Knowledge Gaps – The Problem with Voting

7175209698_cb9fe3bc8b_b

In a friendly conversation with a stranger at a bar, it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally flawed with the way we perceive the world and how we react to our perceptions. The man, quite talkative with a thick Eastern European accent decided to discuss political affairs and some of the happenings around the world. In one of the subjects, he displayed an unusual sense of understanding of the region in question. He couldn’t properly identify which capital cities belonged to which countries, or what exactly was happening beyond what is apparent on the face of it.

It got me thinking about how all people are likely to have a similar sense of knowledge where they have different amounts of knowledge pertaining to different subjects. The idea intrigued me because I immediately thought of the process of polling, and elections, and they are fundamentally based on the idea that every person, above a certain age, belonging to a particular nationality, is allowed an equal vote like everyone else that shares those criteria that required no skill, effort, or intelligence. This imperfection of democracy is, of course, not a novel idea.

Churchill famously remarked, “The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.”

There is, of course, political incorrectness involved in this idea. It implies that a certain amount of knowledge is required to make democracy something really worthwhile. It persuaded me to think of examples where either a double standard exists in our society that would overrule the political incorrectness of this idea.

Society is built upon the general principle that most high paying vocations can only be reached through passing certain criteria such as standardized tests or earning academic qualifications from a university. Job competency then is directly measured by the amount of knowledge and/or intelligence a person possesses. But if people need to be qualified in order to work, then why don’t they need to be qualified in order to vote.

In market research where companies compile data about consumer tastes and preferences, and use it to create a more suitable product, the ‘voter’ or person surveyed is not required to tick any boxes when it comes to qualifications. They just need to have a residence, access to the internet, and a general preference for things over others. It’s quite interesting to me that the process of voting has more or less the same criteria. Both forms of voting do not require any qualifications or proof of knowledge.

This seems to suggest that a presidential candidate is not elected on the basis of being competent. I say this because many people, even those who are educated, do not have the sufficient political, economical, or social knowledge to make an informed choice about who they think should lead their country. In the case of market research, the product is catered to be suitable for what most people want. The product is consumed within these groups of people, and a continual process of feedback would be taking place after that.

In the case of politics and presidential elections, the newly elected president is the product. However, in this case, the product has the ability to affect society, the economy, healthcare, and even other sovereign nations. It seems to me a little absurd that almost anyone can be part of these significant decisions.

If I hired a plumber to fix my sink, I would be sure to take note of his qualifications. I would also do the same for my mechanic, teacher, taxi driver, pilot, or anyone who is required to complete a job with any kind of competence at all. It would seem to follow that when it comes to deciding who the leader of my country is, I should want people with some kind of competency to decide.

The underlying insinuation from all of this is that the accessibility to the amount of power highlighted above is very odd. Of course, if asked about what a possible solution to this is, the immediate answer would be to test the competency of the voters in terms of political, historical, and social knowledge. Only those who have displayed adequate, relevant knowledge would be allowed to vote. In the same way a prospective drivers, job applicants, sports athletes, and police officers need to display competency in their domains, so should a prospective voter.

The fact that the situation as it is now is not like that seems to undermine the seriousness of voting and the actual impact it could have. It might indeed suggest that the process of voting is a meaningless exercise altogether.

As it was wonderfully put in the excellent 2001 movie, “Waking Life”, “You want the puppet on the right, or the puppet on the left?

The Two Tragedies in Life

tragedy

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde

The reason I love this quote is because of how gently, poignantly, and cynically it depicts life as an inevitable tragedy. However,  a few things came to my attention when looking more closely at it. Wilde obviously did not mean this quote as an irrefutable philosophy, it was meant to be a provocative poetic expression that is both witty and informative. It does, however, raise an interesting philosophical point about the meanings we place on our goals, and that is what I’ll discuss.


The obvious deduction one would have from the quote is that Wilde is implying that achieving goals is a tragedy, because one loses his purpose, ambition, and desire. And of course, that is the ultimate tragedy. The other obvious implication is that not achieving your goal is another tragedy for you have failed at what you’ve set out to accomplish. The final deduction is that life is by definition a tragedy. No matter what you do, you will always be unhappy.

Achieving your goal and not achieving it are both equally tragic and painful. One way to get around this is not have ambition. Since ambition inhibits goal seeking, it also prevents failure. To not have a goal, however, ought to have been considered the third tragedy in life, and most people would agree that this isn’t a viable solution; albeit a much practiced one.

As Ted Danson once said as Dr. John Becker“You see… no expectations, no disappointments.”

There was an interesting observation made by a comedian. I cannot remember who it was. The idea was that in sports, sprinting for example, the third and fourth placed finishers often finish the race fractions of a second away from first, and these are people who have spent months training intensely for this race. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis on achievement, on being the very best, when what separates the very best from his competitors in many fields in life are often fractions of a unit.

In many people’s lives, a single moment of good or bad fortune could decide whether or not they are remembered as successful, whether they consider themselves as being successful. There are professionals who work their entire lives to become recognized and valued, some do eventually, some do very early, but the vast majority don’t at all. Not because they didn’t have the talent, or they didn’t work hard enough, but because the line between failure and success was that thin.

To relate this to the Oscar Wilde quote, I would add that it’s infinitely more tragic to have ambitions that are aimed at finishing first in a race. Most people who do, necessarily fail. The first part of the quote that related achievement to failure I think is very interesting. There are many people who, after having achieved what they had worked so hard for, they find themselves without a purpose, desire, or reason to live. Many professions inherently breed this kind of mentality. The most obvious is sports. Once a professional athlete is forced to retire, they often report feelings of depression.  Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” 

Of course, many professionals feel relief after retirement. Some retired workers choose to finally go on that vacation they always wanted but never had time for, to spend more time on their hobbies, but there are many others who feel there simply is no value outside of their work, outside of what they’re so good at doing. I think to avoid the first of the tragedies Wilde expresses is to do one of two things.

Either work in a profession that has no expiry date, something that you will always be able to do for the rest of your life. Or find a hobby that will always be with you, something you can always improve in, something that is not trendy, but permanent, not social but personal, and not physical but mental.

By doing so, you cannot be doomed because you don’t have to value your life according to achievement or non-achievement in one particular field that has an expiry date, only those who have trapped themselves in this philosophy are doomed to fail no matter what. If what you do is all you have, and all you ever will have, but will inevitably end one day, then so with it will your ambition, life meaning, and self-affirmation. References: http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/life-after-sport-depression-in-retired-athletes/

The Lonely Race to Nowhere

race

One of the most alarming and unsettling trademarks of today’s society seems to be the universal urge to be involved in some kind of race. People race to get an education, to make money, to get into relationships, to get a job, and to find happiness. Oftentimes, they end up with an education they never even wanted, money that made them more miserable, relationships that they never really wanted to get into, and jobs they hate doing. Most tragically of all, they almost never achieve happiness.

I think the main problem with this ‘racing’ approach, is how easily it tends to get mischaracterized with efficiency. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with efficiency as long as it is geared towards the right objectives and goals, but when it isn’t, there’s nothing more dangerous and damaging. Efficiency, like many other things in life, can effectively blind us. It can make us believe that our purpose is to get to a location, a vision, and downplays the importance of reflecting on why we should want to go to this location in the first place.

In general, the main culprits seem to stem from social pressures including family and friends, as well as media based ideals that advertise quick success, and immediate happiness. Many of the most popular shows on TV idealize those who achieved their dreams when they were young, and try to encourage you to do the same. I can’t think of any that promote introspection and careful thought. But regardless of what these external factors may be, the fact that we can choose to ignore them means that we ought to.

This cultural promotion, I think, gives birth to insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy and failure. For every success story, of course, there are a countless number of failures, and what happens when we only see success stories being advertised to us on a regular basis is the illusion that most people succeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive for success, that is the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m making the point, that to be successful, it’s essential to understand the reasons for why you are doing what you’re doing before you design the most efficient ways of doing them.

I think people can only be more successful if they truly believe in what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of us seem to be driven to go somewhere, trying to get there as fast as we can, and what I find bizarre in these cases is that, oftentimes, the destination has nothing to do with what we really want. Many have gambled away their finances and health, their psychological well being, happiness, and compromised their relationships with family and friends to try to get to where they want to be, which paradoxically, are all of the things that they have gambled away.

Many people look for shortcuts because they believe that if they can do it faster than everyone else, then they’ll be the last ones laughing, that the joke will be on everyone else. The reality is quite different.  Trying to find such shortcuts ends up consuming most of your life.

Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’, being unrealistically optimistic about the things we really love instead of the things we think we should love, prioritizing the things that matter to us now instead of the things that we think will matter to us in the future, doubting everything instead of believing everything, listening to ourselves more than listening to others, are some of paradigm shift that I think need to happen.

Another problem is society’s condemnation of indecisiveness. I find that to be one of the most puzzling features of our time. Indecisiveness, of course, can be harmful if it was about things that don’t really matter. What to pick on a menu, what to get from the supermarket, which movie to watch, and what color socks to wear. These things are harmful because they take up too much time, and they won’t yield an amount of value that would make the time you spent deciding on them worthwhile.

But when it comes to deciding what you want to be in life, what you want to get out of it, and who you want to be with, and why, then surely, if there was ever a good reason to waste time, it’s to reflect on and ponder these questions as much as we feel is appropriate.

Comfort Zone

Comfort zone

Comfort zones are a state of mind we’re in where our stress levels are at a minimum; we’re in a situation we’ve probably experienced before and therefore feelings of anxiety don’t usually creep up on us. We are constantly advised to step out of our comfort zones, and expose ourselves to new situations. The reason why this advice is preached so much is probably because you really have nothing to lose.

If you step out of your comfort zone, and try something new, you will either encounter something that you’ve never experienced before and would like to experience again, thus creating an added value in your life. The flip side is that you experience something that doesn’t ignite any interest in you, and might in fact cause you to regret having the new experience altogether. But ultimately, the argument goes, you gave it a shot. You can always go back to your comfort zone if things don’t work out. That option won’t be lost. If you choose to venture into something new and unpredictable, and you have the safety of knowing that you can always go back to where you started, it should decrease your anxiety to a large extent.

There is, of course, always the third option where your seeking a new adventure might result in extreme pain and death, but that shouldn’t really hold much ground since it’s very unlikely. On the surface, what I’ve said might seem true, but is it really? If you do step out of your comfort zone, and try new things, can you really ever go back to where you started? Will things really go back to how they were before you decided to go on your adventure? I wouldn’t be too confident in affirming any of these statements. The argument is simple. If you are experiencing something that you’re very used to, and that can be considered your comfort zone, going out of it implies something quite important. You will need to open your mind to new possibilities. This would mean that you would also start to have new expectations, new desires and ambitions, and it isn’t always true that it’s for the better.

Take John, a middle aged factory worker who’s had the same job, the same friends, and has been living in the same city ever since he dropped out of school decades ago. He’s told about this workshop where he be taught how do something else that pays better but obviously carries more risk. If John goes out of his comfort zone, and only gives this workshop a try, will his life ever really be the same? It’s quite clear to see how no matter what the end result of the workshop experience is, the only certainty is that he would have, at some point during the workshop, been exposed to new possibilities that render his current job far less attractive. The tragedy here is that he might fail, and this new adventure could potentially ruin his life.

This might be a cynical way of looking at things, and of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people, even most people, might likely benefit from new experience, and it could significantly enrich their lives in ways that they couldn’t have ever imagined, but whether or not anyone should do it remains a question. Raising a person’s expectations to an extent that outweighs their current ability, or potential ability is not a good thing. If you sell a sample of 1000 people the idea that they could be anything, you’re doing two things.

You’re creating a belief that might otherwise not have existed if you hadn’t instilled this idea in them, and as a result, new artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, and productive members of society would emerge, and this would create a tremendous added value. But if these people constituted 50 percent of the sample, or 500 people, then there is going to be another half of people who will probably be worse off than they were before they were exposed to this new idea. Comfort zones to some people are roadblocks to their success. They serve nothing more than hindrances to their potential, but for others they are a safe haven that shouldn’t be disrupted.

If you’ve ever seen one of the hundreds of talent shows around the world, you will notice something quite disturbing that you might have overlooked. For every success story, for every person who followed his dream and overachieved because he got out of his comfort zone, because he ventured into the unknown by taking risks and refusing to give up, there are many who became utterly miserable because they were unable to make it. The ethical dilemma then is pretty clear. Should everyone be advised to reach for the stars? Should everyone be told that they can be anything they want to be, even if it meant that it was very likely that they would ultimately be devastated and unhappy if they tried to?

The media enables a way of thinking that is very inconsistent with reality. Perhaps it’s warranted though, perhaps without naive belief, you would strip the world from so much imagination and potential. It could be that despite the fact that unhappiness is a natural consequence of promoting unrealistic ideals, many of the greatest works that we have seen were a result of it, and to so many of us, it is in those accomplishments where life’s meaning and beauty can be found.

Judgment

JudgmentI can recall several moments, somewhat vaguely, when was I feeling very surprised and even confused by the behavior of some people. If you consider the fact the every single person can only experience life through their own biased point of view, it’s not too difficult to see why people are often judgmental. What I’m interested in, however, is how societies become judgmental. How particular modes of behavior are accepted in some countries while looked down upon and frowned upon others. There is, without a doubt, a behavior relativism in play here. Every culture operates within specific norms that have been randomly, or perhaps not randomly, been created throughout a very large interval of time.

How or why these customs or accepted behaviors came about is an interesting question. I have seen some Asian people chew with their mouths wide open, creating a rather distracting sound. It’s very off putting for likely anyone who has been raised in a culture that particularly teaches against this kind of behavior. I did discover, however, that this way of eating was to signal feelings of satisfaction and appreciation for the food. It doesn’t really make it easier to tolerate, but it does ease the suspicion that you might have of the other person intentionally being rude.

While having a conversation with an Indian person, I was asked to explain something and while I did, I couldn’t help but notice he was nodding his head from side to side as if to signal disapproval. I was about to stop, but then quickly realized that it was his way of acknowledging what I was saying. It was the equivalent of nodding up and down. It was difficult for me to communicate to him while looking directly at his head movements without feeling slightly confused. Overcoming years of social conditioning can seem like an impossible task.

And this was about very mundane things, like chewing and acknowledging, and yet to my mind there was a very precise ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing these things. I wouldn’t consciously admit to it in that I wouldn’t acknowledge that the proper way to give someone a sign of approval would be to nod your head up and down, likewise, I wouldn’t say that the correct way to chew would be with your mouth closed. It is really all relevant, and most people know that. And yet, when actually faced with a situation that tested my tolerance, I realized that it wasn’t east at all to accept a completely opposite way of doing something.

This brings me to my thought about judgment. Fundamentally cultures, and as a result, people follow habits that are passed down to them by their preceding generations, and when exposed to new habits, they will feel the inclination to be judgmental. The reason is pretty simple. If you’ve been told that two plus two equals four is a truth, and then one day this assumption is challenged, you will likely get very agitated. Mathematical truths aren’t distinguishable from cultural truths, or moral truths in our mind. When we believe something to be the truth, no matter what it is, we will find it very difficult to denounce or suddenly undermine it.

This, in fact, must necessarily be true, otherwise, stubbornness could not possibly exist. The challenge then is to be aware of this fact, and force ourselves to distinguish between real truths and relative truths. If the effort is not consciously exerted, it would be easy to become judgmental and intolerant. Indeed, I would even suspect that people who are racist are mentally lazy, they are unwilling to exert that conscious effort for whatever reason. In other words, the smarter a person is, the more likely they are to challenge their initial impressions and the less likely they are to be racist.

Money Problems

money problemsThings that we consider self destructive can be placed in a very long list for many different reasons. Among many of these vices is a common theme, addiction.

Nothing, as far as I know, destroys our autonomy and control as much as it. Any recovering drug addict, gambler, or obese person can testify to this. When a want dominates our thinking and goals negatively then it can be the most self destructive force in our lives.

Money, like drugs and food, has the ability to cloud our thinking and dominate our desires. Many people set their goals according to how much money they can make, and make stressful life choices in order to make a more of it even if they don’t really need it.

That last statement I think deserves attention in particular. To lose the ability to make the rational choice between different choices based on clear risk reward scenarios is very dangerous. This can characterize addiction to a large extent, which makes it a taboo.

But why isn’t the greed for money taken under the same light? Why is gambling a vice to many people, but wasting one’s health and happiness to make money not considered so. Just like how hard drugs are considered evil very broadly for its adverse affects on our well being, shouldn’t money be considered so as well?

What immunizes money from the discussion? The reasons that come to mind is that the people that have the most of it have a grave interest in maintaining its importance, and they have the power and means to exercise that will. The way they can do so extends from media manipulation to direct bribery, but the means are certainly very powerful.

What’s more is that people are often unaware of this, and this can be an even bigger problem. People don’t usually think there’s any issue with this subject. This lack of awareness is exactly what makes the addiction most deadly.

The only thing more dangerous to your health than having a disease is being unaware of it.

Another reason money has broken free from the shackles of wide public criticism is that money’s hazardous effects have a much longer timeline.

Much like smoking, the problems of money addiction are only seen after a long time in most cases. Drugs on the other hand have a much shorten time period before you see the undesired effects.

A final reason is that there’s a very shady line between what amount of money a person needs to sustain a happy lifestyle and how much he wants for the sole purpose of greed. Ask 10 people how much money they think is enough for them to live comfortably and you’ll get 10 different answers. I know, I’ve tried it.

This is a problem because trying to limit one’s desired income would immediately provoke ‘communism allergies’ and fear from loss of freedom. Neither of these are necessary consequences in either case.

Whatever the reason may be, we can’t solve it on a global scale. I suppose that the best we can do, and there is much satisfaction in this for me, is to be aware of the nature of money and try to orient our goals in a way that is less dependent on it. To live a fulfilled, happy, and memorable life has very little to do, in my opinion, with how many zeros there are in your bank account.

Based on the above premise, it seems foolish then to ever prioritize money above all else. The biggest challenge, however, is to try and coexist with a society that does.

Do Children Have Too Much Freedom?

do children haveI read an essay question recently that interested me. It asked if you agreed that children these days have too much freedom.

I did not have a strong opinion on the subject but after some reasoning, I believed my conclusion to be a good one.

The idea is that freedom is intrinsically good, just like being good, and intelligent. We can’t say that being too intelligent is bad, or being too good is bad without running into some kind of contradiction.

It may be true that these traits are not always desirable by all people, but it is hard to argue that someone who is extremely good or extremely bad should be scrutinized.

Can freedom fall under the same category of intrinsic value? In other words, is freedom good only insofar as it serves a particular end or is it good independently? It would seem to me that if we think of freedom as something that derives its value externally, we would run into several problems.

Efficiency is a trait that derives its value externally because absent the financial incentive or the need to survive, efficiency can have no value. Is freedom, then, similar to efficiency in that sense, or is it more similar to being good and intelligent?

If freedom was similar to efficency, then we ought to ask what external good do we achieve from being free? And it is here that the proposition runs into problems.

Put more simply, if there was a certain button that you can press to become more intelligent, no one would ask you, “why do you want to become more intelligent?” There is no reason required, being intelligent is independently valuable.

What about efficiency? Well, here it is actually conceivable that people can question why you want to be more efficient. You would need to answer their question by pointing to something that you may achieve by being more efficient.

Freedom in this sense is more like intelligence. You cannot ask someone why he wants to be free. Are children allowed too much freedom? Its possible that they are, but given that most activities that would harm them already do not allow their participation, then it shouldn’t be a problem to allow them to be as free as possible within that controlled realm.

Children are only given too much freedom in very few occasions where a large amount of responsibility is set upon them, but all in all, I think it’s a good thing that with time, they are being allowed to be more expressive, autonomous, and imaginative.