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Why People Should Be Respected

February 27, 2011

Earlier today I was watching an interview featuring Richard Dawkins, and while I normally agree with him, especially on science related issues, I disagree with his views toward respect.   Here is the first part of the interview:

Before we begin, let’s define what respect is.  My dictionaries define the term several different ways, but the definitions I like best are as follows:

1)  A courteous regard for people’s feelings
2) An attitude of admiration or esteem
3) A feeling of friendship and esteem

Of those definitions, I think #1 is the most important.

I tend to read the news here and there.  Though I used to read it about every other day, now I do so a lot less.  Even still, I get most all my news from various internet websites.  Most of them feature clips of various pundits from mainstream television networks discussing issues.  I’m not old enough to know what news and television was like 30 years ago, but over the past 10 years or so, it seems to me that there’s been an erosion of respect.  More and more, it seems that I open up various blogs and websites and am finding less and less substance, and more and more name-calling.  I’m finding more and more personal feuds between networks and pundits, and less rational argument.  I’m no saint in this regard, as I’ve said terrible things about people myself, but I set myself out starting this weekend to put an end to it.

I was thinking about posting lots of clips showing all the hatred and feuds and commenting on it all, but then I decided not to.  Instead, I’d like to focus on why I feel it’s important for us to respect and love one another — even those we vehemently disagree with.  When I think about life for most people, things are so difficult for them that we need to be kind and loving.  We shouldn’t add to all the hatred and madness out there.

My father pastors a church and growing up I remember families from every walk of life coming over to our house and my parents counseling them.  I’ve had first hand experiences with drug addicts, alcoholics, families with every sort of marital and family issue, people suffering from depression, anxieties, families struggling financially, and the list goes on and on.  I think I’ve seen more problems than most people ever will.   Some children have listened to their parents fight.  I’ve overheard many families fighting in the kitchen as my parents tried to calm them down.  One memory of mine immediately surfaces.  I can remember a woman screaming out, “I never loved you!  I don’t know why I married you!”  Then the husband started yelling back and it was a nightmare.  At another time, I can remember a meth head wanting to speak with my Dad.  I wasn’t sure what to do with him considering my parents were gone.  Since I knew him I let him stay in the living room and I waited with him.  The man was out there.  He went on and on about the devil, how he’d had experiences with demons, how he wanted to go around town casting them all out, how an angel had appeared to him while he was listening to a Benny Hinn tape, and so on.

In short, I suppose we can summarize it all by saying life is very difficult.  It takes a lot of time to figure out, and everyone makes mistakes traversing life’s maze.  Sometimes big mistakes.  I don’t know what made that man initially turn to drugs for relief, or what all had happened in that marriage, but either way, I simply don’t judge anyone anymore.  At most, I think, “This is the current situation we’re in.  Is there anything we can do to fix things?”

I think a lot about poverty, cancer, divorce, those who have never had or found love, drugs, alcohol, religion, people’s career struggles, war, greed, how difficult the world is to figure out, and so on.  I find myself thinking about the anthropic principle and how amazing it is that life exists at all.  I also sometimes find myself thinking how improbable it is that someone should be successful in this difficult world.  There’s a million mistakes you can make, and there’s many mistakes which are irreversible.  Out of all the possible decisions afforded to you during your lifetime, the vast majority lead nowhere.  You always have to be prudent.  You really have to play your cards right to end up on top.  (If there even is a “top” in life).  As for the ones who typically do end up doing really well, more often than not, they sort of fell into good fortune.

Out of all the possible ideas you can hold about the world, most are wrong.  Most of the ideas you’ll hear people discuss are wrong and completely off base.  Most people live in world they don’t understand.  They don’t understand how money works, why there’s inflation, and why the prices are always rising faster than their wages.  They don’t understand the political issues going on, or the wars.  They don’t understand their origins or what’s going on in the universe.  Most people I encounter don’t have the slightest clue what life is, or even what they’re up against.  But how can you blame them?   With everything else they’re having to juggle and manage, nobody should be blamed for not understanding those sorts of deep truths.

Even so, I think everybody understands that there’s many forces against them and their happiness.  If you don’t understand this, I don’t think you’re capable of loving another person.  I don’t think I’ve understood this lesson to any real degree until rather recently, and if a lot of the suffering I’ve had to face has helped me learn this, then it was worth it, I think.

I’ve said this before, but I’m not a very demonstrative person.  I give off an aura of spartan discipline.  Though it’s not easy for someone like me to say, and I don’t know how to really put this into words, but I believe in you.  There’s a million forces in the world which is always telling you, “I can’t”, and it seems like there’s every rational reason in the world why you can’t and it’s impossible.  But somehow, even if I can’t tell you how, I think there’s a way.  There are people out there who will help you, and work with you, and you can move on to bigger and better things in life.  Get out there and try again.

When I enrolled in my university there was a lot of talk about leadership.  I think the most important duty of any leader, counselor, or teacher is to believe in those around them, and in their lives.  They take whatever they’ve given, and they make the most of it.  This is the entrepreneurial side of me speaking, but if all you’re given is sticks, mud, and some stones and you’re asked to build a wall, don’t whine about how the materials aren’t any good.  Build the best damn wall sticks, mud, and stones can build.  Then you say, “This is the best damn wall of sticks you’ll find.”

Circumstances in life will never be ideal.  As the old proverb says, if you look to the winds and the weather before planting your seeds, it’ll never seem the right time to plant.  Even so, you get out there in the weeds and bad weather, and do what you need to do.

Sometimes I hate talking about “life” in a broad sense.  I feel so unqualified to give any sort of advice on anything.  I look at my own life and think, “Who am I to say anything to anyone else?”  The more I learn, the less I want to write and comment about things because I don’t feel qualified to do so.  It’s ironic because the more knowledgeable I am, the less I want to write.  I look at many of my older blog posts from years back and they’re just ridiculous.  I was brimming with confidence as I said all kinds of things which are completely wrong.  Those posts are embarrassing.  I had to remove a few the other day.  They’re so terrible.  To be knowledgeable in anything – to be a true expert – requires a lifetime of dedication and research.  I feel like an amateur in just about everything.   But what I wanted to say that after studying what I have, I find most people to hold views that could never be held by an educated, thinking person.  Also, as I said before, I don’t blame them either.  They don’t typically have the time to figure everything out.  And even when people hold ridiculous worldviews, we need to be kind to them, and not insult them.  What good does that do?  It’s only going to get them angry and close their minds to whatever we’re wanting to tell them.  I’ll give you an example.

Here on my bookshelf I have a little booklet a Jehovah’s witness gave to me while I was out enjoying a pizza.  It’s called ‘What Does the Bible Really Teach?‘  It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember it saying that after the judgment God is going to give each holy saint his own planet to rule.  It also talks about spirits possessing humans, causing them to do bad things, like get angry, and how the Earth is going to be made in into a paradise.

When I read it all, I thought, “There are many reasons why this can’t be right.  The stars will burn out, many of them exploding and becoming black holes.  Our universe is also expanding.  We have to deal with the heat death.  As for the eternal earthly paradise, in a few billion years the Earth will be destroyed as the sun goes into the red giant phase.  Our emotions, including anger, are governed by known processes in our brains, not demons.  That’s why various medications and drugs can alter our emotions as well.  And sickness is caused by bacteria, viruses, hereditary diseases, injuries, and so on.”  Similar sorts of reasons make the other things religious texts and books say impossible for a thinking person to believe.  But to someone who hasn’t studied science, and doesn’t understand how their body works, or how the universe works, such accounts make sense to them.

I want to mention churches while I’m on this topic.  As I mentioned, my father is a pastor, so I’m very knowledgeable about how churches work.  Churches tend to focus on what’s called “out-reach”, which is being kind to people, making friends with them, helping them out, and bringing them to church.  One thing I’ve noticed about many members in the science and agnostic/atheist communities (my experience anyway), is they’re not near as welcoming.  A lot of them can be downright nasty.

I saw a physicist in a video recently and he was talking about life and the universe and he made a few wrong comments about evolution.  A prominent biologist, on his blog, tore into him.  “Is this guy an idiot?”  He railed against him.  I thought, “Alright man, he had a few misconceptions toward some rather subtle biological concepts.  He’s a physicist, not a biologist like you.”  The arguments against the physicist were flawless, no doubt.  He was also right in correcting him.  What was missing was a level of respect and courtesy.  If we treat each other like this, nobody is going to want to become a scientist, or get involved in research endeavors.  People also are going to be scared to share their ideas because they know if they get one little thing wrong, some nasty expert is going to jump out of the bushes, ambush them, making him or her look like an idiot.  “Idiot!  How could you think that?”  You know, if this were a peer review journal, that’s one thing.  But when we’re dealing with one another, on a casual level, such as our blogs, we need to be kind to one another, and kindly correct each other’s mistakes.

It’s hard for me to understand how someone could get so angry like that, especially over someone who holds 99% of your worldview, but gets a few minor things wrong.  When people talk to me about physics concepts, I don’t look down on them when they’re wrong.  During the holidays a family member was talking with me about sci-fi movies, and he wondered about building special suit and if he could use it to walk along the ocean floor in it.  He thought about putting a thin wall of air inside the suit’s vest, which would then cushion him from the pressure.  Unfortunately, this sort of thing would never work, and I explained to him how and why he was wrong.  Nobody got angry, nobody was insulted, and he learned something new.  That’s how that should work.

….

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

– excerpt from A Prayer For My Daughter, by William Butler Yeats

Now that I’m in college, I’ve also experienced professors who look down on their students.  Nearly half of my professors have been guilty of this at one time or another.  It breaks my heart to see it because I know it’s going to run students off.  If the scientific community, as well as our educational institutions, make people feel so unwelcome and stupid, people are going to turn to other organizations, like churches, where they’re loved and respected.

It’s easy to fall into intellectual hatred.  When people are saying and believing ridiculous things, it’s easy to do.  There’ s a right way to correct someone, and a wrong way.  From now on, I’m going to try to write every blog post in a similar format to Paul Krugman’s recent post on inflation.

Good Inflation, Bad Inflation

And another economistic piece: FTAlphaville reports that some people believe that surging commodity prices might be good for Japan, because they will make deflation go away.

OK, this is a failure to understand the principle.

Why does deflation have a depressing effect on the economy? Two reasons. First, it reduces money incomes while debt stays the same, so it worsens balance sheet problems, reducing spending. Second, expectations of future deflation mean that any borrowing now will have to be repaid out of smaller wages (if the borrower is a household) or smaller profits (if the borrower is a firm.) So expected future deflation also reduces spending.

So, does a rise in food and energy prices do anything to alleviate these problems? No. In fact, it makes them worse, by reducing purchasing power. So while the commodity surge may temporarily lead to rising headline prices in Japan, the underlying deflation problem won’t be affected at all.

In a way, this is another illustration of the need to differentiate among inflation measures. It’s not exactly the same as the usual case for focusing on core inflation, but it’s related. And once again, the point is that looking at “the” inflation rate is a bad guide for policy.

I don’t agree with Krugman on a lot of things.  I don’t tend to agree with many of the principles behind Keynesian economics in general.  I tend to lean more toward an Austrian perspective in economics.  But look at that.  There was no name calling.  There was no, “This person’s an idiot.”  It was a rational argument telling why the ideas put forth in that article are wrong.  Here he clearly points out the misunderstandings the author holds toward inflation.

We often communicate by the internet now, and it’s so much easier to say terrible things since we’re not speaking face to face.   We need to hold ourselves back.  Don’t do it.  I try to remember that consciousness resides in each person I deal with.  They’re alive and have feelings, just like me.  The longer I live, and the more I think about it, the more sacred that truth becomes to me.  It’s like I want to grab someone and say, “Don’t you realize, that’s a conscious living being that is suffering.”  But when it’s not us suffering, or our family members, or loved ones, or close friends, it can be difficult to have empathy.

As the world becomes more and more closely interconnected, it will be harder and harder to avoid one another.  It’s going to become more important everyday that we develop tolerance and respect one another.  Otherwise the tensions and fighting will only increase.  You won’t be able to say nasty things and then just disappear and hope the world forgets about it.  People will blog about the terrible things you said to them, and then when people Google your name, you’ll pop right up.  That’s pretty scary really.  When you say something online, it’s there for good.  There’s even websites which store old copies of your website, archiving everything.  Even if you remove it, there’s still records of it all.

People have enough troubles on their plate without us adding more pressures to their lives.  Try to make people’s lives easier, not harder.  I think humanity is capable of great things.  There’s all kinds of advancements and progress going on everyday.  Let’s celebrate that and believe in one another and our common future.

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