Tag Archives: society

Advice to Do-gooders

The older I get (and some say that I was born at fifty), the more I wonder how much good we can do for people in general. In thinking about the subject, I’ve come to the following observations–or perhaps they’re rules:

1. First, do no harm.

Yes, that’s an old one, not original to me. But think about all the efforts to achieve good that have ended up causing more harm. Missionaries circled the globe to convert the natives, only to destroy local cultures, spread diseases or acquire new ones, and generally take whatever was valuable in Western terms from the land. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs have had mixed results, but anyone who had a goal to create a culture of dependence would be hard-pressed to come up with a straighter line to that result.

The rule here is that whatever good you propose, make it small, make it based on evidence and logic, and make it able to expire if it’s not working.

2. Help those who are willing to be helped.

An obvious case of someone who won’t take help is an addict. I had friends in college who smoked. As much as I wanted to help them stop, they weren’t willing to quit. I’ve known alcoholics who refused to take steps to break out of the addiction–and I’m not talking about Alcoholics Anonymous here, since in my observation, that group is often a substitute for the other drug.

Someone who wants to be helped recognizes the need, recognizes the expertise of the person offering assistance, and wants to work to make things better. That may sound arrogant, but there’s a measure of arrogance in trying to help, anyway. What it’s saying is that if the recipient of the help isn’t going to work with the helper, no good will be achieved.

3. In America, help has to take our spirit of independence and freedom into account.

Most people in this country either came here or come from those who did. They or their ancestors left somewhere else to find a better life, and part of what made that better has been and still is our belief in the rights of individuals to govern their own lives.

The case of climate change will illustrate this point. The scientific evidence is clear. The world is warming up, and humans are primarily the cause. Some on the left argue that the solution is to bunch people together into dense communities, require everyone to use public transportation, and otherwise live a life that is controlled from outside and above. But that won’t work here. The fundamental character of Americans is opposition to control. There are solutions that can work within our values, and those are the only ones that will succeed with us.

4. Physician, heal thyself.

The best place to do good is in your own life. That’s also the hardest field of action, which is why so many prefer to meddle in the lives of others. Read Plato’s Republic. Some see that book as a guide to commanding a city, but the real message is how to organize one’s own mind. Arrange the city of your own mind before you commence to exporting to others.

Take these observations for what they’re worth. I give lots of advice on this weblog, but at the least, I’ve given here six fewer than Moses, and you won’t get burned for not following them.

Sing to the Tune of a Different Choir

According to a poll released yesterday (9 October 2012) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans in increasing numbers do not affiliate with any particular religious organization. The results are published here. There are a lot of data in the survey results, but the overall trend is that not belonging to a group is becoming more common among young people. That group tends to lean left in American politics. There’s no concentration in any one ethnic group, income level, or, surprisingly, education level. Almost seventy percent of the unaffiliated believe in God (or gods?) in some fashion. All told, one person out of five in this country now does not identify with an institution.

I see this as a good trend. As I’ve said before, I don’t trust large groups. Human beings, taken individually, are often good, but put them together, and they sink to the lowest level of behavior and mentality and stay there. This is true in businesses, academic institutions, governments, and religions. The megaphone of association magnifies the worst in us.

This is also a continuation of the Protestant movement that began in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The assertion of that movement was that an individual is responsible for and capable of communicating with the divine directly without the need of another person. That view was a heresy in the best sense of the word. Heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” In that way, Protestantism fits in nicely with the general trend toward individual rights that has been working its way through the minds of thinkers in the West for thousands of years. Institutions are often the antithesis of choice, and it’s good to see more and more Americans either loosening or leaving those institutions.

The trend here is reminiscent of a book by Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. Gardner was a noted skeptic on matters of religion and the supernatural, and yet in that book, he identified himself as someone who believed in God and the afterlife. He did this on his own, as a result of his reading and thinking and also of his personal nature. He made a leap of faith, and that leap had to be done out of his own choice, not at the calling of an institution.

In summary, this is the distribution of power that is necessary for a functioning democracy. The more of us who take on intellectual and spiritual responsibility for our own lives, the better. Carry on, my brothers and sisters in personal faith.

Hurry Up and Grow

The recent incident at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin raises once again the question of race. To me, few things are more tedious than this subject, but it remains one for heated argument, given America’s history.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s clarify two terms: race and culture.

Race: A sub-group within a species that shares a particular characteristic or set of characteristics not held by others in the same species.

Culture: The art, language, religion, philosophy, behavior, technology, and other achievements of a group of people.

We’ve been told by well-meaning agents of government, schools, and churches that racism–the belief that one racial group is superior to another–is wrong. I’m going to go further than that. Racism is stupid. Human beings are nearly identical, in terms of genetics, no matter who their ancestors were. We all ultimately come from the same stock, a group living in the Great Rift Valley in central Africa. The human genome project used the DNA of four or five humans to sequence what we all have. It is true to say that skin color, eye color, certain bone structures, and so forth are genetically determined. So is susceptibility to some diseases.

That being said, a basic scientific principle needs to be remembered here: There is more variation with a group than between groups. Who is taller, a man or a woman? Obviously, the question is nonsense. Any one reading this has known tall women and short men. One can say that on average, men tend to be taller, but there’s a huge area of overlap in heights. The same kind of thing applies to all manner of physical characteristics.

Consider especially one absurdity of the neo-Nazi killer in Wisconsin. Now the motives of that man will likely always be obscure to rational people, but we’re left to presume that he did what he did because the people attending the Sikh temple were not “white.” As Weer’d Beard points out, many Indians are the descendants of the original and genuine Aryans. I suppose that it comes down to this: Knucklehead didn’t like how they looked. Or perhaps it was their turbans.

Whatever the reason, it was crazy. Speaking rationally and scientifically, all races are equal. That statement is true, but it’s also trivial. I say that because arguing over a person’s genetic heritage is a waste of time. My ancestors come from various parts of northwestern Europe, and I like to joke that this is what gave me my intolerance for hot weather, but realistically, it’s meaningless. Yes, I get sunburns easier than people from the equatorial regions, but no matter how much I want to dodge responsibility, my urges to listen to Wagner and go on rampages is all mine and not the fault of my Norse ancestors.

So what does matter? Are there any valid measures for ranking groups of people?

To answer that, consider culture. What must a group of people do to be considered successful?

1. The basic requirement is that a group can secure its own needs–food, housing, health, and so forth.

2. Then the group has to pass on its way of doing things to the next generation.

Lots of groups achieve this much. Those that fail the first two don’t last long enough to be remembered.

3. Having succeeded in mere survival, the group must add some distinct and new thing to the totality of human achievement.

Yes, that one is vague. We can argue all day about whether a particular thing–statue, language, farm implement, etc.–is worthy, but I hope that my readers can see the general idea here.

Finally, there’s this last item:

4. The achievements of the group have lasting influence, not only within the group, but on other groups as well.

We can measure the relative worth of a culture according to this yardstick. This is not a call for one culture to dominate another. Groups of people have the right to choose whatever mode of living that they wish without having to seek the approval of others. What it is intended to do is to provide a measure that will encourage each group to do better.

Culture is affected by many things–geography and climate, history, and so forth–but the choices made by the persons in that culture also matter. But being human is fundamentally about rising above where we started. We are not forced to be merely the expression of our genes, and going on about one’s genetic heritage only holds all of us back. I don’t care who your parents were. I care what you do.

Words Fail Us

Weer’d World today informs us that Harvard University has hired a BGLTQ director by the name of Vanidy “Van” Bailey. That in itself is worthy of comment, and I will offer one soon, but it must be noted that The Harvard Crimson posted a correction on 3 July to the article reporting this hiring. Apparently, Bailey prefers to eschew “gendered pronouns” in reference to herself. The article and correction can be read here.

I am on record here on this weblog and in many other places in support of human rights, including specifically the right to be attracted to others as our natures dictate. I don’t care whether you’re gay, straight, or mix-and-match. As long as you act only with other consenting adults and as long as you have the discretion to get a room before you get to second base, you and I have no problem.

But it’s a biological fact that multicellular life, in the vast majority of species and particularly for mammals, is divided into male and female. That’s not a value judgement, nor is it a political or moral characteristic. Denying this only serves to make Bailey look foolish. She has succeeded in that, given the various comments posted to the article and correction (including two of my own). What I hope she comes to understand is that not all the comments are necessarily anti-homosexual. There are people in this world who wish to retain logic and science, while at the same time valuing personal liberty. I include myself in that group.

What Bailey is doing appears to be an effort to erase our awareness of the differences between men and women. What are those differences? There are the obvious biological ones, expressed in anatomy and physiology. Folklore suggests many others, but science hesitates to study those for political reasons. I am reluctant to take sides in that discussion, especially since it is also a fact that there is more diversity within a group than between groups, speaking in biological or sociological terms. But the XX genes do create structures that are visibly different from the ones created by XY. To put the matter another way, I would like my bank to use the term, millionaire, in reference to me, but facts are facts.

But what of BGLTQ? It stands for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Queer. That’s a mouthful, and its tastes will elicit different reactions, depending on the mouth, but I am curious as to why Harvard University feels the need for all of that to be directed. Harvard’s only job is to be an institution of higher learning. Matters of housing, civility, and law can surely be handled by the Dean of Students (or whatever strained title he or she is given) and the campus police. Students ought to be able to form such clubs as they wish, and members of the faculty ought to be allowed to organize discussions with their colleagues and with students, but the institution should have only one purpose: education.