Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Immaculate Celebrity State of Being

Photo of famous actor and celebrity
I recently watched Phantom Thread (2017) by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of those few filmmakers out there who is creative, idiosyncratic and generally unpredictable. He first impressed me with the magnificent and opera-like Magnolia (1999) only to follow it up with the small indie-like film Punch Drunk Love (2002) that ran half its running time with, of all people, Adam Sandler in one of his best and funniest roles. Phantom Thread is a different breed altogether, but I quite enjoyed this film in its own right.

Then I heard about what inspired this talented director to make the film: It involved a strong bout of the ‘flu during which he was taken care of by his wife. There might be nothing too exceptional or extraordinary about this situation, although ardent feminists might possibly criticize his wife for falling prey to the archetypical gender role of caretaker; yet for me something felt amiss and I felt queasy about this. And somehow it inadvertently lowered my esteem for this great filmmaker.

This might be partly due to his candid admission of weakness or helplessness. Although generally I do not see admission of weakness as disempowering - in fact, I think it’s quite the opposite, only the strong and confident can fully admit to and embrace their flaws and weaknesses – in this particular case, I would have preferred an instant of sudden epiphany as a spark of inspiration or something else that did not involve common day ailments. There was far less magic in the latter.

It was mainly the deception of finding out that he is, after all, a human being like everyone else, prone to sickness, disease, pain and suffering and not an otherworldly genius untouched by such ordinary issues. As someone who recently had his own unpleasant brush with a stomach ‘flu (and no I don’t think it was the mushroom pizza my wife made me), I can personally vouch for and sympathize with the grueling experience of sickness; but the problem is that we often assume, mostly subconsciously, that these god-like celebrities are not only beyond the common rabble in terms of talent and intelligence, but that they are also immune to the human foibles. Of course, they are not.

There is and most likely always has been a cult around celebrities. These famous people often reach a god-like status in our minds. In the past, it was mostly related to artists, musicians or other brilliant minds, so people might have swooned over Mozart, Beethoven or the booming voice of Charles Dickens and perhaps less over great philosophers like Nietzsche whose talents were barely recognized in his own time.

In our time with the advent of television and other forms of technology, celebrity status has become more ubiquitous. We see their faces plastered everywhere from checkout aisles to posters to billboards and other types of advertisement. One could easily pinpoint to the crushing waves of Beatlemania with young people fainting in front of their musical idols that sported terrible haircuts, which incidentally did not hinder but rather helped propel them to stardom. Yet this kind of swooning is not peculiar nor limited to the music industry nor the young.

This otherworldly aspect is evidently augmented through the use of television and the big screen as well as today’s smaller blue screens of laptops and cellphones. The faces of actors and actresses are now streaming on our gadgets and devices and we watch them play their respective roles, while they have reached quasi-mythical statuses in our imaginative minds. We infuse them with borderline supernatural powers and seem surprised, not to say shocked, to see that they are like us, prone to slips and weaknesses.

For instance, we are surprised to hear that some of them get angry, lash out at others or get into brawls, and that they cheat on their loved ones and / or lie to the public. They are often held to higher moral standards than politicians, who in some cases are celebrities themselves entering the realm of politics. 

All of this makes us lose sight not only of humanity but of reality as well. We assume that the Terminator can indeed end all the threats or that a cowboy actor president may shoot and eliminate the villains once and for all. Whenever flaws or weaknesses creep up, this wildly unrealistic and implausible image rips and cracks at its seams, and we either turn a blind eye or get angry and drop those celebrities like hot potatoes.

One of the problems with being in the limelight / spotlight (although my personal experience of this is very limited) is that you become visible to all. Hence, the preoccupation with one’s looks. As the faces on the screen remain fixed and immortal, the changing faces due to aging often become a major source of stress and anxiety for celebrities. More than any other group and people, they will try to preserve and hold onto the faces we have come to know on the screens and more often than not plastic surgery is used to rectify the (supposed) blemishes of getting older. 

It is somewhat easier for men as our culture tends to find them still sexy despite or in some cases because of their advanced age (I’m looking at you George Clooney pictured above), while women constantly battle the lines and wrinkles on their faces and dye their hair (except Helen Mirren, of course, and that is a good thing).

So much for physical aspects; let us look at the shadier moral parts and pieces. Here it does indeed become messy. As we expect them to be perfect not only in looks but also in demeanor and behavior, celebrities are held up to often unrealistically high standards. This is where the Me Too movement found its main drive and inspiration. The now unaccepted and always unacceptable behavior of male celebrities towards their female counterparts and females in general has brought everything quickly and successively into the spotlight.

And so it should be. However, part of this fallout is fueled by an anger towards celebrity figures because they failed to live up to our higher standards. And this is regardless and, in some cases, irrespective of their actual deeds, meaning its degree and intensity. The main culprit here is of course Harvey Weinstein who exploited women by using and wielding his power and authority in the movie industry. And many other celebrities fell in the wake of him.

Yet the problem lies in the fact that everyone is suddenly judged retroactively about their behavior. For example, in the past (and in some cultures still today) many deeds and actions were accepted or simply ignored, such as whistling at women or making inappropriate comments towards them. I do not condone that, but evidently, these deeds are not as serious and damaging as rape and sexual assault, which are crimes no matter where you are. However, during the zealous swirl (I am careful not to use the word hysteria) of the Me Too movement, everybody was thrown into the same pot or under the same bus; whether they had engaged in misdemeanors or crimes, it did not matter or the general public did not differentiate much.

Case in point is Morgan Freeman. He is or rather used to be well-loved and respected. There was hardly a blemish on his track record until news surfaced of sexist language he used towards females alongside inappropriate behavior, such as attempts at lifting skirts. Suddenly everybody started attacking him and his reputation took a great hit for things he had said and done in the past. 

Sure, what he did was wrong, and he did apologize, but the harm was done. But he is not a Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or a Kevin Spacey for that matter. He is like many others and he engaged in what was or used to be generally accepted in this macho culture. The sitting president was excused for similar behavior referring to it all as typical locker-room banter, while Morgan Freeman was evidently not.

Another thing we tend to overlook is that celebrities are merely doing their job and those who are good, good-looking and / or simply lucky can also gain handsomely in the process. But it is, at the end of the day, a job and not much more. So you cannot expect an actor playing a doctor on television to operate people in real life, nor hire Perry Mason to take your criminal case or Inspector Colombo to solve a crime (replace them with more younger and hipper models and examples, if you wish). Nor can we assume (far from it!) that Bill Cosby is a good father or human being despite his projected image of a loving and caring person. These are roles that often do not correspond with reality.

We still buy it though. We even expect a golf player to act with moral standards even though they are just athletes who are good at their given sports. That is all. They are no role models, nor do they have the responsibility of being one. Rock musicians have it easier because we expect them to behave badly and when they do not, we get disappointed. Yes, Tiger Woods would have made a great rock star, but he (unfortunately?) chose golf instead and was then blamed for his actions.

There is a distinct form of hypocrisy at play here. We expect our celebrities to be who we think them to be. We mold them with the aid of media and publicity into archetypal figures or figments of our imagination. As long as they play the role, we are content with them. The moment they assert their individuality and are not who we thought they were, we feel angry and reject them. In these cases, it may be about them, but it also says a lot about us and our attitudes towards ourselves and others.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Quantum Metaphor for Life and Sciences

Two ways of seeing reality in a restaurant window
        Pasta or Pizza?
We can probably all relate to the following experience: There are five minutes left in a sports game (soccer, hockey, what-have-you) and your favorite team is ahead by a goal. 

You are anxiously looking at the clock hoping that your team is going to pull through with a win. A lot can happen in that five-minute interval, so you hold your breath. The seconds winding down feel like an eternity, and you wish you could move their hands more quickly to end the game and secure the much-desired win!

Now let’s switch and flip around the whole experience for argument’s sake. There are still five minutes left in the game, yet in this scenario your favorite team is behind a goal. 

Now anything can happen in that time interval as well, but the problem is five minutes that seemed an eternity in the first case now are flowing and flying by much too fast. You do not want to speed up time but would like to grab and tie its hands and stop it from moving further so that your team will be given enough time to score that essential and vital equalizing goal!

The constant of both situations is the time interval. In each case, we are allotting the same amount of time. Although time is relative, as suggested and proven by Einstein, it is still quite relatively constant and the same (at least on planet Earth) whether you are cheering for Team A or Team B. The only difference lies in our perception of time.

This, of course, is not merely limited to sports events. As a rule, any event that thrills us or brings us joy will make time fly and go too fast for our intents and purposes, whereas dreaded events seem to move at a painstakingly slow pace. The boring class that seemingly will never end; the work shift that is taking an eternity to wrap up and finish. In either case, objectively we are faced with the same amount and length of time, but subjectively, we experience time quite differently.

Yet our scientific view of things demands us to be objective in our observations. We say that regardless of the personal experience of time, the data that can be measured is exactly the same / identical for each scenario. That is a fact.

In the same vein, science needs quantifiable information: Today’s temperature of the weather is 25 degrees Celsius (or its equivalent 77 degrees in Fahrenheit). That may feel warm to you if you live in cooler climates or feel cool to you when you are accustomed to living in warmer and more tropical regions. Yet the exact measurable degree gives us and sets a benchmark to gauge the level of heat at that moment in time.

Or does it? This may take us to the medical sciences. There we have a disease that can be objectively diagnosed through specific tests, be it a blood test, urine sample or an X-ray. Based on the evidence, a person either has a disease or not. A doctor unlike an economist or even weather forecaster is not there to speculate nor to give us odds and probabilities whether a patient has a disease or not. We need scientific data or proof to corroborate the diagnosis.

The problem with this is that a given disease may be the same, but the personal experience of the disease is going to be quite different. Put differently, if a hundred persons have the exact same disease, its impact - that is the amount and strength of suffering, affliction, pain threshold etc. - is going to vary - at times rather substantially - from person to person and case to case. This experience, namely how ill the disease makes a person feel, is referred to as illness.

There are people who have a certain disease, but are not aware of it as they do not feel unwell, while others react to it rather strongly. This may depend on many factors, including the genetic, physical, and psychological make-up, the person’s life experiences as well as their ethnic and cultural background. No two people are ever alike, and their response to medication and treatment will also vary, which is why even medical sciences cannot always give us the clear quantifiable data we would like to obtain.

To complicate matters, there are many cases that are deemed functional neurological disorders or are diagnosed as conversion disorders, which are rather psychosomatic ailments that do not correspond nor can be traced to an organic cause.

People may suffer from pain or even paralysis in parts of their body without having a physical cause; rather their illness is stemming from often subconscious psychological issues or trauma. The book It’s All in your Head by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, which has also graciously and inadvertently provided some of the background medical information of my post here, gives insightful and detailed explanations of such cases.

But for our intents and purposes, we want to suggest and highlight that certain scientific data should be taken with a grain of salt. I am not saying that we should consider the clearly ludicrous notion that the earth is flat (it is not). But in the past, learned people claimed with stern conviction that this was so, and they have been later proven wrong with science. Now this shows us that supposed certainty does not necessarily mean that one’s view is or will continue to be correct.

No better way to prove this than with quantum mechanics. Suddenly, we are faced with dilemmas in which our regular understanding of the world is shredded and falls to pieces. Is Schrödinger’s cat dead? Yes. But can it be alive? Yes. Is it possible for it to be both alive and dead at the same time? Um, yes, it could be in a zombie state until the box is opened, which is the only time we would know for sure. Are you sure about that? Absolutely.

This is a time where objectivity does not give us the distance that we need to define and verify events. Light can be both a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it; it is not an issue of P or not-P, but it can be both at the same time! In this case, the subject becomes so involved and enmeshed with the object itself that one cannot simply be without the other! Put differently, they are as interconnected and intricately linked with each other as space is with time in the indivisible form of space-time, which, after all, happens to be not linear but curved.

In these instances, our logic seems to go out the window, and we may come to the uncomfortable realization that time and everything else for that matter is nothing but an illusion. The objects and colors we perceive then are nothing but atoms that move sometimes more or sometimes less quickly. The absolute kind of truth that we expect of Newtonian physics as well as the razor-sharp stiletto of logic will have to take a backseat for a moment due to the discoveries of the uncertainty principle since electrons and atoms disregard those rules and laws.

But there is a way out of this entangled mess. As humans we have always been prone to adapt to our surroundings and as humble and open-minded scientists we are generally quick to assimilate and respond to constantly changing circumstances. This does not mean that our previous scientific knowledge and discoveries are wrong (they are not) but there is still a factor we have been queasy about and that is the element of subjectivity.

Any human being no matter how well-trained and accomplished cannot escape their own subjective viewpoints and biases. And let us not treat it as a negative thing but actually embrace it. Let us rethink science and not see it as distancing the object from the subject but combine both in a mystical dance, where I lose myself in the flower I am contemplating and examining, and I am the flower and the flower is me.

Let us use our subjective capacity and empathy to identify ourselves with the object in question instead of carefully extricating and distancing ourselves from it. Let us consider - as it has been occurring in psychology – the person that comes to consult the therapist less as a patient but more as a client or agent who can benefit from the doctor’s knowledge, the same way the doctor can benefit from this interdependent interaction.

This is what could be called the Quantum metaphor. One can apply this mystical uncertain certainty as a union between object and subject, interior and exterior, self and not-self to create a new perspective or paradigm of the world around us.

It can be applied to anything from sciences, philosophy, politics to religion as well as daily life. When there is no definite yes-or-no answer or truth, one can see the world with different eyes. There is no good or evil per se but often changing circumstances. An immoral act of stealing or lying may be justifiable and even commendable in certain situations.

Let us listen to the other, our supposed enemy or threat and see them not in the biased and one-sided Us vs Them mentality, but let us notice the common ground that we share despite our perceived differences. Yes, we can have a love-hate relationship with someone and that is not necessarily a contradiction in and of itself.

I am not merely saying that one should inundate oneself with positive thinking. This is not merely a glass half-full, half-empty metaphor. In fact, positive thinking can do us more harm than good in some cases. Nor am I talking about pure rationalism that would justify philosophical trends like utilitarianism where the benefit of the majority supposedly can override the suffering of the few.

The quantum metaphor would simply allow us to think of the world less in a divisive way; it is not just about me versus them or my self versus the external world but rather a unity where both joyously complement each other, where harm to my neighbor will, in return, harm me as well. The quantum metaphor would also help us curb our hubris and overreaching ambition in which we may allow ourselves not only to be wrong on certain matters, but to even contradict ourselves and our stern principles when the situation requires us to do so.

To exemplify this in another way, let us look at language and experience. For example, anxiety is something we try to avoid as we see it as a negative emotion and experience. But we would be wrong to do so. 

Anxiety not unlike pain is giving us signals that something is up and that this something needs our attention. It points us towards a problem or issue that exists within us. Instead of avoiding it, we should embrace it and follow it and see where it leads us, the same way we do not ignore pain as it is alerting us to fix a health issue in our body.

Equally, the adjective anxious can be perceived in two contradictory manners. I can feel anxious in its negative nervous sense or I can be anxious for something to happen as an expected thrill or as a sudden rush and onset of emotions. Or I can simply be anxious for my team to win with only five more minutes left in the game.