Friday, April 21, 2017

Random Acts of Kindness

There are many disadvantages to being visibly different from other people. One possibility is that you will be bullied. But another, equally unpleasant one is that someone will decide to target you for a random act of kindness.

Yes, there is a movement like that. It's been going on for a long time, since before I was born. And the idea behind it is that if we all practice unexpected small acts of  kindness toward strangers, we will be living in a much better world. Practitioners of random acts of kindness are well meaning, but incredibly thoughtless.  Because of that, if we overreact to their kindness, they are likely to go ballistic. So if it ever happens to you, the best thing you can do is set them straight very softly, so as not to set them off. There is nothing like a would-be good Samaritan to become enraged if you reject his random act of kindness, no matter how bad it makes you feel.

The first time I was subjected to a random act of kindness, I was seven years old and in a public swimming pool. I had just learned how to swim, and my movements were still very jerky. My father was in the pool with me, supervising from a distance, but not interfering with my progress. Suddenly a strange man that I had never seen before swooped in, carried me aloft and deposited me on the other side of the pool. That was really scary. And then when he explained that he thought I was drowning, it just got very embarrassing. My father thanked him for his help, and eventually we laughed about it. But it was still an unpleasant thing to have happened. I will never forget it.

Random acts of kindness are based on the idea that without knowing someone, his situation, his abilities and disabilities and the subtle context of his life, you can decide what would be best for him and just swoop in and do whatever you like to him, without his permission. It's really no different from kidnapping, except that you mean well. In the case where they refuse to take your money for a service or give you money that you have no way to refuse, that is a kind of assault that we don't even have a name for.

Take the example of a professor who returns to the US from abroad and finds himself at Yale on a snowy day dressed in sandals, because he has just come back from a place with a different climate. Let's say his clothes are wrinkled from the long flight, and his hair is disheveled. He walks into a Payless Shoe Source to get snow shoes, but the clerk there becomes convinced that this is his moment to shine in a random act of kindness. The clerk is a young African American man, very well groomed and dressed for success. He is also a church-goer, and he sees the professor who walks into his store as a needy person. "Why are you wearing sandals? Have you just had an operation?" he starts to ask. "No," the professor answers distractedly. Because nothing that the professor says or does makes sense to the clerk, he becomes convinced that this strangely dressed man is a homeless person -- possibly retarded. When he offers to give him the shoes for free, and the professor refuses, he starts to take offense, because he thinks maybe this white homeless man is prejudiced against blacks, and that's why he's refusing his generous random act of kindness. "I go to church," he starts to say. "I'm a good person!" It does not help that the professor tells him he earns a great more than he does and does not need his charity. The good Samaritan is now insulted!

Or how about the case of the elderly woman with white hair and very plain clothes who does not  accept that the person behind her wants to pay for her groceries in an orchestrated act of kindness by a Church group during the Christmas holidays. She's not going to tell the stranger that she is well-off and set for life. She was brought up to be modest in her dress and to not brag about her wealth so as not to arouse envy. But how to deal with people who think they know who is in need based only on their outer appearance?

These are all true stories.  In each case, the random act of kindness is like a slap in the face to someone who had no idea he looked so helpless and in need to other people. And what makes it worse is that we are not allowed to get angry, for fear of offending our would-be benefactor, because the benefactor belongs to a majority religion or a particular ethnic group.

I have been trying to warn my well-meaning friends who practice random acts of kindness that they may be hurting others in the process, but so far I don't think anyone understands what I am saying. They are so into charity and good works that they think this is all about "selfishness". But who exactly is the selfish one here? Is it the person refusing unwanted help or the benefactor who hopes to store up points to go to heaven by forcing himself on others?

The person you pity based on their appearance, clothes or behavior may indeed be missing your physical coordination, social skills or fashion sense, but they might have advantages that you don't even know about. They might be a mathematical genius or wealthy beyond your imagining. But since you won't bother to get to know them before bestowing your kindness on them, there is no way for you to find that out. You figure if they look weird, they need help. The random act of kindness is ultimately motivated by the same instincts as those of the bully: to level differences and to enforce uniformity. The only way to avoid other people's pity is to act and look exactly the way society says we should. Otherwise, you never know when someone might mistake you for his inferior and swoop down to help you unbidden.

All people need respect and friendship and love. But you can't help strangers by just throwing money at them or fishing them out of the water, because they have not mastered the breast stroke yet. Random kindness is not too different from random violence. It's rude and thoughtless and causes pain to others, because it just stresses the difference between and among people. Don't do it. Resist the urge. The kindest thing you can do for a stranger is to leave them alone, unless they ask for help.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bullying by the Government

Many of us have been bullied in the past. Bullying can take the form of name calling, and in such cases, it isn't legally actionable. It can involve social unpleasantness without physical outcomes. Bullying often escalates to become more physical, though, and it can  involve throwing things and hurting others, even to the point of outright murder. Most bullying is designed to punish people for being different from others, and its origins are tribal. While bullying may result in ostracism or even death to those bullied, the overall effect is to enforce uniformity in those who remain. Viewed scientifically, bullying has a social function. For those of us who want to put a stop to it, we have to address that function, and not just the symptoms.

In order to get to the bottom of bullying, we need to understand our own role in it, even if we are a victim or someone standing on the sidelines, neither participating nor reaching out to help the individuals being bullied.

The time to help is when it begins, not at the bloody end. The thing you have to be willing to do is to stand up and say that you support the other person's right to be different and are willing to put yourself at risk, even if you don't share their difference. It is not enough to just say afterwards that it's too bad that they died. Or that you had no idea it would go that far. Or that you were sure the other person would surrender before the mob put him to death. Because that's what every "sensible" person would do -- surrender!

If that is your attitude, then you are supporting the overall function of the bullying: to enforce uniformity.

When bullying is done by individuals and private groups, it is ugly. But when it is the government that takes on the role of the ultimate bully, that's when we should all stand together against it.

One of the reasons the Branch Davidians had so few people speaking up for them before they were slaughtered in plain sight of the entire nation is that they were smeared in ways that made people on the right and on the left have no sympathy for them. On the right, all you had to do was allege sex with minors, and no decent church going American was willing to lift a finger. On the left, all you had to do is call them religious nuts with Messianic leanings, and the same happened. Nobody cared because they were "too weird".

I tend to be tone deaf to exactly those "PR blunders" that are now tearing the Libertarian Party apart. It makes no impression on me if you attribute to Satan a libertarian sentiment. I'll agree with the sentiment and not worry too much about Satan. It does not worry me if freedom of religion involves having some people worship a man as a god, as long as I don't have to. And I want the Federal government to stay entirely out of the sex racket. The states have jurisdiction over those issues, and if Child Protective Services in the local jurisdiction have cleared someone, I do not want the Feds charging in there with their guns drawn.

Where were you when Mt. Carmel was under siege? I tried to organize a peaceful protest, but somehow all my Libertarian, Quaker, Wiccan and Unitarian friends were too busy to show up that day. The Feds, on the other hand, were very prompt.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Memory Aids: Prose Poetry and Song

I am very excited about what Kelly Clear is adding to the experience of reading Vacuum County.  I am not a big fan of Audible books myself, because I like to look at the words in a book as I read it. You might say I am more of a visual learner. But there are some things that need to be heard to be understood and remembered. Poems are meant to be said out loud. Songs should be sung.

I was sharing this video of the song "Down by the Crick" from Chapter 3 in Vacuum County with a friend who had read the book many years ago. "That's nice," she said. "But I don't remember that there was a song in the book." Well there were the words to the song. And David was described singing it. But it depends on how you read books whether you are likely to remember that.

If you're reading visually, it's easy to miss that something is a song. I mean, it's obviously not prose. And it says in the story that David plays the guitar and sings it. But if you only kind of sped past that part in your reading and only tend to remember "what happened" in the chapter, then you are unlikely to remember the song at all.

Most people use episodic memory  for specific vivid events and rely on semantic memory to sort out the overall narratives of their lives, but they don't remember anything that they read in a novel word for word. By the same token, few people have episodic memory for dialogue in real life.  Much of the information that we acquire through experience is stored as semantic memory, without the moment by moment experiences that gave us the information. In the same way, if we read a book, and it made any kind of impression, we might later be able to describe what happened in the book as a general synopsis of the action, or we might be able to say what we may have learned from the book, but nobody expects us to remember all the words in the book in the right order. If we could do that, there would be no point in copyright laws. Everybody would have a copy of each book he has read stored in his head and would be able to read it off for other people at a moment's notice.

But when you hear a song played or a poem recited, this creates an episodic memory of it word for word, and not just a summary of what the song was about. Read it out loud several times or hear it played and re-played, and you'll remember it forever. That is the genius of poetry and song. 

When new readers experience Vacuum County through the medium of the Audible book produced by Kelly  Clear, they are  going to remember certain passages as if they had lived through the experiences themselves. The songs sung by David will come to life!

File:Frans Hals - Luitspelende nar.jpg

Image: By Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666) - André Hatala [e.a.] (1997) De eeuw van Rembrandt, Bruxelles: Crédit communal de Belgique, ISBN 2-908388-32-4., Public Domain,

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Where Religion Ends and Ethics Begins

Most civilized people agree that it is none of our business what other people believe. We support separation of Church and State. And as good neighbors, we do not mock the faith of others, even though it is not our own faith. We don't argue about whether so and so arose from the dead or whether that sea was parted so those people could cross, or whether there really is a purple multi-armed goddess who provides for people. Civilized people know to leave others to do their own thing, engage in their own ceremonies, cherish their own beliefs about historical events and just avoid confrontation when another person's mythology clashes with our own. You believe in unicorns and I'll believe in  leprechauns, and we can agree to disagree. That's separation of Church and State.

But there is a point at which religion ends, and ethics begins. No matter what somebody's religion says, we're not going to allow them to kidnap our child and sacrifice him to their god. We are not going to allow them to burn down our house, just because their holy book says that is the right thing to do. And we are not going to allow them to discharge our debtor in bankruptcy when it's to us that the money is owed and not to them. When they start to argue that we should forgive our debtors so that our creditors will forgive us, that's where we draw the line. You forgive your debtors, we say, but only after you have paid your creditors in full. Forgiving a debtor when you still owe money to someone else is a gift in fraud of creditors and is not allowed.

Freedom of religion, really, is something that we tolerate only to the extent that what our neighbor believes is not materially important to us. The moment it starts to affect our rights, then we can't allow it. This means, among other things, that to the extent that religion preaches stealing, fraud or hurting others, then we can't tolerate it. Our tolerance is only for meaningless chatter and ceremonies and symbolism. We tolerate religion in the same way we tolerate literature -- if it's only just words, it's okay.

Sadly, religion can affect the morals of people who grew up steeped in it, even when they leave the church. Many believe that it's okay to steal from creditors, long after they have given up on  the idea that that fellow rose from the dead.

It does not matter what cosmology our neighbors believe in, It totally does not hurt me if they believe in the Easter bunny or in miracles. But when their religion tells them it's okay to steal from me, that's where their rights end and mine begin.

A horseshoe I found yesterday