About Jochen Weber

German relocated to the Big Apple in 2008, working in brain research, and trying to figure out what life is all about...

Putting things into perspective…

Today I want to share a guest blog, from a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous. I will just call him Jeremy, and he is from Ohio. I corrected a spelling mistake here or there, but that’s pretty much it…

Hey Jochen. I like your blog, I really do. But I still think you don’t really get it man… There IS a silent majority, but it’s not as racist as they keep telling you guys. And it’s not as poor either, as we’re often told on cable TV. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are a couple folks like that here, but that’s not the point! We just are the hard working majority who is tired of having people who have never once in their lives worked an honest job tell us how to live our lives. We’re the opposite of people who have only seen classrooms and libraries and shiny offices, and still think they know how the world works and looks like.

I mean, you guys in the big cities, like at your university in New York, you are so proud of all the stuff you can do: theaters and ballet and museums and so on. But how often do you actually think about the people who are necessary for you to eat something? Or the people who build the cars and trains and planes you drive and fly around in? Or the people who take all of your trash out of the city, and I bet that’s a lot!

And I mean, I went to college. And I’m proud of my BA! But I work at the local Walmart and I see what’s going on around here. Quite a few jobs just vanished over the years. I’m not even saying the Chinese took them, but two big plants where a lot of people worked are closed down now. And then they start telling us that to get better jobs you need to go to college. Didn’t sound so bad in the beginning either.

So, yeah, I got my degree, and took out a loan for that too. And now I make just about the same kind of money my dad used to make when he was working, without a degree. I mean, that’s just bullshit, man. And you sit in your office, and I don’t say you’re not busy doing something smart or something, but whatever it is you do, it doesn’t provide food or clothes or anything for anyone…

Anyway, just wanted you to know that we’ve just had about enough of people who seem to go to school for the sake of staying in school or working some kind of paper job. Of people who know nothing of how hard it is out here, but who keep telling us how it really is, when it’s not. You think life is about getting smart and learning, right? Well, guess what, it’s not. It’s about doing your job, and better doing it well, because you’ll be fired otherwise. I guess you’re just lucky that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you still have your job in a couple months or so!

The reason why we vote for Trump and why we don’t care about what all the media keep pushing: finally there is someone who doesn’t pretend you have to be smart to make it! I mean, be honest: you’re just angry because he doesn’t behave and talk like someone from the city… He says a lot of stupid things, ok… but he never says things in a way that shows off his education. Nothing he says is like, I will only talk to you if you can talk like you’re some kind of dictionary. So leave me alone with your New York Times or whatever news you read!

So yeah, we finally want to get something back from you guys. The way I see it, someone needs to show you that for too long you have lived your cozy city lives thinking that you don’t have to care about anyone but yourselves. We want to get some respect man! And each and every time I read about how you laugh about Trump and his family and his campaign people, I know people around here are getting angrier. And then we laugh because he scares the shit out of you guys. I mean suddenly all of your education doesn’t matter, because it’s a democracy. And the majority wins, remember?

So, yeah, just wanted to say you really don’t get it.

After reading this for a few times, I must admit that I indeed have never worked in a capacity of providing food or any other kind of tangible resource to anyone. The only instance I could remember was when I was a child and helped some relatives of mine to collect their potato harvest, but I guess that doesn’t count–I wasn’t doing it for people I didn’t know or for money. And it is true that during almost all of my adult life I have worked in an office of sorts, programming or writing. Does what I do make anyone’s life better? Only insofar as my colleagues’ own work in academia isn’t as difficult, I guess. But what I produce doesn’t feed anybody, or keep anybody warm or comfortable, or doesn’t get people from A to B, or helps in producing any everyday merchandise

What I want you to know, Jeremy are a few things: I actually am grateful, extremely grateful about my position in life. I don’t have to worry, really, about my job or about the next paycheck, or the one after that. And I admit I don’t think often enough about those who truly provide for most of what I eat, or how nothing I have and use depends on a small army of workers, who produce and distribute everything I own and use. And I don’t think about the conditions under which they do their jobs. I am sorry for not recognizing that, but…

If Trump really wanted to represent a silent majority, one we don’t hear and think about enough, why did and does he have to use so much offensive language? You know that I’m gay, and I am super sensitive when I hear someone talk who doesn’t seem to understand the kinds of struggles that come with being in the minority, and a minority that is being treated poorly at that. I think Trump really could have had a majority if he didn’t use so much defamatory and derogatory language against women–another silent majority, by the way–or against immigrants. The fact that he doesn’t seem to care about those who he thinks are expendable is terrifying to me, because I keep thinking who’s next?

I understand that you want to win. Who doesn’t…? But from the little I understand about politics, while you’re in politics to win–for your point of view and your values–you don’t do so by completely disregarding the other side’s perspective. And I believe I do get it (a little better now, at least): there has been a growing other side that has been completely underrepresented in politics for far too long–people for whom higher education isn’t so much something they think is cool or makes them better people, but rather for whom education is something to get a better job, and that’s something they have been told repeatedly by everyone in politics… And the elites in both parties really haven’t listened enough what really matters to you…

Quite honestly, though, I would rather wish you wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name… while he may seem to come across like being elitist and far too much on the left, I don’t think he actually is… And with that I now need to disclose that Jeremy isn’t a friend, but someone I thought of this morning as an “alter ego”, someone who better remind me that each and every voter rooting for Trump has the right to do so, and has his or her reasons. I may not agree with their way of weighing the evidence, and I may be frightened, but as soon as I ridicule their reasons or pretend that what those 40 percent of voters think doesn’t matter, I absolutely deserve their anger and their ridicule in return…

Past the point of no return: Donald Trump being absolutely non-PC

Ever since Donald Trump started running for president, one major talking point—and certainly the one related to most if not all of his gaffes and to what extent he ever went “too far”—is the idea that Political Correctness (PC, i.e. that certain things should not be said out of respect for the consequences of thinking and talking that way) has gone out of control.

First, for me as someone not from the U.S., this term refers to a situation where a thought occurs to an individual, with the thought being based on a class/group-based stereotype, and this thought has been found to be detrimental to this class or group’s overall (e)quality of life, then this thought should not be voiced (to avoid reinforcement) in public—with maybe the exception of situations in which it clearly is used in a comedic way, for instance as part of a stand-up routine, suggesting the audience is supposed to be aware of the not-being-serious context.

As an example, the stereotype that women are weaker than men could find its expression in the thought that “women can’t handle it when it really gets tough,” a bit like Donald Trump’s stamina argument about Secretary Clinton. Using this language as part of a (political) debate would, as far as my understanding goes at least, be an opening for the debating opponent to draw the “PC card”; in fact, if he or she didn’t, it might even lead to questions after as to why the PC card wasn’t drawn, as people are supposed to notice this kind of thing and make it a point to raise concerns.

So, coming back to the original point: Conservatives, including several other Republican primary contenders, have from the moment that Donald Trump began to run for president made the very strong argument that “PC has gotten out of control.” In other words, the claim is that our mental lives have been put under a kind of “tyranny of the thought police,” (other) people who won’t allow us to voice our opinions in the way we want to.

While it may seem tempting to approach the over-arching question (should some thoughts be policed) from a First Amendment (i.e. the right to free speech) perspective, I want to avoid that. The main reason is that I have little doubt that both Conservatives and Liberals agree on the idea that some thoughts need to be controlled (for instance thoughts that are in themselves “unconstitutional”), but that generally the best form of control is self-control, and not externalized control. And the First Amendment says nothing about people’s need to police their own thought, but merely that the government is not supposed to take that job.

That being said, the question then remains: to what extent should individuals (be asked to) control their own thoughts and language, and in favor of what outcome (i.e. some greater good)? It is important to point out that in other areas of political disagreement—for example drug use—the roles between Conservatives and Liberals are pretty much reversed. In those cases, Conservatives consider the values of public morale, conforming to Calvinist work ethic, and also (biological) life itself to be of such importance that behaviors threatening these values, such as drug use or certain sexual behaviors, ought to be prohibited (by law).

The crucial difference to me seemingly is to what extent people from the two sides of the political spectrum hold beliefs about (1) how and when they need to and still can exert self-control and (2) whether the consequences of failed self-control are dire enough to warrant a prescriptive-rule model. With free speech, I think the main issue is that if self-control is not prescribed in any way—thoughts do not need to be controlled in favor or any values—an intelligent observer would simply then expect that other values, such as fairness and treating other people with the same dignity, are “second best”.

In principle, I am all in favor of having no prescriptions on when and how to apply self-control in all areas of life, but equally as Conservatives wish to curtail abortion to preserve life, in fear that without any regulations people will turn to abortion for even the most whimsical of reasons, I hope they can now observe in Donald Trump the problem with not curtailing thoughts and speech at all.

But just as Conservatives, by and large, seem to fail to understand that by not regulating firearms this inevitably leads to “individual, bad apples” failing to possess the necessary self-control in the presence of too many guns, they now seem baffled at how someone who has made a kind of personal war against PC his signature move clearly fails to exert the necessary amount of self-control when it comes to what he says. Donald Trump clearly has reached the point of no return, and maybe we could use this as a highly visible example to explain that, maybe, just maybe, there are reasons to demand at least a modicum of (public) self-control when it comes to what people say

The slow pendulum of public rationality and emotionality

Looking back into human history–for instance at the amount of time it takes for conflicts on the scale of nations to resolve–I am more and more forced to the following conclusion:

The more people are involved in a complex decision making process, the slower their decision making style oscillates between being rational vs. emotional.

To unpack this a bit, think about the following simple example… You’re driving along the highway, and in the rear mirror you observe two drivers who seem to be locked in a kind of dangerous race. They come ever closer and your level of anxiety rises, as you might get caught up in an accident. They then fall “in line,” and both cars pass and disappear. Your anxiety level comes back down, and you can resume your normal driving.

For a single individual, the perception of a threat may naturally also be on a much larger time scale–say you know several months in advance about the day on which you have to take the bar exam or some other very difficult test–but by and large, as much as anxiety levels will increase as time progresses, healthy people do not remain in a constant state of anxiety for long periods of time.

On the other hand, if you imagine a larger collective of people, say an entire nation, is facing some kind of “cliff”, it truly seems that the collective minds of people shift away from more rational perception, judgment, and decision making towards an ever more emotional nature of cognition, one that is based on intuition, prejudice, and heel-digging to affix one’s position as securely as possible, probably in anticipation of some kind of storm that surely needs to be weathered.

While it is entirely possible that looking back at 2016 from a more distant future may prove me absolutely wrong, I cannot help looking at a whole set of events and occurrences, globally distributed, in which public opinion and decision making seems much more emotionally driven than, say, 10 or 20 years ago:

Naturally, the election cycle in the United States is the most accessible in my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve made it a point to post many individual items depicting the stark contrast between candidates Clinton and Trump. The former Secretary of State is, if anything, known as a “cool thinker”, someone who almost lacks emotion to the point of being bland, whereas Trump’s appeal seems to be explainable almost exclusively by his emotionality, the kind of “truthiness” associated with showing one’s own thought process in an “honest way”–interestingly, the fact that much of what Trump says cannot be backed up by fact doesn’t deter his supporters, so long as he says these things with vigor and a seemingly honest conviction, that is it seems as though he believes what he is saying at the time, and that turns out to be more important that actually getting it right.

Other examples include recent remarks by Philippine President Duterte, who invoked a comparison with Hitler in that he is willing to take as many as 3 million drug addicts’ lives in his war against drugs; and many people in the Philippines seem to applaud this (hard) line of thinking. Similarly increasingly hardline stances can be observed in the executive branches of government in Turkey, Russia, and even the United Kingdom, where Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, answered affirmative during a debate that she would use a nuclear bomb (something that, until then, had only been implied but not expressly stated).

So, overall, I would argue that people around the world seem to be experiencing an ever increasing threat scenario–what exactly the threat may be is difficult to ascertain, given that the day-to-day life of most people probably hasn’t changed much for the worse over the past years, or at least if those changes occurred they have not been satisfactorily linked to the swing in public “mood”.

It remains to be seen whether the trends I describe above are actually present (real), and where exactly they will lead. But just a bit like in Germany in the early 1930s, it seems that if a large enough proportion of people find that the current state of affairs (politically, economically, or in any other major way that is organized among a large group of people) contains a significant threat, those people will turn to extreme measures, based on fear and aggression, willing to take thousands if not millions of lives to protect what they feel is the foundation of their livelihood.

The role of a responsible media should then probably be to (a) determine whether or not people have reasonable cause to feel threatened, and then (b) if not, convince the people that they have been over-reacting or (c) help find the necessary changes to avert the actual threat with the least amount of damage possible.

Unfortunately, the commodification and corporatization of large media outlets, including social media (!), has made it ever harder to not be caught up in the financial incentive structure: with advertising revenue being the main driver behind decision making, it seems far more important to keep people on tenterhooks than to investigate to what extent this feeling of fear and dread on a massive scale is justified, and what actually should be done to improve the situation.

The issue with “trickle-down” economics and why people need to stand up

First, I need to admit that proponents of economic policies that favor strengthening the supply side–by leaving more of corporate profits in the hands of the owners of production means–never use the term “trickle-down” (theory or economics) themselves. So, yes, you caught me in using a form of newspeak already. On the other hand, even trickle-down seems to be a euphemism at best, given that, over the past 40 or so years, virtually nothing of the gains in incomes–supposedly of those who own much if not most of the production means in the US–has reached ordinary “working people,” those who hold wage-earning jobs and typically do not share in corporate profits directly via held shares.

The problem that I see with the idea of supply side policies is the following hypothetical: imagine that you own a factory producing a good, and that the market is relatively saturated; that is to say, demand is at relatively high but more or less constant levels. Would you be motivated by any additional income to invest into your factories (or to build a new one)? Unless you thought that demand were to increase–which it seems would likely require additional income on the side of the workers to afford additional amounts of your good–my prediction is a clear no. And I have never fully comprehended the argument in the first place.

On the other hand, if you own a factory that produces a good for which the market suggests a growth potential–say, an additional production increase of 20 per cent would not see a large drop in price, meaning that an investment would probably increase profits–then you do not even need additional income. Instead, you are willing to take out a loan (and let’s add to that the fact that we are in a super-low-interest period in history, so you literally get the loan “for free”), make the investment, and pay off the loan from the additional profits.

Unfortunately, much of the corporate media–for understandable reasons–seems unwilling to even ask critical questions these days (which would be worth its own, unrelated blog post…). Instead, we are constantly reminded that to grow the economy–that is to create jobs–the best way would be to lower taxes, such that corporate profits are retained leading to… what exactly? The least problematic outcome, in my opinion at least, would be “luxury spending”: owners (and share holders alike) would use their additional income to stimulate the production of goods that, while not foremost used to improve the lives of the many, certainly could in the long run raise the bar. The reality looks, the way I see it at least, much more bleakly…

Instead of actual investment, that is putting the money to “use” by growing economic output, much of this additional liquidity is going where it has been going for the past decades: fueling bubbles–whether housing, internet, precious metals, futures and derivatives, or what-have-you-not. If you were indeed a factory owner who has already satisfied (almost) all immediate needs in life, what would you do with another billion dollars if not trying to look for “lucrative investment opportunities?”

Coming to the second part of the blog post title… Last night, I went to one of the Our Revolution launch live-stream parties–of which, by the way, I haven’t read a peep in any of the mainstream media I looked at this morning, despite the fact that many seemingly less important items were covered in quite some detail. The main message that Bernie had for those willing to keep up the fight is simple:

The system (not necessarily the individual lobbyists, politicians, and billionaires) will not reform itself from the top-down. The incentives are simply not set up that way. People at the top have no motivation to improve the quality of life for those at the bottom. And that being said, We, the People need to rise up and demand that any such ridiculous policies that have favored growth “at the top”–by giving whimsical, borderline frivolous arguments for those policies benefitting the average income earner; and mostly at the expense of low-income earner due to increased competition from extreme-low-income earners abroad–need to be reversed.

And Bernie also shared a reminder with people: the only true obstacle in the way of progress is the belief that it cannot be achieved in the first place. This is something the media has been adamant about: the system cannot be “reformed” in ways as progressive as Bernie’s platform during the Democratic primary season–and that despite the fact that now many candidates (including some in the GOP) have started to run on proposals that initially came from the progressive movement.

So, yes, if we want “our country back”, we need to get our asses out of our (still too) comfy chairs, forget about how supposedly nothing can be changed, and simply go out and demand change. The main areas of importance remain the same as before Hillary got the nomination: preventing further erosion of national control over trade and financial regulations and liabilities (if you haven’t heard about the investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS for short, system, please read up on it!), reducing the debt burden, particularly of those who are supposed to build the wealth of the next generation (i.e. student loan forgiveness), and ensuring that after a long “trickle-up” wealth distribution, the balance tips the other way again.

The alternative is to accept a state in which ordinary people have lost and will keep losing perpetually. No-one at the top will stand up for “us”, we have to do it ourselves, and it’s about time, too!

Emotion regulation–and the lack thereof–explained using physics

Given my understanding of classical mechanics, I think of causation (from an observer’s perspective) often using this two-object scenario: one object is moving (i.e. has observable velocity), and the other object is at rest. When the two meet–the trajectory of the first making it inevitable that there is a moment in time when they get close enough to touch–some or all of the momentum of the first object is transferred to the second object, and then I conclude: the first object caused the second object to change trajectory.

The one great insight that Albert Einstein brought to physics is that of relativity: the understanding that there is no absolute frame of reference. In other words, there is a valid way of looking at the two objects in the above example, in which the roles are completely reversed. And that is, naturally, the frame of reference in which the first object is “at rest” and the second object is moving towards it. Einstein understood that both perspectives must be and are equally valid objective descriptions, thus undermining our gut intuition of causality (which came first? which object was moving before the collision?).

In our daily lives, we often face the same conundrum when it comes to how we perceive causation in the social (inter-personally mental) domain: we may see ourselves, each in turn, to be more or less mentally stable (at rest)—that is to say, in the absence of an external event, of something interacting with us, our mental state would remain what it is. And we further perceive other minds as transferring mental momentum to us, say, by saying something which makes us angry or laugh.

Unfortunately, that kind of perspective, the strict notion that we are victims of external events, that we have no agency over what happens to us (mentally), creates a huge problem: we lose the ability to control how we feel! We no longer have any means to escape a collision event. We may hope or pray that we will not meet someone who criticizes us—because we know that once that happens, we will feel lousy and down, but if it happens, we no longer have any control over the change of state which will, inevitably it seems, happen to our minds.

There is, however, one very, very important difference between the classical mechanics objects example and the situation where two minds meet: even a single mind, on its own, can change its state. Imagine you are sitting at your desk, your mind is wandering around, thinking about the past or future, and suddenly you think of a wonderful day you spend as a child on vacation with your family. How do you feel? Do you still feel the same way as you did mere seconds ago? What caused you to think of this day?

The first important aspect I want to highlight is that, other than a single object that cannot change its own momentum, a mind can change its state on its own. It is almost as though, if the second object in the example wanted to avoid or alter the course of the collision, it could decide to do so, and take steps in that direction. And that is what, at least when it comes to the affective state of one’s mind, emotion regulation provides:

As a quick detour, I want to explain about James Gross’s first attempt of modeling the different approaches to emotion regulation and their outcomes. His model contains two broad kinds of strategies, situation selection—in terms of the two-object example above, the second object could simply avoid the collision altogether—or some form of action the second object takes to alter the way in which either the collision takes place (situation modification) or its consequences unfold (attentional deployment, cognitive change, or response modulation).

To be clear, each and every of these five strategies requires that the second “mental object” (a person correctly anticipating an impact of a mental event that would typically lead to an altered emotional state) accepts its agency over the outcome: the anticipated change is not inevitable! Once this is accepted, a strategy can be chosen:

  • the incoming object can be avoided in the first place (for instance by deciding to avoid seeing the person, something I think would change my emotional state)
  • the incoming object could move into a slightly different position, thus changing the resulting outcome trajectories of both objects
  • the incoming object could, theoretically at least, alter one of its properties–imagine the object becoming more massive, allowing it to simply absorb the momentum
  • for cognitive change I find it relatively more difficult to find an adequate analogue, but the idea is that, after the collision occurred, the second object would alter some of its inner workings which would, in turn, alter its trajectory change
  • finally, the second object could simply change its trajectory after the collision had occurred

As a practical example, I would just want to point out that in an emotionally heated exchange between two people, it is fairly common for both sides to claim to be provoked into more and more ferocious responses (and between nations, this goes as far as going to an outright state of war). Each party in this repeated exchange could describe the situation as him or herself being forced to react in a certain way, and each party will also fail to consider that one’s own actions are potentially causative for an equally strong (or stronger) re-action from the other side…

Which brings me to the second important aspect: as long as people think of themselves as mental objects at rest they may fail to consider that, all along, they are probably perceived to be moving (as causative agents) by others. The failure to appreciate the impact our mental actions (in particular what we say or do casually) have on other minds very easily leads to situations in which someone else is impacted by us, may show a reaction, and we mistakenly assume we had nothing to do with it.

The most egregious example I can think of off the top of my head is the (seeming) failure of Donald Trump to appreciate, understand, or correctly represent the affective consequences of his actions in others. Whenever asked about one of his past actions–which, understandably for the majority of outside observers, led to some kind of grudge in someone else–Donald Trump exhibits an almost complete lack of understanding for how his actions could be considered responsible.

In other words, Donald Trump is the prime example of someone who considers himself to be perfectly at rest (someone with the best temperament). He only happens to reacts to outside events (as necessary) and fails to grasp a) that he actually has a choice for how to react (going on twitter tirade after twitter tirade) and b) that what he says about others may well cause emotional pain in those people in the first place.

How we deal with “otherness” and “being right”.

The primary campaign season of the U.S. Presidential elections is coming to close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on where I, in the past year, have ridiculed and disrespected others’ opinions. Why? Because I believe that the idea that my beliefs, my ideas, my thoughts, and my knowledge is superior–something I intuit many people experience while being exposed to others’ beliefs, ideas, and thoughts–is at the heart of much of the conflicts we experience in our day-to-day lives as well as through mass and social media.

The number one prime example for me are my thoughts about supporters of Donald Trump, at least at the beginning of his campaign. It seemed so obvious (from my perspective) that to follow a man willing to call an entire people rapists or make allegations against all followers of a specific region must come with a certain kind of mental defect. And only over time did my perception change. It still seems a much more readily available thought, even now, but it no longer is the dominant one. Instead, now I believe that the lives of many have been developing so far away from what we have come to see as “the norm” that their anger at politicians not even acknowledging this state of affairs has led them to a sort of “anyone but them” position. And no matter what else I may think about Donald Trump, he certainly is not the “average politician” in any regard.

More generally speaking, my experience is that when it comes to comparing “what I know” with what other people’s behavior reveals about their mental life is that, most of the time, I consider myself on the “right side” of things. I believe, for instance, that my approach to engaging with strangers–such as on my daily commute to and from work–is somewhat superior to other people’s approach. Naturally, given my longterm goals, my approach probably has some advantages, but upon reflection, I could never conclude that it is free of problems either. And clearly, whenever I compare approaches, it is difficult to do so conditional on my goals, because then I would have to compare two sets of things all at once (my approach and my goals to those of others). After all, human brains seem to have a lot to do already comparing two things…

And with that limiting factor in mind, I slowly begin to understand that most judgments of “inferiority” do not stem from differences in believes per se, but rather from my inability to consider someone else’s mental structure as a whole, his or her overall background and backdrop in front of which all cognitive decisions take place.

To give a (hopefully) much less controversial example far away from politics, religion, or social mores, I recently imagined meeting someone from the 17th century unfamiliar with developments in physics since his or her time. This person would most likely consider me to be a crazy person if I told him that, on the most fundamental level, all material things are made from the same “stuff”: small charged particles (something a person from the future may also consider me crazy for, by the way) that are bound together by a force so strong that “chemical reactions” are unable to overcome it, and thus form stable “elements”. Instead, this person would insist that wood, metal, and glass for instance are so obviously different in their properties, that is it preposterous to assume they could ever be made of the same stuff!

By analogy, the same applies to humans. When we encounter one another, one of the most fundamental cognitive processes that happens is a part of “social cognition”: we categorize others effortlessly in classes of gender, race, age group, social status (for instance by virtue of observing their clothing or speech patterns) and others. And while most of these classes may seem relatively benign and harmless, they each carry with them expectations, prejudices, and valuations. In a situation of an emergency, for instance, we tend to profess greater concern for children and women, whereas in the context of politics most people still seem to have strong objections and react with scoldings for women who, like Hillary Clinton, act closer to what their male counterparts might do: seeking power.

On the whole, labeling others in this way often allows us to no longer “care” (in a positive way at least) about people, by creating a kind of mental representation of this person no longer deserving our support and shared resources. As a society, we have been observers of tremendous amounts of harm, pain, and suffering in our very midst, and yet we have not done much to alleviate any of it. Why? One typical thought might be the doctrine of capitalism, which tells us that each and every person is foremost responsible for their own situation and place in life. As such, a homeless person doesn’t deserve our support.

But this extends far beyond the economic sphere. Just this weekend, two major stories that have dominated the headlines are the case of Brock Turner, a young man who in a moment of opportunity didn’t have enough respect and civility in him to not do what he did, but instead raped an unconscious women. What lack of valuation for another human being’s life must be at play, I ask myself? And the same is true for the man who went to a gay night club in Orlando, possibly to send a message of religious zealotry, that our society should not tolerate and accept homosexuality, but at the same time treating the humanity of his victims as nonexistent.

Overall, I believe that to the extent that we believe to be “right”, we are unable to empathize (why would we need to anyway?), as we lack the motivation to understand the “other” (or otherness). And only when we take the mental liberty of exploring what lies behind someone’s behavior, actions and words alike, can we begin to have an open conversation about how life can be valuable and better for all, and not dominated by those with the most firepower.

An open letter to supporters of Donald Trump

You must be so tired of hearing from or about people trying to make you think Donald Trump is no good, am I right? And people in big media and also in politics clearly have no clue what’s going on in this country! So, they should just shut up already. At the very least, they shouldn’t pretend as though everything is going well with the U.S.

All they write about is how Trump would be bad for the US in this way or that way: how his policies would ruin the economy, and on, and on, and on… But what about the people who have run this country into the gutter? They spent the past 30 or so years trying to tell us that things are great. But you just need to look around to see the truth! You very well remember a time when things were so much better! What the f*ck happened? How could the people who were supposed to protect you let it come to this?

So… Why am I writing?

Well, I’ll do my best to tell it like it is: I’m angry and I’m also scared. What I’m not is a historian, and no economist either, and I’m certainly also no genius who can predict the future. What I do know is that I feel like things are getting out of control. And I’m not saying that that’s on you! And it’s also not on Donald Trump either!

You only have to open any news paper, or turn on the news on TV, or go to a news website online to see it. Pretty much anything that happens is bad. And isn’t someone supposed to protect us from all that sh*t? I mean, seriously… This country was at the very top not too long ago, and now everything feels like we’re losing big time.

So, yeah, I agree there is much to be angry about!

For one, I’m super angry about people who have been telling us, that if there are more people looking for work than there are jobs, the people simply have to accept lower wages. It’s what they call a free market! Of labor!! And then they have been telling us that it’s a great idea to move jobs to countries where people work for way less than half of what those jobs paid in the U.S., go figure!

It’s really no surprise at all that wages have not gone up since the 1980’s! I mean, come on!! And, naturally, the people who own a lot will get even richer. Cause, believe me, whatever they save by having stuff produced in other countries is not going to push prices down as much for you or me.

And then I’m angry at people who keep telling us that everyone earning enough to have a decent standard of living would break the economy. Where’s the proof? It all comes back again to this one question: how much is a certain job worth paying for? Clearly, if we believe the economists and, no surprise here, almost everyone in either of the two big parties, they would say, it’s only worth as much as the market pays.

Well, here’s another way looking at this: imagine, even for one moment, that not the number of people qualified to do a job, say cleaning toilets, is what determines the supply of labor, but instead the number of people who actually want to do that fucking job, given what it pays. Don’t you think that many, many jobs would suddenly become much more valuable?

And, yes, it sounds like a fantasy, like a fairy tale, something that could never, ever work in reality. But WHY NOT? I’ll tell you why: because the people who own things, who own factories, and who own hospitals, and who own prisons–in short, the people who do not do any actual work, but only sit on their assess, counting their belongings, would make far, far less money than they do today. And the people who own things are the ones spending soooo much money on elections, that people like you and me certainly don’t have a chance.

Then comes Donald Trump, and at last someone is as angry about how the country is being run as I am. Only, he is one of the rich guys. So, I’m skeptical. Would he really make life better for me? For you? Or what is it that he really wants?

And, honestly, I’m also a bit scared of some of the things Donald Trump has to say… If I take him at his word, all of our problems would be solved if only we could get the illegals out of the country, and stop Islamic terror, and get China to not export so much cheap stuff, and a few other things. Oh yeah, and of course get all those stupid people out of Washington! Super simple! Whenever I let my anger about how bad the people in D.C. have run the country run high, I can even see it: let’s get all those who have no right to be here out, and things must get better!

Then again… I think that as long as we are fed the lie that jobs are only worth something if there aren’t that many people who could do them, and if there are many people that can do a job, like doing someone’s laundry, or flipping burgers, then it isn’t worth shit, because we can just wait until someone sells his or her soul just to earn those couple dollars to buy some scraps and leftovers from the banquets of the rich, we will not be free. We will be slaves of a system that Trump supports just as much as anyone who’s been born on the rich side of life. And I don’t blame them, they’re just looking out for their own best interest!!

There is one guy, who so far has, for almost all his life, said he is fighting for the regular guy, with the low-paying jobs. And that’s Bernie. So, yes, if you’re angry, maybe you’re not angry enough. It’s the system that needs changing!

Lacking mindfulness: a common vulnerability in the collective psyche of humans

Just yesterday, I was reading the news that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf will soon be published in a new edition with almost as much text in historical annotations and comments by a German institute, on which the authors spent three years of research. This inspired me again to think however not so much about what made Adolf Hitler into such a “monster”, but instead my thoughts turned to the question of what exactly is it that turns people showing no prior signs of extremist or violent views into supporters of some of the most extreme measures one could think of when an entire class of supposed enemies is concerned?

One of my initial hypotheses—which I admit remains untested—is that it seems related to a form of vulnerability, something that if triggered leads down a path of irrational (mainly emotionally driven) fear and anger, towards hatred and acceptance of violence in the name of protection. What then are the ingredients and how could such a vulnerability be best characterized, maybe in a way that unites inexplicable displays of violence on a group level?

Given that fear of an imminent threat seems to be a necessary part of such a scenario, the question then kind of becomes how is it that (some) people are so incredibly susceptible to a message of fear? And after some thought my intuition more and more solidifies around the lack of acceptance (or mindfulness) of the fact that many things in life “happen to us” outside of our control, things we typically don’t like. And where the combination of experiencing this lack of agency is paired with the imagined outcome becoming so unbearable that a person is willing to throw any moral standards, including the most important tenet of “do no harm”, over board, then violence can take its course.

In short, if people have been conditioned to perceive a threat, and the threat is further characterized in such a way that individual action (agency) is lacking towards averting the threat—something certainly true for a constant message of terrorists undermining our way of life—then all it takes is for someone else to jump into the fray and promise to deliver the people from this threat. And clearly a penchant for simplification and an attitude of “not-taking-no-for-an-answer” would be very helpful to get those people’s support who feel the lack of control the most. It worked, for instance, with a former U.S. administration embracing torture to gain control over a situation perceived as threatening without much else to be done.

If one were to accept such a (combined) hypothesis, one thing becomes almost immediately clear: in the current situation, where a sizable part of the American People is willing to accept a list of political positions and measures, which to many others in the same nation seem abhorrent and incredibly immoral, two sides that may otherwise be perceived as opponents are in fact (even if unconsciously so) working as two parts of the same machinery:

The media and Donald Trump are, as much as both sides are insisting they don’t like each other—something I believe to be true—working jointly towards a state of mass frenzy, panic, and finally the acceptance of a violent resolution to a conflict that may, largely, be happening inside the minds of those who have become so committed to a perception of continuously being threatened that nothing else could explain their suffering. And unfortunately, having a panic-inducing page one headline is a selling argument…

It’s important to state that the threat that is being felt by many is not without a base in reality: as a nation, the U.S. have been threatened and attacked in the past. What I am proposing is not that people are delusional about the threat itself, but possibly about its magnitude—how many people have actually been affected personally, for instance?—and most certainly about whether or not the proposed counter measures are really addressing the perceived threat in a way consistent with our moral standards. If a threat, real or imagined, is able to so easily make us forget who we are as moral beings, then maybe we aren’t moral beings after all…

I sincerely hope that this time there will be a considerable portion of “We, The People” that will take both the constantly repeated (and thus likely over-attended-to) threat of foreign terrorism as well as the idea that some of our fellow Americans would be willing to turn to a demagogue with enough grains of salt to not themselves be whipped into a frenzy of their own—that the world is becoming “unsafe” and more “dramatic actions” are required. It would be the same game, only played by “the other side”…

A measured response, if following this logic, must contain the element of keeping a cool head, by first accepting the fact that indeed many things in life happen that one simply cannot control. What remains to be done is to take charge of those things that can be controlled: one’s own actions, including how one treats those fellow humans showing signs of having issues with exactly this dilemma. Engaging one another in dialogue, possibly coming to a position of sharing the fears, and not denying their existence, and a sharing of the burden of the fact that while the threat cannot be denied, it must not be given the power to control our own fates either! Otherwise, we most certainly have lost control already, without even noticing it.

If I were (or could be) running for president…

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for becoming the Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party on June 16, 2015, I have experienced many moments in which I found myself thinking about what I perceive to be the relevant issues that politics need to address in the United States of America (and worldwide, as well).

And, sooner or later, my thoughts then frequently pose the question: what would I do if I were (or rather even could be) running for President? What would be the topics I believe should be “front and center” of any campaign, and how would I talk about them?

Importantly, one of the first things I would point out is that–from the way I understand the constitution and the mandate for the President of the United States, as well as the limitations imposed–many campaign “promises” by current candidates seem unrealistic and disingenuously made

Anyway, for those of you who experience similar moments, I would appreciate receiving feedback, mostly for these purposes: to improve my understanding of these issues and also to generate additional ideas for potential solutions.

On the whole, I perceive a few, separable, clusters of issues and questions:

  • human rights
    • constitutional rights: what can our government do to improve and subsequently ensure these unalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?
    • racial relations: how have members of different races treated each other in the past, and how do we wish for this to change, going forward? –this includes, for instance, the situation of African-Americans in prisons, and how this has led to several ripple effects, creating a series of related problems
    • abortion: to what extend can people accept this as a situation in which two individuals’ rights are inevitably pitted against one another? and could we find ways to not increase this tension, but avoid it altogether except in rare circumstances? –I would like to include whether, given the progress in the science of neuropsychology, as well as current philosophical debates, we can come closer to a realistic understanding of the “beginning of life” in terms of neuronal activity as a precursor for sentience
    • freedom of (opinion and) expression: how can the government protect this freedom where other interests threaten it? where has government itself in the past undermined these liberties? and what could be done to re-balance this liberty with any others, and also not at the cost of some people having “more political-expressional freedom” due to their wealth or power, as this would go against the institution of democracy
  • ecological matters
    • pollution prevention: how can we improve the track record of industrially producing goods our societies rely on, by at the same time encouraging economically sound behavior?
    • energy consumption: what can government do to balance the needs of humanity, i.e. additional resources vs. having a planet that sustains humanity in the first place? –as long as our entire human culture is based on the concept of future generations enjoying a “better life”, it seems obvious that access to energy as a resource will have to be greatly increased (in perpetuity!)
    • population density: what incentives can governments create to control population increases and migration in ways that minimize conflicts with human rights?
  • economy
    • productivity and technology: how can advancements be shared with regions and countries that do not yet have access to them, without encouraging general “laziness” and long-term dependence on the part of those underdeveloped regions/countries?
    • fiscal and free-market policies, including taxation and redistribution: to what extend and how should government control and regulate markets, so as to ensure that the positive function of flexibly allocating resources to provide desired products and services is not undermined by unrealistic notions of accumulating wealth and power in the hand of relatively few individuals beyond any such limits acceptable in a democracy?
    • monetary policies: given the increased world-wide trade interdependence of nations and peoples, do we need to think about how countries, in which people experience structural disadvantages due to their deficit in purchasing power, can be treated, so as to avoid large migratory movements in the 21st century that would threaten both emigration and immigration-hit countries? –this will also have to address the fact that technological advances could easily make an entire industry obsolete at any moment, requiring massive interventions to avoid humanitarian disasters!
  • security
    • response to geo-political conflicts, such as between Russia and its neighbors (Ukraine), in the Middle Eastern region (both the situation of Israel and the threat of the Islamic State), and between the two Koreas: what avenues are generally open to engage with the parties that do not involve military action? have these avenues been used to their fullest extent? if so, what military means can be justified, and how are they then best implemented?
    • mass-destruction armament: how can international relations be improved to reduce (or even eliminate) the need for storing and threatening with weapons of mass destruction?

So, yes, these would be roughly the topics I think come to mind regularly. One of the most saddening experiences for me in the past few weeks has been the absence of content in any debates or “ask-the-candidates” interviews. Instead, the simple “solutions” being touted seem incredibly like coming from quacks to me–which is true for both Democrats as Republicans… New knowledge from the overlapping sciences of human behavior and economic decision making is simply just waiting to be integrated into smart policy making!

And while I appreciate the difficulty of presenting more than soundbites in a media landscape which, just like the rest of the economy, is simply following the trend of making reporting ever more efficient–by reducing important arguments to their cartoon or caricature versions–I still think that most Americans would be able to understand even the most heated and difficult topics if they were presented in less emotionally charged ways.

As an example: I have no problem contemplating that for someone who greatly cares about protecting every human life on this planet, it seems not only natural but downright imperative to feel outraged about the idea of women being allowed to terminate a developing human being, particularly in circumstances in which many alternative choices could have been made at several points prior to that decision. At the same time, I can also understand the notion of suggesting that such an attitude, when paired with the desire to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people simply for engaging in possibly unlawful but otherwise non-society-threatening behavior–such as drug use–, could be perceived as hypocrisy. So, maybe what is needed on both sides is to understand why there is a conflict of interest, and to what the antecedents are.

I just happen to think that simply imposing one’s view about what is right and wrong on others will never get us any closer to coming to an agreement. In that regard, I believe what American politics is lacking is not the passion for having an argument, but rather the ability to listen and, at least temporarily, suspend one’s disbelief in another’s position, so as to understand the reasons behind the opposition.

As such, if I were to run for President, I would do my level best to never say: “I’m right and you’re wrong!” Instead I would try to say, “please try to explain why you think that way, as I want to understand what it is that you need.

Why I think the “war on terror” is fought the wrong way…

For more than 10 years now, I have lived with the notion that what I once believed was a more or less cohesive block of nations and peoples, sometimes referred to as “The West” or “Western Cultures”, are fighting the “War on Terror“. And for the most part, I have also lived with the perception that this war is fought well, mainly as a military conflict. But after the recent events in Paris, where the offices of the French satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo” were the scene of a shooting, I have spent quite some time thinking about what we (and whoever it is on the other side) are actually fighting over, and consequently how this fight can and ought to be fought.

One of the main provisional conclusions I have drawn is that, contrary to many other past conflicts fought with military and guerrilla tactics, this war is not primarily about resources. As much as those behind it may also want to protect the riches they hold, it seems to me that even if there was a way to (plausibly and believably) guarantee to the people who have taken up arms against “The West” that their resources will not be taken from them, this would only have little impact on the ferocity with which this war is fought–on the side of what has been hastily and summarily judged as Islam or Muslim countries and occasionally been named the “Axis of Evil”.

What then is this evil? Some immediate notion might be the entire religion of Islam, but I hope that I can make an argument that this may very well not be the case. As a disclaimer, I am no expert on Islam or any other major religion, although I believe I have had sufficient exposure to all of them to understand that all of these major religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike–have aspects in their respective creeds that, at least when regarded from a secular and scientific point of view, seem extremely unlikely to be true. No, I don’t think it’s the religion itself, but something that is claimed to be based on the religion.

I can make out at least three major points–all of which I believe are somewhat linked–in which the perpetrators of violence (in the name of Islam) differ from the Western world that from a cursory reading of Islamic scripture seem either unsupported or shaky in their foundation at best:

  • a violently achieved dominance of the male over the female in all aspects of relationships linked to power, influence, and decision making; and while not necessary the same, I believe that “honor killings” (when men in a family take the life of a woman to remove a “stain” of dishonor) stem from a common notion: the superiority of men over women; to my knowledge, there haven’t been any women directly linked to any of the attacks, which I find highly suggestive–but it seems also the case that all major religions seem to consider the male as more important or at least strongly differentiate between genders, as a photoshopped front page in an Israeli newspaper recently demonstrated deftly, but moderate Christians, Jews, and Muslims no longer suppress women with physical force
  • the denial of capitalist ideas, that decision making power comes with owning financial resources and that, if one wishes to attain power, activities in life therefore must include or even be dominated by the pursuit of financial wealth; instead the other side seems to hold the values of fighting and warfare prowess as far more appealing–which may in part explain why even relatively well-off (but mainly younger and physically able) males from European countries and the U.S. are joining this cause
  • and finally a much more general reattribution and re-prioritization of the values that make up the meaning-of-life, which in Western cultures originally was dominated by ideas of Puritan and Enlightenment ideals, but has over time more and more shifted towards values such as (feelings of) pursuit of happiness, personal security, freedom of expression, general equality of all human beings and, in terms of meaning, pursuit of intellectual perfection and increase in knowledge–something which unfortunately has become more and more lost in the claws of a capitalist notion that values life and individual growth of one’s personality as less important than the improvement of wealth (of only a select few)

As far as I can tell, this war cannot be won with physical weapons. In fact, fighting this war with bombs, drones, or other military “solutions” plays into the hands of those we call terrorists, as it corroborates the notion that our ideals are worthless once put to the test. What are their weapons, really?

My contention is that as much as each attack costs lives, the true damage is not a physical one, but an ideal one. This war is a war of ideas and ideologies, and as such the weapons ought to be thoughts, opinions, and strong voices–which is exactly what this last attack has demonstrated: the target was not one representing our interests in the oil resources that exist in the Middle East, such as the headquarter of Shell or B.P., but rather a small newspaper that mocked and tainted the ideas on the other side of the argument.

Insofar I believe that our response should equally one based on ideas and this can be summarized in two separate but equally necessary “weapons”:

  • strengthening our defenses, our own ideas and ideals, by not allowing small-scale attacks to completely unravel the progress that our cultures have seen over the past centuries; part of this will require to instill security in the people we live with, rather than sowing fear–and this is the crux, as the powers that we have delegated into our governments, but that truly are given to each one of us, do not have a strong interest in our sense of security, as they themselves thrive in times of fear and terror
  • weakening the enemy’s arsenal and power, their ideas and ideals, by revealing the true nature of the consequences if those ideals were to be reality everywhere; the choice between a liberal and civil society–albeit currently an imperfect one with many flaws–and a society built on force wielded by violent, powerful men, used to suppress women and all those who are (physically) too weak to object should be clear as day to everyone

And as a quick hint: we have become experts in fighting enemies with “thoughts and ideas”… During most elections, candidates simply dig up all the dirt about their opponent, and once made public, this is usually sufficient to bury him or her. Why not deal with this situation equally and finally put the information gathering services that were built in the name of our protection to good use?