More on Pride in Race, and Social Revolutions

US Capitol

This is a followup to my earlier post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control“. In that article, I argued that it does not make sense to be proud of anything that is purely random, such as your race. An even more important argument is that race should not a factor when judging anyone, since no one chose their own race. More strongly, and perhaps, race should not be a factor when making laws.

For the same reason as before, namely that no one actually chose their own race, it is strange for laws to target certain racial groups. Is that not the very definition of racial discrimination, or shall I say, racism? Now, from a utilitarian perspective, it is possible to justify temporary measures that target specific race groups in order to increase the total social utility, namely affirmative action. However, the real difference to bridge in these cases is usually not so much race as it is socioeconomic conditions. Affirmative action is defined in terms of race rather than socioeconomic status because it is easier for the common person to understand and easier to enforce.

With affirmative action aside, even though its true motivation is only indirectly related to race, there are very few possible justifications for using race in law. And while the Zimmerman case should not have been related to race, the public perception of it certainly seemed like it. The law argued in court and the racism argued outside of it were out of sync.

Yes, in my last post, I wrote about how little this case mattered, but the more time that time goes by, the more I see people talking about it, and often with completely wrong accounts.

The question is, who has failed? Are the people so ignorant of the court system and brainwashed by the media that they have no clue what the trial was actually about? Or is the court system so disconnected from reality that it failed to serve justice?

A Historical Tangent: Changing the Mindset of Other Groups

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

While this is not directly related to the main topic, I wished to remind you of what protests are actually for. A discriminated group MUST convince fellow citizens who are not of that discriminated group that something must be changed. This in turn will, after a number of years, cause a change in public sentiment which will be reflected in the election, and in turn into law.

In this respect the LGBT movement is sort of a model modern movement, in that it successfully convinced a majority of straight people to accept LGBT people as equal.

So to the public who thinks that the result of the Zimmerman trial was unjust and that racism or the self-defense law should be changed, you must try to convince people who disagree with you of your position. The reason I point this out, when it seems completely obvious, is that it is not easy to do in the current world.

Yes you can announce your ideas to hundreds if not thousands of people with social media, but social media is also highly self-clustering, in that on a given social issue, discussion between the two groups is far more rare than among one group. That is, you may think that you champion good causes on Facebook, but your good intent may be useless because the only people listening are the ones who already agree with you anyway. This is especially true if you are not highly aggressive or confrontational in your posts. Unless you explicitly provoke the other side, your posts and resulting discussions will be nothing more than friendly groupthink, and which will only increase confirmation bias. An argument between people who disagree is far more useful than an argument between people who agree.

So go ahead and discuss, debate, and disagree.

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.

On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position

You find an ant mound in your house. Would you call an exterminator to remove it? Or would you treat it with “dignity” and offer to fight it in a “fair” duel?

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way arguments and debate work in modern society. Whereas the common sense choice is simply to remove the ant mound as fast as possible, the politically correct choice is to hear “both sides” of the story, run smear campaigns against the ant mound while defending against verbal insults made on yourself, and then put the ultimate decision to a referendum of not-the-most-intelligent voters, hoping they side with you and not the swarm of ants.

Debates and arguments are more focused today on winning vs. losing, not on right vs wrong, or truth vs fiction, or reason vs insanity.

The Appeal to Image

An enormous problem with this style of debate is that it gives too much legitimacy to the inferior position. A debate should focus on drawing logical conclusions from facts, not on maintaining personal reputations. For nearly all publicized debates, winning is glorified and losing is stigmatized.

Yet in the scientific disciplines, losing happens all the time, and if the loser is able to admit it, he is the one who actually learns more from the debate by discarding his outdated or incorrect theory, and progressing forward with a better one.

To quote Carl Sagan:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

In math, it is even better. You only need to come up with a correct proof or disproof, and every reasonable mathematician will agree with the correct side. There is literally no legitimate argument for the other side, because logically, it cannot exist.

Consider the equation 0.999… = 1. There is no ambiguity of truth to this statement. It can be proved many, many ways, though even one way is enough. We cannot pass such a statement to a referendum for a popular vote, as it is conceivable that the majority of the population will vote that the statement is false, yet among mathematicians, the vote will be unanimous for truth.

The act of even putting “False” on the ballot in the first place would be misleading to a non-mathematical voter. If I didn’t know enough math to deduce the truth of the statement, and all I saw on the ballot were “True” and “False,” I would probably think: “Well, since these positions are even on the ballot in the first place, it probably means there are some mathematicians arguing for ‘True’ and some arguing for ‘False.’ That means I need to use my own math skill. Hmm, obviously 0.9 is less than 1, 0.99 is less than 1, 0.999 is less than 1, so 0.999… is less than 1. I vote ‘False.’ ”

Yet, no one goes around protesting that the “other side” of this argument should be taught in schools, as whether 0.999… = 1 is irrelevant to their beliefs. When it comes to biology though, it becomes different.

Probably the most ridiculous instance of giving too much legitimacy to the inferior position is the evolution vs creationism “debate.” Just as among mathematicians there is no debate as whether 0.999… = 1, there is no debate among biologists as to whether evolution or creation led to where we are. By no debate, we mean that at least 99.85% of scientists in the earth and life sciences agree with evolution. Although, from just looking at the media, one might not expect this to be the case. Same with huge wastes of time and money that shouldn’t have even existed. There’s a difference between teaching true controversy and the disgrace of “Teach the Controversy,” which is just “Teach the Idiocy.”

It is much worse in religious debates, as religion somehow has a magical spell protecting it from all criticism. You’re encouraged to disagree all you want about musical taste, food, fashion, and even politics, but the moment anything remotely close to religion is debated, it is “offensive” and “disrespectful.” Other than due to an unfortunate social norm, Why? Why is it acceptable for an uneducated person to vocally disagree with scientists about matters of science and have their own article about it in the news, yet it is unacceptable for even an intellectual to disagree regarding religion?

It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anything they say must be respected, so they can make intolerant statements such as saying all people who disagree with them are fools, and as an audience we’re supposed to respect that. Just why? If an ignorant person calls you a fool, you have no responsibility to respect that opinion.

The Freedom of Speech

But we have the freedom of speech, you might say. We can say whatever we want.

Indeed, I think free speech is one of the most important features of an advanced, civilized society. (The lack of free speech is one of the reasons I despise modern China.) But there’s a difference between having the right to say whatever you want and the right to force an ignorant belief onto other people. Free speech lets you say the Earth is flat without being arrested by the government. But it sure doesn’t let you force the Flat-Earth theory into textbooks in public education. Or astrology. Or slavery. Or the 2012 doomsday.

Dissent from oppression is imperative. Dissent from authority is necessary. But dissent from truth is blindness. No matter how much one might protest the truth, the truth stays put. It is we who must adapt to the truth, not adapt the truth for us. The Freedom of Speech is not the Freedom to Brainwash.

Even the act of having to write this post deeply upsets me. Ideally this should all be Common Sense, yet Thomas Paine seems to have been all but forgotten by the inhabitants of America.

Seems like it’s about time for another Enlightenment, another Age of Reason.

Utopia vs Dystopia: A Matter of Semantics?

After witnessing the dystopian societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games, I wondered to myself, what would a Utopia really be? What differentiates a Utopia from a Dystopia? Is there always a fine line?

If you have learned of a Utopia as a perfect society, you might naively think that a Dystopia would be the opposite, or a failed society.

Yet this could not be further from the truth. The societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games are stable, successful, self-sustaining worlds, yet they are considered to be Dystopias. None of the three societies are failures. They merely contain different moral systems and social classes than what we are used to today. Yet they are considered repulsive and to be avoided at all costs.


In 1984, the world is run by three superpowers locked in constant warfare. This way, since each individual power is always at war, each government can maintain permanent martial law and rule with an iron fist. Any dissent is dealt with ruthlessly, as seen in the plot. The system works. It is, I daresay, perfect.

In Brave New World, the government does not rule with an iron fist, but rather, by providing so many distractions and recreations to the common people (analogous to TV or drugs in our world) that the average person is too amused to worry about any oppression by the government. There is a propagandized doctrine of happiness, that there are no problems as long as everyone is happy. The work is done by genetically engineered stupid people (the Epsilons) that serve as slaves to the other castes. Indeed, the way it runs, this society can be thought of as perfect as well.

The only major difference about the presentation of the Dystopia in The Hunger Games is that it presents an overly dramatic story of a rebel going through an elaborate system (the game itself) to rebel. It is also the only one so far that presents any hope to the rebels. In 1984 and Brave New World, by contrast, the government wins at the end.

In this respect, the government in The Hunger Games is nowhere near as successful as those in 1984 and Brave New World. Despite its running the games for 74 years, the government faces decadence and imperfection, which didn’t seem to affect the other two Dystopias. So in a way, the government in The Hunger Games is not a true Dystopia—it does not have lasting power, so it is not perfect. In 1984, the government could turn people against each other, and in Brave New World, everyone is happy so no one has reason to rebel. In The Hunger Games, however, people are unhappy, and these unhappy people unite together, posing a real threat to the government.

So the society in The Hunger Games is more akin to a short-lived Middle Eastern or South American state undergoing rapid regime changes, as a large amount of discontent exists and is significant. By contrast, the societies in 1984 and Brave New World are more like the former Soviet Union/the current United States. The people are either squashed in rebellion or are too mesmerized to rebel.

Where does a Utopia fit in all of this? A Utopia is supposed to be perfect, but how are the societies of 1984 and Brave New World not perfect? Sure, in 1984, the main character is tortured, but you could make the argument that if he had just listened to the government and did what it asked for, he would not have been hurt at all. Indeed, when he is brainwashed at the end, the society seems perfect to him.

And if you are a thinking human being in Brave New World, there is little reason you would want anything else from society. You are provided with all the joy you could possibly want. Sure, the lower class Epsilons are treated unfairly, but they are made dumb biologically. They might not have a consciousness as we have. They are basically machines.

You could say that in a true Utopia, everyone would be treated fairly. But how can a society actually function if this were the case? There has to be someone or a group of people in charge. Even in Plato’s Republic, containing the first proposal of a utopian society, there are social classes with clearly defined rulers.

And even with powerful and rational people at the top, this does not create a Utopia. In Watchmen, set in the Cold War, the titled superheroes try to save humanity, but the smartest and most rational of them finds, to most people’s shock, that the only way to save humanity from nuclear destruction is to initiate a massive attack on the whole world, in order to unify the United States and the USSR. While this character is considered to be the main antagonist as he killed millions of people, he is, if viewed from a purely rational perspective, the hero of humanity. And from this perspective, he took steps in creating a Utopia, not a Dystopia.

Since these moral issues are so subjective, the line between a Utopia and a Dystopia and the definition of perfect are subjective as well, as shown in all of the examples above. Then is the distinction between a Utopia and a Dystopia any more than a matter a semantics? What are your thoughts?

Memory and Multitasking

How many times in this era of “information overload” have you forgotten something, whether it be somebody’s name, a random fact, or a website’s name, not five seconds after you learned it? Just now, for example, I thought of something that I needed to look up, so I pressed control-T (new tab) on my browser, typed in “www” for the beginning of the url, and suddenly realized that I had no idea what it was that I was searching for.

It turns out I was attempting to go to the Weather Channel and look up tomorrow’s weather.

In my Intro to Sociology class today (err, make that yesterday, as this post took longer than expected to type up), we watched parts of a documentary about the effects of recent information technology upon mainly the American youth. By recent, it means in the last decade. And the video’s main point is, recent technology makes us multitask, and the physical effects of this are not are not wholly good.

I would consider myself a multitasker, but not as much as many others are. This is because I use my cell phone very seldom—my main forms of communication are in-person and the Internet. And the Internet, excluding mobile use in this case, is not yet an all-pervasive technology (i.e., everywhere), which means I can usually engage with another person in conversation undistracted. In contrast, the documentary showed an MIT (or was it Stanford) student at a desk with a laptop and an iPhone out—he was in the middle of an email, IMing someone else, and texting still others. And probably supposed to be doing homework.

And yet, I have somehow forgotten the name of this video.*

Even this blog post so far has taken me at least a couple hours. I’ve been looking at other sites and doing other things.

More concretely, one report has shown that multitaskers are bad at multitasking. Another says that we can’t multitask at all: we instead switch single tasks quickly. This second result is of pivotal importance. It means we cannot consciously focus on more than one thing at a time, and that if we try to do a second action, we lose attention of the first.

It would seem, then, that this is one way to “multitask” well: We perform some task to repetition so that it becomes ingrained into our subconsciousness rather than our consciousness. For example, our hearts are beating and lungs are beating at the same time. But we don’t have to think about either of those.

If you teach a baby to walk and to speak at the same time, it might not work. But walking eventually becomes part of our subconsciousness (muscle memory), and at some point, even talking becomes natural. When such a process is put into subconscious memory like this, it no longer needs our attention. Therefore, some things are possible to multitask: walking and talking, for example. While solving a Rubik’s Cube.

Let us try to apply this practically. In a situation where we have to multitask, we would want to train one of the tasks, or all of them, as much in muscle memory as possible. Unfortunately, some actions are currently impossible to train so. You can’t put a conversation, for example, into muscle memory, because conversations are different each time, and you have to consciously think about what you’re going to say.

The ability to train other actions may be limited by evolution. While we are evolved to walk—and at the same time watch out for predators—we are not quite evolved to make sense of the environment moving 20, 40, 60 miles per hour around us, as in driving. An experienced driver would thus need less attention to the driving process than does the new one.

What if we compare the rates of accidents for texting while driving by experience (age)? That is, do older people who text have a lower accident rate than younger people who text, simply because they are better at driving and can multi-task at it more easily? I have not yet found data sheets collected this way; if anyone could point one out, that would be appreciated.

Now let’s see if you remember what this article said about memory.

*Edit: The video I was referring to is Digital Nation.