“CAN I SEE YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE?”
It was October 31, 2015.
My pregnant wife was at home and I was on my way to the Halloween store to pick up a costume. The store itself was sitting in a rather precarious spot with a one-way road in and out of the parking lot so I knew I was in for a bit of traffic and an obnoxious load of people.
I hate people.
But, resigned to the fact that I had to get a costume, I headed in with my patience at the ready. I actually managed to get in easily enough, grabbed my costume and headed out, hoping my luck would hold.
I was stuck just getting out of the parking lot for twenty minutes. But while I was there, I began to look around. I may not like people but I love watching them. I find humanity endlessly interesting and I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to fully understand them through every avenue I could get my hands on. Philosophy, science, history, psychology…. All of them and more were endlessly connected and had given me so much insight.
Insight which became overwhelming sitting amidst the sea of cars.
I saw a bunch of assholes, cutting each other off, shoving themselves in wherever they could, swearing and flipping the bird.
I saw those who were kind, letting others in when they had the chance, keeping their cool when someone took advantage of their generosity and offering that universal wave of “You’re welcome” as they let yet another frustrated driver out to freedom on the open road.
I saw parents yelling at their kids. Men and women on cell phones, oblivious to the other drivers. Couples. Singles. Families. Old people. Young people. Every aspect of humanity was surrounding me in a perfectly poetic metaphor for life:
A Traffic Jam.
After all, who among us hasn’t felt stuck? Or frustrated with strangers or loved ones? Or watched as idiot after idiot makes the same mistakes and you wonder how the hell these people manage to dress themselves let alone make it through a single day in this world?
That’s when the idea stuck me. I’d write a book! Something that would utilize my years of study to help people through the traffic jam with a little more patience, dignity and success. And it would be called Stuck in Traffic: A Philosophical Critique of Humanity.
But…. There was a problem.
I didn’t have the time to write a book. And even if I did the only people who read books like that are either intellectuals or overly pretentious teenagers. I wouldn’t reach the people that I wanted to help. I didn’t want to write a book filled with references and detailed explanations of statistics from experiments. That wasn’t relatable or fun for the average Joe.
So that’s why I’m here. To lend my insight to normal issues that I see people dealing with every day in a way that’s not meant just for lovers of philosophy or science but to everyone, using metaphors, anecdotes and facts that are easy and clear to understand.
That being said, while I’m not going to throw names like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche at you, I am going to ask you to think. The point of these posts are to be rational and logical investigations into the truths about life and this is something the world sorely needs more of, as put beautifully by the Philosophical Society:
“Why should anyone bother to study at least a little logic? To sharpen the mind in a world saturated by streams of propaganda and advertising. To know when a pitchman is conning you, when some ‘expert’ or pundit is propounding a dubious doctrine, when someone is making an apocryphal claim about miracles or divinity or the afterlife. To chasten one’s own thinking, to develop an appreciation for tenable arguments and a respect for good reasoning. To become more adept at solving problems, whether they’re encountered in business, science, politics, or the law.”
Now, before we begin, a small warning. These thoughts, ideas and topics can be unsettling or uncomfortable at times. In it we are made to confront things we already know in a whole new light, turning the familiar strange. And once you open the windows and let this new light in, the whole world changes, and, like lost innocence, however unsettling, it cannot be unseen, unthought or unknown.
“WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT? OH, IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE STUPID”
My wife and I were driving to work one morning when we came to a stop sign at an intersection. The other road had no stop sign and thus, had the right of way. Sure enough, just as we came to a full stop, a car was pulling up from the other road so, naturally, we let him go first. But, instead, he came to a full stop. For no reason.
Obviously, the only rational thing for us to do was to yell at him wildly from our car, “What’re you doing, you idiot?! You don’t have a stop sign!”
Magically, he heard us and he began to go. Though it was just our luck that he was turning down the direction we were headed. In all his brilliance, the man must’ve thought that his stop at NOTHING a few seconds earlier had given him a free pass for the next ACTUAL stop he came across because as he approached a red light, he just kept on going.
I don’t have an exact number, but it’s gotta be well over a hundred times a day I utter the phrase, “People are idiots.”
In the intro to this blog I explained that this wasn’t going to be for just the intellectuals and geniuses. But what do we mean by genius or intelligence?
Do you think you’re smart? Probably. Do you think you’re an idiot? Probably not. Was that guy driving in my story above an idiot? Sure seemed like it. But how do we determine who’s smart and who’s dumb? I bet that guy driving doesn’t think he’s an idiot.
The word “smart” actually comes from an Old Dutch term that means “pain”. Like the saying, “Ow, that smarts!” Feel free to use that little tidbit to impress your friends. They’ll think you’re smart.
Psychologically it’s been shown that most people believe they are smart, good drivers and good in bed. But we’ve all known enough idiots, seen plenty of crappy drivers and most people have had at least one night of shitty sex to know that just because you think something of yourself doesn’t mean it’s true.
This whole blog has a driving metaphor and, as much as we all love talking about sex (we’ll get to that another day) let’s stay focused on smartness. The truth is, there’s no shared definition for intelligence. So how can we know for sure that the guy driving was an idiot and that you’re smart? Aside from the evidence that you’re here reading this amazing blog and he’s out there defiling the rules of the road.
We, in America have this obsession with intelligence. We take baseless Facebook IQ tests and get excited when we stumble upon something that says “If you solve this under one minute, your a genius!”
I want you to take another look at that last sentence since I cut and pasted it from an actual Facebook post. It uses the wrong “your”. It should be “you’re” so obviously the person writing that wasn’t a genius. And does solving something in under minute really make you smart anyway?
Let’s look at someone everyone knows was smart: Albert Einstein.
Every so often you’ll see ads that say. “Einstein’s IQ was 160! What’s yours?” First off, no one knows Einstein’s IQ. He refused to take any kind of IQ test because he didn’t believe in them. Instead, he is often quoted saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
But what about that whole solving a puzzle under a minute thing? Back to Einstein. He’s famous for his theories on relativity and those theories took him roughly 9 years to figure out. He also got stuck a bunch of times and asked several of his mathematician friends for help. Apparently he was really good at sticking with one problem for a long time and knowing when to ask for help. It seems speed isn’t as important as we’d like to think. So why do we get sucked into stuff like that so easily?
It’s our culture and our psychology.
We want to feel special and smart because we equate these things with a good life and success. But anyone who’s seen an episode of the Kardashians knows that you don’t have to be smart to be successful.
Even our educational systems play into this. We take SAT tests that challenge our overall intelligence in order to get into college while every other country in the world makes you take Subject Tests based on your area of study. Because they know that not everyone is a physicist or a mathematician, two types of people who tend to score high on IQ and SAT tests. But take an artist like Picasso or a poet like Pablo Neruda, geniuses both, and they may not do as well on an IQ test because their genius isn’t based in that realm of knowledge . In fact, a mathematical genius, in all other regards like common sense, human interaction or driving could be a total moron for all we know.
Historically, this country began using IQ tests when they realized there was a correlation between high IQ and overall success rates. While it makes sense that people who have a broader and more useful set of knowledge of the working world would be more likely to be successful, this inevitably brings us to a very important phrase that will come up A LOT in future posts.
Correlation does not equal causation.
I know, I said I wasn’t gonna throw big words at you but these one’s are IMPORTANT. This is a mistake we humans make a great deal in our logic. Simply put, it means that just because you do something and then another thing happens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the first thing is directly related to the second thing.
So, for example, if one morning you woke up, got out of bed, put on a pink bunny costume and then did a little pee-pee dance in your living room only to leave your house to find five dollars blowing down the sidewalk, it doesn’t mean your magic bunny pee-pee dance gave you the five dollars.
The world is endlessly complicated and we have to remember this fact when faced with the majority of issues we come upon in life. Yes, perhaps someone is giving you a five dollar tip for getting to watch your urine-filled bunny boogie through your window like a creeper but most likely, it’s just a coincidence. And just because someone’s good at math and you’re not doesn’t make them smarter than you, it makes them better at math. I can read papers on quantum physics no problem but ask me to fix a carburetor (or even spell it without spell-check) and I’m useless. This applies to a multitude of topics, not just intelligence, which we’ll see shortly.
The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says sometimes he’ll meet people on a plane and whenever he tells them he’s a philosopher they inevitably ask him, “What’s your philosophy?” He always answers, “My philosophy is that everything is more complicated than you thought.”
“THAT GUY’S AN ASSHOLE”
If you’re on any kind of social media these days, I’m sure you’ve seen shared stories about a massive comet hitting earth at such and such a date or that there’s a huge alien megastructure we’ve discovered or something simpler like bacon causes cancer or gluten is unhealthy and makes you fat.
We see these articles, mostly written by journalists seeking likes, views and shares and we spread them around like wildfire without ever going deeper into the truth. First, let me clarify these stories for you:
No, there is no comet set to hit and destroy earth. You can check any myriad of astronomical sites that constantly report the whereabouts and sizes of comets. Trust the majority of scientists, this is what they do for a living (don’t trust just one, though, because he could easily be wrong).
Most likely, there’s no alien megastructure. Yes, this theory was said by a respected scientist but when you go back to the full interview he was just spit-balling a myriad of theories for something big (or possibly a bunch of small things) that was passing by a distant star. But no one’s gonna click on an article that says “SCIENTIST SAYS THERE COULD BE A COMET CLUSTER SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY!”
Bacon causing cancer created a worldwide gasp from every bacon-lover in the world. But with a little research we find that the statistics are low and as long as you’re not gorging yourself on bacon every day, you should be fine (and if you are, I’m sure heart disease will take you out LONG before cancer cells start to form). In fact, there are more carcinogens in your average cup of coffee than in a slice of bacon. All things in moderation when it comes to your health and food. Sugar, for example is an important part of your diet. However, we Americans drink giant sodas numerous times a day and chomp away at cookies and snacks and we’re overloading our bodies in a very unhealthy manner.
This brings me to my ever-constant hatred of the gluten phenomenon. Gluten will not make you fat nor is it bad for you. It is merely a protein found in bread that holds it together. People with Celiac disease are allergic to this particular protein but this number of people is VERY small. Recently a study was completed testing people who claimed to have a “gluten sensitivity”. It turned out that it was a placebo effect that caused these people’s “symptoms”. In other words, it was all in their heads. So when you see yogurt or beef jerky that says “Gluten Free!” I want you let out a very loud DUH! Because it never EVER has gluten.
All of these issues and so many more are similar to the ideas about intelligence that we’ve already gone over. When you read or hear about these kinds of topics you should never take them at face value. Especially when it comes to important things like your health, relationships or the state of the world. So, when you see an article that suggests your lover could be psychopath… take it with a very small grain of salt.
The idea here is to stop and think when given something simple and straightforward because life is almost never either of those things. Another good example of this is something I saw floating around Facebook a while ago. It had two pictures, one of Hitler and one of Hillary Clinton. Underneath each it gives quotes by both Hitler and Clinton about society’s needs coming before the individual. Now, whatever your feelings are about Clinton, doesn’t matter here. What the image is inferring is that Clinton is evil like Hitler for saying something similar to what he said. However, Hitler was also a vegetarian and a Christian and we definitely wouldn’t automatically think of other Christians or vegetarians as evil.
Let’s also think about what they both said. “Society’s needs outweigh those of the individual.” There are plenty of people who would agree with that statement. It makes sense depending on your views of an individual’s importance within society. Now if you quoted the both of them saying the “Jews should be annihilated”… well then you’ve got a problem. What this image of the two them is trying to do is to plant the idea of Clinton being evil in a person’s brain without a valid argument because comparing her to Hitler is so much easier and simpler for the common folk. Now, you may not agree with Clinton’s policies on things like gun control or foreign policy but her faults are a far cry from being a megalomaniac bent on world domination. If you have a point of view, back it up with a valid argument, not childish rhetoric and demand the same from those who oppose your view point. And the second someone starts throwing “Hitler” around or claiming it’s a conspiracy, you can be relatively certain that they lack the evidence necessary to back up their argument and are taking last resorts meant to insult, aggravate or confuse more than prove their point.
Now, remember when I said sometimes things on here can get uncomfortable? Well, this brings us to one of those moments. Even if you have what you think is a well-informed opinion from sources you trust, you should still go out and read from those that go against what you believe. It’s vital that you keep an open mind and to hear the evidence from other sources. You may find that with a little critical thinking you can dismantle the opposing side’s view or perhaps you’ll learn to see things from a different perspective and begin to see the grays in life and not the black and whites that we’d like it to be.
Let’s take a simple example: Pedophiles are bad.
It’s pretty straight forward and I doubt there are many who would argue with me on that. But let’s take a look at a situation written about by psychologist Paul Bloom:
“In 2000, an otherwise normal Virginia man started to collect child pornography and make sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter. He was sentenced to spend time in a rehabilitation center, only to be expelled for making lewd advances toward staff members and patients. The next step was prison, but the night before he was to be incarcerated, severe headaches sent him to the hospital, where doctors discovered a large tumor on his brain. After they removed it, his sexual obsessions disappeared. Months later, his interest in child pornography returned, and a scan showed that the tumor had come back. Once again it was removed, and once again his obsessions disappeared.”
Suddenly a straightforward black and white idea has become gray. This man, for all intents and purposes, was a pedophile which is bad, but upon further investigation a tumor is the root cause of it and suddenly we are met with hesitation at condemning him.
This is the importance of taking the time to think critically about anything. Whether it’s what foods you put in your body, what you believe about the state of the world and the universe or if you’re simply judging a person, public or private, as good or bad. So the next time someone says, “Oh, it’s totally true! I read an article on it!” take a deep breath and remind yourself that they are probably referring to a click-bait article they found on Facebook and not a legitimate source of information and go look into it yourself later. Sometimes you’ll even find that there is no clear cut answer. There’s nothing wrong with reserving judgement until you have more evidence or simply not taking a side.
It’s human nature to separate things into good and bad, black and white, etc. It helps us to not be overwhelmed and frightened in a chaotic and complex world. We’d love to think that all soldiers who fight for our country are good and that pedophiles are bad but that ignores the fact that some soldiers are pedophiles or worse and perhaps that one pedophile in thousands has a tumor. Or we like to think that natural things are good and chemical things are bad, never mind the fact that natural things include Arsenic, the giant poo you took this morning and the only true evil in the world, sharks (I hate sharks) and that EVERYTHING is made of chemicals.
“SHIT, IS THAT A COP?”
Everyone’s heard of Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective able to deduce the most intimate of details with the simplest and hard-to-spot clues. I’m sure we all wish we had this skill at one point or another. Here’s the awesome part: In some ways, we do.
Let’s start with the simplest of simple examples. You’re in a room with a chair and a table. On the table sits an apple. In your life you’ve seen hundreds of chairs, tables and apples so you know that you can walk over, sit in the chair and rest your arms on the table while you eat the hell out of that delicious apple.
What you’ve done there is actually built up a stereotype in your mind about chairs, tables and apples. I know, “stereotype” is a big, bad word. We spend so much of our lives trying not to stereotype but there are good kinds. Kinds we’ve used in our lives to grow and learn about the world that have helped us to survive.
Remember the example I used earlier about soldiers and pedophiles? We believe that most soldiers are good men because most of them are. These are brave men who are willing to sacrifice their lives for us, the country and its ideals and that is a noble attribute that takes an even nobler person. The same logic goes for pedophiles. Most pedophiles are sexual predators who do terrible things and most don’t do it because of a tumor. They do it because they’re amoral sociopaths with a problem.
Like Sherlock, we’re able to look at someone in an army uniform and discern a great deal about who they are. Whether it’s their race, religious beliefs, political affiliation, or their views on foreign policy. The same goes for the creepy guy with the shitty comb-over who lives in the seedy motel down the street and drives an ice cream truck. He may not be a pedophile but we’ve certainly seen our fair share of them that fit that particular stereotype and it makes us cautious.
So where do you draw the line? How do we tell when we should go by the stereotypes that automatically play out in our heads or use that critical thinking that’s oh-so-important?
It’s easy. Just slow down and quit speeding.
I worked briefly for the post office as a mail carrier and when I was hired I had to take a special defensive driving course. At the end of the first day we were given a homework assignment. When we left we were told to see how far we drove before we started to think about something other than driving.
I barely made it out of the parking lot before I started thinking about dinner. What this assignment was meant to teach us was self-awareness.
Have you ever caught a kid doing something bad and you ask them why they did it and they just look at you blankly and shrug. They have no idea. They just did it.
We do this kind of thing all the time because we’re usually not taught to be self-aware about who we are and why we do the things we do. Other people do it way too much and it can become a hindrance. Self-awareness is how you handle this important balance between our natural biases and critical thinking.
You have to learn to be aware when you’re jumping to conclusions that could be false and take a deep breath and then think slowly about how to proceed. This can be difficult so don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself after the fact. Every moment is an opportunity and you’ll always get more to improve.
As for the idiot driver who stopped for no apparent reason and then proceeded to not stop at a red light, my first conclusion is the man’s an incompetent moron. Upon further reflection perhaps he was just terribly tired. Maybe he was up all night caring for a crying baby. His license plate was from Jersey so maybe it was those damn Jersey drivers. At the end of the day, I’m most likely never going to see the man again so my opinion really is of no importance. I can express my frustrations by calling him a moronic, snatch-napkin and it doesn’t hurt his feelings or hinder any future relationship. But if I were to walk into work to find that he’s my new supervisor, then I would have to take a moment and put my conclusions about him aside and when I’ve had a number of further interactions with the man, make my judgements about how smart or stupid he is, and decide how I want this relationship to move forward. He may be an idiot driver but a brilliant leader. Whatever my conclusions about him, being my new supervisor, I may wanna keep those opinions to myself.
The point is, put your energies where they’re needed in regards to when you should and shouldn’t self-check your biases and stereotypes. Don’t look at a chair and wonder if it will collapse despite the fact that all the other chairs haven’t. But if you’re walking down the street and you see a young African American in a hoodie, don’t automatically assume you’re about to be mugged. He’s most likely just trying to keep his head warm.
Now some biases are engrained in us so deeply we don’t even realize we have them. In those situations we have to be more aware that we all have these biases and may even have to trick ourselves to do the right thing. It wasn’t that long ago that women were vastly underrepresented in orchestras. The people doing the auditions weren’t sexist they explained, it’s just that men were naturally better musicians. That was until they started doing blind auditions.
As soon as they started having the musicians play behind a curtain, the number of women skyrocketed. The sad thing was that some of the people holding the auditions were women.
I’ll go more into cultural and racial biases in another post when I get to compassion and empathy but I will say that our culture has raised us to believe certain negative stereotypes about sexes and races that even the negatively affected groups believe. In psychological studies where participants of various races were given two almost identical resumes and shown two corresponding pictures, one of a Caucasian man and one of an African American and they were asked which one they’d hire for a job. Most, even other African Americans, inevitably chose the Caucasian man. Does this mean that the majority of white people are just better to hire? Absolutely not. It means there is something wrong with how our society thinks.
“LET’S STOP AT THE EXISTENTIALIST DRIVE-THRU!”
At the end of the day, life, unlike driving, has no manual. Society has certain rules and boundaries that you should obey for good reason; things like don’t steal, murder or be a selfish douchebag. But as far as how you go about your life within this society, that’s up to you.
You can meander through your life, never questioning yourself or the world you live in; never contributing to society in any fashion. But that existence is shallow and empty once you realize what’s beyond it.
Once you stop and really think about what you consider is a smart or good person and honestly compare that to yourself, most of us are hit with rather harsh realities. What does it mean to be good? Do you even have a set of morals to guide you? And if you do, how well do they stand up to criticism and difficult situations? If they crumble, it doesn’t make you stupid. It just means you need to learn, grow and change.
And that’s what life is all about.
Being stagnant in any form is death. Your mind never stops growing and changing. And neither does society. It’s your job as an individual to decide who you are and who you want to be, not just for yourself but to find a happier place amongst society.
A few years back, some scientists asked the question if religion makes people happier. They did a poll in the United States and found that most people who went to church claimed to be happier and more fulfilled than those who didn’t. Intrigued by their findings they expanded their polls to the rest of the world and surprisingly, found the opposite was true in other more non-religious countries. The atheists were the happier ones in countries like Sweden and Norway which were overall much less religious.
How could this be? Was American religion better? Probably not. The scientists went back and collected more data and found out what it was that was causing the differences.
It was the sense of community.
America is a religious country and the bulk of communities are made up of those who spend time being a part of something bigger like their church. Whereas, atheists have fewer places or groups to be a part of. In other countries, while they’re not religious, still find ways to come together and be a part of a community. It wasn’t the religion or the lack there of that made these people happy, it was having a place to be together and belong.
We’re social creatures. Even those of us who are more introspective and withdrawn still crave closeness with other people. It’s why we go online, join groups, root for sports teams or go to concerts. As small as these things are, most people are comforted and overjoyed to be in a place where they are with those who are likeminded.
We yearn for connections and adore being a part of something bigger than ourselves. But we must always be careful, as this can cause an “us or them” kind of thinking. This separates us and causes divides that shouldn’t be there.
We’re all human and we each deserve happiness and respect, no matter our standing. But these things aren’t just given to us. Together we have to create a society that can give each of us a sense of pride and freedom in who we are as individuals.
It’s been shown that if a person is playing tug-of-war they’ll put in more of an effort if they’re pulling by themselves than if they’re on a team because they rely on others to pull harder. It’s time we changed that. If each person to his own took responsibility for who they are and started to improve and grow, society would follow.
We’re all stuck in this traffic jam together. It doesn’t matter your station or background, your intelligence or your worth. You’re stuck here. The only way we can get out of this happier and easier is by working together. But, like any relationship, the first person we gotta fix is ourselves. And that’s what we’re here to do.
So, sit back, start your engines and turn on the radio. It may be a long and bumpy ride but, it’s like they say, it’s not the destination….
It’s the journey.