Have you thought about (HYTA) how Socrates’ advice is more necessary than ever?

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          There is little we know about the man who calls himself Socrates. And even fewer would have heard of him save those who have chosen to study Philosophy. But such a course of study is not required to understand Socrates anymore than how trying to understand antibiotics does not necessitate a lifetime of medical training. Though what we know of the man is limited to whatever writing we could preserve from his students, some of his profound insights are more important than ever, especially in this modern era where our attention is repeatedly being pulled in many directions.

          A short backstory of Socrates is in order. He was famously sentenced to death by having to drink a mixture containing poison hemlock for the crime of challenging and discomfiting the general populace of Athens. He had taken it upon himself to challenge their views in many issues related to ethics and politics, and incited in them uncertainty about their state of life, often with the intention of hoping to improve their understanding further. But minds change slowly, if at all, with denial as the first phase, and anger being the next outcome. His actions only incurred the ire of the elites, and Socrates was soon to meet his doom.

          Chief among Socrates’ concern was why his contemporaries were like dozing cattle, who at the end of their lives, would gaze up, look around sleepily, not knowing who they were, and why they did what they did, or what the entirety of their life was about. In modern climes, we are not too different. There are so many distractions on hand that it’s difficult to not be connected to something. Our phone goes off repeatedly, and our fingers fire off messages rapidly; photos and selfies become our personal stage of admiration; and advertisements, trashy news as well as Netflix / cable dominate our mind in whatever free time we have. What do we really know about ourselves, and if we were busy keeping the ball rolling, what is the ball, and why should it be kept going?

          For Socrates, what was important wasn’t our careers or material gains. These can change. What is important is who we are, and who we are trying to become. Is it time to move on and remove some people from our lives, or do we naturally wait for the atrophy to set in, or should we take a stand? What influences do we exert on others, and what influences us greatly? Are certain people in our lives as important as we think they are? How do they change us for better or worse? Are we really understanding someone, or something as clearly we need to? Sometimes, the answers are gated behind our present lack of wisdom or emotions. Sometimes, answers can only be found through loss or gain. Whatever they are, Socrates’ thesis is that the only true goal in life and the key to genuine success is to make yourself as good as possible, and thus Socrates states that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

          In a world where the influx of information is disproportionately imbalanced against the scope of critical thinking we receive, (when was the last time anyone challenged us on our religious beliefs or personal views, or even taught us to think this way?) we need to think more clearly to ourselves. Is a certain political view we hold justifiable against all the knowledge we can muster up, or should we, perhaps at last, learn to give up our dreams, and hold fast to the sails with our own two hands? Universally, as far back as I could remember, almost everyone I knew as a student always detested writing reflections. It was uncomfortable to really break down your perceptions and morality of the world, but perhaps as Socrates puts it, it’s a necessary practice because it isn’t about the world. It’s about you and what sort of person you will become, and who or what should be an instrument to that.

          And finally, Socrates believed that a good person cannot be harmed by others. If you are truly who you are, real, complete and fully realised, no one can corrupt or damage you from the outside. It is therefore not in the nature of a bad person to be able to harm someone inherently good. While good and evil are two dichotomies that will forever struggle to find their precise bearings, there are perhaps, with enough knowledge, hard work and logical thought, just enough ground to be found for wrong and right to be defined with sufficient clarity. If we allow ourselves to be like driftwood, for the wind to pull us one way, and the stream to carry us off another way, we would forever be vulnerable to the harm and effects produced by others.

          On the other hand, we can and we should choose to be the captain of our sailboat. Through rudder and sails, we derive as best as we can from our reflections and experiences, to set new sights and directions. We cannot avoid the winds of society, nor can we not respond to the billowing of social and moral mores BUT we should make the winds serve our larger aims and purposes. We should be in control. And so, with enough self-knowledge, awareness and reflective thinking, we obtain the wisdom to care for the best parts of ourselves, and that imbues us, frees us, and sets us up from the exertions of others, thus allowing us to be self-fulfilled.

          And so, while Socrates did get some things wrong, his remaining insights are profoundly relevant and more importantly, secular, without any religious appeal. How, who, what, and in which way, have you directed yourself?

So, have you thought about (HYTA) how Socrates’ advice is more necessary than ever?

Have you thought about (HYTA) mistakes we cannot recover from? (Trump’s first week)

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          I was once informed by someone that despite Donald Trump coming to power on a political platform of open discrimination, bigotry and fallacious appeals, I should hold myself to more optimism since eventually, or at least given enough time, people do learn from mistakes and will be able to see through Trump for who he is. A necessary lesson, I was told. But that view borders on naive optimism. Given the current proliferation of technology, it’s not just too tempting to be distracted by petty gossip, fake news and casual entertainment, it’s also increasingly easier to control the masses without them being aware of it, and worse, also easier to develop destructive weapons for the purposes of a bargaining chip.

          Before the 20th century, many large scale inquisitions broke out on the command of churches calling for the purging of ‘heretics’ and a necessity to advance the faith. To say that many died horrible and gruesome deaths is to say nothing of the abject stupidity in which they gave their lives for a blind and unthinking cause, with most combatants staunchly believing their actions would seek favour with their respective Gods. Thankfully, this conflict was through sword, spear and words. Devastating and disheartening as it was, one could still argue that we could recover from such a catastrophe. And we did.

          But now we have made so much technological progress that absolute annihilation can now be comfortably contained within an innocuous looking warhead. Just like how computers of the past used to take up more space than a soccer field and needed manpower to resolve the most modest of mathematical problems, we now have a smart device that does all of that and more, and it’s barely larger than our pencil case. Administering death now is more distinguished, easier and colourful. And when we fire weaponised viruses, launch nuclear warheads and drop cluster bombs, this planet we are on, will no longer be able to bear the weight of human stupidity.

          And so acquisition of such powerful munitions is only a question of time, and a measurement of sanity of those who are poised to use them. Soon when North Korea speaks, the world must listen. But already, we have nine countries with active nuclear weapons, and any value above zero already poses a serious risk. People will kill, murder and destroy for the sake of ideologies. And it is people like Trump (and also others like Rodrigo Duterte) who seeks fresh conflicts, believe in self-superiority and consider themselves beyond reproach, that this world’s lifespan is perilously always on the edge. But it’s also even more important (and terrifying) to remember how they got there: by people who democratically voted.

          Already in his first week of office, Trump is making good on his promises of extreme vetting. Yet, the list of countries he is imposing vetting and limitations on doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, the country that funds terrorism and commits so many human rights atrocities in the name of Islam. Moral goodness then, according to Trump, is measured by trade money and oil, of which Saudi Arabia happily supplies. And worse, Trump specifically provides exceptions to Christians. This nonsensical racial and religious profiling destroys what’s left of America’s reputation, and has so far angered Pakistan (a country with nuclear weapons) to also ban the entry of all Americans.

          And Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called the US mainstream media as the ‘opposition party’ for reporting the truth on the much lower turnouts for Trump’s inauguration. This comes at a point after the controversial government silencing of many environmental agencies over their protests against Trump’s denial of climate change and the key proposals he put forward to decimate the environment. And over and over, when presented with the truth, Trump’s representatives have insisted they have ‘alternative’ facts – a deeply chilling reminder of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. When facts and numbers can be dismissed, and when the media is expected to play ball, we are not too far from the dystopian autocracy Orwell tried so hard to warn us about.

          And of course, of all his extremist appointments, his pick of Betty DeVos is utterly baffling. (or not. She ‘donated’ ten million dollars to his campaign) A fundamentalist Christian who denies Science, who never went to public schools, never taught and never once implemented a single policy, is now Trump’s pick for Education secretary. That’s like asking the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to be the head of religious freedom. If appointed, the amount of collateral widespread damage will not just endure for four years but for generations after. And of course, there’s the commencement of building a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out even though everything in history has indicated this only deepens rifts.

          It’s easy to say all these mistakes can be corrected at the end of Trump’s 4 years (assuming he doesn’t get elected again). But by fracturing relationships, taunting or discriminating, it sets the world stage on a sheet of fragile ice. It deepens hatred, invites suspicion and promotes tribal behaviour in a way that already defines the majority of the people who voted for him. And we simply cannot survive a modern war. And for those who think only America has problems, a number of countries (with China at the forefront) are already quickly moving towards something akin to the political system in Orwell’s 1984 that saw a political party exerting absolute control over what you know, think and see. Just as technology liberates, so too does it enslave.

          And so, it may well be that we are already beyond the point of recovery. And that’s putting it optimistically.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) mistakes we cannot recover from?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what are the different things you value in your life?

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          Everyone places a different value on a person, thing or concept. This line of thought is not to be contested. Even in the absence of money, we inherently assign a measure of value on everything within our radii and thoughts – a mental feat accomplished so quickly that we are only dimly aware that it happened. While you might be willing to put down thousands of dollars for the last ticket to a football match, the same prospect will be met with great reluctance (or complete disinterest) by those less inclined for sports.

          But it also isn’t as simple as it seems. Consider the following scenario: You are in a zoo and someone fearlessly saves your life from a rampaging elephant. Since one’s life is infinitely valuable, we should be more than happy to oblige our savior’s request that we immediately surrender the entirety of our personal wealth. Yet, we will scoff at the idea of giving in to such a ridiculous demand. But most of us do want to keep living, and in the presence of a terminal disease, would give almost anything to stay alive. Not in this case though. Clearly, we’ve run into a bit of paradox.

          Additionally, what we resolutely value and would give almost anything for is always defined with the conditional ‘if’. For example, you may value your sister a great deal and sacrifice your time and money for her growth, but only IF, she falls within certain behavioral and ethical considerations. You wouldn’t be willing to give it your all if you knew your sister was an unrepentant drug addict. And so, we are always adjusting what we value on the fly. We also don’t know exactly how to rationalise the way we value things, nor can we often put a precise numerical statistic on it.

          To complicate it further, how society assigns a value to something is influential in how we behave. Paying teachers a fixed sum at the end of every month rather than per hour is a deliberate and calculated psychological move. A fixed monthly payment  incentivizes a more generous approach so that caring for students isn’t calculated down to the very last second and cent. So then, are teachers generous and caring because their pay structure (and training) already strongly encourages such a practice, or are these inherent characteristics? It’s hard to tell.

          Also, assigning a value to something abstract or emotional is often the cause of many grievances. Rare are the friends who place equal value on a long standing friendship. Similarly, relationships of the heart can also become particularly difficult because each individual has a different value and expectation. In such situations, what becomes the currency of value? Perhaps it’s money, and for others, it may be time or written words. Good relationships therefore are the necessary merger of two different minds so that they come to value many things equally.

          Understanding what we value is necessary not just for economics, but also for our own self-growth. Rather than allow the process to be fully automatic, we should take some time out to examine the things we’ve assigned value to, and if they really make sense. Sometimes it maybe an overestimate or a shortchange, and it falls within our personal responsibility to adjust it. Because other people sometimes depend on that.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what you value in life?

Have you thought about (HYTA) whether we have a duty to speak out against religion? (Saudi Arabia’s ban on public cinemas)

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          Perhaps as far as I can remember, powerful religious figures of no small rank have always been the most dangerous and sly. Whether they are high priests, grand clerics, ayatollahs, bishops or reverends, their agendas are unmistakably similar: they seek to impose their religious (and moral) views on others. And just in case such an assertion may prove too blunt and unfairly disparaging, I would like to point out that almost all who ascend theistic ranks do so on the premise of absolute obeisance to their Gods. In short, the title is awarded to those who have so completely lost their ability to reason and the appellation becomes further reassurance of one’s blind faith – you will never see Pope Francis admit to any margin of error that his religion could be utter rubbish nor will the Islamic council members ever entertain the possibility that their faith is a gross violation of human rights.

          Yet for all the contradictions and societal harm brought about by different faiths, these powerful religious heads often carry themselves with a beatific smile, seemingly kind eyes and an outrageous notion of being able to cure you of any worldly ills. Whether the solution comes in jade beads, the mindless repetition of a sutra, or a routine march to the confession booth, you can be sure that a godly prescription of sorts awaits. Failing that, believers are strongly encouraged, if not reprimanded, to live appropriately ‘moral’ lifestyles in line with their Gods. And now, the latest reminder comes from Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority who made clear his objection to the proposed legalisation of cinemas and concerts (they have been banned since 1980s because of the so called Islamic ‘values’)

          This is not the first in a short list of absurdities. Pokemon Go was also called out for being unislamic for the same perfectly sane reason that emojis were considered as going against proper Islamic behaviour. There’s plenty more but suffice to say, this religious head, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, whose name is far more complicated than the lousy line of reasoning he gave for prohibiting the legalisation of cinemas, explained that such public performances allowed for the inappropriate mixing of genders as well as the possibility for ‘atheistic or rotten’ influences. How is it that such a powerful man is allowed to get away with such sweeping remarks without even putting forward statistics, research or any meaningful number crunching?

          More disturbingly, why do religious people accept such blatant claims, and perhaps what I consider the absolute worst offense, why do almost all religious people let a book, a religious authority or an ancient tablet do the thinking for them?

Why can’t you do Yoga? Because it mimics Hindu worship.
Why do you not use contraceptives in family planning? Because the Bible.
Why can’t you eat pork? The Koran says so.
Why do you perform genital mutilation on your baby? The council.
Why can’t you offer services to homosexuals? Because religion.

          And then, since religions have to be respected, the following becomes true:

We can’t offer a Yoga programme because some of them are Christians.
You can’t talk about contraceptives because you risk offending the Catholics.
The event you are planning for must have halal food.
Don’t talk about what they are doing to their baby. It’s their choice.
This job doesn’t employ atheists or homosexuals. It’s not discrimination. (It is)

          And so, while religious freedom and plurality have to be respected, the same concession is never made in favour of people who tick the ‘I am not associated with a religion’ checkbox. More scathingly, why do we allow powerful religious figures to express disagreement with evolution, climate change and critical thinking? 

          Wouldn’t it then be within our moral duty to point out the absurdities of a faith? If you see a couple agreeing to genital mutilation on their baby boy, it isn’t a matter of ‘respecting the faith’. It becomes a gross human rights violation, and everyone is obligated to shame such a horrible practice. Silence is a perpetuation to a blatant crime. Whether it’s yoga, sexual discrimination or various forms of dietary abstinence, these are not even remotely acceptable. They’ve become the norm because everyone has become psychologically adapted to downplaying these as ‘supporting racial harmony’. But racial harmony only harmonises very specifically recognised faiths, and does nothing to protect those who would rather not be associated with a faith.

          Whether it’s America, Saudia Arabic or a small country like Singapore, why do we allow religion to get a free pass again and again? If people could see just a bit clearer, the Pope would be nothing more than a raving madman, pastors would be unintelligent but gifted speakers, and the clerics that govern the top Islamic council would just be a round table of sex obsessed old men clutching a tattered book to their chests.

          So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether we have a duty to speak out against religion?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how everyone is a pervert?

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          An often advertised joke, if it’s not already stale, is that the calculated odds of winning a lottery are at 50%: you either win or lose. Without some understanding of probability and a sprinkle of common sense, the premise of that joke would appear to have some valid grounds to be taken seriously. Similarly, human sexuality, if taken for granted, can incur the same errors of assumptions. It is common (and too easy) to assume that there’s a grand spectrum of normal, accepted behaviour and anything fringe is abhorrent and frightening: you are either sexually normal or sexually deviant.

          Yet, every survey done to gauge sexual conduct and perceptions across cultures and eras has always come with a caveat – a reminder that the survey is never accurate because people are 1) unwilling to truly disclose their thoughts and perceptions which they may find embarrassing or criminal or 2) not carried out in large enough samples to conclusively reach a consensus. Human sexuality varies tremendously from culture to culture, and what’s seemingly innocuous in a pagan tribe, may be absolutely terrifying to learn about under more modern climes. The Sambian tribe of Paupa, New Guinea, conducts longstanding manhood trials for coming of age boys that involves the ingesting of seminal fluids, while in certain areas of Africa, women have to undergo an absurd cleansing rite. Of course, superstition and religion (and largely a lack of education) are primary reasons for such behaviour, but it’s still a reminder that all is not as normal as it seems.

          Homosexuality also used to be considered an abnormal behaviour – an obscene perversion of ‘standard’ human sexual conduct that has thankfully but slowly gained some traction of acceptance in the 21st century. But that still speaks nothing of the horrible persecution and stigma faced, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia that not only forbids anything gay, but has a tendency to follow the Koran’s recommendation for punishing homosexuals: flogging and the death penalty. A long time ago, and for a considerable duration, the annals of psychology used to file homosexuality as an abnormal condition. Though no longer classified as such, what an embarrassment then it must be for the many who insisted that there was only one acceptable sexual behaviour. And there was a point of time where admitting to being gay was to risk having your neck on the chopping block. While it’s easy to say times have changed, that’s too easily forgetting the immense pain and suffering gay people went through to hide who they really were.

          And if one were to argue for ‘normal’ sexual behaviour, be reassured that no one follows standard conduct because the different practices, beliefs and rights to privacy mean anything and everything goes. And not everyone necessarily feel the same level of sexual interest or attraction. Though they make up a much smaller minority of the LGBT community, asexuals are a reminder that there are people who do not feel any (or very little) romantic desires, if at all. Expanding outwards of human sexual orientation, we also have those who are bisexual (romantically attracted to both males and females), yet another wake-up call that not everyone sees love or experiences romance the same way we assume it should be on TV and movies. We have always understood that everyone’s different – a term commonly applied in education that no discrimination should be brought to bear on students of different backgrounds, races and religion – yet human sexual orientation is something everyone feels they must pass a judgement on. Why?

          To make it worse, a quick look at a list of known sexual fetishes should give us a glimpse into how varied (and very dark) human sexuality can be:

Acrotomophilia: Sexual arousal to amputees (those without arms or legs)

Coprophilia: Sexual arousal to feces

Necrophilia: Sexual arousal to corpses

Pygophilia: Sexual arousal to buttocks

Zoophilia: Sexual arousal to animals (horses, cows etc)

         The list of known human fetishes are far longer, and perhaps the most famous and often tossed around terms are masochism (sexual arousal from being hurt or dominated by another person) and sadism (pleasure from inflicting pain on others). They are sometimes conveniently reduced to S&M, and many an on screen joke has been based on confusing these terms.

          And if that isn’t enough, consider that many relationships and marriages in the world often aren’t the norm. A woman who holds the Guinness world record for being the most obese (she could barely move) was able to find a man who was willing the marry her. He found her extreme obesity a huge turn on, and didn’t mind the trouble of washing and cleaning her since she was too overweight to do it herself. There are also those who fall in love despite impossibly challenging cultural and language barriers; those who have to overcome age differences; and others who continue to love each other even though one of their partners may die soon. The long and short of it is that human love, which is really just human sexuality, is complicated, irrational and as Stephen Fry puts it so well: erotically dark. We all want access to love and being loved, and one’s devotion to religion proves a point about how much we want unconditional love. Religion is rubbish, but it’s appeal of a benefactor who will love you despite everything you have done is enough to transform people into believers. What does that tell you about love and sexuality?

          And so, let’s be clear. No one is remotely normal. Everyone has their own disturbing fantasies, odd peculiarities they find erotic, and while they may practice a normal lifestyle, it doesn’t necessarily allude to the fact that they don’t wish for something different. We are in a way, sly perverts. We learn to mask our deviant thoughts and desires, and like most well mannered functioning social folks, we know well the rhythm and public image we must wear to appear normal. Yet, in a way that’s deeply obsessive and disturbing is how religion is so desperately insistent on legislating sexual conduct. Most of us simply get on with our lives but almost every religion in the world has a well-defined rule book on appropriate human sexual conduct. Given that most religions often claim to be able to ‘free’ you and offer the cup of liberation, most religious folks fail to see the steel shackles coming on.

          So, have you thought about (HYTA) how everyone is a pervert?