Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rhetorical Juxtapositions: A Democratic Presidential Primary

What are you thinking about as you sit there on your living room sofa, maybe with your spouse or significant other, or maybe with some friends and family, feet reclined casually and a cold one condensating seductively on one of your fashionable coasters?  My guess is that you're probably not thinking about any of these details in the room around you, or about the power of democracy and the responsibility of you as a citizen to make an informed decision about which presidential candidate to vote for.  My guess is that you're probably not even really thinking at all.  Your consciousness is probably running on its default setting and you are transfixed in a weird sort of lazy attentiveness by the luminescent television screen, around which your furniture is centered--much like how the pews in large churches concave around the pulpit.

This lazy attentiveness is insidious and pernicious in the subtlest ways.  It ensures your absolute undivided attention on the screen and the colorful images and the vibrant sounds coming from its direction.  It ensures that you absorb all of the data it's transmitting.  It does all of this, but with the understanding that you're not really thinking too abstractly about what it all means and that you're probably not considering how this passive consumption of corporate sponsored, doctored, and in-real-time edited political information is anti-choice.

Ask yourself this question: is it a good thing for American democracy that the introduction to a presidential primary debate is formatted almost exactly like high-stakes sporting events?  And what does it say about us as "informed" citizens that we're okay with this?  And what does it imply about how the corporate elites view the general public?

In our natural default setting we just accept the situation for what it is and before we realize it we're buzzing with excitement over the fact that in a few minutes we'll be seeing "the Democratic presidential candidates go Head-to-Head, brought to you LIVE, by CBS News."  At this point the game is already lost because we've accepted the lens of the CBS News cameras as our lens, our default point of view.  This is all a fabrication of course, but we, viewing from home, don't realize it; we're just casually sipping our beers as we wait for the action to kick off.

But because we've already accepted the lens of the CBS News cameras as our own, we don't realize that this is an incredibly unnatural experience from the perspective of the candidates themselves.  I mean, imagine yourself behind a podium on a stage, with hundreds of people in the audience staring at you, and several $10,000 cameras pointed at you which you're fully aware are live-streaming your face to millions of strangers all over the country.  And we expect--even demand--that these people need to be "relatable" and appear like normal human beings in order to earn our votes.  But in order to appear relatable and normal to us at home, these politicians have to do the most unnatural and non-relatable things.  I'm describing, at least tangentially, the profession of the modern actor whose job it is to appear vividly human on screen and to be comfortable in front of these cameras and spectators.  Our politicians however, are not trained actors; but many of them try very hard to perform nonetheless.

It's blatantly clear to us that the former Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, is uncomfortable on stage.  We see his hands shaking and we can hear his voice tremble with nervousness.  But he's still trying his best to do the required puppet dance of modern national politics.  He quickly finds the appropriate camera, points his index finger sternly, and delivers the most painfully feigned of emotional oratories that I've seen so far from any candidate.  He wants so desperately to seem sincere; his eyes squint slightly as he delivers a soft and powerful emotional point, and then they widen brightly along with his smile and the volume of his voice as he extols another vague and intense American virtue.  It makes me squirm in my seat, and I avert my eyes.  It's kind of like when a new acquaintance that you're still unsure about makes prolonged intense eye contact with you as you speak, and nods her head vigorously with wide eyes that refuse to release your gaze.  It's a proper nightmare for anyone with even the slightest bit of social anxiety.

But O'Malley's obvious act of sincere desperation is small cheese compared to the heir apparent of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  Former First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been playing this nightmarish national political rite of passage much longer than the former Maryland Governor who's clearly in over his head.  Her political persona is so far developed for the big leagues that we don't squirm with discomfort when she speaks--at least not the same sort of discomfort that we attribute to O'Malley.  If Clinton makes us uncomfortable, it's not because we can see through her act or because it's obvious to us that she's uncomfortable on stage herself.  Quite the opposite is true.  She's much too comfortable on stage, and much too talented at playing this game.  If you pay real close attention to her--not to what she's saying, but rather to how she's saying it--you find yourself getting increasingly furious at the skill with which she's able to appear sincere.  She scans the room slowly, punctuating her points with quick and emphatic finger jabs.  She is fully in her element and is thriving upon the awareness that, in those moments when she has the floor, every single person in the room is taking her SO seriously.  She's the expert, the experienced politician, the professional, the calculated and stern leader.  She wears all of these masks, and she wears them well.

The only discernible cracks in her otherwise perfect political facade are revealed when she gets indignant--as she did in the second debate when the only human on stage challenged her financial bona fides with respect to Wall Street.  Ignoring the absurdity of her subsequent deflection, which didn't address the criticism at all and instead attempted to justify huge financial ties to Wall Street by invoking 9/11, notice her demeanor throughout her response.  It seems that there is an inverse correlation between how impeccable her routine is and how effectively she's criticized by opponents. This is the only crack in an otherwise impressive unnatural feat.

Normal human beings are anxious creatures whose level of comfort diminishes as the level of scrutiny upon them increases.  And the only thing that seems to be preventing the former Mayor of Burlington, and current Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, from losing his self-conscious shit up there on stage among all of the lights and cameras is his deep conviction in progressive principles that he feels are lacking in establishment politics.  He's indicated before that he likes his job as a Senator and wouldn't be running for President if he thought any of the other candidates could take on the monied interests in Washington.  And if you watch his behavior on stage, you have to believe him.  He is by far the most uncomfortable person in the room--although, a strong argument could be made for O'Malley.  But the only reason O'Malley maybe looks comparatively more uncomfortable than Sanders is because O'Malley is still trying to fight his discomfort and conform to the same rhetorical schtick that Clinton is already doing much better.  Sanders on the other hand is unapologetically uncomfortable and, were it not for his populist/progressive agenda, would probably admit that he hates every minute of being on that stage.

Put simply, of the three remaining Democratic candidates for President, only one of them isn't playing the game that's expected of them.  Sanders scoffs at Clinton's answers on stage, and barely contains his frustrations enough to remember to politely acknowledge that he has a great deal of respect for the Madame Secretary, before going on to call the business model of Wall Street "fraud," breaking all implicit rules that urge him to keep his trap shut.  His demeanor doesn't change depending on the situation he's in.  He isn't an adept political chameleon (like Clinton), nor does he even pretend to want to be (like O'Malley).  His Brooklyn accent sits heavy on his voice.  He gets passionate about a point he's making and he stumbles over his words, often screwing up the emphatic result he was aiming for.  He tries to thread a very difficult needle on gun control and bring some much needed nuance to that discussion, even though he knows it won't be received well in a partisan Democratic room.  It's as if all of the subtle signs that govern the behavior of every modern American politician fly completely over the head of this grumpy old Vermont Senator.  I don't think any of it's flying over his head though.  Especially considering that this is a man in whose office hangs a poster of Eugene V. Debs, I think all of those signs are painfully obvious to him.  And I think he's deliberately ignoring them, and for that reason (among many more), he's the most qualified candidate on that ridiculous stage.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Are Women Complicated?



I'm sometimes perplexed by glaring inconsistencies in culture that get overlooked. For example, why is it so commonly accepted that women are these complex and mysterious creatures that are so difficult to understand and make happy. I'm sure you've all seen the picture ^ of a huge chalkboard full of complicated equations, or the 5,000 page volume cheekily labeled "How to Make Women Happy: An Introduction." We all chuckle a bit, hit "share" because it's funny, and move on without thinking about it for more than a few seconds.

But what if you do think about it for more than a few seconds? Are women really that difficult to understand, or are we too self absorbed to realize how screwed up this notion is? 

It seems like what it really comes down to is an inability to care deeply about the interests of others. We understand what makes "us" happy, because we're inside our own heads. We're instantly aware of sensations, cravings, feelings, or emotions that pop up. We don't need to have thirty minute conversations with ourselves to know what to do in order to satisfy these feelings. We just know. 

But when it comes to our spouses, significant others, or prospective romantic partners--most of whom are of the opposite sex due a systemic cultural gender binary, which is a gripe for another time--it takes a little more effort to discern their immediate needs, wants, or feelings. We don't have an immediate connection with their conscious mind, so we have to use these awkward things called language and communication to figure them out. 

We perceive this activity as difficult because the focus is no longer on ourselves. Beneath the surface, our egos are reminding us that what we're doing isn't going to benefit us directly. Our selfish selves are jealous of our momentary selfless endeavors. So we give up easily when we realize that the effort isn't going to do anything for us. 

The truth that the selfish parts of our minds don't want to admit is that we are all deeply emotional, needy, complicated creatures that desperately want to be understood, but many of us are just too damn lazy to understand anyone outside our own heads. 

Take the time to sit down with a person you care about (maybe even a woman, if you're "brave") and ask how she's doing. Ask her about her goals, her feelings, or just how her day's going. Then sit there and listen. Think about the things she's telling you. Try to see her as what she is: just another human being who wants to see her interests and feelings recognized and reflected in those she cares about. You'll be shocked by how beautifully simple these "complicated women" can be. Then you'll be delighted by how good it feels to stretch those empathy muscles, and how much personal satisfaction you can get out of simply making another person feel heard, understood, and cared about. 

Maybe the next time you're scrolling through social media and see a tongue-in-cheek "women are complicated, am-i-right?" post, you won't laugh. You'll be a little sad with the realization that every one of those posts represents a spouse, significant other, or friend whose interests and feelings are being ignored because some neanderthal can't be bothered to sit and listen for a few minutes. Then maybe you can pass along this message. =) 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sedans, Pickup Trucks, and Systemic Injustice

In this metaphor, there was a superhighway that was the envy of the transportation world. It was seven lanes across on either side and managed an enormous amount of diverse traffic. Small cars, sedans, compact SUVs, pickup trucks, large SUVs, etc. But not all of the lanes were equal. Traffic flowed more quickly in the lanes further to the left. This wasn't necessarily by design; they just happened to be occupied predominantly by sedans.

Since the sedans stayed mostly to the left lanes, they were too far removed from the slower moving right lanes to really understand what it was like over there. They could sort of stretch their necks and look over the middle lanes, but even then they were too far away to really get it. But that didn't stop them from having opinions about the right lanes.

The lane furthest to the right was mostly occupied by pickup trucks. When the superhighway was first built, the sedans wouldn't even let the pickup trucks use it. So many of the pickup trucks were just content to be driving in a time when they were allowed on the road at all.

But some of the pickup trucks started paying attention. They started wondering why most of the sedans were allowed to merge to the left, but most of the pickup trucks that tried to merge to the left were blocked. "Why won't you let us over?" they asked.

"It's not that we're not letting you over. You guys just aren't working hard enough to get in these lanes," the sedans responded.

Meanwhile, in the far right lane, giant holes were beginning to open up with deep, dark caverns below. So many pickup trucks were caught off guard and fell through, crashing to their deaths. A few sedans and SUVs fell through them as well. But the overwhelming majority of the cars that fell through were pickup trucks.

The pickup trucks were doing everything they could to avoid the holes. Some of them were even pushing others into the holes just to have the chance to continue on and maybe avoid the next one. Not wanting to wait on the next hole to open up, they started panicking. "Please! For the love of Henry Ford, let us over!"

Some of the sedans said "Why does it have to be a matter of us 'letting you over'? Why aren't you worried about the pickup trucks pushing other pickup trucks into the holes? That seems like a bigger problem."

It was clear that the sedans--for the most part; there were a few that tried but were drowned out by the others--weren't going to go out of their way to help repair the far right lane or even let the pickup trucks over in the meantime.

The pickup trucks wanted to stay calm and find ways to avoid the holes peacefully. They kept reminding each other, saying "we have to stay organized and peaceful, otherwise our lane will never be fixed." And most of them agreed. But that didn't stop the worrying, the panicking, and the constant creeping fear they all had that any second a hole could open up end their life.

Some of the pickup trucks thought they could see sedans up ahead deliberately pushing pickup trucks into the holes. It wasn't all of them, but at least a few of them. And it seemed like they mainly targeting pickup trucks. As the rest of the pickup trucks began to catch onto what was happening, their fears and worries grew to a boiling anger. "Why are you doing this?!"

Despite their collective fury over the prejudices against them, most of the pickup trucks still tried to hold onto their collective devotion to peaceful organizing. But then another pickup truck got pushed into a hole by a sedan, right in front of a large group of pickup trucks. The floodgates holding back their anger snapped, and the pickup trucks started ramming into the sedans, demanding to be let over.

The sedans in the far left lane craned their necks, wondering what was all the commotion over there. They saw the pickup trucks slamming into the cars in their way. The sedans were appalled, confused, disappointed, and a little terrified. They immediately started commenting on this absurd behavior.

"Some of those pickup trucks have no class," one said seriously.

"Stay classy, right lane," another said sarcastically.

"Yeah, because slamming into other cars always solves problems."

"If they have time for slamming into cars, they should have time to fix those holes."

But the sedans had no idea what it was like to spend a day on the superhighway as a pickup truck. No matter how well intentioned they were, they could not live that experience. Nor could they hover above the superhighway and see that the pickup trucks were just responding naturally to what was happening around them. It wasn't a matter of ethics or proper behavior.

When it came right down to it, none of the cars on the superhighway--including and especially the sedans, as well as the pickup trucks--were really in control of anything they did. Sometimes it just felt like they were in control of their individual cars, and made decisions about when to switch lanes and how fast to drive. Few of them realized that they were all just at the mercy of the flow of traffic.

You couldn't really blame the sedans for taking advantage of their positions in the far left lane. Nor could you blame the pickup trucks for reacting desperately, angrily, or rashly at their disproportionately hole-riddled far right lane. You could only observe the larger phenomenon and ask how to gradually and steadily repair holes in the right lanes, and diversify the flow of traffic across all seven lanes.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Unexpected Burden

Little Timmy O'Malley walked into Ms. Kelvin's 8th Grade Reading & Language Arts class and sat down at the desk in the middle of the third row with his name taped to the top on a laminated index card.  He pulled out his mechanical pencil, with the large eraser attached to the back, and marked another tally on the desk below his name.

17 down, 163 to go.


It's not that he was in a hurry to get to the end of the school year or anything.  He just liked keeping the proper perspective.  It was also nearly a ritual at this point, and he liked making a small, yet noticeable and consistent change to his environment every day.

The late bell rang as the last few students rushed in before Ms. Kelvin could close the door.  One of them was Brad Easterly, who sat in the second row at the desk right next to Timmy's.  Brad rushed over to his desk, tossed a pile of abused textbooks and loose crumpled paper onto the desk as he sat down, and exhaled audibly.

He leaned toward Timmy, and said "Can you believe she's making us read 30 pages a night?! Give me a break Hitler, geez."

Timmy smiled and chuckled a little, then shrugged his shoulders as if to say I know man, but what can you do?

"Alright, good morning class.  I want to discuss what you read last night in Lord of the Flies and what the conch symbolizes for these young boys.  Why do you all think the conch is important?  What purpose does it serve in the story?  Tell me some of your thoughts," said Ms. Kelvin as the rest of the late arrivals settled into their seats.

Timmy didn't want Brad to know that he actually loved reading--so much so that he had read 50 pages ahead last because he was so interested in the story.  The only reason he didn't read any further is because his mom forced him to turn off the lights at 11.  He was hoping he could finish the book tonight if he ate an early dinner and finished all of his homework on the bus ride home.  Brad was one of the popular kids and Timmy knew that Brad favored him.  If he let Brad know that he loved reading, he'd ruin his social life for the rest of the year--maybe even all of high school too.

So he sat there quietly and listened to Melissa Perkins ramble on about how the conch was the only way to make a loud noise on the island without losing your voice and it was really important to be able to make loud noises in case someone saw a boar and needed help spearing it for food because they were all hungry and food was important and they were tired of eating fruit all the time and yadda yadda yadda...

No, you idiot.  The conch is a metaphor for structure and society.  It's the only thing standing between them being civilized boys lost on an island and being rampaging savage animals with no sense of reason.

Timmy felt bad for Melissa (even though she was clearly vying for teacher's pet) because she was wasting all of her energy just to hear herself talk.  She wasn't taking the time to actually sit there and think about the characters and their situation.  All of the answers aren't on the surface and they're not all spelled out for you.

He also felt sorry for Brad.  He couldn't understand how anyone could hate reading so much.  Even though Brad put on a cool exterior and seemed to have it all together, all of his answers weren't on the surface either.  Timmy could see Brad's face when Brad thought no one was watching him.  So much stress, pain, anxiety, and depression on a such a young boy.  Timmy had spent the night at Brad's house a few weeks back, but he never told his parents what he saw there.  It wasn't even so much of what he saw as what was implied.  It's like going into someone's house who has a dog but has no business owning a dog.  They can give one look to the dog, and there's no way for an abused pup to hide the instant fear in their eyes that can only be created by years of physical and psychological torture, not to mention neglect.  Brad desperately needed an escape from reality; the sort that only a book could give him.  That wasn't Brad's escape though.  No, his escape was to play it cool and pick on nerds.  

Tired of being distracted by all of these random worries, Timmy opened his book up to the beginning of Chapter Five where Ralph has an existential epiphany before walking up to the platform for the meeting he called.  Quickly, he found himself lost on the island with all of the boys, and the world of the classroom with intellectually inferior classmates and a bored teacher faded beneath the surface.

"Timmy!" Ms. Kelvin was sitting in the desk in front of him, turned around to look at him.  The class was empty.  He never noticed the bell ringing and everyone leaving around him.  "Do you often find yourself lost in a book?"

"Yeah, sorry.  I really zone out sometimes."

"That's okay.  It means you're really reading.  If you're so into the book Timmy, why don't you speak up in class when we talk about it?"

Timmy shrugged his shoulders and avoided making eye contact.  "I dunno.  I don't want people to think I'm a know-it-all I guess."

Ms. Kelvin's face darkened with sadness and frustration.  "If there's anything you should never be afraid of, it's letting people know how smart you are.  I want you to feel free to let that out.  Why do you hide it?"

Timmy just looked down at the ground, unsure of how to respond.

"Look Tim, I don't want to force you into an uncomfortable position, but I can see how bright you are and how alive your face looks when you're reading.  I've read your reading journals too  Those aren't just for show.  I actually care about what you guys are thinking while reading.  You're making observations that students usually don't understand until eleventh or twelfth grade.  Have you thought about writing stories or some poems?  You'd probably be very good at it.  I could--"

Timmy cut her off, "--sorry, I have to go.  I'm gonna be late for algebra."  He grabbed his things and hurried out of there.  He knew she meant well and all, but he just didn't like being put on the spot like that.  Sure, he wanted to write, but he ended up throwing everything away that he ever wrote.  It was never good enough.  It didn't sound like the books he liked reading.  It sounded like some dumb middle schooler whose head was too big.  



*****Five Years Later*****



"Alright ladies and gentleman, we're in the final stretch of the course now.  I know you're all probably already looking forward to Senior Week and going to the beach or whatever.  But please don't get too distracted.  I want you all to finish strong.  You should be almost done revising your papers.  All you have to do now is partner up for peer review, and write a final draft.  Make sure you have your partner's contact information and set a time this weekend to meetup.  We'll start writing our final drafts on Monday when you come back.  We've got a few minutes left, so do any of you have any questions for me?"

That was Mr. Sonder, Timmy's 12th Grade AP English teacher at Creekview High.  He was a 40-something year old bachelor, who always wore old khakis with flannel, and had a perpetual 5-day stubble and shaggy chin-length hair.  Even though he was a pretentious douche most of the time, you could still tell that he was one of the few teachers who actually cared about his students.  When he put his hand on your shoulder as you entered his class each day--and looked you in the eye with slightly raised eyebrows and said "how are you doing?"--you could tell that he wasn't faking it to seem nice.  He actually wanted to know how you were doing.  And if you were doing bad, he really wanted to take time out of his planning period to sit and talk with you to make sure you had everything you needed.  That was Mr. Sonder--the douche with a heart of gold.

"Well if none of you want to ask any questions, I'll just make it awkward and talk until the bell rings. Have any of you thought about what's going to happen after you graduate and go your separate ways?  I'm not trying to scare you or anything, but I want you to think about each other and the times you've had here during high school.  Before you realize it, you're all going to be off doing your own things.  Some of you will stick around here for life, and that's fine.  But others might go off and backpack through Europe, or teach English in Malaysia, or join the military, or relocate to the West coast.  

You'll meet new people, get exposed to new ideas and cultures, and ten years from now, your future selves won't even recognize your present selves.  So think about that in terms of the relationships and friendships that you've made here.  You're going to lose touch with most of the people in your life right now.  That's just a fact.  But of the few that you think matter--like objectively, really matter and add value to your life; they're there for you no matter what, and you always reciprocate--make sure that you don't become just a minor background character in their story.  You're going to be an 'extra' if you will, in millions of stories.  The person in front of you in line at Starbucks who's a quarter short on her drink and forgot her debit card--you're the nice stranger who gives her the right change.  That's great, but that's the end of your role in her story.  

Think about your best friends right now.  The ones who matter.  Who actually give a shit.  Or think about that friend that you maybe used to have, but have fallen out of touch with throughout high school.  Is that person okay?  Do you see him or her in the hall and wonder how they're doing?  Maybe try to rekindle that friendship while you have a chance.  You never know.  Major characters become background characters.  You've all read Harry Potter.  Do you even hear about the Dursleys in the 6th or 7th books?  Not really; they're just fluff.  But they had huge roles in the first book.  Maybe that's a bad analogy.  But you get what I mean.  It's never too late to increase your role in someone else's story.  You never know--you coming back into their life might be the thing that saves it."  Bell Rings.  "Alright, have a great weekend and work on those peer reviews." 

Timmy walked out of Mr. Sonder's class and down the hall toward the cafeteria.  Something about what Sonder said stuck with him.  He was just a minor character in everyone's life.  He couldn't think of a single person he could call a close friend.  Most people just annoyed him.  Even the girls he found attractive were usually too dull or worried about going to the mall all the time.  He used to be close with some friends back in middle school, but Creekview funneled four different middle schools into one high school.  All of the friends he had from middle school found better, more interesting friends than Timmy O'Malley.  

Even though the school day was over, the cafe still sold premade chicken sandwiches until 3pm.  He usually spent his entire lunch period reading--he worked for six hours everyday after school and barely had enough time to do his homework before passing out at night--so it had become a ritual for him to pick up a chicken sandwich on his way out of school in the afternoon.  He walked up to the heating lamp and felt a few packages before grabbing the least crunchy feeling sandwich, and turned to go to the cashier's station.  When he turned around, another boy was standing in front of him.  This kid had bags under his eyes, greasy unwashed hair, and torn jeans--the kind that are really torn from being worn for too many years, not that crap American Eagle sells for $60.  Timmy also noticed the kid's bloodshot eyes and twitching fingers.

"Hey Brad, what's up?  You okay?" Timmy asked.

"Yeah man, listen, I really need some cash.  I know we haven't talked in forever and I wouldn't ask if it wasn't a big deal.  I'm in a tight situation.  Can I borrow like $100?  I swear I'll pay you back in a couple weeks!" said Brad Easterly.

Normally Timmy would try to deflect or somehow get out of the situation, but it was just the two of them in the cafe, and the cashier about twenty feet away playing Angry Birds on her cell phone.  Also, he had no idea what Brad was capable of right now; the guy looked deranged and desperate.  More than that though, Timmy felt bad for him and wanted to help.  Brad had really gone off the deep end after they got to Creekview.  He fell in with a bad crowd and everyone knew that group was always skipping school to get high...probably meth.  A few of them had been arrested last year for trying to sell it near the laundromat just outside of town.  The cops couldn't prove anything because none of the kids would fess up to it, but they were almost certain that all of these kids' parents were running a lab somewhere.  Timmy saw Brad now and then in the hallway.  Accompanying the usual signs of a tweaker, Brad also sported fresh shiners and regular limps.  Timmy didn't even want to think about what would happen to Brad if went home without the money he needed.  

"Sure Brad," he said as he pulled out his wallet.  "Here," he handed him five $20 bills.

"Thanks bro.  I'll pay you back ASAP.  Trust me!"

"Don't worry about it.  Consider it a gift."

They held eye contact for a few brief moments, and moisture was beginning to well up in Brad's bloodshot eyes.  "Yeah..."was all he said before turning to pace out of the cafeteria, scratching his neck as he walked away.

Timmy knew he was never going to see that money again, the same way he didn't think he would ever see the real Brad again.  It was sad to think about the kid that used to sit next to him in Ms. Kelvin's class, and how he had become a full blown meth addict before even graduating high school.  If only there was some way to get through to him and somehow get him out of that situation.   How can I become a major character again? 

He paid for his sandwich, even though his appetite was gone, and put it in his backpack before walking out to the sidewalk that wrapped around to the student parking lot.  It was nice outside; 70 and sunny with a light breeze.  He had to walk by the cheerleaders who practiced in the grass near the common area every day after school.  They probably didn't think much about him, but he kept his eyes down as he passed them anyway just to make sure they didn't think he was being a creep.  There were few things more disgusting than looking at the face of a pubescent teenage boy gawking shamelessly at girls, no matter how uncomfortable they looked.  As he passed their huddle, he heard some footsteps run up behind him.  When he glanced over his shoulder, a girl with a long blonde ponytail, wearing black soffe shorts, a yellow crew neck, and white sneakers was running up to him.

"Hey, Tim!" she said a little too loudly as she caught up to him.

Timmy nodded his head as he turned to face her.

"I just wanted to let you know, we're all renting a beach house for Senior Week.  There's still room for another three or four people, so if you'd like to come, that'd be cool.  Do you have any plans?"

This was awkward.  Timmy didn't really care about Senior Week and had planned on spending his summer finding a solid job at the BMW plant--not this "sandwich artist" crap at Subway--and maybe reading some Tolstoy or Steinbeck.  Besides, since when did Melissa Perkins care about him?  She was probably just asking because she knew he was quiet and wouldn't bother anyone, and they all didn't want to pay $200 each if they could invite a few more people and get off cheaper.  "Yeah, sorry.  I don't really have the money to go, and I'm no fun at the beach anyway.  I burn way too easily.  You guys have fun though, and thanks for the invite!"  He smiled quickly and walked away before Melissa had a chance to respond.

That's one story I am totally fine with watching from the background. 


*****Five Years Later*****


Timmy sat in his four-by-four foot shack that had a wooden stool and a small piece of plywood fixed to the wall with just enough space for a small laptop and some papers.  This was his place of work for twelve hours a day; four on, three off.  Being a security guard at an obscure chemical processing plant in the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere didn't pay well, but it paid enough for him to keep a one-bed/one-bath seven-hundred square foot apartment for him and his adopted cat, Felix.  He didn't need much more than that, so he was satisfied.  It was also almost guaranteed that every twelve hour shift he pulled would consist of about one total hour of work and eleven total hours of remaining alert--which to him, meant eleven hours of reading.

He still didn't write.  He always wanted to but every time he sat down it felt forced.  He was terrified of sounding fake, and never felt like he had anything significant to add that hadn't already been written.  

Mr. Sonder--or Jeff, as he had been told to call him after graduating--still emailed him regularly.  They were in a local book club together and had similar tastes in literature, though that was probably just a result of Timmy having taken his classes and listened to his rants for three semesters.  Though he wasn't overbearing or annoying about it, Jeff would randomly ask if Timmy was writing.  Timmy always explained his reasons as best as he could, but even he was having a hard time believing them anymore.  

Instead of pressing too much, Jeff would just offer some advice.  "I can understand that.  A narrative voice is important; it's your identity.  So if you don't feel like you have your own identity, that can easily scare you away from writing.  The material is also important.  You have to feel compelled to say something.  For some that just comes as a matter of watching the world around them.  But for others, they need a more powerful nudge.  Usually, that involves something tragic.  Have you thought about almost dying in a car accident or contracting a deadly virus?" Jeff had 'jokes.'  

Timmy just decided to let the nudge come whenever it wanted.  Until then, he would take advantage of this opportunity to read voraciously.  It took him five strings of shifts to read through all of Shakespeare's complete works.  Though, after finishing the set of classics he was given by his grandfather after graduating high school, he didn't even care what he was reading, only that he was reading.  He stopped caring about genres and time periods a long time ago.  As long as it was in English, he was willing to anything ten or fifteen pages. 

He liked to go down to the local thrift store every six months and see how far a twenty dollar bill would get him.  They had all sorts of random shit in there, and judging by how excited the manager had increasingly become after seeing Timmy walk in, he bet that he was probably their only customer to every look at their Books section.  Two years ago, Timmy bought five Norton Anthologies from them for a dollar each, in not-too-bad condition at that.  Some bored English major had doodled in some of the margins, but he could still read all of the texts, and the spines were holding together well enough.

It was a particularly slow Sunday day at work, and Timmy had just finished Robert Jordan's first volume to the Wheel of Time series.  There were still thirty minutes left in his shift before turnover and he didn't have the second volume with him.  (He hated to mix series together; if he was reading a particular series, and it was intriguing, that's what he was reading until it was done).  Not knowing what to do, he remembered that the security manager always put a copy of the most current Sunday Paper in a plastic sleeve on the back wall of the hut.

He grabbed the paper from the sleeve and started to thumb through it casually.  It was mostly random tidbits about everything he didn't care about--a new Wal-Mart opening in the next town; scores from last Friday's high school football game against Central, as well as updated division standings for the post-season; the local community center was hosting another Saturday luncheon next week to talk about the new sidewalk expansion on main street.  Even though he didn't care about any of it, it was still nice to have something to look at to make the time pass.

He was flipping through the third page when he saw headline with the photo of a mostly empty bedroom below it...


------


Dennis Caffey ran a less-than-desirable apartment complex about a mile south of City Hall.  He was used to residents being a month or two late on their rent, but he was trying to crack down on delinquent payments.  He wanted an excuse to kick the moochers out so he could hopefully replace them with someone who could make rent.  With enough new residents, he might be able to afford to renovate the appliances and make this into a descent residence.  But all of that started with him getting the balls up to start kicking people out who he knew would never make rent.  First on his list, apartment 427.  

Dennis knocked and banged and hollered at 427's door for over an hour.  He would have used his master key to go in, but the bastard of a tenant had changed the locks on him.  Well, at least that idiot violated the lease as well as skipped payments; no way to wiggle out of this eviction.  He had called a locksmith.  They could both hear loud heavy metal playing from deep inside the apartment.

When the locksmith opened the door, Dennis started walking through the filthy apartment.  There was no point in yelling out; he could barely hear himself think with how loud the music was blaring.  There were empty bottles, pizza crusts, unopened envelopes, and dirty clothes all strewn about on the floor.  What looked like an entire high school chemistry lab was cluttered all over the kitchen counter.  There was a strong stench of mildew, urine, and feces that dominated as soon as you walked in.  He couldn't believe how disgusting this place was.  It was sad.

Annoyed with the inability to think, Dennis finally found the source of the loud music in the bedroom past the kitchen.  It was coming from an iPhone plugged into a Bose stereo system that was in the back corner of the bedroom.  It was streaming an Avenged Sevenfold station on Pandora.  

Other than the stereo, there wasn't much else on the floor of the bedroom.  A mattress absent a bed frame on it's side leaned up against one of the walls.  A ceiling fan beside the mattress with loose wires sticking out like it had been carelessly ripped out of a ceiling.  A knocked over step ladder near the middle of the room.  Dried urine and feces stains in the center of the room.  A pair of feet, motionless, dangling above the stains, connected to the naked body of Brad Easterly.  He had apparently hanged himself with a six-foot HDMI cable tied to the wooden beam visible through the vacant hole in the ceiling.

There was also a sharpie on the floor next the left wall.  On the wall, in a disjointed and hurried script, read "Fuck tweaking, fuck family, and fuck Tim and his perfect goddamn life.  I'm done." 


------

Timmy read the report five times.  Brad Easterly had committed suicide, and in his final dark moments had scribbled Timmy into his suicide note.  But why?  

"Hey man, you okay?  Look like you seen a ghost." 

Timmy's replacement had arrived and he didn't even see him walk up to the booth.  He quickly wiped the few tears away from his cheeks and tucked the paper under his arm as he got up and grabbed his duffle bag.  "Yeah, I'm fine.  Nothing happened."  He nudged past his replacement and started running to his car.

"Well fuck me for wanting to read the paper, right?!" his replacement yelled out as Timmy ran away.

When he got home, Timmy threw his keys, wallet, and phone on the floor, along with his duffle bag and jacket.  Newspaper in hand, he went to the desk in the corner of his living room--the desk he had bought a few years ago when he thought he was going to magically become a famous writer--and sat down.  He read the article about Brad a few more times, then tossed it on the floor as well.  He sat there in silence, without moving, barely breathing, barely thinking.  It could have been five minutes or two hours.  He couldn't tell.  

Suddenly becoming aware of the steady stream of tears flowing down his cheeks and along the sides of his nostrils, he opened a blank word document, saved it as "My Perfect Goddamn Life" and started typing...

What are we to say of the accumulation of our every waking moment--each infinitely important in its respective present, yet casually dismissed with the arrival of its respective successor?  We call the cumulative and coagulative sum of these individual moments "life."  Yet it moves, adding still another, and another, and another individual moment into the whole, which perpetually resists stasis.  Impermanence.  Anicca.  

Death, then, is permanence.  It is the antithesis of change.  It is the cessation of the flow of moments for a given life.  A lamp extinguished.  A sudden tiny flash in the constellations of a clear night sky, followed by a subtle sense of increased darkness, however nebulous.  Although the extinguished light is relieved of it's burden to illuminate the dark, that burden itself is not gone.  Those who sought a reprieve from the dark and regularly found it in the now extinguished light still need comfort.  So the burden formerly fulfilled still remains, and is distributed out to the other lights in accordance with their proximity to their extinguished neighbor.  This burden implores them, for the sake of keeping the darkness at bay, not only to account for what light has been lost, but also to shine even brighter, with renewed vigor and determination, so as to remind the darkness of the collective power of their ever growing illumination. 

Brad extinguished his light.  Suddenly, violently, painfully, and without warning.  I don't know what exactly was causing him to be in such pain.  Perhaps it wasn't just one thing or one moment.  Perhaps it was cumulative sum of all of his moments, and too many of them were dark.  Maybe I was one of the dark ones, when I should have been a light.  Maybe I was too content with my background role in his story.  I was too content.  Though I can't reverse time and demand a leading role, I can assume my share of the burden left in his wake.  His burden now falls on me.  His burden now falls on all of us.  We cannot allow the darkness to encroach anymore.  Lights once dim, must glow brighter.  They can no longer complacently illuminate the faint background.  We must carry his burden as we carry his memory, and honor both by showering the darkness in the torrential vigor of our collective illumination.  Only through continuous growth and a shared burden can we overcome the dark.  



Thursday, March 19, 2015

10 Days of Silent Meditation

     I took a trip recently that was more for personal growth and exploration than anything else, so I didn't tell anyone except for my wife a few close friends.  It was a 10 day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA.  Since I've got back it's been difficult to recalibrate to the normal flow of daily life.  But I at least wanted to sit down and collect some of cursory thoughts on the trip and let all of you know how it was and what it's all about.  I'll start with some simple pros and cons, then give you a break down of what the technique is all about (from my perspective.)  It's also worth noting that, prior to this trip, I had exactly zero hours of any sort of disciplined meditation practice with any technique.  I went into this as a complete novice, only having read Sam Harris's "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," and a few articles online.

Pros:

  • The technique works!
  • The food was delicious.  It was all vegetarian (which was great for me), but even all of the meat-eaters I spoke to said they were more than satisfied.
  • The staff--who are all volunteers--were incredibly polite, accommodating, and understanding.
  • It's absolutely free.  In fact, they refuse to let you give them any money or compensation until after you've completed a 10 day course.  Even when the course is over, they don't solicit donations from you.  If you want to donate some money, you give as much or as little as you're able.  They insist that you not give them money with the intention of payment, but rather with the intention of contributing to a future student's ability to receive the technique.  They also tell you all about volunteer opportunities at the center, which is another way to give back.
  • Lots of quiet time. 
Cons:
  • Lots of quiet time. 
  • People burp and fart in the meditation hall, a lot.  And there's nothing you can do about it.
  • The teacher, S. N. Goenka, is slightly more into weird spiritual beliefs than I'm comfortable with. (i.e. reincarnation, "energy" being transferred from people, karma, etc.)  This would probably only be a "con" to anti-theists like myself.  I eventually got over this and learned to ignore the stuff I didn't agree with and focus on the technique.  But it was a serious hang-up for me, for a few days. 
  • Leg, ankle, knee, back, and neck pain. 
  • Goenka chants a lot, and it's supposed to create a calm environment for meditating, but it sounds awful.
  • This may not apply to single people, but I was incredibly homesick and constantly missed my wife and dog. 

     Now, on to the actual technique.  If you're interested in the history of the technique, click this link and skim through the wikipedia article.  Vipassana is a Pali word that refers to insight and basically means "seeing things as they really are." There are 10 full days of practice, plus two half-days (the night you arrive and the morning you depart.) 

     There are many rules you have to abide by during the course, but I'll just explain the main ones quickly.  Starting at about 8pm on Day 0, and ending around 11am on Day 10, you cannot communicate with any other students in anyway; no speaking, writing, gesturing, or eye contact.  They also separate men and women completely during this time.  You can ask the assistant teachers questions about the technique from 12-1pm everyday, and during breaks in the evening group sits.  You can also ask members of the staff questions about your accommodations if you have to.  Other than that, you're supposed to remain in a constant state of inward focus, ignoring everyone else.  The daily schedule looks like this:
  • 4am: Wake-up.
  • 4:30-6:30: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 6:30-8: Eat breakfast and rest.
  • 8-9: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 9-11: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 11-12pm: Eat lunch and rest.
  • 12-1: Question time with assistant teachers, and rest.
  • 1-2:30: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 2:30-3:30: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 3:30-5: Meditate on your own in the hall or in your room.
  • 5-6: Tea break and rest. 
  • 6-7: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 7-8:15: Evening discourse from S.N. Goenka. 
  • 8:15-9: Group sit in the meditation hall.
  • 9-9:30: Question time with assistant teachers, and rest.
  • 9:30: Lights out.
     During the 5pm tea break, new students are allowed to drink tea and eat fruit.  Old students (those who have completed a 10 day course before) were only supposed to drink lemon water. :/ 

     Days 1 through 3, and the first half of day 4, are all spent working on Anapana meditation, which is "awareness of respiration."  They start by telling you to relax and let yourself breathe naturally.  (Side note: There is no "official" meditation posture you're supposed to assume--at least that's how they made it seem.  You use whatever cushions or benches you need to be reasonably comfortable on your meditation cushion.  Some people with injuries even used chairs.  The only things they insist on for posture is that you're reasonably comfortable, and that you sit with your back and neck as straight as possible.  I was completely unashamed of the cushion fortress I built.)  

     Once you relax and learn to let yourself breathe naturally--through the nose, not the mouth--they tell you to remain aware of your respiration as it enters and exits your nostrils.  You're supposed to focus your attention on the entire area of your nostrils, inside and out, as well as the space of skin below your nose and above your upper lip.  Don't try to force your attention to stay there or get frustrated or discouraged when you notice that your attention has slipped to something else.  Just accept that your attention has wandered, and gently bring it back to your breath.  We focused on this larger area for the night of Day 0 and for all of Day 1.  

     Over the course of Days 2 and 3, they gradually instructed us to narrow our attention from the larger area of the entire nostrils down to the small area covering the rings of our nostrils and the skin above our upper lips.  This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.  In my experience, it seems that the more I relaxed, the more soft my breath became.  The softer my breath became, the harder it was to remain aware of it.  But that's kind of the point.  You're gradually training your mind to notice the subtlest sensations on your body.  Whenever we fail to maintain awareness of our breath, they say to take a few harder and intentional breaths to regain our awareness, then fall back to natural breathing and try to maintain that awareness.  In the last part of Anapana mediation--the evening of Day 3 and the first half of Day 4--they instruct us to give priority in our awareness to any subtle sensations that occur on our nostril rings or the skin above the upper lip.  So we're giving the awareness of respiration a 2nd priority and only focusing on that if we can't notice any subtle independent sensations in that area.  The idea here, is that over the first 3 days we should have built a keenness in our awareness for very subtle sensations on the surface of the skin.

     On the afternoon of Day 4, they instructed us on how to start Vipassana.  Basically, you're taking the last principle from Anapana--developing awareness of the sensations on the skin--and applying that awareness to your entire body, piece by piece, in a systematic way.  They tell you to go in whatever order suits you best, but that you should stick to the exact same way, not letting your attention wander randomly around your body.  You start at the top of the head, and gradually work your way down to the tips of your toes.  My system for this part of Vipassana was something like this: top of the head --> forehead --> nose-eyes-cheeks --> lips-chin-jaw --> back of the head --> sides of the head and ears --> throat --> chest --> front of the torso --> left shoulder --> left upper arm --> left forearm --> left hand --> right shoulder --> right upper arm --> right forearm --> right hand --> back of the neck --> upper back --> lower back --> butt --> left thigh --> left knee --> left lower leg --> left foot --> right thigh --> right knee --> right lower leg --> right foot.

     In the beginning, it would take me about 25 minutes to get from the top of my head to the toes of my right foot, going in this order.  You're supposed to focus your attention on each area independently--ignoring sensations in other areas when you aren't on that spot yet--and try to remain aware of any sensations you might feel on that particular area.  Subtle vibrations, tingling, itching, pulsing, throbbing, sharp pains, dull pains, tightness, dryness, heat, cold, perspiration, anything.  You give priority to whatever is the most subtle sensation in that area.  For example, if I'm focusing on the top of my head and I have an intense itching sensation in one part, and a subtle tingle right beside it, I'm going to focus on the subtle tingle and try to ignore the intense itch.  This way, I'm training my awareness to notice the smaller sensation.  Think of it like trying to read a road sign that's far away; it's easy to see "35 Speed Limit" in big bold letters, but harder to see "during school hours" in smaller print at the bottom.  So for the first day or two of Vipassana, we were focusing on these sensations in specific sections of our body, trying to gradually notice subtler and subtler sensations.

     It's also important to keep in mind that regardless of whatever sensation you're noticing at a particular moment, you should be maintaining equanimity with all of it.  Goenka will remind you hundreds of times that the two biggest parts of Vipassana meditation are awareness and equanimity.  You're supposed to be an objective observer of whatever is happening to your body.  You don't identify with the intense pain in your knee after 40 constant minutes of sitting without moving.  You simply notice the pain objectively, without developing an aversion for the pain, and wait until it passes.  Similarly, when you get a strong vibrating sensation throughout an entire section of your body, and it feels utterly blissful, you don't identify with it and you don't develop a craving for it.  You simply notice that it's happening, and wait for it to pass.  He speaks a lot about the "law of impermanence" and how everything in the universe is constantly changing.  He tells you to apply this same principle to the sensations in your body.  All sensations, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, painful or blissful, will eventually fade away.  They come, and they go.  Therefore, as Goenka will tell you, developing cravings or aversions for any of these sensations only increases your suffering.  When you have an aversion for something, and it happens, you're miserable until it goes away.  When you have a craving for something, and you can't have it, you're miserable until you get it.  Training your mind to eliminate all of these cravings and aversions will eventually cause you to be at peace with whatever is happening in the present moment.  Whether good or bad, you learn to accept the present moment for what it is with the understanding of impermanence.  

     So over the course of Days 5 through 9, we were gradually training and developing our awareness to focus on sensations all over the body in a systematic way.  We learned to do a sweeping awareness where you focus on symmetrical parts simultaneously.  In rare moments when my mind was extremely calm and my pains were minimal, I was able to have a free-flowing sense of subtle vibration throughout my entire body, and I could sweep my attention from head to toe, and from toe to head, in one motion, noticing the wave of vibrations all over my body.  Those instances were rare, and also very difficult to not develop a craving towards.  However, Goenka and the assistant teachers reiterate that a sweeping sensation of vibration is not the goal of Vipassana and you shouldn't get discouraged if you haven't achieved that.  The goal of Vipassana, as far as I can gather, is to develop a keen awareness of bodily sensations, and to maintain an objective and equanimous frame of mind with every sensation.  There were a couple of days where all I could focus on was the pain in my knees and ankles.  There were other times when I could get the pain to pass, but I couldn't notice any other sensations on many parts of my body.  There are some "blind areas" that take time to develop an awareness for sensations.  

     We learned one final technique on Day 10, called Metta, which is actually very pleasant.  You're supposed to do this technique at the end of a Vipassana session.  You get comfortable, to alleviate any uncomfortable pains in your body, and focus on the subtle hum of vibrations throughout your body.  While you're maintaining awareness of those vibrations, you let feelings of love and compassion for all beings come into your mind and inhabit that hum of vibrations.  Goenka, and many of the meditators there, seemed to believe that you could literally push those feelings of love and compassion out of your body, like an aura, and give them to the people, creatures, and the world around you.  I'm not sold on that part.  However, I do recognize the virtue in contemplating and nurturing a sense of love and compassion for all people and creatures; so I still enjoyed this technique.   =) 

     It's been about a week and a half since I got home from this trip, and I'm sad to say that I haven't meditated since coming home.  I wanted to get away from it for a while to try to really understand how I felt about it.  I didn't want the proximity in time with the trip to cloud my judgement about the technique.  But after a week and a half of trying to forget about the technique and getting back into the daily swing of things, I still feel exactly the same about it, so I don't think I was brainwashed.  I'm going to work on incorporating a daily meditation session at least in the mornings, and hopefully before bed as well.  I really think that a daily practice of this technique will improve a person's life in a noticeable way.  You'll still get angry, sad, frustrated, and ecstatic.  But those brief moments of reprieve are well worth the effort.  You may find that in the most stressful situations, you're slightly less stressed than normal.  Eventually, that level will decrease more and more.  

     Hopefully you're still with me and don't think I'm crazy.  If you're curious or interested in meditation after this, please check out this website and read more about the technique, and see if you can find a center near you.  I know 10 days seems like a lot of vacation time to burn, and a lot of time away from family, but you will almost certainly learn more about yourself and gain meaningful insights that you probably never would have otherwise.  Feel free to comment and ask me any questions as well!  

Monday, January 26, 2015

8 "Rules" for Talking About Islam in the 21st Century

     Regardless of how you feel about Islam, it's nearly impossible to have a conversation about politics or world events lately without converging upon that topic, if even tangentially.  Terrorism, immigration, free speech, globalization, church/state separation, etc.; even if Islam isn't the main topic of discussion, it's usually still a relevant side topic.  When it does come up in conversation, instead of having everyone persevere with a cool collected demeanor so as to produce a meaningful dialogue, what usually happens involves flaring emotions, obscene slurs, and feelings being hurt all around.  No one benefits from this type of discussion, and almost everyone ends up with fewer friends, more enemies, and in a shittier mood than when the conversation started.

     Naturally then, everyone's typical inclination is to just avoid talking about Islam altogether.  While this may save face in the meantime, surely we all recognize that this isn't a viable solution.  We have to talk about issues in order to understand and solve them.  And many geopolitical issues today relate, in one way or another, to the religion of Islam.

     I'm proposing that, in order for us to have successful dialogues in the future, we should attempt to agree on some basic principles for discourse whenever Islam comes up in discussion.  If we can agree on these 8 simple "rules" I've outlined below, I'm hopeful that we can have many productive conversations, all while growing our friends' list, shrinking our enemies' list, and feeling better about ourselves and those in the world around us. 


1. Make Sure You Understand the Concept of Free Speech.

     This part is crucial, and cannot be emphasized enough.  First of all, speech in this context is not only the sounds produced by a person's mouth while trying to communicate, but also any form of communication: speaking verbally, using sign language, writing, putting words on the Internet, making videos, etc.  Speech simply refers to an individual publicly stating her opinion by whatever means she so desires.

     Free, as an adjective to speech, implies that an individual should not have to worry about violent or legal reactions to her speech.  Regardless of her message, the concept of free speech should ensure that the worst response she has to endure is harsh criticism.

     A lot of people claim to accept this principle, until things start getting offensive.  There is this pervasive trend in the Western world where we feel that it's necessary to criminalize certain forms speech due to their offensive nature.  While we can all agree that some forms of speech are definitely offensive, or even hateful, I still believe that insofar as they are still speech, they should remain legal.

     To drive this point home, let me provide a hypothetical: let's say there is a group of people who are angry about something I've written, and are actively protesting in public calling for me to be put to death; my local police unit sees this as dangerous and decides to arrest those protesting.  In this situation, I would criticize their arrests as a violation of their inherent free speech rights.  Even though they clearly hate me and want me dead, I still recognize their right to say whatever they want.  Granted, I would probably hire a couple of body guards and install a new home security system to be safe, but they still have an inherent right to free speech. =)


2. Even Though All Speech is Free (read: legal), Not All Speech is Descent

     Given the previous point, it may seem that I'm promoting free range for people to sling obscenities and racial slurs every which way; nothing could be further from the truth.  I am as bothered by prejudiced generalizations as the most bleeding-heart liberal--I just think the proper way to respond to such speech is with better speech, not legislation.  I stand by my statement that all speech, so long as it is only speech, should be free from legal or violent consequences.  However, there are certain types of speech that should be criticized harshly and with the utmost vigilance in the public domain.

     There is a commonly asserted concern from liberal voices with respect to Islam that those critical of the faith are being racist or bigoted.  I'm going to elaborate on that point more in the next section, but for now I'll say that I think there is some truth to that assertion.  We should pay close attention to the specific things that people say, and attempt to ascertain the intentions behind their speech.  Whenever we come to a clear conclusion that their speech is based on a lack of understanding, compassion, or nuance, and seems motivated by a desire to denigrate and shame those individuals or groups that don't conform to their cultural norms, we should immediately recognize their words as ill-intended and counterproductive at best; evil, at worst.

     The best way to handle hate speech, offensive speech, willfully ignorant speech, or any other form of evil nonsense, is to either 1. ignore it (if it's clearly troll bait), or 2. collectively and adamantly respond to it with the harshest of criticisms based on evidence and compassion.  Perhaps I'm being too optimistic about the general goodness humanity, but I think public criticism of these types of speech can be more effective than trying to legislate against them.


3. Let's Be Clear About What We Mean When We Say "Race"

     The word "race" gets mentioned a lot in discussions about Islam, and while I don't think it's irrelevant, I do think we need to be clear about what we mean when we say "race" in this context.  Islam, as a religion and a collective idea, is not a "race" in the same way that we have historically constructed classifications like "white," "African-American," or "Asian" which are all based on arbitrary physical appearances.  So whenever criticism of Islam, or of Muslims, is presented, we should be careful not to automatically assume that such criticism is racist.

     Many different voices are presenting criticisms of Islam, and their intentions vary.  For example, when individuals such as Sam Harris or Bill Maher criticize Islam, regardless of your opinions of these men, you should immediately recognize that their criticisms are based on the ideas and tenets of Islam, not on the physical characteristics of Muslim people.  On the other hand, when a white American refers to Muslims as "sand ni**ers"--a real term that I have personally heard many people use--there is a clear case of racist paranoia and hate.  Individuals in the latter group often focus their criticisms of Islam on the physical features of stereotyped caricatures of Muslims.  They focus on their beards, or burqas, or hijab, or Arabic dialect, or brown skin.  I am convinced that these individuals are critical of Muslims for racist or bigoted reasons, and they deserve our harshest criticisms.


4. Altogether, Let's Condemn the Racists

     Let's identify those individuals who are attempting to hijack a potentially fruitful discussion by slinging their racist, bigoted, and ignorant remarks to and fro, and let's all tell them to stay the hell out of our conversation.  Ignore and avoid them whenever possible.  But when it's not possible to ignore them, do not hold back on your critique.  Let them know exactly why they're wrong, and remind them that nothing good ever comes from fear-based hate and ignorance.


5. Let's Be Clear About What We Mean When We Say "Extremist"

     In this context, the word extremist refers to individuals who take their beliefs far too seriously and attempt to force others to live by their standards, often using physical intimidation and violence as means through which to operate.  It is not fair or accurate to assert that "all Muslims are extremists."  However, if we're following rules 3 and 4 properly, we'll likely find that the only people making such sweeping generalizations are those we've already agreed to condemn.

     Typically, we have a view of the "Muslim extremist" as a violent jihadist--the ISIS fighter, the al-Q'aeda operative, the Boko Haram murderers.  After this, there appears to be a troubling assumption in liberal circles that the only other type of Muslim is the peaceful moderate.  So there is a false dichotomy where the peaceful moderates are juxtaposed against the radical extremists.  Islam is a huge world religion with over 1.5 Billion adherents, and those two groups (moderates and extremists) certainly make up parts of the overall picture--moderates dominating the largest section.  However, there are varying levels of religious zeal along the continuum between those points.

     For example, a Pew study from 2013 revealed some troubling statistics in the opinions of various Muslim populations around the world.  When asked if Sharia law should be applied to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims said yes, 50 percent of Indonesian Muslims said yes, and 44 percent of Malaysian Muslims said yes.  Even more troubling, of those who agree with Sharia, 81 percent of Egyptians, 60 percent of Malaysians, and 48 percent of Indonesians agree that stoning is the proper punishment for adultery.  Finally, 86 percent of Egyptians, 62 percent of Malaysians, and 18 percent of Indonesians, who agree with Sharia, also agree that the death penalty should be applied to anyone who leaves Islam.

     While these individuals referenced in the previous paragraph may not be joining the ranks of ISIS, al-Q'aeda, or Boko Haram, I do not think they can easily be counted among the ranks of the peaceful moderates, either.  I would submit that Muslims who agree with the sentiments above should be considered as a sub-group of what we call "extremists."  They hold views and opinions that simply are not compatible with any sort of cultural pluralism.  To successfully live together in the 21st Century, we have to be willing to tolerate those who do not conform to our own worldview, and coexist peacefully.

6. Altogether, Let's Condemn the Extremists

     Just like the individuals we're condemning and ignoring from rules 3 and 4, I think the extremists have nothing productive to add to a serious conversation about the future of a global community.  They deserve the same condemnation levied at the bigots and racists.  Whether you're an atheist, a Christian, a Muslim, or a member of any other belief system, if you're serious about living in a pluralistic society, I think we can all agree that the extremists have no place in this conversation.

7. We Have to Feel Free to Talk About the Motivations of the Extremists

     Are you still with me?  I hope so, because this next part is where the conversation seems to break down and get even more divisive.  Call me a Kantian, but I'm deeply concerned and interested in learning about the motivations or intentions behind actions.  If a person donates a large sum of money to a charity, I'd like to know whether they did it due to their empathy, the potential for public praise, or for getting rid of a portion of their income they didn't want to pay taxes on.  For the recipients of their donation, I'm sure it's all the same; but for me, knowing the intentions behind the action tells me what sort of person you are.

     With regard to religious extremism--this certainly applies to all religious extremists, but we're focusing on Islam in this post--it is often argued that jihadist martyrs and fanatics do what they do for psychological, political, or economic reasons, and that the teachings in the Qur'an or the Hadiths have nothing to do with their actions; they are simply misinterpreting the faith, as it were.  I'm not ruling any of those arguments out, and I strongly encourage psychological, political, and economic factors being a part of the overall discussion.  It would be naive to claim that those factors have no place in this argument.  However, I find it equally naive to assume that religious zeal motivated by scripture has no part in this discussion.  We have to be able to consider the likelihood that these extremists believe certain things based on their understanding of Islamic scriptures, and that their actions are motivated by those beliefs.

     Part of what needs to happen--and what is happening, thanks to the efforts of people like Maajid Nawaz--is a revolution of thought within Muslim culture.  The reason we are able to freely ridicule and criticize Christian extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, is because Christian culture endured the Protestant Reformation.  I don't think there is anything inherently more violent about the tenets of Islam as opposed to Judaism or Christianity.  In fact, a cursory reading of Leviticus and Deuteronomy will show you that Christian scriptures are probably even more violent than Muslim scriptures.  The difference is that very few Christians take those violent sections seriously anymore, and while it's definitely a minority of Muslims that take the violent suwar and Hadiths seriously, I think we would all like that number to be even smaller.

     Regardless of whether or not you agree with me on this point, all I'm asking is that we allow it to be part of the conversation--that a reasonable person can present the theory that religious extremism is often motivated by specific religious doctrines--without unjustly being labeled as a bigot, racist, or Islamophobe.

8.  Let's Commit to Settling Our Differences Through Words and Aim for Decent Discourse

     If we can all agree on these previous rules or guidelines, I'm hopeful that we can have many fruitful discussions about the future of a global society, and the roles the moderate religious groups (Islam included) can play in that society.  We will still have many disagreements, disputes, and perceived injustices, but if we can commit to settling these issues through dialogue and diplomacy, I'm hopeful that we can maintain some measure of peace and coexistence.

     Let's listen to each other, see the good intentions in each other, think carefully about our responses, and do our best to educate ourselves and others about the issues we care about.  "So say we all."