Growing up I would often hear adults around me needlessly include racial identification in descriptions of their daily activities. I might hear someone say things like:
- "My car battery died and a very helpful black man gave me a jump start."
- "This very nice Japanese woman helped me pick up my groceries when they fell on the floor."
- "I was lost and these Mexican children showed me how to get back on the freeway."
If memory serves, the references only seemed to be included when the story was positive. Now, knowing the adults in question, I never got the sense that they meant the statements badly. They did not seem to be commenting out of surprise that a black man, a Japanese woman, or a Mexican child acted helpfully, that the behavior they witnessed represented some freak departure from racial/ethnic expectation/stereotype. Still, it seemed so odd to me. Why mention that additional irrelevant information at all? Was it a holdover from segregation or lack of interaction with people of different backgrounds and the novelty of the racial/ethnic element in the interaction demanded some mention? Was it just a natural tendency of humans to convey visual details when describing an event? Was it a subconscious attempt to reassure me that all people have the same capacity for goodness?
I went the other way, specifically avoiding the mention of that racial/ethnic/etc. information in a story unless absolutely vital to the story, and even then I might only vaguely hint at it. And that's probably worse. The adults around me may have been acting harmlessly and naturally but I was acting unnaturally and in that overthinking and awkwardness dwelling on or highlighting differences (at least within my own mind).
Reminds me of this story:
Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.
But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. Later in the day the younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. The older monk replied, "I only carried her across the river, but you have been carrying her all day."
I'm not sure quite what I do these days... I think and hope my non-mention of irrelevant racial/ethnic/etc. references is at least more natural now.
But, the other day I was saying something to my girlfriend like, "I will have to watch this on the big tv when we get home." And she pointed out that we only have one TV in the house (and I've not had more than one in 20 years) and that despite that I always bafflingly call it the "big tv". And it struck me as perhaps being quite a bit like what the adults around me might have been doing years ago. I have apparently never gotten past the novelty of this TV's size*, just as interacting with a more diverse body of people remained a novelty demanding mention.
* The TV is ~50" inches, pretty average by today's standards but vastly larger than the TVs of my youth and early adulthood
I'm not sure how anyone else's brain works, but for me there are a few handfuls of neverending loss that haunt me. Healing and acceptance never seem to come, grieving never seems to end. The best you can do is push away the sadness with other cheerier thoughts (and that is only so effective, read: not very). It's been said that people of a depressive bent look back too often, and not enough forward, and that certainly may be adequate explanation for the general phenomena.
One of these losses, the one that prompts my writing on the topic today, is a friendship that more or less ended 15 years ago. We were friends, college roommates, then strangers once more. The disconnection still hurts. I tried quite a few times over the years to reconnect, but it never seemed to come to anything; he just never seemed much interested. I'm not sure quite what went wrong, but I blame myself. I would have done anything to keep the friendship, but I didn't know enough to know what to do or when to do it; I lack the art of easy friendship. And I know, if the past fifteen years is any guide, that I will never fully recover from the loss of his friendship and from the lack of his presence. I liked the me he teased out, I liked the synergies, and I liked him. I am sad for not knowing him longer, for not knowing who he became, and for not knowing the me I could have become through his friendship.
And so I think of him often enough, though not to any purpose (I know nothing of him now). I just can't find a way to put away the puzzle, to stop imagining that somehow we could get back to some new then; some moment where the years and miles fall away. Even if I could remember to forget, I'm never more than a few weeks away from a dream which tries to set my soul to rest, playing out some natural reunion. But, dreams are all that will ever be, because some things simply are scenes of neverending loss.
I saw a bizarre and somewhat disturbing product advertised today, the VibeRider Motorcycle Seat Vibrator. It is a vibration device meant for sexual pleasure that one can install discreetly in the rear seat of a motorcycle. The device varies its vibration in concert with the bikes RPM, as well as inputs the driver makes to a control box.
I'm sure the vast majority of people who buy this device are right minded souls who will only use this with their informed and consenting partners. But as I read comments from potential purchasers on a few different sites I realized that this device could be used to diabolically, insidiously sexually abuse a lot of women. Someone with this device could invite a non-partner to get on the back of the bike and could then subject the passenger to vibrations which the passenger may not even know were being generated for their non-consenting sexual pleasure, rather than simply vibrations caused by the bike as part of its normal operations. And that makes this product potentially scary, and somewhat unique in the danger it poses.
Someone walking up to a non-partner and without consent putting a vibrator against the other person's genitals would pretty roundly be recognized as sexual assault. But I can imagine many people claiming not to understand that this is the same thing. Maybe the offender would claim "It was just a joke." or "But the bike is already vibrating, what's the difference?" And well, there's a quite profound difference: intent.
I was thinking today about the possible pros and cons of "gender restricted voting" (my made up term, there is probably a better one). The idea would be that some legal decisions which have restrictions or requirements that exclusively involve one gender could only be decided on by the votes of that gender; it's surely not any sort of new idea. The obvious prompt for these thoughts is the abortion topic, which is never far from the news or popular debate. Now, I think abortion has a rightness or a wrongness to it which should be objective, wholly independent of gender, so the idea of only allowing men or women to vote for/against it is not to give that gender the power to make it right or wrong, but to restrict who may vote on the topic in the hopes of reducing misleading bias and therefore being more likely to see legality mirror the unscientifically knowable (at least currently) but still perhaps existing objective right/wrong. Would such a scheme accomplish that? I'm not sure. And which gender would you disenfranchise regarding any votes related to abortion? The presumption may be that you would not let men vote on abortion topics because they are not the ones carrying the fetus, not the one most impacted by pregnancy. And that certainly makes a sort of sense. Men can't ever be pregnant and thus they cannot possibly vote with a full and personal knowledge of the topic... but perhaps that would be why some would argue that men should be able to vote on the topic and women should not, arguing that women could be more vulnerable to bias, too willing to ignore objective right/wrong out of personal desire for a subjectively beneficial outcome. Personally I have no idea which side should or shouldn't vote, or if the gender restricted voting scheme has any merit. And it's largely a moot point since the matter is primarily decided, obviously, by Supreme Court decision and not individual votes; though there are ballot measures and state / county / etc. restrictions which exist separately to thwart access. Still, seems like a thought deserving some more thought. There are not that many legal issues which are gender specific, presently or historically, but there are a few (perhaps military service and front line combat would be others, though again that is decided more by the military than individual voters).
How could the Germans in WW II not know they were on the wrong side of history? It genuinely puzzles me. I was watching a WWII documentary tonight and it reminded me of one of the funniest things I've ever seen, which happens to be on this topic (from Mitchell & Webb)...
And it's humorous, but it seems to me there's also a lot of truth to it as well. Obviously it's not just the death's head rings and other paraphernalia, but so many of the obvious policies and practices which I would have thought screamed out a warning to the population that they were becoming the baddies!
- How could those in the military not think it very suspicious and dangerous to swear allegiance to an individual (Hitler) rather than their fellow men or their country? How were the people not thinking, "I don't know about this... This seems a little egotistical and weird. We haven't done this before. It sure seems like a very bad idea."
- Surely the pre-WW II belief that Germany needed vastly more land, lebensraum (living space), implied a significant territorial expansion and war to achieve that end; and while I understand the scarcity of some natural resources (like oil), otherwise Germany was hardly a tiny nation with a population density problem, didn't most people in Germany think, "Well, it'd be nice if we had more land, but we don't really need the extra room *that* much."
- Even if you weren't a diverse multicultural sort of person, and even if you don't know people will be killed as a result, don't you see them rounding up Jews, gypsies, gay people, mentally challenged people, etc. and think, "Hmm, I may not like these people, but this seems a bit much. Should we really be doing this? At the very least isn't it going to make us look bad to the rest of the world?"
- Didn't the German people think it was a bit strange that their nation kept making and then a few months later going against agreements they made with other countries? I know they had their own nuanced view of why the commitments could be ignored, no doubt casting themselves as the innocent parties, but still, they made and then went against quite a lot of agreements in quite a short time, resulting in war with the Czechs, the Poles, the Russians, and ultimately the rest of the world. I would have thought many of them would stop and think, "Gee, everyone sure seems hostile to us all of a sudden. I know Hitler is telling us we are getting screwed over by, but we do seem to be the ones bombing other people's cities, and leading our tanks and troops into their countries, not vice versa. Maybe we are being a little rash in our diplomatic response here."
- Didn't the German people think the SA, the SS, and the Gestapo were kind of unseemly? The SA at the very least was notoriously and blatantly thugish. Wouldn't a lot of people have thought, "Hmm, I'm not sure I can get behind a leader who supports and is supported by these sorts of groups . I think we need someone a little more enlightened."
- And what about the Hitler youth? Only a few parents thought it pretty vile that their children were being so obviously indoctrinated? I get that all children are indoctrinated, in the modern age by cartoons, by the Boy Scouts of America, by their church, by their friends, by their friends' parents, by their nation, by brands, by social media, by..., etc. but still, there was little subtlety going on so far as I can tell in Germany at this time. Wouldn't parents think, "I heard Hans singing a new song he learned today and I'm a little uncomfortable with all the references to Jews and the promise to serve Hitler."
Obviously hindsight is 20/20, and I know a lot of people (though an effective minority) did oppose Hitler, and I get that Germany was coming out of a deep depression following WWI, and I get that Germany is in no way unique here, that any other populace in similar circumstances may have reacted in effectively the same way... but I just find it perpetually shocking that it happened, that all the normal rules most of us imagine exist to govern human behavior and make us better than bad can be somehow suspended and that the German people wouldn't realize, on some level, that in that situation, they were the baddies.
As horrible as the terrorist events on 9/11 were, the worst thing that happened on that day we did to ourselves. We forgot the truth within the 18th century quote (variously expressed, and variously attributed to Jefferson and Franklin amongst others):
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
How can anyone argue the truth of that statement? How can anyone argue that we did not betray that guiding principle?
We let the Patriot Act happen, we let the NSA and other clandestine agencies run wild, we began a forever war, creating new enemies perhaps more quickly than we can kill the old ones. Will freedoms lost ever be restored? Surely not. Technology has only made it easier to violate our freedoms and harder to detect when they are violated.
Most confounding to me is that many of those seemingly most comfortable with this situation, with the violation of the above seemingly inarguable (to me) truth, are the same people who are the most unyielding when it comes to any suggested restriction of gun ownership. How can one be unwilling to have any government involvement in weapons ownership/transfer for fear of encouraging tyranny or loss of God and Constitution given freedoms, and yet permit/accept the same government should be able to observe our phone and online activity? It seems like wild hypocrisy to me, but maybe I'm not understanding some nuances involved in the argument; or maybe for those individuals it's really not so much about a love of freedom so much as it is a love of the gun (and its use).
Ah well, another sad 9/11, for so many reasons.
(Racism comes in so many varied and often subtle forms that it complicates talking about it; you need to be pretty specific about just what element/manifestation of racism you're talking about. In this case I'll discuss one of the uglier and most visible kinds.)
To my mind the worst form of racism is the belief that one race is superior to another and that the superior race should take action (legal, social, religious, etc.) against the inferior race as a result of that conviction. Examples are legion, and included nations as well as social/political organizations (South Africa (during Apartheid), Germany (during the Nazi reign), U.S.A. (during antebellum and Jim Crow), as well as the KKK, neonazis, etc.)
What boggles my mind is the idiocy and dishonesty of their position.
When I was 14 I was at a small summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina. Everyone working at the camp and everyone attending the camp was lily white; no one of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent. Almost everyone at the summer camp was from the surrounding Southern states. Racism was rampant but fortunately ugly comments rarely came up since there was not but a pale face to be seen or insulted. But I remember this one time the topic came up, and this one boy, whose name was the name of a kind of monkey, suddenly announced, "I am smarter than any black person on the face of the Earth." What made this seem instantly laughable, distracting me temporarily from the horrendous and vulgar racism, was that he was truly one of the stupidest people (of any genetic background) I'd ever encountered; he was almost sitcom human stupid or perhaps penniless Trump stupid. But he was serious, horribly serious, and I feared and felt for anyone of any non-white hue who might ever cross his path. Several of us there argued with him, tried to point out the ridiculousness of his statement, but he was having none of it. He was so unaware of his own place in the universe that one could hardly hope to convince him of anyone else's place within it. I was still young, but I had certainly come across quite a few people, made from all sorts of different genes, who I knew or strongly suspected were vastly smarter than I was. How could this idiot imagine he was smarter than ~1 billion or so (depending on what you count) people he'd never met? That is idiotic and worse deeply dishonest, as he lived in a major city in the South, and surely had encountered many black people who were infinitely smarter than he was, and he simply chose not to notice or believe it.
But it is not hard to imagine why he (and others) seem to need to believe such an absurd position, need to believe that they are better than an entire race, because things get rather confusing for them if they don't. The wildly racist often profess strong values, and no doubt most try to live in accordance with them. And many of their values involve a love of freedom, family, righteousness, justice, etc. So to avoid a deep and disturbing sense of hypocrisy they must write off the members of the group against which they stand. If all blacks people are inferior to white people then they can see a logic in allowing them fewer rights, deeming them unworthy of a full and equal position in the world, and any white actions taken against blacks are reasonable in defense of white interests. If these racists allow that some percentage of black people are actually their (individual) superior (across many facets of being, including intellectually), then what are those racists going to feel? I think some parts of their brain would cry foul, detect their hypocrisy, detect their injustice, and threaten their ordered world view. And so it is only a stable and comfortable position if every white man is inherently superior to every single black man (a position requiring ample employ of idiocy and dishonesty).
I keep wondering if that particular camper ever wised up. I hope he has.
China mystifies me. Their recent military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII is one confounding example. They stage a huge parade to show off all their offensive and defensive weapons, shut down the city days in advance to make sure people are out of the way and the air is unpolluted, invite some foreign dignitaries, and ban their citizens from watching the parade in person (no standing on balconies, no opening windows, no looking out windows, no standing on the street watching, no watching from cars, no photos, etc.); presumably there is approved news coverage they can watch/read. But, what a bizarre idea? I thought events like this were meant to impress the people, involve the people, akin to the pre-war Nazi parades. When you have to keep the people away out of fear of activism or terrorism then the parade seems more an admission of abject defeat than triumph.
I learned a very interesting lesson in 1995 or so, sitting in a materials engineering class in college. We'd recently learned about polymers and how the long chains of entwined molecules worked, from a mechanical and chemical standpoint. I happened to be chewing on a piece of gum. I had been chewing on that piece of gum for probably half the day; I began in one long lecture and just continued into the next long lecture, either forgetting to spit it out or finding no appropriate place to do so in the limited time between or during classes. And then, seated in class, thousands of chews and hundreds of minutes in, the gum I was gnawing on disintegrated, going from a resilient rubbery mass to a foul liquiform mess. Any solidity was gone, it was just suddenly simply everywhere in my mouth, clinging to everything and nothing, desperately needing to be spit out. I quickly excused myself to the bathroom and did so. I had no idea what had happened at first, it being such an unexpected and seemingly unlikely event. But as I sat through the remainder of class it became clear to me, the gum had undergone some sort of spontaneous depolymerization, presumably as a result of prolonged contact with saliva and not chewing. The long and entwined molecules had suddenly come apart. That this happened during a materials class in which we'd recently studied polymers was a delicious coincidence.