Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five Things That Six Years Of Debating Has Taught Me

New York Times
This is my last blog post.

I've spent the last six years arguing. I know I hold no professional title or public prestige in this self-appointed occupation, but it is nonetheless true. It began with religion, after I became an atheist in High School, and has since morphed into intense conversations about politics, economics, climate, education, philosophy, culture, history, and even literature. Some of these conversations were deeply enjoyable. Others, not so much. But all the while through, I persevered in having these conversations (and educating myself about the subjects), not specifically because they were enjoyable, but because they were so intensely important. And they weren't important for their own sake, but were important because of the way that their answers--and our ignorance of them--affect our day-to-day lives. All of the big questions are big precisely because they influence in our most basic assumptions about life, our universe, and each other. In other words, they are important because they determine the shape, structure and existence of what is ultimately the most important thing in life: our relationships.

Except for the big Catch-22: short of going on a killing spree, this pursuit is one of the most effective ways of purging your life of all social ties. It's not that no one wants to talk about these issues; it's that no one wants to be contradicted. Everyone wants to be right and, what's worse, the wise and knowledgeable are aware of how little they know; the ignorant and stupid (at least in relation to the big questions) are not... which means that they are usually the ones who are more confident in their misinformed opinions and more eager to take up causes. They're the ones most actively and self-assuredly pushing the buttons that control this monstrous contraption we're all riding along in. The desire to stop them from destroying everything, or even just a few things, is difficult to control, but the cost is the very reason these issues are worth caring about in the first place: your relationships, even with the ones driving us brilliantly towards oblivion.

But this is not a plea for pity, or a vain cry of anguish at an unfair, uncaring universe. I've learned a lot about what's really important in life from these conversations, and especially from losing friends over these conversations. A few of them were intelligent, funny, and intensely driven. From these losses, I've compiled a list of rules to follow in contemplating the big questions.

1.) Divide people into categories.

This doesn't mean they must be locked in, or to stereotype based on something superficial (like race), but seriously consider people's personalities and how much your relationship with them means to you. I have three categories: (A) people I love, and therefore don't want to have serious conversations with; (B) people I love because I can have serious conversations with; and (C) people who I don't love.

Many people will have a very difficult time admitting that the third category exists for themselves. We've been taught that we must love everyone, after all. I'm here to inform you that you are under no such obligation; some people are stupid, some people are straight-up assholes, and some people are just boring, or otherwise not fun to be around. Some of these people we love anyways. Maybe they're family, or we grew up with them. But make no mistake--you don't have to love these people. Society functions better when we all treat each other decently, sure, but holding a door open for a person at a store doesn't mean I love them. I'd just as soon ignore them, or even verbally destroy them if they said something vulgar or stupid about someone or something I do care about.

If this is still difficult to swallow, consider that some people hate other people. Or maybe they don't hate them, but are convinced of something that will hurt or kill others. Can you love both simultaneously? Not without doing violence to the meaning of love. If you love Fred, you can't simultaneously love John, whose hatred or stupidity will maim or kill Fred. If you claim to love John, you aren't acting consistently with loving Fred. And so you must choose. The fatuous claim to love everyone is a cop-out, an empty ego-boost, and an insult to those who really deserve your love.

2.) Don't debate with people you care about

This one is slightly more complex for me, because I have a number of friends that I care about in part because they make such great conversation partners. But if you aren't like me, and don't watch hundreds of hours of debates on YouTube while debating your friends' friends on Facebook for the sheer pleasure of it, this may not be a category for you. These friends of mine are unique and extraordinarily rare in their ability to emotionally detach themselves from their own position (but not from the conversation), and so our friendship is, for the most part, safe from harm.

With these exceptional individuals aside, talking about big questions with people you love is an invitation for tension, anger, frustration, miscommunication, and ultimately the destruction of that relationship.

3.) Don't stop learning

The fact that talking with the people in your day to day life about big-question topics is generally counterproductive on several levels doesn't mean that the issues are no longer important to understand.

On a related note, there will be people--journalists, statisticians, statesmen and ordinary citizens--who will still take up the flag and go on the charge. Not only do they give you the opportunity to stay informed on these most important of issues, but often do so at significant personal and financial cost, ranging from the loss of a few friends to loss of liberty or life (Edward Snowden, Salmon Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, etc). They may not lose a limb in combat, but for some of them it may feel like it. Remember that, and remember that they're the ones allowing you to inform yourself.

4.) Consider that you might be the stupid one in any given subject

It happens to the best of us. Don't be offended when someone points it out; thank them. Odds are high that you are one of the assholes pushing the world towards death, and didn't even know it, whether it's because of your religion (or lack of it?), your politics, or your atrocious sense of style.

5.) Always remind yourself what you can and cannot control

There's a degree of nihilistic angst that comes with the realization that the most important thing in life and the pursuit of its preservation can often be mutually exclusive. When some large parts of humanity are dedicated to bringing all of us to the afterlife together, while other even larger groups attempt to reshape economic laws that only work if we make some definitively false assumptions about human psychology and motivation (otherwise they destroy everything), it can sometimes feel like you jumped out of an airplane with fellow jumpers who packed all of your backpacks with prayer-books instead of parachutes. At 10,000 feet in free fall, there isn't much you can do; talking is no use, and nothing you can do solo will possibly save you. But suppose you could save yourself, while the rest of the world fell to their death--being right, metaphorically. Would a life of solitude be worthwhile?

In the meantime, you're still at 9,500 feet. You can't control your fate, but you're surrounded by other people, doomed just as you are. Ask them who they are. Tell them a funny joke. If you're feeling ambitious, write a final message to your children about the dangers of skydiving with prayer-warriors. Who knows; maybe the books will save you (probably not). Maybe you'll hit water, but in either case, you have no final say in the matter. But you do have a say in how you use that time, and maybe influencing what that time looks like for your children, just a little bit. And remember that no matter how dreary our future seems, how dense our planet cohabitants may seem, the short decades we have to experience it all is a fantastic accident more improbable than winning the lottery. That's important.


So long internet debate world, and good riddance. Fellow internet-debaters, get out as soon as you can. You're the captain of your own ship, and no one else is going to save you from the island of isolation. Sail away. Go learn a skill, drive a truck, or become a carpenter. Fall in love. Live life for yourself, don't let it lapse away for some dumb cause or other. You'll do more good, do less harm, and enjoy it all far more for it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Who's Responsible For Your Income?

I had a phone interview last week with my new employer--we'll call him Bill--a finishing carpenter who works on the finest homes in the Seattle area. "I'm huffin' and puffin'," he said early on (he was breathing rather heavily). "We work hard here." When he asked how much I expected to make, I told him that I expected to be compensated based on the value of my work, and that I didn't have a set amount I was expecting. Bill responded by telling me a story of another employee he'd trained who had said the same thing. "He looked at his first paycheck and said 'there's been a mistake, you're paying me $15 an hour instead of the $12 we agreed upon,' but I told him that was no mistake. He got better and was doing more work. That's what we like to see."

The equation is simple: the harder you work, the more you'll be paid. If you want more pay, you have to work more, harder, or both. If you feel that you are worth more than you are being paid, you can either attempt to convince your employer of their error or you can find work elsewhere. This has nothing to do with abstract constructs like "justice," "fairness," or "rights," and everything to do with mutual benefit and the subjective value of what it is you're providing to potential customers.

Right before my phone interview, I'd dropped by Bellevue College, where the faculty was pasting flyers about how they could barely afford this or that commodity (usually something aiming at the gut, like childcare), and this fact proved that they were being exploited by the school. What a peculiar inversion of responsibility! Instead of the burden being on the parent to raise the child--or on any particular person to feed and clothe themselves--it is expected that your employer should pay you based not for the work that you do, but on the demands accumulated by your own choices. Choices which your employer had no say in, of course.

An indirect acquaintance of mine whom we'll call Alex found himself in that precise predicament. Alex was a teacher, and didn't earn enough to support his family, so he simply picked up more classes at other schools--at last count, he was teaching at about six different schools through their online platforms, and manages to comfortably support his family of four single-handedly. Despite his busy work life, he still finds time to do independent research as well as watch TV, garden, and spend time with his family and kids. His score is 4.5.

Is everybody as smart, resourceful, and organized as Alex, or as dedicated and hardworking as Bill? Probably not, but then again, they could be below many who are making less than they are. The key difference between the likes of Bill and Alex and the exploited professors at Bellevue College is their perspective on whose responsibility it is to take care of them. You can take responsibility for yourself, think proactively, and do some real work to improve your standing; or you can put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of others, whereupon you can angrily decry how the universe hasn't treated you fairly as you remain stagnant right where you are.

A final note: some jobs really are terrible. They don't pay well, and they just aren't fun. Don't these employers owe their employees wages that will sustain a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle?

No. They don't. In fact, they don't owe anybody anything, let alone a job, let alone high wages. These employers are hiring people into positions that are generally low in both skill and responsibility. Some people do appear to be content to work in these sorts of jobs all of their lives, whether they're a cook gradually working their way into management at a fast-food joint, or if they're a janitor happy with a modest but stable income. For others who aren't so content, the way to a more comfortable standard of living is not an appeal to the non-existent right of a "living-wage" ("living" by whose standards anyways?), but to broaden and deepen your skill set to make you more valuable, either to your current employer or to a future one. Go to the library, or watch some YouTube videos. Show up to a job-site, or, like I did, just browse Craigslist and find an apprenticeship. If you can afford it, take some classes and get a degree. Maybe even start your own business.

In short, it's time employees stopped expecting their employers to solve all of their financial problems for them. Everyone else is busy taking care of themselves because they're adults, and it's time BC's professors and others like them drop their narcissism and follow suit.