The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

Advertisements

It’s the Thought That Counts

It has been discussed by many that our brains are wired on an evolutionary scale, and that the rapid change of society through technological advances has outpaced us, leaving us with many disconnects between what we see every day and what we can actually handle.  In many ways, we might be happier if we lived in small tribes and were closely surrounded by wilderness, instead of surrounded by brick and cement, drive vehicles and get visual stimuli from computer or television screens.   One aspect of this disconnect, that I find quite intriguing, and I think is central to our ability to understand the world we find ourselves in, is what I call and order of magnitude problem.

Think about early man in those hunter gatherer days.  Counting is a base cognitive skill, important for our survival.  But what is that we might count?  You might count the amount of fruit gathered on any particular day, the number of children, or people.  Such numbers might get you into the 100s.  You might count seasonal cycles.  If you were lucky maybe you had 80 of those to count.  You might count lunar cycles.  Getting you to about 1040.  Even this would require some note making, because this is counting over time, and surely you would not sit there and count something that high.  Such cycles of time were the only things worth keeping track of.  We had no need to measure time beyond that.  No need for small units of time such as a second.  It might make sense to come up with some unit of measurement for distance. Something comparable to arm lengths or hand widths…something we might use to size an animal, measure height of people or spears.  When it came to traveling, you might then simply use something like phases of the moon, or number of diurnal cycles.  Once again such counting would leave numbers small.  Occasionally you might find yourself thinking about numbers in terms of fractions.  Maybe something like half a day, or a quarter of an armlength.  For things very small, you probably would no longer use armlength as your standard, but perhaps finger width.  Such techniques are ones that we still use today.

The reality is that if you think about numbers, you probably won’t get very far.  Now do a little exercise for me.  If you think of the number 1000.  How do you think about it, to picture a 1000 of something?  You might think what a $1000 can buy, but money is a fiction that represents a quantity of stuff you can buy which varies depending on what stuff your buying.  If you wanted to actually count, what would you think about.  Maybe 1000 people in a room.  You might have a sense for how big a group that is.  Chances are you won’t get it exactly.  Go down to a 100 and your chances of picturing 100 things gets better.  Now do 10 of something.  Pretty easy.  Now do 1.  Even easier.  Let’s go down another order of magnitude.  Try to think of something that is 0.1.  Here as we move down an order of magnitude we can no longer count whole things.  So think of 1/10th of a person probably gets a bit graphic, so what are you thinking of to imagine 0.1?  For that you now have to think of some standard.  Maybe a mile, an inch, a meter?  Depending on what you choose, you can do okay.  Now try 1/100th.  Again with the right starting point you might do okay, but even dividing by 100 can be hard for someone without a formal education and once we get to 1/1000th our ability to guess at the meaning of that fraction is severely reduced regardless of our starting point.  So if you are keeping track this puts the human mind, on a good day our brains are capable of somewhat accurately sorting out 5 orders of magnitude (10-2 – 103).  However, if we look at the scale of the universe in size we span 52 orders of magnitude from the plank length to the size of the observable universe (please see this very cool interactive graphic that allows you to explore the different spatial scales of the universe).  In terms of time, our quantum clocks can measure up to 1  ten billionth of a second (10-10) .  Meanwhile we know the universe has been around for about 14 billion years (1015 seconds).  If you don’t have trouble digesting such numbers you are a super genius, because everybody should.  Those are just the extremes, but unless you are within that 5 orders of magnitude range I discussed earlier, it makes little difference.  And this is also important because it means that a million miles, might as well be a billion miles in our head.  However, the difference between those two numbers is meaningful.  In science, to consider two numbers like that the same would be to make a grievous error on the order of 100,000%.

Scientists, through years of working with the numbers that shape our world are often better at dealing with these things, but even scientists tend to use conventions to make numbers easier to manage.  There is a reason why you don’t measure the distance from New York City to Boston in inches.  We have developed different units of measurement for distance.  In the old English system we have inches, feet, yards and miles.  In metric, we have prefixes that span numerous orders of magnitude so that we don’t have to always report distance in meters.  For objects in space in our solar system we might use astronomical units to keep those distances in more manageable numbers.  For things outside our solar system, light years.

                  Image of radar reflectivity.

Whatever we measure in science can change over large ranges and change at massively different rates.  Change is rarely linear, but very often exponential.  As a result, we might find ourselves dealing with quantities which very over several orders of magnitude.  In my field a good example for this is radar reflectivity.  You may not be familiar with it, but you’ve certainly seen radar images if you’ve paid attention to the weather.  Higher reflectivities indicate bigger drops and faster rain rates.  Lower reflectivities represent light rain or drizzle.  The difference in size between a drizzle drop and a basic rain drops is no more than a factor of 10, but the reflectivities span over 10- 1,000,000.  Thus, meteorologists convert those reflectivity values using decibels.  The decibel system was initially used for sound given the large range of frequency for sound waves, but now is a common tool for expressing values that vary over several orders of magnitude by taking the logarithm (base 10) of the value. This reduces the number to its order of magnitude.  For example, instead of 106 if I take the logarithm with base 10 of that number I get 6.  And 6 is much easier to wrap our heads around than 1,000,000.  I know I’ve gotten kind of technical here with this example, but the point is that nature, as we’re discovering, does not conform to the numbers our brains had to deal with when we evolved.  And most scientists, while they might have some understanding of the microscopic or macroscopic numbers and the wide ranges of values science employs, to objectively analyze and come to some meaningful conclusions we very often have to be able to visually see those numbers between about 0.01 and 1000.

You might say that such numbers make little difference to most of us unless we are in science, but let’s talk about where our everyday lives might be impacted.  First let’s start with the population of the world.  There are 7 billion people.  Try to wrap your head around that number.   Is your soul mate really just one in a billion?  Could such a large group of people create an environmental disaster? How many bodies could certain countries throw at you in a war? About 700 million, globally, live in abject poverty.  Do the numbers seem so voluminous that it’s easier to ignore human suffering, or make you feel defeated before you try?

What about some of the more important educational and scientific controversies that still exist today? Evolution has been happening for several billion years, but many would like to believe that we’ve been around for only 6000 years.  Religious dogma aside, isn’t it possible that part of the reason that some people resist what science clearly demonstrates is because we are talking about a length of time that few can relate to?  The vastness of time threatens to humble us all as blips in a universe far older than we can fathom. And its size and origin similarly attacks our human conceit at being the grandest and cleverest design in a creator’s eye.

                                         The Geologic Time Scale

Vast amounts of people also create vast sums of money.  Billionaires have almost unimaginable wealth that people still commonly believe that can obtain too.  Politicians and media constantly throw large dollar values in our faces to intimidate us.  When one wants to high light wasteful spending we can put point to something costing 100’s of millions of dollars and we shudder at such an amount being wasted.  Forgetting that with 100 million taxpayers, something in the 100’s of millions is costing us a handful of dollars a year.  I have seen the tactic used frequently.  Once again we might on some level realizes that a 100 million, 10 billion, and a trillion dollars are different, but they are all unimaginably large sums of money that in the battle for what’s important and what’s not, they can all be seen as being on equal footing. The idea that public television and radio need to be cut for austerity is quite simply a joke when compared to a 10% increase in defense spending if anybody thinks that’s going to balance the budget.

One might argue that the microscopic matters very little (no pun intended), but I do think an appreciation for that scale is valuable, if for no other reason helping us appreciation the vast variation of scales that make up our known universe.  Scientists often take very small numbers that might exist for pollutants or toxicity in foods or water, and change the unites of those numbers so that they are bigger.  I understand why, because of course we don’t want to underwhelm in those situations, but maybe it’s also a problem that we continue to cater to this limited range of numbers that our minds most easily manage.   It’s probably best to start incrementally, and perhaps a good example of how we can begin is with time.  John Zande over at his blog, The Superstitious Naked Ape, offers up a good first step towards our lack of comfortability with numbers outside of our “sweet spot”.  The start of our counting of years begins with the birth of Christ, but this is a religious and faith based reason to start the counting of the years.  Why not use Thai’s bone which is our earliest evidence of careful astronomical observations of the sun and moon over a 3 ½ year period.   Instead of the year 2017, it would instead be 15,017.

                                                                          Thai’s bone

It might seem like an arbitrary difference, but I think it would give us a better feel for the vastness of time, and a better appreciation for the numbers that shape the universe we’ve come to know.  Since there seems to be little stopping the advance of science in technology, perhaps we better find more ways to help these brains, made for a different time, catch up.

That Which Survives

I was thrust into a conversation recently where I debated a Christian fundamentalist on morality.  Particular why would we care about well-being, that only an existing divine moral authority would give us that imperative.

It seems obvious to me that morality is born out of need to learn how to survive best.   And this of course would be different for different species.  An intelligent life that evolved from frogs might simply have large litters and leave them all to fend for themselves and have completely different morals that made sense for their particular mode of survival.  For us as social primates we have our own set of behaviors that make us most successful.  I was then asked over and over again, “Why survive?”  As if the answer could only be some supernatural force at worked.  And yet it seems to me that survival is just the nature of life.  I would go so far as to say if the nature of life was not to survive, there wouldn’t be life.  It’s sort of the very definition of life.  I would imagine that this is part of the definition of life we can most agree on.

Thus it also seems obvious to me that as a species of primates who have evolved to survive rather well through cooperation, we survive best when we are compassionate and kind to others.  Building bonds of trust and empathy are not only some of the most long lasting relationships, but also the most gratifying to our own well being.  But clearly it can’t be so obvious, because there is a lot of the opposite going around.

I started to think that maybe there are two extremes of the type of person you can be.  You can be one who thinks the least of us slow us down and prevent us from living in that wonderful future utopia, or you can one who thinks that it difficult to know who the least of us is.  And that everybody, to a certain extent, has something to teach.  Hopefully, that thing they have to teach isn’t what not to do.  But even those are lessons well learned.  Of course most of us are not those extremes.  But we’re all hoping to be more like one than the other.  I think the former can be measurable shown to be illusion, but if you think the latter is easy to achieve you’d be fooling yourself just as much.    I can personally say that there are moments when the illusion seems simpler, and you find the appeal of the black and white view, even if you know that could never be you.  The latter is the path of humility, a path that asks you to accept uncertainty as property of nature.  Not only must you tolerate it, you must actually welcome it and embrace it.  Such a path can be a painful journey, but the well-being you gain from prostrating yourself under the endless sky of uncertainty, baring your soul to the universe, is immense.  Because it really is the best way to see the stars.   It’s always just seemed apparent to me that humans were naturally kind creatures, because it always seemed to me the reason why we’ve survived until now.  I hope I’m not wrong.

Boundaries

We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner.  My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like.  One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head.  They are dark and wooden.  My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose.  My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held.  His only response was “Well where is its legs?  If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.

As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together.  A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams.  A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you.  It helps you sort and categorize.  And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information.  Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening.  Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can.  And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.

And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary.  And sometimes we can even laugh about it.  Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society.  And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives.  Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize.  Rather small really.  You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world.  But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs?  Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic.  Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit.  Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.

All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something.  We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules.  It doesn’t make sense.  As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away.  Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough?  The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others?  I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions.  Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better.  I hate when older people get down on younger people.  As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy.  Is it easier than we had it?  Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.  The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it.  And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.  It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked.  This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created.  The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly.   Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages.  Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate.  Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “

“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas

 

Suburban Excitement

Last Thursday night, close to midnight we had more adventure than we would want in our neighborhood.  Basically about 6 police officers, wearing Kevlar and holding rifles descended on our neighbors.  I am not sure exactly everything that was happening but basically what happened was that the neighbor (whose wife and 2 children were thankfully not at home) was quite drunk and for some unknown reason took his rifle and just laid it down on the sidewalk in front of the house.  Two doors over a mother saw the gun lying there and rightly called the police.  It’s not clear whether she told the guy that she called the police or not, but when the police arrived the gun was no longer on the sidewalk.  One police officer began yelling very loudly telling the guy to come out of the house with his hands up, when the guy came out, he apparently wasn’t listening right away.  Again in as loud and deep a voice as man can shout he was told that he did not do what he was asked right away, he would be shot.  It appears that guy had moved the gun so that it was hiding behind the banister on his front porch.  So I am not sure if he picked up the gun at some point, but there was a lot of yelling, there were officers at different points on the street pointing their guns.  I saw the guy walk down his steps to the sidewalk with his hands up and then 3 officer tackled him immediately (and roughly) and while on top of him yelled at him to get his hands out from underneath his body.  I get the reason why, but could be a little difficult when 3 guys just tackled you.

There is a lot about this situation that seemed just wrong to me.  I feel that it was the right thing to do to call the police, and it gives me no sense of peace to know that I have a neighbor, who when extremely drunk will place his firearm in odd places around his house.  He has a 9 year old boy and 2 year old girl.  It seems to me that this gun should be locked away, at all times.  And if drinking makes you unlock it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.  However, what struck me is how the situation seemed to escalate as a result of the police action.

The neighbor wasn’t threatening anybody with the gun, so the police had no reason to believe that the guy was wanting to use the gun to enact violence on anybody.  And then there was the yelling.  To my knowledge I don’t have any anxiety issues.  I was sober, but when that cop was shouting, I felt very tense.  I felt my heart rate increase.  I was so sure that somebody was going to get shot, because it seemed very imminent.  I’ll admit that I don’t know how police are trained, and maybe this shouting is effective, but it’s hard to believe that it’s the case.  Even though I wasn’t being yelled at I found myself getting upset…wishing he would calm down…I felt adversarial, I felt threatened.  And when you feel threatened, when your scared, when your panic and someone is screaming at you, it just seems so easy to make a mistake, or make a move that might be defensive but is not calmly putting your hands up, exposing yourself even more clearly to a person (let alone 6 people) with a gun aimed at you.  Maybe I’ve been impacted by the media about police shootings, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem like what the cops were doing wasn’t the best way to diffuse the situation.    If you’ve ever just had someone scream angrily at you before, you will know that calmly surrendering isn’t most obvious choice on your mind at that point.  Add in some drugs, alcohol, anxiety issues, mental illness, etc, and it just seems like you have a dangerous situation that maybe didn’t have to become dangerous.

I am not trying to minimize the stress and danger of a cops job, and I am certainly not trying to defend a drunken neighbor with a shotgun either.  I didn’t see what the neighbor was doing, I only saw and heard the cops on the street from my line of sight, so maybe the neighbor was being very threatening.  It’s just that the whole situation just didn’t seem right from start to finish.  From why a neighbor would need to bring his hunting rifle out when he wasn’t hunting, to the swarm of cops with rifles and the amount of shouting.  I am thankful that no shots were fired, but it just seems clear to me how even when there are a bunch of good guys with guns and a whole lot of tension, somebody can easily be hurt.

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.

Parental Ramblings

Dedicated to my toddler who I am watching for the 3rd day in a row on my own.  For the first time.  Mothers are awesome, but being a dad should be talked about a lot more.

“Get out of the bath!”  Child is speaking gibberish.  “Do you want to get out of the bath?” Gibberish continues.  I guess he doesn’t want to get out of the bath.

I’ve reverted to an early civilization barter and trade system.  “If you eat two more pieces of cucumber you will get ice cream.  Two, just these two.  Look they aren’t even that big”.

“If you don’t brush your teeth, your teeth will hurt and fall out.  Do you want that?”  Child responds “Yeah”.

“Yes, you can press the button!”  I say it excitedly, he gets excited.  It’s a great moment.  But then daddy forgets and presses the button instinctively. Child goes “Waaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh! Me! Me! Me!”.  “OMG I’m sorry daddy forgot. No I am not bringing the elevator down again so you can press the button. “Waaaaaahhhhh”.

“You just spilled chocolate milk everywhere…lets get out of those clothes.”  Spill cleaned up.  New clothes are put on…first sip…more chocolate milk on the clothes.  Seriously?

I was thinking we always love how we sound when we sing in the shower.  His voice just babbling words as he plays with his bath toys is so meditative.  These little sounds reverberate and are so peaceful.

“It’s been a good 6 weeks since he peed his pants, that’s really good for his age, so it was bound to happen on my watch.

I just spent 15 minutes doing some pretty sweet Charlie Chaplin moves to much delight and applause.  Charlie Chaplin was in pretty good shape I have to say.  It is at this moment I also realize that I will most definitely tire of doing it before he is tired of seeing it.  Laughter will become tears.  But even so, the laughter is worth it.

I look in awe as he just eats 3 whole oranges one after another.  He definitely won’t get scurvy on my watch.

IMG_20160510_134800So you’re just going to eat the rice and the noodles and nothing else?  Glad I spent 20 bucks on Chinese food.

The most important thing to tell everyone about his trip with daddy to the zoo was that there were no giraffes.  Admittedly it was also the thing he was most excited to be seeing after it was announced he’d be going to the zoo.  Still it was an hour there and an hour back, we could start a little more positively.

He’s having a sort of drunken low fade into sleep tonight.  Like he did when he was about a year old.  He’s be sweet and affection and babbling to himself in fits of drunken light-heartedness.

I say “I love you” and he says “I do too”.  That’s the first time he’s said that to me.