Courage, Heroes and Culture

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Well over a decade ago, age (experience) yielded a dividend of wisdom: the resolve to develop courage. I created the montage above, comprised of pictures of my heroes, Winston Churchill, Jacques Brel and Pierre Elliot Trudeau, which I hung prominently in my office. They were emblems of cognitive zest and courage. They were brilliant, perspicuous, hard working men who facing trials did not flinch. I devoured biographies of Winston Churchill. I re-read Trudeau’s auto-biography and some other books about him. I also read books about Brel and got the DVD collection of his videos. I even started “The zest of Brel” project, exchanging emails with Arnie Johnston who holds the right to translate Brel into English (and I drafted ACT in Three Acts). I re-acquired a beautifully bound copy of the play Cyrano de Bergerac. I memorized La tirade du Non Merci :

Et que faudrait-il faire ?
Chercher un protecteur puissant, prendre un patron,
Et comme un lierre obscur qui circonvient un tronc
Et s’en fait un tuteur en lui léchant l’écorce,
Grimper par ruse au lieu de s’élever par force ?
Non, merci ! Dédier, comme tous ils le font,
Des vers aux financiers ? se changer en bouffon
Dans l’espoir vil de voir, aux lèvres d’un ministre,
Naître un sourire, enfin, qui ne soit pas sinistre ?
Non, merci ! Déjeuner, chaque jour, d’un crapaud ?
Avoir un ventre usé par la marche ? une peau
Qui plus vite, à l’endroit des genoux, devient sale ?
Exécuter des tours de souplesse dorsale ?…
Non, merci ! D’une main flatter la chèvre au cou
Cependant que, de l’autre, on arrose le chou,
Et donneur de séné par désir de rhubarbe,
Avoir son encensoir, toujours, dans quelque barbe ?

[… other beautiful inspirational lines deleted for conciseness]

Bref, dédaignant d’être le lierre parasite,
Lors même qu’on n’est pas le chêne ou le tilleul,
Ne pas monter bien haut, peut-être, mais tout seul !

Here’s an English translation.

I don’t share the “I will do it all alone” mentality of the fictitious hero (team work is good). But I do value standing up straight. That’s the first rule of Jordan B. Peterson’s first 12 Rules book, and it is also the title of Jacques Brel’s poignant lament, Vivre debout :

In 2010, fortified by an admiration for the virtues of my heroes and role models, I decided to take a risk. I would work for myself. I would lead my own research projects at Simon Fraser University, where I am Adjunct Professor, but not take any pay from the University. I would also write books, providing cognitive productivity consulting services, and develop cognitive productivity software. I would create a business (CogZest), which would spin off CogSci Apps Corp.. I’ve done it all, and am doing it all. It has indeed taken and developed my courage. Research is inherently risky; running multiple, long-haul, intertwined, ambitious R&D programmes involving multiple organizations is even riskier. (Pursuing these aims might appear quixotic; but that informs my Learning from Stories project!)

In 2013, I published a 210,000+ word book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective that I dedicated to three of my heroes (Churchill, Brel, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau). (This is not to say that they were perfect men. Nor am I a perfect man.)

Also in 2013, A psychologist introduced me to acceptance and commitment therapy. I used my meta-effectiveness framework to implement the key concepts in my own ‘mindware’. I published a chapter in my Cognitive Productivity suggesting how ACT can be improved with an integrative design-oriented approach.

Thanks to Massimo Pigliucci, around then, I also re-discovered Stoicism. I’ve adapted and taken up Stoic practices.

On equanimity

I think there is truth to the Stoic idea that virtues are interpendent and mutually reinforcing. One requires the other and develops the other. Incidentally, I am not claiming to be virtuous. But I do strive for excellence. (My books are about meta-effectiveness, the skills and and dispositions to develop oneself with knowledge and tech. It’s a control system.)

I will translate (and slightly clarify) a recent French Tweet of mine that expresses some of the dividends of this path:

I drop something. Rushing, I accidentally break a glass. A mess to clean up. I come back to my car after a jog in my stomping grounds, Minnekhada Regional Park, I notice that I lost my keys. Result? Calm; peace; even joy to need to slow down!

Frustrations become opportunities to practice.

It is not that nothing bothers me. I have emotions! But I can use my emotions not merely to react to the situation, but to act — i.e., to be proactive.

You see, Stoicism yields courage. And we need courage. For we are being told what to say and what not to say. Many academics now fear speaking their knowledge. They have forgotten Cyrano, Brel. Perhaps less in France than in Canada and the USA.

Why are so many academics cowering?

I was listening to a podcast recently in which the host and guest, who both stood up for their views where and when others were supine, wondered why so few of today’s academics refuse to stand up to what I will call anti-rationalism (or dogmatism). (Various forms of vociferous anti-rationalism, including politically bent epistemological post-modernism, seem to be increasingly active.)

Here are some of my thoughts. The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard W. Wrangham, which I highly recommend to all psychologists, is not specifically about political dogma. However, chapter 11 contains several examples of failed dogmatic and politically driven researchers trying to suppress findings because they do not like what they take to be their implications. Wrangham goes to great pains to argue that the supposed implications do not follow from the facts. That may be so. But that is not my main concern.

My main concern is that there are academics who seem to believe that the truth must be beautiful. That we should suppress disagreeable facts. They have obviously not read, or understood, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. There I argued that there are four criteria for evaluating assertive conceptual artefacts (types of knowledge resources) : Caliber, utility, potency, appeal. That is CUP’A. The “A” is set aside because Appeal can be misleading and ought to be ignored. Seductive information can waste our time. Sometimes the truth is not what we want it to be. For instance, indeterminacy, as ugly as it seems, might be a fundamental fact. This is not to deny the importance of trying to refute theories we do not like. But we must not let political biases interfere with rationalism.

Dogma — dogmatic attitudes and behaviors— if it has a place at all, belongs in religious institutions. (Having said that, there is a ‘religion’ in Canada without a creed, Unitarianism. I prefer to think of unitarianism here as a community.) Dogma does not belong in universities, businesses or journalism.

Although Richard Wrangham did not mention it in his book, his theory can be used to explain why so many academics are cowering. His theory states that humans evolved pro-active aggression in which reactive aggression is punished. Beta-males can band together to enforce justice on reactive males, even on alpha males. This served to curb proclivities for reactive aggression and other forms of ‘bad behavior’, i.e., it made us ‘good’. But it also had a problematic side-effect. It meant that political coalitions / mobs can enforce their will for nefarious purposes (the “tyranny of cousins”).

We are all implicitly attuned to this fact. We know that bad actors can use social media (and social media predate the Internet) to punish behavior that goes against their norms, attitudes and goals. (Those are three forms of value [singular] distinguished by Ortony, Clore & Collins (1988) and in Cognitive Productivity books.) Hence, many academics are afraid of their peers, administrators and students. Cognitive dissonance and defense mechanisms kick in to make them forget their views and values. (Compare Czechoslovakia in the Eastern Block, and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris.)

However, courage is presumably normally distributed. Individual differences in courage can partly be explained through nature. But courage can also be deliberately developed. (Kevin J. Mitchell’s excellent book, Innate, provides an excellent account of genetics and self-development.)

While I am on the subject of books and virtue, I should mention that Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox is a helpful antidote to Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History. More on that anon.

Home of the brave

This week, I’ve been listening to ‎Les grands entretiens: Rencontre entre Jacques Chancel et le philosophe et musicologue Vladimir Jankélévitch. That is a 1978 interview with Vladimir Jankélévitch a moral philosopher who joined the French Resistance, and published nearly 30 books.

What struck me about Jankélévitch was his characteristic , emphatic, French “negativity”. His answers were “no”, if they needed to be, or more precisely “non!”.

That in turn reminded me of La tirade du Non Merci …. “Cyrano de Bergerac”. It’s worth learning French just to appreciate that and Jacques Brel.

I’m French Canadian myself — not particularly in touch with what is happening in France. However, I strongly suspect that French academics are not being swept up by the “cancel culture”. The French are people who really don’t like to be told what to say, and will tell you so. Cowards are everywhere, but as a culture they hate cowardice.

That is probably why the French loved that tall, brilliant outspoken Belgian poet, Jacques Brel, so much. As a young man, he could have become boss of his father’s factory; but he headed to Paris, living poor, to try his luck as a singer – songwriter — becoming arguably the 20th century’s best. Consider some of Brel’s songs in relation to our topic:

They are songs critical of cowardice, admiring of “living standing up”. They are harsh. But they also betray his compassion for the human condition, and the difficulty of working towards higher standards.

To get a glimpse of Brel’s character, it may help to know that he did not merely sing his songs. He acted them. I knew this from listening to his songs well before I first saw videos of his performance in c. 2008. They showed a man moving, gesticulating, expressing himself with so much energy that he sweat profusely. From what I have heard, Brel would never give his audience an “encore”. That is ‘living standing up’, implicitly saying I have given you everything I have to give. More? Non merci.

USA and Canada

In the US and English Canada, I suspect vigorous academic resistance to anti-rationalism will only come if/when enough influential academic “leaders” stand up to the anti-rationalists. Meanwhile, cowardice will prevail, as suggested in this video about a documentary by Mike Nayna (@MikeNayna). In that video Mr. Nayna claims to have interviewed several academics who are very concerned about policies at their universities but afraid to discuss them. I have not finished watching that video — so this is not yet an endorsement of it — though what I have heard so far fits with trends I have observed in English Canada.

Some of my readers will recall that Eva Hudlicka, colleagues and I wrote a conference paper on Perturbance that I presented at AISB-2017. This led to a 2020 article with Sylwia Hyniewska and Monika Pudlo, Mental perturbance: An integrative design-oriented concept for understanding repetitive thought, emotions and related phenomena involving a loss of control of executive functions. Perturbance is what one experiences when a motivator, qua mental state, is highly insistent. Eva’s relative, Dr. Tomas Hudlicky was recently attacked by dogmatic micro-tyrants, and singularly abandoned by the administration of Brock University. (Hudlicky, a Professor & Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, and worldwide authority in Chemistry, is one of Brock’s most accomplished professors). I assumed this caused a perturbance in him.

It is helpful to read about the affair: “Missives of appalling idiocy and envy embarrassing to behold”.

The responses experienced by Dr. Hudlicky are unfortunately becoming more common. How should we use this information? One may choose to give in to fear of dogmatic people. Or, one may use the information to bolster one’s courage.

Towards the latter in academia, there are finally some signs of hope. Counter-anti-rationalism is beginning to emerge in academia, given that some of its best, brightest and most influential minds have signed the Counterweight Mission and Values – Manifesto, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and others.

There’s also Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’. (I myself included a brief criticism of, and a very detailed alternative to, post-modern epistemology in Cognitive Productivity with macOS: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge.)

Québec

You may have noticed that I have been mentioning (criticizing) English Canada. I should note that I was fluently bilingual (French/English). I have been immersed in the English speaking world since my Ph.D. days. (I live in British-Columbia.) However, I still am in touch with la belle province.

Québec has been deliberately and developing its culture for decades and is continuously engaged in cultural discussion. Tune into Tout le monde en parle to get a sense of it.

To his credit, the Québec premier, François Legault, has given university boards an ultimatum: reclaim control of universities, or we will do it for you.

« Ce problème-là est parti de nos universités, et je pense que c’est là qu’on va devoir le régler en premier. La ministre de l’Enseignement supérieur, Danielle McCann, est en train de se pencher là-dessus avec les milieux universitaires pour agir rapidement », écrit le chef caquiste dans son message du samedi matin à la population, une habitude qu’il a prise depuis quelques semaines déjà.
Reconnaissant que « l’utilisation de certains mots peut blesser » et « qu’il faut reconnaître la douleur de ceux qui la ressentent », M. Legault affirme toutefois que « leur juste cause ne doit pas être détournée par des radicaux qui veulent censurer, museler, intimider et brimer notre liberté de parole ». « Entre blessure et censure, on doit tracer une ligne », illustre-t-il.
« Si on commence à s’autocensurer par peur de se faire insulter, ou si on ne défend pas quelqu’un qui est victime de ça, on joue le jeu des radicaux. Je comprends que ça puisse faire peur, mais on doit se tenir debout, rester fermes. Plus on sera nombreux à refuser de céder à l’intimidation d’une minorité de radicaux, plus la peur reculera », persiste encore l’élu.
« La liberté d’expression fait partie des piliers de notre démocratie. Si on se met à faire des compromis là-dessus, on risque de voir la même censure déborder dans nos médias, dans nos débats politiques. On ne voudra plus rien dire », conclut le premier ministre.

Source: Universités | Legault veut « protéger notre liberté d’expression » | La Presse.

Protection of academic work, like that of Dr. Hudlicky mentioned above and defended by Dr. Jordan Peterson, is some of what Québec Premier, M. François Legaut, is trying to protect. Unfortunately for Dr. Hudlicky, his university, small in apparently more ways than one, is in Ontario, not Québec.

Freedom to criticize isn’t immunity from criticism

This morning, I had no intention of blogging at all, let alone on courage. However, my mother (a retired lawyer in Québec) texted me an article by an excellent journalist French Canadian journalist, Mr. Patrick Lagacé (Twitter handle:@kick1972). Like myself, Mr. Lagacé is a University of Ottawa alumnus.

It recounts that a Québec-bashing professor of the University of Ottawa, Mr. Amir Attaran, went on another racist rant against French Canadians. Mr Lagacé writes:

M. Attaran a le droit d’utiliser sa liberté d’expression pour montrer sa bêtise à l’univers. Mais je suis sidéré de voir que le recteur Jacques Frémont de l’Université d’Ottawa – un campus bilingue fréquenté par des profs et des étudiants québécois depuis des générations – ne dénonce pas Amir Attaran en termes clairs en utilisant la sienne, contrairement à la doyenne de la section de droit civil, Marie-Eve Sylvestre. « Des propos incendiaires et offensants », a-t-elle tenu à préciser sur Twitter.

I agree with this journalist. Attaran has the right to express idiotic, incendiary ideas. And we have the right, some of us an obligation, to call him on it.

To what institutions should we donate?

I have on occasion done volunteer service for the University of Ottawa. A few years ago I had the pleasure of giving a pro bono lecture to their Psychology students.

Last fall, the University of Ottawa flagrantly violated common sense, and the dignity of one of its non-tenured professors. The Globe and Mail published an article by Mr. Konrad Yakabuski on October 21, 2020 Opinion: The University of Ottawa throws academic freedom under the bus – The Globe and Mail that sums up the matter:

The University of Ottawa throws academic freedom under the bus – The Globe and Mail

(Incidentally, I have hooked this article to the one by Mr. Lagacé).

I recently received a request for donations from the University of Ottawa (now better known as the U. of 0).

Being, like Mark Carney ( 😉), a Canadian 🇨🇦 Commonwealth Scholar, I also receive requests for donations from the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the University of Birmingham (England). I need to decide how much money to donate to each.

I think what needs and deserves my money more at this point than universities is good journalism. Journalism not of the type that leads universities astray, but that might help remind universities, and society more generally, of the importance of rationalism and humanism.

So, today I decided to support the important, and high caliber, journalistic work being done by LaPresse.ca — by donating to them. (Receipt shown below). I’ve also prepared a letter to the university of Ottawa in which I explained why I am not donating to the University of Ottawa, and that I chose to donate to LaPresse.ca instead.

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Who knows. Perhaps I can start a trend …

Learning Courage from Stories

In my Cognitive Productivity books, I argued that we tend to consume information too superficially. I claim that we are not condemned to do so. In those books I propose ways of interacting with non-fiction such that we can develop personally from it. These methods are based on integrative cognitive science and involve using technology. These methods are effortful. However, I believe we can actually spend less time processing information overall, for incommensurably better results. The framework involves shifting effort from “consumption” to choosing, delving, practicing and applying knowledge.

I believe the same goes for fiction. I conjecture that fiction has evolutionary purposes, which are ultimately to make people more effective. This involves not merely conveying factual knowledge, but also developing virtues (habitual praiseworthy excellence). However, we consume so much fiction these days (song, films, novels, etc.) that we cannot adequately learn from it.

This is a tragedy that is hard to avoid. The technology we use to ‘consume’ information is not designed for developing excellence. It is naively and falsely assumed that the purpose of fiction is to provide pleasure. In fact, pleasure is not even what drives us as a proxy..

The purposes of my Learning from Stories project are

  • to understand fiction from an an integrative design-oriented perspective,
  • to develop strategies and software to deeply learn from stories, without removing the pleasure, such that one can apply the wisdom of stories in situations where they are needed (“transfer of learning”).

I conjecture that this approach to story can actually lead to more pleasure and satisfaction from fiction than the status quo.

This blog post refers to many stories that can potentiate courage.

Back to Stoic virtues

It should go without saying that it is important to choose one’s words carefully, so as to be truthful and respectful. One must not set out to be offensive. Moreover, not all truths need to be spoken. But some unpleasant propositions (conjectures) need to be advanced. Yet we live in a time of trigger-happy micro-tyranny where a few odd voices can try to take down people of highest caliber knowledge and intentions. And anyone (even supposedly ‘woke’ micro-tyrants) can misspeak. It is easy to be quoted out of context. Beauty is subjective, and therefore some people will find some truths (conjectures) to be ugly.

Therefore, in one’s daily premeditatio malorum, it may help to imagine the prospect of (a) an anti-rationalist mob attack and (b) a cowardly and unwise response by one’s colleagues and administration to a mob. It may then help to imagine how one’s courageous heroes would have responded to the situation. And prepare oneself to enjoy the opportunity to encounter danger with equanimity, wisdom, and courage.

Familiarity with Winston Churchill might help. He said “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” In the Cuban civil war, with gunfire around him he went calmly to sleep in a hammock. Throughout WWII, he did not lose a single night’s sleep to stress.

Mural, mirror on the wall, …

Here’s another picture that was long on my wall to inspire me:

  • Aaron Sloman on left (who stood up for the right in a debate with the upper echelons of his university).
  • Bottom left, myself; for research suggests that a mirror can help keep one focused (perhaps by giving one the sense of being observed — a proxy for conscience).
  • On the right, one of my great late Unitarian friends, Ralph Greer. (I’ve lost two more in the last year — I will honour them here later).

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Before I headed for England in 1990, professor Claude Lamontagne (now retired from the University of Ottawa) gave me my first copy of Cyrano de Bergerac, with the inscription,

Bon voyages!

My Ph.D. years were indeed great voyages. But if I had emulated his courage upon my return from England, my late 20s and 30s would have been better. Better late than never. So whereas he is not in the figure, he remains one of my great sources of inspiration.

Revision history

  • 2021-03-21 11:42 PT. I added some text regarding the Hudlicky affair. And I added a coda, “Back to Stoic virtues”
  • 2021-03-21 14:01. corrected some typos — thanks to readers who pointed them out.
  • 2021-03-22 21:20: reinstated accidentally deleted photo, now in a new section “Mural, mirror on the wall”
  • 2021-04-04 22:14: fixed more typos. Added a few minor details.

Footnotes

    1. Jordan Peterson interviewing James Madison Program Visiting Fellow, Bret Weinstein, about the Evergreen State College Day of Absence affair.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science & of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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