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. 

Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

[Jim Jones, Peoples Temple Church Services]

The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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Scoop

I may sound like a broken record but I am going to say it again, “news is crap.” Most news is just gossip that does nothing for our life except waste our time or make us more depressed. For example, I turned the nightly news on and it was all about a murder that had taken place the previous night. How do I benefit from knowing about this murder? Am I going to change my habits? Should I buy a gun? Should I refrain from drug deals at 3:00 AM? The only thing that will change is my equanimity – from peaceful to paranoid. I don’t listen to the news and I know very little about current events. Does this make me ignorant? Yes and No. I am oblivious to trivial matters but if the news is important enough – the word will eventually reach me; but when I do hear about it, I have a breadth of knowledge to contribute which the news could never provide. I am ignorant about Donald Trump’s myriad mishaps but I am not ignorant about the mishaps of the French Revolution. I am ignorant of the most recent natural disaster but I am not ignorant about Plato’s philosophy on human suffering. It is better to study the past so that you have a foundation to understand the present. This point is best illustrated by a toddler who is told by an older brother that an evil clown lives in his closet. With no background information or knowledge of clown behavior, the kid pees himself for the next month.

I bring this topic up because my 5th classic, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, is a satire on the news business and how the news “supposedly” educates the public. Scoop was written in 1938 and is acclaimed for its portrayal of the Fleet Street culture in London. Fleet Street was the mecca of England newspapers and there was a lot of money to be made from constant news. The problem in Scoop is that there is a lack of stories happening in the world and the bigwigs are anxious to keep the printing press hot. They end up sending, by mistake, a part-time columnist to an obscure country to report on a potential war; the dilemma is that there is no real turmoil to report on. Journalists keep flooding the small nation in search of a “scoop” – in the end a story has to be partly falsified and exaggerated in order to sell papers. Scoop is actually pretty funny and is a critique on the deplorable state of new’s media and their incessant need for sensationalism – seemingly stamping “news” on everything. This book parallels our current media’s incessant need for material and the subsequent decline in reporting. Not even speaking of “fake” news, the “real” news is rarely ever worth a second glance; like a Shepard eternally crying wolf! Waugh could never have imagined the internet age but his novel is more applicable today than when it was published. Instead of chasing our tails, let’s spend more time in well researched books and periodicals which are respected. Don’t take the bait and believe your brother – “Breaking News: Killer Clown Discovered to be Vacuum Cleaner!”

“‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news. Of course there’s colour. Colour is just a lot of bulls’-eyes about nothing.'”
-Evelyn Waugh Scoop

 

 

 

From Russia With Love

The name is Bond…James Bond. This is one of the most infamous phrases ever uttered in popular culture. When one thinks of Bond they think of a clever English man who is quick on his feet and miraculous in bed. Men want to be him and women want to be with him. It seems like there are a million Bond films that have gone through more lead characters than Dumbledores in Harry Potter. I remember watching old Bond films and marveling at all the exotic locations, expensive cars, and sexy women. Unfortunately, I am nothing like James Bond – I could be a spy as long as I got 9 hours of sleep and could swoon women while wearing my bedtime bite guard. Bond is synonymous with excitement and this is why I was pumped to read my fourth classic, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. From Russia With Love is the fifth book in the Bond series and it was written in 1957. In total, Fleming wrote 14 bond books starting in 1953; he wrote up until his death in 1964 and several authors have taken up the series since then. From Russia With Love is considered one of the Top 100 Classics and was immensely popular when it was originally published. The plot takes place in Istanbul and entails a beautiful Russian woman seducing Bond so he can be assassinated by an evil Cold-War spy. The book has a lot of twists and overall it is a pretty fun read – my take away from it may surprise you.

Reading this book allowed me to step back to a time that many people claim to be the golden age of “morals.” The 50’s are always remembered as the era of poodle skirts,  milkshakes, greasers, and drive-in movie theaters. It was a time when teenagers only held hands on dates, drugs were a rarity, and marriages lasted forever. I always hear this from baby boomers, “society has gone down the drain in the past 50 years…kids these days.” Of course, every generation says things like this but I think the 50’s stand out above all other decades as the benchmark of nostalgic-purity. The more I read though, the more I realize the actual 50’s was far different than what was portrayed on Leave it to BeaverFrom Russia With Love is a book that contains killing, adultery, rape, slavery, racism – making modern-day Bond films look like kid’s movies. Of course, this is spy novel – I didn’t expect some liberal-hippy fest – but I did think it would be sanitized due to its systemic popularity at the time. The thing is, the 1950’s was no more pure than today – sex and violence are universal pastimes. To make matters worse, women and all non-white races were living in a time that saw systemic segregation – literal and figurative . What one realizes is that today, more than ever, people of all backgrounds are treated with greater respect, kindness, and humanity – perhaps we should rethink our benchmark? Read the book – it may brighten your outlook on the world.

As for sex, well, I mean sex is a perfectly respectable subject as far as Shakespeare is concerned. I mean, all history is love and violence.

-Ian Fleming

Should We Rape a Rapist?

Around the world, only one-third of all countries still allow the death penalty; the majority of executions occur in the United States, Iran, China, North Korea, and Yemen. Since 1973, over 140 death row inmates in the United States were found innocent and released because of wrongful conviction – during that same time 1,200 people were executed – a 12% rate of error! The death penalty was found to not be a deterrent to crime and states with no death penalty have homicide rates at or below national rates (Amnesty USA). A recent Pew Research Poll found that support for the death penalty has dropped in the US: 49% support and 42% oppose. There were 20 executions in 2016 which is a significant drop since a peak of 315 in 1996. These facts are both sobering and encouraging – depending on one’s particular viewpoint. I think the best way to understand the death penalty is to examine the lives of the people on death row. A great resource for this examination is by reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a non-profit lawyer who fights for inmates on death row who were wrongfully convicted. To put it simply, death row is many times a political tool that propagates racism, injustice, and systemic bias against those who cannot pay for a proper defense lawyer. My question is why does the United States still have the death penalty?

The logic of the death penalty is all wrong. Why is it right to kill a killer? The action of writing a wrong with another wrong seems like an archaic practice right out of the Medieval Ages. Is the “eye for an eye” mentality the best usage of justice. Is any single action greater than the sum of our parts? Why does the death penalty differ from all other sentences? Why don’t we rape a rapist? Why don’t we abuse an abuser? Why don’t we steal from a thief? All of these scenarios sound ridiculous but don’t they fall under the same logic? We’re killing a killer because it is an equal reaction. Putting this obvious inequity aside, just think of the 12% rate of error that was earlier mentioned. Court systems are inherently flawed because of politics and implicit biases; the axiom “guilty until proven innocent” comes to mind. Defense lawyers are overworked and resources for the poor are stretched so thin that many go to court via Skype. How can we sentence people to death – the ultimate final verdict – in a system that has so many problems? Finally, the death penalty doesn’t deter killers. In many cases, murder is done without premeditation and rational thought is completely absent. The death penalty is an afterthought to a murderer because most people who murder never thought they would in the first place.

So what is the argument for the death penalty? Most people who support it usually overly trust the justice system and believe all convictions are perfect. Also, they believe that it deters crime (disproven above) and that it is not “cruel or unusual punishment” (Over 2/3 of all countries believe it is). What about the revenge component – if someone killed my loved one wouldn’t I want them to experience the same fate? This may sound logical but when victim families are interviewed they many times wish for a life sentence over the death penalty. Why is this? Fist off, it is a long process to execute someone. There are years of appeals and the total amount of court appearances continue to open up wounds for the bereaving victims. Secondly, revenge killing is never as satisfying as one thinks – just reference any major religious text or psychology journal to understand this more. Life in prison is a far greater punishment than any expedited death. Not only does the prisoner have to live locked up, they have to ruminate about what they did. Guilt and rumination are almost always universal (except in some mental-illnesses). Being conscious of wrong doing is the whole point of the criminal justice system – why would we cut that short for the worst crimes? Just think about your own regrets – what felt worse – staring at the ceiling with guilt or falling asleep to escape?