Posts Tagged ‘E. O. Wilson’

Tyranny Prevention

May 24, 2017 1 comment
Keynote: Timothy Snyder

Keynote: Timothy Snyder. CC BY-SA 2.0

Yale University’s Levin Professor of History Timothy Snyder has written a manifesto for democracy titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). This little volume (128 pages, 6” x 4.5”) packs a wallop. Although he never names anyone as his focal tyrant wannabe, the reader knows that this book is a call for individual action to prevent the inevitable consequence of inaction in the face of power grabbing.

As one action that I will take in response to his words, I have summarized his 20 admonitions for those of you who do not relish reading. That said, I strongly urge you 1) to read this little book, and 2) to find your own way of preventing tyranny. Together, we can.

The bolded introductory statements are Professor Snyder’s wording. The defining examples are my wording, including a couple of his examples.

  1. Do not obey in advance. “Anticipatory obedience” occurs when eager followers desirous of pleasing the leader initiate acts they imagine the leader would encourage, as in the SS killings in 1938 Germany before being commanded to do so.
  2. Defend institutions. Advocate for organizations that are important to you: EPA, NEA…
  3. Beware the one-party state. Fight for the integrity of the electoral process—stand up against efforts to gerrymander districts. Hurrah for yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling against two gerrymandered districts in my home state of North Carolina!
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Czechs wanting nothing to do with Communism posted signs such as “Workers of the world, unite!” thinking authorities would leave them alone, assuming they were of a Communist leaning. Didn’t work. Remove or otherwise eliminate signs or symbols of hate or intolerance.
  5. Remember professional ethnics. Professional associations can make stronger statements than can individuals—while it may be difficult for one lawyer or one doctor to resist a malevolent force, they may appeal to their colleagues to provide ethical force in large numbers. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, one woman couldn’t stop war, but when all women threatened their men with abstinence, war was rethought!
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. In a democracy, only the acknowledged governments (local, state, federal) have the right to police.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you must carry a firearm, maintain the personal authority to say “No!” to its use as a tool of unjust oppression.
  8. Stand out. Without Winston Churchill’s emergence, England may well have languished. He stood out, and up, to Hitler. Similarly, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Sally Yates have stood out/up/alone.
  9. Be kind to our language. Tyrants repeat misused words until followers reify them. Resist by keeping your public language fresh and accurate. “The American people” is not the same thing as “my fan base.” Read great novels for ideas on how to speak truth to power.
  10. Believe in truth. No declamation without verification. Insist on knowing sources. Demand verifiable evidence. Check with the fact checkers. Protect the fact checkers. E. O. Wilson in Consilience posits that it is not politics and religion that divides us, but rather cultures that do not respect evidence.


    Mother with her Dead Son. Kathe Kollwitz. 1993. Berlin. (A memorial to the victims of tyranny.) CC BY 2.0.

  11. Investigate. Develop a nose for sniffing out fake news. Turn a deaf ear to blatant misstatements (“My program is the best possible that could ever be conceived.”) and correct them when and where possible. Before passing along a suspect, outlandish tidbit that stretches reason, check it out on Inform yourself—don’t shy away from reading a longer article when you suspect it has helpful information. Be one of the (hopefully increasing) well-informed electorate. Don’t just follow sources that confirm your biases. Conservatives must watch channels other than Fox News, and Liberals must watch other channels than MSNBC. I intentionally follow Al Jazeera on my iPhone. And the BBC. Look beyond your backyard/border.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. It is easy to look friends in the eye and chat them up. It typically takes more effort to look strangers in the eye—particular those different from us—and make friendly small talk. Catching the eye of a potentially downtrodden person—or even someone who is visually different than you—and chatting briefly with them will make their day (better) and leave them less fearful.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Get your bod and brain out into the world and make friends and connections beyond your private circle. On the other hand…
  14. Establish a private life. Protect your privacy and that of others by securing your computer and supporting organizations that advocate for human rights.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Support two or more organizations that advocate for a civil society—dollars add up, so don’t hold back because you could only make a small contribution! Think of autopay of a dollar a month to your good cause(s) as an inoculation against tyranny. When a million others join you, we have budgeted for tyranny prevention.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. Keep your passport active, maintain relations around the world, and establish new ones. In the worst case, you may need a new home.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Tyrants are extremists who are under the illusion that they are mainstream—that everyone values their agenda, and they use alarming words to cajole the masses into huddling into their fold: “so-and-so is a liar, so don’t listen to them—listen only to me,” “these are extreme times, so embrace my extreme methods,” “terrorists threaten our democracy, so bear with me as I suspend your liberty to stamp them out,” “emergency conditions require extraordinary responses powers,” “such-and-such is a total failure, so you must embrace my replacement for it,” “circumstances require that we make exceptions to the law,” or “Deutschland über alles.” Prefer “America and Germany and all their co-inhabitants of Mother Earth and the Cosmos.”
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Founding father James Madison identified emergencies as the primary hotbed for tyrants—authoritarians emerge to manage terrorism and exact the price of personal freedoms in return. Their mantra: “I’ll keep you safe if you do all that I say.”
  19. Be a patriot. Pay your taxes. Support our military. Vote. Volunteer. Support our news organizations. Decry bad leaders at home and around the world. Support the values that our country espouses—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  20. Be as courageous as you can. Be prepared to be demeaned, to be fired, to be imprisoned, or even to die, by insisting on the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.


One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

9 – 11 – 11 – 13

November 18, 2015 Leave a comment

So what’s with the numbers? Am I giving you a number sequence to solve, as in what is the next logical number in the sequence? No, but you are welcome to use them in that way. Perhaps 13, as in a sequence that begins at 9, then adds 2 and repeats the sum twice; then adds 2 and repeats the sum three times; then adds 2 and repeats the sum four times, and so on. (9 – 11 – 11 – 13 – 13 – 13 – 15 – 15 – 15 – 15…). Or, a numerologist—one who finds mystical connections between numbers and events—might see 9-11 as the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, then 11-13 as the day of the recent Paris attacks (I hadn’t realized it was Friday the 13th until I began making notes for this post), and then conclude that the next attack should be, say 13-15, and another on 15-17, with 13 reverting to month 1 and 15 to month 3. But what would be the evidence for that conclusion? None, to my knowledge. And that is what I want to talk about briefly today—evidence, and critical thinking.

At a meeting in Maarsen (near Utrecht), The Netherlands, soon after the EvidenceWTC attacks in 2001, Jane and I were asked by our audience of peers why we thought western culture was so hated by some. One answer was that many of our cultural practices were drastically opposite of the beliefs of some—long flowing female hair versus fabric coverings, lots of skin showing versus covered skin, booze everywhere and in abundance versus none at all, violent sexy films versus tamer fare, females with social and vocational carte blanche versus females confined to second-class roles, amplified heavy metal and hard drugs versus somber reeds and hookah pipes… Uneducated, provincial people bent on preserving their local way of life fixated on these glaring differences and used them as rallying points in favor of wiping such practices away in a holy war with promises of virgins in paradise.

But there is something more. Biologist E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge formed a conclusion that has stuck with me: It is not religious, political, and social differences that cause conflict but rather the activities of persons who do not respect the force of evidence. Knowledge is gained by imposition or by investigation—imposed values, opinions, mores, and beliefs versus conclusions formed after considering evidence. The process of collecting evidence is used for the purpose of describing the world as accurately as possible—the process of critical thinking—so that we have the best possible information in order to solve difficult problems, make sound decisions, and lay effective plans. Evidence-based medicine is formalized critical thinking. Socratic dialog is critical thinking. Anything that we ask or do in order to get the most accurate information is critical thinking—it is not taking what we hear or see at first encounter. It is not swallowing what authoritarian others in our lives ask us to consume hook, line, and sinker.

I was once asked by a potential customer in a western North Carolina bank district to do a workshop on time management for his bank managers. As a seasoned organization development professional, I knew that clients rarely asked for what they wanted, but rather asked for what they thought they wanted. Being cautious, I asked a simple question: “What is the evidence that your managers need time management training?” The answer could lead in two directions—either in helping me design an appropriate time management workshop for them, or in helping them get a more accurate handle on what the need was. The client told me that the evidence was that his managers were complaining that they did not have time to implement the new call program that the bank had initiated. This was at a time back in the 80s when banking culture was changing from one in which bankers sat at their desks and took orders to one in which they made calls and sought out orders. Many managers—especially the more sedentary ones—resisted. To the point—they didn’t need time management: They needed change management!

You can find much advocacy in the media for teaching critical thinking as necessary both for survival and success in life. I just did a Google search on “We need to teach more critical thinking” and got 36,300,000 hits. Mary Belenky (et al, 1997) in her recently re-released book Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind observed that many traditional girls—and too many boys–are raised to accept knowledge from their authority figures, and as the result fail to find their own voice—dare we call it the Voice of Malala? Belenky and crew conclude that the best way to help young people find their voices—their show-me evidentiary voices—is through teaching critical thinking in grade schools, high schools, colleges, corporate training classes, religious institutions—why stop there—how about in talk show programs, soap operas, news programs, and presidential debates? My friend Susan Close in British Columbia has developed a curriculum for teaching critical thinking with young children called Smart Reading—let’s all follow her lead in our individual domains.

Bertrand Russell once quipped that “Most people would sooner die than Einstein on thinking.jpgthink, in fact they do.” Many vest-wearers on jihad die for lack of thinking, and many more innocents as the result of terrorists’ distaste for evidence. These generally poor, uneducated youth are told 1) that the only sure way to paradise is through martyrdom for the cause, 2) that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins each upon arrival in paradise, 3) that the recruiters will take care of their families after the martyrdom, and 4) that the recruiters will take good care of the recruits during training for martyrdom (the pay is far better and more reliable than the pay for regular service, for instance). Those successfully recruited apparently believe all four come-ons. The only clearly demonstrable one is whether they are taking good care of those already recruited—they have money in hand, food, clothing, and shelter. The other three are less easy to produce evidence for. What if all the trainees asked for evidence that their martyrdom would be followed with 72 virgins in paradise? That their families would definitely be taken care of? That there is no other sure way to paradise? Show me.