Friday, October 30, 2009

Kilroy Café #56: "Boundaries: Your Defense Against Chaos"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.


Your Defense Against Chaos


An essential dilemma of life is figuring out where your own personal responsibilities begin and end. No matter what resources you have, they are never enough to address all the needs around you, so you have to decide which problems are "yours" and which are not. The place you draw this line is called a boundary.

If my own life is at risk, that's certainly my problem. If someone else's life is a risk—a stranger I have no connection with—it's not my problem. I may be able to sympathize, but my resources are limited and I can't save everyone. If I try to do too much, then my own system will collapse and I'll be able to save no one. Therefore, I have to draw the line somewhere.

A boundary is a fenceline between yourself and the outside world. The health of what goes on inside the compound depends on how well you defend the fence. If you try to take on too much responsibility by letting too many problems come in, life inside the fence will eventually degenerate into chaos.

The problem of the underclass in a wealthy society like ours is not just the lack of resources but poor personal boundaries. The limited resources of an average family usually get absorbed by things that aren't related to core survival: pets, entertainment systems, drugs (legal or otherwise), friends who visit and never leave, etc. In fact, this is a problem of the upper classes as well. As soon as someone has more money or time than they need to survive, the fence of their compound usually expands to absorb those resources.

Intrusions into the fence are sneaky. If a stranger was breaking into your home, you would have no trouble defending your boundaries. You would call the police! However, if a relative lost his job and moved into your home, your defenses would be a lot weaker. When he has nowhere else to go, how do you tell him to leave? The real threat to our boundaries is situations where our emotions say we have no choice.

No one would turn away a starving child or a little lost puppy appearing on their doorstep, but what if there were hundreds of starving children or lost puppies? At what point do you close the gate and start refusing entry?

That, in fact, is the permanent state of the world: Needs will always far outstrip the resources available. Once you start caring about others, the problem is deciding where to stop. If you can't stop, then your compassion will eventually eat up everything you have.

Indeed, most people don't know how to stop. Regardless of their starting position, their responsibilities tend to expand until all their resources are absorbed. That's when chaos kicks in. When any system is over capacity, safety systems break down and catastrophe becomes the de facto defender of boundaries.

For example, if your family has ample resources, it is noble to take on a foster child, but if you take on ten foster children, the integrity of your household is going to deteriorate to the point where it is just as dysfunctional as the families those foster children came from. Yet, how can you turn away a child who desperately needs you? Knowing he may be lost forever if you don't help him, how can you refuse?

The answer is: You can and you must! Defending boundaries means looking into a cute little puppy's eyes and saying, "No," even if it means the puppy might suffer or die.

Every relationship involves boundaries. Certain things are my responsibility and other things are yours, and if the border between the two becomes blurred, our relationship will deteriorate. You can't help your child too much or you'll damage his incentive to help himself. You can't be too supportive of your spouse or you will become the crutch he habitually leans on. In even the most caring relationship, you have to carefully guard your fence and push back responsibilities whenever they intrude into your space.

To someone who is repulsed by a boundary, it will inevitably seem cruel and arbitrary, but an arbitrary line is better than none at all. Whenever possible, you should use natural borderlines and simple rules. For example, it is a lot easier to say "No dogs" than to say "Only one dog," because one dog will often open the door to others.

To prevent your own life from sliding into chaos, you have to actively define and defend the responsibilities you will let in. You can't be totally cold to the needs and suffering of others, but you also can't let your life be taken over by other people's problems.

Your main instruments in this world are your own body and mind, and your first priority is their health and maintenance. It is noble to help others, but only as long as your own core resources are protected. If the problems of others take too much out of you, you have to pull back and redraw your borders.

If you truly care about others, then your first responsibility is protecting yourself. You must define your island and what you can reasonably do on it, then defend it firmly against any new entanglements.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell.
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Stroud, Oklahoma.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kilroy Café #55: "Puffery! The Legal Way to Lie!"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.


The Legal Way to Lie!


To lie in a commercial transaction is illegal. That's called "fraud". However, it is not illegal to distort perceptions, misinterpret facts, overstate benefits or fail to disclose drawbacks of a certain product. That's called "puffery", which is constitutionally protected free speech.

We live in a world of puffery. It's everywhere! Whenever someone has something to sell us, puffery is probably in use. Over 99% of all advertising consists of it. We are told a product is NEW! Improved! Amazing! Legendary! We see the product being used by beautiful people (usually paid actors and models) who say it's wonderful. Puffery leads us to believe that the product can do more for us than it actually can, and such suggestions are perfectly legal because no one has technically misstated facts.

Take soda pop. It consists of water, sugar, caffeine, artificial flavor and carbon dioxide—a penny's worth of ingredients. Watching the advertising, though, you'd think consuming the product was an important lifestyle decision. You're imbibing "The Real Thing" or "The Taste of a New Generation". Sugar provides simply food energy; water replaces any that was lost, and caffeine temporarily stimulates nerve cells (depleting them later). Anything more you believe you are getting from the drink was planted in your head by puffery.

It becomes so natural to order a $2 soft drink with your meal that you don't even know your mind has been polluted. It's possible your whole life is enslaved to puffery! Perceived needs have been planted in your head by those who have something to gain, and you run around trying to serve these illusory goals as though they were real.

And puffery isn't limited to advertising. Anyone who is already emotionally invested in something probably wants to sell it to you. They tell you how great their own choices were, and if you're naïve you'll follow them.

What advertising is not puffery? There isn't much! One example is an airline ad that simply shows you a list of destinations and the lowest airfare available. That's the original form of advertising, as it first began. A merchant says: "I have this product to sell with these characteristics at this price." If you need the product, and the price is right, you'll buy.

Today, reasonably honest advertising, mostly free of puffery, can be found on eBay and Craig's List. Other honest advertising might be an impartial review in a neutral forum. But most mass-market advertising—the stuff that pollutes the environment around us—is not honest. It is focused on creating artificial needs where none previously existed or on distinguishing the product based on functionally insignificant factors. It's an exercise in image spin and fact distortion. Legal or not, it's all lies!

Does it matter that Britney Spears uses the product or appears in its ads? Of course not! She has been paid to do it! Yet, advertisers wouldn't pay the price if the ploy didn't work. Most people buy image, not function. It must be part of our genes!

Perhaps puffery is so powerful because modern culture consists of little else. Is there anything on television that isn't puffery? Is there anywhere you can go where puffery isn't the dominant public message? Religions use puffery in all the pomp of their rituals. Politicians are full of it! Entertainment is mostly puffery: It may occupy time, but it's not usually very satisfying because it rarely consists of more than self-promotion.

Certain rare art works are not puffery—a deep song, a meaningful movie—but you'll encounter only a few of these in a lifetime. A few products are indeed useful; they can save time or even save your life. All the rest is crap that continues to sell only because the puffery works.

Most people are happy to live a life of lies, fulfilling artificial needs that have been handed to them by others. Is that you? Are you a puffery addict, or do you care about function?

Function is what really works, what really serves your needs. The trouble is knowing what your needs truly are, and for this you must return to basic science. You conduct experiments. You collect data. You employ dispassionate logic to reach provisional conclusions. Advertising is irrelevant, because you know it's skewed in favor of the advertiser.

Puffery is legal because these lies are unenforceable. Advertising usually implies the lie rather than stating it. The only way to stop puffery is to defeat it in your head. "This guy has something to sell me, so I can't trust him!" To live well in your own unique world, you must conduct your own research and reach your own conclusions.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell.
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Written on a transcontinental flight. (Released from Las Vegas.)
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kilroy Café #54: "The Fallacy of 'Commitment'"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Fallacy of "Commitment"

Young people often mistake imprisonment for commitment. Commitment isn’t real if it is enforced by outside chains.


On the subject of marriage, a correspondent writes:

"Once someone marries, there is a high cost for divorce. Accordingly, one is willing to work harder to solve problems resulting in a better marriage via effort."

This is a big, fat fallacy, perhaps the most common one cited when young people get married or bind themselves to any extended contract. It's the equivalent of saying "I don't trust myself to do the right thing unless I am forced to."

If this were true, then we would always choose prison over freedom. Prison forces us into a single path, and, yes, we are going to have to make the most of that path, but that's still not better than having many paths available.

Indeed, there are many happily married people who have made their relationships work. The question is whether it's the hard-to-get-out-of element that makes it happen or something else?

Do you make your life better by locking yourself into a certain path and throwing away the key? Does lack of choice improve your life or make it worse?

The issue here is free will. Are you staying with your partner because they are the best one for you, because you are constantly testing the relationship and proving yourselves to each other every day, or are you staying together merely because the cost of breaking up is too high? In the first case, you are staying together freely; in the second, you are not free at all. You can't say for sure that your choice is best when you don't have a realistic option of choosing another.

Locking yourself up with someone is not the recipe for vibrancy, creativity or motivation. Instead, it's a plan for entrenchment. Battle lines will be drawn, and they won't budge for years. You'll learn to survive by recognizing fragile boundaries and never stepping over them. Over time, you inevitably become mutual enablers, carefully avoiding and thereby implicitly reinforcing each others' weaknesses and sensitivities.

The essence of any relationship is negotiation. Each partner is always struggling to get what they want from the other, and love alone can't solve anything. It would be nice to think you could talk every problem out, but with entrenched and emotionally driven behaviors (which we are all composed of) words just don't work. To get what you want, you also have to have an element of power at your disposal, including the ability to withdraw at will.

Everyone has "issues". Everyone has problems integrating themselves with the outside world, and these things are bound to interfere in a relationship. Let's say your partner drinks more than you'd like him to. If you are imprisoned with him, than you have little leverage to change his behavior. You probably have to accept it as it is.

If you are not imprisoned and are free to come and go, then you have more weapons at your disposal, including the ultimate one. You can say, "This behavior is too much for me; I have to pull away." Then your partner will either change or he won't, and the relationship will either last or it won't.

Is it frightening to know your relationship could dissolve at any time? Darn right! But that's the cost of freedom. Nothing is really solved by neutralizing choice and forcing people to remain together. Prison doesn't resolve problems as much as it pushes them underground, where they fester for years and may eventually explode.

The theory of the correspondent is that if it is painful to withdraw, you'll have to make the relationship work, but the way you'll probably do it is by accepting a mediocre relationship that is no longer growing.

People say they are getting married to express their love and commitment to each other, but really they are doing the opposite. Once you lock yourself in, love and commitment are no longer a choice but an obligation. Yes, married couples say they love each other. They say they wouldn't want it any other way, but how can they really know? It's more of a religious belief at that point. You believe because you have to believe, because the alternative is simply too painful.

Religion works for most people, but it's not the same as free-will choice. Face it, most relationships don't last forever, and you can't make the magic last simply by taking away future discretion.

Personal growth is, by definition, unpredictable. If you are truly alive you are bound to go through many unanticipated changes, and your partner may or may not be able to follow. By making it harder to withdraw from a relationship, you simply slow down growth for both of you, not encourage it.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell.
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Written in the library the University of Louisiana, Monroe.
(Released from the library at Western Piedmont Community College, Morganton, NC.)
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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kilroy Café #53: "Why Do You Believe?"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Why Do You Believe?
People believe what they need to believe to protect the value of their prior investments.


What makes someone a liberal or a conservative? Why do they believe in one religion and not another? Why do some people become vegans or lawyers or skiers or con artists? Why do they choose a certain spouse and stay with them? How do they choose their personal preferences? How do they know which sports team to root for?

If you ask someone why they believe something, they will usually give you rational-sounding reasons. "I am a liberal because X, Y and Z." They claim logic is their only guide. Alternatively, they may insist the decision was in the stars, and they present a mythology showing no other choice was possible.

But these are rationalizations, not true causes. Beliefs usually arise from emotion, not logic or fate. Beliefs are largely egotistical and self-serving. The "reasons" are assembled only later, after the belief has already been established by emotional necessity.

Both liberalism and conservatism have their strengths and weaknesses, their absurdities and excesses, and you can debate endlessly which one is right. If a person chooses one over the other, it's not because it is demonstrably "correct" but because their ego in some way benefits from this choice. They have already invested in a certain way of life and can't go back, so they tailor their beliefs to support this investment and make it seem heroic.

What really determines human belief? Two factors: (1) the quest for personal identity, and (2) the defense of one's prior investments.

The first trend tends to happen early in life. If your parents are conservative, you might embrace liberalism to distinguish yourself from them. You may also choose outrageous fashions, hobbies, behavior or body art to tweak your elders and define your own path.

Such defiance of convention can also happen later: A successful businessman who built his life on capitalism can vote liberal to show how independent and well-rounded he is. Both young and old are using their beliefs to say: "Look at me, I'm unique and special!"

The second motivation for belief is to maintain internal consistency. Whatever you have already done with your life, it needs to be defended or you will experience great emotional discomfort. "Is my whole life worthless?" you would ask if you fairly consider a contradictory belief, so you don't fairly consider any. If you have already committed yourself to a certain set of assumptions, your current beliefs are usually going to support this investment.

Due to the second factor, beliefs tend to be self-reinforcing over time. That's one of the reasons old people get stuck in their ways. You may choose a certain religion to be unique and annoy your elders, but once you start investing, you tend to retain the belief forever. You believe in your religion because you have already invested in it and you continue to invest because you believe.

For most people, beliefs change only when they smack hard into reality. If you believe you can fly and you jump off enough cliffs trying, eventually you might begin to see the error of your assumptions. On the other hand, each attempt to fly is in itself a costly investment. Instead of withdrawing, each failure may reinforce your resolve, leading you to repeat the behavior.

Belief can become a drug. Whatever people invest in at the beginning of their life is usually what they continue to believe for the remainder. It's an addiction they rarely escape from.

There is no sense is faulting humanity for this trait. Humans are matched only by dogs for their fierce loyalty to their clan, regardless of logic. It has always been true that people will defend the prevailing beliefs of whatever group they are invested in. "My country, right or wrong!" is as old as the hills.

But while it may be good for social cohesion, invested belief is a burden to one's personal problem solving. People who are heavily invested in certain belief systems may do well within the artificial protection of their clan, but they make poor decisions when presented with the complexities of the outside world.

Wise decisions do not arise from ideology. They depend more on assessing current conditions as they actually exist and fairly considering all the available options. An entrenched belief system blocks out many of those options and may prevent you from seeing the problem as it really is.

To protect the integrity of the decision-making process, you must eschew belief. Is that even possible? Never entirely, but you protect your discretion by avoiding situations where you have no choice but believe. If you remain lightly invested over time and return to a neutral base whenever possible, then you will be under less pressure to believe your own dogma.

Freedom is not just the ability to choose your own beliefs but also the privilege of not believing in anything. All that really matters is the decisions you make and how well they turn out.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell.
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Fort Stockton, Texas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.