It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

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Anger, Fear, and Guns

Once again another mass murder brings up the debate on gun control, and unproductive discussions full of straw man arguments fly.  As I write this I am sitting in Edmonton, Canada where I grew up.  As a Canadian I have a hard time understanding pro-gun arguments, and I think it’s safe to say this would be true for a lot of Canadians and people in many other western countries.  In light of all the gun related deaths and mass shootings in the U.S. it is unfathomable to a lot of us why this right to bear arms is so important compared to other things like health care or education which many people don’t see as rights.  Two things that have the ability to greatly increase your chance of survival not only individually, but collectively as a society.  Such things many people have simply turned their backs on.  Other individual freedoms like the right to privacy have been openly exposed by Edward Snowden.  The outrage minimal, and Edward Snowden is labeled a traitor.  Things like income inequality, fair and democratic voting processes are sometimes discussed but little happens.  This simply adds to why many of us from other countries are simply confounded and don’t understand.

And believe me, I am trying.  If there is one thing you have convinced me of about America, is that any sort of ban on guns will not solve any problems, at least in a major way.  In some countries this might be the case, but not in America.  As many pundits decried after Sandy Hook, if the shooting of elementary school children is not enough to convince anybody that we have a national crisis and that maybe we have to revisit the applicability of the 2nd amendment to this current day and age, nothing will.  I have rested on this conclusion for a little while now, and even wrote a blog piece before in which I ask the question about why, if we won’t give up our guns, can’t we fight for a society in which we don’t need them?  It is along those lines that I want to write about again today, but perhaps looking at it from a different tack.  Because I certainly want to talk about my views, but productively, and try to ask more questions, because I don’t know that I have a lot of answers.  I just know that I really want there to be less shootings and schools and other public venues.  More importantly I want to ask questions that perhaps change thinking and can change culture.  Because I don’t think any true progress on the gun issue can happen unless there is a change in attitude about them.

America has a lot of fear.  While I also groan somewhat at Michael Moore’s overplay to the emotional in his films, his documentary Bowling for Columbine had a central thesis, and that wasn’t about the banning of guns, but that is about us living in a culture of fear.  When you debate about guns with people that are pro-gun, overwhelmingly their best arguments boil down to protection from violent criminals, but also to protection from a tyrannical government.  The very intent, we are told, for the 2nd amendment. Fear can sometimes be a sensible state to live in, if those fears are real.  Are they in this case?  In 2009 it was discovered that of the approximately 15,000 homicides, only 1900 were committed by an actual stranger.  This tends to be true for other violent crimes as well.  It’s people you know.  It isn’t because they broke into your home.  You let them in.  The Pulse shooter was a regular and had passed through the doors many times.  They know you.  Know something about your habits.  Killers pick the time and the place, the chances of you being ready to defend yourself are small.

In terms of protection from the government, well it’s understandable this was a concern of our founding fathers given what they went through.  How applicable is that today?  We know of course many countries that have far less guns, who have less murders and their governments have not rolled over them.  For instance the Netherlands has had between 0.8-1 homicides per 100,000 people (any method) for the past decade.  This country has only 3.9 guns per 100 people.  Such restrictive gun laws have been in effect for at least 20 years and to my knowledge the government has not attacked it’s people. There are of course other similar examples of low gun numbers, low homicide rates and restrictive gun laws without having a tyrannical government.  Are those governments waiting to strike?  Why don’t those governments roll over their unarmed citizens?  Why aren’t the citizens more worried and fighting to gain more access to guns?  Are they fools?  What is different about them and us?  And if they seem content with a lot less guns even when they are unhappy with their government is that an attitude we can learn too.  In talking with a number of people who have served in the military they are rarely happy with their government, Republican or Democratic, and have said to me explicitly that if they were ever asked to turn their guns on the people by the government, they would turn their guns on the government and not the people.  The military are not mercenaries, they are made up of us.  They are trying to protect us.  Why would they aim at us?  The trust you don’t have for your government is the same mistrust the people who make up our armed forces have.  So when you say you need your guns as protection from tyranny you are really saying you don’t trust your military.  Even if these horror of a government were to convince the military to turn guns on the people, of course guns wouldn’t come into play anytime soon.  There would be bombs from planes and drones, tanks rolling through the street, and long range missiles.  Given how armed the citizens are, it seems like the most sensible strategy.  Because among all those military people with guns come people with a lot of training, and experience in strategy.  And the government knows where weapons are being stockpiled by the citizens.  They are coming to destroy your stash first.

But let’s try and go a little deeper.  It seems to me that there is a feeling among those who are pro-gun rights that there is inevitability to certain things.  Governments will eventually always turn on the people.  Criminals will always be plentiful.  I am always in danger from unknown assailants and I need my guns.  To me it is this inevitability that seems to be most damning evidence to this culture of fear.  While no society is without criminals there are societies with a lot less.  While there are no societies without homicides there are ones that have a lot less.  While there are governments that attack their people, there are others that do not.  So we have plenty of examples of how we can change for the better.  What is the attitude and culture of those countries that make them safer from their government and each other?  When you know someone who is doing things in a better way, don’t you usually try and do it that way too?  This is at the heart of what I do not understand.  Even if these fears represent a real in present danger why would we not strive for a society where we live in less fear?  It requires no change to gun laws or the 2nd amendment.  You would simply find that your gun would be sitting in a closet unused as it does in Switzerland.  The oft used example of the safe country with plenty of guns.  Those guns though come from mandatory military service, and they generally sit unloaded in closets by those men and women after they serve.  Nobody is carrying them into the Swiss version of 7/11.

How much damage can an angry person with a knife do, compared to an angry person with a gun?  I hope everybody would agree the latter will do more.  The conversation about guns often focuses on the latter.  It assumed that liberals are thinking that by removing the gun, anger goes away, and it is possible that some liberals think that.  They would of course be incorrect.  Just like there are many societies with low gun numbers, low homicides, and restrictive laws, there are also many nations with restrictive laws, high gun numbers and high homicides.  What are the factors that make those more violent societies? They also seem to have angry people, and angry people with guns.  Our initial question indicates two problems.  Angry people, and angry people with guns.  However both those problems, as you’ll not have something in common. If you could make people less angry, whether or not that person has a gun becomes irrelevant.  And so I agree with the oft used argument that guns don’t kill people, people do.  The problem is people with guns, when they get angry, can do a lot more damage.  Taking away guns won’t reduce the number of angry people just the amount of hurt they can cause.  We can’t treat the problem like it’s all or nothing, if we can reduce deaths we should be doing that shouldn’t we?  But I’m with the pro-gun people, I’d prefer not to take away people’s guns, I’d rather work on the problem of how to make less angry people.  There are solutions to this.  There are examples of societies that have less of them.  There are studies about what factors lead to more peaceful societies.  It’s a challenging road, it means making a lot of other personal changes, but if you think keeping your guns is important those are your options.  Fight for that society that gets the heart of the problem that causes people to want to kill other people.  Don’t just throw your hands up and say it can’t be done.  We know better.

Finally let’s ask an even more fundamental question.  What are the grounds in which we should end someone’s existence?  Trespassing?  Burglary? Being suspected of a crime? Acting suspiciously?  Not listening to the police?  In debates over gun control issues with people you hear a lot about people deserving today.  “He should have listened to the cops instead of running away”, “If anybody steps foot into my house in the middle of the night I’ll shoot him dead”.  In Arizona a lady shot at a car that had children in it for simply turning around in her driveway.  In a country with due process, with guns we suddenly all get to become judge, jury, and executioner all at once.  In an excellent video about how we can arrive at morality through scientific means over divine guidance, they talk about why we have gradation of punishment in society for crimes.  Why for instance do we not punish rapists (a horrible crime) with the death sentence?  I honestly never thought about it before. Rape of course is an absolutely horrific crime.  The reason is, that if you are already going to be put to death for rape, you have nothing to lose really by killing your victim.  Your punishment can’t be made worse.  Imagine if all crimes were punishable by death.  Would this lead to a more orderly society, or a more violent one?  So if, as many claim, there is nothing we can do about criminals.  If we now arm everyone to the point where criminals now feel any crime they commit is likely to lead to them being shot, what is the response of the criminal mind?  Does the criminal let fear prevent them from doing the crime, or does the criminal simply increase their own arsenal when committing crimes?  Do the criminals not become more deadly instead of committing crimes less frequently?

Given the amount of guns in the U.S., we should be the most orderly society, but we are not.  So once again, I agree that there have to be other factors that lead to a more orderly society with less violent crime.  Can we not all agree to fight for those things?  Can we listen to our sociologists, mental health experts, people who study deviant behavior? Can we all work together to de-stigmatized mental illness? Can we all fight against poverty and income inequality?  Can we demand a media that doesn’t sensationalize and misrepresent statistics to attract viewers, but actually informs and covers issues objectively and reasonably?  Can we all fight for a government that has politicians that don’t try to make you feel afraid to win your votes?  They give you things to fear, give vague solutions on how they are going to make the fear go away, but they never do.  If one side is so naïve as to removing guns from the equations is the answer, then you also have to take responsibility for suggesting that more guns is the answer either.  If you are going to say having your gun is important, and that it is your right, then ethically if you have compassion, and care about living in a society with less death and violence you must fight for all these other things.  You must research solutions to how we create a society, like many that exist currently, with less angry people (whether they have guns or not).  Your evolutionary advantage is not your ability to shoot a firearm.  It’s your brain.  If you can’t see that increasing happiness in society is a more effective means of keep you and other safer then you yourself are a victim of the same fear that ends too many lives.

Feeling the Bern, Taking a Stand, and Zealotry

Bernie Sanders is my guy.  He is a true politician no question and to see he is without strategy would be incorrect, but that strategy I think is an honorable one.  He is trying to have important conversation about real problems that are impacting this country.  He puts forth solutions to those problems.  They are from the perspective of democratic socialism.  As a Canadian I adore democratic socialism, but I can tolerate people having different points of view on the matter.  There are those who have different political ideas.  I would love to see more politicians like Bernie Sanders coming from different sides of the political spectrum.  Actually they exist in the likes of candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein but for a large part, well you know what kind of candidates we got this election cycle – panderers, double-talkers, hypocrites, liars, and those who are ethically questionable at best.  It’s a real problem.  Should we all fall in love with, what I think is at least a good model of a politician.  While my heart tells me yes, I know it’s only because I agree with him.  In the end, for many, it’s still a hard thing to do if you disagree with his ideas.  As I wrote before, among his qualities, ideas and principles I admire is that he tries to be inclusive.  He has reached out to evangelicals, he has spoken in some very conservative areas that some democrats dare not go, and he has even tried to empathize and connect with Trump supporters.

So why should such a man have supporters who are much more extreme than the man himself?  As I’ve watched his message reach people and move people there is no question that he is reaching many people on both an intellectual level and an emotional level.  Ultimately, Bernie like any politicians does play to people’s emotions too.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  While I do think he also have some very intellectual things to say, he knows that to move a large group of people in favor of your ideas it isn’t all going to be done with logical arguments.  It’s going to have to start with emotion.  Many of the things that Bernie Sanders talks about are things you should be mad about, are things you should worry, are things you should be passionate about.  But as I’ve watched people “feeling the bern” over the course of his primary run it’s been interesting to see how many Bernie supporters have become very similar to Trump supporters.   I know I am going to get backlash for saying that.  But many pundits, writers, and just people in general have noted how much anger one gets any time there is criticism of Bernie.  First I’d like to say that I’m not criticizing Bernie, I’m criticizing a portion of supporters who worry me a little bit.  Now let me also qualify when I say “like Trump supporters” I am not saying that you’re racist, misogynist, or stupid.  It should also be noted that such a generalization of Trump supporters is not that helpful, but I am speaking in terms of stereotypes intentionally.  What I mean by “like Trump supporters” is quite simply zealotry.  A zealot is a dangerous thing, regardless of how righteous the cause.  You can be 100% right about something and still be a dangerous person.  If you’re in a state where you cannot be reasoned with or compromise, if you’re in a state where you are willing to go to any length for your cause, if you are in a state where someone is quite simply for you or against you just because they disagree with a portion of your argument, that’s a dangerous place to be and it can be extremely destructive.

I have seen the emergence of the Bernie or Bust movement and I honestly find that movement a little troubling.  People have chosen to take their stand.  Taking a stand at times is very important, but I think we need to ask ourselves, whenever we take that stand, “what do we hope to gain?”, “what is the best way to make my stand?”  and “what are the consequences of taking that stand?”  I truly believe that Trump is an extremely dangerous man to have as president.  His policies, if enacted jeopardize religious freedom, increase the suffering for the poor, minorities, and women. Refusing to vote Democrat carries that consequence.  Are we ready to hand over the judiciary branch to the conservative platform?  Refusing to vote Democrat carries that consequence.  And there are a lot of important issues that get decided by the Supreme Court as we have seen over the past decade.  We know how important the supreme court has been for issues like gay marriage, the ability for public teachers to unionize, gerrymandering, affirmative action and health care. And who knows what decisions might get overturned.  Roe vs. Wade?  Marriage equality?  I am not trying to convince you through fear but only ask that we all carry these ideas in our heads and understand the full weight of our decision.  Also can we not make changes even if Bernie doesn’t get elected?  Can we support more grass roots candidates for the legislative branch?  At the municipal or state level?  Can we do a better job of participating in mid-term elections?  Does the DNC really think they need to make changes when most establishment politicians are already rich, and even when not in the majority still enjoy a great deal of wealth and power? Again maybe Bernie or Bust is the best call right now, but I see less and less reasoning and weighing of the evidence by Bernie supporters as this primary comes to a close and it looks like Bernie will not be the choice to run as president for the Democratic Party.  So again I only ask that we carefully weigh the pros and cons of sticking by our guns at all costs.  Bernie was never going to be our savior.  At best he is sowing the seeds of some positive change and if he became president we could see those seeds grow a little bit more, but we would still be a long way from seeing the flowers bloom.

Bernie_Sanders

There may come in a day where a large majority of us are happy with a more democratic socialist way of life, and today is not the day.  And I’m not trying to just single out Bernie Sanders fans here, it just seems interesting that what started as one of the most thoughtful, passionate, and intellectual movements and devolved into something that it should not in a country that has real problems and needs to work together to solve them.  Continuing on a path of divisiveness and stereotyping the other side doesn’t lead to revolution, it leads to civil war, and I’d rather take a peaceful piecemeal progression towards a better way of life than a bloody one, which by the way, in the end, your side might actually lose.  The idea behind a democracy is not one of…”hey we won…suck it you losers who disagree.” Whoever become President becomes leader of the country, of which, regardless of our political views, we are all citizens and have the right to be treated with humanity and civility by that leader.  We also must demonstrate that towards each other.  Does attacking Trump supporters really teach them a lesson, sway them towards reason or a better way of government?  The most important quality, to me, of Bernie Sanders besides his ideas is his principles for inclusion.  If we truly support Bernie Sanders, I think we must carry that torch more than any other if this country is going to reverse our decline in quality of life and heal a nation which continues to grow ever more divided.