Discussion: Shaming and making amends

In a time before social media, if, in your life, you did something you weren’t proud of.  Say perhaps over several years.  Maybe you were a bully in school, maybe you made some bad mistakes in how you treated women or men and you came to realize at some point how wrong your behavior was.  You might simply just move forward, never making those same mistakes again, perhaps even making sure you advocated to others the harms of certain behaviors because you once practiced them yourself.

What do we think about such a person?  Is it enough to say lesson learned, they are now a force for good in the world and sharing their wisdom with others in hopes that patterns aren’t repeated?

We live now in a time where getting away from your past is not as easy as it once was.  What if you had changed, became even enlightened, but somebody from your past decides that you are a charlatan because of a behavior you once espoused.  What if you were an outspoken feminist, but suddenly someone mentioned that back in school you weren’t the feminist you are now, and that you are a fraud.  You may have moved on, but the harm that you caused someone has left them hurt for years, and a number of other people are hurting to, because of who your past self was?

It feels like this call out culture we have on social media can be a vicious force.  Socially isolating people from communities they are making positive impacts in, and in some cases losing credibility for their entire life as a result of it.  And yet I also can’t help but feel some sympathy for victims of someone’s behavior.  Seeing that they are becoming loved and admired for views they now espouse, but never having made amends to the people they hurt in their past. Thirty years ago this was hardly an issue, but now it is so easy to find people from your past and hold them accountable no matter how much they may have changed?  Should the fact they have changed be enough to sate us, or should we bring them down as hard and fast as possible?

Maybe as we become enlightened as to the error of our ways, we should always be trying to make amends before we embark on a new crusade to enlighten others.  Maybe that’s the better path if we want to make a more meaningful crusade for a better world?  Maybe just trying to bury the past in the past is just being cowardly without facing up to it first and making amends with those we’ve hurt.  Perhaps people shouldn’t be just allowed to move on without any consequences.  Or this just us interested in hurting back instead of moving forward?  Is it realistic to expect true apologies from those who have hurt us, or do we just have to find a way to move forward to and let be, what is?

Thoughts?

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Powdered-Sugar Doughnuts

“If you encounter a new kind of pleasure-if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it – you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in.  But later once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after the first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut.  The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise – or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising.  To the extent that you bought the promise – anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself – you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.”

-Robert Wright from his book, “Why Buddhism is True”

As I read these words I started thinking about our current political climate.  Scott Adams, writer of the Dilbert cartoon, who is oddly a fan of Donald Trump because of his brilliant powers of persuasion talks about the reason people love Trump is because he speaks emotional truth.  I hate to see the word truth get used so badly, and if you want to argue that emotional truth isn’t truth with a capital ‘T’, then I would say I hate to see the word emotional used so badly.  Because let’s face it.  If Trump is tapping into some sort of emotional truth of millions of Americans, there are some pretty emotionally unhealthy people out there.  But there is some truth to Adams words in general, and this passage from Robert Wright’s book made me think of this.  People wonder why so many would vote against their own best interest.  I have wondered that too.  I wondered why so many could vote for someone who is so obviously a charlatan?  Of course charlatans have been fooling people for as long as civilization has existed likely, but when it happens in the 10s of millions it seems strange.  Of course if every snake oil salesmen from history could reach the same number of people on a daily basis who knows?   Like every good charlatan what they are selling is the promise, and not the actual goods themselves.  People’s own interests have become secondary to the promise.  I would also add that Trump promises some mostly terrible things which again is why I shudder to think he is speaking some sort of emotional truth that people are responding to.  The fact still remains that the dopamine is high for the anticipation, the broken promise matters little as long as enough powdered-sugar doughnuts are waved in front of the voters faces.

I will pause to say that even I am guilty of that when Obama was elected.  I know many democrats feel the same way.  The promise of change we thought Obama could bring was definitely a contrast to what actually happened.  Many of us sat down.  We weren’t active, we expected it to happen all by itself instead of recognizing that a good democracy requires continual effort.  Although I still reject the idea that our own delusion of how change happens is the sole reason how someone like Trump got elected.  Republicans have been priming their base for years with fearmongering and misinformation.  They’ve convinced their base how much they like powdered-sugar doughnuts and convinced them that the left is the one that has taken all your powdered-sugar doughnuts.  Trump came on to the scene packing oodles of them (a lot of them in his waistline) and tossed them out to the masses like paper towels being thrown to displaced masses on a hurricane ravaged tropical island.

Every time we think we’ve hit rock bottom with Trump there seems to be another.  What it seems like we are seeing is the diminishing returns of the dopamine hit and so the ante is always being upped.  And make no mistake the dopamine here seems less about the promises that Trump is making but more about how miserable he is making his detractors.  Liberals were an easy mark after all those years of GOP priming and honestly it seems like the promises of Trump are long gone in most of their minds and most of his base just enjoy watching others squirm.  There is perhaps some wisdom to the philosophy of not reacting at all to Trump as this seems to be the dopamine hit they keep craving.  We may not be snowflakes, but our outrage might just be another white powdery substance.   I am not sure though I have much hope to give, because it feels more and more like we have a large group of Americans who have an addiction problem, and I’m not talking about opioids.  As long as Trump keeps increasing the dosage, dopamine levels will stay high in his voters.

We are probably not long away from Stormy Daniels telling her story publicly.  As I read about how she is going to do this now because of Trump’s lawyer saying that it was his own personal money basically violated their “hush” deal about the affair.  I started thinking that this will finally sink this “upside-down world” Titanic.  A covered-up affair, while his 3rd wife is pregnant with their child.  Not someone he had any romantic attachment to, but a porn star, who during the election tried to silence with money.  There are few acts that I can think of more bereft of any morality for a candidate running on the ticket for the party who is supposedly pro-family, and pro-God.  There are few things less corrupt than a politician bribing people who could bring truthful facts about his character to light either.  For a party that is supposedly pro-American values which should include democracy and not corrupting that process I am dubious that this will be taken seriously.  Just as Russian interference in the election, sexual assault, and overt racism, was not taken seriously.

I see little hope at all that this ship will sink.  I see those that will discredit this woman because she makes adult films.  We will have the deluded evangelicals still claiming Trump is an instrument of God.  We will have the hyper-masculine crowded thinking, “well she has big knockers he had to fuck her because he’s a rich powerful man, and such men can fuck anybody they want”.  And some portion of all those people will just be selfish, rich, pricks who really don’t care and just pick whatever defense looks best in their social circle, because in the end, they are making tons of cash and that’s all that matters.  As an aside the only criticism I can think of for Stormy Daniels is that it only took $130,000 dollars to convince her to keep quiet about something that might have affected who the leader was of a nation of 300 million people, and the world’s most powerful economy and imperialistic force.  But perhaps like the rest of us, she thought he couldn’t win anyway and just decided to make a little cash.  Also, I would have thought that as a porn star you are already having a lot of sex with people you don’t choose on-camera, so there would be a stronger impetus to be more choosy with who you have sex with off-camera.  🙂 Apparently, that’s an incorrect assumption.  (Trump…really?  Trump?)

I do think there are also a lot of people who regret voting for Trump.  They regretted it probably within the first 6 months of him being elected, so I’m not trying to pretend that some people haven’t accepted they were duped, or that they knew they probably were but were so desperate for some help they figured why not see what the other side of the aisle can do.  There is good reason for people to feel frustrated by a government that is rife with corruption from big business.  I hope we can turn a corner here for those people in the future.  As I write this we have young people ignited by the recent gun shooting trying to fight for change.  We have more women entering politics.  We have the #MeToo movement.  I also hope we can turn a corner for those whose mouth waters for powdered-sugar doughnuts, because a government that is actually interested in making things better for people, softens the zealotry.  The best way to recover from addiction is to remove the environment in which that addiction flourishes.  I hope we can find away to wash away the toxicity in our society that harms us all.

Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

The Wrong Standards – Arguments against the relevancy of biological differences between men and women as having meaning in society

In my last post I talked about a hoax perpetuated by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, which I argued was not only a bad hoax that didn’t prove what it set out to prove, but seems to be indicative of misogyny in higher academic circles as well.  I’d like to use this as a launching point into two future posts.  This one I am going to address James Lindsay’s claim that gender studies ignores biological differences completely and whether or not this is even important, and then I thought it would be interesting to look in more detail at the gender imbalance that does exist at the higher echelons of intelligence,  and academics.

So let’s begin our investigation into biological differences between men and women with the assumption that such differences exist.  There are clearly some genetic differences and if it’s a collection of genes that go into our various behavioral qualities it’s plausible that there are differences.  But let’s go a step further and say some of the stereotypical ones are true.  An employee at Google reminded us of several of them.  So let’s say men or more aggressive/assertive, more competitive, they are about things, and have a high drive for status, and let’s say, and I hate to even pretend this is the case, that men handle stress better and are less neurotic.  Anybody who’s seen the typical working mother knows that it’s probably more likely that men just don’t have as much stress, but for now let’s assume this is the case.  So conversely this assumes that women are more agreeable, cooperative, don’t have a high drive for status and prefer to have a more balanced lifestyle, are more about people over things (this sort of translates also to the stereotype of women being better nurturers than men), and don’t handle stress as well.

The first thing that matters of course is how different are these things.  In a previous post I talked about some basics about statistics and that any trait is distributed about some mean value.  If the difference between men and women in some trait like aggression is small, there is a lot of overlap.  Meaning there are many women who are as aggressive as men and increased probability that some women will be more aggressive than some men. The main difference is that you will only find men in the hyper-aggressive end of the distribution, and only find women at the far opposite end of the aggression distribution (super timid?).  Whatever metric you might use to measure aggression the closer the averages between men and women the less presumptive you could be about any particular gender having that trait.  It’s arguable though that even if there is more separation if you were interviewing applicants for a job this would not be something you could simply assume and use as a basis for making your decision.  That is still discrimination.  Even if the odds are in your favor there is still a chance you could be unfairly punishing somebody solely based on their gender instead of their individual qualities.

But let’s say the differences were significant enough to have some meaning.  Are any of the traits that women are supposed to have bad for any reason?  Our friend at Google actually doesn’t consider them bad, but simply wants to say that maybe there is just some natural reason for why there aren’t more women in tech and hey who are we to fight nature?

Imagine a society that was built valuing the traits that are so “obviously” female.  What would that world look like?  Could we say it was worse?  Let’s say you were a man going in for a job interview at a corporation.  In this world where the feminine traits were valued, where they are the ones that society was built around you might hear things like this at your interview:

EMPLOYER:  Now you list here on your application that one of your strengths is competitiveness.  How do you think you would fit into the cooperative philosophy we have here at our company?

EMPLOYER:  I’m a bit worried that your aggressiveness might be a problem in a leadership role.  We’re looking for someone who is more thoughtful before making decisions and listens more carefully to ideas that come from their team over making decisions unilaterally.

EMPLOYER:  As a man we know you are more about things, but things are used by people, and so really what we are looking for is a more people focused person.

EMPLOYER:  We think it’s great that as a man you can handle stress really well, but our company has gone to great lengths to creating a stress free environment so that’s not a quality we are looking for.

EMPLOYER:  As you know children are the future and the key to a child’s development is having a parent home in those early times especially.  Given that men aren’t interested in a more balanced lifestyle you’ll simply be expected to take on more responsibilities as your female colleagues go on leave without compensation for those extra duties.  And given that we are playing an important role in our children’s welfare, those extra duties you take aren’t considered as additional experience when being considered for promotion.

A female friend of mine were talking and she just said to me, “I am not exactly sure what life should look like, but if I were to build it all back up from scratch, it wouldn’t look like this.”  I think another thing we have to consider when we are analyzing studies that purport differences between males and females is how much of our society is structured with maleness as the standard.  If women and men have different traits as a result of their biology then much of what we see in society will naturally show women as being disadvantaged as compared to men in a society that is built on traits they on average excel at.  There is nothing inherently better about favoring competitiveness over cooperativeness, there is nothing inherently better about favoring things over people.   Why should assertiveness be more rewarded over being agreeable?  These are all examples of a male standard that women are being forced to meet for no reason other than this is a man’s world.  Even the way we do education could be argued as being structured with male education in mind, given for a long time educating women wasn’t a priority as they weren’t expected to utilize that knowledge in a career.  So if men and women learn differently, maybe we are forcing them to conform to a different style of learning.  Now, I’m not saying that biologic differences don’t exist, but it seriously casts some doubt on any study that is trying to disentangle biological differences between men and women in a world that still uses maleness as the gold standard that everyone must meet.

Finally the onus is on those who purport biological differences in traits between male and female to demonstrate that they are significant and useful in any way.  There a lot of reasons to doubt that this is the case.  In a series of meta-studies and research findings by psychologists by Janet Shibley Hyde, Elizabeth Spelke, and Diane Helpern indicate little to no difference between cognitive abilities in language and mathematics among men and women.  Their results are summarized here.  From this same summary, Spencer (1999) found:

“… that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.”

In another study by Gneezy et. al (2009) differences in competitiveness between women and men is challenged.  Participants from villages that are matriachal (Khasi) and patriarchal (Maasi) in India were asked to take part in a game of throwing tennis balls into a basket:

“They were given a choice of a simple payment for the task—about 40 US cents—or they could earn three times as much if they beat they the other player. Among the Maasai, half the men chose to compete, while only a quarter of the women chose to. Among the Khasi, not only were the results reversed, but Khasi women were even more competitive than the Maasai men: 54% of the women opted to compete, as did 39% of the Khasi men.”

The clear role that socialized gender roles plays in differences between men and women is highlighted in a paper by Guiso et. al (2008) where employers were asked to make quick decisions about who to hire for a job based on performance on a 4 minute math sprint exam:

“Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability. When the only information that the employers had was a photograph of the candidate, men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hiring bias did not disappear when candidates self-reported their ability on the task, in part because women tended to underestimate their ability while men tended to boast. And even when the employers received accurate information about the actual performance of the candidates, the bias did not fully disappear. The more prejudiced a person was, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, the less likely they were to correct their bias.”

Confirming the findings from this study as well as outlining the difficulty with pointing to biological differences as any sort of major cause for the  presence of women with high levels of cognitive abilities and leadership roles, I strongly recommending reading this article by Halpern et al (2012) published in Scientific American.

The article will make a nice launching point into my next post where I talk about the intersection of feminism and atheism or lack thereof.  What seems clear is that there continue to be strong biases against women in both academia and in the work place.  While such bias still exists in our society it seems more apt for the Boghossians, Lindsays, and Shermers of the world to spend more of their time worrying about that imbalance instead of mocking a field which may not be as bereft of scholarship as they claim, and which may have some valid arguments to make.  And if they are the scientists they claim to be and going to rail against a field which denies biological differences between men and women, they should also make sure that all the findings out there fit that assertion.  It seems far from clear that those differences are significant enough to be meaningful in any gender make up of any corporation, tech company, or university.

It may be that at some point biological differences do give us important information that can help men and women achieve better states of well-being in reaching their full potential, but it seems clear we are far from that stage in our society.  Only once we truly see that there is no career or field that women are less qualified for, and that we live in a world that puts emphasis on good human values, not male values, should biological differences really be part of the discussion.

Some Quick Thoughts About The NRA

The NRA is at it again with another one of their dark dystopian commercials that seem to advocate for civil war.  I am not going to do their work for them by posting it here (you can find it yourself if interested).  Several people claim that the NRAs real goal is to actually not try to scare the left and anybody on the right who doesn’t feel like they have enough guns to increase gun sales.  So I did a little digging into this possibility.  We all know that gun sales rose under Obama, with false claims about how he was going to take our guns, but I had know idea how much.  Below is FBI data on the number of background checks performed.  While this doesn’t translate directly into gun sales themselves, the number of checks certainly is correlated.


You might have to click on the image to get a better view.  What I thought was interesting was that despite violent crime per capita peaking in the early 90s and declining steadily since, the number of background checks (for as far as the data goes back) seems reasonably steady, in fact falling slightly until 2005.  What changed then?  This was during the Bush presidency, certainly nobody was suggesting G.W. Bush was going to take away guns, so I did a little more digging and found this article in Forbes.  From the article:

“Over 50 firearms-related companies have given at least $14.8 million to NRA according to its list for a donor program that began in 2005. That was the year NRA lobbyists helped get a federal law passed that limits liability claims against gun makers. Former NRA President Sandy Froman wrote that it “saved the American gun industry from bankruptcy,” according to Bloomberg.”

The NRA appears to have been riding a wave to more and more gun sales since.  By the end of the Obama Presidency, background checks had increased by 300% from pre-2005 values.  It was just kind of a “holy shit” moment for me, so I thought I’d share.  Since Trump has been elected, the number of background checks seems on pace for about 10%-20% reduction by the end of the year.  It seems all the rich gun manufacturers want to keep getting richer, and the best way to do that is for them to market fear.  And that is what they have done steadily in the US for well over a decade.  Whatever your stance on the second amendment this should frighten you more.  Unfortunately for many the fear they feel is an imagined one.

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.

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.