are we forgetting how to read?

I really enjoyed Ezra Klein’s recent interview with my former colleague Maryanne Wolf, who is a great expert on reading: the neuroscience of this activity and how we learn to do it.

Klein notes in the interview that there are many very different forms of reading, and Wolf discussed two in some detail. Skimming (or scanning, or scrolling) is a type of reading that involves quickly looking over large amounts of text in search of information. In contrast, deep reading means becoming immersed or even lost in an invented world and leaving one’s regular life behind–except that we sometimes push beyond the author’s thoughts, forming connections and making creative leaps beyond the text. Whenever someone reads deeply, the whole brain lights up on an fMRI machine.

These days, people like me constantly practice scanning and scrolling. My phone reports that I do that for more than five hours every day. We reinforce this skill and habit, and our devices are cleverly designed to encourage it further. On the other hand, people like me are losing the habit of deep reading, and our devices discourage it.

Maryanne Wolf’s interview did not exactly alert me to this problem, because I have been explicitly worried about it for several years and I try to counter it. But Wolf and Klein offer a lot of relevant detail and context.

Why should we care? Scanning has many practical benefits, but it promotes confirmation bias (looking for scraps of information that we already agree with) and it is addictive. To feed this addiction may require more confirmation and more excitement–pungent details that reinforce what we already believe. Looking for these rewarding tidbits is like running on a treadmill.

On the other hand, deep reading may teach empathy and broaden the mind by exposing us to someone else’s perspective. Even if deep reading doesn’t educate us, it is still worthwhile. A life should not be completely filled with activities that prepare us to conduct other activities later on. The material of life is time, which should be spent in intrinsically valuable ways–or else, what’s the point of it all? Becoming immersed in a well-crafted fictional or historical narrative (or an elaborate argument) is one of the intrinsically valuable ways of being.

I’d have liked to hear Maryanne Wolf talk about comparable activities. In the interview, she mentions daily meditation and listening to music, and she models an in-depth dialogue with Ezra Klein. To that list we could add performing and composing music or dance, deeply studying works of visual art, making art, tinkering with machines, closely observing nature, and prayer. Some of these behaviors are older than reading and may be less susceptible to being distorted by new technologies. (One of Wolf’s influential points is that reading developed long after language did. Reading is not hard-wired, and people have constructed it in many different ways already.)

I suspect that the close observation of human-made visual objects affords many of the same advantages as deep reading and is threatened in the same way. Just as we scroll text, so we scroll images–risking our ability to see pictures closely. Close attention to works of beauty is a learned skill, and it is affected by the medium and context. It is, for instance, much easier to stare at a painting on a wall of a museum than on one’s phone.

I have great respect for serious meditation, but I am afraid that some versions may function as short-cuts, almost like apps that promise brief relief from the constant flow of information. To meditate seriously can enhance empathy and equanimity and is arguably an intrinsically valuable state of being. But why would we expect that five minutes of listening to one’s own inner voice (or to a recording of someone else) would provide the kind of expansion and “flow” promised by a major novel? We know that a novel will take many hours to read. This time commitment is a benefit, not a cost.

I generally presume that technological change was more rapid in the richest countries of the world between 1800 and 1970 than it has been during my lifetime. Industrial tools transformed life and nature during that period, and the pace has actually slowed since then. However, technology may have changed reading in a more dramatic way in the last decade than it did before. Klein confesses that, as a father of young children, he is often distracted by his phone. That couldn’t have happened to me in the first decade of the 2000s, because I owned no wireless devices. And for our kids (who are still young adults today) the only screens that could compete with books were the TV (with no streaming services) and a desktop computer. Books easily held their own against these possible distractions. I sympathize with parents and children alike if they can no longer concentrate on printed texts.

For me, deep reading (to whatever degree I actually obtain depth) is closely related to writing. My most recent post here was about The Tirukkural, by Thiruvalluvar, which I read too distractedly and disconnectedly but in an effort to read deeply. I don’t think I would have made it through that text or given it as much attention as I managed if I hadn’t begun to envision a written response as I read. The text began to confirm some theories I had formed about it, but it also challenged my theories, and as I read on, my mental draft evolved.

As the Internet age has progressed, my capacity to lose myself in someone else’s narrative has definitely weakened, to my deep regret. However, I can still become completely lost in the act of writing–unaware of how much time has passed or even where I am sitting while I type. For me, deep reading almost always involves writing, as does the close inspection of a work of visual art. I type quickly (albeit with two fingers), but I revise constantly. WordPress tells me that I saved 24 different drafts of the short post on the Kural. Revision is a process of listening to oneself, which can be solipsistic, but I am almost always writing about what other people are saying or have said. In that sense, I think writing is a process of empathy–at least at its best.

It’s possible that I need the idea of an audience (even the possibility of one reader) to motivate writing. That is probably unwise; we should be more self-reliant. Still, writing works for me as a partial path back to serious listening, and we all need one path or another toward that destination.

See also: “signal” (a poem on these theme), “a Hegelian meditation,” “Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin” and “information, news, and meaning” (from 2016).

The Kural

The Tirukkural (or Kural, for short) by Thiruvalluvar is one of the acknowledged highlights of the Tamil literary tradition, which spans 25 centuries. The new English translation by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma has been highly praised, and I recommend it.

I usually find “wisdom literature” (didactic, aphoristic poetry) hard going, regardless of its background or main teachings. But The Kural is widely reported to be subtle, paradoxical, allusive, and lovely in Tamil, and Pruiksma’s English has those virtues. For instance, here is a paradoxical verse about renunciation:

Hold to the hold of one who holds nothing—to hold nothing
Hold to that hold [350]

And here is an example of a memorable metaphor:

Riches attained by those without kindness—like milk
Soured by its jug [1000]

I don’t know another unified poem that encompasses ethical directives (part 1), advice for monarchs (part 2), and erotic verse (part 3). The whole poem concludes with a section on “Sulking and Bliss,” which recommends playing hard-to-get. The narrator is never identified, but part 3 seems to weave together the voices of two lovers, their friends, and other characters, almost like a drama:

Though he’s done no wrong pulling back 
Brings him closer [1321]
...
Even free of wrong there is something in keeping 
From my love’s soft arms [1325]

Sweeter than eating—having eaten—sweeter than loving—
Sulking in love [1326]
...
Sulk my bright jewel—and may our night
Of pleading be long [1330]

The text was probably complete by 600 CE. There’s a long tradition of identifying Thiruvalluvar as a Jain, although many other religious traditions (including, implausibly, Christianity) have claimed him. David Shulman reminds us that we know nothing about the author, even whether a single person wrote The Kural. (Almost certainly, the text incorporates numerous quotations.) Shulman writes, however, that the milieu is the “mobile world of the [South Indian] city, with its face turned toward international seaborne trade and also toward heterodox religions, like Buddhism and Jainism, carried throughout South Asia and beyond by wandering monks and holy men.” Furthermore, the text largely avoids the kinds of claims that typically divide religious traditions, such as the identities and roles of deities or the origins and end of the world. A Buddhist, a Shaivite, or a Stoic could embrace The Kural, and that may be intentional. After all:

Delivering the complex simply and discerning
What others say—that is knowledge [424]
...
Those who can’t speak a few faultless words
Love to speak many words [649]

In the sections on personal ethics and the good life for regular people, The Kural advocates what Owen Flanagan has called (writing about Buddhism) “equanimity-in-community.” We should cultivate inner peace by restraining desire and craving. But we should use everyday ethical interactions to fill the space that might otherwise be occupied by those vices. The Kural emphasizes hospitality, generosity, friendship, forgiveness, nonviolence (ahimsa), “husbandry” (in the sense of cultivating one’s land and animals), and family. I didn’t pick up anything about yoga, meditation, or ceremony and ritual. Instead, passages like this evoke sociable, generous members of communities who are not overly concerned about their individual desires:

A well of abundant water—the wealth of the wise
Who love the world 

A tree bearing fruit at the heart of town—wealth
In the hands of good people [215-6]

The implied reader is generally male, and the division of roles is patriarchal, but we can modify the advice to be more egalitarian. The text charts a middle way between pleasure and renunciation. An adherent to a Hellenistic philosophical school, such as Stoicism or Skepticism, could endorse much of The Kural, except that nonviolence is more explicit and prominent here than in late Greek philosophy.

The long middle portion of the book–on leaders, politics, and governments–belongs to the “mirror of kings” tradition: encouraging rulers to be responsible and moderate. Although The Kural strongly urges nonviolence and vegetarianism as components of personal ethics, it depicts good leaders as honorable and effective warriors. Some of the advice here is about how to win wars and retain power.

The third part comes as a surprise, because it is suddenly about ardent sexual desire, which had been criticized earlier. The style is more lyrical now, and the speaker is sometimes female.

Apparently, in classical Tamil love poetry, the lovers wake up under separate roofs, spend the day together (perhaps illicitly), and part unwillingly at twilight, which is a confusing time of shadows and dimness. In this verse, the “it” is passionate desire:

At dawn it buds—all day it swells—and at dusk
It blossoms—this disease [1227]

And here the (presumably female) lover resents the evening but tries to summon some empathy for it:

Is your husband hard-hearted like mine—bless you
You wretched bewildering evening [1222]

Although love is a “disease” that causes much sighing and suffering, surely the conclusion of The Kural celebrates it.

See also all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; Buddhism as philosophy; on philosophy as a way of life; Odin on the tree.

dialogue and de-radicalization

Some people argue that the deep problem with US democracy is polarization. I have some doubts about that thesis.* However, let’s assume it contains at least some truth. One possible remedy is direct: recruit people from opposite sides of our political divide to engage in dialogue so that they develop empathy and perhaps discover some common ground.

This remedy implies a moral equivalence between the ends of the spectrum, which I cannot endorse at a time when one end is flirting with fascism. It may imply a bias toward the political center. And it asks people who are targeted by hate to participate in encounters that may be difficult or even dangerous for them. I appreciated Stanford Prof. Hakeem Jefferson’s response to an experiment that brought representative Americans together across ideological divides:

Fair enough, but then how should we go about de-radicalizing people? In a report for the Democracy Fund, Andrew Blum assembles evidence from international sources that support eight types of intervention:

  1. Assistance to individuals who want to exit from violent-extremist groups
  2. Targeted outreach to individuals who are at risk of extremism
  3. Voluntary codes of conduct for political and community leaders and media figures
  4. Intergroup engagement
  5. Setting norms against violence in existing groups
  6. Peace education
  7. Documenting and tracking acts of political violence
  8. Improving police-community relations

Number 4 on this list encompasses dialogues between people who hold strongly opposing views. Thus dialogue is one of several strategies for de-radicalization that have empirical support. Blum argues that many of these approaches should be combined in a coordinated way, and he offers examples of communities, like Medellin and Oakland, that have done so.

Similarly, john a. powell argues that dialogue (or more precisely, “bridging”) is a remedy for toxic polarization, but only if the process attends to deep inequalities. People should not be asked to talk under conditions of oppression.

We should address all forms of violent political extremism. In the USA today, I think a large majority of the people who would meet a neutral definition of violent extremists would be right-wingers, but if there are left-wing extremists (or centrist ones), they need attention, too.

I encountered both sources cited above at an excellent meeting of the Kettering Foundation. See Andrew Blum (2021) The Costs of Political Violence in the United States: The Benefits of Investing in Communities, Democracy Fund; and john a. powell, Overcoming Toxic Polarization: Lessons in Effective Bridging, 40(2) Law & Ineq. 247 (2022), DOI: https://doi.org/10.24926/25730037.645.

*class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; affective polarization is symmetrical; the “America in One Room” experiment etc.

encouraging working class candidates

The quote below is from an article in The Hill by Alberto Ramos, director of talent development at New Politics. He says he “was raised by a gritty, single mother of three in a trailer park on the eastern desert outskirts of Las Vegas. Every day, we scraped and struggled to get by, but thanks to her perseverance and determination, we survived.” Now he works to encourage people from similar backgrounds to run for political office:

Peter Levine, Associate Dean at Tufts University conducted a survey of over 700 candidates for local office in 2021 …. He asked about the degree to which concerns over credentials, fundraising networks, economic hardship, or public scrutiny might cause an otherwise viable candidate to hesitate to run. The starkest differences appeared when factoring in childhood economic adversity.

Almost half of the people who experienced poverty and received welfare when they were children — regardless of their race, gender, or level of education — doubted their credentials were good enough, compared to only 15 percent of those who never had. One-third of those who received welfare as children were anxious about even being able to afford a run for office, compared to a mere six percent of their peers who never had.

Some forms of disadvantage are being slowly and arduously addressed. The proportions of women, people of color, and sexual minorities among elected politicians are rising. The same is not true of social class. The proportion of working-class members of state legislatures declined from an already low rate between 1960 and 2010 (Carnes 2018). Our survey is meant to inform efforts to turn that trend around.

See also: Challenges Reported by Candidates for Local Office; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; and social class inversion in the 2022 US elections.

two criticisms of Effective Altruism

In the week after Sam Bankman-Fried (known as “SBF”) lost his whole $16 billion fortune, I’m sure that everyone who was already skeptical about crypto, Silicon Valley, boy geniuses, billionaires of all ages, political donors, and Effective Altruists is now piling on. Schadenfreude flows palpably through the world’s social networks–flawed as they may be.

I don’t know whether personal attacks are merited. SBF had explicitly committed to making high-risk bets with relatively low odds of success, because he thought that was his moral duty. Even if he deserves to be denounced, I’m not interested in celebrating anyone’s failure or reinforcing my prior assumptions.

But Adam Fisher’s beautifully written pre-collapse profile of SBF supplies quotations that illustrate why I have always resisted Effective Altruism, as a matter of principle.

I believe:

  1. The world gets better when people have the capacity to define, analyze, and address their own problems.
  2. Being happy, in a worthy sense of that word (“eudaimonic,” if you prefer), is hard and rare. Most of us live lives of quiet desperation. Material conditions help but are insufficient. We must accomplish worthwhile happiness ourselves. To the extent that we can help others to flourish, it’s by sharing insights and developing relationships.

These two points are distinct, but they intersect because working with others to shape our world is a path to inner happiness. It is not the only path, and it’s often a fraught one, but it must be kept open. By exchanging proposals and then acting together with people whom we view as equals, we can broaden our thinking and enrich our inner lives.

In contrast, utilitarianism “in its purest—Benthamite—form” (Fisher’s description of SBF’s philosophy) presumes that we can and must make other people happy by acting on or for them at a distance. We can calculate the best decision privately and then just do it.

SBF asks Fisher to imagine a world in which many people resemble his description of himself. They take risks to make money that they then give away to assist the world’s poorest. Some succeed and some fail, but whether you are one of the successful shouldn’t matter much to you, because you are just one person among billions. “The starving child doesn’t give a shit about which person it is who does that good. So why are you concerned about this little term in the equation?”

“This little term” is a way of expressing altruism: each of us counts for almost nothing. But note that SBF’s mind goes to a child who is starving. Children only gradually develop agency. Babies cannot analyze or affect the larger social world. They cannot do better than receiving benevolence, although they need loving relationships as well as nutrients.

To treat adults like needy infants is paternalism, in the root sense of that word. If you recognize adults as fellow human beings, then you must not affect them without asking them what they think, making yourself accountable to them, and allowing them to affect you back.

Unless they are at death’s door, adults typically do care about who is claiming to help them, and why. That is because we want to choose and shape our relationships. We do not want someone else to have a purely discretionary choice about whether and how to affect us, even if that person happens to be benign. Discretionary power is domination, and domination is a basic evil.

Frank Lovett summarizes the classical republican argument (which is as old as Cicero): “to have a master with an exceptionally benevolent disposition is to be reasonably secure in one’s expectation that one will not often be adversely interfered with—but it is to have a master nonetheless. The republican idea of freedom specifically instructs us not to make our master a better person (the goal of the old ‘mirror for princes’ literature), but to render him less of a master.”

Can a financial donor dominate people? I would say absolutely, if the money affects people and the choice of whether and how to give is the donor’s alone. Effective Altruism seeks to make rich people better, much like renaissance books with titles like A Mirror for Princes that aimed to improve monarchs. The point, however, should be to do without masters.

My second concern involves the difficulty of achieving happiness. SBF devotes no evident attention to his inner life. Fisher reports, “SBF spends nothing, it would seem, pursuing his own pleasure. It’s not just that great books aren’t worthwhile. The great movies aren’t worth watching. Food gets the same treatment. … SBF’s rejection of pleasure is so profound it got me wondering if that absence of pleasure—as opposed to his philosophy—was the key to understanding him. Is he so deep in his head that he’s incapable of feeling pleasure?”

SBF says, “I would never read a book. … I’m very skeptical of books.” Although he is entitled to his preference in media, there’s one book that he should definitely read now that he has some time on his hands: The Autobiography of John Stewart Mill.

SBF would recognize the author’s situation. Mill was a famous young prodigy raised by utilitarians. His father arranged a powerful position for him as an administrator of British India. Thus Mill had “what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” Likewise, SBF was raised by utilitarian law professors and accumulated billions with which to affect countries like India.

I don’t know SBF’s current mental state, but in the India Office, Mill fell into a deep depression. He asked himself :

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

SBF presents himself, like the young Mill, as someone who ignored his personal well-being to enhance others’. That verdict may be complicated by SBF’s 1,500 square-foot condo in the Bahamas, “with six bedrooms and spectacular views out every window,” and the possibility that he diverted his investors’ money. But even if SBF was sincere, he was making a fundamental mistake if happiness depends on wisdom, because then we must each learn to be wise. Mill wrote:

the important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances. …

Mill became a great proponent of the arts, of liberty as a personal accomplishment as well as a lack of censorship, and of representative government. He continued to make utilitarian arguments, but now refracted through an understanding that people must have power over their own lives, individually and collectively.

See also Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?; qualms about Effective Altruism; how we use Kant today; wicked problems, and excuses; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; introducing republicanism; citizens against domination; etc.