Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Daoist Take on the Race Riots in Ferguson Missouri

I've been following the events at Ferguson Missouri with especial interest as the events are taking place close to my dear and beloved wife, who lives in metropolitan St. Louis.  There seems to be a consensus emerging that something really wrong is going on in that part of the US, but what exactly seems to be somewhat vague.

Much of the concern seems to be directed at police brutality and the militarization of the police.  But as an outsider who has developed a cursory familiarity with the area, I think that people should understand that the St. Louis area suffers deeply from racial segregation.  It is absolutely gob smacking to an outsider.  For example, there are literally streets you can drive down where one side is filled with beautiful, nice old homes---inhabited by white people;  and the other is filled with dilapidated houses where black folks live.   

Here's a twelve minute YouTube documentary that pretty much explains the situation and explains how it happens.  Pay particular attention to the quick segment that happens at about 7:05 point.  It shows egg cartons with black and white eggs and shows how simply not wanting to live in an area where you are out-numbered 2-to-1 in your neighbourhood by people of another race inevitably leads to total segregation.  

Another thing to pay attention to is the bit about how real estate agents "steer" prospective home buyers towards neighbourhoods that are majority white or black, and away from one where they don't "belong".  

At the end of the documentary, the professor suggests that it is important to take action to end the Institutional sources of segregation instead of seeing it primarily as an issue of personal morality.  This is tremendously important, as things like this routinely get seen as individual morality plays.  

I suppose that this has something to do with the way evolution has formed our minds.  After all, the basis of racism seems to be a genetic disposition to not see anyone who is not related to us as being "Other".  This makes sense as it is clear that someone who looks so different probably doesn't share DNA with us, so there is no evolutionary advantage in helping them.  But this type of socio-biological analysis misses the point that we have also evolved as societies and relationships of reciprocity between non-related people are the only thing that allows us to function as cities and nations.  

I would suggest that a large part of the reason why we see things like the events in Ferguson as morality plays is because of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The Abrahamic religions put a huge emphasis on the idea that we have free will and are able to choose to accept the grace of God or reject it.  In contrast, Eastern religions take into account the social context that someone comes from and understands that this greatly influences the decisions that people make.  There is a line in the Daoist Taiping Jing where the Celestial Master suggests that people should not condemn someone who does wrong too harshly because they are the product of their childhood and background.  Similarly, they shouldn't think too highly of themselves if they do good, for the same reason.  

Following the Celestial Master's suggestion, the thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotional reaction one may be feeling about the news.  This involves centring the body, taking an inventory of both our physical and mental state, and reminding ourselves that we are self-aware, self-conscious individuals who have at least some control over our emotions and behaviour.  This is known as "holding onto the One", and is the core teaching of both the Nei-Yeh and the Taiping Jing.  

Once we have "the One" in hand, then the thing to do is to try and understand the Dao of the situation.  This involves calmly trying to look for the subtle issues at hand, issues that perhaps the overwhelming majority of people are missing because they are so caught up in their strong emotions.  I would suggest that if you do so, you can find something that the overwhelming majority of the media has missed.  That is, there is a study that a group of people have done that exposes the real reason why Ferguson Missouri has exploded into violence.  

A group that calls themselves the "Arch City Defenders" has prepared and published a report on the entities known as Municipal Courts and their baleful influence on the black community in the Greater St. Louis area.  You can read it as a PDF here.  It is fairly long, but is easy to read and is worth it.  It explains that there are great many little municipalities outside of St. Louis that have independent town ordinances, police forces and municipal court systems.  As well, a disproportionately large amount of the city revenue that is raised in these communities comes from fines levied against people in these communities.  Ferguson, for example, uses this as its second largest source of income.  Moreover, these fines are levied disproportionately against people of colour.  And the system is progressively rigged to extract money from poor people who are so close to destitution that even a minor fine of a few hundred dollars or a short stay in jail of less than a week, can be catastrophic.  

It is very obvious to anyone who reads through this report that the "system" of places like Ferguson Missouri is designed to keep a boot placed on the neck of black people.  This is what racism looks like.  It isn't a bunch of boozed-up Klansmen who decide to pull someone from jail and lynch him.  (As in the movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird".)  But rather a set of laws and regulations that make it extremely difficult for anyone to dig themselves out of debt or poverty.  Subtlety is the essence of long-term oppression.  And subtlety is how to identify and escape from it.  Moral outrage is irrelevant.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

That Elusive Feeling of "Oneness"

I've been walking around in a vague sense of funk lately.  I have had a hard time identifying why, but several very different things have made me depressed.

First of all, I am somewhat upset about the huge amount of effort that I am having to put into marketing my book.  Everything I've read says that it is more work selling a book than writing it, and it is certainly the case that I've had to go through a big learning curve as I figured out how to format it, register it so I could get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), register a copy with the National Archives, get an tax exemption so I don't have to pay tax double on any hypothetical royalties I might earn, and, find out how to merchandise it using social media.

Secondly, I've been really upset about work lately.  Not that much affected me directly, but there's been a lot of renovation going on in the Library and I'm just annoyed at the ridiculous amount of change that constantly seems to be happening around me.  The image that immediately comes to mind is that of a hamster running in a wheel.  This place just seems to be constantly involved in change for change's sake.

Also there have been changes in co-workers that have been dragging on, literally for years.  One co-worker was forced to leave because of what appears to have been chronic alcoholism and the university has literally taken years to fill the vacant position.  In the interim, a young fellow has been working on a contractual basis and the consensus seemed to be that he was going to get the permanent job.  Instead, a woman from a department that was declared redundant but who has 28 years of seniority, is going to get the position.  This seems to a lot of people to be somewhat unfair.

None of this stuff is new, but I had a bit of a revelation recently.  As part of my job I am supposed to check offices on the weekend to look for things like water leaks.  I went through a couple offices and noticed various manager's meager work-related book collections.   One person has a collection of books about how to use blogs to influence others and market various products and services.  The other had a book on his desk about how to use meetings to accelerate the rate of change within an organization.  Finally, I was in an office being used by a contractor to manage one of three projects in the building and he had a copy of the contract for his particular project open on his desk.  It was in a three-ring binder and appeared to be about two inches thick!

It suddenly dawned on me that my problem is the crazy complexity of modern life and how much of what we do from day-to-day is dominated by complex abstract ways of doing things.

I have tried in my personal life to simplify things and to lessen my impact on the world around me.  These things that I see on the desks of other people are all things that complicate the world around them and are attempts by individuals to increase their influence.  The second last chapter of the DDJ encapsulates my gut instinct:
A small state with few people.
Let the implements (ch'ih) for ten and hundred men be unused,
Let the people fear death such that they do not move far away.
Although there are boats and carriages,
There are no places to ride them to.
Although there are weapons and armours,
There are no occasions to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes and use them (as memory aids).
Let them enjoy their food,
Consider their clothing beautiful,
Be contented with their dwellings,
And happy with their customs.
The neighbouring states overlooking one another,
The dogs' barkings and cocks' crowings are heard from other states,
Yet till they are old and dying the people do not visit one another 
Chapter 80, Ellen Chen trans.
Oh that we could go back to that past world of simplicity!  Where people interacted with honesty and based upon their real feelings instead of calculation. Of course, the worm in that particular apple is the fact that my theoretical "Eden" never actually existed. Even in the time of Laozi it was probably not much more than a pastoral fantasy.

Modern psychology has some very interesting things to say about this instinct I have for "the good old days".

First of all, our brains are constructed for instant, instinctual decisions.  This had significant evolutionary pay-off in that there are lots of situations where it doesn't pay to waste time deliberating.  If that rustling in the bushes is a leopard, you are dinner before you know it if you try to reason things out.  But this instant decision-making comes at a price.  Our unconscious uses short cuts.  We jump to dumb conclusions if we don't take the time to think things through.  And because our brains are designed to maximize speed over accuracy, when we do try to think things through it takes a lot of effort and it isn't easy.  

Secondly, our minds seem to be designed to maximize the ability to get along in small, family-based hunting bands.  This makes sense if you consider the "selfish gene" theory.  In strict evolutionary terms, the only reason why any animal exists is to replicate their genes. It doesn't really matter if the genes are in me or in an identical twin.  Moreover, the genes in a brother or sister will be half the same as mine, so there is utility in my helping replicate those too.  The same even applies to a lesser extent for cousins. If I do something selfless that results in the survival of the rest of my family---even though it results in my death---it is still helping the genes that are the same as mine to replicate. But this doesn't apply to a total stranger.  If I come across someone from a totally different tribe, who isn't even remotely related to me, there is no value in helping him to survive at all.  (A woman might be a different case, as I could have sex with her and maybe create a child with half of my DNA.)

The result of this is that people very quickly develop a sense of "us" and "them" based on familiarity.  This means that, for example, the small number of us who work together in the library have an exaggerated sense of "togetherness" that means we get very resentful when an office somewhere else on campus decides who does or doesn't get hired to work with us.  If some young person who's worked with us for a couple years on contracts gets passed over for the permanent job by someone else from another place on campus, it seems an outrage because she is an "outsider".  But the fact of the matter is that she has 28 years seniority and the University has signed contractual obligations with the union to ensure that people don't get dumped onto the side walk like garbage when they are too old to expect to find employment anywhere else.  People might think that it is unfair to see the young guy not get the job, but that is just our quick-deciding part of the brain working.  Think things through, and you can see that human resources has a point too.

It's the same way with a lot of other things too.

I might be all munged out about the extra work that I need to put into selling my book.  But the fact of the matter is that in the past I probably would never have been able to get the book into print in the first place.  Non-fiction books are usually published not on the quality of the writing or ideas, but rather on the credentials of the author. Not being a professor, I would never have even gotten my manuscript read by a publishing house, let alone printed.

I learned this a long time ago when I quickly dashed off a letter to the editor of an economic journal.  I never thought much about it, but I put it in an envelope that happened to have a letter head from the university.  To my surprise, the editor phoned the university (from England!) to get a hold of me. I connected and he said that he was very impressed by what I had to say and wanted me to make it into an article for the journal.  I said "OK", then he asked me what department I taught in.  When I said that I was a security guard in the library there was a very pregnant pause and then he said "Well, maybe we can print it as a letter to the editor".

I also had a friend who was a professional editor for a big publisher.  She said that she routinely got manuscripts from big names that were so badly written that she, in effect, ghost wrote the books.  (Without any credit, of course.)

The price I have to pay for this increased opportunity is that I have to bust my ass in order to market the book because no one else is going to do it for me.  But the pay off in the end is that if I do manage to sell a fair number of copies, I get to keep a lot more of the money for myself.  In the past even very successful authors tended to make a pittance out of sales because the middlemen pocketed almost everything.

I'm not the sort of person who believes that "all that is, is right" and comes up with explanations to justify everything.  I still am righteously annoyed with the endless renovations that take place on campus when much-needed maintenance is delayed long past the point of its necessity.  I am also annoyed that so much of the wealth of both the nation and nature is being squandered for precious little return.  But I do have a great deal of sympathy with Germaine de StaĆ«l's idea that "to know all is to forgive all".  So I try to remind myself to think about the big picture and avoid jumping to conclusions.  When I succeed, I often find that things that annoy me are the unavoidable results of other things that I do find useful.

The result is that through this rational analysis I can develop a sense of equanimity that while different from the sense of pastoral "Oneness" that seems to be upshot of Daoism, may actually be a much better way of developing peace of mind.