Since I have left Facebook, I want to do more to create conversation that is productive and civil, so I’m hoping to have more discussion posts like this where I post a little bit of info that I hope leads to more expansive dialogue.
Part of the reason that I left Facebook was how angry I was often getting. One could argue that I wasn’t strong enough to resist the trappings of Facebook but it should be noted that this is part of the design of social media – to manufacture outrage. I strongly recommend reading this article on the topic, and I think reading the link to Dr. Molly Crockett’s Nature article on the topic is also an excellent read. From the CSM article:
“Moral outrage plays an essential role in human society. It drives people to expose and rise against injustice. At its best, social media can channel moral outrage into action, as seen in the success of petition drives, boycott campaigns, and protest planning.
But under the attention-driven model that underpins social media, there is little incentive to steer users toward action offscreen. Instead, it is in the interest of the social media companies to encourage sharing of moral outrage in a way that fosters amplification rather than action. Decoupling user attention from profit could break that cycle, say observers.”
On Facebook I would often see people expressing the same level of vitriol for those who might commit minor offenses against societal norms, to those who were truly monsters causing great levels of harm against other humans. As an example the amount of outrage towards comments from Matt Damon in regards to the #MeToo movement at times seemed indistinguishable from things said about Harvey Weinstein. Some questions come to mind and you can feel to address some or all of them:
Are there times when you have felt yourself feeling equal levels of anger for different levels of offensive behavior? Or do you think that equal levels of moral outrage are justified even for the full gamut of what might be considered microaggressions to serious offenses against societal norms. This seems very much like the “broken windows” approach to moral outrage. Is this valid?
Is social media causing us to lose our way in really addressing the big problems by diminishing our ability to detect nuance among the “bad actors” in our society? And as a byproduct of this do we risk pushing those who might just be slightly on the wrong side of some reasonable set of moral behaviors, further away from where we would like them to be? It seems like we so easily ostracize and shame even small offenses on social media.
Perhaps the net effect of social media is still positive, but even so how can we use social media to be more positive, given that the current model, as it stands, is designed to exacerbate outrage, and not promote productive conversation?
A friend of mine linked me an article that she said pissed her off, and when I responded she asked me to turn the response into a blog post because she said I articulated her thoughts better than she could. I have elaborated on my response a bit here for more clarity. The article in question is here. Reading at least a portion of it will put my response in context, but I suspect many of you have read posts by the men’s rights and so my response might just make sense on those grounds. For the record, I think the article has some valuable points that are worthy of further discussion.
As is often the case with these types of arguments some valid points are mixed in with just some unnecessary vilification which makes me less apt to take it seriously. I would agree that if we are going to tear down men for their inappropriate sexual behavior then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have those same standards apply to women, and in the article he discusses an incident involving Mariah Carey. I do think there is a case to be made about men not being believed when they are victims of domestic violence or harassment. However when this argument is framed in devaluing the experience of what women have gone through I think this is where this person and others like him begin to lose my sympathy.
I think one can see part of the reason why the person feels the way they do because they sort of give the game away with rejecting the idea of systemic oppression. The model isn’t flawed it’s just more far reaching than he is able to recognize. First, his analogy about terrorism is a poor one, because he’s the reason why we don’t take Muslim deaths at the hands of Christians seriously is because of systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, not because terrorism isn’t systemic oppression. In a way his analogy actually contradicts his argument about systemic oppression of women. More importantly what all such people like this lose sight of is that the systemic oppression of women does oppress men as well. And a lot of feminists get that. For instance, if we value some hyper-masculine version of man the result of this is that it defines both women AND men in a certain way. In a binary view of gender, whatever a man is, a woman therefore is not. Any deviations outside of those category definitions results in criticism and a loss of freedom for both genders. Both genders suffer. The man holds the power to be sure in some respects and this is his advantage, but his humanity is diminished. Want to be emotional? You can’t. Want to think football is stupid? You can’t. Hate cars? Too bad. Want to become a florist? You’re being a pussy. So men do suffer in at least some ways (maybe not as many ways) from the systemic oppression against women.
I would also suggest that most of the “disbelieving” of men comes not from unsympathetic women (and sure there are likely some) but more likely from other men who maintain this hyper-masculine view of society. I mean let’s ask why you might not be believed as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic abuse. The arguments might go something like this:
“I mean you’re a man, you’re supposed to be tough. Just hit that woman back, show her whose boss. And if you did get hit, well you’re a man, you’re just supposed to suck it up.”
“Did you get sexually harassed? You’re a man you’re supposed to like women touching you, anywhere and at anytime. It’s sexy when women want you. You must be gay if you don’t like women coming on to you. I mean every man wants to be as irresistible to women as you are.”
Such attitudes are the result of systemic oppression of women in which hyper-masculinity is valued and femininity is not valued. The quote on the cover photo here is about a male victim from another male, but one could easily see how such a dismissive attitude would even be enhanced if the perpetrator was a woman. Complaining about sexual harassment, being the victim of violence inflicted by a woman, these are all considered feminine qualities and are devalued in a patriarchy. Thus you are treated just like a woman. Disbelieved at best, and at worst ridiculed for being essentially a traitor to your gender. The attitude can even be bore by women, because we are all born into a society that normalizes the patriarchal structure.
As I’ve always argued, being feminist has advantages to both men and women. The sooner we tear down the patriarchy, we improve the condition for all genders and sexual orientation.
We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner. My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like. One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head. They are dark and wooden. My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose. My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held. His only response was “Well where is its legs? If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.
As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together. A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams. A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you. It helps you sort and categorize. And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information. Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening. Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can. And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.
And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary. And sometimes we can even laugh about it. Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society. And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives. Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize. Rather small really. You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world. But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs? Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic. Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit. Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.
All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something. We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules. It doesn’t make sense. As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away. Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough? The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others? I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions. Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better. I hate when older people get down on younger people. As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy. Is it easier than we had it? Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective. The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it. And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy. It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked. This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created. The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly. Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages. Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate. Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “
“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas
So is this the beginning of our descent into madness,
When we forget about goodness, pay more attention to badness?
Is society beyond repair, no fix, eternally broken,
As words of rage and hate are the only ones spoken?
The technology that was supposed to connect us,
Serve only as tool for leaders and corporations to dissect us,
The politicians we elect that someone else selects,
Sit in their suits and mansions immune to the effects
When it comes to true courage most haven’t the nerve,
Why don’t politicians also protect and serve,
In the hands of a few is unprecedented power,
But their indifference to us grows hour by hour,
I don’t want a world where my only hope,
Comes from focusing the lens on my telescope.
And yet it seems so obvious the answer is kindness,
Why can’t we all find a way to get behind this?
I know such a statement is just idealistic,
To reduce the problem like this is unrealistic,
I know there are hurts that people hold onto,
But I also know that hurting back is wrong too,
At some crucial point we’re going to have to say,
We need to come together, the other side isn’t going away,
And the notion of an “other side” seems irrational,
We’re all the same species local or international,
Raise people up in accordance to your means,
It’s not a matter of which way your politics leans,
Life is not defined by our categories and labels,
Simply move beyond the self whenever you’re able.
And maybe just maybe, unplug yourself,
Put your phone or remote upon the shelf,
Give a hug, hold a hand, make someone smile,
And see what in this world is really worthwhile.
Once again another mass murder brings up the debate on gun control, and unproductive discussions full of straw man arguments fly. As I write this I am sitting in Edmonton, Canada where I grew up. As a Canadian I have a hard time understanding pro-gun arguments, and I think it’s safe to say this would be true for a lot of Canadians and people in many other western countries. In light of all the gun related deaths and mass shootings in the U.S. it is unfathomable to a lot of us why this right to bear arms is so important compared to other things like health care or education which many people don’t see as rights. Two things that have the ability to greatly increase your chance of survival not only individually, but collectively as a society. Such things many people have simply turned their backs on. Other individual freedoms like the right to privacy have been openly exposed by Edward Snowden. The outrage minimal, and Edward Snowden is labeled a traitor. Things like income inequality, fair and democratic voting processes are sometimes discussed but little happens. This simply adds to why many of us from other countries are simply confounded and don’t understand.
And believe me, I am trying. If there is one thing you have convinced me of about America, is that any sort of ban on guns will not solve any problems, at least in a major way. In some countries this might be the case, but not in America. As many pundits decried after Sandy Hook, if the shooting of elementary school children is not enough to convince anybody that we have a national crisis and that maybe we have to revisit the applicability of the 2nd amendment to this current day and age, nothing will. I have rested on this conclusion for a little while now, and even wrote a blog piece before in which I ask the question about why, if we won’t give up our guns, can’t we fight for a society in which we don’t need them? It is along those lines that I want to write about again today, but perhaps looking at it from a different tack. Because I certainly want to talk about my views, but productively, and try to ask more questions, because I don’t know that I have a lot of answers. I just know that I really want there to be less shootings and schools and other public venues. More importantly I want to ask questions that perhaps change thinking and can change culture. Because I don’t think any true progress on the gun issue can happen unless there is a change in attitude about them.
America has a lot of fear. While I also groan somewhat at Michael Moore’s overplay to the emotional in his films, his documentary Bowling for Columbine had a central thesis, and that wasn’t about the banning of guns, but that is about us living in a culture of fear. When you debate about guns with people that are pro-gun, overwhelmingly their best arguments boil down to protection from violent criminals, but also to protection from a tyrannical government. The very intent, we are told, for the 2nd amendment. Fear can sometimes be a sensible state to live in, if those fears are real. Are they in this case? In 2009 it was discovered that of the approximately 15,000 homicides, only 1900 were committed by an actual stranger. This tends to be true for other violent crimes as well. It’s people you know. It isn’t because they broke into your home. You let them in. The Pulse shooter was a regular and had passed through the doors many times. They know you. Know something about your habits. Killers pick the time and the place, the chances of you being ready to defend yourself are small.
In terms of protection from the government, well it’s understandable this was a concern of our founding fathers given what they went through. How applicable is that today? We know of course many countries that have far less guns, who have less murders and their governments have not rolled over them. For instance the Netherlands has had between 0.8-1 homicides per 100,000 people (any method) for the past decade. This country has only 3.9 guns per 100 people. Such restrictive gun laws have been in effect for at least 20 years and to my knowledge the government has not attacked it’s people. There are of course other similar examples of low gun numbers, low homicide rates and restrictive gun laws without having a tyrannical government. Are those governments waiting to strike? Why don’t those governments roll over their unarmed citizens? Why aren’t the citizens more worried and fighting to gain more access to guns? Are they fools? What is different about them and us? And if they seem content with a lot less guns even when they are unhappy with their government is that an attitude we can learn too. In talking with a number of people who have served in the military they are rarely happy with their government, Republican or Democratic, and have said to me explicitly that if they were ever asked to turn their guns on the people by the government, they would turn their guns on the government and not the people. The military are not mercenaries, they are made up of us. They are trying to protect us. Why would they aim at us? The trust you don’t have for your government is the same mistrust the people who make up our armed forces have. So when you say you need your guns as protection from tyranny you are really saying you don’t trust your military. Even if these horror of a government were to convince the military to turn guns on the people, of course guns wouldn’t come into play anytime soon. There would be bombs from planes and drones, tanks rolling through the street, and long range missiles. Given how armed the citizens are, it seems like the most sensible strategy. Because among all those military people with guns come people with a lot of training, and experience in strategy. And the government knows where weapons are being stockpiled by the citizens. They are coming to destroy your stash first.
But let’s try and go a little deeper. It seems to me that there is a feeling among those who are pro-gun rights that there is inevitability to certain things. Governments will eventually always turn on the people. Criminals will always be plentiful. I am always in danger from unknown assailants and I need my guns. To me it is this inevitability that seems to be most damning evidence to this culture of fear. While no society is without criminals there are societies with a lot less. While there are no societies without homicides there are ones that have a lot less. While there are governments that attack their people, there are others that do not. So we have plenty of examples of how we can change for the better. What is the attitude and culture of those countries that make them safer from their government and each other? When you know someone who is doing things in a better way, don’t you usually try and do it that way too? This is at the heart of what I do not understand. Even if these fears represent a real in present danger why would we not strive for a society where we live in less fear? It requires no change to gun laws or the 2nd amendment. You would simply find that your gun would be sitting in a closet unused as it does in Switzerland. The oft used example of the safe country with plenty of guns. Those guns though come from mandatory military service, and they generally sit unloaded in closets by those men and women after they serve. Nobody is carrying them into the Swiss version of 7/11.
How much damage can an angry person with a knife do, compared to an angry person with a gun? I hope everybody would agree the latter will do more. The conversation about guns often focuses on the latter. It assumed that liberals are thinking that by removing the gun, anger goes away, and it is possible that some liberals think that. They would of course be incorrect. Just like there are many societies with low gun numbers, low homicides, and restrictive laws, there are also many nations with restrictive laws, high gun numbers and high homicides. What are the factors that make those more violent societies? They also seem to have angry people, and angry people with guns. Our initial question indicates two problems. Angry people, and angry people with guns. However both those problems, as you’ll not have something in common. If you could make people less angry, whether or not that person has a gun becomes irrelevant. And so I agree with the oft used argument that guns don’t kill people, people do. The problem is people with guns, when they get angry, can do a lot more damage. Taking away guns won’t reduce the number of angry people just the amount of hurt they can cause. We can’t treat the problem like it’s all or nothing, if we can reduce deaths we should be doing that shouldn’t we? But I’m with the pro-gun people, I’d prefer not to take away people’s guns, I’d rather work on the problem of how to make less angry people. There are solutions to this. There are examples of societies that have less of them. There are studies about what factors lead to more peaceful societies. It’s a challenging road, it means making a lot of other personal changes, but if you think keeping your guns is important those are your options. Fight for that society that gets the heart of the problem that causes people to want to kill other people. Don’t just throw your hands up and say it can’t be done. We know better.
Finally let’s ask an even more fundamental question. What are the grounds in which we should end someone’s existence? Trespassing? Burglary? Being suspected of a crime? Acting suspiciously? Not listening to the police? In debates over gun control issues with people you hear a lot about people deserving today. “He should have listened to the cops instead of running away”, “If anybody steps foot into my house in the middle of the night I’ll shoot him dead”. In Arizona a lady shot at a car that had children in it for simply turning around in her driveway. In a country with due process, with guns we suddenly all get to become judge, jury, and executioner all at once. In an excellent video about how we can arrive at morality through scientific means over divine guidance, they talk about why we have gradation of punishment in society for crimes. Why for instance do we not punish rapists (a horrible crime) with the death sentence? I honestly never thought about it before. Rape of course is an absolutely horrific crime. The reason is, that if you are already going to be put to death for rape, you have nothing to lose really by killing your victim. Your punishment can’t be made worse. Imagine if all crimes were punishable by death. Would this lead to a more orderly society, or a more violent one? So if, as many claim, there is nothing we can do about criminals. If we now arm everyone to the point where criminals now feel any crime they commit is likely to lead to them being shot, what is the response of the criminal mind? Does the criminal let fear prevent them from doing the crime, or does the criminal simply increase their own arsenal when committing crimes? Do the criminals not become more deadly instead of committing crimes less frequently?
Given the amount of guns in the U.S., we should be the most orderly society, but we are not. So once again, I agree that there have to be other factors that lead to a more orderly society with less violent crime. Can we not all agree to fight for those things? Can we listen to our sociologists, mental health experts, people who study deviant behavior? Can we all work together to de-stigmatized mental illness? Can we all fight against poverty and income inequality? Can we demand a media that doesn’t sensationalize and misrepresent statistics to attract viewers, but actually informs and covers issues objectively and reasonably? Can we all fight for a government that has politicians that don’t try to make you feel afraid to win your votes? They give you things to fear, give vague solutions on how they are going to make the fear go away, but they never do. If one side is so naïve as to removing guns from the equations is the answer, then you also have to take responsibility for suggesting that more guns is the answer either. If you are going to say having your gun is important, and that it is your right, then ethically if you have compassion, and care about living in a society with less death and violence you must fight for all these other things. You must research solutions to how we create a society, like many that exist currently, with less angry people (whether they have guns or not). Your evolutionary advantage is not your ability to shoot a firearm. It’s your brain. If you can’t see that increasing happiness in society is a more effective means of keep you and other safer then you yourself are a victim of the same fear that ends too many lives.
In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will. That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it. So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.
In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you
prefer) to start our little thought experiment. Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke. When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke. Free will does not enter into the decision.
Now this is not particularly realistic. So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix. They taste different, but both can quench your thirst. Which one do you choose? Well let’s see what might go into making a decision. You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose? Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability. If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random. Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice. Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.
You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often. Okay then, but why would you? What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other? This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later. As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will. Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.
Now let’s throw in a reason. Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling. This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision. Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi. Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product. As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%. Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi. All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again. Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.
For every answer there is a question. You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him. What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and
get a Pepsi out of spite. Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious. Perhaps your mother showed that trait. Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school. Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart. There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere. Many people do not have such boldness. Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful. They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.
Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason? People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree. But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait. There are people who will never be like that all their lives. Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke. Where does this spontaneous side come from? An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker? A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous? But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.
The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions. Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:
Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke
Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye
Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper
RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi
Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.
And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.
In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.
Can our lives really be predicted so easily? Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events. Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke. Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.
Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation. Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings. We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive. Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from. And so what if we are not consciously making our choices? We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument. Just sit back and enjoy the music.
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-
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?
One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny. Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind. I am talking about something more fundamental than that. What some people might refer to as “a calling”. And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature. It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like. What will his interests be? How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?
The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways. Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat. Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business. Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc. It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that. Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.
For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist. I’ve loved storms since I was a small child. I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning. In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way. I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it. I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting. In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:
astronomy, meteorology, and geology. I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist. During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it. At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it. At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather. I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life. Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience. I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.
Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets. I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions. But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences. Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms? What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds? What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more? What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms? Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things. We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers. Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me? My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything. In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology. There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology? I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist? Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do? Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?
I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate. I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains. I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions. I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family. Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans. Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first. Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family. How many geniuses have simply died of starvation? How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?
In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place. In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.
I hit that age on this past Sunday. The big 4-0. I celebrated in in a fashion that can be best described as lame. But more aptly as a new parent, in the middle of the semester with work to do. I relaxed, had some delicious waffles and stayed in my pajamas most of the day except when I had to go take out the garbage. Normally I do that in pajamas too, but it was cold and the snow was a bit deep. 🙂
The age I am sure doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it did to my parents or my grandparents. There is a good chance it will not be on average the half way point to the end. We stand on the precipice of some amazing advances in science (as perhaps anybody could say I suppose from any time) that may allow us to live longer lives. Society makes a big deal of round numbers in our base 10 numbering system. Personally I think perfect squares would have been a numerically more satisfying way to mark off “big” birthdays. You have a lot of them while you are young, but thankfully get much further apart as you get older. So I’ve decided to fear the age 49 instead. 🙂 Society tells me there is something special about 40 so I thought it was a good time to reflect and so I gave in to society and tried to take a look at my life.
The reality is that today is only a few days different from when I was in my 30’s and honestly I loved my late 30’s. There is a certain peacefulness that comes in your late 30’s when you’ve sort of experienced a good portion of the crap that life throws at you so that it doesn’t really throw you for a loop anymore. Things unexpected happen, but I guess you just learn to expect the unexpected. Things don’t seem quite as hard.
When I was a teenager I saw the person I wanted to be, but I felt like that person was trapped inside. It was only once I moved away from home and took my own path in life that the person I wanted to be has come out. I think I’ve become that person, but I am better than what I envisioned because when I was a teenager I saw that person as an endpoint. But for any human being who walks through the world there is no end to the journey. You will always change. At least you always should. Most importantly I’ve learned how to see the ways in which I want to be better and have the patience to realize that these things don’t happen overnight. I have given myself the identity of an unfinished project and that is who I always will be. Because I’m comfortable with that, I think that has given me the ability to enjoy the moment that always worry about the future.
Of course just having a child gives one much more pause for that. I am sure there are many at my age who are close to seeing their children move out into the world on their own. For me that journey is just beginning. In some ways it’s tiring to think about. Thinking about how old I’ll be when my son graduates high school and all those other landmarks events in a child’s life. Wondering whether I’ll even see grandchildren if my son chooses to have children and if he waits as long as I do. But mostly it’s rejuvenating. At 40 I get to see through the eyes of the young. At 40 I am reminiscing about my childhood in ways I have never done before. And if I wasn’t so sleepy I’d feel so completely young right now. 🙂 I’ve decided though, what does sleepiness have to do with the joy in my heart. And much of the sleepiness is of my own making. He is sleeping right now and I could too, and simply wake up with him when he needs fed. But I love just being able to look at him, to watch him sleep. To be reminded that there is peacefulness, and the simple joys in this world that we forget far too often.
And there is nothing like having a child that makes you take stock of who you are. That peacefulness that he represents is because is innocent. Unaware of hate, and racism, and all the things that make the weight of the world seem so heavy. His shoulders are completely free of it all. I think we all know a time will come when that innocence is lost. I get why people try to preserve it as long as they can. There are things in life that you cannot unlearn or forget, and so it is almost with envy that I look at my child. I do not begrudge him though because all will happen in its own time. And maybe it is only in our eyes that we see them so free of the pain we all carry about the harshness of the world. But perhaps tears over being hungry or a wet diaper is no different than the tears we shed over death, misery, and tragedy. Our pain is all relative to what we know. Nevertheless, knowing what is to come and what he will learn, I must look inward. Knowing that I will be one of his primary examples of what a man is. He will learn so much just from watching me. So I know that I must continue strive to be a better man, because the world needs better men. Gender inequality still exists in almost all corners of the world and even in the freest of societies.
I shall end this off with the obligatory advice that my 40 years of wisdom has brought me and that is simply to tell you to embrace change. Take it to heart. Change is evitable and so if you embrace it, it becomes as comforting and secure as anything else. Life passes us by when we trade away change for the security of the static and predictable. Variety is truly the spice of life. Keep trying new things. Learn something new. Get inspired. You will find that time begins to slow down and then you won’t wake up when day and you’ll be 40 or 50 or 60, because you will have enjoyed each moment. And remember one of the best ways to enjoy each moment is to make each moment better for others. I am well aware that I am truly blessed for where I grew up, and the family and friends I have had along the way. Always share that joy if you have been fortunate enough to have that joy shared with you.