There are broadly two ways of thinking of philosophy. On one view, it is primarily concerned with beliefs: what to believe about the world, what justifies those beliefs and so on. On another view, it also involves actions: how we should act, the means of changing our actions and building new habits.
The belief oriented philosophy can be very diverse: the beliefs can concern logic, ethics, art, mind, etc.
The action oriented philosophy can be very diverse as well. For some, like Peter Singer, the aim of their philosophy is to change social structures. In Singer’s case, how we treat animals and the planet. For others, the action at issue is more explicitly political. As famously with Marx, but also with any number of other social issues like racism and so on. For yet others, the action at issue is more personal, changing one’s personal habits and modes of life to free oneself from illusions and to achieve a more peaceful, mindful life.
Is one of these the right view of philosophy? I doubt it. There is no the conception of philosophy. These different conceptions overlap and diverge in various ways, because after all beliefs and actions are connected. It is not a matter of which is right, but which part of the vast fabric of philosophy one is drawn to.
Right now I am most drawn to the personal transformation vision of philosophy. To changing my own habits.
This can seem puzzling. I am often puzzled by it myself. There is a possible new civil war in the air in America. There are huge problems like global warming and big technology changes. We are in the middle of a pandemic. And yet I find my creative and intellectual energies focused on how I eat ice cream while watching movies. What? How could this be so important? It sounds silly almost. But it is also the best thing I can do right now for myself.
I can only help myself and the world if I am not living into a fantasy reality. That doesn’t have to take the form of addiction to drugs, alcohol or violence. Those are clear cases, but normally people live into different fantasies in many more mundane ways. For me ice cream and movies is one of those mundane but significant ways.
In high school I would come home at 2:30 when school ended. My parents would come home around 6. Often in that in between time I would watch tv and do homework or sleep or listen to sports radio. But sometimes, maybe once a week or so, I would go to the library to get a movie and then stop by McDonalds to get a Bic Mac meal and a hot fudge sundae. I would put in the movie, eat the food and vicariously immerse myself into the America symbolized by the Hollywood movie and McDonalds. The Hollywood images and the sugar rush merged into a delirium of Americana.
For my school friends life after 2:30 was a time of exploring their social life as teenagers. Playing sports or hanging out, going to the mall, spending time with their boyfriend or girlfriend and so on. All of this seemed unenterable to me. Not only were the social habits unfamiliar to them, but I couldn’t understand how to reconcile them with the habits I had as a son, grandson, nephew and so on. Family life was loving and supportive, but it didn’t offer a guide of how to grow into a world which was even more alien to my parents, grandmother and uncles and aunts than it was to me.
So with the movies and the ice cream I entered into a side reality of how I was American. In school I was still reticent and the nice, Indian kid who got good grades and was well behaved, and didn’t curse or date, and kept to himself. But in my afternoon movie and food binges, my mind found its release into an American world which it could enter without disrupting my Indian side. If I wanted to date or tell my parents I want to go to the mall on Friday nights to just hang out, that threated to undo my own self identity as a son. Not that my parents might have objected; they might have objected to the dating, probably not to the mall, though in my broader family’s consciousness, American teenage social life was all of a piece tied up with dating. But it was not my parents’ or my grandmother’s wishes which stopped me. It was as much my own sense of myself as an Indian. I didn’t want to let go of that. American movies and American food typified to me by McDonalds and ice cream offered a side entry into America. Or so I thought. What it was actually doing was offering an entry into a side America – one which existed mainly in my mind.
It was about this same time that in the evenings I started talking to my father about philosophy. It was a different kind of binge and a different attempt to balance the Indian and American sides. It only occurred to me many years later that those philosophy conversations were for my father partly his way of balancing his Indian and American selves under a universal philosophy. His philosophical expression after his marriage had been more latent in India. But it burst to the forefront of his consciousness, and thereby into our nuclear family life, in America, as he had to work out for himself which parts of his thinking were parochially Indian and which parts could be transferred into his American life, and so were more universal.
This was part of the appeal of those philosophy conversations for me. Immigration, America and India were never mentioned as such. We didn’t talk about my father’s work or about my school life. But these were very much in the air for me, and I think also for him, though perhaps more unconsciously for him. We were talking effectively about these topics because the central issue of the conversations was identity. Who am I? What is my nature? What is reality? What is illusion? What is Dharma? What is my dharma? Does it change by context or is it immutable?
The grip of these conversations on me was all the more intense because we weren’t talking about immigration directly. The conversation was so universal in its aims that it felt like we might have had the exact same conversation in the exact same way even if we had stayed in India. That was a powerful feeling, like it was a window both into the Indian life I had lost and also into a deeper reality which was the same whether we stayed in India or came to America. More than anything, the conversations to me were opening up a reality that I felt I could actually live into, one not filled with the contrasts of Indian and American habits and identities, but which could synthesize the two into a broader identity and framework.
I don’t think my parents knew much about my afternoon movie and McDonalds binges. Even if they did, they might not have thought too much of it. But in retrospect I see that the afternoon side America binges and the evening philosophy conversations morphed in my mind into a single, transcendent reality, which held for me the contours of my growth and my future.
As high school was ending, I became less interested in “normal” America and developing a normal social identity and career in that America. After all, that America was not one I was familiar with, nor saw as my own. For me America was the space of my movie and ice cream afternoons – it was not a physical space, as much as it was a digital space, in the land of the movies, grounded in the very particular physical and gastronomical reality of McDonalds.
The America I was growing into in my mind was a side America defined mainly not by the habits I was inculcated into in the prim and proper spaces of the classes in my high school, but was one defined by the magical, hyper violent and hyper sexualized reality of Hollywood movies.
American heroes strapped on big guns and killed terrorists and aliens – all the while joking and talking to each other in their American way. Romance wasn’t something to be explored by who in my school I would ask out, but whether I liked Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts more. Sexuality wasn’t something to do with having children or sharing love, but was about sex scenes to be mesmerized by in movies like Basic Instinct. None of this felt unreal to me, as if the violence and the sex were cartoon versions of what adult human life is actually like. Bollywood movies were fantasy – that seemed clear with their giant mansions and hyper melodrama. But Hollywood movies seemed to reflect not a fantasy America, but a truer America, one which lies underneath and behind the surface normalness. I didn’t realize the way Hollywood movies were a different kind of fantasy.
It was only in the last few years, with the rise of Trumpism, that I started to realize that the side America that I grew into as an immigrant is similar to the kind of America many Americans who were born here had also grown into. I thought I had to think of America in terms of movies and McDonalds and ice cream because as an immigrant I couldn’t relate to the actual physical America in which many of my white friends moved.
But recently I stared to think that actually for many Americans their sense of America was derived just as mine was in those afternoons: through TV and fast food. That amazingly this was true even for some rich Americans like Trump. His surrounding himself with McDonalds food wasn’t a ploy to get poor Americans to like him; it was how he saw America himself. For many of them, as for me, America was first and foremost a digital reality – defined by TV and movies, and the food they would eat while watching the shows. Only whereas I accepted the digital reality as a side reality to which I was confined as an immigrant, they are seeking to impose that side reality as the main reality, as something they are entitled to as Americans.
For me the philosophy conversations and the afternoon movies and food merged into a single world of America as was to me – what it meant most viscerally and personally for me. It was a synthesis of abstract ideas, visceral images and the “earth” element of food. The three in due time merged into a kind of whole such that they were inseparable for me.
Even when I was in college and grad school, philosophy, watching movies and eating American food went hand in hand. In college I would often go to the dining hall when it opened at 5 for dinner, and stay there till it closed at 9, reading and doing my homework while eating. I had friends and would often eat with them. But for the most part I felt grounded to the environment not through those interactions with friends, which often felt like a haze to me, but through the food I could now eat just like an American and which was arranged in a buffet in the dining hall: burgers, pasta, lasagna, pizza, chicken nuggets, burritos, unlimited supply of soft drinks, cakes, ice creams.
Of course, I couldn’t eat all these in any given day, but they were structuring my life in a way that felt visceral and immediate. Pizza nights on monday, burgers on tuesday, mexican food on wednesday, and so on. To most other students the food was a background to their social lives and experiences. For me the food was the main way I experienced being connected to my surroundings and to feel in fact that I was connected – that I wasn’t just a brain in a vat thinking, but was rooted to the environment. For the most part, I lacked and didn’t cultivate this connection through social relationships – the monk self identity thwarted that. Rather, I was like that familiar concept of the gluttonous monk. The food was a way to make up for the gap I felt socially.
In high school I was thin. By mid way through college I was developing the body which has continued: a little overweight, and forever trying – sort of, in my mind – to lose that weight, but without giving up the “American” food and ice cream which felt like my mode of being an American (of course, Indian food with its carbs and sugar has its own effects). It was only when I started dating my wife to be half way through grad school that the idea that not all Americans eat McDonalds really sunk in. For me McDonalds was high end food, because it was American and America is high end. For my wife, growing up in Berkeley and at the time a health food fanatic, McDonalds was barely food.
The pattern continued in grad school. I no longer had the meal plan and so no more buffets. Now reading and writing was done in pizza shops, burrito places, diners, sub shops – and also, like others, in coffee shops with coffee and a croissant or a muffin to keep the ideas flowing. The theme was the same: thinking and food were united, inseparable. Some fellow grad students would think while smoking; others while being a bar for hours, drinking. For me it was food and movies. I would often head off to a movie theater to watch a couple of movies at a time, or else back to my apartment to watch a movie on my laptop while eating. When I was a professor, the local cookie and ice cream was a regular stop, once every couple of days.
The pattern is consistent: the food was not something set apart from my intellectual life, but was an integral part of it. Not in the crazy sense that what I ate determined what I thought, as in I believed in free will when I ate pizza, but believed in determinism when I ate pasta. Rather, it was more like the food was the fuel on which the engine of my mind functioned. More than in the obvious sense in which this is true, but in that without the particular food and the sugar, my mind felt foggy and lost. What I lacked socially – and in terms of my identification with academic philosophy – I was making up even as a professors, as I did in high school, through the food and the movies.
This is one reason I don’t believe what is mainly motivating most Trump supporters is racism. Yes, racism is a part. But there is for his supporters an appeal which is independent of race. It has to do with their nexus of ideas-images-food. Trumpism, social media and fast food. And guns. This is also why some immigrants find Trumpism a natural home: they find the digital, mythologized America, and the land of barbeques and burgers and steak and Bud Light, fits more their image of the America they came to partake of than the America of vegan food and spinach shakes, independent films and museums.
Of course, there is nothing wrong as such with movies. They are great. I love them. Same with ice cream. McDonalds is perhaps less straight-forward, and for some time now I stopped eating it.
But sometimes I get into the mode of eating ice cream with watching a movie, as it were creating a little me-time away from the bustle of house work and child care, and I have noticed that inevitably these me-time moments, while in the moment giving a rush, usually end up reinforcing a pattern of feeling disengaged from the broader society.
In a way that makes sense. The ice cream-movie binge mode of being is tied up with the feeling that I can only partake of American on the side. As if my normal, daily interaction with my wife and daughter, with my family and with my work, with my neighbors and with the broader issues in America – as if all that isn’t enough to ground me, and that still, as in high school, I can still only enter America through the side gate and vicariously through movies and the sugar rush which makes me lose myself into the movie. But time has gone by and my life has changed. I have grown, and grown into being an American as I am. I don’t have to look to movies or books or social media or politics to know whether and how to be an American. I am American as I am, as is every American.
Ultimately, I want to give up the need for the ice cream-movie binges because they perpetuate the feeling I am somehow not good enough on my own, without them. That I need the soothing, mind-numbing sugar high and the movie fantasies to feel connected to the world around me. I need to free myself of this crutch because I see that it is exactly this kind of crutch which is hurtling American towards domestic terrorism and a cultural civil war, and which is also limiting my own development.
The way I have been in the grips of a fantasy America through movies and food, so too many Americans are now. It will not help to keep calling them racist, or bad or stupid. It will not help to say that they simply have to change to catch up with the times. Like I have been holding onto a fantasy, fueled by getting lost in movies and food that is bad for me, so too they are holding to a fantasy fueled in a similar way. In fact, now turbo fueled by social media. And they are fighting hard to hold on to that fantasy. They are open to conspiracy theories and make believe journalism because they don’t want to give up the fantasy. They are convinced they are the ones in touch with reality and the others are the delusional ones.
The reason they are drawn to the fantasy is because they feel bad about themselves and feel they are not good enough in the eyes of the now changing America. They prefer the fantasy just as I preferred the fantasy over cultivating relationships in high school and college – for the new relationships seemed too hard and too impossible. The productive way to respond to this isn’t to reinforce their already felt fear that they are not good enough, for that will only drive them deeper into the fantasy. The hard work is to reach out to them to say they are good as they are without the fantasy, so that they will feel less need for the fantasy. Obviously it is hard to say that to someone pointing a gun at you.
That is a challenge America faces as a country, just as other countries do in their own. In America there are tens of millions of people who prefer the fantasy world over a shared reality. We cannot just wage war on them, even if they are egging it on, or just put them all in jail. Some form of an attempt to connect with them as people is crucial, to meet them where they are emotionally and intellectual without just agreeing with them. To find ways to show them their humanity is respected without buying into the binary terms in which they are thinking.
This cannot be done merely from a stance of us telling them what is real and what is fantasy. For people don’t respond to assertions. They respond to actions. They respond when they can see others – people with whom they disagree – themselves working through and trying to give up their own fantasies. Based on their own entrenched habits of life, of how they engage with social media, or watch movies or how they deal with their own addictions to food or painkillers or pornography or violence.
We are not in a space of the usual marketplace of ideas: people calmly debating ideas in suits and across tables. Nor do the familiar modes of political change – of petitions and marches and protests – speak to how people can talk to each other across information bubbles. Both Trump supporters and their critics believe that what we are dealing with is a mass mental health crisis: each side feels the other side is not just wrong or just being blasé, but that they are being delusional.
I am not suggesting both sides are equally right; I don’t think that. But my point is that the terms of the engagement on both sides are squarely in the language of mental health crisis. Many Trump supporters thinks their opponents are pedophile, sex traffickers who have lost grip on reality. Many Trump critics think their opponents are delusional narcissists who can’t accept reality. Given that, simply yelling at the other side or trying to morally shame them is just the unhelpful way to proceed. To say someone is delusional doesn’t mean I can then feel justified to say they are dumb. If I genuinely believe they are delusional, then that has to change the way I relate to them, of how I can’t just expect them to understand me through their delusion, but of how I might have to enter their delusion and help guide them out of it – the way mental health professional do everyday.
The anger in the air of our public discourse is like the anger of someone who doesn’t want to deal with their family member’s mental health issues. One can feel, “Damn him, he has to get his act together. I am too busy to deal with this crap!” Similarly I think a lot of people feel Trump supporters don’t deserve more attention, more understanding. The thought goes: “Damn it, they are just whining. We have racial justice to deal with. Global warming. The pandemic. Economic inequality. We are busy and don’t have time to deal with your neurosis. Get yourself together and shape up – just accept that you are racist and sexist and the problem, so we can move forward!”
I can feel the grip of this thought. But the thing is, it’s totally counter productive. It is a form of venting and not a solution. It is also a way to bury one’s head in the sand and assume that the way change happened fifty years ago still works.
The mental health issues we are facing are in part a result of the new social dynamics unleashed by the changing technology and social media. That means the mental health issues are not a side issue we can ignore while we address the main problems. Given that the changing technological landscape and its effects on the human mind and our modes of interaction and forms of identity is central to our life moving forward, we have to deal constructively with the negative mental effects of this landscape even as we want to use it to deal with economic justice and climate change. To do that we have to be open to the ways in which we ourselves are pulled into fantasies and delusional ways of thinking, and how we might have to change our lives, even at the granular level of entertainment and food.
Now when I am eating ice cream in a mindless way watching an action movie, I am left to wonder: is this simply a form of relaxation for me, or is it part of a broader pattern, in my life and also in our society, which cascades down the line and contributes to our social unrest? A part of me wishes the former is true so I can just go back to my ice cream and movie. But another part of me senses the latter is true and that what feels like mere relaxation is anything but. That perhaps I need deeper ways of relaxation which don’t simply cover over hard things in a haze of entertainment, but which helps me sit with and cultivate mindful awareness of those hard things so I don’t unconsciously act out of them.