The Costs of Forbidden Thoughts

As regular readers know, I’ve been studying the Chinese language for the last year or so. China is America’s geopolitical adversary, but that’s all the more reason to understand it. I’m getting to the point that I can read and write simple Chinese sentences, and it’s a lot harder than Spanish.

One of the example dialogues in my textbook includes the two sentences shown in the graphic. A wife wonders why she’s so fat. Her husband, rather unwisely I think, proceeds to tell her. But he’s not wrong in thinking that her diet and exercise might be the issue.

If he wanted to avoid making his wife angry, then he might avoid talking about the real causes of her weight problem. That would put certain ideas “off limits” to discussion. As a result, he and his wife might develop a lot of unhelpful but inoffensive theories about why she’s fat. Maybe the bathroom scale is broken. Maybe her clothes shrank in the washer. Or maybe she has a metabolic condition. Any of those things could be true, but probably not.

Putting some ideas “off limits” means that the two people will talk and talk and talk, but they’ll never have much chance of solving her problem.

Now, if we can be satisfied with just talking about problems instead of actually solving them, then that’s fine. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we’re making any progress.

The same thing applies to social problems. If we decide in advance that some facts must  never be mentioned, then we’ve also decided in advance that it’s more important to talk about the problems than to solve them. Or at least, we want other people to see us talking about them, so everyone knows how much we care and what wonderful people we are.

The cost is that problems never get solved, because they can’t. They are real problems, but we’ve decided that whole areas of reality are off limits. And that’s not the only cost. When people realize we’ve deceived them, they sometimes over-react in the opposite direction. Psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, explained it this way in a December 2017 forum at Harvard:

“When they are exposed the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in The New York Times or in respectable media, that are almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity, and they’re immediately infected with both the feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defense against taking them to what we might consider to be rather repellent conclusions.

Here is a fact that sounds ragingly controversial but is not, and that is that capitalist societies are better than communist ones. If you doubt it, then just ask yourself the question, would I rather live in South Korea or North Korea. Would I rather live in West Germany in the 1970s or East Germany or in the 1960s? I submit that this is actually not a controversial statement, but in university campuses, it would be considered flamingly radical.”

Truth has nothing to fear from open discussion and debate: in fact, they are its closest allies. They help us correct our mistakes by exposing us to facts and viewpoints that we had not previously considered. Only intentional falsehood is afraid of debate.

Novelist Ayn Rand put it best: “There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think.”

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews said that it’s “not only interesting, but vital to living.”


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Two Beliefs That Don’t Conflict

Some beliefs are inconsistent with each other. If you hold one of the beliefs, then you can’t hold the other. For example:

  • The number 5 is less than the number 10.
  • The number 5 is not less than the number 10.

But people often think that beliefs conflict when they really don’t conflict.

In a moment, we’ll get to a case that’s done great harm to society. But here are a couple of simpler examples to illustrate the point about beliefs that don’t conflict:

  • This apple is red.
  • This apple is round.

Those two beliefs are different, but they don’t conflict because they’re about different qualities of the apple. One belief is about its color, the other about its shape. And how about this pair of beliefs:

  • John is wearing a hat.
  • John is an accountant.

Again, there’s no conflict. Wearing a hat has nothing to do with being an accountant. Both beliefs can be true, even though they’re different.

Now consider the harmful case. Many people think that these beliefs conflict:

  • All people are equal in human dignity and human rights.
  • People vary widely in their character, behavior, and abilities.

Most people know that the second belief is true, but they’re reluctant to say so because they think it conflicts with the first belief.

That’s why they pretend to believe that any disparities between identifiable social groups must be caused by something nefarious. They’re afraid that if they admit any differences between people, they’re denying that some people have human dignity and human rights.

But if they think about it, which they hardly ever do, it’s obvious that the beliefs not only do not conflict, but cannot conflict. The reasons are simple:

  • They are different kinds of beliefs, and
  • They are about different things.

The second belief is about facts, just like “John is wearing a hat.” You can see John, you can see the hat, and you can see the hat on John’s head. Likewise, you can see that people do in fact differ from each other — both individually and, on average, in social groups. The fact that generalizations are sometimes false doesn’t mean that they’re never true.

But the first belief isn’t about facts, at least not in the same way as “John is wearing a hat.” You cannot find any physical thing or event corresponding to “human dignity” or “human rights.” Those are not facts. They are choices we make about how to treat other people.

To say that someone has human dignity and human rights is to say that you intend to treat him or her in a certain way, more carefully than you would treat things that do not possess human dignity and human rights.

To say that all people are equal in human dignity and human rights is to say that you don’t intend to treat anyone differently based on irrelevant characteristics.

Of course, that qualifier “human” will probably cause trouble someday. We might discover that dolphins are just as smart as we are. We might develop robots that can pass a rigorous Turing test and can behave exactly like human beings. We might encounter space aliens. None of them would be human, but they would be intelligent, self-conscious beings like us.  How could we argue that they lack “human” rights?

Like I said, it’s not about facts. It’s about choice. How do we choose to treat other living beings, and why? It’s worth thinking about.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Memorial Day 2020

This is a beautiful video celebrating Memorial Day.

I’m proud to be an American. I’m grateful to those who founded our country and fought for it. May it always endure.

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Lockdown Imitates Art as “They Live”

“We are living in an artificially-induced state of consciousness … They have created a repressive society, and we are their unwitting accomplices.” — Scientist in “They Live”

As countries around the world struggle to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and as America struggles to recover from a terror-driven lockdown, it’s easy to see parallels with the 1988 dystopian movie “They Live.”

Think about it. Mindless obedience is the order of the day. People are terrified of going anywhere, doing anything, or interacting with anyone. Just as in the movie, they’re “in an artificially-induced state of consciousness.” They’ve learned helplessness:

  • Do social distancing, but it won’t really help since the virus floats in the air for hours.
  • Wear a mask. Don’t wear a mask. It won’t help, unless it does.
  • Don’t touch anything. Forget that, it’s safe to touch things. We might change our minds again tomorrow. We’ll let you know.
  • The virus kills three percent, no, five percent, seven percent, no, maybe zero point one percent or zero point zero one percent. But mainly, you should be afraid.
  • If you’re exposed to the virus, then you’re as good as dead, unless you don’t get infected, get infected but don’t get sick, or get only somewhat sick like a case of flu.
  • There are no treatments except some that will kill you, like the one that wasn’t in the fish tank cleaner that a woman apparently used to murder her husband. Society can’t re-open until there’s a vaccine, which might be never.
  • President Trump is taking one of the deadly treatments, which makes his critics sad because they love him so much.
  • Everyone is in danger. Well, mainly the elderly, people who are already sick, and nursing home residents in New York. Healthy people under 50 are in almost no danger, but you wouldn’t want to get infected and then kill granny, would you?

The Garcettis, Whitmers, and De Blasios send police to arrest people for opening small businesses, walking in the park, sitting on the beach, or exercising their Constitutional right to free speech. You vil obey! Ve have vays of making you comply! Tech monopolies back up the new dictators by censoring arguments that contradict the ruling narrative or that question the danger. The censorship alone makes me smell a rat: truth has nothing to fear from the free exchange of ideas.

Politicians know that the best lies are based on a grain of truth. Yes, Covid-19 is a real illness and you really don’t want to get it, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Beyond that point, all of the 24/7 terror is mainly panic and propaganda.

Let’s be fair: in the beginning, nobody was sure about the danger. The crisis in Italy, where hospitals were overwhelmed, was scary as hell. It was totally reasonable to warn people to take precautions. It was debatable but not totally insane to lock down society for a couple of weeks, then see what happened.

And now we know what happened.

It’s a bad virus, to be sure, but it poses little threat to people outside of specific risk groups such as the elderly, the obese, and the chronically ill.

At the same time, people who need treatment for other illnesses aren’t getting it. The lack of social interaction causes mental illness and “deaths of despair.” The economic damage might take years to fix even if business and government do everything right, which almost never happens.

We need to accept the fact that life involves risk, and to tell the Covid Commissars what to do with their un-American, un-Constitutional diktats. High-risk people should continue to be careful, and nobody should behave recklessly. But even the CDC’s Dr. Anthony Fauci agrees that most of us need to get back to work. It’s time.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Is Cosplay the Same as Reality?

You might think it’s a joke, but I have a few serious questions. To me, the answers are obvious, but they’re obviously not obvious to everyone.

“Cosplay” (costume play) means dressing up as a fictional character. Some people earn a living at it. They perform at conventions and parties, but they seem to make most of their money by selling their cosplay photos on the internet. It is probably not a coincidence that most cosplayers are attractive young women.

Suppose that I decide to cosplay as Wonder Woman. I make an elaborate costume, wear a wig, put on makeup, and study the character so that I know how to act the part. I immerse myself in “Wonder Woman” lore, make videos in character as Wonder Woman, and start wearing the costume all the time instead of wearing my normal clothes.

Here are my questions:

  • Is everyone else required to pretend that I’m really Wonder Woman?
  • If they speak to me, must they address me as “Diana Prince”?
  • If they talk about me, are they required to refer to me as “she”?
  • Is it hateful and immoral if they don’t?

My questions are prompted by a fuss this week about the Twitch website, which features live video streams of people playing computer games. To its “trust and safety council” (i.e., ideology and censorship council), Twitch has added a person who it says is a “trans-deer girl.” All the articles about the event refer to this individual as “she.”

Regardless of our opinions about pronoun usage, the idea of a “trans-deer girl” presents some problems in itself. Are we supposed to believe that it is:

  • A man who thinks he’s a woman who thinks she’s a deer,
  • A woman who thinks she’s a deer,
  • A woman,
  • A deer,
  • An insecure person who desperately craves attention,
  • A cosplayer who’s really committed to the role, or
  • A crazy person who really needs to be committed?

Some combination of insecure and crazy seems most likely to me. The person wants to advise a gaming website about what to censor, and has opined that:

“I think a lot of you gamers are actually white supremacists. Sorry. Just a fact. Of how I feel.”

Video blogger Sargon of Akkad replied that:

“Why bring it up? You don’t know the race of the people you are playing against … However, you know that this person actually does not believe that gamers are white supremacists, because of this massive, sh*t-eating grin. She can barely contain her joy at telling you that you are white supremacists. Now, you have to somehow justify that you’re not a white supremacist … When someone makes wild and ridiculous allegations like this, with a huge grin on their face, that’s a person having fun at your expense. This is not a person you should be taking seriously, and it’s certainly not a person that Twitch should bring onto a safety advisory council, because they are not an honest actor.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I think that things are what they are. A rock is not an egg, no matter how much you want it to be an egg or how you cook it for breakfast. If you try to eat it, you will break your teeth.

And I am not Wonder Woman. And if someone is genuinely confused about what species or sex he is, then he should not be put in any position of authority or responsibility.

Cosplay is not reality. It’s cosplay.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Free Yourself and Live

“You have at least nine months. Perhaps as much as eighteen.”

“The first doctor gave me from one to two years.”

“I hope he’s right. What are you going to do?”

“Well, I have no family. I haven’t taken a day off since law school. I guess I’ll try to squeeze thirty years of living into one. Or two.”

Many people consider the 1950s to be “the golden age of television.” I just don’t see it.

It was the final decade in the golden age of radio, which started in the 1930s. But as far as I can tell, most 1950s television programs were pretty bad. Comedians Sid Caesar and Lucille Ball were wildly popular, but I’ve seen their clips and they don’t make me laugh. Toward the end of the decade, a few new shows got it right. “Perry Mason” became a long-time hit, and “The Rifleman” was so popular that foreign heads of state wanted to meet its star when they visited America.

Many of the better television programs were transplanted from radio, such as The Jack Benny Show, “Dragnet,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Lone Ranger.” There were even political thrillers like a retitled version of “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” which was the 1950s counterpart of “I Was a Congresswoman for the Bronx.”

But for me, the golden age of television spanned the 1960s to the 1990s.

After fumbling around in the 1950s, Hollywood in the 1960s finally knew how to do television. Shows included “Star Trek,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Fugitive,” and other series that were both entertaining and thought-provoking. In the 1970s, there were “M.A.S.H.,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Six-Million Dollar Man.” The 1980s had “The A-Team,” “Magnum P.I.,” and “Hill Street Blues.” The 1990s brought “Seinfeld,” “Quantum Leap,” more “Star Trek,” and a couple other shows near and dear to me.

Which brings us back to the 1960s, and the television series “Run for Your Life” (1965-68).

The main character, lawyer Paul Bryan, had a terminal illness. The clock was ticking. Each episode featured a death-defying adventure of some kind. When hoodlums pointed guns at him, he laughed in their faces. He knew he was going to die anyway.

Ironically, that knowledge freed him to live, because he lost his fear of death.

And if the first half of the year 2020 has a motto, it’s “Fear of Death.” It’s a motto that has not served us well.

Everyone must make his or her own decisions about life. Every sane adult has that right. Some people whom I deeply respect think that Covid-19 lockdowns should continue, and that we’re doing too much too fast. I think that a year from now, we’ll look back on these months as a time of madness, when lockdowns did more harm to our country and to us as individuals than Covid-19 could ever have done. But we’ll see. I have no crystal ball.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to act recklessly. But we shouldn’t spend our lives being afraid. That’s not living, it’s only existing. Rocks can do that. We are meant for better things.

Our lives are limited in time and space: we can’t change that fact. What we can change is how we use the time we’ve been given. We should live our lives to the fullest — looking for the joy and beauty of each day, doing good things, and sharing time with our loved ones.

And getting haircuts. That’s definitely on my list.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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How to Beat the Social-Isolation Blues

Mission from God

Are you discouraged? Depressed? Fearful? Confused? Unmotivated?

Then I’ve got a cure for you.

It’s guaranteed. It costs nothing. And it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

You need to know three things. The first two are scientific facts. The third is outside the scope of science, so science has nothing to say about it.

First: Your body affects your emotions

Humans evolved not as solitary individuals, but in groups. As a result, we are biologically adapted for that environment. We need to interact with other people. If we can’t, then it affects us physically: we feel lethargic or depressed.

But there’s good news: The parts of our brains that get depressed by loneliness are the old parts. They evolved in our prehistoric ancestors countless ages ago, when photos and video didn’t exist.

In prehistoric times, if we saw someone in front of us, it could only be an actual person. As a result, the primitive parts of our brains can’t distinguish very well between realistic video and real people. Even if we know intellectually that it’s video, our brains react the same as if the people were there with us. That means we can use apps like FaceTime and Zoom for video chats to “fool” our brains. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, because it’s not 3-D and it lacks a few sensory cues that operate below our conscious awareness. But it helps reduce the impact of social isolation.

Another way to fool our brains is for us to act like we feel happy and energetic. From past experience, we associate those feelings with actions like smiling, standing up straight, and walking briskly. As a result, simply doing the actions can create some of the feelings that go with them. The neuroscience is a little more complicated, but the basic point is that it works. Scientists found that:

“a happy facial expression led to the subjects’ experiencing ‘happiness,’ an angry facial expression to their experiencing ‘anger,’ and so on.” (Anthony Damasio, Descartes’ Error, p. 148)

And don’t forget the great outdoors. Our ancestors lived in natural surroundings: sky, trees, fresh air, and ground under their feet. If you can, get out of the house and take a walk. Enjoy the beauty around you. Your body will enjoy it too. And you’ll feel better.

Second: You are unique

No one else on earth has exactly your combination of abilities, skills, and knowledge. No one else on earth has your life experiences. As a result, no one else on earth can do what you can do exactly as you do it.

You have a unique contribution to make to the world. Nobody else can substitute for you. Without you in the world, your contribution is lost. Whether you’re famous or unknown, whether your contribution is great or humble, you are irreplaceable.

Whether or not you realize it, your life matters. You are one of the most important people on earth.

Third: You’re on a mission from God

This is the speculative part of the remedy. It might be true, or it might not. Logic and evidence can’t tell us.

So I’ll tell you: You are here on earth for a reason. If you’re still here, then the reason still applies.

Can I prove it? No.

Can anyone disprove it? No.

Is it a helpful belief that might be true? Yes.

You’re here in this life to do the things that only you can do. You’re here to love, help, and connect with people. You’re here to make a difference.

Whether you believe you were put here by God, fate, karma, or the natural order, you’re still here. Make yourself useful. And that, too, will make you happier.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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