As I taught Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics today, I emphasized the manner in which so many of the virtues he lists are social in nature.  Although we intuitively value many of the virtues Aristotle lists, I don’t think it would occur to many of us to count these among more or ethical issues.  I wonder what the significance of that might be?  What is striking is that many of these virtues pertain to dialogue or conversation.  Aristotle, in keeping with his claim that political science is the highest of the sciences, seems to be thinking about what sort of person we would have to be in order to be worthy of esteem by others, or to be the sort of person that others would like to spend time with, be friends with, or have as a colleague.  Thus, for example, we get vices like vanity and pusillanimity, with the virtue of magnanimity under the heading of major virtues pertaining to honor and dishonor.  The vain person is the person who perpetually displays himself and is preoccupied with his appearance to others.  Here we might think of the person on Facebook or Instagram who does nothing but post selfies and speak of their accomplishments and how magnificent their life is (or conversely, who wallow in their misery, endlessly talking about how awful their life is; an inverse sort of narcissism).  If we don’t care to be around such people, then this is because we feel as if we fade or disappear behind them.  The vain person leaves no room for others.  It’s all about them.  In the vices of deficiency pertaining to honor and dishonor, by contrast, we get the pusillanimous person.

The pusillanimous person is the moral coward that knows in their heart that something is wrong– for example, racial violence –but refuses to speak out against this injustice out of fear that they will anger their friends and be alienated.  Everyone around them is speaking about what a scandal it is for NFL football players to disrespect the flag by taking a knee– hint:  they’re not protesting the flag –and the person knows that it is right to protest this violence, yet they don’t speak up to their fellows because they’re worried they will be ostracized.  If we don’t want to be friends with the pusillanimous person, then this is because we worry if they’ll have our backs.  Will they stand with us in the face of injustice when push comes to shove, or will they remain silent?  The magnanimous person, by contrast, has moral integrity and speaks out against injustices, and is able to take credit for their accomplishments without doing so in a vain manner or boasting.

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If find the virtues of conversation even more interesting.  It would never occur to many of us to think of conversational virtues as matters of ethics or morality, though instinctively we know exactly what Aristotle is talking about.  In the vices of excess, we have what he calls the “buffoon”.  Here I can’t help but think of the late Robin Williams in interview.  I always found watching him in interviews unbearable because it was “all Robin all the time”.  He dominated discussion with his endless images, tirades, and witticisms, preventing anyone else from getting a word in edgewise, and preventing the issue on the table from either being discussed.  Again, faced with such buffoonery, everyone else fades or disappears and the issue or topic is lost.  I also think here of the person who endlessly plays devil’s advocate, such that you never know whether they’re being sincere or are just playing a trollish game to see how others will react.  At the other end of the spectrum of vices, there’s the vice of deficiency:  the boor.  The boor is the pedant that talks endlessly in elaborate detail about something that is only of interest to them, showing no interest in others; or, the boor is the person that is humorless and wooden, who turns everything into an opportunity to express some moral outrage (virtue signaling), or who never is able to express enjoyment proper to the occasion.  You feel as if you’re suffocating in the discourse of the boor.

As I discussed the social virtues with my students, the original Planet of the Apes flashed before my mind.  One of the most striking features of the original is that humans have lost their capacity for speech.  I don’t want to fall prey to a luddite attitude of what might be called “Turklism“, much less what we might call “Plato’s Fallacy” (his notorious critique of writing and writing technology), but, by way of hyperbole, I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which we’re moving in that direction.  In my youth I remember hours speaking on the phone with others.  Now it is not at all unusual for my students to tell me that the phone function is merely an app and that they would prefer to text; and admittedly, I’ve come to prefer text to voice.  When I’m out for dinner, I often see couples on their smart phones rather than talking to each other.  I hope that they’re sexting and sending sweet nothings to one another, but I doubt it.  I look at the evolution of the internet, where first there were chat rooms where people would have intense and heated discussions, and then there were email lists where people would work through the intricacies of theory and the work of various thinkers.  We then got the rise of the blog that still allowed some sort of discussion where comments weren’t closed and where some sense of community would form.  Then Facebook and Twitter came along, and those lengthy blog posts were reduced to a couple of sentences, memes, and endless streams of pictures.  Now, finally, we’ve gotten things like tumblr, Instagram, and snapchat that, as far as I can see, seem to share nothing but images and that consist of little more than people hitting “like” and getting people to follow them.  I don’t use any of these mediums, so I apologies if I’m characterizing them inaccurately.

I do not, of course, think that we will lose our capacity to speak; though who knows?  However, I do wonder what happens when the social relation comes to be dominated by the image rather than writing and speech?  Images have a very distinct logic– especially at the level of affect or emotion –that functions differently than speech and writing.  Our reaction is visceral and immediate, and we project all sorts of meanings onto the image that may or may not be there.  Above all, images have a sort of visceral or immediate “truth” or “reality” effect, that may or may not be warranted.  I have no love for Trump whatsoever, but I am disturbed when I see images like the one to the right circulated throughout social media and immediately interpreted as signifying Kelly’s shame at Trump.  Perhaps burying his face and his hand was an expression of dismay at his words– I was certainly horrified –but how am I to know?  Perhaps this is what he does when he is thinking, or maybe he was jet lagged, or maybe he had something in his eye.  I simply can’t know from the image and without surrounding context, but the editorial decision of selecting a particular image creates a narrative or interpretation all its own that tends to elide the distance between event and interpretation in ways that might very well be manipulative.  This is perpetually the danger in a society dominated by the regime of images, where dialogue has been reduced to 172 word tweets and a couple of sentences, without more thorough elaboration.

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