Have you thought about (HYTA) how hard it is to act morally? (Wikileaks and Democratic party scandal)

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“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ”

George Orwell, whose literary influence has seen a number of his words and phrases such as ‘doublethink’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ make its way into the English Language, continue to prove that the criticisms he levelled against political manipulation continue to remain relevant long after his death. Consistently, predictably and repeatedly, people lie over and over, and those in positions of power to make the largest changes rarely behave in laudable ways. Perhaps for as long as money, fame and power continue to fascinate us, being moral, which only requires fairness and minimising hurt, will remain a lofty dream.

After the bombshell dropped by Wikileaks which saw the release of over 20,000 private emails by the democratic party (DNC) in America, there has been a great deal of outrage over what is blatantly a rigged election in a country that often screams democracy. The emails are particularly damning: in a party that’s supposed to be neutral, these emails prove overwhelming bias towards one candidate (Hilary Clinton), collusion with all forms of media to severely undermine Bernie Sanders and finally, repeated lying to the general public by feigning surprise or denial.

There’s of course plenty more to be scandalised with, among which is a correspondence between top party officials on how to use a person’s disbelief in God (atheism) to seriously damage their reputation. That in itself is wildly discriminatory against atheists and insinuates that in order to hold a political position, one must believe in God – a divine being proven real only by sheer imagination and childish peer pressure. But maybe it’s not too much of a surprise. America’s largely a Christian nation. And in many American polls and studies, atheists are among some of the least trusted people and rated as the least desirable group for a potential son or daughter-in-law.

But it is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the DNC, whose behaviour really hits the home run. Through her ‘breakfast meetings’ and various high level contacts, she subtly removed journalists and various opinion pieces that have criticised her party for exhibiting prejudice during the election. She repeatedly denied any such wrongdoing and became livid when proven otherwise. She lies despite knowing she’s lying. She commits election fraud even though as she’s well aware of the rules. And that says a lot. How does she reconcile this moral contradiction? What does it take for a person to wake up in the morning, pretend to be neutral and sincere, and yet is always lying all the time?

Such individuals aren’t exactly uncommon. The Vatican has had a long history of child sex abuse and many human rights organisations have rallied against how the Vatican quietly hides these offenders rather than turning them over to a court. These criminal priests and pastors also lie straight up. They pretend to preach about human morality through the Bible but are themselves in violation of the very ‘truths’ and ‘standards’ they so constantly try to uphold. Psychology has a good explanation for such behaviour: often, when it comes to ourselves, we are less likely to identify our own lies. We believe we are the moral agents of our personal narratives – a sort of hero, and there’s when morality flies out the window.

However, and more troubling, is how likely we are to conform to the pack mentality. Debbie Wasserman did not act alone. Her top officials all colluded alongside her. They leveraged their political might to ‘persuade’ news outlets to fashion the sort of news that they think the general public ought to receive. Not a single person spoke out actively against it. There wasn’t even a hint of protest. We had to rely on an anonymous group (supposedly in Russia) to hack their email database to force Debbie Wasserman to resign. And even then, the speculated motivation behind it was to support Donald Trump, the opposing candidate who by all records, is likely is to lead America to a new age of racism, bigotry and economic depression.

And just like lying almost always brings about consequences more dire than being truthful, the inability to break away from the pack mentality is equally damaging. But maybe this is what teamwork really is about: the point often missed out on in leadership camps and corporate workshops is that teamwork can sometimes (or often) cost you individuality, honesty and initiative. When corporations demand the ability to work as a team on a resume, what they really mean is whether you are prepared to do anything as a group to achieve their goals, whatever it maybe. And perhaps something that most of us learn late is that it is a mistake to dedicate your life to a corporate entity. Entities are souless.

If every farmer in the world agreed to let their herds graze at a fixed time and rotation so that the grass can replenish, the world would be infinitely better. However, all it takes is for one selfish farmer to compromise the entire goodwill sharing. Doing what is right and fair is by no means easy. It’s an uphill task, with the odds stacked against you, especially when going the other way is so much more rewarding, so much less frustrating. 

However, since moral behaviour is a deliberate and conscious choice, I believe Orwell did get the last word on this, and I leave one of his finest quotes here:

   In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Have you thought about (HYTA) how problematic human beings can be?

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There’s much to be fascinated about our species: We have the singular ability to strategically plan beyond the immediate present; from us, we soulfully infuse the contemporary arts and music scene with abstraction and colourful noise; beyond that, and most admired, is our magnum opus – the ability to think and reason. So it comes as no surprise that we regularly view ourselves as special, if not different.

And in the case of most religious themes, we are considered the ‘chosen ones’ – dearly loved or favoured by various divine beings. But over the years, as we understand more of our neighbouring species, and as Psychology becomes a more robust discipline, we know a great deal more about how things can go very wrong with us, and also how other species are by no means as simple as they seem. In certain areas of cognition, they can be far superior.

So not only are we mundane creatures desperately trying to survive on (and make sense of) this dying ball of crust, we are, by our own hands, equal parts inventors, equal parts destroyers. Most assuredly, if we can find a way to do something better, we will rapidly find a way to do far worst. We are the proud inventors of the computer but also the same agents who gave birth to malware and viruses. If given a choice, we are often terribly exploitative – almost disappointingly so.

Imagine a world that’s overrun by diseased rats. Offering a very small reward for killing a rat does appear to be an incentive to keep this pestilence at bay. If the reward was to the tune of a dollar per dead rat, a reasonable majority would do it as a duty or routine, but you can be absolutely certain that there will be those who will start rearing huge rats farms deliberately for no other reason than to cash in on the bounty.

And so it’s disturbing that when developing a system that has nothing but the best of intentions, we spend far more time enforcing countermeasures. Offer healthcare for free, and you will find perfectly healthy people crowding the clinics for no other reason than ‘it’s free and what’s the harm?”. History has a long list of disappointing good intentions.

However, the worst of our behaviour – the most base, the most depraved, the most pathological – manifests itself when we can hide around anonymity. The amount of unbridled hate, the ugliness of the vulgar, the deliberate extent one goes to create misery for others, all these are so loathsome, so demeaning and so toxic that words struggle to fully capture the putrid poison that floats on the anonymous platform of the internet (which to an extent, includes games and chat applications).

Such psychopathy isn’t a surprise. We are a lot nicer in real life because we are directly (and without choice) held accountable for our actions. Our observable behaviour becomes psychological clues for others to decipher what sort of person we are, and the consequences of social rejection are very real. But knowing we can get away with doing anything leads to some very telling behaviour. After all, if exams were held with no invigilators, and hence no accountability, you will be hard pressed to find anyone doing meaningful studying after a while.

Also, after much extensive behavioural studies, there’s more to be disappointed with ourselves: We do not change our beliefs even when the evidence presented is objective and irrefutable. The opposite is true. We tend to become more entrenched in our old beliefs and openly defy any attempts to alter our way of thinking. In a 2006 poll of Americans by Time magazine, when asked about their responses if Science could conclusively prove their faith wrong, 64% said they would reject the findings in favour of their faith.

But it doesn’t have to be seen in a religious context. We have known people (and sometimes through TV shows) who end up marrying someone who’s blatantly a misfit: insincere, having affairs on the sly, or a dishonest rogue. Yet, despite well intended admonishments and various proofs of infidelity, go ahead with the marriage anyway. It makes for a suspenseful plot, a reminder on how acutely difficult it is to sever an emotional connection – and also how slowly we change our beliefs (if at all).

These persistent flaws are not likely to change anytime. They are perhaps a by-product of what it means to be human. But it still doesn’t excuse deliberate hurtful behaviour, nor should we encourage situations where human toxicity can build up. How we choose to act in the absence of authority, in the face of mounting peer pressure, or in the dearth of any incentives, ultimately determine who we truly, truly are. How many would pass the test? Would you?

So have you thought (HYTA) about the problems of being human?

Have you thought about (HYTA) religion, the elephant in the room? (Attacks on Baghdad & Bangladesh)

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Religion is a bit of a peculiarity. It doesn’t have credible distinction to separate it from messianic cults (think of the South Korean Unification Church led by the True Father, Sun Myung Moon) nor can it distinguish itself from unadulterated superstition, the sort for which the Chinese are notorious for. Yes, I am referring to lucky colours, unlucky numbers and Fengshui, of which the latter is a thriving industry of unqualified hacks claiming to be able to divine mystical nonsense about the direction your sofa should be placed.

Trying to define religion is an embarrassing failure not just because of a lack of credible evidence but also how brazenly it insists on the truth. Given the countless religions that have previously existed, simple Math tells us if all were considered equally valid, we would have an endless litany of truths. And simple logic should tell us that this recurring pattern of religions falling out of favour, reborn or invented anew is not just an epidemic of very bad thinking but also a serious issue that education must address.

Sadly, it’s this one area that education skirts about. It insists on saying nothing about the issue: the syllabuses love to haphazardly splash about ‘critical thinking infusion’ but will kneecap itself by restricting teachers from addressing the logical failures of religion. And so in a Biology class we can criticise scientific theories, point out the absurdities of early ‘scientists’ who tried to transmute urine into gold, but once the subject veers into religion, we become tight lipped and it becomes a ‘sensitive’ subject because we need to respect beliefs.

How is it then that a scientific theory, backed by enough evidence to crush religious arguments under its heel, is given less insistence than a system of questionable beliefs? If your friend told you that a simple sum of 1 + 1 amounts to 3, we would gently (and firmly) correct him because such is the established reality of the world. Yet when we are at the murky swamp waters of religion, we often choose to stay out of the quagmire, citing tact and understanding. This behaviour is hugely contradictory, especially when people of different faiths claim to be good friends – disbelievers are due for damnation.

Unsurprisingly, and still worth a grim laugh, homosexuality used to be considered a psychological disorder until recent times – that categorisation has since been removed. Conversely (and ironically), religious people who claim to connect, listen and feel for unproven entities, are considered very much normal. Yet the genuinely insane who end up strapped in mental health institutes also make the same claims, albeit more dysfunctional. Is there really a difference between religious thoughts and the mentally unsound? They are both equally disconnected from reality.

And still, we allow monasteries, churches and mosques to bring in the young, where they are taught to often reject the theory of evolution, sometimes to accept a preposterous young earth theory, and often required to swear fealty to a man in the sky who apparently, watches you every second of your life like a professional peeping tom and summarily judges you for it. So if God does it, it doesn’t infringe privacy, but if I installed a pinhole camera in your bedroom, you would be grievously offended. How is it that people can love a divine being who uses his omnipotence to check to see if you met his quota of prayers, to know what you did in bed, and who both threatens and loves you at the same time, is absolutely beyond me.

And that might be why religion needs that special treatment of respect. Once you put it through the rigorous paces of science or pin its wings under the heft of logic, it is utterly reduced to dust and ashes. Though many well known figures were religious (Muhammad Ali comes to mind), it doesn’t change the incontrovertible fact that in light of what we understand of the modern world, what they believed in made absolutely no sense.

For as long as education remains unspoken on the fallacies of religion, we are apt to repeat the same cycle all over again. The Bangladesh suspects, the very people who killed more than twenty people in a Dhaka cafe, were highly educated. They went to prestigious universities or were the sons of the wealthy and political. What has gone wrong is a complete and utter failure for education to instill in them a capacity to think. Indeed, you can be a respected professor, and still be the very same loon who believes closing a door is bad luck. Your level of education has little to do with how well you can critically think.

That said, in teaching critical thinking (and more, with some regret), I was once chided by someone, though with light humour and intended seriousness, for completely wrecking life as was understood, and altering both personality and thought. But in retrospect, very, very few people are given opportunities to learn to think on their own, and that’s an area education should start addressing first.

So have you thought (HYTA) about the peculiarities of religion?