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Peter Holstein

Peter and I met at the “Hometown” Coffee and Juice in Glencoe for a coffee and a conversation.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I live in Glencoe, Illinois. Married for 30 years, have 2 kids, 2 dogs, a bunch of fish. I lived too much of my life here, although I lived in other places, and overseas for a while. I’m an investor. I invest in companies and people, and real estate, and things that are potentially rewarding. I practice yoga and meditate, I was a marathoner till 2 years ago, then I decided that I wanted to keep my knees and my hips the rest of my life, so now I like to walk. I like to travel, I’m an avid reader, I probably read 75 books a year.

What is philosophy for you?

To me it means an objective consideration of questions and concepts that may or may not be fully knowable. Things like what’s the nature of knowing and what’s the nature of existence or what does it mean to have a conscious thought. I think it’s something that people are in contact with much more than they realize, they just don’t know how to articulate it. I think it’s a pretty relevant and topical thing, it’s just expresses itself differently now.

For the ancient Greeks philosophy was the love of wisdom, what is wisdom for you?

To me wisdom is knowledge gained through experience. As opposed to knowledge in concepts that you can be taught, or you can study but you may not actually experience. Wisdom to me convocates age.

In what way you are wiser now than you were 10 years ago?

I’m much more patient, which to me is one of the leaves on the tree of wisdom.

It’s something I had to learn.

I’m much more appreciative of the fact that many things that feel like crises really are not. The arc of history is long and it bends slowly, and the fact that so and so said such and such really isn’t that important at any given moment in time.

How did you learn that?

I started thinking about things over a longer time frame. Someone said it takes three generations to change minds. When you think about the fact that that’s 80-100 years and the things that change are most often incremental, it takes many many many incremental changes to arrive at something a historian might call a significant change. When you start thinking about it in that time frame, things don’t happen overnight, they happen over lifetimes.

What kind of change would you like to see in our society?

We have a tremendously unreconciled conflict in this country over race, and it’s a 300 year old tension that has yet to work itself out. And it went through a bloody rendition a 170 years ago, and it still percolates, and I still think it’s much more prevalent in people’s everyday thinking than people would like to recognize. It’s easy to comfort yourself by saying “I’m not racially aware” or “I don’t care about racial tensions” or to think things are better than they ever were, but I don’t think that’s the case, because we have too many excuses we can tell ourselves, and collectively we’re all suffering from this.

We don’t have something external that we can point to for guidance, so we look inside ourselves.

We need to acknowledge that it is a continuing issue, and try to find ways to open every conversation with an admission that it is a problem, and the default is that there is prejudice, and that there is a presumption in both directions, because to me if you clarify the context when you open the conversation it’s easier to have the conversation. Assuming somebody wants to. If just the very fact of acknowledging it provokes anger, then you’re not ready to converse. But you can’t keep pretending it’s not present every time there’s a conversation across racial boundaries, I think that’s naïve.

What can we do as individuals?

Explore it. Yes, there’s a difference between book knowledge and real knowledge, but you can see a problem from someone else’s perspective if you pick up a book and read about it, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, there are a lot of ways into someone else’s head about it.

Why do you think civic participation is important? And why people are not participating?

It's important because you don't know when it’s going to be important, meaning, at some point it may matter, and you can't step away from it and then rush back in after it matters. So you just have to be there, and be attentive to it, engage with it continually.

Why are people not participating? Sense of futility and a sense of “my status quo is adequate” so I don't need to take time to participate, and the problem with the latter is you don't know when it's going to change, but you missed your opportunity to have a voice and people with policies that would address that change. And the former, futility, is a combination of things such as distraction…

What kind of distraction?

It could be technological; it could be a lack of common knowledge or constructive knowledge to spend time contemplating things that might not feel immediate but might be long-term.

Distraction from what?

Distraction from the present moment.

There are things going on in the world today, some of them have no long-term consequences, some of them may, and you can’t filter them as an individual in 90 seconds of a headline. You have to gather some information, sit back, and say “how do I feel about this, and this is relevant to me in the following ways”, and then decide if you want to do anything about it.

You said you’re an avid reader. What does the experience of reading books mean to you?

I read probably 75% fiction 25% nonfiction. Within the 75% of fiction probably half is science fiction. It's speculative fiction, people often call it science fiction but it's really not. And the other stuff that I like is alternative historical fiction - what if the Nazis have prevailed, what if we didn't make the moon landing and so on. The best example is Ray Bradbury’s short story from the 50's called “A Sound of Thunder”. You would know it as the butterfly effect. A minor miracle in the story is that time travel has been invented, so it's a couple of guys and their business where they take people back in time to hunt dinosaurs. And the one condition is that there's a floating path that you walk on to shoot a dinosaur, and you only shoot dinosaurs they know are about to die, so they take you back the moment before they would have naturally died. And then on one trip a guy slips off the track and crashes a butterfly and they go back to contemporary times and things have changed.

That’s a form of philosophical training, because you're taking everyday facts and you lay another framework onto them. It does not necessarily lead to deep questions, but it can.

In the last few years I read two or three things about civility and civil discourse. There's a philosophy professor in John Hopkins (P. M. Ferni) and he runs an institute on civility, and he wrote 25 rules on how to be civil in everyday life. Within his department he has an ongoing project to disseminate this knowledge.

Everybody likes to say they're having their Me Too moment. It happens to be in relationship to gender discrimination and/or sexual harassment but I joke that the Me Too movement has been going on for 20 years and for me the Me Too moment is that many people have a default proposition that they are the arbiter of what their rights are in every situation, and that means you cut them off in a stop sign and you're the wrong doer, even though you might have been following the rules of the road and doing it appropriately, or if you step in front of them to get out of the subway, you're the wrongdoer, even though you might not have seen them coming, or you might have thought by their body language they were hesitating to allow you to pass, that to me is what the Me Too moment really is, and it's not a good thing.

These are everyday expressions of philosophy, in the sense of, this is wisdom about how to get along in a group of more than one, and as far as I know since we came down from the trees in the savanna we lived in groups of more than one, so these are relevant things. It happens that in Western society the Greeks were the first to codify and express and break them down. But they’re all relevant. You may not know what a hemoglobin is, but you can't get through the day without it. You may not know what altruism is but you can't go through the day without it. Because you and I are sitting here today enjoying a loud but comfortable place because of some altruistic act that was committed near this spot or in the chain of history that led to this place to be what it is on this piece of dirt, on this rock in this solar system... I make the direct connection with all that stuff everyday.

A book that changed your life? That had an impact on your life?

Science fiction that I read when I was 11, Dune. He does a phenomenal job of world creation. He also created a religion, and what I realized in reading this book is that all religions are created. I am skeptical by Nature and I'm not really observant in any religion because of things I've been thinking about really since then.

In your everyday life, then, what guides you how to act? If you have a moral dilemma what guides you how to act?

Mostly I would flip the role and say “okay if I were the person on the other side of the interaction what would my decision mean to them?" Put yourself in the other person's shoes. I have intervened in a couple of significant ways of a couple of moments in my life on a moral question. For example, when I was in college I became aware that the integrity of the final exam was compromised and I reached out to the professor. And the people that passed the knowledge to me knew what I did, because I was young and I didn’t totally protect myself, and they got pretty angry. It’s a kind of thing that I felt there should be consequences to, I just felt it wasn’t right.

Last question, what would you say is one principle that guides you in life?

I guess I would say integrity because there are a bunch of things that flow from that. Simple things - don't lie, don't take advantage of someone's ignorance. Be comfortable that if you ever had to explain to somebody why you took an action that you could embrace whatever your reasons were. To act with integrity means also don't be judgmental and that's something I have to remind myself of because I’m a person in the world and it's easy to be judgmental. Having integrity means that if you do have prejudice or judgment you have to extract it as best as you can from your decision making.

I'll share a story because it made me learn something about myself. I had a phone conversation with two people and one of these people had a deep Texas accent. And I noticed that I didn't trust the facts that he was presenting because of the accent, and I said to myself make notes on this fact but don't answer any of them at this moment, come back to this later because you have to separate the way your brain is reacting to the mode he’s delivering it in. It was interesting because I never noticed this about myself before. I felt good because I noticed it and it turns out he had some really relevant stuff to say. This goes back to some of the things that I said about race earlier. Be honest with yourself that these things might be in your head or in your sense of self when you meet someone who doesn't look or sound like you. If it's unconscious and it's generating bias that you're not filtering out then there's this tension I mentioned. Do we maintain some level of self-awareness about it? And if we do, what do we do with these things when we become aware of them?

I have 10 years of more experience than 10 years ago of being me, so I'm more attentive to the things about me that would trip me up in situations like that. But you don't need 10 years of experience to arrive at that, you can arrive at that as a young adult, depending on what kind of learning you are given and what people impart to you to pay attention to. I know that because I met young people who are very aware of it.

We're all one trial learners, meaning you only need to be encouraged or put off once by someone to modify your experience of them, it doesn't take many trials to learn the lesson. For example, that phone call that I mentioned, I don't need to do it again to know what I need to pay attention to in these situations.

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