I Joyfully Disagree

A few years ago, I had an argument with my brother that lasted a little over four hours. It started around 10pm and ended after 2am. We argued the entire time. By the time we both went to bed, we were slightly upset with one another, but thankfully, the negative energy didn’t carry beyond the following morning.

Several weeks ago, I had an argument with my cousin-in-law. It also started late at night and ended sometime early in the morning. This one involved a myriad of people standing outside at a party, but he and I started it and he and I finished it. At one point, he physically threw me up against a wall, but at no point did I feel that we were actually upset with one another.

I do this a lot.

A couple of days ago, I argued with three of my students for forty-five minutes straight, only stopping because the clock told us we had to. While one of the students grew verbally exasperated with me during the argument, and another seemed to get silently so, at no point did I feel like they wanted the argument to stop.

I do this all the time.

I’m not entirely sure where this personality trait originates. My family argued a lot growing up, and my best friend and I used to (and still do) argue all the time, but I don’t know how much was nurture or how much was nature.

I’ve even bought into the astrological argument on this one, despite telling myself I don’t believe in astrology. While I understand and agree with all of the arguments that explain why I shouldn’t agree with astrology, when it comes to being a Gemini, for me, it simply feels true.

As Astrology.com explains it:

[Talking is] not just idle chatter with these folks… The driving force behind a Gemini’s conversation is their mind. The Gemini-born are intellectually inclined, forever probing people and places in search of information. The more information a Gemini collects, the better. Sharing that information later on with those they love is also a lot of fun, for Geminis are supremely interested in developing their relationships.

Forever probing; collecting and sharing information for the pure joy of it; and developing relationships through this method — it sounds like a person who loves to argue (and who loves to blog).

The argument with my brother started because he endorsed the Confederate flag. The argument with my cousin-in-law started because he supported Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court (and as a lawyer, he thought he knew of what he spoke). The argument with my three students started because they doubted that there is such a thing as altruism.

These are all good arguments.

My brother argued that the Confederate flag doesn’t have to stand for racism. It can also stand for rock n’roll in the way that Bo & Luke Duke were rock n’roll. It can stand for bad-assness, that brand of American individuality that flouts convention and shoots from the hip. After all, it comes from Confederacy not just of slaveholders, but of rebels. My brother’s argument wasn’t wrong.

My cousin-in-law argued that, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the best judges would be textualists. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to do what it thinks is morally right. Our country’s morals and values should be democratically determined through a legislative process whereby competing interests make their best arguments and majority opinions rule the day (tempered by the minority’s right to continue the argument even when they don’t have the votes, forcing the legislature to arrive at some kind of near consensus). It’s a drawn-out and dirty way to determine our society’s values, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with yet to balance the rights of the individual with the obligations of a society.

To best protect those democratically determined values, we want a Supreme Court that restrains itself to the values entombed in a text that the people themselves have agreed upon (through their elected representatives). The Supreme Court should not make rulings because of some kind of prevailing societal wind whose presence can sometimes only be sensed by five out of the nine judges. My cousin-in-law’s argument was not wrong.

My students argued that altruism doesn’t exist because human beings have evolved to sometimes seek experiences that will increase the flow of dopamine in the brain (altruism has been shown to be associated with dopamine). In other words, we don’t act altruistic because we’re nice people; we act altruistic because it gets us a little high. Since the unselfish acts required for altruism ultimately reward the self, the act’s altruistic origin is false. My students’ argument was not wrong.

And yet, argue with all of them I did.

I tried to explain to my brother that, while what he was saying wasn’t wrong, the violence of slavery was so horrific that its symbol should only be able to exist in history books and museums. I didn’t disagree that any individual anywhere has the right to wave whatever flag they choose to wave, but just because they have the right to do so doesn’t mean that they should. It’s a sad world when someone tells you that the flag you’re waving creates a sense of visceral fear and/or horror in their hearts, and they have all the facts of history to support their emotional response as a reasonable reaction, and yet, just because you can, you continue to wave the flag. That’s not an act of rebellion; that’s just disrespect and hate.

I tried to explain to my cousin-in-law that, while textualism sounds like a great method for interpreting the law, I’d rather have judges who share the majority’s understanding of fairness, regardless of the intricacies of the text that fairness should be based on. In addition, when a judge has a clear preference for finding for the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals (as Justice Gorsuch has been shown to do), then that judge isn’t capable of (or interested in) defending the people against the moneyed interests who have corrupted the legislative process that is responsible for those texts.

To be a textualist, then, is to be a judge who openly declares his faith in a system of laws whose creation is funded and driven by a combination of multinational corporations and the richest individuals who run them. Corporations do not need any more influence in our government than they already have, but the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch gave them not just one more representative, but one more incredibly powerful representative whose preference for the corporate interest will have an effect for generations.

I tried to explain to my students that, while altruistic acts ultimately reward the individual with dopamine, that doesn’t mean altruism doesn’t exist. For two reasons, the first of which is a question of timing, and the second of which is a question of semantics — of where you locate the meaning of altruism.

The process of altruism leading to an increase in dopamine is an evolved process, which means that at some point, some creature (possibly pre-chordates) did something altruistic, and then, and only then, was the dopamine triggered, the joyful experience of which created the drive to do something nice again, even if only to get a little buzzed again.

The same process probably happens in the development of young children: first they do something nice (probably because they were taught to), and then, and only then, can the dopamine be triggered.

But until they (chordates or children) actually commit the altruistic act, they can’t know that it will result in the joyful release of dopamine, and so, wouldn’t the impulse to altruism have to come first, rather than the reward of the dopamine?

Even if a child only commits an altruistic act because their parent(s) taught them that it’s right to do so, they must first do so not because of the reward they’ll receive (which they know nothing about) but because it’s the right thing for them to do.

The second reason is that it doesn’t actually matter how the drive to be altruistic evolved. Obviously, for social creatures such as ourselves, being altruistic makes it easier to live among the group and, hence, to survive long enough to create the next generation of altruists, which of course passes on the genes for altruism (including too, perhaps, the genes for listening to one’s elders). But this doesn’t change the fact that the person doing the altruistic act does so to be helpful.

Yes, there is a biological and evolutionary reward, but if there’s one thing that defines the human species, it’s that we’ve evolved to transcend our bodies, hence the evolutionary and transcendent gifts of language, culture, and technology. Just because something finds it origin in our biology doesn’t mean we ought to locate its meaning there as well.

The meaning of altruism exists beyond the body — this is in some ways its definition: a helpful act extending from one’s body and through which nothing good is expected in return. Just because something good is returned (the joyful flood of dopamine) doesn’t discount the fact that nothing good was expected. It’s that lack of an expectation (factual or not) that defines altruism; not the gene that floods the brain inside our bodies, but the lack of an expectation that something good will come to us from outside of our bodies.

It was a long and complex argument with many twists and turns and a healthy amount of crossover, and by the end, we seem to agree to disagree. My students are damn smart, and they know, themselves, how to make an argument.

Regardless, this is who I am: the Gemini who’s going to argue with you, not because I’m angry (rarely) or passionate (often), but because it just feels so damn fun to do.