A Tale of Two Universes

When you go over to the “other side”, meaning Trump supporter central it’s eerie. I look at the conversations and it looks like a mirror image of the type of discussions I have. It isn’t full of anger or racist messages, but simply full of the same style of criticism, and sarcasm that one would see on my side. People are civil and casual as they discuss what they consider liberal/democratic points of view.  I am not saying that I agree with what they are saying just that it’s like looking in on another world that’s just like ours, but more like the universe in the classic Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror.

I find this alarming because it means we almost can’t be further apart if you watch the conversation happening on social media.  I hope that social media isn’t a good representation, but if it is, I do understand why many worry about the breakdown in conversation in our society. Even more concerning is the fact that it is very much like looking into a world that is built on fictions. Once the fictions are accepted as true, the rest appears rational and logical. In this way it’s very much like religion in which the unknown premise, that there is a God, is accepted as true a priori and the rest follows.

As much as I pride myself on my analytical skills, knowledge of the scientific method, and ability to think logically, when you see millions of people operating on a totally different set of assumptions it does make you question your sanity. Because it is possible that me and my friends are the ones living in the delusion. So, who has the better grip on reality? Are there elements of truth in both worlds and that we really need to look at a composite of those worlds? Who is qualified to be an arbiter of this? Is there anybody we can trust or believe to look at both sides objectively and determine what is real?

I base much of my morality on the simple idea of cooperation.  We are a social species; we bond with others through reciprocal altruism (i.e. the golden rule) and we survive better because we work together. Which side violates this more?  The problem is a bit of a numbers game. We can easily see how in an 8-person rowing team, one person acting in discord is noticeable. We can that person is certainly not coordinating efforts with others. In a tribe of a few hundred, discord will also stand out likely from a survival standpoint. However, we are millions of people.  We are in discord and this impacts how we function as a nation, but not as a species. A million racists can all work together to solve problems, grow food, and propagate the species just as well as a million people who oppose racism. And what about building bridges to the other side of the political aisle? Is there one side of the aisle who is better at doing that? Right now, I would argue that there isn’t. If kindness is what connects us to people, then we need a lot more kindness that what it seems like what is currently out there, from both sides of the political spectrum. Thus, at an evolutionary level we can determine truth, because the truth is both sides can survive. Perhaps one side is happier than the other, but survival doesn’t have to be happy.

In the end I must look at bigger concepts like empathy, compassion, and humility.  None of these things necessarily make one universe more real than another, but they matter if we are going to someday be a unified human race working to improve the well-being of all life on this planet. If the other universe is the real one, it is one that separates people into groups, it is based in non-existent fears, categorizing and stereotyping groups, and limiting their rights.  It seems to me that they are far too often making the mistake of believing their rights being limited when most of the time it’s just privileges being lost to those people who were previously oppressed and exploited.  If I’m wrong and my reality is illusory, I feel like I’ve at least tried to:

  • see women as equals
  • see race as a social construct
  • appreciate science and how the best tool we have for knowing works
  • try and be mindful of the words we use and the jokes we make because being considerate of feelings are important
  • that learning and growing is important
  • to have a society where we take care of each other better

These values seem good to me. I can’t shake it.  In my understanding of liberalism, that’s the philosophy I see shaping my political values. Conservatism, at least represented by society today does not demonstrate these values.  While I do think it’s important to be cautious and measured in moving forward the very idea that things are great the way they are and never change is ludicrous to me. Change is inevitable. As a species we continue to learn to try to ensure the safety and health of more and more of our people. We’ve fought and died for it. With time I do believe we’ve done a better job of giving more people a chance to flourish and having more people live that would have died a 100 years ago or more. Our story is one of change.

CONSERVATISM QUOTES [PAGE - 4] | A-Z QuotesPerhaps it is human nature for those who fear change to battle those who welcome it. I like to frame that struggle as the battle between comfort and risk.  Both have their merits and perhaps arguing about it is the only way to reach a compromise, to find a way to move us forward where everybody gets to come along.  It seems once again a numbers game. If we were our hunter-gatherer selves, we would all know each other and how many shades of difference in worldview could we have from one another. However, when you’re talking about billions of people the perspectives vary greatly. And even if some of those perspectives are based on fundamentally unsound principles, when it’s all you’ve known it’s hard to even know that the boundaries that shaped your life can be broken at all. But there is some element of truth in everybody’s story and we’ve really got to do a better job of preserving the essence of someone’s lived life that can instruct, that can be beautiful, and/or weep at the tragedy that unfolded on them.

In the end we live in a time of vast inequality with numbers of people living in abject poverty that we can’t even fathom.  But every time we get a glimpse into that well of inequality we all know that there are some on this planet who have more wealth than they can possible spend, while children literally die of starvation. I’ve heard from economists who pay attention to history that capitalism helped raise people out of poverty. I’m not going to dispute that. However, at the risk of sounding cynical, I worry that even though less people (as a percentage of global population) live in abject poverty than in the past, our drive to give people the barest of wealth to get by is not because capitalism cares about people, but because capitalism realized that more people means more labor and more consumers. Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men ...Capitalism was never an ethical system, it is an engine to generate wealth and nothing more. We better come up with answer to what all this wealth is for, because capitalism is moving on without human labor. Automation is coming. More wealth will be generated by corporations and the need for labor decreases. Eventually the system has to collapse in on itself because if people have nothing to do they will not have any money to buy things. The narcissism of greed is our real enemy.  I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who feel they don’t have value and what they do has no value. The people with the money want you to believe that some other group is to blame. Some group who’s just trying to live their life and hope that things stay secure enough so they can raise a family and have a little fun along the way.

I’m trying to be my optimistic self during these times, but it’s a great challenge.  I don’t know the answer to how we can come together, but I do know if we don’t start being a lot kinder to each other it’s never going to happen.

Can Multiculturalism Work?

What is multiculturalism?  Here is something that I am for, and think is a positive thing, but a recent interview I listened to made me wonder if I was perhaps defining it differently than other people.  Not that I am necessarily wrong, but it is perhaps a term that easily lends itself to some interpretation.  Perhaps part of the reason is a definition of what we consider culture likely also varies from person to person.

The argument has come up many times in Europe and North America in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis that multiculturalism doesn’t work.   My father-in-law in Poland has even joined the parade of fear over refugees and said he’s against “multy-culty”.  Many Americans describe the U.S. as a melting pot and promote that as an important part of a successful nation.  But are we really a melting pot?  It’s clear when you look around there are plenty of cultures celebrating events that are important to them.  Whether it’s religious holidays, whether it’s going to the church or temple of their religion.  There are also plenty of restaurants catering to different ethnic cuisines.  We can see the evidence of different cultural norms among African-Americans and among Hispanic groups.

So, what is it that we are actually afraid of changing?  It seems that when most people say multiculturalism won’t work it’s targeting specific values that another culture holds, or is perceived to hold that is different than values held already in the country.  But since there are clearly many diverse cultural practices that go on already that don’t bother anybody is it reasonable to say something so broad like multiculturalism doesn’t work?  I don’t believe so.  That doesn’t mean that bringing in other cultures into your own society won’t have problems.  Part of the reason why the story of immigration keeps repeating itself with one generation of immigrants being criticized by the generations before is that we generally don’t trust what we really don’t know.  But we live in the age of information so there should be a bunch of stuff we do know.   So let’s take a look, and for a little bit, ignore the fact that often in these situations the experiential knowledge goes a lot further than book knowledge.

When it comes to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan let’s face it, a large majority of these immigrants are going to be Muslims and fear of Islam is at a high today.  While extremism exists in every religion right now, a good portion of it is coming from Islam, so perhaps there is a good reason to have more fear, even if that fear compared to other things we have to fear in this world, are exaggerated.  Once again I don’t want to get into any No True Scotsman arguments, because we can say extremists are not truly followers of Islam, but they claim they are so let’s go with the idea that whatever religion people claim they are affiliated with that’s their religion.  It’s true to say that whatever small percentage of Muslims we bring into this country that are jihadists, the more immigrants we take, the numbers go up.  So I think this is always worth paying attention to since a society should always be aiming to reduce violent crime.  But for now let’s just throw away the extremist views and look at these societies in general.  We have very traditional values.  Women do not have equal rights in Islam.  They are expected to dress modestly because they are a temptation to men.  They try to protect their followers from information that would cast doubt or refute tenets of their religion.  Their governments do not have separation of church and state.  Islam has strong rewards for commitment to the religion and strong punishment for those who are apostates (both on this plane of existence and the other ones).  They have no tolerance for homosexuality.  Do any of these qualities sound familiar?  They should, they are the very similar attitudes held by a large portion of the religion right here in the U.S.  What’s very odd about it, is that the same people who have so much in common with all these potential new immigrants are the most against them coming in, and it’s the left that is happy to important such illiberal values into the U.S.

Now before you fight me on this, let it sink in a bit.  If this is the case, what’s going on.  Are we all very confused?  No, but perhaps we are a little confused.  First of all we shouldn’t expect two very similar religions to coexist happily.  It’s easy to see why to very conservative groups with slight variations on “The Truth” don’t want to share space.   It’s also not hard to see that Islam doesn’t have a high degree of tolerance towards free speech, something that many, if not most on the right, consider to be one of our most important values as an American. It is also isn’t difficult to understand why people on the left would be side with Muslim immigrants.  Certainly, when it comes to the refugees there is going to be a great deal of desire to reduce human suffering.  But let’s say, to a large degree many people, whether they support immigration or not, are moved my human suffering.  From an ideological point of view, we’d expect many people to be sensitive to the oppression they’ve endured at the hands of religious intolerance, racism, and misogyny. It’s not completely irrational, therefore, to be against allowing large groups of people that are experiencing oppression and suffering to be painted with a broad-brush stroke simply for being different.  We’re all too familiar with what happens when such attitudes persist in a society.  We know the harm that stereotyping can play and how it closes doors to meaningful conversations which can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutual understanding.  There is value in diversity and adding some might not be a bad idea.  This at least for me is at the heart of a multicultural society.

My concern is that we seemed to have reached a level of political correctness where it is not okay to criticize Islam, out of fear we will be supporting attitudes on the right.  And I would like to believe that there are many people on the right who might be similarly scared of expressing empathy to humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in case they are seen as supporting the left.  Identity politics is not helping.  We have to have some honest conversations about what we can tolerate in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  As a liberal there are certain harmful views that I will not tolerate in any culture, and do not want to see them increasingly practiced in my country or any country.  Many of the Syrian refugees are very educated, which is helpful, but harmful cultural practices, particularly attitudes towards gender or sexual orientation are not dependent on the level of education.  It’s not unreasonable to be against importing illiberal values into our society, just as it is not unreasonable to be intolerant to illiberal values here.  It seems clear to me that multiculturalism is not impossible, but it does have limits and if you claim to be a liberal it’s of value for you to recognize that.  And on the right, the level of xenophobia and fear of terrorism is also highly disproportionate, dishonest and is not helpful to meaningful conversation.

I come from Canada and am proud to say that is one the few if not the last country that largely embraces multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we tolerate every cultural practice.  Canada can boast some of the most progressive imams in Islamic society who actively speak out against Islamic extremism.  I wonder if Canada’s inclusive attitude towards different cultures has anything to do with that?  And I am not under any illusions that racism or bigotry is absent in Canada.  It’s still a problem.  It takes time to solve such problems and I think Canada has made some impressive progress.  Growing up in Canada my view of multiculturalism was that you retain the best of your culture and adopt the best of Canada, and the nation simply gets better.  As someone who is biracial I never struggled about whether to consider myself Indian or white, I always just thought of myself as Canadian, because Canada recognized the value that other countries have brought with them to Canada.  To me, this is one of the principal differences between Canada and the U.S.  Canada definitely thinks we have some lessons for other cultures, but we are humble enough to recognize that maybe other cultures have something to teach us as while.  It seems to me that the U.S. has an attitude that it only needs to teach others, but has nothing to learn from them.  Such an attitude seems to be held by many Americans on the left and right because it seems to play out in identity politics as well.   Maybe, in the end, whether or not multiculturalism can work all depends how willing each culture is willing to listen and learn.  This is a value that we all need wherever we may live.

Why wouldn’t we all be liberal?

An article I came across the other day is one related to a common trope out there about universities being bastions for liberal indoctrination of students because of how liberal all the professors are.  In this article Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters (A contributor to the O’Reilly Factor) went to the campus of Cornell to try and talk to students about how much they were indoctrinated after they found out that 96% of the faculty at Cornell have donated to the Democratic Party for this upcoming election.  Mr. Watters was then asked to leave campus by the public relations person on campus and of course this led to the obvious conclusion by Bill and Jesse that Cornell wants to hide their nefarious activities of brainwashing students into their liberal agenda.

One thing that has always bothered me is that by being educated about something this implies that I’m being indoctrinated or brainwashed into a certain set of beliefs, rather than using my own mind to reach conclusions based on those things that I’ve learned.  While it is true that if I am only taught a certain set of facts or incorrect facts then I may reach the wrong conclusion, but what I want to focus on is the real reason why a well-educated person is likely to support liberal principles.

So there is much of this story that is ridiculous so we are going to have to ignore a few things to try and take it seriously:

  • Ignore the fact that both Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly graduated from liberal arts colleges for their undergrad and that Bill O’Reilly graduated from Harvard. Places with a lot of liberal faculty.  And I know in the past there were more Republican faculty, but in the past the Republicans are not quite like the ones we have today.  But somehow Jesse and Bill escaped these liberal indoctrination factories themselves. Lord knows how.
  • Ignore the fact that many of those Democratic supporters likely teach subjects like math or chemistry which can hardly be considered political subjects.
  • Ignore the fact that most academic degrees really don’t have a political bend to them at all. If you are concerned about diversity of viewpoints then at best you want to have that in subjects like economics, or political science.  And this could very well be the case at Cornell.
  • Ignore the fact that most indoctrination is done when the child is young and is done by parents and four years of college is unlikely to change their mind if they have been indoctrinated well into a particular philosophy
  • Let’s ignore the fact that FOX news has no problems indoctrinating their viewership with only one particular viewpoint and merely calls that viewpoint fair and balanced, when it is in fact not.

So let’s first try to understand what liberal means.  The philosophy of liberalism as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically :  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)

With this philosophy, individual autonomy is valued and this is not unlike an important tenet that Republicans often talk about which is personal responsibility (which I recently wrote about).  Liberalism also holds that government is a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequity.  I would argue that many Republicans are not against equality, they simply believe that we already have it, and that the only reason certain minorities, classes, genders, etc, aren’t doing well is through their own lack of personal responsibility.  And is equality counter to capitalistic principles?  Not necessarily.  Provided equality refers to equal opportunity, then everyone has an equal opportunity to compete in the market place.  So we can perhaps argue about the specifics about where inequality lies or whether we have it or we don’t, but it would seem that equality its is a goal of most people regardless of party affiliation.

Although many evangelicals would disagree, believing in the essential goodness of the human race is something that at least many more moderate Republicans could get on board with.  Believing in the goodness of the human race is a matter of expectations.  I expect people to be generally good and by holding that expectation people generally are good, or at the very least my own well-being is enhanced by focusing on the good and life (and if more people had improved feelings of well-being it would certainly be a better place).  Ask anybody who wants to give you advice on how to reach your goals and they will say things like “Believe in yourself, believe you can do it, aim high” etc.  So we clearly agree that expectations make a big difference in our achievements.  Thus we should both see no harm in believing in goodness if we want the world to be a better place.  So with the exception of the government role in bringing about equality, what specifically about being liberal are Republicans actually objecting to?  Are any of these qualities specifically bad principles to live by?

Now Bill O’Reilly got his Ph.D. so he must at least know that the professors, like him, had to do a dissertation; a dissertation in which they had to have some sort of hypothesis, and present evidence to support that hypothesis.  But one also has to review prior research that does not support one’s assertion, present it, and critique why you feel such evidence might not be relevant to your specific study.   So why is it bad for professors to hold a philosophy that stresses the importance of researching answers to the questions you have, thinking critically about evidence that is contrary to one’s own beliefs or assertions, and exposing one’s self to ideas that are different from your own?

So how could such people not support the Democratic Party when most of the Republican platform is simply counter to reality through a detailed analysis of evidence.

  • Anthropogenic climate change is real
  • Banning abortions doesn’t reduce abortions
  • Tuitions costs are very high and many of our young people start out with massive debt
  • Money is corrupting the political process
  • There is racial and gender inequality still
  • Less people die by terrorism than by guns yet people fear the former more than the latter
  • The war on drugs is a failure
  • We have a higher percentage of our people incarcerated than any other nation
  • We have huge educational inequality
  • We live in a pluralistic society and one religion cannot dominate, and the first amendment prohibits it from entering government
  • We have growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class
  • Revenue from big business represents a much smaller portion of the total federal revenue than it did during our most prosperous times as a nation
  • We spend more on our military budget than the next 8 nations combined.

So I’m not sure what Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly expect out of highly educated people who are trained to do careful analysis of both sides of an issue.  I am much more surprised when I meet a professor who isn’t a Democrat today.  And if faculty used to be a much better mix of Republicans and Democrats in the past, then maybe it’s also worth asking the question, if the shift towards the democratic party by faculty isn’t the product of indoctrination, but rather a reaction to a party that has simply become grounded in beliefs and rhetoric over scientific and historical evidence.  If a large portion of very educated people seem to think a different way than I do, then to deride and quickly dismiss such a group would only be to my folly.  Maybe I should instead listen and at least carefully consider what they have to say and why they think as they do.