Post-Election Soul Searching: What We’ve Forgotten

In talking with many of my friends who share similar political views it has been up and down this past week.  We search for silver linings, we express anger and sadness, we try to calm ourselves down, and we aren’t always synchronized with others and so everybody can end up arguing with each other at some point.  For me, when something unfathomable to me happens I try to understand as hard as I can.  In many ways this is what led me to understand more about beliefs and why we have them and headed me down the path of neuroscience and cognitive science.  This post will be a bit long, but please don’t be intimidated most of it is copy and pasted from an article that I thought was very well written.  I hope you read the full articles, but if you don’t have time for that, you’ll have to settle for what I think are the most salient aspects.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, that was the beginning of my investigation into trying to understand the support for Trump and generating some empathy for people who voted for him. And it worked.  The eventual Trump win however caused me to go through some deeper introspection as to how I played a role in divisiveness and demonstrated a lack of empathy.  So I came across a couple of wonderful articles (here is one nice balanced perspective) that looks at this rule vs. urban phenomenon more deeply and I think they are excellent reads.  One of these articles I want to quote several passages.  It is an interview with a UW-Madison sociology professor (Kathy Kramer) who has done a lot of research with rural Wisconsinites.  Let’s take a look at some important passages from the article:

“Cramer argues that this “rural consciousness” is key to understanding which political arguments ring true to her subjects. For instance, she says, most rural Wisconsinites supported the tea party’s quest to shrink government not out of any belief in the virtues of small government but because they did not trust the government to help “people like them.”

“Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped,” she writes. However, she continues: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.”

Here we can see an important problem.  And the problem perhaps goes for many liberals as well.  Our identities are tied up in our politics.  Perhaps this should not be so.  We know inside we will never get a candidate he really caters to everything we belief.  In fact, most politicians don’t end up doing most of the things they say they are going to do in an election.  It is because our identities are associated with politics that populists exploit them to gain support.  What if instead we expected politicians to give detailed plans on how they would address the issues of all Americans?  You might not be a person living in the rural counties of the rust belt,  but what are their problems?  And if you are a democratic party member should your candidate not be addressing those people?  Sitting down and talking to them.  The same goes for Republican candidates also.

“What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”

I thought this section of the article was very meaningful.  The first point is something very similar to what I’ve experienced in Canada.  People say things like “The feds aren’t listening to Francophones”, “the government is in the east, and nobody is listening to the west”, “government isn’t helping anyone in the rural areas”.  If you are a journalist doing an in depth story on the problems of the day, you probably live in a city, and there are so many people of different walks of life there, you probably would never step outside the city limits.  But the problems of the day are both urban and rural issues.  I can imagine it must be difficult for people in rural areas to pay taxes but not see benefits from that.  Now maybe they are and they don’t know it, but the fact that they have this perception is a valid thing that needs to be addressed.  I can imagine a majority of tax money being used for urban purposes.  Cities make the most noise usually, especially since that’s where the media focus is as well as where politicians spend most of their time.  And her third point speaks to our own contribution to divisiveness between rural and urban.  I’ll own up and say that I have over generalized in that manner and it was wrong.  And even if they are racist, they are still human.  Why do they have that attitude?  Is it just ignorance?  Is it that they have been fed false information?  Is it anecdotal experience that was taken as truth instead of an exception?  We all know we can easily succumb to such things and develop incorrect or harmful opinions and attitudes, despite the fact that we have the best of intentions.

In looking at attitudes of resentment Cramer has this to say:

income-inequality-usa-15“Look at all the graphs showing how economic inequality has been increasing for decades. Many of the stories that people would tell about the trajectories of their own lives map onto those graphs, which show that since the mid-’70s, something has increasingly been going wrong.

It’s just been harder and harder for the vast majority of people to make ends meet. So I think that’s part of this story. It’s been this slow burn.

Resentment is like that. It builds and builds and builds until something happens. Some confluence of things makes people notice: I am so pissed off. I am really the victim of injustice here.

Not much to say here other than problems don’t just go away, they keep getting worse when left unaddressed.  I suspect democrats aren’t entirely to blame either.  It’s been going on for years under various administrations.  Maybe we can even see this as a source of a lot of racial issues that are cropping up now as well.  Problems that have been happening for years and now resentment is just so high people are angry and upset.

On the issue of race there were several good points raised:

We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined.”

While race certainly plays a role there is again this blue collar vs white collar, rural vs. urban issue popping up again.  My father was a machinist and so really appreciate the value of his work and others like him.  I have often worried about how my son will perceive those people in society given that he won’t have personal experience the way that I have.  But we do live very much in a society where blue collar jobs, low wage workers in retail or the restaurant industry are looked down upon.  I had read an article a few years ago from the perspective of a poor single mother who worked every day, lived paycheck to paycheck, and was on welfare.  She said that she didn’t mind being poor or being somebody who had to work a lot harder than everybody else and not really get ahead, but what mattered most was that people actually felt that she had value.  We shame and dehumanize a lot in this society.  Some people are not good people.  Some are lazy, racist, misogynistic, xenophobes, apathetic, selfish, but they are still human and we have to ask always, how did they get that way?  And if they are treated with kindness and humanity, is there a way in which we can make them a better person?  Cramer continues with:

It’s absolutely racist to think that black people don’t work as hard as white people. So what? We write off a huge chunk of the population as racist and therefore their concerns aren’t worth attending to?

How do we ever address racial injustice with that limited understanding?

Of course [some of this resentment] is about race, but it’s also very much about the actual lived conditions that people are experiencing. We do need to pay attention to both.

Great words.  The interviewer then asks about the idea of people not feeling like they are getting what they deserve:

“Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.

Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They sayit used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.”

When I read this passage it really made me think that this is what a lot of Americans are facing, not just ones in rural areas.  I’ve seen many articles about how the millennial generation struggle compared to their parents simply with costs being much higher in comparison to wages.  Even with a professor wage I know I have less buying power per dollar than my parents did.  There are so many Americans facing the same struggle financially.  The theme continues and Bernie Sanders gets a mention:

         “It’s not inevitable that people should assume that the decline in their quality           of life is the fault of other population groups. In my book I talk about rural              folks resenting people in the city. In the presidential campaign, Trump is very          clear about saying: You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and look            at these other groups of people who are getting more than their fair share.                Immigrants. Muslims. Uppity women.

But here’s where having Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump running alongside one another for a while was so interesting. I think the support for Sanders represented a different interpretation of the problem. For Sanders supporters, the problem is not that other population groups are getting more than their fair share, but that the government isn’t doing enough to intervene here and right a ship that’s headed in the wrong direction.”

leaderI thought this was an interesting observation.  I too saw the excitement Bernie had been getting among more rural and working class voters.  Whether you agreed with his solutions are not, he was also resonating with those that were angry at the government, those that felt the government wasn’t serving their best interests.  Maybe he still wouldn’t have won the presidency, but I do think he at least took the right approach into reaching people and finding common ground among both urban and rural working class citizens.

So what is the way out of this all? Cramer had this to say:

“People for months now have been told they’re absolutely right to be angry at the federal government, and they should absolutely not trust this woman, she’s a liar and a cheat, and heaven forbid if she becomes president of the United States. Our political leaders have to model for us what it’s like to disagree, but also to not lose basic faith in the system. Unless our national leaders do that, I don’t think we should expect people to.”

As much as I’d like to believe that everybody can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps I know that it is really not possible.  I’ve felt for some time that it is our leadership who actually have to convince us that they serve us and not special interest groups.  They need be more vocal about us coming together.  Sadly I think many of them know that keeping us divided is a more effective way to keep power than to get us to unite.

In the end Cramer reminds us that empathy, that talking to each other face-to-face and listening are the most valuable tools we have as individuals:

“One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, “There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?”

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?

I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.

That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.

I’ve always grown in my life when I’ve gotten to know people from different walks of life and I need to continue.  Make an effort to do so.  It was easier growing up because I met so many people from other countries, with various levels of education and careers.  When one has a career themselves it gets a little harder.  I know pretty much other professors and students.  Maybe I need to help Kathy Cramer with her research. 🙂

rural__disenfranchised_voters_push_trump_0_6563315_ver1-0_640_360When it comes to terrorism and the issue of Syrian refugees I’ve spent a lot of time showing research and trying to explain to people the importance of compassion and how disenfranchising people who need our help is likely to increase the level of extremism and not reduce it.  It plays into ISIS’ hands.  And this is all true.  But what if, and I know it’s not all people who voted for Trump, but what is there are lot of disenfranchised white rural voters living in poverty?  Is it likely that they might start adopt more extreme views as well?  It’s an interesting pause for thought.

So in this post I maybe haven’t give a lot of love to all of us who are hurting right now, but I felt this part of the discussion is important.  In my next post, I will talk more about why I think many of us have cause for concern at the new government we face, and how the empathy that I have tried to build here for the Trump voter is not just a one way street.

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Life on the Line

In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line.  This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.  A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day.  Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.

On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen.  Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate.  That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress.  That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life.  Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.

On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work?  Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?”  I am sure some of them do.  Such nobility does exist.  But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well.  Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college.  For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation.  Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty.  Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it.  Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people.  This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.

wash-ham_memeBut they do, do the job.  At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters?  Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs.  And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people.  People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3.  Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15).  We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause.  This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers.  This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in.  I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility.  Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect.  So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.

But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”.  And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self.  “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?”  I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back.  If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially.  It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.  What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one.  Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it.  Had I shot Tamir Rice.  I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge.  Because, how are you going to live with that?

Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids.  Values to die and live for.
Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids. Values to die and live for.

When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best.  They see the worst of society and the see it every day.  There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain.  But so does poverty and racism.  The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help.  You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people.  Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.

The War on the Poor

We have a lot of people living in poverty in this country and through various conversations on Facebook and on blogs you see a lot of arguments against providing a social safety net, raising the minimum wage, and helping them in general that I thought I would compile a list of my least favorite and most fallacious arguments I hear.

  1. I know some people that actually think the government owes them, doesn’t look for a job, and these people are just lazy freeloaders.  Throwing money at them just supports a dependency culture.

Some variant of this argument is often used so let’s dissect it.  Whenever you hear someone say “I know some people…” or “I know this person who…” this argument can already be dismissed based on being anecdotal and not necessarily a representation of how things are.  We all have our own experiences that shape our views, nobody is saying your own experience didn’t happen, only that you may not be understand your experience properly in the context of the bigger picture.  There is no question that some people cheat the system.  But this happens across the board at every level of society, and I would argue that the rich cheat the system by a far higher percentage rate than the poor, the only difference is that the rich can change the laws so what they are doing is legal.  They can afford better lawyers.  More importantly is that we do tend to focus on the negative, and this is what we tend to see.  There are so many poor in our country that even if 2% of the 50 million living in poverty in the U.S. were cheating the welfare system that still 1 million people and FOX news could run 100 stories a day focusing on a different cheater of the system and still not be done in a year, but that doesn’t really give you the reality of the situation.  What if there are a lot of people on welfare who are trying to get a job, or who actually work a job but it doesn’t pay well enough to make ends meet?  What if most people are actually embarrassed that they are on welfare and are trying to get out of it and don’t get very vocal about it.  Do the rest of our time really take the time to talk to all the poor and find out which ones are on welfare and are honestly trying to get out of their situation?  Nope.  And especially if the freeloaders anger us, not surprisingly we are going to take You-Pay-Taxes-So-the-Rich-Dont-Have-tospecial notes on those people and they are going to stick in our memory and support our views about wasted taxpayer money.  I have also yet to find anybody post some actual data on how many of these welfare freeloaders are.  They are always anecdotal.

I would agree that throwing money at the poor is not always the solution that we also need to do better to help people out of it so that they can support themselves, but the conversation always seems to be welfare, or not welfare.  There is a 3rd option and that is to improve welfare.  To say it doesn’t have value is an insult to many people who have depended on it when times were lean.  Not all people on welfare are on welfare for the rest of their lives.

And concerning the subject of wasting taxpayer money if we want to play the “I’m not supporting things I don’t like game” with my taxes, then I would also not like any of my taxpayers to go to foreign wars that I disagree with.  You pull your money out of the freeloader driven welfare system, and I will pull my money out of military spending, and I guarantee I will be much richer at the end of the day.

  1. I have never had to work a minimum wage job in my life. If you can’t live on minimum wage, go find a better job.  Ask for a raise.

Once again we have a point that rests on anecdotal experience.  I find these statements also come from white people.  I’m not saying their racist, but perhaps the people who hired you are, and preferential chose you.  That’s a light argument though, so let’s get a little deeper.

Let’s just look at it by the numbers.  In a capitalist society I think conservative and liberal alike we can say that businesses want to make money.  They will definitely maximize their profits by selling some product for the highest possible price that gives them a large base of customers, and they will try to cut costs on expenses.  People that work for them are part of those expenses.  So we would expect that just like there are always a very small amount of really rich people in the country, there are also going to be a lot of low paying jobs and then less and less jobs that are higher paying.  The more special skills you have, and this could simply being really strong and doing hard manual labor, trade skills, or this could be, being highly educated, you are of course are going to garner a higher wage.  The types of jobs available to the high school graduate are small.  You have a job at $7.25/hr and you want a better one, and of course a lot of people do.  You have to compete, and if that higher paying one doesn’t require a specific skill set then you have even more competition, quite simply not everyone can get it.  So just to say “Find another job” isn’t realistic.  Finally, how easy is it to find that new job when you are working 5 days a week and actually can’t search for jobs which are quite often only open during the times that you work?  How do you take time off from your job, unpaid, to go look for jobs?  How do you think your boss will react when you need to take an afternoon off to go to a job interview?  And if they don’t get the job, they’ve lost money just by taking those hours off.  Money they desperately need.

The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina
The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina

More importantly many poor people have other issues to deal with than just finding that better job.  What if that job is another city?  Can they afford to move if they already have no money?  What if by moving they lose the support of family who can help reduce their costs by taking care of their kid(s) while at work?  Even a job in another part of the city may involve a long commute on public transportation which increases the time that they have to leave kids at daycare or a babysitter that increasing their expenses.  Finally, should we really expect other people to move away from friends and family for a better job, a decision many of us are not willing to make either?  Why is it so unreasonable for them to expect the minimum wage to be increased and keep pace with inflation, since it has not?

Well wanting the minimum wage raised, is actually asking for a raise.  Going back to the start of this argument, in a capitalist society why would a company raise the wage of a minimum wage worker if they didn’t have to, if they job had such a low skill they could just replace them with the next applicant?  What if by asking for a raise, the boss actually decided to terminate them or give them worse hours?  When you are barely surviving rocking the boat isn’t always the safest play either.

And raising the minimum wage will help greatly with reducing suffering.  While it’s probably best to raise the minimum wage incrementally, in general the idea that prices on everything would double is wholly untrue, since wages are only a portion of expenses for a business.  While $15/hour might be excessive, no study finds that when the minimum wage is raised to keep pace with inflation that this harms the economy. This article by the Department of Labor does a great job of discussing it and remember that when people actually have money to spend, this is good in a consumer driven economy.  All those people in poverty aren’t buying as much stuff as you think.

  1. People on welfare are buying steak, have smart phones, getting manicures, smoking, buying drugs, etc.

Nothing cheers me up more than a person of privilege who has been fortunate to have the luxuries of this world, whether through marrying someone with a great job, or being born into a middle-class or higher family, complaining about other people wanting those things too.

Let’s ignore the fact that people need a phone, and that smart phones are practically free, and that maybe spending more money on quality nutritious food is maybe a better idea than crappy food which is cheaper and leads to all sorts of health problems.  But let’s look at the psychology of poverty .  When you live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and have grown up in poverty, your ability to long term plan fades, and yes you tend to not save money depriving yourself of creature comforts, because your life is one in which appears to have no long terms solutions.  So why live for tomorrow, when you can live for today?

Income-InequalityIn my training for my volunteer work we had to try and make a budget based on what a family makes on two minimum wage jobs and it is a daunting task.  And of course there are many families that do try to save, but saving is hard to do when you’re poor.  If you don’t have access to public transport, you have to depend on  car.  And people live in poverty have to buy old cars that nobody else really wants, but they can get a good deal on them.  However, such cars need repairs frequently, and repairs cost.  Now you could say why don’t they get a better car that is more reliable.  Quite simply it costs more and they wouldn’t qualify for the loan.  This leads to, what I call, the “stay-in-poverty-feedback loop”.  What little money poor people often save goes to these types of expenses because they literal can’t afford better quality stuff.  Car repairs are just one example, but people in poverty often have to get home repairs more often, replace things like water heaters, furnaces, or air-conditioners more often, because poorer housing means people are getting used, cheaper, and/or older stuff in their home.  So even if they are able to put away a little money each month it often gets eaten in one fell swoop by these unexpected repairs.  And there are plenty of other big costs, like health care, which they often put off, even if they have insurance to save money on co-pays, but then this compound into a worse cost later, but remember how poverty doesn’t lend itself to long-term planning.  And if you have kids, there are even more emergencies that can come up.

On the topic of buying drugs, well I don’t see a lot of people asking that all employees receiving public money take such drug tests, only poor people.  Some how if poor people are doing drugs, that is more egregious than any other income bracket.  As it turns out though, the amount of drug abuse among those on welfare is staggering low. So low that the cost of testing everybody costs more taxpayer money than letting that small percentage of people have their drugs.  Not to mention that just cutting off their life support doesn’t actually work as a deterrent to doing drugs, just makes them resort to more desperate measures to obtain drugs likely causes more problems.  And throwing these horrible drug users in jail, just gives them a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a good job and get out of poverty.

 4. Why are they having babies if they can’t afford to raise them?

Well there are all sorts of reasons that people have children, and if we ignore the fact that there are many areas of the country that don’t have adequate sex education, women don’t have easy access to birth control, or that a woman might simply get pregnant because a man lied to her, or the birth control failed.  But let’s say that there are these terrible women out there who are having children as some sort of scam to get more free money.  I am sure such women exist.  Nevermind the fact that such women were likely raised by a similar mother, probably has little education and special skills and is certainly not mentally well to be making that decision, should we cut her off from that money?  Is this the way she will become a wonderful mother? Or will she literally be unable to cope, unable to keep up with all her new responsibilities?  More importantly it’s of little good to question whether she should have had children, she does have children.  These children are innocent, they’ve done nothing wrong, and so cutting off the mother also harms the children.  Where is the humanity in this?  If you’re pro-life then this must also be part of your consideration if you care about children.

  5.  Poor people need to be more personally responsible.

I’ve blogged about personal responsibility before, I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said there, but I think we can agree that one’s responsibility for themselves depends on the environment in which they were raised, such as level of education, family, friends, culture, etc.  And as I also stated in that post, when we look around we don’t see a lot of people being personally responsible.  Politicians rarely are.  Rich kids like Ethan Couch certainly don’t show a lot of personal responsibility and so even if you believe that personal responsibility comes down to the absolute free will to choose to be that way, it’s clear that a lack of personal responsibility is not a trait that only applies to the poor.  Should we say that rich people are allowed to lack personal responsibility, but poor people or not?  More importantly why aren’t we asking the question of personal responsibility to those that are extremely wealthy?  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than you can spend in your lifetime.  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than is required to meet your basic needs have plenty of luxuries and send your kids off to the best of colleges?  Is it personally responsible for corporations to ship jobs overseas just to make more money, while their fellow citizens now struggle to make ends meet?  Is it personally responsible to make that 5 billion in a year than the 2 billion you might make if you paid your employees a fair wage?  Is it personally responsible to not pay your fair share in taxes by hiding your wealth in off-shore accounts and other tax shelters?  For those who hold personal responsibility as the most important of virtues, can we not apply this attitude consistently across all economic classes?  Why are only the poor held to these standards of personal responsibility?

———————-

I know this is already a little TLDR, so I’ll be brief here.  In a line from the movie the Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey’s character says “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is that he convinced the world he doesn’t exist.”  Well maybe there is an even greater trick.  Is it possible that those who are driven by greed in the acquisition of wealth and power have instead convinced you that the poor are the demons in our society?  That even though a majority of them work longer hours, take less vacation, receive poorer education, less nutritional options, worse health care, and less social mobility, somehow a good proportion of the wealthy have led you to believe they are the bane of your quality of life?  And so effective is this message that many of the poor are complicit in that oppression and vote into office the same people who have demonized them in society.  If trends continue as they do, with the exception of a small percentage of the population we all sink together so let’s stop making the poor our enemy.

Social Media, Fear, Change and Love

It has been a rough past few days.  Even though I thought I had thinned my social media friends to a group of more reasonable people, you still end up seeing the most ridiculous comments come up under friends’ threads in regards to the Syrian refugee situation.  And still there are others that you feel obligated to keep as friends, but at this point I just feel like I can’t do it anymore.  While I feel that it is important to not isolate myself intellectually, what I see through social media does not present me with intellectual diversity, only differing opinions.  Opinions not based on any evidence, but simply fear and rhetoric.  Is it important for me to know that such viewpoints exist?  Sure.  But I know they exist now, and I think it’s time to be done with it.  Let’s face it.  Social media just isn’t the place to change anybody’s mind.  There was one person whose opinion I influenced in my entire 7 years or so on Facebook.  I remember it fondly.  It was a beautiful moment.  Perhaps I hoped I could relive that moment again somehow, but either I’m utterly awful and changing people’s mind, or social media just isn’t the place to do it.  Or maybe it’s both.  Either way the result is the same.  My sanity and well-being is more important, because being bombarded with the kind of people there are out there just drains me of my strength. And I’m not talking about ISIS.  I expect evil to exist, but I also expect us to fight that anyway we can.  Not just with guns, but with the most powerful weapon we have against hate and that is compassion and love.  And I just don’t see enough of it right now.

A lot of the impetus for this e-mail came from reading an article this morning here about fear.  Something I knew, but I reminder of how fruitless the battle is on social media is no matter how many studies or facts you post, ultimately what you are fighting is fear.  People who don’t want Syrian refugees are afraid.  Whether that fear is unfounded or not, this is the culture we live in.  Politicians (especially on the GOP side) and the media love to make people afraid.  People who are afraid are easier to control, the less likely they are to think critically, and the less likely they are to use reason to get them out of that state of fear.  I must ask myself the question then if engaging someone in an issue directly isn’t working, how do I make people less afraid?  I can find no way to easily do that on social media, so I’ve decided that ultimately maybe it’s better that if social media is going to be relaxing and enjoyable than I just need to make it a community that I want to be in.  I’ve thought about dropping Facebook altogether, but with family far and wide, and good friends I want to stay in touch with I know that’s not realistic, but maybe it’s my own weakness, or maybe it’s just age, but I can’t keep getting bombarded with bigotry and hatred every time a tragic event happens and we have the compassionate reaction continues to get treated as the worst idea ever.

To those of you who are afraid.  I wish I could take that fear away.  I wish I could help you realize that statistically, the real things you should be afraid of in this world have nothing do with refugees fleeing for their lives, black people, or gay people.  I wish I could convince you that nobody is coming for your guns, nobody is persecuting you for being Christian, nobody is turning your children autistic or trying to poison you with vaccines, and the anthropogenic climate change is a real problem and not a liberal agenda by scientists.  I wish I could convince you that most people really do want to help you and that most people want to simply enjoy the same feelings of freedom and safety that you have even if you do live in too much fear to really enjoy the life you’ve been given.

Many of you who live in fear, live in a land of what ifs.    I wish I could ask you to ask a different set of what ifs too.  What if things actually get better if we help people?  What if by embracing the unknown it becomes known and we aren’t so afraid anymore?  What if instead of creating more enemies, you gain more friends.  What if defeating an enemy is actually done through compassion than hate?  What if those people who you dehumanize are not that different from you?  What if the difference in whether the outcome of a situation is good or bad, depends mostly on your attitude and that you can make things better simply facing a situation with courage, love, and humility, instead of running and hiding?  And since history teaches that empires often crumble, what I really wish is that you seriously sit down and ask the question what if that destitute Syrian refugee who once had all the comfort in the world but who is destitute, scared and has lost friends, family, and love ones was you?  Really think about it.  Really think about what kindness would mean to you at that point.  Really think about how desperate you might be to even have a remote chance of feeding your children.

And finally to those whose concern for the homeless and impoverished in our own nation have come to the fore.  Assuming you are not just making excuses, then bravo.  We have a lot of people who suffer here too.  We have growing income inequality, a shrinking middle class.  We have a high cost of tuition that prevents many people from getting educated unless they start off life in a great deal of debt.  We have a lack of sex education, we have a lack of social support for families who need more maternity and paternity leave.  We have disparity in public education K-12, and many states that lack funding, accurate historical textbooks, and are forced to not teach strongly supported scientific theories like evolution, the big bang and anthropogenic climate change.  We have a corrupt political system that favors money over serving the people.  We have incarcerated far too much of our population for minor crimes, and a tilted justice system against minorities that prevent them achieving the equal status that law guarantees them.  We have spent vast sums of money on foreign wars that haven’t seemed to make us feel any safer, and have most likely bred more harm in the world than we have helped.  And if this compassion that is overflowing in your heart for your fellow man or woman here in the U.S. I encourage to fight for it every day, not just on days where we talk about Syrian refugees being let into the country.  I encourage you to always be politically active and vote for those people who can bring about the change we need to help our own people.  I even have a presidential candidate just for you. 🙂

You live in a country that over time has helped many impoverished people from other countries.  You have helped women, blacks, and LGBT’s become more equal and gain more freedom.  These are all things to be proud of.  Compassion requires perseverance as well, so don’t ever think you are done.

Finding Equilibrium

In a previous blog post I wrote about some of my questions about equality.  Why do some people actively seek it and why don’t others?  Is that they already see the world as equal as it can be?  Do they simply accept a natural order in which things are going to be unequal?  Or are they simply selfish, knowing inside that equality might remove them from a position of privilege?

Whatever the answer to that question is, a recent conversation with a friend, and articles about the inequality that exists in areas of Baltimore, got me thinking a little more about equality.  I started to think about the question:  What does equality even look like?  Is equality a state of perfection that we cannot attain?  Are we caught in idealism and not being practical?  How can equality be achieved, when we are all different?  I think those of us who fight for equality have visions for what that might look like, but have we ever actually seen it?  Does this sense of equality only lie in our hearts and we push in a direction not really thinking about where we end up?  Even though nature often tends towards balanced, it is state rarely reached if ever.  Instead we find most things oscillating about a state of equilibrium.  Many times that oscillation is damped, meaning that while we never quite reach a state of balance, each oscillation is not as wild (or in other words doesn’t take us as far from equilibrium as the preceding oscillation).  Is this perhaps what the fight for equality looks like – swinging back and forth until finally the oscillations about that state of equality or so minute that we can no longer detect the inequality anymore?  In a complex society where one can find many areas in which inequality exists, do we prioritize the most obvious ones first, until other ones seem resolved to the point that new areas of inequality see more important?  Or as a fellow blogger wrote when addressing the issues of vaccines, can we sometimes make the issue worse by continually fighting for something even when the problem doesn’t exist because of the time and energy we have invested into a cause?  A recent Daily Show piece discussed how anti-GMO groups have actually helped large corporations, like Monsanto, to gain more of a stranglehold on the food supply because they are now the only ones with the money to be able to afford all the bureaucracy it takes to get a patent on a genetically modified seed.

It occurred to me that although we might be great at pointing out inequality, how often do we have a conversation about what equality looks like, and does it exist anywhere?  Are there real examples we can use?  Are there any microcosms of the larger society we all want to live in?  It is has only been within the past 30 years or so that a lot of psychological research shifted away from just looking and ailments of the mind and started focusing on the more positive aspects of our humanity, like happiness.  While depression is terrible and it is important to help those with depression out of those states, is learning how not to be depressed that same as knowing how to be happy?  Can we always derive what a good example is, by simply only looking at bad examples?  I believe the answer to that is no.  Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned about the kind of husband and father I didn’t want to be.  But as I had marriage troubles in my own life it occurred to me I never thought enough about what a good father and husband is supposed to be like.  It required a certain rewiring in my thinking.  When it comes to studying happiness it required asking a set of questions that haven’t been asked before.  What makes people happy?  What kind of behavior to happy people exhibit?  What kinds of societies are happier? These questions are important to ask and science has helped make a lot of progress in the area of happiness.

So while we are all pretty great at point out inequality maybe we should shift our focus to talking about what equality would look like.  Find real world examples.  Analyze how and why those societies work and how they are advantageous to what we already have.  Pointing out inequalities between men and women have value, but let’s have a conversation about what are the positive values we want a human to have, regardless of gender.  Let’s have an idea of where we are going, before we push.  It might even help us get there faster

Headlong

Well between being a dad and a professor, blogging has taken a backseat.  This of course doesn’t stop the ideas from flowing, so I just thought I’d get at least one of them out even though I’m having to wake up at 5:30 am to do it!

My blog post is once again inspired by my son.  One of the things my son likes to do is drink, whatever we might be drinking, from our glasses.  I find myself enjoying this quite a bit, because it’s clear that he wants to do things like we do.  At times he will often try picking up our glasses and try to drink from them, with of course disastrous results, but his drive to be like us is clearly strong.  The reason why I enjoy this so much though is because there is something wonderful just being around someone who is clear is striving each day to be more than they are.  You might say, well of course babies/children strive to be more than they are, because they have to grow and develop those basic cognitive and locomotive skills.  So I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking, but it made me reflect on a number of things that I think have meaning at any age, and gave me some important reminders as I move forward in life both as an individual and parent.

As I was reflecting on this last night it occurred to me the importance of failure.  While, as parents we marvel at our child’s successes I wonder how often we think of their failures.  If I really start to think about it I know that every achievement of my

From http://www.wholeheartedleaders.com

son is built on the back of many more failures.  Whether it was a failure sit up, stand up, walk, or clutch an object in his hands, these activities failed numerous times before he was able to master them in any meaningful way.  And it occurred to me that if you are not failing at anything right now, you quite simply are not growing.  In these early stages of life the failure to success ratio is high.  My son is constantly reaching in ways that exceed his grasp, but is undeterred by failure and this is something I find wonderful and inspiring.  While he still needs help sipping from a drinking glass because he cannot lift it up to his lips in a controlled way on his own, I know that he will get it.   Sometimes I wonder if I slow his progress by helping him though.  He’d probably learn a lot faster if I let him fail more often, but of course the amount of spills I’d have to clean would be a drain on my time and resources.  It takes away from other things that I could be doing which would be important for parenting or important for myself.  And of course in some cases these failures might be detrimental to him as well.  We need fluids, and if we are constantly spilling ours then we aren’t getting the sustenance we need.  This is, of course, one of the things we must balance in life.  Doing an activity that we’ll fail at is an energy cost, and thus we must have energy in excess to afford to fail.  Growth implies risk, and risks can be costly.  That doesn’t change the fact that without taking risks we tend to stagnate.

Dhyan_box
Sometimes my son even enjoys falling. 🙂

So what deters us from this completely necessary quality of risk?  Since risk involves the uses of resources and energy, there are environmental factors that simply put limits on the risks we can take.  The beautiful thing about children (and often scary at times) is that they think nothing of the risks they take.  No matter how many times he fell trying to walk, or get down from the sofa or bed, he still did it.  As we grow and become aware of more things we learn restraint.  If I lived in one of many places in Africa where clean drinking water is scarce, one of the things I would make dead sure of is that I didn’t leave a glass of drinking water within in reach of my son, because drinking water is precious and we could ill afford to have any spilled.  So the risks we are willing to take or let others take are governed by the energy and resources (or the perceived energy and resources) we have available to us.  I think this is something we forget.  It is very common in the world to denigrate the poor and criticize them for not lifting themselves out of their poverty.  Since risk leads to growth, and risk is at least partly a function of the security of energy and resources in our lives, those that have limited resources simply cannot achieve as much as those of us with privilege can achieve.  While there are always remarkable stories of people crossing that boundary, on average a person who starts off with more will always have the potential of achieving more.  Therefore we’d be well served to stop judging those in poverty and that they require our compassion to help raise them up.  Should I wish to let my son fail at drinking water from a drinking glass I have the resources to supply him with endless amounts of water.  It seems that the path to a better society comes from those of us who have an excess in resources finding a way to create an environment for those in need to have some minimum level of security so that they feel safe to take risks.

Our inability to take risks can also be impacted by our memories of failures.  There comes a point where feelings of failure can be somewhat traumatic.  It can make us not want to try something again.  I have postulated, not sure if it’s true, that one of the reasons why babies don’t form a lot of memories is because if they did they might be scared to take risks.  This is something that a young child absolutely has to do just to be able to master basic movement and communication skills.  My son has fallen hard at times, and after a few minutes he is back trying the same thing again.  This short term memory seems a blessing at this age but it won’t last forever.  Of course if we reflect on failure we would see that it is teaching us something, and that we probably should worry about failure a lot less than we do.  If you’ve tried something a number of times and still failed, well maybe the lesson to be learned is to not do that activity anymore.  That in of itself can be a success.  Learning about what you can’t do, moves you in a different direction to try things that you have a better chance of succeeding.  If energy and resources are finite then there is wisdom in not continuing in an activity once we realize that it is beyond us.  This means the only truly detrimental failure is the failure to never try.

dhyan_cutlery
My son, failing to use cutlery in any meaningful way. 🙂

 

It’s easy once you get to the age of 40 to play it safe.  Likely your life is already full of failure and it’s simple to say “enough is enough” and just survive.  I was joking yesterday with my wife, given the extremely fast rate my son is figuring out how to use an iPad (and believe me we don’t give him a lot of access) that maybe that’s why kids always have to figure out technology for their parents, because once you have kids it’s easier to stop learning and let them (who learn things much faster and easier than you) do it for you.  Ultimately this is not the type of person I want to be.  I want to continue to grow, and over the last couple of months I’ve realized there are numerous areas of personal growth that I want to achieve and while I may like myself, to rest on my laurels would also be a mistake.  I watch my son attempt tasks that are beyond his abilities and must remind myself that I must never stop trying to push my limits, and to take chances doing things that have a high chance of failure.  It’s surprising how cautious we become as we age.  It seems that perhaps the real secret to staying young is to maintain at least a shred of fearlessness and at least an ounce of self-confidence that defies what we think we know of ourselves.   I must also remember to turn my parental instincts in a way that supports experiences of failure for my son.  I’m not saying that I would intentionally cause him to fail, but only to remember that loving my son is not about preventing him from ever failing, but rather allowing him to fail, and stepping in at the right time to help him learn the most from his failures.  So smile at your failures.  They got you this far, and here’s to hoping you have many more.

Striving for a better world where you can keep your guns

An article I read recently has helped me admit the truth in regards to gun control.  There is truly no tragedy bad enough for us to reform our gun laws.  So be it.  It is a tiresome debate to be sure, and so I wanted to approach it from a different perspective.   In fact accepting the fact that people want their guns in this country has helped me ask questions that I might never have asked.  So let’s begin.

Let us accept as fact that guns are the best way to ensure safety in the U.S. today, which is full of criminals and people who want to hurt you.  Or in other words there are bad guys with guns; you need to be a good guy with a gun.  I don’t deny that there are far more good guys with guns than bad.   Okay, so you need this gun, whether it is to protect the people you love at home, or you might have to stop a bad guy with a gun in a public place.  I hope that it is not too much of an assumption to say that neither side of the gun control debate wants to have crazy people invading their homes or pointing guns in public places wanting to cause harm to others.  If you feel you need a gun in the world we live in now, that’s fine, but wouldn’t you like the world to get better?  Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a world where you didn’t need that gun?  Because let’s face it, a crazy person with a gun wanting to harm people is a stressful situation.  Somebody is likely to get hurt anyway before that person can be stopped, and the fright of a crazy person with a gun breaking into your home and being shot in your living room is an ugly sight to all who live there and can be traumatic, even if you were to just scare the intruder away with your gun.   So would it be safe to say that all would like to live in a safer world in which a gun wasn’t necessary?  It seems reasonable.  Again nobody physically wants to take your gun away.  I personally have no problems with guns staying in boxes in the corner of your basement, collecting dust because there is never an occasion to use it.  Even soldiers at war look forward to a time when they can lay down their weapons and not have to use them again.

Let us also accept the fact that there will always be criminals.  This is probably true also.  But is it true that crime levels are the same everywhere?  Of course it isn’t.  There are places with less crime, less homicides, and in some cases a stunningly low amount of guns. Now if we removed the U.S., which is a statistical outlier in terms of gun ownership, we might find that some of the countries with higher gun ownership (still less than half of the U.S. average gun ownership) have low crime.  If such societies exist then it seems that we would want to learn about what that society has done to lower crime, especially violent crime, so much.   Perhaps it is non-restrictive gun laws, but if gun ownership is 20-30 per 100 people, there are still a large number of people unarmed who could be taken advantage of by a bad guy with a gun, so the answer to their lower crime can’t be entirely gun ownership.   And this is aligned with what gun rights activists say, which is that gun control is not a means to make society safe.  So given that there are other countries that are safer, shouldn’t we be trying to achieve this type of society and trying to understand why they are safe?

What we’d probably find is that such societies have low economic inequality, good health care, emphasize education and have a high degree of education equality in all of its schools and universities.  Non-

From whenchemistsattack.com
From http://www.dailyyonder.com

restrictive gun ownership laws are likely to be only a partial answer to the solution.  The NRA lobbies to make sure gun ownership laws remain unrestricted.  They see it as sensible to make sure society is safe.  That being said, why isn’t the NRA also one of the biggest lobbies for quality education? Why are they not helping schools in low income areas getting better equipment and teachers to help people in those communities raise themselves out of their poverty?  Why aren’t they pushing for more funding to universities to lower tuition and public debt?  Why aren’t they using their vast wealth from supporters to create research grants for more research into mental illness?  Why aren’t they pushing for educational programs in schools that might help people recognize the signs early of mentally and emotionally unwell children, who when these problems go unaddressed, grow up into teens or adults who have the potential for violent behavior?  Why aren’t they pushing for better education about drug use and alcohol while decriminalizing, at the very least, marijuana which gives so much of the population a criminal record impacting their chance for future economic stability?  Don’t we want to live in a country where guns are not necessary?   Do we want our Generals in the military to be busy, or would we rather live in times of peace?

What seems strange to me is that it is mostly us naïve liberals who are constantly pushing for more money to education, health care, decriminalization of drugs (particularly marijuana), increased money to social services which help at risk youth, etc.  So I would like to formally say that I am willing to never speak of gun control again, if those who most vehemently support the 2nd amendment also take up the cause to live in a safer society.  You can still have your guns for when the government turns on you to attack you.  But just because society is unsafe, doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something better.  And there is better out there so let’s fight for that, instead of fighting over gun control.  Sound fair?