Saturday, December 18, 2010

Us vs Them

"We are each burdened with prejudice; against the poor or the rich, the smart or the slow, the gaunt or the obese. It is natural to develop prejudices. It is noble to rise above them."

I am reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I'm having a very difficult time with this book.

I do not mean I am not enjoying it. On the contrary, I am enjoying it very much. But it is a 'hard read'. Not the text itself; Zusak has a lyrical and poetic style of writing that I find pleasing and even delectable. I find myself going back rereading passages, savouring them, rolling them around in my mouth like a delightsome chocolate.

However, the story is set in Germany. Nazi Germany. And I have always had a hard time with this subject. I find it uncomfortable.

And this discomfort is increased, folded over upon itself, inexplicably grown in weight and force because of comments I encounter daily from acquaintances and friends.

This distress, this discomfiture is not an abstraction directed at a single political ideal or group. Yes, it is easy to be horrified by what the Nazis did to Jews and others. But for me it has always been a question of the why and the how behind it. Why would a group of people target another group of people for such treatment? And how could it ever be justified?

This isn't a new thought.

And I'm certainly not unique in pondering it. In fact, Dr. Stanley Milgram sought answers to similar questions in 1961. I remember reading about Dr. Milgram when I was in high school.

The Milgram Experiment.

In a way, knowing about Milgram and his experiments troubles me more than any cogitation of Nazi Germany. It is disturbing.

It would be comforting to hold the proof in our hands that what occurred in Europe in the depravity of the 1930s and 40s, that the systematic killing of Jews, Romani, Soviets, Polish, homosexuals, people with disabilities and others – a number totaling between 11 million and 17 million people – was an aberration confined in both space and time.

But it is not.

Milgram did not find that the capacity to set aside morality was confined to Germans. Or officers in a war. Or people who lived in 1933. No, he found that most all of us have a willingness to obey an authority figure who instructs us to perform acts that conflict with our personal conscience.

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” --"The Perils of Obedience", Stanley Milgram 1974

I find this a terrible weakness of human nature. I have often struggled with this inherent flaw within myself. But it is a hard thing to locate, pin down, eradicate. Even more disturbing is that this blind obeisance to authority is a symptom. It is an indication of an even greater fault in human psychology.

As described by the Asch Paradigm, there is a fundamental relationship between a group and an individual. Put simply, a person who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the individual's behavioral model.

That doesn't sound too bad. If something is beyond my abilities or outside of my level of expertise, I rely on my group – peers, religion, state, etc – to decide the right and the wrong. However, stop to think a moment of what all falls in the category of what is beyond our abilities and outside of our expertise. It can easily become a catchall.

You know, like not decrying when the government takes away the Jews. Or rounds up the Japanese to put in "War Relocation Camps”. (In point of fact, that last little gem was not perpetrated by some foreign government 'over there'. It was something we did. Here. In the land of the free.)

We like belonging to groups. We seek out and attach ourselves to them based on religion and politics and even sports. And none of us has the ability or expertise we pretend. That's why they are comforting. They validate us. They empower us. And in times of doubt – an all too common occurrence – they tell us what to do.

That's pretty easy to see in an example like Nazi Germany. A country of people swept away by the Asch Paradigm. A county of people “just following orders.”

But if you look around, you can also see it in the everyday way we treat one another. And it is why an acquaintance jeering at someone in a different political party is disturbing to me. Friend X spewing vitriol at Friend Y based on political affiliation brings a single thought to mind. It's wrong to hate. Except those people, of course.

By reducing another human to just a member of a group you make it very convenient to bow to that very human tendency to give away your moral and ethical responsibilities. Your behavioral model is based on the group, not on your own morality. As one subject of the Milgram Experiment said later of his experiences, “Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority.” And a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, quality that makes us human is that we have freewill. We can choose between right and wrong. Good and evil.

We just need to become aware when we abnegate it.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Internet Friends

"We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people."  --Pierre Omidyar

I was listening to the radio. I don't normally do this. I prefer to make my own music selections and don’t enjoy the advertising that necessitates channel flipping. Even rarer, it was a station with yappy DJs. Yes, they are occasionally funny – kind of like a broken clock is right twice a day – but mostly they are trying. Between the annoyingly compressed pieces of music, these particular DJs were discussing a news story about someone who did something or other online. I believe the person in question posted a video to You Tube or something similar. What the person did is inconsequential. Why she did it – for her 'Internet friends' – is important.

I would not have taken note of this at all had not one of the DJs made an aside, filled with as much derision and sarcasm as he could muster (very little, actually – the attempt being worthy of perhaps three stars), about this person's supposed 'Internet friends'.  His exact words were: "Internet friends. Those aren’t real friends. People who have real friends don’t have Internet friends."

I found this interesting. And it made me very aware that those DJs are old farts who merely pretend to be cool.

And I don't say this just because I happen to have a lot of 'Internet friends'.

I say it because I think it reveals a distrust of and a prejudice against new media. And most interestingly, this criticism, so artfully enunciated in just such a way as to make Mr. DJ sound like an ass, is the latest manifestation of a very old fear. Each new form of communication threatens the ones before, if only by being a possible replacement.  And people are uncomfortable with change. Especially the old farts.

Think I'm exaggerating about it being just another transmutation of an old prejudice? Plato, in his dialogue the Phaedrus, assembles a salvo of arguments against the written word. Yep, for the ancient Greek, writing was dreadful and would end life as he knew it. He feared that writing, in comparison to speech, would lead to forgetfulness.  And in a very real way he was right. We do not have to rely on just our memories. But how bad of a thing is this?

One component of almost any new technology is its potential to undermine a way of life. Even if that way of life may not have been the best, our fluency with it makes it familiar and comfortable. It is far easier to point to aspects of new media that are not like the old media – even when, ironically, this might be just the point – than to look at the new qualities that the new technologies can confer upon us.

Writing makes us forgetful. Telephones make us impersonal. Instant Messaging makes us illiterate.

Back to 'Internet friends'. The forms of communication that the Internet now provides, be it Email (a relatively old new technology), Facebook, Twitter, 4-Square or uncountable others, are tools. And we can use tools to our advantage or our detriment. I have no doubt that there are people who use the anonymity of online communications to remain sheltered and isolated. But the true power of these new technologies is our expanded ability to reach out to others and form meaningful, reciprocal relationships.

I have 'Internet friends' I have met in real life. And I have 'Internet friends' I know I will never meet. The quality of my relationships is not driven by the medium of communication, but in the content of that communication.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Misogynist Me

I was accused of being a misogynist today. OK, the nice lady didn't use the word 'misogynist', but her intention was pretty clear.

I woke early enough and feeling refreshed enough to think a workout at the gym was a good idea. I dressed, hopped in the car and headed out. The workout felt good. I've been sick the last two weeks and it felt great to be physical and strong. Near the end of my workout as I was making cool-down laps around the track I noticed a lady giving me looks. I could not exactly define the 'looks' – they could have been 'look at that cute guy looks' or 'he's got a booger on his face looks' or even 'he might be tasty with a light white wine sauce looks' – but looks they were.

I did not have to wonder long.

The nice lady, the one who was perhaps contemplating if I would be better braised or poached, walked right up to me, put her face very far into my personal space and announced with a little tremble in her voice: "It's guys like you that make this world a bad place."

I like to think of myself as hard to surprise. However, this did just that. I was taken aback (I think a first for me). I stammered out an "Excuse me?" and tried to back away from the little jolts of crazy now clearly detectable.

The nice lady, seeing that her point was being lost on stupid me, poked me in the chest and said, "Your shirt. It’s not funny."

I do have some funny shirts. I have one that reads: See a penny pick it up and all day long you'll have a penny. However, I was not wearing this shirt. I was wearing a workout shirt. You know, the wicking, breathable, don't-die-of-heatstroke kind. I looked down both at her accusatory finger and my shirt. Ah. I was wearing my Skirt Chaser shirt.

"It's a race," I said, still trying to back away from the crazy now achieving a rolling boil.

"I don’t care what it is," she said, still refusing to lower her finger-of-doom. "It's not funny."

I tried to explain to her that it's a 5K put on by SkirtSport, a company that makes sportswear for women. A company founded by Nicole DeBoom for cryin' out loud! And moreover the race had been a fundraiser for breast cancer research.

It didn’t matter.

I was merely a thing to be placed into a preexisting category.

This encounter left me…thoughtful. On the one hand there is enough irony in accusing me of being hateful towards women that it was almost funny. Almost. If I have a failing in that area it is that I'm perhaps too much of a philogynist. One the other hand, prejudice is not pretty no matter who wears it. Or why. And that was a prime and plump example of prejudice.

And that's kind of the point. The nice lady doesn't know me. She doesn't know anything about me. Yet she can judge me. I think that is a lot of what makes this world a bad place.

A prejudice is merely a prejudgment. And we all have them. They are both positive and negative. They are, in large part, our basis for likes and dislikes. But they can exist in a vacuum – which is what can make them so ugly and so dangerous. To judge something, anything, without ascertaining the facts of a situation, is one of the greatest failings of human nature. That we can hold onto an attitude that is resistant to reason creates much of the antagonism in this world.

I'm not angry at the nice lady; I feel sorry for her. I'm certain there must be a reason she holds that kind of hostility in her and lashes out. In her mind it might even be a good reason. However, it has nothing to do with me. And I am upset at an attitude that makes people dismissive of an individual's worth.

I don't think you should ever judge based on the lowest common denominator. And I will not judge the next nice lady I encounter at the gym based on my experience today.

If I know you, or someday meet you, know that I will do my very best to see you for who you are and how you act and not what I think you might be.