Causes, Part 2

Hello all :).

This is actually a continuation of the previous post, “Causes”. I reached what felt like a stopping point (plus, if I’m over 2000 words, I tend to figure y’all need a break). However, an outline of this really-long post mysteriously appeared at the beginning of “Causes”, so I’m going to continue following that along where it leads me. Here’s the outline:

“[I like to ask people about causes.] People have said ‘climate change,’ and go on to detail the work they’ve done in that area. ‘Social change,’ and describe their PhD work. ‘Healing.’ ‘Family.’ ‘Faith.’”

I covered an experience on climate change in the last post. I’m discussing “social change” here.

My friend Tiffany recently went to the Dominican Republic (island south of the US, borders Haiti) on a medical service trip. In the way of conversations—meaning, you can’t cover a lot of personal reflections in conversations, because you’re busy interacting with the other person—she summarized it as, “it was like your Nicaragua trip.”

My Nicaragua trip was kind of life-changing. (There’s a post on that, too. It’s long.) I spent a week living with a family in a rural village in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, seeing how they lived. It was a simple life—get water from the well, make food, work, talk at night, watch some TV. They had electricity and a television; no internet. It was astonishing to me that people could just live. That they could not be worrying about exams and the skills they needed for their futures and replying to emails constantly and going to lectures. They lived, and seemed about as happy as any of the other people I knew. I remember my startled confusion at trying to express this. My Spanish fluency is apparently at the level of about a 3- to 5-year-old, and only the 13-year old had the patience to speak at length with me. But even Alexandra would get impatient with me—“how can you be so slow”—and I would sit there, mangling verb tenses, and think: but I have so many skills you’ll never need. I am optimally calibrated for the career I want to pursue. How would I ever go about explaining to you that the world I live in—with internet, communication between scientists, reading papers, vocabulary, math, people skills, confidence, management, group work—how do I explain that world to you, and how the specific difficulties I’ve overcome are relevant? I can’t even express the sentence, “but I’d wished I hadn’t done that,” to you, but seriously, I’m not useless where I come from, I know you can’t see it at all in how I act, but that’s only because the actions I can take are constrained in this arena. (And isn’t that crazy? I ask my participants what useless skills they have. Ability to memorize books, harmonize, obscure languages, vast musical abilities. These aren’t useless skills per say, but they’re not visible—we have no idea about that time and investment people have given until they’re in a situation where they can use them.)

Anyhow, I came back from my Nicaragua trip much calmer than I went in. I’ve remained less stressed about school and life in general because I realized that you can actually just live and life isn’t going to crumble around me. So, Tiffany had her Nicaragua trip.

She was telling me about how she talked to workers on the banana plantations. “And I asked them if they were happy, and they said: well, sometimes there’s not enough food, but otherwise it’s all good!” And they were astoundingly happy!” And I nodded along and smiled because yes, that was very much like my Nicaragua trip, and I was glad it’d been similarly enlightening for her.

Last week, I had hot pot with my friends Stephanie, Vasilis, and Mara (Stephanie’s friend). Mara had been in Brazil for her dissertation work, and was frustrated by how people don’t try to change things, or even realize, when they’re in terrible situations. She’d been interviewing people who were basically in indentured servitude, who simultaneously lived across the road from people who had huge houses and were tremendously rich. “How can they not see the inequality?” she asked.

Vasilis said that Russia had a similar situation—that propaganda was very skilled there, and that you can convince people of a lot of things if you do it in the right ways. “If you have nothing to compare against,” I contributed, “you can’t expect people to think differently from everyone around them.”

Suddenly the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua stories seemed a lot darker.

(Moreover, Stephanie contributed, if you feel helpless to move up in the world, you are just as unlikely to induce change.)

I have a few undeveloped thoughts on this. I worry about the “thinking just like the other people around you” a lot, because it’s undeniably true. We have confirmation biases—we search for information that confirms our existing beliefs. And we’re very influenced by what other people around us—especially close to us—think. Humans are good at being indoctrinated.

It takes so much work to learn something that doesn’t fit in with your beliefs. You have to think a lot harder, because you have to evaluate new arguments against what you know. If you find the argument valid, then you have to question what you know, and that’s usually built into whole belief structures that are difficult to dismantle. Finally, there’s no satisfaction in knowing you were wrong. There’s no incentive for learning about things outside of what you already believe.

But that’s assuming information on others’ beliefs is even available. In my world this information is available: I have access to news and people from a range of cultures, and at some point people I respect will disagree with me. What if you’re on a banana plantation with no internet? There’s no hope that you’re going to find someone with a wildly-different opinion and convert to their beliefs. Everyone will believe what they grew up with and are surrounded by (and that’s true wherever you are; I think the degree just depends on the range of people you interact with). Is this necessarily bad?

What if outsiders are looking in on your situation and seeing how bad it is? (What if you’re thinking the “wrong” thing, and you should change it?) Or—independent question—what if you realize how bad your situation is, but you have no means to get across the road to the rich peoples’ lives on the other side of the tracks? (What if you want to change it, but you feel like you don’t have control over the situation?)

Bottom-up change seems to occur when both of these stages are surmounted. It has been done in history, so it’s possible. But it seems frustrating and painful and requires the collective efforts of masses of people.

I’m encountering people in Cambridge who are in the middle of these processes—who are the outsiders looking at how to make things change. Their work is amazing, and will contribute to raising the standard of living of people in the long-term. Their work presumably helps those who want to change but can’t see the avenues towards it.

Which leaves the final question: what if people don’t want to change?

(Note: these are incomplete thoughts. Cambridge people are generally people in power and looking at things through an academic lens. I don’t have even close to a full-enough grasp on how change is achieved to have a proper opinion on this topic, though I weirdly am trying to present one, based on my interpretation of the experiences of a specific group of people I interact with. I anticipate that I have an extremely naïve grasp of the problems here and am laying this out only to see the gaps in understanding.)

This leads me to a conversation I had with my friend Sanja recently at Churchill College’s formal hall. What is a “cause”, what is a good one, and what defines “good”?

I have been defining “good” based on “maximization of humanity’s happiness.” I was very influenced by a conceptual talk by Sam Harris, which laid out the following idea. Say there’s a world where everyone is maximally suffering—everyone is in the most pain they can stand for the longest they can stand it. Any other world is, by definition, better than that one. If you line up all these possible worlds next to each other, some will be “better” than others, because fewer people are suffering, or everyone is suffering less. The y-axis is, for example, “happiness”.

After discussion with Sanja, I concluded that the y-axis probably isn’t linear. There are definitely situations where “happiness” is ambiguous—say, which would be better: having the freedom of choice to marry whomever you want when you’re young and foolish, or having your parents make a long-term decision in an arranged marriage. I come from a Western culture where we’re all about freedom of choice (thanks for pointing this out to me, Sanja), so one of these is obviously superior to me intuitively, but I’m perfectly willing to be shown wrong on this point. Ambiguous happiness.

But on the other end of the scale, suffering’s probably easy to identify, right? The problem is that happiness or suffering doesn’t seem to correlate precisely with a measurable metric like standard of living. On the one hand, my friend Amar pointed out the following to me: technology was supposed to lead to automation and people doing less work. Yes, we do less drudgework, but people are arguably working harder than in previous generations, because we have the internet and thus are able and encouraged to work at all hours. And then we have the banana plantation workers, who would probably be happier with a higher standard of living, though likely not in the short run, when pointing out their conditions are unfair to them will likely make them unhappy.

As Sanja pointed out to me: why am I using a happiness metric, anyway? Seems like a Western thing. Why should I get to decide what’s the “right” way for society to be? When we decide that people “should” change, who dictates that and what value are they trying to maximize? She reminded me that people have been thinking about these questions since society was born—that’s what philosophy is about. (I was so happy to have this discussion with Sanja, because she was challenging me on every point I brought up. It was spectacular—she has a philosophy background and was seamlessly able to generate counterarguments.)

In my experience, trying hard to change something generally makes people feel unhappy. Oh, it’s satisfying to have a goal to work towards, and I can’t imagine my life without the goals that I set for myself (long-term fulfillment, perhaps?). But it seems to be largely discouraging, especially if you don’t feel like you’re making progress, which is often how incremental progress feels like. Who’s to say that we should make people change if they don’t want to change? (And there’s that word should that I knew would come up at some point. I’m surprised I made it this long.)

Sam Harris says that in some situations we can’t just say, “oh, let other cultures be, it’s just how they are.” For example, in a story that I was told by another friend, it doesn’t seem okay to say, “oh, it doesn’t matter that she had to hide even though he was the aggressor—she was fine with it, the situation was resolved.” On the one hand, this story involves one woman who was fine with the solution proposed. On the other hand—what, no, that is NOT okay, this is NOT okay, we need to change that NOW.

I’m not sure where the strong emotional response comes from. It seems to be righteous indignation, at the principle that a woman should be punished for some stalker’s arrogant, sadistic behavior. (Strong words, I know. But I’ve read quite a few of these stories, and it seems profoundly wrong to me when abusers act as if they won’t be punished for their behavior.) In some societies this anger is recognized and I think that in that case there is a strong right/wrong answer, and change should occur. In other societies the righteous indignation is not a commonly recognized belief. In that case that I have no idea what should happen. (Stephanie said, when I asked her about this in a roundabout way, that it’s hard to look at this on an individual level with specific situations. It’s often best to think of this sort of change, if it should happen, on the order of generations or groups.)

I don’t have any solutions, or even proper arguments at this point. For every argument I brought up, Sanja was able to play Devil’s Advocate (not that she disagreed with me; she just wanted me to acknowledge the complexities of the issues). It’s something I’m continuing to wrestle over, and hopefully people will be able to guide my thinking in the future.

And why does it even matter, you might ask? Why would you care about philosophical questions concerning what causes it is right to support, and what change people should go through? I think it’s probably important for everyone to have thought about how they’ll impact the world, especially if someday they might be in a position where they could affect others’ opinions. It’s probably especially important in Cambridge, where the crazy thing is that many people will end up in positions of power, and their thoughts may even extend outside of their chosen domain (like Noam Chomsky, a scientist who has had wide influence). But this is a narrow perspective. When we ask who may someday be in a position to affect others’ opinions, when it comes down to it the answer is: everyone, no matter what privileges you happened to inherit. Especially if you didn’t have privileges to inherit.

I’ll end it there for now—unsatisfying, but at least I know what I still need to work on. If any of you have opinions on anything I brought up or books to recommend, I’d love a message from you. I need more minds on this one—my own head isn’t cutting it. I’d love some more collective opinions from all :).

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