Monday, December 15, 2014

We Can Do Better

Here we are, a nation on the decline, half of us convinced the other half are evil madmen. We scramble around after our individual dreams like lobsters in a pot, grappling and clawing and coercing and betraying.
            The American Dream. Always just around the corner. Projected at us mirage-like straight from the Swiss bank accounts of psychopaths into our movies, tv shows, our friends riding the wave of the latest bubble, from billboards and fashion magazines, coming from all around us in fingertip 3-D.
            So we keep obeying the rules of this game that benefits so few of us. Watching the antics of megalomaniacs parade across the silver screens, reading about mass murderers in history books, lauded as paradigms of humanity. The game says the victor is always worth listening to. The game lets might equals right.
            So we look hungrily to the wealthy. We listen to them, hoping to understand why we suffer. They point to the teenager next door and his late night 7-11 run becomes an excuse to play out our dearest vigilante fantasies, as though we can physically strike out against the evil in our lives, as though the thing turning love into numbers can be killed.
            We hide our debt, our shame, our failure from one another because we are unforgiving with our own judgments, because we don’t want to burden one another, because failure is contagious, because we might be millionaires still if we don’t catch it.
            But the numbers have spoken. To be born poor in this country is to die poor. There many reasons for this and none involve the innate superiority of certain human beings over others. Many involve unwillingness to compromise values, obey arbitrary orders, or hurt other people in the name of success.
            No matter how different we may seem from one another, everyone wants the same thing: to be treated in a respectful manner, appreciated for their contributions to the community, and left the hell alone when they’re not hurting anybody.
            This isn’t much to ask.
            Isn’t it worth considering exactly what it would take for everyone on Earth to get what they want? The most problematic instance, of course, is people who want to be allowed to hurt others indiscriminately and without consequence.
            They are often brought up as though they negate the whole idea of Utopia, which is pretty ironic, as this describes without doubt many of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Even if Utopia sounds too idealistic, surely we can do better than to put its gravest enemies in charge.
            In order for a new world to arrive, the status quo must be upset. This is such a frightening prospect that many people would rather suffer indefinitely under the old order than trust our collective ability to invent something better.
            Changing the world is as simple as shifting our global priorities. It’s not a matter of sacrificing our lives or giving up all we have. We just have to stop letting a tiny group of people hoard our common resources.
            What would we do with the resources of the world if we all got to decide together? I think we would look around us at those most in need and put our best people and resources towards helping end their suffering. Helping them to thrive. We’re always trying to do that on our own, in our communities. We don’t spend all of our community time and resources preparing to fight others. Why do we do that on a national and international level?
            What emergency are we storing up our resources for if not our brothers and sisters? What better use of resources than solving desperate crises? Do we regard suffering so casually as to see it as a hobbyist endeavor?
            I don’t think we do. We have more empathy and good sense than that.
            It’s time to shrug the old story that the wealthy ruling class knows better than the masses. Surely we masses, with our good hearts and solid priorites, could come up with a better world than this. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reality Check

I witnessed a familiar scene the other day, walking through one of those nice little park strips you find between buildings in downtown San Jose: a man in dress pants, a crisp white shirt and a tie standing over a man lying in the grass, gesturing for him to move along. You don't really need me to describe the other man, but I will anyway--he was an older African American man, dressed in worn and dirty clothes, using a backpack as a pillow. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't on drugs, and he certainly wasn't doing anything offensive--he was just taking a nap on the lawn.

As I walked by, I suddenly turned around, incensed. "What are you doing?" I asked the man in the tie. "Seriously, have you taken the time to think about what you're doing right this second, and what it means?"

The man smiled unpleasantly. "Yes, I have thought about it," he said. "This is private property."

"So?" I asked. "Do you realize the implications of what you're doing? You are removing someone who is not harming you in any way...why? So you don't have to look at him. So you don't have to be reminded that there are people in our society who are suffering needlessly? So you don't have to be reminded that the lifestyle you enjoy is not accessible to everyone?"

"It's private property," he said again, his smile growing more smug.

I'll admit I was pretty volatile by now, tapping a finger to my forehead angrily and saying, "Yeah, but have you really THOUGHT about it? I mean, think about it. What does private property even mean? Who gave anyone the right to sell it in the first place? We were all born onto this planet in the same way. Who said it gets to be yours? GOD?"

I'm sure this sounded like a pointless observation to this dude, who was not engaging with anything I was saying, let alone critically questioning the very idea of private property--and I was making it easy enough for him to write me off as some random crazy lady (stupid temper). It certainly wasn't the reality check I wanted it to be.

So now I want to take the opportunity, from a calmer place, to stop and think about the way we treat our homeless. We don't even see them as people anymore, which I would argue is partly to keep ourselves sane as we walk by our fellow man suffering right in front of us and do nothing about it day after day after day. It's hard to know what to do. It's too systemic of a problem for us to just invite home every person we see on the streets. There are too many ins and outs, and anyway, many of us are struggling just to feed our own families.

So instead of helping them we kick them off lawns as though they're human pieces of garbage to be removed, rather than our brothers and sisters resting in our common spaces because...*ahem* private property man...they don't have living rooms. So not only are we telling them "I don't care about your dire situation," we are going on to deny them even the most basic relief because we don't like looking at them.

It's amazing how we normalize quite terrible behaviors. How many businesses have signs that say "restrooms for customer use only"? People without homes are also people without bathrooms. But we are afraid they won't respect our spaces, so we won't let them use ours. As someone who has worked in several restaurants, I can tell you that the ability to pay does not predict good restroom behavior. But hey, let's go on denying a whole caste of society respite, just on the off chance. It's not our problem.

The funny thing is, the people who actually decide to step up and help tend to seem threatening to those around them. We have this weird tendency to morality police others--to get angry at people for being *too* nice because they make us look bad by comparison. Here are several examples:

Store Clerk Yells at Man for Giving a Homeless Man Donuts and Change
Florida Town Punishes a Couple for Feeding the Homeless
Temecula Advises Residents Not to Help Homeless

I think we're the worst to one another when we feel helpless and guilty, and homeless people are a natural target for these negative emotions. We're guilty that they're there in the first place, but we feel helpless to solve the problem instead we make the problem even worse by treating them like refuse and denying them basic human kindnesses.

We need to shed the "not my problem" model and think about triage. Which is worse--the possibility of having a restroom defiled, or denying someone a basic amenity that they have no access to otherwise? Having to be visually reminded that poverty exists, or making our most vulnerable population feel as unwelcome as possible in every arena? Facing up to the fact that we could plausibly do more, and don't, or utterly dehumanizing our brothers and sisters in need?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Demand Justice Reform

Our country's laws are no longer serving the people of the United States. Though they should be protecting us, they are instead imprisoning great numbers of our poor and absolving and releasing those who harm and oppress us. It is up to us to demand their swift reform.

First, we must demand the decriminalization of all non-violent acts. Violent acts include any use of deception, influence, or physical force which causes harm to the person or property of another, or forces them to engage in behavior which they did not consent to. The sorts of laws that prevent these things are designed to protect the American people and our beautiful continent from being abused and exploited. We have seen, not once, but many times, the worst perpetrators not only walk free, but continue to hold positions of power. This is clearly not a priority of our justice system.

By contrast, the majority of American citizens imprisoned today have caused little or no demonstrable harm to others or their property. The banning of victimless behaviors poses a real danger to the freedom and autonomy of US citizens, and we hold that it is the business of families and communities to negotiate and regulate these kinds of acts. Federal courts should be concerned with maintaining our freedoms, not reducing them.

Second, we must demand a complete overhaul of the way crime is treated in the courts. There is plenty of data to show that most crime stems from some combination of nature (social and psychological disorders) and/or environment (abuse, poverty, desperation), and the courts should be addressing this, rather than behaving as though anti-social behaviors can be curbed by throwing enough people into jail or executing enough of our citizens.

We must demand the dismantling of our current "eye for an eye" model of justice, to be replaced with a model that prioritizes the elimination of anti-social behaviors by preemptively meeting the needs of citizens (focusing on the preventative side of crime) and providing them with proper care (healing rather than beating people for their dysfunctional actions). 

We should call for the reformed court system to prioritize three goals: Determining what is true, not objectively (as we can never be entirely objective), but to each individual involved; doing all that is possible to repair all wrongs, not through punitive measures, but through healing ones; and collaborating to prevent future wrongs while maintaining, to the greatest degree possible, the freedom and dignity of all involved.

Pain comes from pain. It is not healed through more pain. When we eliminate someone's future for a mistake in their past, we refuse to acknowledge our own mistakes, our own ability to learn and better ourselves. It is vital to maintaining our own humanity, and ultimately serves our own interests, to see that we interrupt the cycle of harm-for-harm.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Grammar of Good and Evil

Why do humans screw each other over?  We know the answer has something to do with evil, which we tend to treat like a physical object we can eliminate through violence, a fat finned beast we might someday kill off for once and for all, and we’ve been boating around since the dawn o' time muttering about how we're going to do just that. Much like Ahab and his whale, we get so focused on our personal need to eradicate evil, we quickly lose sight of all else and fall in thrall of a suicidal mission. Why? Because Good vs. Evil is simple. There are only two elements, and it's clear which one should win. We can proceed confidently and fearlessly, a hard thing to do in these complex and multifaceted times. I understand that yearning. I miss it too, sometimes.

C’mon, Ishmael. Just tell him. “I don’t think you’re crazy, but-"

Fortunately, we have some things to aid us in talking down the crazed Captain Ahab in our heads. The torch of science has finally begun to illuminate some unmistakable patterns in the tapestry of history. The path to freedom has been hiding in plain sight, and it all comes down to grammar.

Who’s the nazi now?

Little known fact: good and evil are adverbs. They’re not adjectives. We’ve been trying to use them as adjectives all this time, and it’s been hella confusing for our super monkey brains. In case you haven’t visited (awesome grammar/humor site) The Oatmeal in a while: 

adjectives apply to things, and adverbs apply to actions.

People can do good or evil, but they can’t be good or evil, because good and evil are not actual traits. When you say someone is a "good person" what you mean is (deep breath) "the amalgamation of all of the actions I personally know them to have taken, combined with my personal take on those actions, what inspired them, and the impact they had on others according to my special vantage point, leads me to assume that all, or most, of this person's actions will also align with my moral universe, priorities, and sense of my own welfare."

Good. Evil. Simple terms, right? Very uncomplicated. Very black and white. Still, this seems like a dangerous thing to oversimplify.  Especially considering that people aren't static-they change continuously. We're all making moment-to-moment course adjustments our entire lives, trying to exist better, whatever that means. By the time you've said that x is a "good person" you have no idea whether that's even true in the terms of the complicated set of equations you're putting it through.

Here’s a riddle: A Republican kills an abortionist and then immediately saves a gay atheist child from drowning.  Is he a good person or a bad person?

Are you there, God? It’s us, humanity.

Have you locked in your answer?

The correct response is neither. The man is neither good, nor bad. One of his actions was good, and one of them was bad. People are possibilities, not magnets. We don’t maintain constant positive or negative states.

Ninety percent of our stories are desperate attempts to communicate this message to ourselves, but we’re so busy making wagers about Judgment Day to put it together. It’s 2014 and we’re still punishing each other for existing incorrectly while letting criminals who actually hurt people, (often lots and lots of people), entirely off the hook.

Unconvinced? Here are some reasons you should think about changing your mind.

1. It’s the Cause of Nearly All Human Conflict

As we go through the world, unconsciously assessing everything around us so we know how to deal with it,  “good” and “evil” are useful labels to help us decide whether to give people the stinkeye or a high five--right?

We’ve always had a hard time telling our ideological enemies apart from our mortal enemies—we tend to extend less love in general to the people, groups, and ideas which seem the furthest and most opposite to our own way of life, whether or not they’ve ever actually done anything bad to us. And they are less generous with us. We're cautious of each other's intentions. We fear annihilation. Human societies do not have the best treats vs. tricks record in regards to engaging with new, strange people they meet.

Those gay unicorns are going to turn us all into Lisa Frank fans!

So we look at people who are different than us as potential enemies. And they notice all of the crusties we’re shooting them and start thinking of us as enemies. We treat them poorly, because that’s how you treat enemies. They react by treating us poorly. Soon our enemies are doing really very evil things to us, and never mind that we’re doing really evil things to them as well, because we have our proof. Boom. They’re evil. We were right all along. They do evil things because they’re evil people. Not like us. The only reason we do evil things is to prevent evil.

 The sequel to "Mein Kampf": "Deine Schuld"

Yes, there are a handful of folks out there who get their boners drinking human blood and torturing baby seals. As science continues to reveal to us, this largely comes down to genes and mental illness—not some secret evil inside which we can never understand, only kill. And in any case, the rest of us most definitely outnumber the psychopathic megalomaniacs—it only looks like they’re a significant threat because they’re running things, while the rest of us chase our own tails playing the good/evil game. You know, because unlike them, we care about each other’s opinions. 

Which brings us to…

2. It’s a Waste of Time

It is directly due to wasting so much time on the giant, ongoing collective effort to establish whether we, and one another, are definitively good or evil that so many of our most basic problems persist.

Why? Because, like the child king of the Iron Throne, even when society’s edicts are insane and sadistic, the judgments hold. Just look at race. The fact that it’s a whimsically imaginary category has not kept it from having crazy serious consequences in the real world.

You are free to go, Mr. Zimmerman.

So, instead of curing cancer with marijuana, we’re running around hiding it from one another. Instead of deposing the self-annihilating humans who wrote Citizens United (best unironic use of DoubleSpeak in history?) we congratulate them on being so much better than us at getting and holding onto money. Instead of eliminating human trafficking, we unfriend each other for talking too much about human suffering, because who do you think you are? Mother Theresa?

“What, you think you’re better than me? You’re not a good person. You have too much sex to be a good person.“

Just think of all the time we spend worrying about whether we’re good according to other people, and whether other people are quite evil enough for us to treat them poorly and still consider ourselves good. All of the pointless wondering about whether certain of our innate desires and fears make us innately evil, or whether our innately good desires and fears balance them out.

Just think if all of that mental energy were directed towards actual good deeds, instead of the constant struggle for dominance in an imaginary hierarchy.


3. We Mostly Get It Wrong Anyway

It takes little more than a commercial with a bunch of cute kids and puppies to lead the unsuspecting masses to buy products made in sweatshops for the sexy, all-American corporations who outsourced our jobs because that down-to-earth politician let them.

It’s almost as though we think that puppies and kids, like happiness, can’t be bought.

“Please don’t buy us!”

We put the “good” stamp on priests, because they think about God all the time and never have sex, ever. That extra trust is part of what gave them the room and opportunity to abuse a bunch of little boys. Who better to take care of innocent, trusting children than the sexually repressed men who claim to know what God wants? But it’s not just priests—one of the things you hear over and over again from the communities and families of people and children who have been raped and murdered, is “I never would have guessed. They seemed like such a nice person.” Just because you've labeled someone "good" in your mind, doesn't mean they are magically incapable of doing anything bad.

But evil? Hoo boy, the evil stamp. Historically, we’ve used it for one reason, and one reason only—as an excuse to stop treating humans like humans. Step one: find a reason to call somebody Evil. Step two: dissociate ourselves from their well-being and humanity. Step three: satisfy the depths of our sadistic curiosity.

“You torture for the good times! We should all admit that.”

There is no excuse for dehumanizing other people. Regardless of what is done to us, we are still accountable for our own behavior, including all repercussions.

Stop using "good" and "evil" as adjectives. It's iffy even to use them as adverbs. After all, "what is good to the spider is evil to the fly" or whatever.

This message is nothing new. It’s in the Old Testament (by their fruits shall ye know them, i.e. don't focus on proclaimed identity, focus on actions), it IS the New Testament (leave the judging to me—you guys just work on loving each other, mmkay?), and the point of Moby Dick, a book severely ahead of its time. The pursuit of a physical embodiment of evil is both pointless and self-destructive. It doesn’t exist. Moby Dick is just a whale. Let’s all do our best to love each other, take accountability for our own actions, and leave the labeling to our gods.