Whether you agree or not I encourage to read what I think is a well balanced discussion about the 9/11 attacks. I think ultimately what this blog is about is summarized very well in the end in regards to how a democracy works “In a year when Australia may bomb Syria to get our Prime Minister some positive press, and there’s a decent chance Donald Trump might be the next US President, the message has never been clearer: we must make the right choices today, if tomorrow is to be free from fear.”
If you’re over 17 and capable of reading this then you remember where you were. I was in bed, waking up for another school day. I remember the radio going off as my alarm and the news reports starting to filter through my fuzzy mind until I was, for possibly the only time in my entire life, paralysed with shock. I remember stumbling out of my room, barely dressed and finding my parents already watching the replays on the TV – that now timeless video of a smouldering World Trade Centre, captured by a confused and terrified New Yorker at the very moment the second plane hit and immediately removed all doubt that this could have been an accident.
A few hours later we watched at school at both towers of the World Trade Centre, an iconic landmark or the iconic city of New York, of the even more iconic…
A recent experience got me down and I thought maybe I’d write about it. I am not sure what to conclude, but sometimes it feels good to just write things out. A person who I considered somewhat of a friend or at least a good acquaintance from grad school reconnected with me at a conference last year. He was a Ph.D. student while I was doing my Masters and he was very friendly and seemed to me very smart. So when he friended me on Facebook I was a bit excited since he seemed like he would be a good person to get into discussions with and that he would post interesting things. But as I started to see him pop up on my news feed he would often post things that seemed to me that he already believed an answer, but claimed he wanted to know what other people thought, but if you didn’t think what he thought he would still think he was right even if he wouldn’t explicitly say it. He would comment on statuses that I posted if I criticized A then he would say, how can you criticize A when you don’t criticize B. The simple answer being that sometimes I did complain about B but he didn’t see it, or I would complain about B if I knew about it, but also that I have a limited amount of things that I have the passion for fighting against and this is simply what I’ve chosen. Over time I came to realize that he was pretty religious, was against gay marriage, and although more compassionate that perhaps some evangelicals, he certainly had no tolerance for a pro-choice point of view, though planned parenthood was evil, and that men are much more oppressed in our society than women. And while I agree that inequality towards men is often overlooked in favor to women’s issues, for him the balance seemed to swing the other way and that we lived in a society that favored women. We ended up arguing about most things and while he would complain about how everybody always argues using ad hominem attacks instead of discussing the issue he would frequently use language to me like “You really believe that?”, “Are you serious?” and other phrases that were clearly mocking what I felt to be true as so ridiculous that he couldn’t believe an educated person would think that way. And to be honest I felt the same way, but would never debate like that (although I did finally get a bit snippy in retort after enough of those kinds of statements). The final straw that led to me just unfriending him was over the Syria situation when I posted a status and talked about how we and the west have benefited so much from the cheap oil to run our economies from that region of the world and how, especially the UK and the US have actively tried to keep that area unstable to maintain control of the oil that to not help the refugees was hypocritical. He responded by saying we didn’t cause fundamentalism, we didn’t cause ISIS, and a bunch of other things. I thought about responding, because there is a lot of evidence that we did cause ISIS, and that by keeping the area impoverished and without a stable governments, without the ability to nationalize their own oil reserves we have kept those countries in a state of poverty and fundamentalism tends to flourish in such regions.
But what I really want to talk about is how such a person really made me doubt myself. I have experienced it before where someone whose intellect you admire (and maybe this guy simply changed over the years) and then all of a sudden starts making you feel like an idiot and you really believe them. It makes you doubt yourself down to the very core and its troubling, and it hurts when someone you respected as a person belittles you. But then I had to start questioning that feeling of doubt and hurt. Knowing that we rationalize our beliefs and that if someone tries to challenge them in a very serious way we can often react defensively to not have such beliefs destroyed. This person has, like me, a Ph.D. in meteorology and it’s applied math and physics and is no cake walk. Was he the objective scientist and I was biased and belief based? I don’t think that I am, but what if I simply believe that I am the type of person who is willing to change their mind about things given evidence, but really I’m not. Ultimately it seems that the type of person I see myself as, might also be a belief.
Then I started to worry more that I was insulating myself intellectually. Over the past 5 years I have had less tolerance to engage with people who didn’t to at least some degree share my worldview or who had a worldview that I respected even if it wasn’t my own. It seems to me that such engagements had little value but to drain my energy. Either the debate was one I have had many times before and was simply repetitive, or the possibility exists that I do not have the language skills to effectively get my points across because the exchange seems to go nowhere. My intellect however would recognize common logical fallacies that they would use and there was only so much I could take before I just decided that this person wasn’t someone I should continue engaging with. And I’ve started to feel as I age that life is too short now to surround myself with people who only anger and frustrate me and simply surround myself with those who give me positive energy. But as a person who wants to grow intellectually and not hide from perspectives different from my own, how do I do that and still maintain my sanity in a world that seems fraught with so many people who don’t seem to think critically? And is my desire to think critically fading as I age where my focus seems to be shifting to seek comfort and joy over the type of adversity that helps the intellect grow?
Had this former fellow student of mine been someone I did not know I probably would have shut them out awhile ago as I recognized their arguments were never steeped in evidence, but simply asserted with strong language. Followed by an expectation for you to give evidence if you disagreed even though none was offered to you in the first place. Such tactics are the hallmark of belief based thinking. When we have attachments to people and when we respect their intellect it’s hard not to take them seriously. The words sink deeper into you and shake you up regardless of their truth. And I do have friends that disagree with me on big issues, but when we discuss them the language feels much more like mutual respect for each other, and so maybe in the this guy was just a giant asshole, and only my admiration of him from the past blinded me from seeing it for too long. I’d like to believe that I stuck it out longer than I normally would have and gave him the benefit of the doubt. I guess though, part of me still stuck on the idea that perhaps I’m protecting my worldview because I don’t want to change it.
Of course when I analyze my worldview I don’t see it as a bad one. But I’m sure all people feel that way. I do continue to read and learn, even if it is something that I don’t agree with. In the end I guess I’ve decided that however I decide to keep my social circle, I am at the very least a person who looks to reduce the harm and suffering of my fellow humans in this world and I only hope that this drive continues to help me be the person I want to be. And maybe it’s most important to recognize that the intellect does not always dictate beliefs and that these come from more of an emotional place. And so maybe doing things that keep me emotionally healthy is just as important as that which keeps my intellect healthy.
I would describe myself as someone who embraces change, even when it sometimes isn’t easy. To me, change is the one true constant in the universe. My son is 20 months old and there are times, where I would swear that I could live at this time forever, because he is so sweet, and so pure. I think in an instant it makes us remember a time when things were simple, and completely joyful in their simplicity. So when I look at my son, I know that is what he is thinking and feeling right now. Sticking a straw out of my mouth is amazing, that picture of an elephant is amazing, this rice is amazing. Life is amazing. They don’t even know enough to appreciate it and the best part is that you get to appreciate it for them. And that is a beautiful feeling. The idea that such innocence and purity could last forever is a fantasy, but an extremely good one to hold on to. Because if you can just add just a little bit of that into the world, happiness can only grow.
I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.
When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.
I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level. As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others. We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism. We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups. The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.
I wonder where this fascination comes from? Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural? Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life. Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes? So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest? And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down. Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated. Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them? Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?
I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world. I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them. Heroes are not perfection. Nobody is. I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody. A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer. What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own. There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees. There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own. While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves. The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us. Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.
I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.