Gated communities of the mind

Many years ago, I was walking through New London, Conn. late on a summer day and spotted a dog trotting along the sidewalk, obviously on some doggish errand, and paying no attention to anyone around. I remember him turning a corner very decisively & vanishing from sight.

The scene struck me as odd, but it took me a second to realize that I never thought of dogs as having self-motivation. I’d lived with dogs my whole life, but they were usually asleep or reacting to some human; going for a walk in the woods with me, eating their supper, chasing a car, or something similar.

I was recently thinking about my reaction to the dog, and what it said about my human chauvinism. I was 19 and had just realized that the world doesn’t revolve around humans. Thinking about that realization lead me to intuit that a lot of people probably see other humans through a similar filter. For instance, there are doubtlessly guys to whom it never occurs that women have any life outside of reacting to guys. (See: ‘Bechdel Test’ for more on this idea.)

It’s an interesting exercise to consider members of a range of other chauvinistic groups where the person barely ascribes personhood to people outside their group.

I’ve no idea if it’s possible to trigger a revelation in those people like mine on that long-ago summer day… but without that breakthrough of seeing others as free & self-motivated humans, not dependent on, nor even concerned with, the viewer, I’m not sure any real progress is possible for those shut in the gated communities of their minds.

Confused idealist to guarded optimist

A friend asked, “What’s the one issue you’ve changed your mind on significantly since you were younger?” I couldn’t stick with just one issue, so I wrote this up.

Below are a few of the things I can name as having changed positions on. Nearly all of them have been slow processes, and I’m not at ‘the end’ of those changes. I’m still uncovering bias that I didn’t know I had.

At 14 I was still a dedicated, born-again Christian. But I had a growing batch of doubts. By 18 I was a full-on atheist, but I was still convinced that the supernatural existed. It took me another 15 years to scrub that out. If things like telepathy actually do exist, we’ll eventually figure out the mechanism, and it will be comprehensible to scientific inquiry. Same for ‘spiritual’ experiences. I’m talking about things like overwhelming feelings of connection to the world, other people, and beauty. I now understand such experiences as happening in our brains as we process information about our relationships with other people and with the world around us. Doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I’ve come to see gods and demons as symbols our brains use to understand what’s happening to us. I’ve given up any need to find higher meaning. At our best, humans are our own higher meaning.

At 20, I thought that ‘the government’ (which I thought of as being monolithic and ‘out there’ somewhere, not as something that I was part of) was a bad thing in every case. I was convinced that people, given the right (non-governmental) organizing structures, would do the right thing. I was an idealistic anarchist-libertarian, probably. I no longer believe that. I think that people make rash decisions from greed and rage and fear and incomplete data. I’ve grown to realize that ‘the government’ is us working together to find a way to live together… it’s also, sadly, a way for powerful people to keep their power and wealth, which means that ‘the government’ doesn’t work well for the average person, but there’s no way that I can negotiate agreements with each person I deal with on a given day, so whatever happens, we need some sort of structure that we can use to set expectations and limit bad actors. I think that in every generation, some people are struggling to move our governing structures more toward fairness and others are struggling to keep those structures unfairly supporting them in their power and wealth. I don’t know what governing structure would be best, but I know that plutocracy, fascism, oligarchy, aristocracy, autocracy, and other forms of totalitarianism are not. I’ve seen that unregulated industry will poison the world, that unregulated bankers will rake all the profits into their own pockets, that, essentially, any group that can work in secret will eventually start doing bad things. Today I’m leaning toward some sort of utilitarian democratic socialism, something that may take another 500 years to figure out how to do properly, assuming there’s a human race in 500 years.

I used to think that I was one of the good guys. It took me a long time to recognize and admit that I was hurting people around me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my mistakes, and realize that it’s not possible to go through life without hurting people. I’m still not good at admitting the harm I’ve done, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. It was really hard for me to figure out that I’m easily swayed. I’ll do bad things if I’m surrounded by bad people. I’m closer to the guy I want to see myself as when I associate with people who are trying hard to be good people. It’s hard to admit that, because I’d like to be the true good guy, the upstanding guy, bellwether, the one leading the march toward fairness.

I used to believe that people could be just bad or just good. That’s part of the idealism I was raised to believe in. It took me decades to recognize that people are just people. Some really are bad people, but that doesn’t mean they kick every dog they see. Some really are good, but that doesn’t mean they never make mistakes or do selfish, harmful things.

I used to believe I was useless. I was always holding myself up against people I saw as icons, and was crushed to realize I’d never live up to those standards, whether they were successful with money, had physical skills, or did wildly creative things. Finding a way to give and feel good about the contribution is hard when you’ve been told since you were a kid that if you’re not the shining son, the star athlete, the top earner, the leader, you’re nothing. I’m glad that I can see my value now, and particularly glad that I’m not in (much) danger of overstating my value. I am who I am, doing what I can.

It seems I’ve gone from being a confused idealist to being a guarded optimist.

I’ve gradually learned to distrust idealism. To recognize that calls for purity are always misguided because humans are not pure. People have gone out in masses and killed other people for thousands of years under the banner of purity, and it’s all a lie. It’s an infinite regress of the No True Scotsman fallacy. But I didn’t end up in despair. That’s my guarded optimism. I keep finding people who struggle against cruelty and greed and rage, both in society and in themselves, who aren’t true believers, aren’t fanatics, and aren’t perfect, but who keep trying. They give me heart. They give me a bit of hope that we can find our way out of the dark and frightening forest of the childhood of humanity (if only we can keep from killing ourselves in the meantime).


I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook and Twitter this weekend saying things like “look at these heroic redneck guys who are rescuing people! But next week, media will be back to calling them Nazis and KKK.” Tell you what: if anyone in “the media” is randomly accusing guys with pickup trucks of being Klan members or of being Nazis, then they should be dragged through a metaphorical mud pit.

But I haven’t seen that happen. I have seen guys holding swastika flags accused of being Nazis. I’ve seen people dressed in KKK uniform shirts accused of being KKK members.

This isn’t difficult. No sensible observer is calling you a Nazi or accusing you of being a Klan member just because you’re a white person (if someone does that, they’re a troll, plain and simple). However, if your cousin is nice to you, but he dresses in a white hood and goes to Klan meetings on the weekend, guess what. He’s not a nice person.

“Rural white gun owner” isn’t a hypothetical or mythical group for me. I’ve hung out at shooting ranges with these guys for years, and lived among the New England variety. I’ve participated on their gun forums.

Most of these guys are upstanding citizens, many of them are military veterans, and most of them would give you the shirts off their backs if you were in need, or work half a day helping you get your car out of the ditch.

I also know a sweet-looking grandpa who interrupted a funny story about his granddaughter to point out the ‘mud puppies’ who had just walked into the restaurant where we were having breakfast (a young couple with their biracial children, if you’re not up on racist nicknames for people).

He once told me how much he wanted to move back to a farm in Virginia, where he could set up a firing range where he could shoot “darkies.”

But if you look at the larger view, some 80-year-old guy’s racism and bigotry isn’t the hugest problem. He’ll be dead in another couple of years. As hideous as his attitudes are (and as much as they’ve been on display in the news recently), I think (and hope) that they’re gradually becoming less common, less accepted.

There’s another reason that I get angry at the reactionary attitudes of my rural compatriots: They give cover for people doing even worse things. They’re used as human camouflage by industries and corrupt politicians.

The heroic veteran hauling his flatboat from Louisiana to Houston to rescue people makes great fodder for propagandists. They haul out photos of Buford or Cleat pulling people out of the flood and say “look, these guys just want jobs and to go fishing, but your regulations are killing their way of life.” Of course, Mr. Propagandist drives a Beemer and lives in a high-rise luxury apartment or in a gated community. He likely has a degree from a nice college and wouldn’t hang out with Cleat for good money (though he might hire him as a local guide on his annual luxury fishing trip). This marketing guy might work for a giant oil refinery which is fighting regulations because following those regulations would shave 0.0012% of profit off their balance sheets. Or maybe he works for a developer who can build housing estates a lot cheaper if he can do it in an area with no building codes.

Then you end up with a city like Houston, with refineries plunked down in poor neighborhoods where the residents don’t have the political clout to get the pollution stopped. A city where there’s so little permeable land left that there’s no chance for rain to soak into the ground before running into the streets.

Think about it. Most regulations aren’t enacted out of some spiteful attempt to throttle profit. Most of them come about because we’ve seen cities burn to the ground, so we come up with fire codes. We’ve seen people poisoned by water systems so poorly designed that the designers should be up on manslaughter charges. We’ve proven that cars with seat belts and airbags save lives and reduce injury. We’ve looked back at the early days of the packaged food industry and decided that “no, we don’t want contaminated ketchup on the shelves” (read up on this period if you want a really hair-raising experience; you’ll never look at food regulations the same way again).

Yeah, there are regulations that are monumentally stupid. Regulations that exist as protectionism. We should clean those up. But if an expert in urban flooding tells you that building a city in such-and-such a way will lead to massive flooding (and has strong evidence to back up her claims) yet your city fathers ignore that and build a sprawling, concrete city that ends up flooding every time you get three inches of rain; well… Please don’t haul out poor heroic Cletus and his flatboat and expect me to buy your shtick. Clete has had his head turned around so far (from listening to talk radio all day long), he’ll likely go back home and vote in people who will continue to create the conditions for more flooding, more pollution, more industrial explosions. And he’ll be convinced that he’s protecting his freedoms by voting that way.

I saw a quote yesterday that went something like “Americans are great in a crisis, but bad on the long haul.” Avoiding more situations like Flint’s water, or Norfolk, Virginia’s sinking waterfront, or Houston’s sprawl takes planning, regulations, awareness, spending, and long-term determination. It takes a concerted effort to fight political corruption and make sure that we know what’s going on, and why the regulations are important.

Private industry isn’t going to do that. They’ve proven that plenty of times over the last 200 years.

Yeah, I know the old chestnut: “the scariest phrase in the world is ’I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Funny joke. You know what? At its best, the government is us. It’s made up of citizens who want to fix things so they’re still working a century from now.

If we work really hard, find ways to mitigate the pollution, reduce greenhouse gases, stop the destruction of the oceans and the rain forests, then perhaps Clete’s great-grandkids will have clean lake water to fish in from their flatboat.