in tow, returns to save the day.  

Ken (Simu Liu), Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Rosling). Warner Bros. Pictures

But the reason the film struck such a chord with me, is because it raises deeper questions about what it means to be human. 

It is Stereotypical Barbie who finally liberates Stereotypical Ken by leading him to realise that his own value exists independent of any relationship to her. Having done so, Barbie then decides to abandon the life of a doll to become fully human. However, before being granted this wish by her creator (in reality, a talented designer and businesswoman of somewhat questionable integrity) she is first made to experience what the choice to be human entails. This requires Barbie to live through the whole gamut of emotions – all that comes from the delirious wonder of human life – as well as its terrors, tragedies and abiding disappointments. 

This is where the film becomes profound.

How many of us consciously embrace our humanity – and all of the implications of doing so? How many of us wonder about what it takes to become fully human? Gerwig implies that far fewer of us do so than we might hope.

Instead, too many of us live the life of the dolls – no matter what world we live in. We are content to exist within the confines of a box; to not think or feel too deeply, to not have our lives become more complicated as when happens when the rules and conventions – the morality – of the crowd is called into question by our own wondering. 

Don’t be put off by the marketing puffery; with or without the pink, this is a film worth seeing. Don’t believe the gripes of ‘anti-woke’, conservative commentators. They attack a phantom of their own imagining. This film is aware without being prescriptive. It is fair. It is clever. It is subtle. It is funny. It never takes itself too seriously. It is everything that the parody of ‘woke’ is not. 

It is ultimately an invitation to engage in serious reflection about whether or not to be fully human – with all that entails. It is an invitation that Barbie accepts – and so should we.