Thursday, September 2, 2010

Our best friends

We here in the USA still are blessed with an incredible gift from our founders ... the Bill of Rights and Freedom of Speech, in particular. With all of the angst ongoing around the world over such things as terrorism, violent crime, educational system failures, bigotry of all sorts, economic downturns, peak oil, environmental disasters, white collar crime ... the list goes on and on ... we here in the USA currrently are having an extended, intense 'conversation' on all these topics via the media (including the Internet). Viewpoints across a broad spectrum are being voiced and heard, the issues are being explored and debated, and at least some of us are being stimulated to think about the issues, possibly even modifying our positions with regard to them on the basis of what we've heard and learned from others.

For some reason, today I feel encouraged by all of this ferment. I'm pleased to see that Freedom of Speech still is alive and well, despite the fact that some of those being allowed to speak their minds would seek to abolish that freedom were they to gain power. Extremists of all sorts have been part of human society virtually from its very beginnings, and some well-intentioned folks are moved to limit the Freedom of Speech, ostensibly to prevent these extremists from destroying all our freedoms. I hope you can see the flaw in that argument - it reminds me of the comment from some Army officer during our vain military intervention in Vietnam: "We had to destroy that village in order to save it!" If we succumb to fear so thoroughly that we sacrifice our freedom to save it, then those who seek to destroy those freedoms will have succeeded and we'll have helped them to do it! It was Ben Franklin himself who said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Fortunately, we can continue to carry on the many heated debates we're seeing within our deeply divided citizenry. Many, perhaps most, people with a viewpoint see their opponents in the debate as enemies to be overwhelmed, put down, and even silenced. This is simply an erroneous perspective. As I've been saying to my students for many years, "Your most severe critic is your best friend!" Why do I say that? Because your critics will assail vigorously whatever you say, perhaps finding logical loopholes and contradictions you missed. You'll be forced to refine your viewpoint ever farther. Some of your critics will fail to understand properly what you're saying, so their criticisms will reveal ways by which you can clarify your position, thereby expanding the range of folks who can grasp and contemplate what you're asserting.

Unfortunately, sometimes your severest critics are just - there's no point in being PC - morons. An illogical or irrational argument is of no value to you. I recommend you simply walk away from engaging in debates with morons. There's little to be gained, there. Even moronic arguments have the right to be voiced and heard, of course. I'm perfectly content with letting such points be made and then letting others decide for themselves that they're moronic. My default position is that I assume you can recognize a moronic argument when you see it. You won't need me to point out the flaws. The source of a moronic argument is virtually certain to have a closed mind on the topic, and if you discover that to be the case, then further discussion is pointless.

Far from seeing my opponents in a debate as my enemies, I embrace them as my friends, even if they choose not to reciprocate. Intolerance for the viewpoints of others is a dangerous attitude to have, especially when demagogues seek to wrap themselves in patriotism and religious fervor and use that to set people against each other. This is the Orwellian vision immortalized in the novel 1984. That year came ... and went ... without a descent into that nightmarish world. I'd like to think that one reason that prediction for the future failed to eventuate is that we in the USA have not yet succumbed to paranoid delusions of how our enemies will destroy us from within, so we have not yet abandoned our commitment to the Bill of Rights.

Fear-mongers among us seek to gain power by trading on concerns for our safety in order to abrogate the freedoms currently enjoyed by their opponents. If we are confident that our national commitment to freedom is the right path, then we should not give in to fear of those who might threaten that freedom and do their dirty work for them!

The polarizing issue of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is a classic example of how fear is being exploited by extremists on both sides of the debate. Muslim terrorists are exploiting the fears of muslims around the world that the west is seeking to destroy islam. Christian extremists are exploiting the acts of a small number of muslim extremists to sow fear of all muslims. When people feel they're likely to be attacked, it's natural to respond in ways that would sacrifice freedom for security. We as a nation have a bad history of doing so in times of actual war, sadly. There are groups on both sides who see this growing paranoia as a means to gain power - I suppose most such demagogues don't actually want outright war, although that might not be true of all such. They just want the fear to be perpetuated, the bogeyman to remain just outside the door, and to be kept at bay by the "inspired leadership" of the demagogues.

So long as the arguments we're having are loud and public, I'm feeling reasonably good about this nation. I have confidence that the majority of our citizens will not be swayed by the ravings of extremists. Let them rant! Our freedoms are the envy of many people around the world. It's those very freedoms that extremists would repeal, so I think we need to calm down a bit and recognize that our opponents in an argument aren't evil monsters that we should seek to silence. They can be our best friends!!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Do you even have a clue?

Tonight, I was watching some TV programs about geophysical hazards: earthquakes and dust storms, in particular. It occurred to me that most viewers of such programs likely consider it unlikely that they would experience such monumental dislocations as a major earthquake or a 'black blizzard' of the sort that people in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s went through. They can't begin to imagine what it might be like because they feel secure in their 'normalcy bias' - "It hasn't happened to me yet, so it won't ever happen to me!" Are you willing to bet your life on that?

Listen up, folks - there's a non-zero probabilty that you could experience a geophysical hazard of such monumental proportions you'd be very unlikely to survive it! Most of you can't even begin to imagine what might be in store for you. Yeah, sure - the odds that any one of you in particular will have to deal with such a geophysical disaster are relatively low. Be thankful for that! If you should be unlucky enough to be there when terrible things happen, and you manage to live through it, you'll never have the same sense of security you had before. Your sense of invulnerability on this uncertain planet is completely without justification! There's no security here! Earth is not a world without risk - a world in which your sense of security is justified.

Rather, your continued existence is only as a statistical accident. For most people, most of the time, you're O.K. But there are no guarantees - the security you feel can be withdrawn without notice, at any time. Deadly weather (tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, heat waves, blizzards, extreme cold, dust storms, etc.), deadly geophysical hazards (earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, avalanches, tsunamis, etc.), and astrophysical disasters (asteroid and comet impacts, solar storms, etc.) can occur without warning, snuffing out your life and/or your existence as you currently know it suddenly and with little or no advance notice. Yeah, it's unfair, but in the physical world, fairness is not at all guaranteed.

Our planet is not some place that protects you from all hazards, and there is no certainty that you personally will not someday experience catastrophic events from the known hazards that can happen on this planet. If you believe you live on a benign world, secure from deadly hazards, then you will do nothing to prepare for such hazards - and you may well die as a direct result of your ignorance and your erroneous sense of security. Ignorance is not bliss in this real world. Rather, your ignorance can be directly related to your vulnerability to geophysical hazards.

If you don't believe me, go ahead and assume it will never happen to you. Continue to wrap yourself in your bogus security blanket - but don't blame me if you're unlucky! - caught unprepared when some geophysical hazard blows you and your loved ones away. Being prepared is associated with recognizing your vulnerability. Ignore that at your peril!