Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – Dalai Lama

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

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The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

 

Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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“A Way Out of Hell”

I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.

For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.

As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.

A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt: 

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How Our Lives Intersect

Below is one artist’s (Nancy Belmont) illustration of the many ways our lives intersect. In the video, she cleverly gave people yarn which they wrapped around a series of poles representing a number of possible groups to which someone might belong.

When the experiment is complete, we see the full picture and the various ways the participants’ lives overlap and the commonalities people share. 

Choose Love

Sometimes I tell my students that David Ortiz is the man who has brought me the most moments of happiness in life. That’s only half in jest; he really has compiled an amazing collection of hitting highlights that is hard to match. 

Even if you If you don’t follow baseball or have even heard of Ortiz, perhaps you can appreciate that he has tried to use his iconic status for something good. Yesterday, he gave a (very) brief speech before the Red Sox’ game, simply saying: “Let’s be kind to each other, and choose love.”

There are so many reasons to be cynical about a scene like this, but I prefer to focus on the good. Tensions and divisions are high in many places, and we could use periodic reminders — even a brief one from a sports celebrity — that we are all connected.  

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07/19/16: Boston, MA: Before the game, the teams lined up along the baselines for a ceremony promoting racial harmony. Members of the Boston Police Department as well as civic leaders and clergy, and local youngsters lined up behind Red Sox DH David Ortiz, who spoke briefly. The Boston Red Sox hosted the San Francisco Giants in an interleague MLB baseball game at Fenway Park. (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis) (Source)

Thresholds of Inclusion

“Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” (Abraham Lincoln)

 “Blood just looks the same, when you open the veins.” (Karl WallingerIs it like today?)

 

If you wish to find someone just like you, who looks and thinks exactly the way you do, then perhaps the only place you can look is in a mirror.

However, here’s a thought. Imagine that as you’re looking at the mirror it begins to move progressively farther away from you. The further away it is, the more time that transpires before the light bearing your image reaches the mirror and returns. If, in this scenario, the mirror should reach, say, the distance of the sun (for the sake of argument, it’s a really big mirror), then the image that you would see is still yourself, only it’s you roughly sixteen minutes ago.

Broad Museum

Mirrors, at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (source)

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