What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.

On Non-Democratic Progress

There’s been a number of articles lately that critically examine a crop of tech companies arising out of Silicon Valley that are disrupting (in multiple senses of the word) the industries and communities in which they operate. A chief complaint is that these “Sharing Economy” companies — Uber and Airbnb being the exemplars — are flouting local laws and regulations.

The reason why these companies are moving so aggressively is simple. As savvy businesspeople and hungry investors well know, the key to success is not just profitability, but market dominance. As Peter Thiel succinctly put it: “Competition is for losers.” This is why Uber fights. Given the winner-takes-all dynamic, they will cross and even repeatedly violate the legal and ethical boundaries to gain market share. This means generating bad blood. You’ve probably seen headlines of protests against Uber in major cities around the world. I witnessed this opposition first hand when earlier this month I passed by what I later learnt was the Uber HQ in London, with the entire neighbourhood block brought to a standstill by protesting black cabs.

I am sympathetic to the critics of Sharing Economy companies. I am especially receptive to arguments that highlight the companies’ shoddy ethics and poor privacy practices. On the other hand, we need to look at the bigger picture. These companies are not (just) big bullies who are orchestrating a corporate takeover of modern day life. They are creating and meeting consumer demand. We want to use these companies! Their services are better on at least one vector, and often more: price, convenience, experience, delight, etc. Again, I experienced this first hand. On my European trip I stayed with Airbnb hosts in London and Paris, and both experiences were fantastic.

Now, you may nevertheless find it problematic that these companies are flouting the law. Perhaps on a deeper level you find it sad that people are so blithely allowing such things to happen, and also giving away their privacy, all for seemingly fleeting and trivial benefits. But you have to acknowledge that as a society we are all complicit in making Sharing Economy companies as influential as they are.

Thinking about all this has got me to reflect on another place I’ve been to recently, where progress is occurring at breakneck pace in a non-democratic fashion: China. I went on a short trip to Nanjing in late July to visit my extended family. On my last trip two years ago, there was a lot of construction going on as the city prepared itself for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. This time around the big hole in the ground near my uncle’s apartment has turned into a gleaming (and mostly empty) underground shopping centre and above-ground leisure park. Three new subway lines have been completed, bringing the total to six since 2005.

On an epically grander scale, the Chinese Government is in the middle of a project to transform Beijing and its surrounding area into a supercity of 130 million people, with high-speed rail as the connective tissue that makes it all possible. This is probably the most gaudy example of progress barrelling ahead at a pace that is unthinkable in democratic countries.

Just as Uber fanatically expands its market in order to set a foundation for the future and justify its massive valuation, the Chinese Government is embarking on projects of unfathomable scale to increase the economic prosperity of its citizens and justify its own legitimacy. And just like Uber, the pace of progress in China has resulted in collateral damage — homes seized, environments despoiled, dissent crushed — even as we must acknowledge that hundreds of millions of lives have been lifted from poverty.

The pursuit of technological and material progress (and profits) is outpacing the machinery of democratic lawmaking. In the aftermath of the GFC, I see Western democratic countries  outperformed externally by more autocratic countries like China, and also disrupted internally by companies leveraging technologies that undermine existing laws. In many ways people are reaping the rewards, but I wonder what the long-term implications are of a disregard for the democratic process. Much to ponder about.

Grit Is Not (Necessarily) A Virtue

I’m currently studying in the field of education. This is an interesting area in that everyone agrees that it is important, yet there’s so much variability in its delivery and outcomes. Even in the brief time that I have read about and visited schools so far, my encounters have ran the gamut from inspiring and heartwarming to infuriating and depressing. The system muddles along with so much that needs to be improved.

A while back I saw this short TED talk where researcher Angela Lee Duckworth spoke on the importance of grit to success:

To summarise:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

As with most TED talks, it is slick and persuasive. I remember silently assenting to this obvious and important truth. The implication for education is clear: we need to teach grit to children so that they can be more successful. Sounds about right?

Not so fast. A couple of weeks ago I was going through the archives of Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is an outspoken critic of the testing culture in schools. I came across an article, “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad,” that gave me pause. Kohn makes several arguments against grit, including, for example, that it may be pointless (and even harmful) to persist with something, and that grit unduly focuses on the “how” at the expense of the “why” (e.g., fear, approval seeking, genuine interest, etc.), which may be the more important consideration.

For me, Kohn’s most noteworthy objection to proponents of grit goes to the heart of their conception of students in the education system. Proponents of grit place the emphasis on young people’s inner character—their grit, resilience, perseverance, and so forth. However, Kohn argues that the more we focus on these personal qualities, the less likely we’ll question the big picture, including problematic policies and institutions. For proponents of grit, underachievement is to be explained by internal character flaws, such as “failure to exercise self-discipline”, rather than structural issues such as class and privilege which in reality play a significant (and often determinative) role in economic outcomes.

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Perhaps, as Kohn points out, the problem is not with kids who are lacking in their stick-to-itiveness. Perhaps they tune out because what they’re asked to do is not particularly engaging or relevant. There are educational reformers who are on a mission to make pedagogy more constructive and imaginative, and less focused on memorisation and testing. Kohn notes that for Duckworth and other proponents of grit, they look at the status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?

When you put it that way, grit doesn’t sound so flash anymore, does it? Grit is nice. Grit is important. But we can and should also do more to change a broken system rather than simply get kids to adapt to it.

Double Plus Hypocrisy

The old adage that people go bankrupt gradually, then suddenly, can be applied to other areas of life. For me as an outside observer, this was the case for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

The two men were co-ringleaders of a heroin smuggling operation from Indonesia to Australia. They were arrested in 2005, sentenced to death in 2006 by a district court, and had their appeals dismissed by the Indonesian Supreme Court in 2011. There was initial heavy media coverage, which gradually subsided. The two men drifted out of public consciousness. (All the while, undoubtedly their lawyers and family members were working feverishly behind the scenes to save them.)

Things accelerated in 2015. Indonesian President Joko Widodo rejected Andrew and Myuran’s pleas for clemency in January. Arrangements were being made in earnest for their execution. Australia’s diplomatic efforts stepped up, arguably more harmful than helpful at times. Daily media coverage revved up. Even just a couple of weeks ago, when we were shown pictures of the island where the executions would take place, I felt a mixture of despair and faint hope that there was still time left. Then, overnight, they were killed by firing squad. All hope extinguished.

The Australian response combined strong words with the symbolic action of withdrawing the ambassador to Indonesia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the executions were “cruel and unnecessary“. I agree — even if they were considered “legal” under Indonesian law (but query the allegations of corruption by the trial judges). At this time it is natural to appeal to mercy, to the inherent worth of human life, to the way that these two men have genuinely turned their lives around during their incarceration — the pastor and the painter, as their families would like the world to remember them.

One article that really resonated with me in the aftermath of the executions was this one by Sunil Badami. Badami uses this episode as a lens to look at the Australian Government’s own human rights failings with respect to asylum seekers. How can we credibly plead for mercy for our own citizens, while deliberately causing the systematic and callous mistreatment of those who arrive by boat, in the name of deterrence? The Tony Abbott that called the killings “cruel and unnecessary” is also the same person who boasted that his government will not “succumb to the cries of human rights lawyers” in respect of its detention policy, which has been condemned by the international community. The same person who launched an extraordinary and vicious attack on Gillian Triggs, the brave Human Rights Commissioner who published this damning report at an inopportune time for the Government.

I don’t have much hope that this current government (or opposition, for that matter) will redeem themselves on this issue. But maybe this can be instructive for our own lives. In what ways are we living hypocritically? Do we hold views and advocate for positions that advance our own rights and interests without consideration of others? Maybe they’re not matters of life and death. Nevertheless, even small mercies can be precious things.

Quote(s) of the Day IX

March has thrown up a multitude of articles on the prickly subject of free speech versus protection on US college campuses. By protection, I mean the ability to be safe from upsetting or damaging speech/conduct, in particular as it revolves around sexual dynamics, politics and identity. The New York Times has a good summation of the hubbub.

There was one passage from an account of anti-rape activists protesting against an objectionable essay that caught my eye:

It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.

I’m troubled by the proponents of boycotts and safe zones on the grounds of free speech and stifling political correctness. But putting aside the question of whether it is justifiable or not, there is an inherent contradiction at play. I wonder whether and to what extent they are aware of this.