US surveillance, mad politics and the Millennials revolution

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Photo by Mando Gomez (edited)

I’ve been really impressed and entertained by the weekly episodes of HBO’s show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”, where the host, John Oliver (I guess this was obvious), talks during half an hour about seemingly random topics that intend to evoke a debate about important issues (with delightful splashes of humor). Being an American show, it focus mostly on American-related issues, but these naturally become worldwide issues for the impact the US have in the world’s state of affairs. If you’ve never seen an episode, I really recommend you to give it a look.

Now, there was a specific episode (from last year) I saw yesterday which inspired me to write this post, where the host discussed about US surveillance programs in the dawn of an upcoming renewing of the Patriot Act which happened past June 1st of 2015. During that episode, which included a worth-watching witty interview with Edward Snowden, he showed a video where he asked several people in Times Square if they knew who Snowden is and, for my astonishment, most of them had no idea who he was or gave inaccurate responses about him. It’s true that here in Europe (by the way I’m Portuguese) we kind of stereotype Americans for being unaware or uninterested of pretty much everything that concerns foreign issues and for being self-centered and consumerists, but damn (!), domestic mass surveillance is an issue that should concern every single American that values its privacy and Snowden was the CIA whistleblower that brought the discussion to mainstream debate (or so I thought).

Well, so I decided to do my own Internet research to understand why was that…

In my opinion, there are 2 main reasons why Americans aren’t mindful about the situation of mass surveillance and why they don’t know anything about a man named Edward Snowden. And from those who actually do, why does a great percentage of them feel hatred towards him:

  1. A huge chunk of the American population is, by conscious choice, remarkably disengaged of virtually all political matters. The apathy is stunning since 40-50% of the public allowed to vote decide not to participate on the elections and 60% don’t vote in midterm elections (percentages vary depending on the election year of course).
  2. The US media plays an important and dynamic role on framing American’s perspective about domestic and foreign issues, as seen, for instance, on the astonishing delusional belief of the US adult population, up to 70%, about Saddam Hussein’s direct involvement on 9/11. This clearly indicates an active propaganda engagement of mainstream media to deceive Americans into believing false facts for dubious purposes (we all know what happened in Iraq).

Relatively to the media’s information bias and censorship on the particular case of surveillance discussion, here is a pretty elucidative link presented by John Oliver which is as much disturbing as it is hilarious:

Circling back to Snowden again, a poll demonstrated that out of the 2/3 of Americans who were aware of him, only 36% supported him and a few 8% had a positive opinion of him. On the other hand, in Europe, its popularity is dramatically higher. For example in Germany, 95% of the population have heard about him and 84% supported him. These numbers can easily be correlated with the successful American media propaganda campaign against Snowden. Nonetheless, it seems like its popularity increases among the younger adult US population, where 56% of the Millennials support him, meanwhile in Europe, it goes up to 86%. This can be explained by the different and diversified sources of information that this younger generation have access to through the Internet, providing them with a more informed opinion, and their own concern about political and organizational transparency.

Nonetheless, this generation of adults with ages comprehended between 18 and 30 are the less participative in the political debate in America and this fact might be a big reason why important political changes with a positive impact in American society and around the world aren’t being made. We even risk facing the terrible consequences of such abstinence and let the uninformed and ignorant be the only voice (just look at the picture being unfolded by the ongoing 2016 US presidential elections). But maybe Millennials have their own reasons for being apathetic. They can hardly remember a time when jobs were abundant or Washington wasn’t under a political stalemate. Most of them still live at their parents’ house and many have overwhelming student debts. And the main reason why they probably won’t vote is because the politicians and their politics don’t serve their interests, but, conversely, politicians don’t address their interests because they don’t vote…

Can you imagine if this highly informed, literate and heterogeneous population with a growing global consciousness would become active at reforming their political environment? Imagine if voter turnout among Millennials were 75% instead of 25%; wouldn’t politicians be obliged to update their priority lists?

Of course that this is easier said than done. Look at the waves of hope when president Obama was elected, that were imidietely broken before hiting the shore when all the expectations weren’t met and promises left behind. Many felt burned and hopeless about politics and decided to turn their back.

But these apparently disenchanted generation is the exact same group that, for instance, doubled the rate of volunteering in the US during the last decades. Their community values and commitment to make life around them better would be of unmeasurable importance, and a new political mindset would be able to flourish if those core values would be extended to a more national-wide and impactful movement. More Snowdens would be heard and not prosecuted, more open information would be shared and not muzzled and more decisions would be made for the sake of the whole and not of the few.

Millennials, what are you waiting for?

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The failure of Liberalism and the Muslim world

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Photo by Vignesh Babu

A common discourse is being identified and widely spread among some self-proclaimed liberals that actively participate on the debate about Islam and the reform of the Muslim world. They usually take a position where they utterly defend the rights of any individual to pursue any given ideology for the sake of freedom of choice, yet they aggressively disprove any attempt of constructive criticism from other actors, that aim to point out fundamental problems that are at the basis of a given ideology that is in conflict with human rights and moral progress. In the particular case of Islam, their speech is typically formulated towards cultural determinism. They defend a right for an ideology based on religious scriptures that clearly promote anti-human rights actions for the sake of satisfying their orientalist fetish. They justify the position against an attempt of Muslim reform in the name of “cultural authenticity” and anticolonialism. But what these liberals are really doing by holding native communities to lesser standards is disempowering them. Muslims are automatically self-segregated into “Muslim areas” and, in the name of liberalism, collective rights are prioritized over individual autonomy within minorities. Such liberals are more like “fellow-travelers” of Islamism that believe are doing a favor to Muslims, but what they are doing is killing any reform attempt. The minorities within the Muslim communities that seek reform have their aspirations murdered. These “fellow-travelers” are making it very difficult for well-intentioned participants of the Islam debate to speak freely and honestly about this important and sensitive topic. These political and social actors are disrupting any true attempt to address the real problems of Islamism that are at the root of religious terrorism, because they assume that all Muslims think on a certain way and anyone that deviates from that ideological framework  is considered not a ‘real’ Muslim and, therefore, his voice is disregarded. For that reason reformist Muslims are disempowered and shut down from the mainstream discourse.

The first stage towards the empowerment of minorities within the Muslim world is, by no doubt, the emancipation of reformist voices so that communities start to take responsibility upon themselves and overcome the victimhood mindset.

It is a fact that religious terrorist groups born from the desire to impose any given interpretation of the Islam on society are flourishing in the midst of a complex geopolitical problem in the Middle East. The jihad (the use of force to spread Islamism) has been felt on the Western countries for a while now, and more recently with a focus on Europe, as seen by the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. But the root of the problem is not being addressed by the main actors of the political discourse for the sake of liberalism. Meanwhile they try to pass the hot potato (look at the refugee crisis in Europe for example) to their neighbor, they keep ignoring the importance of religious indoctrination based on ideological dogmas that frame people’s mind – and more importantly young minds – as the reason at the basis of the problem. A reform of Islam by Muslim actors that are willing to review the more conservative interpretations of their doctrine is imperative if we want to see the Muslim world advance towards a more humanistic and secular mindset. It is a pre-requisite before democratic and human-right values are accepted by them and it is our responsibility to take part on the discourse and empower the Muslim minorities that seek to implement those values in their communities.

Further readings

Book:

Islam and the Future of Tolerance” by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz

Blog post:

Can liberalism be saved from itself?” by Sam Harris

 

 

 

Road to chaos: why you should stop lying

chaosLet’s admit it: all of us tell lies, for one reason or another. It’s part of our human nature. It’s had its utility during our evolutionary history and still has, or so we think. I believe that in very particular circumstances, lying might be a necessary and reasonable choice, for example to escape a life or death situation, but that’s pretty much it. Lying is usually used for the purposes of self-perseverance or social promotion and we, most of the time, go unaware of the repercussions of a lie.

But first let’s define what a “lie” is. A lie is to deliberately deceive someone with false information when they expect honest communication. It is, therefore, intended to make others form a belief that is not true.

We lie to make ourselves stand out, to avoid negative judgments, to hide wrongdoings. We sometimes lie to the ones we love to protect their feelings. We mislead to gain advantage, we hide the bad to highlight the good. But, undoubtedly, every lie is born out of the same principle: intending to communicate one thing while believing another.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present, and for one reason or another, each and every one of us will hardly go to bed without having told a lie during the past waking hours. Some lies might be more subtle then others and the motivations might vary greatly, but at the end of the day, the one lied to will always be on disadvantage, because deception always provides with fake information.

Previous studies have found that deception is fairly common during communication, either within a couple or between friends (1, 2). Yet, we all know that truth is more rewarding in terms of interpersonal relationships than lies. Moreover, all forms of lying are associated with relationships of poorer quality (3, 4).

“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.” by Sam Harris in ‘Lying’

I would like to focus my attention particularly on the “white lies”. Those lies we consider to be more benevolent because the intention is usually to spare the other person’s feelings, usually to tell her what we think she wants to hear. Let me give you an example that you will likely be familiar with:

Someone you’re very close too, a friend, a girlfriend, approaches you and asks: “Do you think I’m fat?”. The usual answer will be “No”, don’t you agree? We usually think that the person is asking for reassurance, and out of compassion we answer according to that assumption, because we don’t want her to feel sad. And most likely that’s what your friend wants, reassurance. But let’s suppose that your friend is actually fat and out of shape and you know that she is having an hard time with that situation, maybe feeling less self-confident. And you believe she could lose a couple of pounds and get in shape for many different reasons, but most of all she would feel happier and healthier, you think. A white lie, for the purpose of immediate compassion, would simply be the denial of that. You would simply pass the opportunity to guide her in a moment of difficulty, you would be failing as a friend and as a person. Now imagine you know someone that is struggling to follow a career path that you truly believe is not meant for him, that he could be using his skills to become the best on something else. Would you be able to tell him the truth and provide the guidance? That’s a difficult one as well. Most of us would be tempted to encourage him to try harder or tell him that with patience and perseverance he would make it, that “great things come for those who wait”. But, in this case, that would be a negative and destructive encouragement. That white lie would steal him time, energy and motivation that he could be putting on pursuing a better and more satisfying career.

Sometimes the truth might feel really hard to tell, but when you convey your true beliefs to others you provide them with the opportunity to reflect upon your truthful opinion and question their own beliefs on a constructive way. And you will be communicating your feelings of love and selflessness, deepening the relationship with that person.

I believe that the active search for honesty on every action often leads to a much more gratifying experience of interaction with another person. You create bridges instead of building walls, you inspire others into doing the same and feelings of trust and empathy will blossom from within your interpersonal relationships.

Of course that if you dwell in ethically questionable milieus, you will find lying a necessity to keep yourself on “track” or at least extend your time on those dwellings. For instance dealing drugs or scamming for profit. But if you want to make your way out of such vile actions, which will ultimately affect yourself and others around you, you will have to re-look at lies from a whole different perspective and you will see that they are no more useful than bullets are.

In relation with secrets, you might also assume that lying can be required in order to retain information you were asked not to disclose. I’m talking specifically about the kind of secrets that someone, a friend, asks you to keep (leaving aside those that are held for professional reasons, the case for instance with doctors and psychologists, for obvious reasons). And in my opinion, these should also be avoided from the very beginning. Because keeping a secret is a burden, and the story you have to tell in order to hold the secret can put you on a path of deception that you didn’t want to be dwelling into. You should make that very clear next time someone asks you “can I tell you a secret?”

When you lie you are creating a story that collides with reality, and to keep a lie you have to commit to the fictional story and keep track of the plot in order not to be caught, which is energy consuming and psychologically distressing. And, needless to say, no one wants to be perceived as liar. But when you are caught in the habit of using it for whatever reason, people start to get clues from the incongruities on your stories and behaviors, and trust begins to deteriorate. A liar is eventually shunned for reasons he probably never understands.

In our personal lives and within society in general, lies are the basis of all forms of vice. A willingness to lie is behind every adultery act, financial fraud, government corruption, murder, etc. This moral defect slowly corrodes bridges and feeds distrust. Falsehoods spread like disease and a lie brought up into reality can have unpredictable outcomes that always create collateral damage downstream.

The question now is: “How willing are you to embrace truthfulness and gradually eradicate lies from your interaction with others?”

I challenge you to make an effort to become aware of the moments when you are propelled to lie on your day-to-day life. Ask yourself if you can find a proper way to convey the truth, instead of lying, without harming yourself or someone. If not, what is there for you in the long-run if you’d stop lying. How would your relationships change? Could it play an important role on your personal development? Would you become a better person? How might you affect people around you and, consequentially, society if you resolved never to lie again?

These, I believe, are the type of questions worth answering.

References

Article inspired on the ideas developed by Sam Harris on his essay “Lying”

1- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA. 1998. Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 63-79;

2- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA, Kirkendol SE, Wyer MM, Epstein JA1996. Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (5): 979 – 995

3- Kalbfleisch PJ. 2001. Deceptive message intent and relational quality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (1-2): 214-230

4- Cole T. 2001. Lying to the one you love: the use of deception in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18(1): 107-129