Anger & Fear

I’m not angry; I’m just very, very disappointed.

It seems a lot of the people who voted for Trump were very angry and frustrated. People do not think rationally when they are angry and frustrated, and Trump made sure to keep them angry and frustrated right up to election night.

There was also a large undercurrent of fear as well, and there are two ways to deal with that kind of anger and fear:

“I need to have power over others so they can’t do anything to anger or frighten me”

or

“I need to help others so they won’t give me cause to be angry or fearful”

Sadly, in this last election more people who voted chose the former over the latter.

It is difficult to reason with someone who is angry, frustrated, and afraid – they don’t generally react with thought but instead with emotion. And since emotion is close buddies with our “fight or flight” response, someone who reacts with their emotions will have essentially just two responses: fight or flight. They will act (or in this case, vote) in a way that gives them power to “fight” (i.e., punish or control) whatever frightens and angers them – or they will choose “flight,” which means either running away (or ignoring) or pushing away what angers and frightens them.

This all might seem quite reasonable until you remember that what angers and frightens these people is… other people. Groups of people who are different, who look different or act different or think different. And this means that the emotions of these angry and frustrated and fearful people made them choose a course of action that will punish, control, and push away people just because they are different.

Anger, fear, and politics are a terrible combination. It is all to easy to rationalize terrible behavior and poor decisions when you’re angry and afraid.

“I had to shoot that person; he was coming right for me!”

“We have to get rid of all people like them, they could all be murderers!”

I’m the one who needs a job, not you!”

Rationalizations like this are bad enough at the personal level, but when they get translated into policy or enshrined in law, it becomes much, much worse. An individual can move past their fear and re-think their decisions and change their behavior fairly easily and quickly, but changing public policy and law can take ages – if it ever happens at all.

It’s often been said you shouldn’t make important decisions when you’re angry, and electing a president is one of the most important decisions a country can make – yet we seem to have made this decision quite rashly and while decidedly angry. That this will turn out to have been a terrible mistake seems a foregone conclusion.

All we can do now is try to calm down now that the election is over and put aside the anger & fear we felt and consider our situation carefully. We can still the frustrated fervor that has infected our politics from top to bottom and approach our problems with reason and compassion. It will take effort, certainly, but we cannot sustain this level of anger and fear forever.

The sooner we do this, the better – and the less of an impact this hasty mistake will have on ourselves, our country, our world, and all those future generations that will follow us and judge our actions.

On Endings & Beginnings

My God, what have we done?

Well, it happened. America voted a racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering idiot as its chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief. This is arguably the first President elected entirely out of spite.

He campaigned on fear and hate and it worked – and what do you think that says about us? It says that we are a bunch of fearful, small-minded, and angry people, and now we have to put up with the consequences of our choices.

We put so much emphasis on “winning” that we chose our candidates and elected someone based on whether we thought they could win, rather than if we thought they were actually going to be good at their job.

If we don’t want this to be the start of an ending that has been a long time coming – a long, slow decline that has now come to a precipice – we need to stop being so concerned about “winning” (or preventing someone else from “winning”) and start being more concerned about “doing well.” From how we choose candidates to how we compromise on differences of opinion, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing good and avoiding the most harm.

I suspect this is going to be very difficult – change always is – especially with all the momentum we’ve built up as of late. “Cooler heads prevail” is a nice thing to say but it rarely happens in practice. Yet we must do it, or else that same momentum will take us right over that precipice, and future historians will look back to this time and say “2016 marked the beginning of the end.”

Our divisiveness has allowed this to happen, has made it virtually inevitable, and continuing to be this divisive can lead to only one conclusion, and that is that nobody wins, and everybody loses. We must stop this, we must stop being so divisive, being so afraid of ourselves that we can’t work together.

United we stand; divided… well, you know the rest.

It’s Time to Let Go of American Individualism

America has long cherished the spirit of individualism, but these days we could stand to maybe loosen up a bit in regards to it.

America has always had an obsession with the idea of “Individualism” but this is increasingly becoming a dangerous and unhealthy obsession, especially since lately we seem to be holding ever tighter to the idea, almost to the point of fetishizing it, instead of letting it go (or at least relaxing our grip a bit).

The dictionary defines “individualism” as “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” and “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control,” which sounds great on the face of things – though in today’s interconnected world I question how truly independent or self-reliant an individual can really be.

The American idea of “Individualism” though goes beyond just “I can take care of myself” and “I want to be free to do what I want without the government telling me what to do.” Instead, the American idea of “Individualism” twists it into “I should take care of myself (and so should you)” and “I should be free to do whatever I want and the government must not tell me what to do, ever.”

We’ve always valued individualism, ever since our earliest colonial days. The United States is a big country, and back in the days when the fastest mode of travel was by horse, it seemed even bigger. As a result, when you were building your home in this big New World, you had to learn to depend on yourself and only on yourself – because there was no one else around! And in these early days, individualism was a good thing, a positive trait, something that you almost needed to survive here.

law of self-reliance
We’ve taken the idea of self-reliance way, way, way beyond this.

Even as cities and railroads and even cars came along, this spirit of individualism remained – again, partly because the US is just such a big country that even with motorized travel there were still huge sections of the country where you would be more or less all on your own. So this idea of being independent, of being reliant only on yourself, became ingrained as part of our culture.

However, as the country grew – as towns became cities and urbanization took hold, and as transportation and communication tied us all together into a connected whole rather than isolated pockets – the need to be individual and the benefits of individualism have become less important, or even counterproductive. Truthfully, in the 21st century, the idea of being completely free and totally self-reliant is basically dead. Oh sure there are still wide open places where you’d better be able to take care of yourself, but we are an interconnected society now, and we all rely on one another to some degree. Individualism will only get you so far. We’re all in this together (for better or for worse) and believing otherwise is just deluding yourself.

We’ve romanticized the idea of individualism too much – we’ve placed this ideal on such a high pedestal that it is quite literally impossible to reach.

Furthermore, this idealized individualism has a dark side. The higher we hold the standard of self-reliance, the lower we hold those who aren’t. If being self-reliant is great, then having to rely on others must not be great – it must be bad, or even shameful. If being free and able to do whatever you want is the ideal, then being subject to group rule – no matter how much or how little – must always be undesirable.

It’s fine to want to be able to take care of yourself (indeed, I think this is still a worthy goal to have), but it’s not OK to look down on those who can’t take care of themselves. It’s great to strive to be independent of others (as much as is realistic these days), but it’s foolish to base every decision, without question, on whatever lets you depend on others the least amount.

There’s another flip side to all this as well – the idea of individual responsibility. As an example, if you’re self-reliant and you built your own home completely yourself, from scratch, that’s great – but when a tornado comes along and knocks your house flat, individualism says that you and you alone are responsible for rebuilding it.

It is important to realize the limits of self-reliance and what individualism can mean, and not delude ourselves into thinking it’s more (or less) than it is.

The key here is balance: as with most things, it is important to strike a balance between extremes. Too often we pursue individualism & self reliance at any cost and prioritize it above any other concern. Over-emphasizing and over-valuing the idea of self-reliance and individualism necessarily causes the de-emphasis and under-valuing of the opposing ideas of needing help (from family, community, society, or government) and being part of a larger whole. This extremism is not helpful to anyone, in the same way that extremism/polarization in politics doesn’t help anyone, either. (The subject of WHY we’ve trended towards such extremism and such black & white thought is a topic for another post.)

After all, I don’t think anyone is arguing for true total freedom of action and self-determination – otherwise we’d all be free to run around and murder one another – so really the discussion is about where on the spectrum of “some freedom of action” and “some self-reliance” we should be. The problem comes when that over-emphasis of the value of individualism causes us to consider decisions solely in light of whether they decrease self-reliance or individual rights, and not whether they actually make sense or benefit the most people.

Like it or lump it, we are a collective society. Individual rights are important and good, yes, but the idea that they are paramount and should always trump any other concerns is simply not workable in a world with as many people in it as there are today. In order for society to function we must, of a necessity, give up some individual rights (how much we give up is of course open to continuous debate – and, again, a topic for another post.) Given this, continuing to idealize and romanticize individualism (and denigrate non-individualism) is fundamentally counter-productive.

As a nation, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that we’re not living on the frontier anymore, that there are some 318 million of us and that we are all deeply interdependent on one another (whether we realize it or not) and, most importantly, that this is not at all a bad thing. It’s fine to try and make it on your own, sure, but don’t take this as the only measure of success – and especially don’t think that failing to do so makes you less of a person.

Individualism was great when our country was just getting started, but our country is grown up now and we need to be as well – we need to let go of this idealized fantasy of individualism and total self-reliance and come to grips with the fact that things aren’t like they used to be, and this is not a bad thing. No man is an island, as the saying goes, but together we form the better part of a continent, and I think that’s something we can all be just as proud of.

Just People

It’s all too easy in this day and age to give in to a subtle (or not-so-subtle) fear of “foreigners” but it is important to remember that these are still just people like you and me.

Every time someone talks about fear of foreigners I just want to shake them & say “These are PEOPLE! They eat & sleep just like you; they have hopes and aspirations just like you, they love and they dream just like you, and putting aside different clothes and traditions they are STILL JUST PEOPLE who are not scary and should not be treated with any less decency than you would want to be treated with yourself.”

It is all to easy to group people you don’t know and apply simple stereotypes and pretend you know them – and always but especially in this day and age this is a terribly dangerous way to think; all the more so because it is so easy to do without even realizing you’re doing it. If you ever catch yourself using the phrase “those people,” you’ve probably just fallen into this trap.

But someone isn’t “those people” any more than you are “these people.” The lines we draw are arbitrary, regardless of what they’re based on. At the end of the day, we are all just people – different people to be sure, there’s all kinds of people – but still people all the same.

So the next time you see someone different from yourself, before you slap a stereotype and your preconceptions on them and convince yourself that you know that they are like and what they think, stop for a moment and remember: though they may look different or behave different, they are JUST PEOPLE and they are almost certainly more like you than you’d think.

We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

Recent news has revealed what many already suspected – we have become a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual for a surveillance stateRecent news has revealed what many already suspected – that we are (or are about to become), a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

The kind of surveillance that was previously only in the realm of dystopian fiction has been revealed to not only be possible, but to be taking place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thing is, we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time – companies have effectively been doing this for years now. What’s changed is the scope of theĀ  surveillance, and the government’s involvement in (and use of) that surveillance.

This sort of surveillance is a by-product of the digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thing. What is bad is that government is getting deeply involved, and it is doing so very quickly, and without a chance for public debate (or even without the public’s knowledge!).

In light of the seeming inevitability of increased surveillance and data collection, and to prevent the absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, you need deep, fundamental protections against misuse of data – and such protections need to be built in, from the start – they are not the sort of thing that can be added on afterwards.

Technology is progressing so rapidly that our laws simply cannot keep up – even the ways we create laws is still largely stuck in the last century, so that even if we try to adapt to new technology, by the time we’re done, it’s too late.

Even more worrying is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stopping our governments from taking advantage of that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like having a really old machine that we’re trying desperately to keep running, even though the manufacturer has long since gone out of business, and the purpose for which the machine was originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacing parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have to rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep trying to get the machine to do things it was never intended to do – bolting on additions and making adjustments, all without really knowing how it will affect the overall functioning of the machine, or even if it’ll work the way we want it to.

Programmers in the audience will recognize this pathological pattern of behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind of situation, often the response will be to just throw it all out and start over again from scratch.

In law, as in software, the argument against doing this is usually “why throw it away, since it still works” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” But I think it’s clear, especially in the face of new technology and what we’ve learned recently is being done with that technology, that things are in fact NOT working, and that the system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need to start over, or more practically, immediately begin reforming the ways we deal with technology – from the ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs to keep up with the pace at which technology changes – the way we debate laws, the way we vote, the protections & systems needed to prevent abuse – all of these things need to be updated, and they need to be updated in a hurry.

Until our laws are fundamentally overhauled to provide the same kind of deeply embedded protections in this digital age that we previously enjoyed before computers existed, we simply are not ready to be a surveillance state.

That such a surveillance state is being created, before we are ready for it, is deeply disturbing and either needs to be stopped right now, or a concerted effort to reform our laws needs to happen, yesterday.