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Posts Tagged ‘being human’

Teaching Real Life Skills

In No Particular Path on April 16, 2021 at 4:16 pm

I’m seventy-three years old.  I was educated K-12 in a public school in a small town.  During my lifetime, I have learned how to do, and have done the following:

Change a tire, change the oil, replace the spark plugs (and not mix up the wires), replace the distributer, and Gerry-rig, then replace, an accelerator cable, and repair and replace a muffler.

Replace the transmission and later the whole engine in a Volkswagen.

Repair and replace electrical fixtures, and electrical appliances.

Build a wall in my house, install different types of doors, paint inside and outside walls, and wallpaper a room.

Grow my own vegetables, gather my own food, and cook entire meals, from salad to desert.

Cut and chop my own firewood.

Balance a checkbook and do my own taxes.

Do my own laundry, make my bed, and clean my house.

Raise children, including changing diapers, and dealing with sickness.

Understand important issues, develop an informed opinion, and participate as a citizen in a democracy.                                                                                                                                                 

I was never taught specifically how to do any of these things in public school.  Aside from one course (usually “Home-ec” for girls and shop for boys – yikes!”), what I was taught were the basic skills of language and reason.  The language not just of reading and writing English (and in my case, some German and Latin), but also the languages of mathematics, and science, and history, and social studies, and the arts.  I was taught how to use those things to understand and analyze and solve problems.  And I was taught to find appropriate and useful information when I needed it to solve new problems and accomplish new tasks.

I have, of course, not done all of these things with equal skill, and have made mistakes along the way, but that’s how life is.

As an adult I have done a variety of jobs, from farm worker to short order cook to soda jerk to dishwasher.  I have participated in the arts in a variety of ways. 

And I eventually became a teacher, teaching both high school and college.

So, when I see someone talking about how they think our schools should be teaching what they call “life skills” such as the things I have listed above, instead of things like algebra II, or art and music, or foreign languages, because the students “will never use them,” then I want to tell them that they do not understand what education is, or what essential “life skills” actually are.

The specific tasks of life will be different for each student.  Not all will need to grow food, not all will need to be DIY mechanics or carpenters, not all will need to cook for themselves or care for and raise children, not all will need to manage their own money or do their own taxes.  But every one of them will need to know what to do when life presents them with a challenge or an opportunity that their public-school education could not have anticipated with specific instruction.  Every one of them will need to know how to reason, and solve problems, and make good personal decisions, and live with other people as a citizen.  Every one of them will need to be able to communicate with others who will help them with the things they cannot, themselves, do.  Every one of them will need to know how to create a life that is greater than just eating and working and sleeping, but is fulfilling and creative in whatever ways they might desire.

The old saying “give someone a fish, they will eat for a day; teach them to fish and they will eat for a lifetime” leaves off the third option.  Teach someone how to learn, how to reason, how solve problems, handle challenges, create the life they need; and they will not be limited to eating fish just to survive.

Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened

In PeaceAble on November 26, 2020 at 4:22 pm

(In response to a friend who asked on FB, “what are you thankful for in the year when nothing good happened?”)

Andrew was . . .

Annoyed.

It was Thanksgiving and he had been reading all day about how he should be thankful.  All day.  On social media.

But this was the Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And Andrew didn’t feel thankful.

Be thankful, the internet was insisting.  We know that this is the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but you . . . Andrew . . . should find something to be thankful about.

Find something.

To be thankful about.

So, Andrew tried.  He really did.  He opened up a fresh page in his word processor.  He made himself a cup of coffee.  He would have made himself a glass of bourbon, but it was still morning and Andrew never drank in the morning.  That was a good thing, but Andrew considered it and thought that perhaps it was not enough to be actually thankful for on the occasion of Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

First, he tried all the usual things people say they are thankful for on Thanksgiving.  He had his health (though there was that suspicious cough earlier in the week, which might have been merely allergies, or the dryness of the seasonal air, but which could also have been the start of some dread disease or chronic condition – he’d have to pay attention to that).  He was financially secure (as long as they didn’t start screwing around with his pension or his social security).  He had the love of his family (at least he was pretty sure they still loved him – he hadn’t actually talked to any of them since August, and they all lived so far away these days, and with families one never really knows – people drift apart – he’d have to call them later, when he was finished being thankful).  He was going to contemplate the beauty of the world, but it was raining and a little chilly.

Then, grasping at straws, he thought, “This has been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, and I have survived it – I can be thankful for that!”  (But the year wasn’t quite over yet, so who knew what might still happen and whether he would survive that.)

That clearly wasn’t working.

Andrew realized that he needed something more.  It didn’t seem right to waste perfectly good Thanksgiving thankfulness on the ordinary day-to-day things for which one might be occasionally consciously thankful.  This was a holiday, after all.  A special occasion.  One should try to find something worthy of the moment for thankfulness.  One should find something for which he could be literally full of thanks, not just kind of lightly thank-y.

But what?

So, Andrew tried being thankful for big things.  But he couldn’t seem to think of any big things without sounding to himself like he was answering a question in a beauty pageant about how he wanted to bring about world peace.

It seemed that the more he tried to be thankful, the more he despaired that there might actually be nothing to be thankful for.  Especially in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

He was getting desperate now.  Surely there was SOMETHING for him to be thankful for.  SOMETHING worthy of this solemn occasion must be able to fill him with appropriate gratitude!

So closed his word processor, shut off his computer and his phone, pulled his shades down and sat in silence and darkness in his most comfortable chair.

And, as he sat there, he found himself awash in all the bad things that had been happening in this Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And he began to cry.  At first, softly – just a bit of wetness around the rim of one eye.  Then, a tear escaped, a small gasp of breath came from deep within him, the gasp became a sob, more tears began to flow, his chest heaved, his nose ran, and he was full on crying.

And he realized that he wasn’t crying because this had been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but because he could feel something shifting, not just within himself, but in the universe.  This, too, he thought, will pass.  And he felt a great release.  His tears were a reminder that he could choose to breathe again, to feel what he had been afraid to feel, to let the Year When Nothing Good Happened fade into the past.  And, he thought, this is how I know that my humanity is intact.  I have not, his mind raced on, simply survived, I am beginning to fight back.  The Year When Nothing Good Happened hasn’t defeated me.

Or us.  Because he could feel that he had a kinship with the rest of the human race who were also emerging from the recent troubles with new hope and new purpose.  There would be work to be done, the struggle wouldn’t simply go away, the wounds wouldn’t simply heal, but that’s what life is supposed to be about – doing the work.  There was hope, he saw; there was possibility.

His mind tried, then, to fall back on the gloomier thoughts, tried to tell him that this was all Pollyanna thinking, that he – and the rest of humanity – wasn’t up to the task.  But it was too late for that.  The thankfulness had taken hold.

Andrew had found that the human spirit, hope, empathy, purpose – love – when bundled together, even in the Year When Nothing Good Happened, were big enough to fill him to the brim with thankfulness.

And the Year When Nothing Good Happened was no longer.  The Year When Good Things Began Again had arrived.

All Grown Up

In No Particular Path, Uncategorized on December 31, 2018 at 9:11 am

The old man asked the child.
What do you dream of doing in your life, what would you like to be?

The child responded.
Do you mean when I grow up?

And the old man shook his head gently, but smiled, remembering.
Grow up? Why on Earth would you want to do that?
Listen to me. I have become old learning this.
Some day; at eighteen or twenty-five or forty or eighty years of age, perhaps; you may get up out of your bed, or linger wistfully over your breakfast, or stop halfway through chewing a bite of your sandwich, or see yourself mirrored in a darkened window, or sit alone in your chair, and suddenly see that you are grown up. And you will wonder, oh my god, when did that happen? You may even feel a bit of panic, wondering if you’re ready yet, or if it is already too late.
But the truth is that there is no time or place in life where you will be grown up. For growing up is the work of your life, not the end of it.
Choose well who and what you want to be today.  Do as well as you can what you want or need to do today.  Grow a little more like yourself today than you were yesterday; and you won’t have to think or worry about what you will be when you are as old as I am now. You will simply be what you have always been and what you have wanted to be.
Whatever you choose to do; whatever goals you set; whatever your accomplishments, large or small; whatever titles or labels you accumulate, and whether you wear them with pride or humility or uncomfortably or with regret; don’t let them trap you into being all grown up. Don’t let them define you, for definitions can become limits.

And the child looked sad then, and the old man wished, for just a moment, that he had not asked the question.

Why, the child asked, have you never told me this before now?

And, alone in his room, sitting in his chair, looking out the window at the new day, the old man sighed deeply. And a tear ran down his cheek.
Finally, he stood up. He put on his jacket, opened his door, and stepped outside. He turned around and looked for a moment at the walls within which he had been living for so long.
Today, the child said, I will be brave. Today I will do something new. Today I will stop being grown up.
And tomorrow I will, if I can, be whatever tomorrow offers me to be, and I will do whatever tomorrow brings me to do.
So, the old man, with the child guiding him, faced away from the walls and stepped into the world.

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

What’s Holding You Back?

In PeaceAble, Politics on June 22, 2018 at 10:57 am

During the last election, there were people who said that if Donald Trump was elected they would leave the country. Others said that if Hillary Clinton was elected they would leave. Of course, very few of them intended to leave and even fewer made any effort to go.
Why would they? How would the election of either candidate have affected the comfort and privilege of their lives sufficiently to cause them to give any of it up.
So, I am going to ask you to step back from the current reality of your life for a moment and try to imagine a different life. How bad would things have to be for you?
What level of poverty or oppression would you have to endure?
How much would you need to fear for your own life or the lives of your children?
What level of violence on the part of criminals or your own government would cause you to flee?
Now imagine that you are a resident of Florida and the only place you could get to where you might be safe is Canada. But you can no longer just put your passport in your pocket and drive there, passing a charming border guard with a slight French accent who tells you to have a nice day and enjoy your visit. Instead, you have to save up, out of your meager salary, giving up some of the essentials of day-to-day survival, six months’ or a year’s salary or income in order to pay a smuggler to get you across the entire continent and over the border in secret.
And imagine that the smuggler might be just as dangerous, just as likely to rob or rape or kill you as any of the gangs or government thugs you are fleeing. Imagine that it means you will likely suffer extremes of heat or cold, of hunger, of lack of shelter, of illness; and there will be no relief or assistance. Imagine that the journey means risking your life.
Finally, imagine that you have heard that when you get to the border you will be treated as a dangerous criminal rather than as a refugee. You may be arrested and your children taken away by force or deception, and you might never see them again nor know what fate you have brought them to. You may be sent home, to the place you have fled, into the clutches of your worst fears, your ugliest nightmares.
Now go back to the questions we began with. Knowing these things, how much worse, how much more dangerous, more oppressed, more unbearable would your life have to be to get you on the move?
Our government would have you believe that cages are summer camp; that it is a simple matter of law and these people are, by definition, criminals; that the issue is not their humanity, not what they have suffered; they would have you believe that we are the real victims here, that we must protect ourselves from the other.
If compassion for the human beings at our border, and disgust or outrage at the way our government is treating them is not enough; then perhaps you need to move to empathy. Put yourself, just for a moment, into their lives. Step away from the assumptions and expectations of your current reality and imagine one that would lead you to do what they have done.
And while you’re at it, step back from your assumptions and expectations of the rights and privileges of our constitutional government and imagine that you have become the Jew in pre-war Germany. Imagine that we have seen the rise of a fascist, dictatorial, white-nationalist government. And imagine, because you must, that we are almost there. What do you imagine you will be able and willing to do about that?

Uncle War and Sister Peace

In PeaceAble on September 22, 2017 at 7:18 am

Yesterday, September 21, was the International Day of Peace. Did you know that? Did you care? We’ve had one every year since 1981, but I’m not surprised if you missed it.
Why is it that we have such a hard time not just celebrating the ideal of a peaceful world, but even acknowledging it? I think there are two basic reasons.
First, when we talk about Peace we really have no idea what we are collectively talking about. War is clear. There’s an enemy, there are battles, there is clear and sometimes horrifying sacrifice, there is victory or defeat, and we have simple and uncomplicated ways to identify the heroes and villains.
And in this age of seemingly endless War, most often for vague political reasons seeking ill-defined and often highly deceptive goals, we are getting to know War as an old friend, as that troublesome relative who sits at the table and says outrageous things, farts and burps, flails his arms about, spills food and wine on the Persian carpet, and breaks the good china. Nobody really likes him, most hate to see him show up for the holidays, but he’s family so what are you going to do? Besides, we can all wait until he goes home, drunk and swaggering from his excesses, and congratulate ourselves on how well we handled him.
But Peace is the “Lost Child” in this dysfunctional collection of humankind called the family of nations. Peace sits quietly in the corner during all the chaos and says, “don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” We love Peace, but don’t expect much of her, really. Once in a while, a few of us will go over and encourage her.
“You have real potential, Peace; we want you to do well; someday you will spread your white dove wings and fly; and we will all be so proud of you when that happens. What’s that? What did you say in your soft, nonconfrontational voice? You’d like a little actual help from the rest of us? Don’t be silly. Isn’t it enough that we tell you all the time how wonderful you are? Don’t you see that proclaiming how much we love you every Christmas is helping? Now stop whining and come sit with us while we deal with Uncle War and praise your brother’s noble sacrifice of the last pork chop.”
Then War finally goes home and we all go out in the front yard and celebrate with explosions and flags and songs about our bravery and sacrifice. We give each other medals and accolades and mourn the loss of Grandma’s heirloom vase and Brother’s one good shirt.
I have, elsewhere in these essays, described some of what I think Peace would, or in my opinion should, look like. But what answer would you give? If the world were to achieve something called Peace, what would it look like? How would it work? And, importantly, what would it require of you?
The second reason is that we have no working vocabulary for Peace. No way to celebrate the work of Peace. And our collective response to the International Day of Peace is illustrative of that. The day passed and there were no big parades down Main Street, with bands playing “Give Peace a Chance.” There were no elaborate, nationally televised award ceremonies; indeed, no idea to whom we should give awards for Peace. We have no way to collectively understand, never mind celebrate, the sacrifices of the peacemakers among us.
Where are the markers, the obelisks inscribed with names, the statues that celebrate the peacemakers? What are their names? What did they suffer in their quest for a more peaceful world? Where is the memorial for Rachel Corrie? Don’t know who that was? You see the problem, then. What were the names of the students who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square? When was the last time you flew your flags or had a barbecue or wore a special bracelet in honor of those who rode the buses, those who were attacked with water cannons and dogs and nightsticks, those who were killed and buried in remote fields or lynched from very public trees in the struggle for civil rights? Beyond Martin Luther King or Gandhi, how many names of peacemakers – global, national, or local do you know? Which of the young men and women in your community have served in the Peace Corps?
You see the problem.
We all claim to hate War, but we keep inviting him to dinner, feeding him, encouraging him by our attention and our willingness do what he asks. We feed War’s ego and think ourselves heroes for it.
We all claim to love Peace, but we let her sit alone in the corner and wait her turn to speak, but to please not speak too loudly or too much. Can’t she see that we are exhausted from dealing with Uncle War? Can’t she respect the fact that we can’t deal with her right now because we have to prepare for War’s next visit? What does she want of us? Peace is so selfish.
I suppose we could ask her to help us clean up the mess left by War, but she’d probably just spend the whole time reminding us that we don’t actually have to invite him back, that maybe we could all work together so that we could find the courage to tell him he’s not wanted.
We want to hate War, but we can see very clearly what it is and what we get from it. And we tell ourselves we can give it up anytime we want. No, really, we could. Really. We want to love Peace, but don’t understand her. What does she really have to offer to replace War? What exactly is it that she does, anyway? We know that the greasy, disgusting casserole and the special home-brew that War brings to every gathering are killing us: but we aren’t quite sure we’d like the taste of that healthy dish Peace keeps trying to serve. It looks kind of bland, or perhaps it’s just that it has all those weird, exotic spices and herbs that we are hesitant to try. Maybe getting healthier wouldn’t be as much fun as what we’re doing now.
So that is our dilemma. Or perhaps it is more of a paradox. We certainly don’t want to go so far as to call it a hypocrisy. Do we?

The Joy of Bigotry and Violence

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 30, 2017 at 10:59 am

A young blond, blue-eyed white man at the Charlottesville alt-right rally was asked why he was there. He responded that he was not, himself, a white supremacist, he was just having some fun. Running around shouting about white power was fun. He thought of himself as a “rebel,” and that was fun.
Setting aside for the moment the generally accepted truism that our actions speak louder than our words; that whether or not he sees himself as a white supremacist, he is at least someone who is willing to stand in solidarity with them, shout their slogans, support them as they wave their flags; I would like, for just a moment to take him at his word. I will allow him his truth. I’m sure he’s worked it all through in his own mind. He isn’t “political,” he supports “free speech,” he has a few friends who are black, he works with black people at his job and has no problem with them, and so on. I would like to focus instead on his other point, that he was there because he thought it would be fun.
And I have to say he had a point, though I doubt that it is a point he knew he was making.
American culture has always had a fondness for fun at the expense of the other. There has always been the sense that picking on the weak and the different is “just a bit of fun.” It is the larger context of “boys will be boys.”
Especially when you are part of the cultural norm, part of the group of the white, male, straight, Christian norm, then you have been encouraged to have fun that is based in debasement, dehumanization and mockery of the others. We have lots of jokes about “Mexicans,” about Chinese, about Muslims, about Jews, about “dumb blondes,” about the handicapped, about homosexuals, and so on. How many jokes do we have in which the central character is considered funny precisely and simply because he is a white, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, American male?
Laughing at those who are different from the norm is a time-honored tradition. We use such humor to reinforce the norms themselves. Making fun of the others reassures us of our own inherent superiority. We tell ourselves through our humor that we have nothing to fear, because the other is less powerful, more ridiculous, even less human, not to be taken too seriously. Why should we fear those we have the power to mock?
And our humor is becoming more violent, both in language and in content. There seems to be a general sense that something is funnier if it contains a slur or a vulgarity. More and more of our humor is “in your face” humor. We can use humor not just to mock the other, we can use it to attack him. Humor can be a weapon.
None of this is new, of course. None of us, I would suggest, can remember a time when these things weren’t true. Our culture has told us what to laugh at, and we have laughed. Do you want to see where a society’s biases lie, want to know how they treat those who deviate from the norm? Look at its humor.
American culture also has a fondness for violence, or the possibility of violence, as fun. Americans consider professional wrestling to be family entertainment, and WWE trademarked toys are marketed to even very young children. Americans go to hockey games hoping there will be a bloody fight or two. We spend enormous amounts of money watching boxers and MMA fighters beat each other up. We go to NASCAR events with at least a small twinge of excitement at the possibility of a spectacular crash. Football, one of our most popular national sports, is seen as a metaphor (and a psychological substitute) for war. We don’t really want anyone seriously hurt or killed, but the possibility adds to the thrill we get from the sense of danger. The injuries, both short and long term, suffered by our sports heroes are accepted as part of the sport, and by extension, necessary to the fun.
Look at how our media, television, films, popular literature, the graphic novel, have all turned terribly dark and violent. Take a quick look at all the “cop” shows, with less and less thoughtful policing, and more and more tough talk and violence, both in the crime and in the response to it. Look at all the superhero movies; the war movies; the large, loud, impossibly destructive weapons; the mass destruction; the explosions and gun fights and bloodbaths of all kinds depending on your choice of fantasy. Look at the most popular fantasy video franchises, in which anyone can take on the persona of a superhuman hero, or villain, and can slaughter hordes upon hordes of whatever enemy they choose.
It has also been argued, of course, that the violence of our entertainment is the reason for so much violence in real life. Of course we have children shooting children, we are told, look at what they see on television, listen to their music, play their video games. But our entertainment has developed as a consequence of what we have wanted, of what we found entertaining. The entertainment hasn’t made us violent, we have made the entertainment violent.
We tell ourselves that these outlets are good for us. When we play a violent or dangerous sport, or when we watch others play it, we’re purging our natural violent impulses, we’re making ourselves less personally violent in some way. It’s purgative, a release, a way to express our darker desires. But violent sports and societal violence have coexisted and supported each other for as long as history has been recording human activity. How do you really feel when you leave a violent sports event or a violent movie; are you feeling purged, or are you feeling enervated, like you’re ready for anything?  When will all this substitution and purgation finally get it out of our collective system?
When we tell a joke that contains a lot of vulgar language or uses a bigoted slur, we tell ourselves that we are being “politically incorrect,” that we are somehow making things less bigoted or less violent by turning things into a joke. But does a joke about a Muslim having sex with his goat really make you feel closer to his culture in a positive way?  This humor has been with us and part of us for centuries. Is it making things better, yet?
A culture expresses what is normal in many ways. Our culture is constantly telling us that bigotry and violence are literally normal. But cultures can change. They change slowly, but they do change. And the change happens not when we embrace the norms and act them out, but when we begin to reject the norms as they are, reject the normalization of bigotry and violence, of white supremacy, of misogyny, of the dehumanization and hatred of the “other,” and begin to speak up loudly and consistently for a new normal. There is some value in laughing at, rather than with, the things we would change. And there are times when we have failed to find other ways to solve our problems and violence enters in. But like all the tools we are given to change our lives, these things have to be handled responsibly, with care, or they become more destructive than transformative.
If you really want to change the culture, end the violence, end the hatred; stop having so much fun with it.

“It’s Just a Joke”: “Humor” as deflection and excuse.

In PeaceAble on June 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think that I can claim a sense of humor. I can’t imagine that those who know me would not acknowledge that I can be wry, sarcastic, outrageous, droll, slapstick, sometimes vulgar and perhaps even an above-average punster. But that doesn’t mean that I will find humor in everything you think is hilarious.
So, if I criticize a meme or take exception to a “joke” please do not respond by telling me it is just a joke or telling me that I need to get a sense of humor. And I will promise to continue not telling you those things if you criticize a “joke” of mine.
“It’s just a joke” is not an excuse for being offensive. “Lighten up” is not a defense of inappropriateness, pointlessness, or trolling. “Get a sense of humor” does not address actual issues raised by objections to humor or attempted humor or the harm they can cause.
Humor is one of the most telling aspects of the norms of a culture. We are either laughing at those things which are not “normal” or we are laughing at those things which are so normal as to be indicators of our common foibles or faults. And it is usually possible to tell the difference. When we laugh at the “other” we are doing something very different from when we laugh at ourselves.
I have recently been seeing a new emergence of “humor” based on prejudice, bias, and the kinds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and downright meanness that we seriously need to marginalize, not re-normalize.
So, a few suggestions from the point of view of my sense of humor.

1. Any joke which is not funny unless you make the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde” (or any other hurtful stereotype) isn’t funny to begin with. Any joke that is funny already is made less funny by making the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde.”
2. Any joke that uses an outrageous caricature of a Mexican or an Arab or an Asian or a person of color any other race or nationality in order to mock their culture, their customs, or their pronunciation of words in a language which is not their first, is not funny.
3. Any joke that marginalizes or grossly distorts the reality of any culture, nationality, race or group of any kind is not funny.
4. Any joke based on belief in a conspiracy theory, a deliberate untruth, or a misleading and debunked claim is not funny.
5. Any joke based on shaming of any kind is not funny. Any joke that targets the fundamental humanity of any individual or group, that furthers destructive stereotypes or keeps us from seeing each other as equally deserving human beings is not funny.

What is funny?

1. Jokes that point out the human frailties we all share are funny.
2. Jokes told by those on the inside of a group about themselves are funny when they tell them (but not when outsiders do).
3. Jokes that speak truth to power are funny.
4. Jokes that play with our common language, both verbal and non-verbal, are funny.
5. Jokes that point out the absurdities of life or create their own absurd universe are funny.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to these “rules.” But those can be accounted for by differences in where individuals see humor. I don’t really mind if you don’t find something as funny as I do. And long as you focus on what is or is not funny about it, I won’t mind if you tell me it isn’t funny. I might even, on reflection, find that I understand or even agree with your perspective. I have no problem apologizing for “humor” of my I own if it has hurt someone, however unintentionally.
The problem I see here is that humor is becoming a dodge, a way to be mean-spirited, bigoted, and even cruel without taking responsibility for it. “It was just a joke” is simply another way to say, “I didn’t mean it.” But that’s a cop-out. It’s a deflection, a way of making the other person the problem rather than the action itself. This is what bullies do, and “humor” is becoming a way of bullying.
I love a good joke. Humor is an art form, and like all art forms it exists along a scale from simple, vulgar humor to sophisticated, complex humor. And at every stop along that line we can all find something to relate to. And like all art forms it has its genres, its specialties, its in-jokes, and it’s avant-garde, so that not all of it is equally appreciated even by its greatest artists or most astute critics. But I value genuine humor enough to call it out when it becomes hurtful, when it reinforces the stereotypes and biases our culture would rather keep in place.

 

Do Children Really Need to Know How to Grow Food?

In No Particular Path on May 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Our public schools should be teaching every child how to grow food in a garden.  They should be teaching every student how to change a flat tire, how to cook their own food, how to make change, how to balance their checkbook.  Comment yes if you agree.  Like and share.

Yeah, no.

While those are all admirable things for people to know how to do, they are also things that any adult can figure out and anyone with access to the internet or a library can find instructions for.  And that’s what we need to be teaching.

There is so much knowledge in the world; and new information, new discoveries, new important things to learn are being created every day.  This is the information age, and we are awash in things that it would be good to know.  But we don’t all need to know exactly the same things and we don’t all need to know them at the same time in our lives.

The biggest impediment to quality education for everyone is the belief that there are certain things, particular narrow ideas or “life skills,” that everyone needs to know.  What everyone really needs to know is how to think and reason effectively; how to ask effective and relevant questions; how to find relevant, valid, useful and credible answers; and how to apply those answers to the specific problems they need to solve or specific tasks they need to accomplish.

All the rest is optional.  Teach some of it so that students can see how to use the thinking skills they are learning, but focus on the thinking itself, not the specific tasks.

Teach students how to read well and nothing they need to know will be unavailable to them.

Teach them how to use numbers effectively and keeping track of their own money will never have to be a problem.

Teach them to think scientifically and they will be able to tell the difference between what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t actually know, and what they believe.  And they will understand the proper role of each in their lives.

Teach them how to think historically and they will be able to see how their own story intersects with the stories history tells us; and they will be able to use those stories to help make the world a better place.

Teach them to think and express themselves creatively and they will never lack for beauty or inspiration of their own, or for appreciation of the beauty and inspiration of others.

Teach them to express their ideas articulately and eloquently in speech and in writing and they will always have a voice that cannot be silenced.

Teach them to argue rationally and with civility and they will not need to follow demagogues or charlatans.

Teach them to think ethically and responsibly and they will become the leaders of a world with the potential for honest, compassionate and peaceable coexistence.

Teach them to listen effectively and the world will be open to them.

That does not, of course, mean that we might not choose to teach some “practical” skills.  But product should always be the servant of process, not the other way around.  If we teach students to garden it should be in the service of teaching them about other things.  A garden is, after all, more than just a collection of vegetation sitting in dirt.  There are reasons in science for why some plants need one kind of soil and others need something different.  There is a science to understanding why some plants should be paired with other plants, but avoid being too close to others.

There is much we can learn about gardens from the history of agriculture, from folklore and literature, from the politics of our relationship to the earth and its ecosystems.  There are ways to make a garden beautiful as well as productive, and to use what we grow to make aesthetically pleasing food served in beautiful surroundings.

In the skill of changing a tire there is much to be learned about applied physics, about risk assessment, about relationships between humans and their machines.

In balancing a checkbook, there is the application of mathematics, understanding of money and wealth as sources of power for both good and ill.  There is a chance for self-awareness in seeing how each of us thinks about money and possessions in our lives.  There are ethical questions that can be asked and answered.

All of these things are possible, but there are also a nearly infinite number of other ways to teach the same things, and we should be open to them all.

There is an old saying that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day; if you teach them how to fish you feed them for a life time.  But fish is a very limited diet.  So, if instead, you use fishing as a way to teach them about a great deal more than that, then you will not only feed their stomach for a lifetime, you will feed their whole body, their mind, and their spirit.

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