Rethink Your Righteousness

Have you ever gotten into a political argument with someone on the other side of the aisle? With the 2016 tire-fire-election still burning, I can guess the response to that question. Liberals think Conservatives are uneducated and unsympathetic. Conservatives think Liberals are bleeding-hearts and unpatriotic. Around and around we go till Uncle Fred is blue in the face and millennial Sally is red with furry. Growing up I was more conservative because of my parent’s love for the Republican party and in my college years, I swung more liberal because of inequality enlightenment. So what are my views now? Well, that is complicated because I just read an excellent book by Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist and has made it his life’s work to figure out what defines personal, community, and world morality. Let’s test your own morality…

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They have heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cook it and eat it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why?

Or how about this one…

Julie and Mark are a brother and sister who, one night on a vacation together, decide to make love. Julie is already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. Was it wrong for them to have sex?

One more just for fun…

A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong?

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So what do you think? Is it OK that the brother and sister have sex or the old lady scrubs the crapper with the American flag? Some may say that if the actions are not harming others, then there is nothing immoral being done. Others would say that there is a sanctity to specific objects and the human body, so those previous scenarios are entirely immoral. Haidt found that these questions are answered very quickly by people based on their intuition or “feelings”; reasoning in morality is an afterthought and falls short of ever explaining a knee-jerk reaction. Put in another way, we are tiny riders on large elephants. The elephant is our moral and emotional intuition that is powerful and somewhat wild. The rider is our reasoning and rational brain that tries to steer the elephant in the right direction but does little of the actual legwork.

Riding The Elephant

Our elephant is an amalgamation of life experiences, evolution, genetic predisposition, and worldviews. Haidt discovered through years of research that there are six “taste” buds of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. People have different moral tastes just like they have different tastes for cuisine. Liberals are concerned with the care and fairness tastebuds and are much more likely to accept the above questions as moral because they do not harm others. Conservatives actually have a wider moral palate with the proclivity for liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This is why historically, conservative candidates receive more votes because those politicians can run on a wider platform. In general, worldviews outside of the West focus more on the last four moral tastebuds because the social fabric of society is far more important than self-expression or “American Individualism.” The point here is not that Conservatives are better than Liberals or more righteous. The point is that both sides of the aisle have legitimate moral concerns that complement the spectrum of human good.

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So what should we do with all this information? First, we need to train our rider to control the elephant. Realize that your beliefs may not always be 100% correct and that listening to others is an excellent exercise in understanding. Realize that your liberal/conservative foe is not someone to defeat but actually someone to embrace – a ying-yang effect that covers the entire moral spectrum. Realize that there are many worldviews out there and that yours is only one type of lens. Hadit makes this recommendation for liberals – progress is good, but it must be taken with caution to protect the traditional pillars of society (Hadit is a Liberal). Hadit makes this recommendation for conservatives – use the liberal  “care and fairness” attributes when businesses prey on others with entrenched interests. Overall, the point is that both sides have important things to offer and neither is entirely righteous. Let’s control our elephants and steer our beliefs from their normal head-on collision to a more amicable side-long saunter.

How Reading can Prevent Sexual Harassment

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvey Weinstein lately and how appalling he was to so many women. Mr. Harvey was like an incubus always searching for his next penile power grab. A lot of women have come out against Harvey, and the world has generally begun to talk more about the closeted topic of sexual harassment. Some of my friends on Facebook have written “Me Too” on their wall to show people that these disgusting acts are happening close to home. The question is how to fix this epidemic? Obviously, we must continue conversations about sexual harassment and push the message that it is never okay to take advantage of another person. That is an excellent starting point, but in my opinion, it falls short of what will actually help the problem.

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Let’s first point out the obvious – the majority of sexual harassment involves women as victims and men as predators. Not all men are like Harvey Weinstein, and not all men are predators, but a lot of men have a second brain dangling between their legs. This second brain is exceptionally persuasive. How powerful is it? Speaking for myself, when I went through puberty, my penis was like a mini-Danny Devito continually giving me commentary throughout the day. Suffice it to say, Danny Devito never really goes away because of the evolutionary urge to procreate. The primal default of a man is to spread his sperm throughout the world. The penis is constantly screaming “ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!!!!”

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These urges along with other primal tendencies, like aggression, are kept in check by societal norms, laws, and morals. Norms can only go so far; when push comes to shove, that second brain gives a rat’s ass about standards, punishments, or consequences. Sexual harassment usually occurs behind closed doors when the predator can get away with the act. So what can be done to control that second brain? I think a lot of men have a good handle on their Danny Devito because they were taught from a young age what was right and wrong. Maybe they had a great set of parents who modeled a healthy male/female identity. Maybe it was a community role model who exemplified the attributes of respect. Maybe it was a religious upbringing that taught the importance of the Golden Rule.

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Whatever the reason, some men have no problem shutting down that bald-headed beast. But, not everyone is so fortunate to be raised with these types of people or messages – and sometimes even with these efforts – some men miss the point. Speaking for myself, I was raised in a home with excellent parents who taught me morals, and I had friends who came from similar backgrounds; in later years I found out that some of my friends did sexually harass women. So how can we fortify this cracked roof of parental advice and community support so that young men won’t continue to slip through and cause irreversible damage? The key is empathy.

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In my opinion, empathy is the single hardest trait to master in life. Empathy entails stepping into the mind and body of another person: seeing what they see, touching what they touch, feeling what they feel. It is such a complex idea that no person will inadvertently acquire it as a skill – one has to be deliberate. So how do we become empathetic? One of the key ways we evolved to acquire empathy was through storytelling: stories allow us to use our imagination, gain knowledge and think more deeply about problems. Books provide the most in-depth opportunity for storytelling through first-person and third-person accounts; allowing one to fully understand the emotions and personalities of various characters. Reading permits people to step into worlds which are very different from their own and to explore divergent viewpoints. I was never very empathetic until I started to read the classics and entered the masterful characters of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Melville. These stories force a person to see, think, and feel what a character feels – empathy anyone?

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I never grasped the magnitude of rape, murder, harassment, and adultery until I took the time to sit down and open a book. This brings me to my ultimate point: We need to push young men** to read great works of writing so that they can begin to understand what it feels like to see life from different vantage points. Parents, teachers, and community leaders need to stop thinking books are for SAT prep or just entertainment and start realizing that they are instruments of empathy and deep-psychological understanding. For example, try to read Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Les Liaisons Dangereuses without wrenching over the emotional states of the main characters. There is no excuse for not reading to your child, setting time for your teenager to read, or sitting down to read yourself – only a high source of empathy will allow a predator to stop – and step – into the soul of its prey.

This post started to get a little long (I actually want to turn this post into a book), but I would love to hear your comments on the effects of reading on your own empathy and how we should go about sexual harassment prevention. 

**We obviously also need young women to read, but this post is mainly targeted towards young men. 

Would you be Sterilized?

Imagine today if Donald Trump made a decree that all morons and imbeciles must be sterilized to prevent further contamination of the American gene pool. Could you imagine the uproar? Even Fox News couldn’t spin that Twitter rant, but sadly, forced sterilization is still constitutional in the United States. Ninety years ago, in the infamous case of Buck vs. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., declared by many as the wisest man in the United States, wrote the majority opinion summarized by this one sentence:”Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The history of Buck vs. Bell and America’s dark marriage to eugenics is detailed in the fascinating book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen.

Eugenics is defined as the purposeful cleansing of defects in the gene pool to improve a particular species. For example, eugenics is commonly used today when dogs are cross bred to remove negative health traits: English Bulldog + Labrador = Bullador. Human eugenics started in 19th century Europe with the advent of Social Darwinism. Essentially, people thought that “survival of the fittest” not only applied to animals but also to racist white guys. The whitest of the white, Nordic Europeans, viewed themselves as the beez neez and thought all other races should bow to their paleness. Many geneticists believed that every trait, belief, attribute, and characteristic of a person was passed on from their parents. There was very little understanding of the environmental impact on behavior and subsequently all vices were blamed on bad genes. Drunkenness in the Irish. Criminality in the Italians. Promiscuity in the Poles.  Usury in the Jews. Imbecility in the poor. Basically, anyone who was not a white-Northern-European-rich-pious-fricker was deemed to have poor progeny.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was becoming inundated with all sorts of new immigrants: tides of Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, South Americans, and Chinese. These new immigrants oftentimes lived in squalor and were more likely to commit crimes, have large families, and be less educated compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Hence, “real “Americans decided to clean up the gene pool and the States began to pass laws that allowed the sterilization of anyone who had unappealing traits. Intelligence tests were given out to see whether people were imbeciles or morons. These tests were completely erroneous and in many cases found that half of test takers were mentally unfit.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed in direct connection to eugenic beliefs on racial inferiority. It drastically decreased the number of immigrants from countries that were not Anglo-Saxon in origin. The climax of the eugenics movement occurred in 1927 when Buck vs. Bell went to the supreme court to determine whether Virginia had the right to sterilize Carrie Buck –  a poor-white-southerner. The case was a complete sham. Carrie was not an imbecile but rather an intelligent girl who had the bad luck of being raped and blamed for promiscuity. Carrie’s lawyer was actually on the prosecutions payroll and she was not informed about any details of the case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was a firm believer in the “survival of the fittest” and wrote that sterilization did not impede upon Miss. Buck’s constitutional rights.

The eugenics movement in America helped Hitler cement many of his policies during WWII. The Immigration Act of 1924 assisted the Holocaust by  barring Jews from entering America. Nazi Lawyers, during the Nuremberg Trials, actually used the case of Buck vs. Bell as a justification for 1000’s of sterilizations. In total, the US sterilized over 70,000 people throughout the 20th century – the last forced sterilization was in 1981. Today, Buck vs. Bell has still not been overturned and there are cases of coerced sterilizations in prison and mental health systems. Eugenics is still a major concern with advancements in technology that can screen babies for “undesirable” traits. Is it right for a couple to abort a child who has Down Syndrome? What if we get to the point that prenatal screenings tell us the risk of stunted height or ADHD? Who gets to define what traits are good or bad? America’s history with eugenics is scary but its future is even more precarious. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of Social Darwinism and nonsensical-immigration restrictions. I think Charles Darwin said it best:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

Native Americans Conquer the English! Why History Wasn’t Reversed-Part 1

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Why didn’t 16th century Native Americans sail to England, claim land for their queen, and nearly decimate the English race? Why did Francisco Pizarro conquer the entire Incan Empire instead of Atahuallpa sailing over to Spain and exerting his dominance? We all know the immediate answers to these questions: Europeans had guns, germs, and steel that made it easy to overcome their “savage” opponents. But the real question is why did Europeans develop guns, germs, and steel while so many other civilizations did not? What forces caused different groups of people to develop technology and innovations at different rates? Did civilizations advance differently because of superior genetics or environmental variables? Honestly, I never thought about these questions until I borrowed my friend’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. This is a must read and it actually won the Pulitzer Prize-the exorbitant detail in this book makes it an eye-opener that will change your perspective of the modern world. A common thought is that Europeans were more advanced then Africans/Indians/Insert Non-White Person because they worked harder and were generally smarter. This was the primary logic for most of history and is partly responsible for the mental foundation of slavery, racism, segregation, and general exploitation of non-white races.Today, scientists are trying to objectively answer the question of why societies advanced differently early on in history? The short answer to this big question is that genetics played no role in the differences, what mattered most was environmental luck.

So what is environmental luck? Environmental luck, in respects to civilization formation, entails three key components: available wild plants for domestication, available large mammals for domestication, and continent-axis orientations. 10,500 years ago agriculture began in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt); China would soon follow 1,000 years afterwards. Agriculture in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Amazonia independently began in 3500 B.C-the Eastern United States coming in last at 2500 B.C. Why was there such a big time disparity between these groups and plant domestication? One of the key reasons was that the Fertile Crescent and China were home to 33 large grass species: wheat, rice, barley, millet, etc. These wild grass species were abundant due to the vast land areas of Eurasia, numerous Mediterranean climates and large elevation changes. Early domestication was advantageous over hunter gathering in these two areas because these grass species provided easy nutrition (today the world gets 50% of its calories from grass plants). This cornucopia of seed plants in Eurasia is contrasted by the meek number available in the Americas-only 4 species in North America, 5 in Mesoamerica, and 2 in South America. Agriculture in Eurasia was further assisted by large mammals which were domesticated. Of all large mammals, Eurasia had 13 species (think cows, pigs, goats, sheep, camels, and horses) which were good candidates for domestication; a good domestication candidate needs to have a certain diet, growth rate, breeding behavior, disposition, and social structure. The Americas, Australia, and Africa only had 1 mammal that was suitable for domestication-dogs. These domesticated animals increased agricultural yield, provided food, and transferred germs to humans. Domesticated animals are the source of some of mankind’s most deadly diseases: Measles (cattle), Tuberculosis (cattle), Smallpox (cattle), Flu (pigs and ducks), Pertussis (pigs, dogs), Falciparum malaria (chickens and ducks), etc. This exposure to germs would eventually wipe out the majority of New World inhabitants and make it possible for Europeans to conquer native people throughout the world. The last key factor of environmental luck was the axis orientation of the continents. Eurasia’s axis stretches east to west with large spans of land on similar latitudes (Think England and China). The Americas and Africa axis’ stretch North to South with huge changes in latitudes (think Canada vs Chili). Similar latitudes meant similar day lengths and weather patterns which allowed for the rapid spread of agriculture across Eurasia. The wide range of latitudes in the Americas/Africa made the spread of agriculture difficult because of drastically different weather and seasons going north to south.

The environmental factors of Eurasia provided it with a lucky head start in respects to efficient agriculture. This head start wasn’t because of the people’s innovation but rather a host of key factors which included climate, plant availability, animal availability, and overall geography. Eurasia’s efficient agriculture (large seed plants and domesticated animals) would eventually lead to the first civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, China). Agriculture and domestication allowed individuals to specialize in jobs unrelated to food production: government officials, laborers, craftsmen, scribes, religious figures. The ability to have specialized positions provided groups of people to innovate and advance in technology. This progression of civilization in Eurasia was already full force before the America’s first signs of agriculture. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Asia would soon spread through the continent and bring about metallurgy, alphabets, and organized warfare. The prerequisites of guns, germs, and steel were all based on the ability to efficiently grow food. And the prerequisites for growing food were a host of environmental factors that led to some lucky people being in the right place at the right time. To be continued.