Category Archives: Society

Can Underdogs Save the World?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post… for months now. What would I say, what would I write? It seemed that everywhere I turned, the subject of peer influence versus ethics has been causing waves in our communities, in our media, in our everyday lives, yet it’s not being connected in the way I see it all connecting.

Police killings going uncharged as homicides

Lenders providing loans to people with unverified incomes

Lack of enforcement on California drought conservation restrictions

Physicians providing unneeded care for profit

Domestic abuse still going strong after all these years

Hollywood’s inability to see that ethnicity is a sensitive topic among historically marginalized groups

Government employees who are afraid to become another Edward Snowden if they speak out against abuses

When was the last time you saw something unethical and stood up to stop it?

If you did not, then the reason, most likely, wasn’t because you’re an ‘evil’ person intending hurt to others. Most likely you’re a normal person who is just following the crowd, fearing to let someone down, maybe fearing to let a lot of people down.

To quote Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And with this platitude, Yoda pretty much sums up the major problems in our collective societies today. But where does this fear come from? It comes from our peers, their expectations of us, their opinions of us, and our own preconceived prejudices of what we should be afraid of.

I’m a Gen-Xer. I grew up in the 1980’s with a firm background in the study of peer pressure. I was never sold drugs or alcohol (until I was old enough). People offered me drugs, but they easily and politely took no for an answer. In fact, I found that I got more pressured to drink later in life than I did to get stoned in college, and nobody ever offered me anything more illegal than pot. Maybe I’m unusual, maybe not, but there’s one thing that I got offered in droves: advice on how to avoid peer pressure. “Say No to DRUGS!” went the campaign. It was plastered all over my high school, we had to attend special events where we learned the dangers of peer pressure. In the end, I realized they were just creating an atmosphere of expectation, that if our peers were saying no to drugs, that those ‘good’ peers would apply enough peer pressure to others that the rate of drug use would decline but my peers and I weren’t really moved by the films and the testimonials. I knew that drugs were bad for me, but there was no emotional connection. I could see prominent members of society snorting coke in movies. Smoking happened everywhere then, and drinking was never mentioned as a drug. The campaign seemed to be politically motivated and designed to prop up Reagan’s war on drugs.

Today we have plenty of meth and crack in the U.S., and the Say No to Drugs campaign had lackluster results. It had to. The people telling me to say no were not my peers, nor were they peers to millions of other youngsters. Instead, we listened to our parents and the people around us. Their perspectives were, shall I say, various.

The Say No to Drugs campaign was very much a ‘think for yourself’ campaign. It tried to get people to bypass peer pressure, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here and say that it would have been better had it tried to use peer pressure as a positive influence, and to constructive a positive culture of health. But the government has issues with people thinking for themselves. It is almost always free thinkers point out the flaws in our systems and bring down prominent ‘successful’ individuals who arrived in their positions unethically, or who use unethical means to get results.

In our modern myths, heroes almost always have to contend with massive amounts of peer pressure. The entire genre of ‘underdog’ stories is based on this concept, and it’s present in our most prominent franchises. The X-Men, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Elsa the Ice Queen, Frodo Baggins, Batman, Arrow, Shrek, and Katniss Everdeen are all subject to extraordinary amounts of societal pressure to just give up and not stand up for what they know is right.

It would be easy to look at these successful (in some cases) heroes and say that because we have them in our collective mythologies that standing up for ethical behavior is the thing we encourage in people, but the reason these stories are so successful and engrossing is because they are so unique, because fighting the flow is hard. These heroes have to give up substantial freedoms and potential futures to do the right thing. Katniss pretty much commits an entire country to war, and sees most of her community bombed to ashes. Frodo barely makes it to Mount Doom, then basically gives up on life. Luke Skywalker probably comes out the best–I think he ends up a wandering Jedi or some such (I’m really looking forward to The Force Awakens). Captain America wants to stand up for the rights of supers who want to protect their families from retribution by hiding their identities, and ends up watching his friends die in the resulting Civil War.

The risks of taking a stand aren’t lost on normal humans without super powers. Edward Snowden is only now being redeemed by U.S. courts, and whistle blowers in general get the short stick, being unable to find a job and often face bankruptcy after they leave the companies that have wronged society. Courage is rarely rewarded in today’s world.

But surely, shouldn’t police officers (paragons of virtue, dedicated to the public welfare!) stand up for what is right even when it’s difficult? Frank Serpico is one of the very very few. Has anyone else stood up like he did forty years ago? I haven’t noticed anyone particular, and police shootings of people in suspicious circumstances go largely ignored, especially when the person shot was black. State legislatures are reluctant to buy and use body cameras, even though they apparently are really helpful, and potentially could help good cops to reinforce good decisions just as they would point out bad cops who make poor ones. Because of this lack of oversight and systemic problems, abused communities have started taking action, thus the riots in Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson in recent years. There will be more to come unless our police forces take serious stock of their own houses and start behaving like the people we need them to be.

Even health providers are taking advantage of their positions of power (see link above) to suggest unnecessary surgeries and tests that serve mainly to line pockets of providers, not to actually improve the quality of life of the people they have pledged to serve.

In the end all of this bad behavior comes down to peer pressure. Pressure to feed cases to other doctors who then feed cases back to you. Pressure to not rock the boat when some officers are taking bribes, or when they are roughing up captives. Pressure to stay silent when circumventing the law in the hope of catching an elusive bogeyman terrorist. Pressure to make movies like we did last year, because making one that was racially sensitive is just too expensive, and might not be as funny to the general public. Pressure to underwrite a loan or a deal even when the repayment is likely to fail, because you need to make loan volume this month.

This peer pressure has a particularly dark side that can eventually result in police states: dictatorships like Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. where human rights go out the window in favor of doing what is right for the state and the leaders, in the name of not rocking the boat. For every hundred-thousand followers, there might be one Oskar Schindler (maybe), and that is not near enough.

This is something that has irritated me for a long time, and one of the reasons I left Christianity behind. I’m not going to go into my personal choice here, but atheism (not recognizing or following any god) appealed to me because it was my way of saying that I would not succumb to the pressure to believe something that no one can prove exists.

Religions are particularly peer-pressurey (new word, coined here first!). In the Middle East, atheists face a steep climb out of obscurity, even though their obvious non-religious behaviors are tolerated openly. But that’s not where it ends, is it? Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and a host of sects and mini religions out there all try to prop up themselves by putting others down.

What weapon do they use in that battle? Peer pressure, mostly. Some are more violent, true. Those occasions make the news, but the day-to-day influences from media and friends are what really cements the deal. “God bless you,” said when you sneeze. “One nation under God,” in our pledge of allegiance (I’m more than happy to pledge allegiance to do my best to serve my country and the people in it, but not to someone else’s mythical god). Kids required to go to churches where they are subject to more training and pressure.

These tools are endemic in our society, and they are starting to come into the light, but people are still making excuses for them, like the police officers whose cultures have highly imbalanced policing policies that unjustly target black communities.

The world around us is full of ideas, and the people around us are full of advice. Some of that peer-pressurey advice is so culturally accepted that it’s nearly invisible unless you’re consciously looking for it.

There is a way to overcome these issues, but it’s not by eschewing peer pressure. You cannot become an ‘atheist to society’ you cannot help fix problems in lending or policing or health care by dis-believing in them. They exist, they need solutions, and more importantly, they need a positive, caring, compassionate culture.

Building a culture of compassion–essentially a network of peer pressure around treating people well and doing what is right, rewarding people who stand up for injustice–is the only way out of this funk we find ourselves in lately.

Fortunately, there are some companies, both for-profit and non-profit, that are making this a priority. Find out who they are and vote with your cash.

For governments, it’s tougher. Most governments make lots of talk about how ethical they are, but like the U.S. Marines, when push comes to shove, it’s very difficult for a junior officer or enlisted soldier to take a stand against injustice, abuse of power, or poor decision making. They’re trained to take orders, not to challenge, not to think for themselves. Police agencies inherit many of these ideas, because they get lots of recruits from the military, and have similar training policies. How do you combat this in government, police, and military agencies? That’s a tougher question. The leadership needs to come from the top. Mr. President, I’m looking at you, but not just you, I’m also looking at police commissioners, generals, and mayors. The president has taken a stand to allow gays into the military and to build better health care incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but we need lower-level leaders to pick up this baton and carry it even further.

I’m also looking at the public. Can we support leaders in government who have admitted to failure and let them try something new? Can we let them try to build a culture of compassion? Would they even try? I don’t know, but I feel like it’s what we desperately need today.

We need to make peer pressure work for us, not against us.

Flat Earth, the Matrix, and the Right to Sex

I love the first Matrix movie, but I’ve been bothered by the second and third Matrix installments for years now. I really wanted to like them, much like I really wanted to like Chapters 1-3 of Star Wars.* However, I didn’t piece together what bothered me about them until today. It has to do with lacking the theme of overcoming a hard-held belief, the theme that was so central to the first Matrix.

Many people hold beliefs that defy logic, which is innocuous most of the time, like the belief in a flat Earth, which is hilarious, and doesn’t particularly hurt anybody. However, some beliefs directly endanger others, and at times those beliefs are used as an excuse for why people behave like reprehensible monsters. On a grand scale, the belief that one skin color is somehow better than another has caused the deaths of generations of human beings. On a smaller scale, the recent killing in Santa Barbara because a man believed that somehow women owed him sex allegedly drove him to commit multiple homicide. Whether or not this plays out to be the whole story doesn’t matter, the point is we easily believe this is true because we’ve seen it time and time again.

In The Matrix, Morpheus manages to free Neo from the prison of his own mind, literally overturning everything Neo thought he knew about the world. This analogy extends to any belief system that anyone has cast off, ever. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the right of white men to control the U.S. government, Manifest Destiny, homophobia, etc.

For me, one Matrix was the Christian church, which I severed ties with in my early twenties, but I expect everyone has something they believed in at one time that today they wish had never been a part of their lives. An abusive lover. A horrible job. I doubt anyone’s life is so perfect they can’t think of an example right now.

So, to me, Morpheus is the real hero of the Matrix movies, because he seems to be the only person who actually manages to help free any of the people embedded in the Matrix. Yet he is hated by some of his friends, hunted, and generally unappreciated by the government he works for.

Neo, for his part, never frees another person, and only manages to run around having fights in the second and third movies. To his credit, he is trying to free everyone at the very end (I think), but I still don’t really know what happened there, so I didn’t find it fulfilling. Besides, he wasn’t working with anyone who actually wanted to get free, he was trying to do it to them, which is so very different, and not the way I hoped the story would play out at all.

That theme, of helping someone overcome a belief they know is wrong, a belief they struggled against unconsciously all their lives, was lost, and it is something I believe we need to hold onto as a society. Even though we sometimes grate at its creaky functioning, the U.S. government is designed to allow us to overturn our previously held beliefs by rewriting laws, by encouraging a change in representation, by allowing our constitution to be updated as required. It’s part of what makes us a free society.

So today, I write this in thanks and great respect for those who died for the freedom to change our beliefs, and in memory of those who worked to change our beliefs to become a more equitable society. On Memorial Day, 2014.


* Go J.J. Abrams! You can do it! I believe in you.

A Higher Species

What does it mean to be a higher species?

The definition is toyed with by philosophers and scientists constantly, and changed as we come to understand the world around us. Usually, the definition is meant to include ONLY humans, and to exclude all other animals we know of.

What makes us different? We build cities? Ants build cities.

We talk? Whales seem to talk. Heck, one even tried to talk to us.

Lots of things get proposed, but then we find out it’s not what makes us different. Perhaps, like the concept of a disaster needing seven mistakes to happen all together before a plane goes down, we are merely a conglomeration of several dramatic higher level functions all combining to make us unique.

Or perhaps we are wrong to exclude the other animals.

When science fiction writers get hold of this idea, they usually bring in alien species, or ‘raise’ one of our own species to our level. But what is this really? It is an anthropomorphic tendency that people fall into, I think. They want these other species to be like us, but that’s not necessarily needed, in my opinion.

I want to add something to the mix, if it’s not already there: the concept of trust. I don’t know how many other species ‘trust’ other members of their societies to the extent that we do. Perhaps ants do, but I doubt it.

Trust is an intrinsic part of our civilisation. We trust each other not to steal. We trust each other not to scream at each other (most of the time). We trust that something that we own today will be with us down the road. We trust we will be allowed to live peacefully, and to control our own bodies. We go to such extents to solidify these trusts that we imprison (or even kill) those who breach that trust: murderers, thieves, rapists.

When wars are fought, they are generally fought to punish or enforce a trust. A border, the safety of others, etc. Note that our U.N. is reluctant to punish even rogue nations that engage in untrustworthy behaviors within their own borders – so strong is the feeling that we must maintain the trust that we will not interfere with the ruling of another geographic region, lest the other nations not trust us.

The United States Bill of Rights is a list of trusts encoded into our history and our societal DNA.

Trust makes even something like banking go around. Think about why we have banks and what function they serve, aside from greasing the wheels of capitalism. What is that word, but the simple idea that we trust people to follow the money?

Banks take your money and agree to give it back later. We today spend thousands of dollars on credit cards – never even touching the moneys of the past. There’s no gold or silver, there’s no paper with fancy images. Just digital ones and zeros, and a bank behind it saying “Our data is right, our systems are accurate and secure, this person has so much money.” And others trust that. The bank also trusts you.

The bank trusts that your payment history and your tendencies to pay something back will be followed. Banks give away billions of dollars based on the idea that most people will pay their debts. It may take them 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, but the banks, and thus the investors buying and owning the loans are willing to trust the people paying on the debts for that long.

They are putting their trust in this whole huge system, based on the counterintuitive notion that humanity actually trusts each other. We trust each other to do what is right, most of the time.

This is actually really optimistic of us. Perhaps naive, but it has served us well. Without this trust, would we be at the level we are today?

Would we be a higher species at all? I think not.