On Compliments

...some of the most insidious, dogmatic ideologues are expert at presenting themselves as thoughtful, using the appearance of gentleness as a weapon.

On Compliments

I. Thank you for being here. First, a very necessary read:

Sam Thielman's "Protect Trans Kids" is urgent. He makes it abundantly clear that Texas establishing a "duty to report" parents of trans kids to the Department of Family and Protective Services is one of the cruelest things any government can do:

The “duty to report” classification is a serious one. Teachers, doctors, clergy, and attorneys, all licensed by the state of Texas, are emboldened under this regime to indulge any bigotry they might harbor toward trans kids and their parents. But it's even broader than that: Professionals who do not report parents of trans children risk a felony conviction—complete with a year in prison....

If children are removed from a parent’s care by the state, they are very difficult to get back from a system notorious for its extraordinary dysfunction. The DFPS is currently under investigation after extensive allegations of negligence and corruption. Twenty-three children have died in the care of the Department in the past three years. Another 24,000 children are currently in long-term care there.

It is true the ACLU won an injunction against this policy for the time being. But Thielman outlines the stakes, and my god. A culture is being built in which people en masse are enlisted to pull children away from their parents. The children will then be put in a system which is by all accounts horrible. I don't have much more to say, other than the obligatory "What would we say if we saw it happening in another country?"

More on this situation later. I'm thinking a lot about being in Texas, whether living here long term is a good idea.

Below, I've written a short essay which might demonstrate a damning ego. I've gotten called a "philosopher" various times in my life, and it is a title I hope to live up to. I thought it was worth musing about how that sort of compliment can work. How can high expectations help? When do they cause us to sink?

II. On Compliments

...I think of the letters I get: it's all so meaningless. Nothing's happened to anyone because of me; no one's given me any thought.
—Nietzsche to Peter Gast, 14 August 1881


This is a tricky topic to write about. I run the risk of sounding hopelessly arrogant. It is possible, of course, to be arrogant and useful. Some of the best teammates are both. However, I'm worried I'll put myself into a situation where I am considered completely lost. Too full of myself to see and respond to the needs of others, too navel-attentive to address my actual problems.

Why muse publicly, then? Well, for better or worse, we are the compliments we choose to keep. I have seen exactly how some abusive and negligent people define themselves. A hard worker who never missed an opportunity to tell someone they weren't doing their job. An innovator who couldn't respect what others were doing for their families. A self-made man who could never pay serious attention to anyone else.

More than three times, I've been called a "philosopher." A lover of wisdom. I am emboldened hearing it, and also feel like I've been given a gift that's too good. Colleagues and students ask when I'll produce a work with the structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, and I'll think they're joking, until it becomes obvious they're not. They see things differently because of what I shared and they want more of the experience. I'm left wondering if my intellectual commitments allow me to be a systematic thinker, or if I even have the focus and willpower to truly envision where ideas lead.

—For that matter, I don't dare think about Socrates, whose thought was as good as his word: "the unexamined life is not worth living," therefore I drink the hemlock.—


The first time I was called a philosopher, I was trying to fill a blog with content so people would click those spammy Google ads. I couldn't really write about American Idol or my favorite foods. But I was in graduate school, trying to sharpen my reading skills. I held, and still hold, that some authors don't want to immediately give away their best question or theme. They want you to make the effort to reconstruct the puzzle that led them where they are. Accordingly, I wrote on Lincoln, Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, and Emily Dickinson. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was part of a blogging community that also wanted to make money, and they were really encouraging. A few started imitating me—one wrote on a novella, another on poetry, some on film.

Eventually, we were prompted to give each other superlatives. Like high school. A lot of people praised each other for fostering community, for being encouraging and helpful. Others were cited for humor, starting conversation, and knowledge. I got "philosopher," and the person giving it knew what she was doing. She not only distinguished my writing from the community, but saw what distinguished it generally. And so there I was, a grad student who couldn't write a decent paper or pass Greek class. I was a philosopher nonetheless. Somehow, people were thinking.

Nowadays, I understand her judgment better. The rage clickbait from no less than The New York Times and authoritarian propaganda from Substack are slick. They play with ideas, big-sounding ones. My writing then was much more corny and moralistic compared to now. But the questions and sincerity were there, along with the habit of developing a thought rather than outright arguing. I was looking for how ideas worked, despite myself.


The next two times I heard the term were not entirely complimentary. I was called "Socrates" because other graduate students and faculty wondered who was helping their undergraduates say brilliant things during class. I received the same name in a graduate seminar where I consistently showed how the ancients and moderns could be talking past each other. I did this not by being the annoying guy raising his hand and talking over everyone, but by making conversation in class, speaking to the deeper points my colleagues raised, and getting them talking at length. "Socrates," as a friend told me about my reputation, was meant in the fullest sense. They thought highly of me, and they also saw I was slob. I wasn't in good shape then, to be honest, as I wasn't doing much right other than learning.

And then I didn't hear the word for years. Not until students started getting passionate about books they hadn't planned on reading. Not until colleagues started asking me for feedback on projects they consider their life's work.

I don't think I've earned the title "philosopher," but something special has been happening at times, and I want to be more.


Isabella Mori gave me this beautiful haiku she wrote for my birthday, and I've been reflecting on it:

philosopher's thought...
a gentle glint of sun
on the oak tree

At this stage of life, I find this speaking symbolically. Twenty years ago, I was an ideologue. That isn't totally irreconcilable with philosophy: a philosopher must stand for something. But some of the most insidious, dogmatic ideologues are expert at presenting themselves as thoughtful, using the appearance of gentleness as a weapon.

With that in mind, I want to attend to "a gentle glint of sun / on the oak tree." Can this be reconciled with Marx's "the philosophers have only interpreted the world... the point is to change it"? Or, following a suggestion by way of Nietzsche, that the philosopher is the conscience of his time? I'm not wise, but I'm older, and experience can teach you about wisdom if you're open to it. There is a gentle character to wisdom which accompanies even more radical claims.

You can somewhat see it by tracking how your insight changes.  I remember thinking when I was young that self-help and tips for organizing were the greatest things in the world. Later, I didn't want to let go of a book unless I was seeing the world differently because of it. Now, when someone speaks, I want to learn everything they could possibly mean. Not "the tea," but how they grapple with the stakes of a situation, how they approach the realized and unrealized.

Maybe these sorts of changes can be summed up in a few words. Trying for "deeply listening," say, or "making knowledge personal." But I like the image of a "gentle glint" on the oak tree. A little bit of natural light decorates a living, growing being. You don't necessarily get insight into how it works. The famous example describing teleology, "the acorn becomes the mighty oak," probably isn't in play. Rather, the tree shines, and maybe a part of it can be seen more closely, as if another world were hiding there.