Have you thought about (HYTA) whether absence makes the heart grow fonder?

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           Though frequently reduced to a cheap internet meme, the well-known aphorism ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder‘ finds its roots across many cultures and languages: The Chinese may refer to it as ‘人远心更近‘ (lit., ‘someone far, the heart is closer’) while a more academic interpretation in Japanese may go as ‘会わねば愛しさいや勝る’ (lit., not to meet makes love exceed by far). Even in Italian, this aphorism finds itself pithily placed as ‘La lontananza avvicina i cuori‘. But clip away some of the idealised overtones and it becomes apparent that this saying can be thought of as ‘longing for something or someone you do not yet possess’. The more we do not have it, the more we want it.

           When we think greatly of someone, or if we find ourselves deeply longing for a response from this person, it is often because a great deal of our conscious and unconscious memories are tied up pleasurably with him or her. And since our brain naturally gravitates towards pleasure and away from pain, it only sees events and people in varying gradations of satisfaction. Naturally then, it follows that we want more of what’s thrilling and pleasurable. The more this person has the potential to positively influence our lives, the harder it is to imagine anything less. As expectations and standards rise, so too does anticipation.

           We see in front of us a prize waiting to be claimed – a person who will be spiritually fulfilling and full of welcome delights. However, when thwarted by distance and time, this challenge reveals just how important (or not) such a relationship is. It’s easy when things are going well to promise everything that can or might be done, but far, far harder to sustain desire and commitment over long periods of time and distance. In such a situation, the brain automatically calculates the perceived rarity and significance of a person, tallies it with existing memories, and through various mental gymnastics, takes into account the cost of waiting and the struggles of intermittent periods of no communication, and finally computes a value.

           The more highly valued each individual is to each other, the more likely they can tolerate long periods of absences and any necessary waiting, and the less likely they are to be distracted by someone or something else. However, prolonged absences cannot do without some degree of earnest communication. Long stretches of waiting with no compensatory attempts to reach out to each other will provide no sustenance to any relationship. Communication is vital, as it has always been for every social species in existence. Every speech, thought or gesture ferried across, and every message or letter bartered to the heart and mind, go a long way in building psychological value unique only to its participants.

           If its participants are willing to persevere and set aside what little time they have to communicate across distances, can put up with difficult obstacles and unavoidable absences, such a relationship speaks volumes of how dramatically important each person is to the other. No ordinary person would put themselves through so much unless what’s at the end is uniquely justifiable. Amusingly, if science was to intervene, at least a few studies have shown that absence does lead to far more meaningful interactions than those who can see each other on a daily basis. The aphorism holds true, largely at least.

           Additionally, absences and distances force communication to adapt to a more pressing need: these limitations demand a greater focus on topics that are closer to the heart and while limited in quantity, are often more relationally intense. But it doesn’t mean that everything will always work out. As it has always been, because relationships are a gradual unity of two different minds, there is always the risk of limited reciprocation or an inability to fully empathise with the nature of such an exchange. Also, because there’s a greater margin for error and a wider room for mistaken assumptions, without adequate reassurances and promises, even the most ironclad of hopes can flounder and drown.

           Absence can bring us to the sober realisation of how much we are willing to put up with for someone significant, and while it can strengthen yearnings and desires to hear from each other, it’s still one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. It’s like two people trying to swim across from one continent to the other with nothing but the stubborn hope of seeking out an intoxicating new beginning. And there’s a reason we don’t hear many stories like that. Many don’t have the fortitude to go the distance. But surviving such a formidable challenge means there is likely nothing else ahead that can’t be surmounted.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether absence does make the heart grow fonder?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how twisted lying can get?

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        A long time ago, I didn’t think it possible that anyone could live a life of compulsive lying. Nor did it seem likely that a person could sustain a web of deceit and manipulation over a long time. It just didn’t seem like you could go against the ‘goodness’ of human nature. Besides, if your lies are repeatedly exposed by your victims or disproved through scientific evidence, the only course of action is an acceptance of reality and a change for the better. Such people would find little means of success or integration in society. To prove this point, my professor once jokingly asked the class if they would marry someone who was a proven liar. Not a single hand went up. Yet, many known compulsive liars in the world have established families and business empires. Despite what we are told, it would appear that lying if done well, would be far more rewarding than playing by the rules.

        If that seems hard to be believe, consider that it’s well-documented that 60% of people average 2-3 lies in the space of a 10 minutes conversation. Whether you want to call them white lies, unconscious lying or exaggerations, they have nothing in common with the truth. Over an entire day, we probably at least tell a lie or two, often without any awareness. We also too easily believe that ‘good’ people don’t tell lies. Politifact, a website that double checks the claims of politicians to see if they are lying or telling the truth found that even President Obama only told the truth roughly 21% of the time. And that is why the term ‘honest politician’ is an oxymoron. Politicians can’t fulfill every promise, but they must lie and exaggerate to make themselves seem important enough to vote for. Likewise, to maximise profits, a businessman would lie even though he is well aware that the deal is disadvantageous to you. His ability to make money requires him to hide important knowledge you don’t need to know and lie when it suits him. So much for the virtues of honesty and kindness.

        And naturally, it’s impossible to avoid bringing up President Trump who has been found to tell the truth a wonderful 4% of the time. It’s safe to say that this man is outright lying every time his mouth opens. He lied about the weather and the size of the crowd present at his inauguration; he believed Trump towers was 68 stories high when it was only 58; he completely misrepresented the percentages for unemployment, taxes and crime rate; he knew nothing of the nuclear triad but bullshitted his way through with false statements and digressions; got his facts from fake news and would insist with confidence that they were true. But his supporters believe his every word. They show up by the thousands in his rallies, and in an interview, when asked about his lying, they were either in denial or simply justified his behaviour as typical of a businessman who can ‘get the job done’. Even when presented with photos and statistics, Trump still insists he is telling the truth and brands all other media outlets as ‘fake news’. It’s easy to think Trump’s isolated but he isn’t. The people he has picked to work with have all famously lied for him and continue to do so without batting an eyelid.

        The degree of lying we conduct ourselves with can either be typical, compulsive or pathological. There’s no ‘truthful’ category because no one is truly honest – we know how often we lie to ourselves. Job interviews, academic results or bragging rights, we are all guilty as charged. And perhaps to make it harder to swallow, truly pathological liars (and I would consider Trump to be the among the worst) are not stupid nor lacking social skills. To successful output cohesive lies without being caught in the act requires the liar to have a high intelligence and emotional intelligence – a point Nietzsche notes in his book, “…in order to uphold one lie, he [the liar] must invent twenty others.” Whether we look at Steve Jobs (he lied when it suited him) who is considered to be the founding father of the modern smartphone, the gold medalist cyclist Lance Armstrong (lied about the drugs he took for many years) or the legendary golfer Tiger Woods (lied about his multiple affairs even though he was married), they are only a small but public fraction of people who lie, lie and lie. When exposed, these liars do suffer grave consequences, but it’s important to remember that most lies are never detected, and if they were, the liars would have already greatly benefited in some way.

        Lying also poses serious ethical problems. I am sure that Trump’s family and his administration are at least somewhat aware that some of the things he says can’t possibly be true, but they (so far) seem to fully support his lies. Are we justified in helping our family to lie? Are there some lines we cannot cross? While most of us would hate being lied to, we are ironically, guilty too of lying – the very same thing we despise in others. And if we tell a good enough lie and cover our tracks sufficiently, don’t all lies become truths? What then becomes of reality? Maybe then, this is our life’s mission: to find out what extent of lying we can accept and how valuable the truth is to us. If Trump’s supporters are any indication, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many of us are bad at seeking out the truth.

        So, have you thought about (HYTA) how twisted lying can be?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what love should be?

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          Stop anyone in the street and ask them what love ought to be, and problems quickly surface. It’s not just that love is difficult and subjective to fully pin down, but that it also resists any objective attempt at a universal explanation. Yet love itself is a universal phenomenon, unblinkered and unfettered by language, race or nationality and easily transcends age, social status and personality. The more we try to narrow down what love should be, the more love gracefully defies its linguistic captors and shows us what it cannot be.

          But as grand as the whole affair is, love surely has to be something most of us do not fully grasp. The high divorce rates and unhappy marriages in some populous parts of the world do not agree with the smug answers given by many individuals who think they’ve fully understood the inner tinkering of the heart. Perhaps for some, love is a list of wants waiting for someone to fulfill. Or perhaps it is a duty, a sort of obligation to a nation and a nagging mother. And for others, falling in love might be nothing more than a religious epiphany of sorts.

          Whatever the reasons, it would appear that love is easy to find, but hard to sustain. Love is an enduring commitment forged out of mutual necessity. It is neither hasty nor slipshod, and will not subscribe to capriciousness. One must be able to attend to the heart and needs of the one we love, and together, be willing prisoners of each other – because love cannot subsist on the superficial. It is nurtured by faithfulness and attention, and empowered by truthfulness and sincerity. When we can give up the many things that would otherwise make us happy, be willing to persevere through the toughest and lowest of moments, we acknowledge that love is hard work, and a process that takes two hearts but one mind to maintain. Because love pays wonderful dividends.

          And perhaps too often, we fail to realise that love is in itself, an education of the heart and mind. It is the final thesis we receive after years of compulsory education in schools. Love isn’t about liking someone frivolously, but falling head over heels for a person who can impart to us the virtues we do not have. They are a foil to our fragile personality: if we are agitated, they are calm; and if we are feeling down, they are the soothing voice of encouragement. Such a person can move us many paces faster in becoming a fully realised human. They lend to us a sense of wonderment and intellectual exploration we never thought possible. With them, life becomes joyous to navigate, as well as being clearer and more meaningful. From them, we receive the impetus to think and question without judgement. In their presence, we fully experience the exhilaration of being completely vulnerable to someone as authentic, as curious and as committed to mutual growth as we are. Because love must make us a better person today than we were yesterday.

          But without earnest and heartfelt communication, love would be nothing but a drifting flotsam lost in the boundless ocean. At first blush, it would appear that talking, listening and thinking are relatively easy to pull off. But these are formidable feats that require extraordinary finesse to successfully anchor love to the heart. Rare are those who can truly resonate with us, be able to listen with an open mind, whose sentences and words are an indulgent feast for the heart, and yet also possessed of an agile mind that is perceptive, lively and ever receptive. Sadly, as a casualty of modernisation, deep conversations, soulful exchanges and honest gestures have been cast aside in favour of a plastic digitalisation of love – social apps and snap messages have become easy substitutes for an emotion that demands tenderness and resolution. It is only through the arena of heart-to-heart conversations that we can ever truly know a person, and in doing so, also discover ourselves. Because love can make us real.

          Love is a single concept but is also at once many things. While its proper execution is well within the toolkit every individual possesses, not everyone can attend to its emotional subtleties. But they should keep trying. Because loving and being loved by someone who sees us for exactly who we are is a wonderful discovery of an intimate self we never knew existed. Love is an education of the soul.

          So, have you thought about (HYTA) what love should be?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how language and numbers can deceive?

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          Christian televangelist Pat Robertson once polled more than a thousand of his followers on whether they would prefer having evolution or creationism taught in schools. After surveying the results, he came to the dramatic conclusion that most Americans universally preferred a biblical explanation of our origin story. The data was irrefutable. More than 90% of those he surveyed wanted creationism. The sample size was suitably large, and he reached out to the young and old alike. Yet, something’s obviously amiss. What went wrong? It turned out that he had deliberately chosen to survey only a very specific group of people: those who were completely brainwashed by Christianity. Poll the members of ISIS and ask them if they think Islam should be the ruling religion of the world and you will get unanimous approval even if you surveyed 100,000 members.

          In order to invest their claims with authority, you will find that cunning advertisers, religious loons and even our closest friends will bend and twist numbers in order to persuade us of many things. In fact, some of these arguments may sound very familiar: 4 in 5 dentists recommend Oral B; this belief is true because so many people believe it; or in the case of gamblers, they would think that if they lost 10 times in a row, they would surely win the next game. Everyone thinks they understand how numbers and probability work. Yet, as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed, even esteemed Math professors and statisticians alike were just as terrible at overcoming statistical bias.

          Our minds are not good at measuring impartial outcomes or circumventing statistical bias. Consider that when we run into a friend we have not met for a long time, we are often quick to chalk it up as an incredible coincidence, or even a miracle. We have chosen to remember this one event of meeting him / her but have conveniently neglected the millions of times we saw other unfamiliar faces. It wasn’t really a miracle. Statistically, it was a likely occurrence. Likewise, it’s easy to assume that if you won 8 out of 10 rounds of blackjack, it might be due to your fervent prayer to a deity. But you will find that if you did the measurements over a much larger sample size, say ten thousand rounds, you will find that prayer or no prayer, the results don’t vary much, if at all.

          It’s also partly why it’s important to call out prayers, ‘blessed’ amulets or ‘sacred’ words for the bullshit they are. Like cheap horoscopes, deceptive advertisements and ‘reputable’ fortune-telling, these religious ploys and cons prey on weak minds that are already determined to see what they want to see. If the prayer works, God is real and listening. If nothing happens, then apparently God has other plans in mind. By either manipulating numbers or failing to understand their implications, we can be too easily misled by those who claim to have proof, or are trying to convince you to part with your money.

          But it doesn’t just end with numbers. As George Orwell once warned, languages can also be as cunning, if not more. The two sentences below express the exact same idea but are phrased differently.

Muslim injures 20 civilians. What do you feel about it?

Muslim terrorist inflicts carnage on 20 unwary civilians. Should you be angry about it?

          The phrasing is extremely powerful. In the second example, it unconsciously plants ideas and suggestions in the respondent’s mind and only pushes him / her to give the answer the surveyor wants to hear. The careful manipulation of language is especially true of most national newspapers. Headlines are often written in a way so that one’s beloved country is rarely the conflicting party or the aggressor. Even if the government was inefficient, numbers and words can be phrased in ambiguous ways to hide the hard truth. It’s an effective method of mass control, especially if the intent is to incite or breed patriotism.

          Though it is easy to understand the above examples, real world situations are often far more complicated. A pastor for example, may distract you from his many fallacious arguments by speaking louder and more confidently; someone might put you under a great deal of pressure in order to prevent you from thinking clearer; and even businessmen know how to use numbers to falsely generate scarcity or to appeal to your emotional irrationality. It’s inevitable that we will, at one point or the other, be an unsuspecting victim of such deceptions, perhaps even repeatedly. However, what matters is that each mistake continues to fortify our guard so that we can quickly sieve out those who are sincere from those who trade in falsehoods.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) how language and numbers deceive us?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what truly defines intelligence?

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            The wonderful comedian George Carlin once quipped to an enraptured audience a rather astute but highly derogatory comment: “Think how stupid the average person is, and then realise that half of them are stupider than that.” What made the remark funny was that Carlin often unapologetically made fun of religion and was unreserved in his scorn of people who couldn’t think for themselves – the implication here being that the average person never gave much thought to their beliefs and despite being insufficiently knowledgeable in many important issues, were quick to insist on their views. And have we not met such people? They are like human mouthpieces, insisting that perhaps you must serve your country unconditionally, or that this rule of relationship / love must be followed, or maybe how this particular religion is the only true faith.

            Carlin never really clarified the point on intelligence further, but it is safe to assume that he, similar to most of us, would not believe academic qualifications to be a suitable benchmark. As Michael Shermer observed through his psychological research, intelligent people can believe some really weird stuff. And ironically, such educated people are also the least likely to change their minds. Intelligence fosters over-confidence, and the result is that we end up thinking that our own opinions have a greater pound of truth than others. Ben Carson, who ran in the recent US election, is probably the most readily recognised face of being a ‘smart stupid person’. Despite being a neuroscientist, he rejects evolution and climate change in favour of his religious nonsense, and when pressed on many important political issues, he is often a garbled mix of incoherent sentences and bad religious appeals. 

            And well-known celebrities do not perform better. Despite their immense fame, skill and dedication, many of them follow very bizarre beliefs. For instance, Rafa Nadal who plays competitive tennis, believes he should only cross the lines with his right foot and insists that his opponent should approach the umpire first. This isn’t any different from Chinese stupidity with Feng shui (of which its many adherents claim to have ‘proof’) or various superstitious nonsense about black cats, holy water and walking under a ladder. Whatever it is, the minds of these prominent people are woefully depressing. And sadly, the vast majority of people are not put off by it, nor do they really care. Yet, such unthinking behaviour and bad assumptions surely is an indication of low intelligence – assuming one can look past the typical celebrity veneer.

            So then, what is the best indicator that someone is smart? Perhaps only three key attributes need to be present together: Curiosity, skepticism and humility. With curiosity, it is a recognition that you do not have enough knowledge but you must seek out more. The smartest people always know that there’s something left to learn, and they must make learning a lifelong process. Skepticism then is the understanding that it’s extremely easy to fool the mind, and that our beliefs need to be scrutinised.For example, religion and superstition have no compatibility with science and logic and it’s an answer one must arrive at by sheer effort and necessary doubt. Humility then, is the willingness to admit that we will always be vulnerable to thinking errors no matter how much we know, and that questions only lead to more questions. There may not be any answers to be had except to accept our powerlessness. 

            The rare existence of these combined qualities in an individual should be an extremely important consideration for any relationship. But because most of us are (as Carlin often liked to joke) part of the average, we simply do not have ability to see nor value such characteristics in friends or romantic partners. How can you look for something when you can’t even recognise them? In the end, the aforementioned attributes might not have anything to do with being smart at all, but merely what you need to be a fully realised human. For such uncommon people, making their acquaintances and being able to grow alongside them will always be a necessarily difficult but endless learning journey.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what truly defines intelligence?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why jealousy is an important emotion?

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           Among the tremendous spectrum of emotions that humans are capable of feeling, jealousy finds itself miscast in most attempts to define it. It is not as forthcoming as anger, has not the predictable labels of happiness, and lacks the breath and depth that encompass deep romantic love. Yet jealousy is not so alien for it to be branded an outcast or maverick. Its existence is predicated on many emotions that come before it: You cannot possibly be jealous of something that doesn’t (potentially) bring you immense pleasure and happiness, nor can such a feeling exist if you are unable to feel terrible remorse at its absence.

           All these may sound similar to another emotion: Envy. It might be tempting to think of jealousy and envy as interchangeable terms (as is the case with most popular culture), but their differences are neither subtle nor nuanced. When we desire something others have which we don’t, perhaps wealth, fame or achievements, we experience envy. Unless we have learned to pick up a bit of wisdom, we too often make repeated and ugly comparisons between what we have, don’t have and must have. Envy then, is silent, masked and sometimes pretentious. Its reign is the impersonal, and at its throne are our materialistic desires and ambitions.

           Conversely, jealousy is our deepest desire to keep what we already have. The banner it flies is deeply personal and poetic, and its ruling seat is unquestionably the human heart – one it begrudgingly shares with romantic love. If love without commitment is shallow and fragile, it follows that love without some degree of jealousy is tepid and lukewarm – because love concerns itself with both selflessness and selfishness. Jealousy then, is the realisation of how truly important and significant someone is to us, an emotional confirmation of verbal and written promises, and a certainty of future commitments. Some measure of jealousy, within the context of someone who loves us for who we are, is a powerful and reassuring self-affirmation.

           So when there is the risk that someone else will divert or siphon attention from our romantic interest, it would be impossible to not feel at least a silver of jealousy. Time and attention are finite, and what’s lost to an invader’s distraction(s), also amounts to comparable losses of pleasure and happiness for us – feelings are less intense, replies slow down and commitment stagnates. While everyone will experience jealousy at least once in their lives, the degree and extent can vary widely, with the quality of the relationship (and our upbringing) probably having the largest bearing.

           Some relationships may, in order to provoke jealousy, fabricate distorted situations and contexts. Or perhaps as payback, one might deliberately behave in an overly-friendly and suggestive way towards potential romantic interests. While useful in securing attention, such an impact is only temporary, and few relationships can be fully realised if sustained by such dishonesty. If used as a tool of control, jealousy becomes a manipulative emotion akin to playing with fire. It cannot be mastered and will consume those who try.

           However, relationships whose cornerstones are etched with genuine honesty, mutual tenderness and deep affection, can surmount the anxieties, worries and uncertainties brought about by jealousy. Because they can speak about what they feel without fear of reprisal, each partner will deliberately go out of their way to make each other feel important and valued. They also know how to provide soothing reassurances of commitment, care and concern when it’s required. Communication, after all, is the invisible catalyst holding relationships together. In such instances, jealousy can be harnessed as a healthy emotional response to develop trust, with each partner willing to help troubleshoot for a compromise together.

           Though jealousy has often been considered dangerous and inappropriate, there is perhaps nothing wrong with being somewhat immature and irrational about it. It is a legitimate response to a situation for which rational thinking does little for. Left unresolved, it can, like anger, eventually consume us. But as long as we desire to be loved, and as long as romantic love is in some ways necessarily selfish, we will always have to contend with jealousy. Understood correctly, jealousy has something to teach us.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) how jealousy is a useful emotion?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the religious implications of Trump’s Muslim ban?

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          The executive order signed by Trump which targets 7 Muslim countries has more inconsistencies and language loopholes than a toddler’s half-finished English essay. It’s not just that he conveniently provides exceptions to the Muslim countries he has business ties and connections to, but he also specifies under certain clauses, a measure of leniency if you are a sheep of the Christian faith. And so, it’s reassuring that in light of such myopic religious discrimination, many people and rights groups have taken it upon themselves to insist that Muslims (and refugees / immigrants) are always welcome no matter what happens.

          It’s great of course, that we are willing to support religious pluralism rather than to commit the grave fallacy of associating an entire basket of apples with a few bad ones. Canada’s prime minister and their cabinet members have gone to special lengths to make rousing speeches, and so have many individuals who feel that such a ban is not only unconstitutional, but a direct violation of everything that once represented America’s liberties and possibilities. And ultimately, we are doing the right thing. Harmony, tolerance and kindness will go distances that violence, discrimination and hatred would never reach.

          But it’s important to remember that despite these unkind persecutions faced by Muslims, this in no way proves that their religion is acceptable, nor logically coherent. In fighting for religious freedom, it’s too easy to also accidentally (or purposely) acknowledge the validity of the faith. The danger now is that in advocating religious freedom, we are all also silently giving the OK to religious appeals, even though in the context of modernity, many religions are nothing short of nonsense, or are in almost every case, completely incompatible with logical thought or the scientific method.

          Islam, even if subjected to modern interpretations, and even if entire sentences and paragraphs in the Koran could be outright omitted or given a generous inference, is still a religion that, like every other religions, relies on unsound and dangerous reasoning, as well as stirring hostility towards Science and modern cultural norms.

          In a religious survey carried out by the Pew Research Center in 2013 across the globe, the executive summary found that a majority of Muslims say that their faith is the one true faith to eternal life in heaven, and that their religious leaders should have an influence over political matters. This by the way, is an argument for Islam to be infused into politics, a regression to the dark ages where religious figures had more power than rulers. While the survey does show that Muslims are positive towards Science, it is likely that while they may accept the evolution of species, most would reject the proven notion of human evolution.

          The results of the survey also showed that 1 – 7% of Muslims support violence against civilians in the name of Islam, with this percentage being much higher (as much as 20%) in areas like Bangladesh and Egypt. Consequently (from the remaining survey questions), it can be stated categorically that Muslims often support dangerous ideas: death for blasphemy, misogyny (the belief that men are superior to women) and various forms of repulsive behavior. There can be no doubt the same resistance to Science, abortion and critical thinking can also be found in Christianity, and to varying extents, in other faiths.

          However, Trump’s ban is in no way an effective method in reducing the influence of religion. Whether it’s politics, friendships or romantic love, you simply cannot win by force. It’s not just that his ban targets a specific faith while falsely raising the credibility of another (Christianity), it also doesn’t establish any logical coherence about faith in general. And in the face of such unfair treatment, psychology has taught us that it only fosters a greater resistance and self-affirmation of one’s convictions. It’s also important to begrudgingly admit that even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people rarely change their minds anyway, but for sure, violence and persecution are the lowest denominators in changing perspectives.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) the religious implications of Trump’s Muslim ban?