#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#11: Authoritarian Governments Must Lie, and Democracies are Grown-Up Systems

Allegedly, Russia has no Coronavirus, but a rise in pneumonia cases. You certainly know what means. We know China lied about the outbreak, and it is safe to assume they will continue to lie, and they certainly are making sure no journalist is telling the truth. Iran and China try to pin the outbreak to the US, a blatant lie. As to what’s happening in North Korea is anybody’s guess.

Authoritarian regimes have to lie about these things, it’s in their nature. This is because there can be only one argument for authoritarianism, and it is as old as Plato: it allegedly works better than the rule of the people. It’s a simple deal. The state, through its leader(s), says that it knows what is best for you, and that they listen to the people (overtly and, well, covertly) and then channel their thoughts into their decision-making. L’état, c’est moi – I am the state, as Louis XIV is quoted so famously.

But this is not how human beings work. We are not perfect. This is not how life works either. Something always gets in the way of perfection. Nobody, probably, wants a global virus outbreak to happen, at least no sane human being. The planet and all the other life forms on it might want to cull the human herd, but human beings typically want to preserve themselves, and an uncontrollable outbreak of an unknown pathogen is low on the list of deviousness designed by diabolical human minds for their warfare. The typical Bond movie villain does not exist. Even Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) has warned its assassins not to travel to Europe for fear of contagion. Extremists might be mad, but not that mad. China may have researched the virus in its Wuhan lab, but it probably did not engineer it. The regime may be mad, but not that mad.

It’s called a mistake, and mistakes happen. Now it depends on how you handle it. If you are an authoritarian regime, you must seem all-competent and almighty in order to convince your hapless subjects to continue to tolerate their evil grasp. As soon as that grasp seems less competent and less mighty, a revolution might occur, and it will occur much more quickly than you might think. Dictatorships are systems on the edge, and they can turn instantaneously. I know, I grew up in one. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Honecker seem on top of the world. The next day, the evil couple is on the run. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu are praising the victory of socialism, and the next day they are lying dead in a ditch. One day the Soviet Union is the scary evil empire (no sarcasm intended), the next day it is on the path to becoming a pitiful petro-state with delusions of grandeur. One day you are the much-celebrated stereotypical “Oriental” despot written about so adoringly in your own orientalist romance novel, the other you’re dragged out from an Earthen hole by American troops. One day you are running the African Union, the next day you are gunned down by protestors in the street like an animal. A dictator must have all the power, because the alternative is extremely punitive. All or nothing, whatever the cost.

This is not strength, it is weakness masquerading as strength. If you feel the need to pose with naked upper body on horseback like a dime novel James Bond, you are not demonstrating real strength; but you are demonstrating that as ridiculous as you may look, no one better laugh at you, for you’ll be out to get them. When otherwise comical things are becoming serious, this is where the authoritarian spirit lives.

Now, contrast this with the West. For all the authoritarian-ish posing that you may see in someone like a Macron, a Trump, even at times a Merkel, this is always a pathos that can easily be decried as pathetic by a functioning press. Western-style democracy is a cacophony of voices, a shrill spectacle of different interest groups in a tug-of-war, of upper and lower chambers of parliament screaming or grandstanding at each other, of judges deciding against judges, of hapless leaders, angry protesters, angry commentators, angry commentators angry at other angry commentators, etc. It’s a spectacle, every single day.

But this is not weakness; this is true strength. Democracy is more than just the “rule of the people”, as that simplistic definition says. Sure, somehow that is important. But more than that, democracy is a grown-up system for consensus creation by listening to all voices, somehow finding a way to navigate through them, making a decision, criticizing that decision to the maximum extent, hoping for the best, and if it does not work out, at the next higher level you may change or veto things, and at the next election, you can throw the inept leaders out and try anew. Repeat.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll certainly, certainly, certainly know about the makes, if not sooner than definitely later, and we’ll have to grow around our mistakes, but the system will not collapse, and the hapless leaders, if they have not been found guilty of a crime, can retire in peace and be brought out once and again as an example of an elder statesperson that survived this hellish circle of life and can tell the tale.

I’ll take a grown-up system any day over one that treats everyone like a child.

#10: Corona, or, Nothing Important Is Happening Today

There is this anecdote that on July 4th 1776, King George wrote into his Journal “Nothing is Happening Today.” These were the times without instant worldwide communications, and surely, he could not have known what had just happened in the American colonies. And as most such famous quotes go, it very probably is not true, just as most of these things aren’t. These historical “fake news” exist to show a person’s character, or rather, to reveal the lack of royal insight in this case.

It will be interesting what will remain of all of us for future generations. People like to ridicule how in the “Middle Ages” (whatever that means) believers would flock into churches to pray against the Black Death, and thus would unknowingly spread it, or that Native Americans would congregate in Sweat Lodges, only to unknowingly spread diseases as well. There are countless such examples from all human cultures throughout all of history, I would assume.

We are not much better now.

It’s quite depressing watching the news, but it’s also a strange social and political experiment, somehow. Each country, it seems, has found different ways to deal with the issue ineptly; if it weren’t so sad, it would be fascinating. Watching young people frolicking outside, either here or in Europe, is a strange sight to see. Fear can do many different things with the human psyche, I guess.

It is an outrageous assumption that human beings would have somehow evolved to be smarter now. We are now seeing the evidence to the contrary, once again.

The sinister regime in Communist China felt that their reputation was more important than the safety of the entire world. They lied, persecuted truth-tellers, refused to share information, and are responsible for what is happening today. They know, but in true Socialist-Communist fashion, the party is supposed to be smarter than reality. Reality, supposedly, can be bent to the social engineering of a hubristic utopian cult hell-bent on eradicating every trace of individuality in the name of the “perfect” state.

(Should anyone dare to misunderstand what I am saying, my criticism aims at the regime and all those supporting it, in thought, words, and actions; it is not aimed at the innocent people imprisoned, dominated and abused by a sadistic system run by sadistic people.)

What started in China, and was made worse by the Chinese government, has, of course, spread now to the entire world. In the Western World, reactions have been less than perfect, and the tragedy unfolding in Italy right now may hit other countries. We are not prepared for such a pandemic, but surely, we will survive it, and luckily, this is Corvid-19, which is clearly a dangerous respiratory virus, but it is certainly not the Black Death, Ebola, or whatever gifts nature may still have in store for us.

But this is a lesson for the future.

Globalization – always – has brought with it both immense riches and immense risks. It mortally wounded the Eastern Roman Empire, once the Black Death made it to the Mediterranean area. It killed off probably about 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas, Australia, and other areas. Global Interconnectedness means also the global spread of diseases.

We need to learn from this. Health care systems and modern medicine need to be made to withstand whatever comes next. Every country needs to be able to make their own medicines. We cannot rely on rogue players for our own survival.

We are learning right now very unfortunate things. We are back, sadly, in Europe to each country being on their own. Maybe European Integration needs more coordination with regards to health care? In each federal system, be it Germany or the United States, we need more coordination between states.

But mostly, we need people to listen. This is dangerous. Follow instructions. This is how civilizations can end. You may believe you can shape reality in any way possible, but reality will laugh at you. Nature is stronger than us. Only together will we survive this.

But as usual, the response to all the admonitions, all the warnings, all the instructions, is a cynical, casual, superior snark of “nothing important is happening today.” Neil Postman was right that Aldous Huxley was right. We are choosing our own pleasure as the instrument of our suppression. This has happened before, and it will happen again.

Fear can produce the strangest reactions, and I guess denial is just human nature.