The Unwise and the Immoral

The title of this post is related to another incident of victim blaming that was in the news not too long ago.  The incident involved model Bella Thorne having her computer hacked and the hacker making off with a number of private nude photos.  Bella Thorne, to sort of give a big “fuck you” to the hacker, released the photos herself on Twitter.  On The View, Whoopi Goldberg criticized Thorne saying essentially that one has to know in this day and age that storing such photos on a device connected to the internet (and you are a famous beautiful celebrity) is setting yourself up for this type of theft.  Goldberg then received a ton of backlash including some strong words from Thorne herself for being criticized when it was of course the hacker who was the person who did something wrong and that Goldberg “should know better”.  I suspect Goldberg does know better.  There is nothing about her that makes me think she isn’t a good feminist.  She has always had a no nonsense, blunt style and her comment here I don’t think is meant to give the hacker a pass.  I’ll go so far as to say that I think she makes a good point.  A point we should be able to talk about if framed correctly.  Before I get accused of victim blaming, let me go into more detail about what I mean.

Hacking is a reality of this day and age, and Thorne isn’t the first victim of this type of attack.  This has to be part of our consciousness.  There are laws against hacking, which is invading someone’s privacy and stealing personal property, and their should be.  It is theft and violation, plain and simple.  We can say that the hacker is immoral in his actions.  I think we can say that we all wish we lived in a world in which there were no hackers, and in which a woman’s body wasn’t a commodity that someone could profit on, such that this hacker could ostensibly get leverage over Thorne or other victims of this crime.  As a society we must continue to strive to fix this bigger problem.  Since we don’t live in that kind of society yet, we must also act wisely.  To do so requires us to be able to have conversations about wise and unwise actions to keep people and property from harm.  I am sort of reminded of that old joke where a guy meets a doctor at a social gathering and tries to get some free medical advice and says “Hey doc, my arm hurts whenever I do this. (Imagine whatever arm motion you like).  What should I do?”  And the doctor responds “Don’t move your arm like that.”  Clearly there is a bigger issue to solve Image result for moving arm gifwith that person’s arm, but in the short term, not doing a motion that causes you pain might be wise.  We should be able to simultaneously talk about short term solutions to protect ourselves, while also addressing bigger issues that increase equality and safety for all people rendering this short term acts of caution more irrelevant over time.

If there is a neighborhood where you have an increased chance of being mugged or harmed, all sorts of people will tell you to avoid walking through that neighborhood.  It is not meant to say that they condone violence or theft upon you or anybody else, it is simply meant as advice to keep you out of harms way.  We don’t get all bent out of shape by such advice, but the conversation goes south when women are blamed for their decisions in these types of incidents, or worse crimes like sexual violence.  And I think for good reason.  There have been some criticisms of social media for the fighting that erupted between two women who are likely on the same side of the fight against the patriarchy, but I’m actually not too upset about social media here, because maybe this is a conversation that needs to be had more often.

We have an older and wiser Goldberg, criticizing the wisdom of a younger Thorne.  Perhaps Goldberg feels like she was helping young girls everywhere be wary of putting compromising pictures of themselves in less than secure places based on what can happen to them.  Goldberg’s mistake however was that she also lacked some wisdom here.  As much as I’d like to live in a society where we could have honest conversations about what is a wise or unwise decision when crimes happen, when it comes to crimes against women there is just a long history of the “unwise” decision of a woman being used as an excuse for a man’s immorality and criminal behavior.  If a person is beaten and robbed in that unsafe neighborhood, the police will still arrest and charge the perpetrators, but too many men have gotten off Scot free because of what was deemed a woman’s unwise decision.  Furthermore the basis of what was considered unwise for a woman, does not apply to a man.  In fact very often their unwise decisions are used to further excuse them from wrongdoing.  A woman drinks too much at a party?  Well then of course she kind of Image result for victim blamingdeserves to be raped.  A guy drinks too much at a party? Well clearly he didn’t really mean to rape her, he just had too many beers and didn’t know what he was doing.  Let’s just sentence him to talk about the dangers of drinking.  It’s a huge problem and women have a right to absolutely tired of it.  Goldberg could have said what she said in a much better way that made it clear who the bad actor was in this situation.

Let me also add that the best people in our society are ones who could take advantage but don’t and instead help people be more safe.  Thorne was already punished and probably knows by now what she should have done and doesn’t need Goldberg’s advice after the fact.  So the timing of the comment is also unhelpful.  Like Fareed Zakaria’s advice to Sam Harris after another rant about Islam being the mother lode of bad ideas “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”  Being right, and being helpful are often two different things.

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How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.  I am not sure it’s something that I have any definite answer for so I hope it generates some discussion.  Some people say it’s just something made up by the left, like privilege.  I find such people who say things like that are the most guilty of cultural ignorance and what privilege actually means.  However one of the ways the topic seems to continue to come up is in terms of things like dreadlocks, or Halloween costumes.  Most of the times the topic comes up these don’t seem like really clear cases of cultural appropriation, but I try to listen and think about it more deeply because it is important.  Most recently I was listening to a podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis who is a physician and sociologist who, along with his wife, was at the center of a cultural appropriation issue at Yale.  I’ll get back to him in a second.

As someone who is half Indian (not native, but from India Indian) my life experience has been very different when it comes to cultural emulation.  Indians generally see it as a form of flattery.  Whether we have been visiting their country or whether in Canada.  There is a real sense in the community that we are valued when white Canadians want to eat our food, dance our dances, or dress in our clothing.  Growing up there was nothing more exciting than seeing a white person who could eat a spicy curry and then get up in Indian garb a kick ass on the dance floor doing the bhangra.  My dad was always someone who wanted to learn about other cultures.  We would often go out for dinner to different ethnic restaurants and he would order foods he’d never tried and he would always ask the waiter or waitress what the usual way the food was eating.  He wanted to use chopsticks or fingers where applicable.  For my dad experiencing the culture wasn’t just trying the food but eating it in a way they did.  For my dad, part of understanding culture was living it as much as you could, even if it was only in small ways.  The warmth he received by people of those other cultures for his honest interest and attempts to do as they did always inspired me to have the same attitude in my life.

A recent cultural appropriation incident in the NBA. Lin wears dreads.
A gracious response from Lin. Noting Martin has Mandarin characters as a tattoo.

I have noticed in my time in the U.S. the sentiment being different and it has become more heated in recent years.  Now of course it should make perfect sense.  Some readers might already be saying, well the history of Indians in Canada is different than African-Americans in the U.S.  There is no doubt about it.  Cultural appropriation is a real thing and I think Nicholas Christakis did a good job of defining it in the podcast.

“The notion of cultural appropriation, the kernel of the idea there, is that some communities of people are so denigrated that not only are they killed and wiped out, but all of their ideas and culture is stolen from them, they are effaced and that all that’s left is a kind of caricature of who they are and there is some truth to that …it’s like adding insult to injury…[like] not only do I engage in genocide,  but I take all your ideas and your culture as well and don’t even credit you and who am I to do that?”

There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.  Anybody who doubts the existence of cultural appropriation is blind to some real history.  However, if we are interested in making the world a better place, we still have to answer the question about the best way to move forward.  When I see someone genuinely interested in my culture to the point of wanting to emulate it, I don’t see a thief, I see an ally.  They might not be able to experience the lived experience of being someone of my race, but I see someone willing to defend my rightful place as an equal human in society.  Christakis that things have maybe gone too far:

“…now, the whole history of ideas, culture, art, and music is endless theft.  [because really] it’s endless modification, and transformation and exchange of ideas and of thought and musical and artistic forms and so forth”

I find myself agreeing here.  I mean we could get really ridiculous if we wanted to.  Someone could refer to African-Americans behaving badly as thugs, and this is offensive, because we know what the common usage of that word means, but then if I yelled out…”No that’s not offensive to black people, that’s offensive to me because the word is of Hindu origin and your appropriating my culture!”  As Christakis says to trace back practices and ideas back to one particular culture is tricky business indeed.  Culture has been stolen before, it’s been given, it’s been modified, it’s been incorporated, it’s been fused.  It’s complicated.  How do we right all of the wrongs and still move past it?  I guess we are struggling to answer that question as humans.

As I go back to my personal experience I think what matters most is that attitude you have towards another person’s culture.  If I’ve been discriminated against, which is a painful experience, I certainly don’t want others to experience it, but I want them to understand it.  At the same time I don’t want the best things about my culture to remain hidden, when I can share them.  If people are truly interested in my culture, think it’s beautiful, neat, cool, awesome, fascinating, that to me is when humans come together.  The fact that you might not be able to experience the worst of what I face, doesn’t mean, if you’re interested, that you can’t experience the best of my culture.  At least that’s my attitude.

But it’s true that there are some extremely marginalized groups in this country, and I can’t claim to know what that feels like.  I can understand the source of that frustration given the history, and the fact that we live in a country where many don’t admit there are racial problems, where history is white-washed and there is a lot of glossing over the atrocities in which this country was founded.  There are reasons to be angry, but I still hope there is a path forward.  I still hope there is way to make sure people understand the history and the wrongs that have been done, while still having the wisdom to include those who truly enjoy what your culture has to offer.  I agree that people’s cultures aren’t costumes for Halloween, these are things people of those cultures wear everyday, and so appreciating cultures is also something you do everyday.  I think there are lots of people out there like that and I think it’s something to embrace.

Please share your thoughts, I don’t profess any scholarly knowledge here, and would enjoy hearing other voices on this matter.

*Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about the incident at Yale beyond the article I linked, I encourage to read the e-mail that started it all by Erika Christakis which I thought was a thoughtful one.  You can then watch the YouTube video where Nicholas Christakis is surrounded on campus.  I challenge you to watch the whole video.  I couldn’t stomach the whole thing. He handled the situation as heroically as possible.  Also here is the podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis.  The first hour relates to the incident.