Dear New Zealand

At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand.  It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches.  The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.

People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis.  The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base.  Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space.  After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base.  It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17.  When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry.  It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.

When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island.  I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it.  It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well.  So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in.  My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut.  When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found.  I told her there was no real way for me to get it.  I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch.  I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back.  But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses.  And sure enough it happened.  I was shocked.  The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.

As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant.  It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty.  A little Maori woman ran the shop.  We chatted for a bit.  She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary.  I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu.  She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it.  Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten.  It was far better.  Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.

When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland.  As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security.  This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.”  The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I?  This country is amazing.’

New Zealand is gorgeous.  Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains.  I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t.  The people are incredibly warm and laid back.  They are thrill seekers.  They invented bungee jumping.  They have a ridiculous amount of sheep.  I really wanted to move there.  I still do.  It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.

Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read.  It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal.  I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with.  One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree.  At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.

Yet I find that I am not surprised.  If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies.  We live in a world that has extremism.  The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist.  They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair.  The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate.  Just different costumes.  If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember.  I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity.  Be who you are, just do it better.  This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you.  Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate.  For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving.  Grieve with them.  Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans.  They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different.   Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.

The Recipe for a Shooter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Multiculturalism Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banning religious practices – a bad idea

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis the anti-Muslim propaganda has been coming out strong. And my home country of Canada has been no exception. It is personally sad for me to see this, because one of the things I most value about growing up in Canada is its tolerance towards other cultures and its celebration of diversity. As a result of this tradition I think it is no surprise that Islam in Canada is more progressive than any other countries. This declaration made by the Canadian Council of Imams speaks volumes to what Islam means to Muslims living in Canada. And I am sure you can make arguments about passages in the Koran supporting violence towards non-believers, and I can answer back with as many in the Bible so let’s put that aside and simply say that in the march towards a more humane society religion must evolve even if it doesn’t dissolve.

Of course there is much that is troubling in terms of the practice of Islam worldwide. You can find countries where people are killed for simply expressing dissent against the Islamic government, committing blasphemy, committing adultery, being gay, etc. There are of course the acts of terrorism which seem at times unending and of course have impact European countries and the U.S. and a big way. And of course there is the oppression of women, which is horrible and profoundly sad that we still must contend with such disregard for the rights of 50% of the population in this day and age. Some Islamic apologists will argue that this is not the way of Islam, but that being said it is certainly part of the cultural practice in many Islamic countries and I don’t hear a lot of Muslim clerics or imams in those countries saying “Hey let the women go to school and drive, this isn’t what Islam is about!” There are perhaps a lot of reasons to be worried about extreme Islamic practices, and keep in mind that many of the things that we think are extreme such as the oppression of woman, is common place in some countries.

So the question becomes, what do we do about it? Even though most Muslims are not violent and never will be, they have some very unsettling practices that they think are justified according to their religion. Many of them are just as indoctrinated as any of the evangelical community here in the U.S. when it comes to their views on women, foreigners, homosexuals, blacks, etc. So there are some people everywhere who could use some enlightening and so how do we go about doing that? And can in happen sooner than later?

Let’s start by identifying what doesn’t work and that is the banning of religious practices. Though France has banned the burka or niqab, and Switzerland has banned minarets, these practices have not been shown to impact cultural shifts in Islam and have only served to alienate and discriminate portions of the Muslim population, not only in those countries, but have angered Muslims in other countries as well. Isolating and alienating religious communities only builds resentment and will only increase the danger from Islamic groups that the laws seek to avoid. This blog post does a very good job of laying out the argument and I don’t want to repeat too much of what is said here, but any laws restricting religious practices at best do nothing and at worst, make the conflate the problem with archaic religious practices.

If history has taught us anything it is that oppression of a religion is a bad idea if we want to actually stop it. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and Europe. At least some of that may be due to the attempts at suppression of religious practices. Anti-Christian laws during Roman rule shortly after the time of Jesus actually led to an even faster spread of Christianity throughout Europe and Asia. It’s human nature that once you start persecuting somebody or some people for what they believe it causes a lot of people to start to ask questions, especially those who don’t trust the government. What is so dangerous about these ideas?  Why should we fear them? In general we are compassionate people, and when we see people suffer by not having the freedom to practice their beliefs (regardless of whether such beliefs are just) we tend to side with them. The last thing we want is a lot of people being on the same side of some unjust ideas.

I know for many of my readers, you have gotten into some arguments with people who have strong beliefs. How did those discussions go? We often think the more brilliant and final are arguments are the more impactful we’ll be.  As I wrote before this tends to not work so well because of the “backfire effect” and so if it doesn’t work very well on an individual level, such things tend to not work so well at a group level either. If our western society is to have any superior morality it comes from practicing the values that we think our important. If freedom is one of them than freedom of religion must be part of what we embrace. Giving people the freedom to practice their religious beliefs is something we want, because if the state starts making laws to ban religious practices, there is nothing to stop them from banning yours if they see fit. By valuing freedom we set an example that as a society that we respect other people and want them to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy. And of course there are other important values we must practice to which is tolerance, equality, compassion, justice, etc, so that if religious practices don’t value you those things we can show them how well it can work. If we want such people to convinced of a better worldview and a better way to live, we need to show that our values leads to a greater empathy, less suffering, and an overall increase in happiness. No words or laws are going to convince people unless they are shown. Part of why they may believe what they believe is that they’ve been indoctrinated against other cultural practices and have never seen any other way of life work.

Racist, and not a particularly helpful solution to terrorism.

I believe if anything is going to erode fundamentalism from any religion it is by showing those people the effectiveness of the values that we hold most dear. It is about embracing those people while at the same time showing them diversity of thought and ideas. It is about offering them a high level of education for their children, to help them think critically about the ideas that have been indoctrinated into their culture. It is about being humble enough to recognize that even if there many values that we do not share, they may even have something to teach us. We say we want these people to respect the laws of our country and yet this seems like much to ask if we exclude and not include. So instead of memes that enhance Islamophobia, why not spread memes that empower those that are oppressed to take advantage of the freedoms they would have in our country? Why not merrily shout out what rights they game by coming here? Why not greet them as friends instead of treating them like the enemy?  It is likely that to truly raise the consciousness of many of those indoctrinated it will take the course of a couple generations as children are born into a freer and more equitable society.  So let’s those children also growing up seeing the compassion and tolerance their parents did not have the freedom to enjoy.

Maybe a more positive meme as a way to empower Muslim women

Hero Worship

I know this post will be very unpopular with some people I know, but I write it not as someone who means to offend, but simply as someone who wrestles with ethical principles all the time and this is a subject I’ve though a lot about.  I guess I was inspired to share my feelings about this after reading an article that talked about the dangers of automatically associating heroism with anybody who is in the military.  I’ve written about heroes before and how there are a lot of people in this world worthy of being called a hero, but most people don’t know about.  In this country it seems that if you’ve joined the military and are deployed you are a hero; plain and simple.  In fact usually when someone joins the service they are automatically seen as honorable and brave.  Adopting any attitude that is in opposition to glorifying the soldier is seen as treasonous by many.   The only narrative we are allowed to accept is one that paints the recruit as someone who nobly has joined to serve their country and defend American freedom (this turns out to not be the reason, most people join the military).  To think otherwise, it means you don’t appreciate the fact that soldiers died for your freedom.  You are ungrateful and you don’t understand the cost of being free.  I’ve always taken offense to this generalization, and it seems to me that many people who say things like this experience nationalism in the same way that the devout experience religion.

It’s not that I don’t think it takes a lot of guts to join the military, knowing that one day you may be placed in a situation in which people are trying to kill you.  In the middle of combat it is either kill or be killed and to come out of such a situation alive requires

From http://www.motherjones.com

some pretty good team skills and awareness in an extremely stressful situation.  There is certainly something to applaud and be amazed by such people.  Many of us perhaps would not be able to face such an extreme situation.  The question is, does that quality mean that this is their only defining quality of character?  And do we not have the right to complain about the context in which these soldiers are placed to take part in this very dangerous combat?  People often criticize us peace-lovers if we don’t support the war, and say we are not supporting the troops.  But I can think of no better way of supporting the troops than wanting them home and safe and not fighting in a conflict for which we have no business being part of.  If your child wants to do something that could get them killed, for which you don’t think there is any valid reason for them to be doing, if you don’t want them to do that are you being unsupportive?  Perhaps you just value their life more.  And when you don’t support a war, many consider you unpatriotic.  Most of those people have no problem criticizing Obama and his policies, so why is it unpatriotic to criticize a decision to go to war?

Often, of course, these things come down to your point of view.  If the act of joining the military and the willingness to put yourself in harm’s way automatically makes you a hero, and a brave and honorable person, then every member of the military anywhere must also have such qualities.  It may even include rebel forces, or terrorists.  Such people believe in their cause just as much as anybody in the military.  In some way this would make war even more horrible if the most brave and honorable of men and women are always being killed, it seems to me a terrible way to solve a problem.  The

From http://www.theatlantic.com

problem is that we tend not to see just any soldier is honorable, but only the ones that fight for us, our allies, or causes that we agree with.  To say that a Nazi soldier was as honorable as any allied soldier would not go over well.  And of course in order to justify killing the “enemy” we must dehumanize and make them less than they are.  When they kill civilians they are the scum of the earth, and when we do it, it’s an accident in the course of an honorable fight.  Was every Nazi a Jew-hating genocidal maniac?  That seems unlikely.  Many were perhaps simply fighting because they had been recruited, because they wanted to provide for their family, because the country was destitute at the time and thought the fight was a cause that could improve the German standard of living.  There are likely many other reasons, but how easy would it be to kill someone if he was no different than you, but just happened to live in a different country?

In Henry V, one of the well-known scenes from the play involves King Henry disguising himself as a common soldier and walking through his troops on the eve of a big battle.  His troops are tired, sick and will be outnumbered the following day.  At one point the King questions one of his men about whether or not they should trust the king, that

From http://www.empireonline.com

what if his reasons for this fight are unjust and is just leading them all to slaughter.  A soldier gets angry at this and says that he fights for King and country and that if the King’s reasons be unjust that that is a crime he will have to answer for when he dies and that it is something for the King’s conscious to deal with, and not the soldiers.  This seems to be the ultra-nationalistic mentality that many in this country subscribe to.  If there is an afterlife then perhaps this is true, but even if there is some supernatural judge up their making us answer for our crimes, does that morally justify leading men to their slaughter even if their loyalty leads them to be willing to do so (although at least in King Henry’s time the King fought along side his men instead of sitting thousands of miles away)?  Just because someone is willing to die for you, should they?  Is it not even more morally wrong to take advantage of that loyalty for an unjust cause?  It seems that context is important.  When it comes to killing shouldn’t we need more than simply, “this is just what our government wants, so we have to do it”?  Shouldn’t we make absolutely sure that our cause is just?  Shouldn’t we also really make sure that other means of solving conflict aren’t a better option?

For the most part, honor and courage being automatically associated with the military mystifies me for a couple of reasons.  First I find it very uncomfortable to surrender my choice about what causes I fight for.  Would I have enlisted to fight Nazi’s in WWII.  I think that’s likely especially given what they were doing in concentration camps.  But would I have happily then gone to Korea 5 years later?  Absolutely not.  And while I realize on some level a military probably wouldn’t work if we got to pick and choose which conflicts we wanted to fight in, when it comes to pointing a gun and killing somebody else I think I should believe in that cause, not do it because someone else believes in the cause.  I want to live a moral life.  The Nuremberg trials even set the international legal precedent that “just following orders” cannot be used as a defense for committing atrocities and absolving guilt, but only lessening the sentence.  I simply don’t want to be put in a position where I am asked to fight and kill others unless I think it is the best and only course of action.  I don’t find any honor in simply killing or dying for someone else’s cause.

WilliamPurves
My grandfather

Secondly, many people will question your lack of courage when you say you don’t want to be a soldier, or say at least that a soldier has more courage.  I’d like to say that I am not afraid of dying for a cause I believe in.  Dying is a pretty easy thing to do after all.  Many people have done it, and you only have to do it once.  What I am afraid of is killing.  My grandfather fought in WWII.  He didn’t talk about it much and I admired the courage it takes to get through such a terrible conflict in which so many, including his brother, were killed.  I never asked him how many people he killed though. He was a good man.  It was hard to imagine him killing, and if I were to guess, I think he is the type like many who would have carried the weight of those he killed.  Even in a cause he believed in.  He would have wondered, “what kind of man was it that I killed?  In different circumstances could we not have been friends, shared a shot of scotch whiskey and kept each other laughing all night?”  I know such questions would plague me.  I know the average person loves his/her family, is kind to his/her neighbors and would help those in need.  And perhaps it is come to the mind of many in the military, “Perhaps that soldier’s leaders have taught him/her dehumanize me in the same way I had been taught to dehumanize them.”  Maybe they have doubts.  I certainly would.  Like, what if my bullet misses and hits some civilian or my own comrade?  What if we were told to attack the wrong target and it was a school instead of a military hideout?  If I choose an action that could end my own life, that is my choice, but ending someone else’s life is another matter altogether.  From a psychological point of view, one could easily argue that putting yourself into a situation in which you give up your right to choose the causes you fight for, and are willing to kill people you really don’t have a problem with, can be seen as mentally unsound as opposed to a decision filled with honor and courage.

In the end, I can’t subscribe to the idea that those who join the military are the best example of bravery and honor.  There are people in the military who have done terrible things.  Rape in the military is a huge issue right now.  Where is the honor there?  Of course we want our military to be honorable, and there are many who are.  But there are also many honorable people in different facets of society.  If we are going to celebrate heroism let us not only do it for the glorification of war.  There are many people who have courage and face difficulties and adversity everyday.  Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to die.  Let us at least bestow the label of honor, courage and heroism to wherever it applies and not apply it blindly.  Such things prevent us from having honest conversations about important issues concerning conflict, war and violence.  I bear no ill will towards soldier, and appreciate the sacrifices that they go through.  Particularly because I know many of them did not join the military because they wanted to fight in a war.  And maybe I don’t understand or am a coward, but personally I’m glad that we have found better ways to deal with conflicts and that there are a smaller percentage of people dying in wars today than in our past.  It gives me hope for the future.