Why I Still Believe in the Enlightenment

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I knew when I became a history teacher that there were certain stereotypes I wanted to avoid. For example, I didn’t want to be the teacher that kids like but don’t respect who spends all of class time relating to but not teaching the kids. Still, my politics are pretty radical for America (though pretty mainstream in Europe), so a lot of people assumed that I would be that teacher, in order to “get” the kids to believe what I believed. But the thing is, I never worried about that because I knew that the kids would reach the right conclusions with full information. Which is to say that I think the evidence is on my side. I’m classically liberal, which means that I believe that freedom, truth, logic and scientific reasoning are our best hope to provide everyone with the best society possible. Now, if this were true, it would be simple, right? People would reach the conclusions based on the information that is available. So why hasn’t that happened? The older I get the more I realize how limited people’s information is. Most people aren’t operating under the best information available and even if that information were easily accessible, and it isn’t, they wouldn’t know how to find it anyway. Now maybe some of the reason for this is sinister: “they” don’t want people to know. But I personally feel that in all of my experience of looking at government documents around the world that arguing that its all part of some master plan that “they” cooked up is giving “them” too much credit. It is rarely the case that “they” are that competent. The people with power really believe what they believe, sure there might be a few psychopaths who are acting for the cameras but most people with power believe in the bullshit they sale. How does it happen that an entire elite comes to believe nonsense? Well, first they stop looking for answers. They close their minds and hearts to any evidence that contradicts their worldview. Now maybe, I find it more palpable when their worldview lands them on the same policy position as me, but its still just as dangerous. This problem is what caused the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the famine of the Great Leap Forward. Much of the progressive policies of the 30s and 40s, including Social Security, I agree with but many of these people ALSO believed in Eugenics so a good policy position can come from a very dangerous place. That’s why I try really hard to be cagey enough to never get labeled or to never join anything because I want to make sure I have enough autonomy to call anyone on their bullshit.

I take for granted my research skills but the fact of the matter is that even the smartest people I know cannot research as well as I can, so they are working off of limited information as well as limited worldviews. For example, police shootings. What do we know about them? Well, it turns out not a whole lot. But what we do know is that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot by police, the majority of the victims are in fact white, and that police officers never get charged. Based on this information, what are the logical conclusions we can draw? One might be that racism exists. One might be that poor white people are the majority of the population and possibly the majority of the poor. One might be that we give police officers impunity. I think all of those statements are probably true, but most people have, at best, one of those pieces of information. Our conclusions are limited by the limit of factors we can hold in our head at one time. There are rarely two sides to anything, usually there are somewhere between “a lot” and “infinity” sides to anything. More often then not, one has to consider that all sides or some combination of the sides are correct. Sometimes information is correct but not valuable to the discussion. And sometimes, people don’t have even one piece of correct information or believe in information that is functionally unprovable. Now, in this example, believing ONLY that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot is probably a much less serious problem than believing only that the majority of victims are poor and white, but both won’t get us to a workable conclusion and solution because they won’t deal with the culture we have built up around the police, or poverty, or gun violence. They only look at one of many factors.

It is for this reason that I maintain the belief in skepticism and scientific reasoning. The difficulty in it is that it is unpleasant and uncomforting to most people to have to constantly hold in their head that they are probably wrong, that there is limited information and that we still have to make life and death social decisions based on what we have. But the comfort that I do take in skepticism and a scientific approach is that eventually we are going to reach a point nearing truth, and that if we get distracted by misinformation that the road to truth will be a lot more difficult for us to reach. The difference between people who are able to bring to light new Truths, who are able to think differently, and solve problems is that they are willing to consider the possibility that all of us could be wrong. No matter how many degrees, rewards, books, years of research, every single one of us could be wrong. Someone with more information is more likely to be right. They operate in probabilities instead of certainties. And it is not just about the “scientific method” that we teach in school, artists, historically, have been some of the best people to do this and it is because they go looking for perspective. I believe in evidence, even when it is really unpleasant for me to have to believe in evidence. I accept when I’m wrong, adjust for the new information and move on. Most people don’t do this; most people just repeat what they believe over and over again until they find someone gullible enough to listen to them. For example, I was in an argument with a libertarian one time about our health care system and the person said, “well, why don’t we treat it like food distribution?” So I responded with a clearly articulated, backed by research response and he actually simply repeated the same point. These kinds of thought processes are part of what makes our politics so frustrating, at some point Americans stopped believing in science and logic.

But I also believe in something else. Absolutely everyone is capable on some level of doing this. Pattern recognition and logic are stitched into the very fiber of our being. Children have to be trained NOT to do this. Absolutely every student that I have ever had has reached the right conclusions when they had evidence, some got there faster or easier, but all of them can do it. Because this is what fundamentally makes us human, and it has long been the dream to ensure that everyone gets the same opportunity to get the kind of education that allows us to do that. That is what a true education would mean, and the biggest thing holding us back from achieving that is not that “they” want to keep us ignorant, but that “they” believe that we aren’t all capable of that. We relinquish our humanity far too quickly, when we should instead be fighting for it with our lives. That ability and belief in that ability are far more likely to lead us to liberation than anything else and that’s why I believe it is inherently a human right to receive that education, no matter what the kid’s home looks like. I don’t want to be right, I don’t want to win, I want everyone to be free. Because I believe that freedom is the only pathway to humanity, and that’s something that we can get everyone to believe in no matter their worldview.

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There is NO Excuse for Being a Douche- A Cheeky Title for a Serious Thought

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“Heather, you have to remember that everyone around you is wounded and suffering.”

“So am I and I don’t treat people like shit.”

“Yeah, but not everyone’s brain works like yours.”

I have a firm and deep commitment to the belief that nothing justifies treating each other poorly. In fact, I believe that if humanity shifted its thinking from “I was hurt so I’m going to hurt others” to understanding that nothing justifies hurting each other the world would be a different place. But when I first heard this from my own mother as she rationalized the abuse my family had put me through over the years I was stopped in my tracks. This happens to me a lot, the discussion gets ended because my brain is not replicable, but the thing is, I don’t believe that my brain has anything to do with it. It makes it easier for me to process pain, for me to reach the right conclusions faster but it also makes it easier for me to rationalize my own evil behavior. How do I know? Because of my mom. I’m not saying my mom is evil, but I am saying that she has made a lot of choices out of spite that hurt people and my mom is incredibly gifted, maybe not to the degree I am but she is a member of MENSA. History is littered with brilliant people who did very bad things to each other. The reason I’ve reached these conclusions has a lot to do with being very systematically oppressed for most of my life and my gentle nature, but I am human and I have a dark side too and when I had to face that piece of myself I realized that I had a choice. I chose the better angel of my nature. That is a choice that we all can make and must make if we ever want to move forward as a society.

I’m not saying that I don’t understand anger, and how abuse and oppression warps the soul. I understand it to a level that few will ever know, because I saw it personally when I was a child. I have great compassion for people who have suffered and their anger. But at the end of the day, we still have to hold people accountable because it is still a choice. There are so many problems on this earth because people are trying to act out their suffering on each other instead of trying to heal. The abuse, oppression and the pain I have suffered makes me angry, and I’m not sorry for that. Anger is not inherently bad, there are things it would be nuts to be not be angry about, but our response to anger can be good or bad and it is a choice. It’s not an easy choice, but it is still a choice.

My stepdad left a note this week explaining that he’s been yelling about me and kicking me out because he has “a chip on his shoulder.” You see, my family has come to expect me to accept whatever they dish out, because for a very long time I thought it was my job to absorb all anger because I have a larger capacity than they do, but the problem with this is that it is destroying me, healing no one, and is what keeps us in the endless cycle of poverty and drug addiction. I know too that my brain has very little to do with it because there is another one of me in my family, my brother. My brother is very intelligent and artistically talented, and he was severely abused when were kids, especially by my older sister who took her anger out on us. My brother and I both have made the decision to not allow our pain to be an excuse to hurt others and our brains are very different. We are the members of the family that end up having to absorb everyone else’s suffering. This is what makes me not buy that it’s about intelligence, because everyone in my family is smart but two of us choose, consistently to be kind. It also sells everyone else short. It is oppression by virtue of low expectations. All of us have the capacity to do this and when we pretend we don’t we deny the best pieces of humanity, our free will. I’m not religious, but I do think that people misinterpret the phrase, “made in God’s image.” What this means is that we have the power to create, to choose our lives and society, to bring life into the world, and yes to destroy; it all comes down to what we decide to do with it.

I want to live in a world where people say , “bullshit” anytime someone tries to rationalize terrible behavior. There are moral absolutes. It is ALWAYS wrong to hurt innocent people. Can you imagine how different things would have turned out in Germany, if instead of saying, “our economy sucks, lets find a scapegoat and someone to take our anger out on” they had focused their resources on providing for everyone? Imagine how different the world would be if poor white people didn’t take their anger out on poor minorities, if wealthy minorities didn’t take their anger out on poor white people, if men didn’t take their anger out on women, and if parents never took their anger out on children. What would the world look like if we all adopted the ideology that hurting people isn’t ok and that there is no excuse for it? How different would things if we held each other accountable to treating each other well? If we accepted no rationalization for hurting people? There have been human beings around the world and throughout history who have done just that and they accomplished some of the greatest progressions in humanity. If people can do it during the Holocaust and slavery then you can do it too. We’ve been through worse than this and if some people hadn’t chosen to do the right thing we wouldn’t exist.

We are better than this and I don’t believe anyone who tells me otherwise. I believe that because I am alive, and a woman and I can vote, and I’m not an indentured slave, and I don’t work in a factory, and I have medical care, and if someone hurts me there are some pathways for recourse, and I received a free public education, and I went to Stanford. All of this is made possible by the people who came before me and said, “there is no excuse for dehumanization and I’m prepared to put myself on the line to prove it.” There is an accountability that is lost when people don’t live in communities. Where I come from, if your friend is doing something morally reprehensible you have an OBLIGATION to intervene, and that’s why my friend group is full of a bunch of kids who have been wounded but tried to make the best of it, because we don’t accept that from each other.

But if you are battling demons, and if you don’t have that community, and your brain isn’t mine and your life experience isn’t like mine what can you do? For me, when I want to learn, I do research, and I would suggest with starting with the biographies of some of the inspiring historical figures. If research isn’t your thing, then think about the people who have been kind in your life. Do they have pain? Yes. Are they still kind? Yes. Ask them why. Talk to people about that choice and how they overcome their suffering. Ask yourself what supports you need to be accountable? Talk to a therapist, or a priest, or a wise elder about it. Send me an email and I’ll set you straight myself. But above all else, don’t relinquish your humanity and sell yourself short by giving up on the best of yourself.