Teenage annihilation on an Aegean boat

An Old Bore writes:

Last week I got the boat from Athens to Hydra. It takes about 2 ½ hours, and takes you along the coast of the Argolid.

The sun shone, the dolphins leapt, the retsina flowed, the bouzoukis trembled, and we watched the sun rise over the Peloponnese. It was wonderful. At least it was for me.

Basking on the upper deck, playing Russian roulette with malignant melanoma, were four girls, all aged around 15. They saw nothing. They stretched out on bean bags, their eyes shut throughout the voyage. They heard nothing other than what was being pumped into their ears from their IPods. They would no doubt describe themselves as friends, but they didn’t utter a word to each other. They shared nothing at all apart from their fashion sense and, no doubt, some of the music. The dolphins leapt unremarked upon. We might, so far as the girls were concerned, have been cruising past Manchester rather than Mycenae.

I think this is rather sad, for a number of reasons. But it’s also troubling for the good democrat (that’s every decent person), who wants to believe that those girls’ views about the world should be taken seriously – or at least as seriously as the views of everyone else. This isn’t because (or isn’t only because), they passed up the opportunity to acquire information about the world that might be pertinent to their decision-making. It’s mainly because they passed up a 2 ½ hour chance of relationality, and therefore a chance to become more themselves. That unconversational sun-bathe was an assault on their individuality – both the individuality that they’d developed already, and the individuality that they could and should have developed in the Argo-Saronic Gulf. (Press me on where the ‘should’ comes from and I’ll come over all sanctimonious and answer you in several different philosophical languages).  They’ll never recover completely from the bruising.

Let’s suppose (unfairly, no doubt), that one of them (I’ll call her Niki) lives all her life like that, in the sort of isolation that used to be thought of as cruel and unusual punishment. What would she be? We discover the shape of ourselves by looking at the imprint we make on the people who surround us. If there are no people, there’s no imprint; we’ll have no idea where we start and where we finish. We’ll be amorphous to the point of non-existence. Non-relationality (whether it’s on the deck of a cruise ship, in a hermit’s eyrie on Mount Athos, in a bed-sit in Earls Court, or in the boardroom of a huge corporation – where you and everyone around you is a functionary rather than a person) is a form of dehumanization, which is a form of suicide. It’s also a form of homicide. When Niki declines to relate to others, she’s causing or permitting their dehumanization or, which is the same thing, failing to facilitate their humanization: she’s denying them the chance of being humanized in the way that only relationship with her can achieve.

It’s obvious, I hope, that none of this should affect in any way the attitude that I have towards Niki. I’m lamenting her decision to dehumanize (or to fail to humanize) herself. That doesn’t mean that I can presume for any purposes that she is dehumanized. For a start I’m almost certainly wrong about her. She was probably listening to Lear and weeping behind her eyeshades. But even supposing my assumed facts to be correct, the judgement is one neither I nor anyone else could possibly make. Judgment about someone’s else’s human status can only be done by someone outside the human matrix altogether. I can’t get outside. And even if I could, I certainly wouldn’t. I’d have no imprint at all there, and so I’d cease to be. Listening to your IPod might be dangerous: being in a position to judge someone else for doing so is invariably fatal.

Now: as to what they were listening to on those IPods (cont. p.94)

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24 Responses to Teenage annihilation on an Aegean boat

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I was in Oxford last week and thoroughly enjoyed visiting the magnificent college gardens and the varied architectures (from ancient, and passing through neo-Gothic to modern). It was wonderful.
    But buried in the Bodleian Library were several pale young men and women risking depression by avoiding the undoubted benefits of sunshine on their metabolism, reading books written by dead Greeks whose political opinions would be considered rather abominable today. All day they spent in artificial light, never communicating, never lifting their heads from the heavy tomes in front of them, each in their own world which might have been Wigan or Vladivostok.
    It takes all sorts to create inhumanisation…..

  • Charles Foster says:

    Anthony: thank you. You wouldn’t, I hope, expect me to disagree with any of that. And I don’t. But to relate to dead Greeks is still to relate – although it’s not as worthwhile as relating to live ones.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I agree, Charles. it’s not half as worthwhile : you can’t even share the retsina with them….

  • Adrien Glauser says:

    I have never been to Oxford so I cannot comment on the tongue-in-cheek/condescension aspects of the local atmosphere. But I was touched by this write-up as it seems to me to capture nicely a political issue that is sometimes dismissed or ignored as a mere instance of Bentham’s issue with the (questionable) distinction between high vs. low sources of pleasure or values.

    As far as I can understand the perspective of the author on the context in which he was writing this post, the central problem is this:

    (1) The point of the capitalism is to maximize wealth.
    (2) There are beneficiaries of this maximisation which, because of various contextuals factors, are not sensitive to important values as a result of the maximisation (let’s call this thesis Deshumanization).
    (3) The aforementionned values are not in the domain of the values on which liberal and democratic States are entitled to ground norms.
    (4) Only the enforcement of norms by the State can make the people in (2) aware of the important values.
    : Therefore, as long as capitalism, liberalism and democracy will be around as we know them, Deshumanization willl be there too.

    Spark of hope: since the State is entitled to promote the important values in question (as opposed to enforcing norms grounded on them), and since the people can work toward such a promotion themselves, we may reasonably reject (4) and hope for better days.

  • Matt Pianalto says:

    Thank you. This nicely captures a reaction I have to seeing others consumed in the iPod world. But you make a good point that there can be much more to the story (the person) than what we see. Someone who rides a train to work every day may prefer to “relate” to something on the headphones (Lear, a podcast, but why not even good music), given the ordinariness of the train ride. Would reading Plato’s Republic on the train (or the boat, etc.) be so different? But there is also the point that I think bothers you, which is that it’s one thing to have the book or the iPod or whatever, but perhaps something different never to look up from it and to be also aware of the immediate moment.

  • Amanda says:

    In reading your commentary I was reminded of a very well known book by David Reisman, “The Lonely Crowd.” It’s a classic which argues that social change is happening in the constitution of personalities and social character. I think you’re looking at a situation in which demographically, you are just not in the same generation as the young women. Your desires and values obviously place importance on ‘building experiences and building value.’ I think the young women were approaching the experience in a more shallow way, but not necessarily in a more isolated way. They were communally tanning and that is a social experience for many people. They were not holed up in their cabins but rather congregated together listening to their favorite music and focusing on aesthetics.(the aesthetics of the healthy glow, that is)
    The girls were not isolated but rather very ‘other-directed,’ they looked around and did the same thing as the girl next to them. What you didn’t notice was really how much the girls shared, it may have seemed too shallow for you to notice but I feel it’s as legitimate as someone enjoying a book with a group of others. The girls wanted to improve their tans and maybe sailing was boring to them. Where you saw beauty they may have seen boredom. I don’t think it’s dehumanizing to want a tan, and who knows, they may have been working on themselves as they had a party to go to or something? Dolphins? They are not six. —–> mumblesorgrumbles.blogspost.com

  • Amanda says:

    In reading your commentary I was reminded of a very well known book by David Reisman, “The Lonely Crowd.” It’s a classic which argues that social change is happening in the constitution of personalities and social character. I think you’re looking at a situation in which demographically, you are just not in the same generation as the young women. Your desires and values obviously place importance on ‘building experiences and building value.’ I think the young women were approaching the experience in a more shallow way, but not necessarily in a more isolated way. They were communally tanning and that is a social experience for many people. They were not holed up in their cabins but rather congregated together listening to their favorite music and focusing on aesthetics.(the aesthetics of the healthy glow, that is)
    The girls were not isolated but rather very ‘other-directed,’ they looked around and did the same thing as the girl next to them. What you didn’t notice was really how much the girls shared, it may have seemed too shallow for you to notice but I feel it’s as legitimate as someone enjoying a book with a group of others. The girls wanted to improve their tans and maybe sailing was boring to them. Where you saw beauty they may have seen boredom. I don’t think it’s dehumanizing to want a tan, and who knows, they may have been working on themselves as they had a party to go to or something? Dolphins? They are not six.

  • Nathan Leopold says:

    This post started out good and got progressively worse. I’m saddened (but not surprised) that you buy into the postmodern liberal dogma of non-judgmentalism. In the words of Theodore Dalrymple: “Judgment is precisely that—judgment. It is not the measure of every action by an infallible and rigid instrument.” It’d be horrific if people were actually able to comment on the behaviors and attitudes of others, but luckily we are unable to do so, because of the insufficient epistemological ground on which one would have to stand. Foundationalism failed and therefore we are doomed to a life of relativism (non-judgmentalism). Everything is (apparently) as good as everything else.

    Recommendation: http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_3_oh_to_be.html

  • Charles Foster says:

    Adrien: thank you. That is a helpful and sophisticated political extrapolation of what I said.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Matt: thank you. Yes, that bothers me: see my response (re relating to dead Greeks) to Anthony.

  • arenCharles Foster says:

    Amanda: thank you. I anticipated your delicately phrased ‘demographic’ point in the first four indelicate words of the post.
    Perhaps it is the blindness that comes from senescence, but I can’t see that lying tanning in a group, listening to IPods, is remotely relational. Or (which is the main point) if it correctly described that way, that it produces the effects on the individuals that a more demanding form of relationality would produce. If the girls were relating to anything at all they were relating to an idea of how they should look and be that they’ve got from Cosmo. Is that really in the same class as a conversation with a complex mortal?
    It’s terribly sad that you think that dolphins aren’t interesting unless you’re six.

  • Nathan: thank you.
    I’m not clear if you’re saying:
    (a) That I’m contemptibly failing to judge; or
    (b) Judging, and contemptibly failing to acknowledge that I’m doing so.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Hi Charles – I thought this was quite a fun post, so thanks. But it’s also funny to me because people don’t normally complain about 15 year-old girls *not* talking to each other enough… It seems to me you’re drawing a rather long bow from the observations to the phenomenon you want to discuss (dehumanization). Personally, I find the iPod a solace in crowds of people – for one thing, music can augment and improve a journey; for another, it can drown out the uninvited conversation of others (in an admirably Pareto-efficient way). But I think the main point I want to make is this: even if we accept the suppositions you make in your post, listening to music with your eyes closed is still engagement with others, it’s just not those who are physically proximate. Is there any reason to suppose that immersion in their music is any less authentic than immersion in the views afforded by the cruise? It seems to me that the only strong objection you have is that there’s a high opportunity cost to missing the views (since they’re real-time and the music is recorded).

    Your argument that democrats should object to these girls strikes me as pretty harsh, and slightly arbitrary. For one thing, it’s far from obvious that these girls are being irrational (eg Anthony Downs’s idea of “rational ignorance”, etc). For another, “democracy” as we know it doesn’t imply we take everyone’s views as seriously as everyone else’s views. It means we occasionally aggregate blunt expressions of complex preferences to decide who should represent us in the legislature. Fortunately, that’s all democracy in our sorts of societies amounts to (that and your consumer preferences). It doesn’t mean everyone has an equal stake in decision making. That would be awful.

  • Jayson Virissimo says:

    I spend virtually my entire commute (by car and on foot) listening to lectures and audiobooks on my iPhone. If they are anything like me, they were being as enriched by what they were listening to as I am being by reading this blog (although, I admit, the chances of this are slim).

    • Charles Foster says:

      Jayson: many thanks. That’s a good way to pass the journey (although it would be even better if you chatted companionably with a friend or engaged in ecstatic shamanic commerce with the landscape). Listening to a lecture or a book is a pretty demanding, relational business. While reading my blogs is certainly not a good way to spend time, it is better than passively soaking up the noise of a boy band. But worse than talking (even) with me.

  • elisa freschi says:

    @Charles, I share your surprise whenever I see teenagers not speaking a world to each other and just listening to their own music/playing with their videogames, but also when I see adult men just drinking together and not speaking any other word then “give me that beer!”, or when I see adult women speaking about non-significant topics (which entail no real communication). The issue seems to me broader. Real communication is hard as it makes one vulnerable and several people never “grow up” enough for that.

    I hope, however, that they have learnt to communicate in some other way (e.g., by engaging in activities together, such as playing in the same football team).

    • Charles Foster says:

      Elisa: many thanks. Quite agree. And what stops people from ‘growing up’ is itself the lack of communication. There’s a vicious circle: lack of communication breeds lack of communication. The culture I was denouncing neutralises the ploys used by the the benevolent world to break that circle.
      You shouldn’t read my post as a broadside against teenage girls in particular. Males of all ages are far, far worse.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Dave: many thanks. You’re right: I’m contending that flesh and blood encounters are more humanizing (authentic/sustaining/fun) than electronic encounters. Is that really so radical? Isn’t it what we’d expect in embodied animals such as we are?

    • Dave Frame says:

      Well the human encounters with old battleaxes/annoying families/irritating students/etc my iPod has allowed me to avoid on crowded Virgin trains on stifling Sunday afternoons have been very satisfying. At least listening to the iPod puts my in touch (in receiving rather than two-way mode) with people with whom I might share something in common (even if it’s just their music). It’s not obvious to me that the world would be a better place if we had fewer options to ignore interactions we aren’t interested in.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    Never mind those much-maligned teenagers Charles, what about the billions of people who weren’t even on that boat, and who would turn down the trip if offered? You really do seem to be saying “everyone ought to be engaged with the world in the way that I am, otherwise they’re sort of rejecting me, and therefore rejecting humanity and democracy and fluffy kittens and the whole universe blah blah blah” which sounds a bit pathetic coming from anyone of any age. Me, I’m not much of a traveller, and prefer to watch my dolphins on TV nature documentaries.

    “I’m contending that flesh and blood encounters are more humanizing (authentic/sustaining/fun) than electronic encounters. Is that really so radical?”

    No, it’s just a very subjective and quite small-minded belittling of other people’s experience, because it’s not your cup of tea. Personally I spend most of my life happily pottering about on my own in a little cottage in the country, although I quite often chat with friends on the internet. Recently one of my chatting companions died after a long struggle with cancer, which he’d shared online with his friends. We never met “in the flesh” but after conversing amiably with someone online for more than a decade, I can assure you my grief when he died was very real and very human. There are quite a lot of people out there whose social lives are much richer now than they were in the days before all this electronic interaction.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Nikolas: Thank you. I’m glad you’re happy. But we’re at cross purposes. My post was not about being happy enough, but about being maximally humanised.

    • Nikolas Schaffer says:

      It seems to me that “maximally humanised” is your code for” “Most like Charles Foster, and not frighteningly different from Charles Foster” – i.e., it’s a laughably subjective term that tells us more about the limits of your own empathy and imagination than it does about other people and their engagement with the world.

  • rich says:

    While I am not opposed to the use of technology to assist us, I have become aware of how often my students use it as a substitute for reality, with the blurring of the line between the virtual and real world being a result. A few weeks back I was on a sailing vessel looking at the beautiful Napali coast of northern Kawaii, Hawaii. I looked over at a 12 year old boy sitting across from me as he was intently playing a game on his cell phone.

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