An afterbirthday message

I originally posted the following on Facebook on March 17, 2014. I post it here too so that it is not lost in the bowels of that other medium.

Sevgili arkadaşlar // dear friends,

Doğum günümü kutladığınız için hepinize teşekkürler, ve aşağıdaki sözleri okuyanlara teşekkürler. // Thanks to all of you for the birthday greetings, and thanks to those who read the following.

(1) Yaşayın, (2) Diaspora*’ya katılın, (3) özgür olun! //

(1) Live, (2) join Diaspora*, (3) be free!

İngilizce’de devam ediyorum // I continue in English.

1. After my birthday one year, I sent out my thanks in French as well, because one friend had sent his greetings to me in that language. Unfortunately he killed himself last summer. He thought the world would be better off without him. He was as mistaken as it is possible to be.

I have had peculiar debates with friends over the proper attitude to take towards suicides. Perhaps the following can be agreed on. If you do find yourself thinking the world would be better off without you, you should understand that you are mistaken, even if you do not believe it. I suppose it is possible to have this paradoxical understanding, just as it is possible to understand when drunk that one’s judgement is impaired.

2. The “It Gets Better Project” has the goal of inculcating the kind of understanding just suggested. I used to see a lot of posts from the Project on Facebook, because I had pressed its “like” button. Now I rarely see those posts. I don’t know whether this is because there are fewer of these posts, or I give them less attention now, or the Project is not paying Facebook enough (or at all) to promote its posts.

I do not know who will read my own words. Not everybody with a Facebook account reads everything in their feed. What is worse, one’s feed does not contain everything that one’s friends post on their own walls. Facebook is in the business of harvesting our attentions and selling them to advertisers. Facebook is very clever at attracting our attention, just as a confectioner is clever at producing dainties that we want to eat. As Socrates is wont to remind us, the confectioner may not have our best interests in mind or even know what those best interests are.

Recently I saw on Facebook a wish that Facebook would show us everything that our friends post, in the order that they post it. This was a naive desire. Facebook knows, better than we do, what is in its interest for us to be shown.

Meanwhile, there is a social medium that is not in the business of selling our attentions to advertisers. This is Diaspora*. You can post to Facebook from Diaspora*. Sometimes I do this. Diaspora* is decentralized: hence the name. You get an account on a “pod,” or you create your own pod. I joined what I believe is the largest pod. It is full now, but you can find others.

Facebook will sometimes tell you what a friend “likes.” Obviously Facebook does not tell you everything that your friends like; it tries to make a judicious selection—judicious for Facebook’s interests.

3. My attention was recently directed in this way to an essay by Robert Reich, appearing in Salon, but taken from his blog. Dated Thursday, March 13 Saturday, March 15, 2014, the essay is called “The ‘Paid-What-You’re-Worth’ Myth.” The myth of the title is that, whatever people are earning, they must deserve it—unless it is minimum wage, in which case possibly they deserve less; but chief executive officers of corporations obviously deserve what they are paid, since otherwise the corporations would not pay them so much.

Reich gives specific examples to show that the myth cannot be right. It seems to me the myth is wrong on more basic grounds. I think the myth assumes two things:

a) that a free market determines the right price for goods and services,

b) that the market for CEO jobs is free, although the market for low-skill jobs is distorted by the imposition of a minimum wage.

Speaking roughly, I would say that Reich refutes (b) without taking on (a). I think assumption (a) is that rightness of price—or indeed anything else—somehow arises when each of us is able to pursue his or her own best interest. This is obviously wrong, because ability to pursue one’s best interest is not the same as actually pursuing it.

It might be argued that, if you really, really can do what is best for you, then obviously you will do it. This is why I summarized this section of my note as “Be free.” It sounds better than “Be responsible”; but it can amount to the same thing. In that case though, the notion of ability to do something is more complicated than it might seem. It is more than, or other than, deciding which advertised products to buy.

If you cannot decide what is right to do, then you may indeed look around to see what others are doing: possibly they are doing right, and you would do right to follow them. Maybe everybody’s wage is being decided rightly. But maybe it is not. Ultimately, in all things, one must decide for oneself. One cannot simply leave it to “the market”—or for that matter, leave it to the voters as the rhetoric of the Turkish Prime Minister suggests. This fellow asserts that, as long as his party is elected, he can do what he wants. This is what gives democracy the bad name it has in Plato.

3 Comments

  1. Arianne Laidlaw
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    SAd story about your friend. I worked at Suicide Prevention in SF for a couple of years and talked with a lot of people contemplating it. I never once heard your friend’s view, that world would be better without him. What a terrible feeling he must have had about himself. I’m a fan of Reich and will check to see if I read his piece.

    • Posted April 4, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for writing, Arianne. I thought the reason I gave for the suicide was a commonplace; you give me reason to rethink. I don’t know if anybody knows why the person in question killed himself. I think he had dropped out of view for a while. I somehow have the idea he thought he was causing people trouble by living. Whatever bad feeling he had, evidently he had it out of all proportion. Why do you think people called Suicide Prevention, in your experience?

      • Arianne
        Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure I know the answer to why people contemplate suicide. I thought of it once for 30 seconds and my reason was that I thought that news of my death would be easier to take than news of what I’d done. Only took 30 seconds to realize that was nonsense. But I’m pretty sure that death seems more attractive than enduring whatever the person is feeling. What I learned by talking on the phone, though, was that the reason talking helped was because the person hadn’t even thought of other ways of looking at their situatioh Alternative perspectives were helpful! Or maybe just being heard was a relief. I still remember some of the callers. One sent me cards on every holiday at the office. AI just remember a very funny situation. I was taking calls all night at my home one time, and I was entertaining a visitor from back east who has not forgotten waiting while I talked to a caller. Still, Arianne

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