Thursday, 16 November 2017

Is it ok to be White?

I recently made a post on social media that garnered a good amount of discussion, some acrimony, and, ultimately, got me unfriended by one person. This post, which was not entirely without intent, was certainly not meant to upset anyone. Here’s the full story: I saw a reposted article which mentioned that signs reading “It’s ok to be White” had been popping up on college campuses across North America (USA and Canada). The person who had shared this story, who is a hard-left activist, claimed that it was a racist meme, but refused to provide an explanation, either in regard to the meme itself, or their reasoning for calling it racist. When I challenged them on it and asked if they could possibly be mistaken about the intent of the signs (as posted on campuses, not as they originated), I got shot down, my comments were censored, and I was told that “no, it’s racist”. Once again, no explanation was offered.
My thought, and feel free to think me naïve, was that even though the signs smacked strongly of the alt-right, men’s-rights, white-power movement(s), they could also be reactions to the anti-white hatred which is increasing in liberal academia and within postmodern circles. It occurred to me that maybe some white people, most likely dudes, are feeling a little cowed, and in need of reassurance that they haven’t harmed anyone, or that they aren’t inherently bad merely for the fact of being white.
I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied male, and in the eyes of the liberal, postmodern crowd, I fall within the most hated demographic group. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement by this point, and if you have doubts about its authenticity, then perhaps you have not been paying attention to identity politics in the last few years. Good for you. Here’s where I need to make a disclaimer before I proceed, and I likely won’t say this too many more times, while hoping that it is clear to everyone and that my honesty is not impugned: even though I’m white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, and male, I’ve actually never intentionally harmed anyone based on their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, or sex. I hope I’ve never done so unintentionally either, at least not at a disproportionate rate compared to the harm I may have unintentionally done to other white, cishet, able-bodied men. Apart from implicit-association-type biases, which we all share regardless of ethnicity, blah blah blah, I’m an equal-opportunity abuser, if anything. I will openly admit that I am not fully informed on identity politics and related topics, and that I can at times be pretty naïve and clueless. Also, I still don’t get what the hell intersectionality is all about.
So, with that out of the way, I’m going to talk a little bit about what I did and why. I created a post which read “What are everyone’s thoughts on ‘It’s ok to be White’?”. I did this in order to gauge the responses. Was this meme truly an alt-right troll move, as averred by the Left, or was the truth a little more nuanced? I also wanted to hear some of the opinions that people have on the topic. Ok, full disclosure: I wanted to know if anyone agreed with my theory that maybe the meme wasn’t a hateful one but rather a scared one. In the meantime, I found out the origin of the meme (4chan), and its intended purpose (a “proof of concept” to demonstrate that signs with the phrase posted in public places would be accused of promoting racism and white supremacy). So far so interesting (it was totally working!!!). The response I got to my post surprised me not only by how much take-up it got, but by how upset it made some people.
Ultimately, the individual responses are not nearly as important as the implications, I think, of a dumb white guy asking dumb white-guy questions in an atmosphere that fosters white guilt and “shut-up-and-listen-to-anyone-who-isn’t-white, thou vile spawn of oppressors and colonizers” moralizing. Ok, so I don’t think I’m dumb, but as I mentioned above, I can certainly be naïve sometimes. Maybe my theory was a naïve one, and my continued line of questioning similarly so, but as far as I can tell, the most offensive statement I made within that entire discussion was “I think white people are being persecuted by some vocal activists”.
What are the implications of this type of atmosphere, then? In a broad sense, the feeling I get is that as a white [insert all other detested categories here] male, due to the historical injustices that we as a unified demographic - if it makes sense to think of white […] males as one unified demographic category -  have wrought upon people of colour, women, queers, etc., I, or we, are no longer permitted to disagree with, contradict, or in any way explain (this word is nowadays more specifically expressed as “mansplain”, “whitesplain”, etc.) anything to any group/individual considered to be a minority, or non-normative. On a personal level, I think the inevitable outcome will be that I will eventually be left with only white […] male friends on social media, and they will either be individuals who, like me, buck the current ideological trends, or those who hew more closely to the right of the political spectrum and whom I can’t shake off unless I directly attack them (those guys are definitely a thick-skinned bunch!).
Why would that last be the case? Well, because I’m curious and I ask questions. Not only do I ask questions, I ask controversial, unpopular, and sometimes emotionally-charged questions. I challenge orthodoxies, whether formal or informal, and I don’t care if they are left-wing, right-wing, or what have you. I also don’t really care (well, to be honest I do care, but I ask anyway) that I’m mostly centre-left myself and that by asking certain questions, it may seem that I sometimes undermine values which are near and dear to individuals who are on “my side” of the political game. I’ve challenged progressive views on indigenous issues (and lost indigenous friends over it), on queer topics (some gay friends gone), on women’s rights (women have unfriended me), and now, apparently, on anti-racism (another non-normative friend gone). I suppose I should ask myself this important question: Am I losing friends because I lack insight into anti-oppression issues, I ignore traumas which my questions may rekindle, and in an effort to learn (no really, I mostly only care about finding the truth), I not only stick my foot in my mouth, but also use it to trample upon those who have suffered enough trampling already? Am I an asshole for doing this? Or alternatively…am I losing friends because, despite everything I just said, and despite the fact that people on the left are really well-intentioned individuals trying to right historical injustices and combat right-wing bigotry (I honestly believe this to be true), Left-wing, postmodern liberalism (sorry for the redundancies) has become a caricature of the fascist beast it purports to fight, an ideologically puritan, inflexible, dogmatic edifice that brooks no opposition, no disagreement, not even any questioning?
To close, I want to make one more thing clear. On an intellectual level, I understand oppression, suffering, injustice, and all manner of hurt. I get that white men have done much harm throughout history. We have oppressed and abused people of colour, women, queer folk, and to some degree these abuses continue to the present. I get that. I don’t really know how it feels to be oppressed or abused though. I can feel compassion and sympathy, and I can do my best to support victims and push back against victimizers, but I can’t really empathize – not in an emotional manner, at least - because I haven’t experienced any of that. I’ve lived an extremely privileged life, even compared to most white people alive today (that might be my own bias speaking, but whatever, you get the point). I fully acknowledge all of that. I think I (cognitively) understand white privilege too, and as such, I acknowledge it. Still, the most important thing for me is to discover the truth and to lead the way to liberation with the light of truth (not in a spiritual way, either). I don’t believe in countering one form of oppressive dogma with another. I don’t believe in tipping the scales, but rather in balancing them. I think leading with the truth is the way to do that. I’m not sure why I think that, but I do. I need to ponder it some more, I guess. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I feel discouraged by the fact that my non-white, non-male friends find me and my views unpalatable, and unworthy of friendship. I want to be an ally to everyone who is in need of one, but does that mean I need to sit down, shut up, and listen to the ideology-of-liberation du jour?

P.S. I do think that mansplaining and whitesplaining, under the right (wrong?) circumstances are a genuine problem, and as such, they are equally deplorable as more overt forms of sexism and racism.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

So, you still think democracy is great?

This morning a large number of the world's population likely woke up and promptly wished they were still asleep. The news so many of us hoped wasn't true, and which we had dreaded for over a year, had become reality: Donald Trump was the new President of the United States of America.

The reasons why this is a scary prospect are clear and well-known to those who either didn't vote for him or wished they had a say in the matter. Apart from demonstrating that he is a racist and sexist bigot, Trump has also at various times promised to ban all Muslims from the US, end immigration, build a wall separating his country from Mexico, and on top of all of that, he has openly admitted to sexually assaulting women, famously boasting that when a man is powerful, he can just "grab them by the pussy". I'm assuming, of course, that this wasn't a comment about fondling a woman's house pet.

Now, admittedly, the only viable contestant to the presidency was Hillary Clinton, who is herself no angel and whose words and actions, though not as blunt and widely known, have ruffled quite a few feathers and caused controversy. The wife of former president Bill Clinton, Hillary styles herself as a supporter of women's rights, though her track record on that count is not impressive. Along with her husband, she has worked hard over many years to strip Americans of various crucial social services, and as detailed in the recently published book Superpredator: Bill Clinton's Use & Abuse of Black America by Nathan J. Robinson, they have managed to further marginalize a large portion of the US population, while also enriching themselves from so-called charity work abroad.

The reasons why people voted for Trump and not Clinton include these common tropes, which I will attempt to demystify: Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted; at least Trump tells it like it is; he's going to make America great again; Clinton has a long track record of screwing over Americans for her own benefit; America needs a change of direction.

Let me be clear: while some of these statements are accurate, none of them is a good enough reason to vote for Donald Trump to lead a nation of over 320 million people, which also happens to be the most powerful country in the world and thus has far-ranging influence. Let's take these points apart one by one, then, and logically examine their validity:

- Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted: I completely agree! I think she's a two-faced crook, a member of the American upper class who have enriched themselves at the expense of those they've exploited, and her statements often do not align with her values or actions. Additionally, she has attempted to weasel her way into the presidency using her marital connections and the fact that she has broad appeal among feminists.
What about Trump? Can he be trusted? Donald Trump is currently under criminal investigation for sexual assault and possibly rape. One of his enterprises, Trump University, is also being investigated for fraud. Is this someone you can trust? I'll let you decide. My conclusion is that neither Clinton nor Trump can be trusted and thus the argument falls flat.

- Trump tells it like it is: Really? Does anyone recall how many times he has flip-flopped and changed his position on major issues during the past year of campaigning?
An important thing to note is that while Trump may sound as if he's "telling it like it is", and this is certainly an appealing trait to many people who claim to be tired of the same old verbal acrobatics performed by the average politician (including Hillary Clinton), what Trump is doing should properly be termed "calling it the way he thinks it is", and the next question should be, "is what Trump thinks an accurate representation of reality?". Well first of all, given his position on immigration, Muslims, abortion, women's rights, and science in general, not only are Trump's ethical views not in line with the most enlightened civic values as understood by those of us who are fluent in contemporary morals and the status of human rights circa 2016, but even his understanding and acceptance of scientific concepts, many of which there is an overwhelming consensus on, is off-kilter.

- he's going to make America great: This is a very bold statement, but it is also extremely vague and difficult to pin down. What exactly are the qualities that once made America great, which it has since abandoned? Is it the fact that white people could keep black slaves? Is it the fact that women weren't allowed to vote? Is it the fact that gay people weren't allowed to marry? Or perhaps the world's only superpower needs to flex its military muscle more and remind the rest of the world that they have the ability to invade any country they choose whenever they dislike its new leader?
In fact, I would argue that despite its many shortcomings, America is far more "great" today than it ever has been. The United States is still the single largest source of scientific and technological innovation in the world, and great minds continue to produce astounding developments across a broad range of fields and disciplines on a daily basis. The US is a world leader in the arts, cinema, and other forms of media, as well as producing an array of brilliant philosophers, doctors, engineers, scientists, writers, athletes, politicians, philanthropists, architects, you name it! Are these facts that people are unaware of or simply ignore when they look back at the America of years past and wish it would return?

- Clinton has a long track record of screwing over Americans for her own benefit: to put it very briefly: what about Trump? Is he any different? He is notoriously one of the top 1% in terms of capital wealth, a prolific businessman, entrepreneur, and media personality, and arguably one of the most successful Americans in the last few decades. What has he done for the American people all these years though, except take advantage of their gullibility and a financial system that allows him to accumulate great wealth without giving anything back? In my view the only reason Trump hasn't had the ability to screw over as many people as Clinton has, perhaps, is his lack of direct political connections and influence. Well, he's just gained those connections and influence. Let's see what he does with them.

- America needs a change of direction: Sure, I can agree with that. But does that mean America needs to step back from the various types of social progress it has achieved over the last decade? Does it mean America needs to become more insular, intolerant, sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-scientific, and autocratic? I'll let you ponder that one.

Here is the problem, as I see it: many people are frustrated with the way things are going in the US. There are those on the left of the political spectrum who wish America would implement better social policies, divest from its massive military spending, reduce prison populations, tone down its military excesses abroad, increase equality for minority groups and women, and become generally more liberal and less capitalistic. There are those on the right who wish America would become more conservative and religious, the way it was in days past. They dislike gay rights, affirmative action, non-Christian values (and people), and they equate social policies with communism. Then there are those people who, in the words of filmmaker Michael Moore, "...are hurting... beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiffs who used to be part of the middle class". These folks feel like they've been ignored by a democratic administration and they want to have their voices heard. They want change, but instead of considering what type of change will actually benefit them and their country, they've decided that anything is better than what they're used to.
All these people then go to the polls (or not, as far too many people just don't bother to vote) and cast their ballot for either the better candidate, or the least worst one. They vote for this one because he talks the loudest, or for that one because she is female. They vote for this one because he stands for some things they also stand for, or for that one because they liked her husband. They vote for this one because he promises things that sound nice, or for that one because she has years of political experience.
The thing is, none of these reasons are good reasons for making a voting decision. More gravely, none of these reasons are even remotely good reasons for making a decision that will not only impact over 320 million people, but it will directly or indirectly affect the rest of the world. You see, the US presidential election is not like the Nigerian presidential election. Heck, it's not even like the Canadian presidential election (ok, Canadians don't actually have a president, but you get my point). The US election is in a sense a global event. It's the choice of one person who has such tremendous power and influence that its repercussions will be felt globally. The choice of the President of the United States of America is a very important event, and who gets to make the decision? The American people do. Just kidding! The United States Electoral College does. Ok, let's ignore that inconvenient fact for a minute. Around 192 million people get to decide who they think should lead the world. Their voices all have equal merit, and thus they participate in a fair and balanced process. Democracy for the win!

Except...now the leader of the world is Donald Drumpf. Do you, esteemed reader, see a problem with this? If you do not, please go back and reread this whole piece two or three times. How can it happen that using a fair and balanced system, in a country that leads the world in science, technology, innovation, arts, etc., we elect an egomaniacal, dangerous, and morally challenged imbecile like Donald Trump?!?

It can happen because democracy. Democracy did this to us by allowing everyone, regardless of their ethical values, intelligence level, or understanding of relevant issues, to make such an important decision. What is crucial to remember here is that these people, your fellow Americans and citizens of the world, did not make that decision for themselves only. They made it for you and everyone else. How does that feel? Still think democracy is so great?
Democracy allows every single uninformed, apathetic, and bigoted voice to have the same exact potential of influencing the final result as that of every single well-informed, active, and rational one.
Democracy allows people to vent their frustration (we've had enough Democratic policies, it's time for a Republican to run this show, yeah!) and vote the way a child would: I don't like you, nobody likes you, and my mommy says you suck, so I'm not voting for you.
Democracy allows for well-considered, evidence-based, and science-backed policies and positions to be drowned out by fear-based, gullible, and ignorant voices who will, sadly, always make up the majority.

I don't think democracy is so great. In fact, I think democracy kinda sucks. Ok, it's better than communism, autocracy, theocracy, and a number of other "cracies", "isms", or "polies" out there that have either been tried, or at least proposed. Still, the fact that it's better than living under ISIS doesn't make democracy great. It just makes it the best system that we've tried. Can we try a different system now, one that has the potential for far more reasoned, balanced, and evidence-based policies?

Before I get into that, however, I'd like to make one other proposal. In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the rights of all human beings regardless of age, sex, race, or any other criteria, and enshrined them as inalienable, though not legally binding. 68 years later, I think it's time to expand this document. I propose the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Values.  These human values would include things that today are agreed upon by scientists and ethicists as being an inherent entitlement of all human beings, as well as being conditions that directly or indirectly contribute to the greater good of individuals and humanity as a whole, and thus deserving of the proposed status of Universal Value. Under this rubric would fall things like equal rights for gay people, including the right to marry and adopt children (don't forget that these would have to be concepts which are broadly supported by the majority of scientists when relevant expertise and data is required); the right to abortion and assisted suicide; the right to free, unobstructed movement and dress, uninfringeable by religious or cultural rules, and many more. These values would be adopted with similar, if not greater force as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus they could never legally be brought up as an electoral issue up for discussion; any candidate who proposed rescinding Roe vs. Wade, for example, would either be disqualified, or simply sidelined. Same for anyone who questioned the validity of anthropogenic climate change. The most progressive and ethically advanced ideas and thinkers would be consulted in the creation of this set of values, and as such, they could not be abrogated, in the same way that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must (in theory) be respected by all signatories. Over time, more and more values would be added to this declaration, and those values would, in turn, be removed from any serious political campaign as they would be considered entrenched and unalienable.

Finally, I propose we trial a new political system called Epistocracy. Epistocracy, or Noocracy, as it is more commonly known, is a system which limits voting rights as well as the ability to run for political office to those who are able to demonstrate a certain level of understanding of relevant issues including political systems, societal needs, scientifically accepted truths and concepts, evidence-based approaches, etc.
There are several proposed models of epistocracy, my favourite one being a test administered to all individuals wishing to qualify for political privileges. Those who can demonstrate the required aptitude would be allowed to vote or run for office, and those who can't need to either go home and do their homework, or they simply cannot participate in that aspect of the political process. This shouldn't be too controversial since at the moment we limit political participation for people who are considered too young to vote, the mentally infirm, and in most countries, prisoners. Why not extend these limits to those who are dangerously uninformed about the decisions they are making on behalf of an entire nation?
Alas, epistocracy is bound to be much too controversial for most people to accept. For one, it must be acknowledged that under this system, the majority of otherwise eligible voters would be disqualified from exercising this privilege as the bulk of any country's populace is grossly under-informed on relevant topics. Additionally, the task of removing people's right to vote, one which most of us have grown up with or come to take for granted, is not only anti-democratic, a concept which in itself seems at first glance to go against human rights, but impossible to achieve in a system that is not autocratic. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how you look at it, I guess.

I for one would be glad to do some much-needed study and research in exchange for the right to cast a ballot, if it meant keeping people like Donald Trump far away from political office.

For more information on why democracy is not the best political system but epistocracy might be, check out this book:

https://www.amazon.ca/Against-Democracy-Jason-Brennan/dp/0691162603

Thursday, 7 July 2016

My thoughts on Islam and other religions

I looked out of my apartment door today to see a young Muslim couple walking with a newborn child. The mother was shrouded head to toe and only her eyes were visible. What I perceive when I witness a scene such as this, is nothing less than a lifelong prison. This woman is unable to be free of the shackles of barbaric and outdated practices that force her to live under a cloak, to only go out into daylight accompanied by a man, to never learn about the world on her own, and to spend her existence producing children and being at the beck and call of her husband, to whom none of these restrictions apply.
This is wrong. If you are a moral relativist and think "to each their own", or "each culture has its downsides", or "who are we to say that we are not the ones committing the offence by not placing restrictions upon ourselves", I have this to say to you: FUCK OFF.

I am an atheist. I do not believe in a supreme being who has created the world and the organisms that inhabit it, an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator.
There is currently zero evidence to believe in such a being, and there is just as much logical reason to think that such a creature exists.
Many things in life are still unexplained, and currently unexplainable, however, and to the vast majority of the world's population, this is disconcerting.
Believing in a supreme being who watches over us and who will redeem us after we die is a warm, comforting notion, and many of us would rather believe that than accept that there is likely no purpose, no salvation, and no afterlife.
To be honest, apart from rejecting it myself, I have no problem with this belief. I choose to live my life according to logic, reason, and science, but I won't force my approach on anyone. To each their own, as they say.

What I do have a problem with, however, is religion. Why? Because all religions are stories invented a long time ago by people and passed down over centuries and millenia. The stories themselves are phantasmagorical and bear no relevance to a contemporary understanding of the world and how it works. These stories may have been applicable at one point in time, when we knew so little about our surroundings and the natural phenomena we were exposed to, but the world has come a long way since the dawn of humanity, and we now understand many things we didn't before.
Today, none of the stories that have been passed down through the Bible, the Quran, Ramayana, Popol Vuh, Guru Granth Sahib, etc., have any bearing on reality, nor do they have relevance. They have all been shown to be utter nonsense. As long as they remain nothing more than fairy tales, they are harmless. Unfortunately, there are still far too many people today who take these fairy tales to be an accurate description of events and a fair guide to moral behaviour.

Among all other religions, the one I detest the most is Islam. Why do I pick on this specific religion, you ask? After all, Islam, along with Judaism and Christianity, makes up the triumvirate of Abrahamic religions, all of which are descended from the same origins, and all of which have extremely violent roots (and holy books), so in theory they should all have equal merit, right?

Well, let's take a look.

The Old Testament of the Christian Bible, based largely on the Tanakh, the holy book of Judaism, is a book teeming with murder, rape, and plunder. Among other violent passages, it includes exhortations to its followers to pursue and kill non-believers, or infidels.
The Quran, the holy book of Islam, is also a violent book. It urges its followers to kill infidels, it instructs men to beat their wives (as punishment), and is rife with all manner of other violence.
Fortunately, the New Testament of Christianity, which mainly surrounds the life of Jesus Christ, is quite gentle compared to its predecessor. Due to this fact, and combined with the Reformation it underwent in the 16th century, Christianity is now mostly harmless. I say mostly because once in a while we hear about this or that sect that still engages in barbaric and outdated practices such as polygamy and forced marriage, and there is still the odd wacko who goes out on a killing spree in the name of the almighty JC.

I don't know why Judaism isn't as overtly militant as its scriptures would entreat followers to be. Perhaps because in the two strongest bastions of Judaism, Israel and the USA, there is no need to employ religious violence to achieve one's aims. American Jews are not known for their militancy, though some Hasidic Jews practice various forms of oppression against their own, and Israel is focused on suppressing its Palestinian population through heavy-handed military tactics, political manipulation, and the Holocaust industry.

This leaves Islam as the single most significant source of terrorism and ideological violence worldwide. Apart from the many terrorist attacks, murders, and intimidation perpetrated in the name of Islam and its god Allah, the religion forces women to be subordinated to men in a perpetual cycle of sexism, violence, and outright imprisonment.

Islam is the second largest, and fastest growing religion in the world. Sharia Law, a radical interpretation of Islamic doctrine, is becoming more and more common in formerly moderate havens such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and even in certain jurisdictions in Canada and the UK.
This is why I consider Islam to be the most dangerous ideological system in the world today, and the sooner its reach is curtailed, the better.

Let me wrap up by saying this: if you believe in god(s), that is your prerogative, and as long as you aren't harming anyone with this belief, you can do what you want, believe what you will.
If you choose to believe that God worked for six days creating the Earth and rested on the seventh, that he made Eve out of Adam's rib, that Jesus walked on water, was resurrected from the dead, etc., well, all I can say is, go back to science class and read up on the evidence. Your beliefs are delusional, but once again, as long as you're not hurting anyone, do whatever you want, believe whatever floats your goat.

As soon as your beliefs are used to harm or oppress others, however, there is a problem. This is happening today, and it is a big problem. Unfortunately many people on the regressive left would rather place the blame on anything and everything except where it is due, which is religion itself. According to these people, Islam isn't the problem; capitalism, imperialism, racism, white privilege, pink elephants, you name it, there's the real problem. They will point the finger at anything and everything, including themselves, just so as not to offend someone else's religious sensibilities, in the name of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. I think this is bullshit.
I do not deny that all of the aforementioned factors (minus the pink elephants, perhaps) have contributed to the kaleidoscope of ingredients that have led to the formation of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and every other terrorist cell in the world. What unites all of these groups, however, is that they do what they do in the name of Allah, or Islam. This, to me, is a clear indication that Islam, a violent ideology, is being followed to its most literal conclusion. If you do not think this is a problem, then you are either dishonest, deluded, or perhaps both.

Violent Islam is a threat to everyone the world over, and though the answer may not be to call out everyday Muslims, it certainly does not benefit us to pretend that the problem doesn't exist.






Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Do you trust the Internet over your friends?

"What, you're gonna trust Wikipedia over what this person is telling you?!"

So goes the common outcry when one suggests verifying a claim on the internet. Especially when dealing with a local person expounding on a topic one would assume they know well, such as their own country.

I think there are two factors at play here. On the one hand, most of us overestimate not only how knowledgeable other people are, but especially how accurate that knowledge is.

Secondly, I get the impression that most of us, unless we are relatively internet-savvy, underestimate the internet's ability to provide highly accurate information in just about any area of inquiry.

Let me be quite blunt here and state that in my opinion, most people are not very knowledgeable, and often border on ignorance. Sure, each one of us has (in theory) a good knowledge base in our own area of expertise, be it work-related or a hobby. Outside of that, however, not only is most people's information repertoire lacking, but the level of inaccuracy of the things we feel familiar with is often staggering.

A person's level of education surely plays a role in this, and the difference between a university-educated individual and one who has no post-secondary schooling is clear, but even those of us who have spent a good amount of time within the educational system come out of it relying on hearsay, mistaken information, and most perniciously, our own observations and experiences.

For example, I once asked someone what the population of their city was. Upon receiving the answer, I verified it on Wikipedia and found that the actual number was approximately half of what the person claimed it was. This latter was insistent, however, that the answer obtained on the web was not possible since based on their own observation, there were far more people in the city.

Herein lies the problem: personal observation is extremely flawed and unreliable.
This is true not only for the reason that our senses deceive us on a continuous basis, making broad statements about what we perceive rather unreliable, but also because humans are notoriously statistically illiterate, an incapacity that often borders on innumeracy. Take, for example, what is known as the Gambler's Fallacy:

"The gambler's fallacy, also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy or the fallacy of the maturity of chances, is the mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during some period, it will happen less frequently in the future, or that, if something happens less frequently than normal during some period, it will happen more frequently in the future (presumably as a means of balancing nature). In situations where what is being observed is truly random (i.e., independent trials of a random process), this belief, though appealing to the human mind, is false." - Wikipedia

In this case, when it comes to a coin toss, if the coin is assumed to be fair (having the same probability of heads or tails), the chance of guessing correctly is 50% on every toss. Let me be clear: Every time you flip a coin and call it, if the coin is fair and properly balanced, you have a 50% chance to win and 50% chance to lose. Every time, regardless of how many times you have been right or wrong in a continuous sequence. Most people seem to fall for the fallacy, however because not only is it more appealing, but because we do not understand statistical probabilities. In relation to the population problem then, unless one counts each resident individually, or consults a census report, it is extremely difficult to gauge the number of people living in a given locality. The internet, however, though it does contain much false and inaccurate statements, also contains census information as well as data from various polls and studies, which means that a few minutes of googling is sufficient to bring up the accurate number one is searching for. Thus I would conclude that unless one is dealing with a skilled statistician or someone who has an insight into population studies, the internet will always be a more reliable source of accurate information in this area.

What about other areas that do not require technical knowledge or skill?

Within the context of the question of which is more reliable, the internet or a person's word, I would say it is almost always the former.
I grew up before the age of the world wide web, and only gained access to this resource at the relatively late age of 20, in the year 2000. Thus my knowledge prior to the year 2000, and apart from what I learned in school and from books, was entirely based on what other people told me. This includes my mother, brother, friends, and various others. As years go by and I become more informed, both through the research I do on the internet as well as my exposure to other sources of information and learning, I find out just how much nonsense I absorbed from those around me throughout my life.

For example, I used to think Sting's real name was David Bowie, that urine is sterile, and that curry is an Indian dish.

Even after becoming exposed to the internet, I continued to accept information passed on to me by other people who, as is very common, presented this information as if it were fact.

Imagine that you relied entirely on what other people told you. You would likely believe that genetically modified food causes cancer and vaccines cause autism. You would think that nuclear energy is more dangerous than your average fossil-fuel power plant, that the government is poisoning us by putting fluoride in the water system, that the lunar landing was faked, and that a white man who purportedly lived in Israel two millenia ago, who walked on water, magically transformed water into wine, revived a dead man, and after dying himself, arose from the grave...resides somewhere above the clouds with his father, who really is himself, and...he loves you. You specifically. Well, he loves every single person on earth, actually.

You might also be under the false impression that Taiwan belongs to China, Africa is a country, Sikhs are Muslims, Mexican people speak Mexican, Turkey is in the Middle East, and polar bears eat penguins.

Antibiotics kill viruses, Albert Einstein failed math, and waking a sleepwalker will harm them.

Another frustrating and extremely commonly made mistake is that personal experience somehow trumps scientific research. Many people believe that since they've had a subjective experience which science cannot explain or doesn't support, science must be wrong.  This is ridiculous not only due to the subjectivity of personal experience but because of the fact that very few of us have even an inkling of how our own minds work. Thus, for example, a person may claim they saw a ghost, had an out-of-body experience, or went to heaven and came back in what is known as a near-death experience. Current scientific understanding holds that all of these phenomena have neurochemical origins in the brain and are thus explainable without resorting to magical thinking. Try telling this to someone who is convinced their dead grandmother visited them in their bedroom (no, not in that way), however, and you may find yourself with one less friend.

On a more basic level, people often misunderstand social phenomena and judge them on a purely experiential basis rather than looking at large-scale sociological research. The current refugee crisis in Europe is a clear example of this. The average European has only passing knowledge of the factors causing the huge exodus of people from the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the motivations behind this migration. A common thread among those who have been exposed or directly affected by throngs of migrants from unknown cultures, speaking foreign tongues, is that these are simply people dissatisfied with their living situation who wish to mooch off of those who are better off. In an absurdly Schrödinger-esque juxtaposition, these migrants are both seen as stealing local jobs and being too lazy to work and thus placing a heavy burden on the social net provided to citizens of Europe.
This misinformation is fed by rumours, hearsay, and most potently, vociferous braying by extreme-right politicians and parties wishing to capitalize on popular discontent in order to impose their often violent, racist, and homophobic policies on what are seen as overly liberal societies being corroded from the inside by non-White, non-Christian immigrants, homosexuals, feminists, environmentalists, etc.

Islamophobia is another sad instance of this skewed reliance on hearsay and political demagoguery. Based largely on an exaggerated focus on aggressive Islamic politics, politically-motivated terrorist acts, territorial conflict within Muslim nations, and the violence and oppression inherent in the Koran, this, in conjunction with the large influx of Muslim people into southern European cities, has led to the false beliefs that Muslims are taking over the world (the fringe aspiration for a global Islamic caliphate promoted by extremist groups such as ISIS are a common theme), that non-Muslim women are being assaulted and violated in European cities (Reefer Madness, anyone?), and various other vile untruths which serve to rile up local populations in favour of exclusionist racial policies.

I could go on about the variety of ways in which people's experiences and observations are not an accurate tool to properly assess a situation and to get a balanced perspective on events.
We seem to be averse to relying on proper scientific research and instead base our points of view on our own skewed perceptions, not realizing how much these are influenced by our existing biases as well as the lenses through which we view the world.

For this reason, I propose the following: The next time someone makes a claim of fact that deals with anything more than their own personal experience, and as long as this claim is verifiable, do so. The benefit of this type of verification is that not only will you maintain an accurate understanding of events around you, but you won't sound like a fool when recounting a false claim to someone who has taken the time to do their homework and knows better than you do.



Saturday, 7 November 2015

Good people

I often encounter the recurring theme of 'good people'. This usually takes the form of someone describing either their friends or the inhabitants of a place, such as a country. 
They may say "my friends are good people", or "you will meet some good people here". Alternatively the statement becomes more grandiose as in "the people of such and such country are good people". 
In the past whenever I heard this, it made me feel both at ease, for the knowledge of being surrounded by good people is, naturally, reassuring. At the same time, due to my own insecurities, it made me feel envious and inadequate, since I don't always consider myself 'good enough' and thus I feel the need to live up to someone else.

One of the things that has happened to me on my current travels is that I have become more cynical about humans in general, but I'd like to think this cynicism is more a reflection of a deeper understanding of humanity than a mere feeling of jadedness or negativity that doesn't necessarily reflect reality.

Within the context of this topic, what my cynicism, or perhaps recognition, has shown me, is that there are very few people whom I would categorize as 'good' or 'bad'. People are just people, wherever you go in the world. All people operate on basic, even primal, drives and desires, interspersed here and there with a dash of more sophisticated reasoning as well as empathy.
This means that we all do what we need to do in order to obtain food, shelter, rest, sex, at its most instinctive level, as well as entertainment, friendship, security, personal space, etc. Each one of us pursues these goals within the framework of our social setting and the restrictions it places upon us. For example, a member of a primitive, tribal group, may go about obtaining food by hunting, and a mate is often secured by force or coercion. In more sophisticated societies these same needs are met by purchasing food at the store and online dating, perhaps. The structures of individual societies instruct us on the ways in which we may and may not attain the necessities and luxuries we wish to acquire. Despite the differences between societies at different stages of development, our goals differ little and the instinctive drives that underlie even the most polished and sophisticated pursuits are the same.

What, then, makes someone good or bad? I think the common assumption is that honesty, friendliness, successful social integration, and mutual helpfulness makes people 'good'. The opposite qualities, such as dishonesty, uncivil behaviour, criminal activity, etc., makes one 'bad'. Thus when someone says that their friends are good people, they often mean that these folks do not engage in criminal activity and are fun to spend time with. This 'goodness' seldom translates into anything deeper, such as altruistic community service, nonviolent styles of communication, general philanthropy, etc. In broader terms, if you consider a group of people to be kind and helpful, this thus qualifies them as being 'good'.
The opposite, being a 'bad' person or 'bad people', is more or less clear, and it usually involves doing harm to others. The motives behind good and bad behaviour and the aforementioned simplistic categorizations are usually ignored, and I shall not address them here.

When I think about it on a more than superficial level, however, I have to say that most people are neither good nor bad, they are simply people, or somewhere in the neutral zone. Whether someone is friendly, helpful, or honest, doesn't make them good, it makes them...normal. It is normal for a person living within a stable and successful community or society to follow rules, behave more or less respectfully towards others, offer help when it is needed, and stay within the general lines of honesty, because these traits are necessary for a society to function harmoniously and in terms of evolutionary psychology, it behooves us to be 'good' to each other much more than the opposite. Of course, a society where structure is missing and values are absent devolves into a dog-eat-dog mentality, in which case it is more beneficial to pursue one's personal goals at the expense of others. This is often the case in lawless societies, where authority is seen to have no force, where corrupt officials and law enforcement can be bought with a few dollars, and where cohesive societal values are disregarded. Aspects of this type of behaviour are also evident in large, affluent societies, where the consequences of one's actions are not clearly discernible and where avoiding personal responsibility is done with much more ease than in smaller communities.

There is a shallow vacuousness to the expression 'good people', in my opinion, and it reflects a poorly thought-out perception of human quality. I find it to be somewhat self-serving as well, since if your friends are good people, you must be good too, or if the people of your nation are good, this naturally includes you as well. I don't think it is possible for a randomly selected group of people to be good or bad. Since the terms that I am brandishing are more or less without any greater depth, they by default describe a very generic bunch of people (an entire nation, or a group of friends not specifically selected for their altruistic traits, etc.)

What then, I ask again, makes someone truly 'good', and what makes them 'bad'?
In my opinion for someone to qualify for the label 'good person', they must be thoughtful, empathic, and to a great degree altruistic as well. They must be someone who has an intellectual understanding of human dynamics and the nuances of human psychology, as this dictates the way they behave towards those around them. This person also knows their own mind and has an awareness of their influence upon others, both physical and psychological. A good person considers their actions and their effect upon their surroundings deeply before performing them, and they try to optimize the results of their actions to the benefit of all concerned, themselves as well as others.

A bad person, on the other hand, is someone who either due to their upbringing or some neurochemical imbalance, acts in ways that are detrimental to those around them. For example, one may safely posit that Adolf Hitler was a 'bad person' (though I personally prefer not to think of anyone as bad, and rather highlight that their behaviour is bad) since his actions, though perhaps intended to be beneficial, in fact caused the suffering and death of millions of innocent people. The beliefs that drove Hitler to create the system which led directly to the Holocaust, perhaps in combination with the neurochemical composition of his mind, are 'bad' within the greater context of human wellbeing, though of course in the narrow scope of so-called Aryan racial success and superiority, they may well be seen as positive.

Ethics, in my opinion, is more akin to a scale, or a spectrum, than an either/or position. Each one of us has a worldview that guides our actions, and this falls somewhere on the spectrum of ethics. Some extreme actions, such as murder, would seem to fall clearly on the negative side of the spectrum, but there are situations where even murder can be justified using moral terms, such as premeditatively killing someone when their existence causes others suffering. To return to the above example of Adolf Hitler, I would wager that most people would consider it not only justified but even morally dutiful to murder this man in order to prevent the death of the 6 million people who perished in the Holocaust. I'm also quite certain that there are extreme pacifists out there who believe that murder is always unethical and can never be justified in any circumstance. The subject of ethics is tricky in this way because from a purely logical perspective, the survival of many is more significant than the death of one, and thus within those terms, killing Hitler is always justified.
Humans are not purely logical beings, far from it, in fact, so our behaviour and morals are seldom guided by logic and more often by emotional and empathic considerations.
To use another example, the majority of people in the world eat meat on a regular basis, which not only requires the killing of sovereign, sentient beings, but in this day and age also causes tremendous suffering to those beings, not to mention the environmental impact of the industry that permits us a meat-rich diet. Vegetarians/vegans consider this lifestyle choice deeply unethical, and it is very difficult to argue that they are not correct in their position. After all, if one's conscious actions cause suffering even to one other being, and these actions can easily be avoided, how can one morally argue for their continuation?
The fact that most people persist in making animal products part of their daily diet demonstrates not only how morally selective and self-serving we tend to be, but also the fluidity of our ethical standpoints.

Thus, going back to the notion of good/bad people, I would say that within my criteria for these terms, very few people fit the description. Very few people adhere to self-imposed moral positions, or even critically assess their own behaviour in order to gauge its impact on their surroundings. Likewise, very few people fall so low on the ethical spectrum that they knowingly cause harm to others without themselves suffering from a guilty conscience.
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In order for your friends to qualify as being good, you would have to either select them specifically based on the aforementioned traits, or naturally be able to surround yourself with that type of personality. For an entire nation to qualify as good would require an extremely rigorous system of selection bordering on eugenics, which isn't the case anywhere in the world.

So, my conclusion is that your friends are likely not 'good people', and neither are most of your compatriots. These folks are simply human, spanning the gamut of traits and personalities, professing various beliefs both positive and negative as well as accurate and inaccurate, and exercising behaviours both beneficial and harmful. Presumably you wouldn't surround yourself with violent drug users, vicious killers, animal torturers, etc. If you did, and you insisted that they were good people, I would have to strongly question not only your moral compass but your level of sanity as well.