My Technicolor to a Black and White View of America

Today I read this quote:

In this country, American means 'white'. Everyone else has to hyphenate.

We live in this marvelous age where it's easy to find the words of anything that has been requoted enough times, but really hard to find the original and in-context source from which the quote is lifted. Oh well.

Here's what I notice:

  • A lot of people seem to have repeated this quote. Maybe it means they see a deep truth in it. Maybe it means they already buy into a narrative of victimization and this resonates with that.
  • If I wanted to stoke the fires of a victimization narrative, this quote is pretty damn good for that. How dare they? Grrrr...
  • What's it called when something matches an existing pattern in your brain? recognition.
  • That being said, I don't really hyphenate when describing my nationality. I haven't felt the need. It's the juxtaposition of perfect English coming from an Asian face that I'm counting on for recognition.
  • In some cases though, maybe I am a "black swan" event for them. They never knew Americans like me existed. Well... now they know. And next time, or the time after that, maybe they'll recognize.
  • The hard truth is this: America is a country found on principles. Not religion. Not race.
  • My opinion? If you accept principles and the responsibility of living in a free society and you expect no one else to pay your way unless they want to, out of the kindness of their hearts, you may call yourself American. I'm really big on any "giving" being fully voluntary. (and... Volun-told is not voluntary)
  • Anything you are born into, you didn't have to earn, and you won't immediately understand it's value. It doesn't make you automatically any more or less worthy of being American. It just is.
  • I was born on American soil. While that gave me automatic status as an American, I didn't start calling myself "an American" until my 30s when individual liberty became a deep personal conviction for me.
  • What happened in my 30s? I read Ayn Rand. (Whoops, I just lost half the audience. That's okay. I know what I learned and I know where I learned it. Wanna learn the core values of America? Read Rand.)
  • Sometimes people who meet me ask where I am from. When I grok that they are inquiring about nationality, usually if they are immigrants, I answer with "where my parents are from" and then I say that I am American: Born in New York... raised on Pizza by Tom and Jerry and GI Joe and My Little Effing Pony.
  • Yeah.
  • No kidding.

Sects and Violence

I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".

From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.

Let's Talk About Sects, Baby

Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.

To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:

  • Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
  • Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
  • Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
  • Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...

And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...

There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.

You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.

Aside: Beware of Mob Think

There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.

People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.

Labels Fail Us

Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.

There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":

they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.

Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.

The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.

But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.


Beyond Us Vs. Them

We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.

Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?

Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.

Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:

  • Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
  • The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
  • Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
  • Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
  • "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
  • Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.

The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.

We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.

But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.

Choose Ownership When The World Feels Grim

What happens when we own the bad things that happen rather than trying to understand who is to blame and who is right and wrong? When we own them, sometimes it will hurt. But when we own them, we also ask what is within our sphere of influence that we can change in order to reduce the chance of a bad thing happening.

We reach out to people to get ideas. We search within ourselves. And we start to experiment with different ways of getting things done that may be less fragile than what we do today.

Any situation where we accept blame and take responsibility is an opportunity and a privilege. These are THE BEST opportunities because we know one version of something that is possible and has happened, and it wasn't good.

We can devote our energy to improving our processes and systems against a real scenario. This is how progress is made. Making a difference in the world is nothing more than investing your emotional energy to think and act to make some thing, person, or system better.

What happens to our emotional experience and self esteem when we take ownership?

Ownership is facing the messy world and taking it on to impose order over one small bit of it. The act of taking ownership means transitioning from the states of apathy, victimhood, and blame toward thought and action. You will never be more fully yourself than when thinking and acting.

Ownership means that this time, whether it works or not, we are doing this. We are not helpless. We've got this. (How do these words make you feel?)

Take ownership enough times and you may come to realize something that has been true all along: We don't need to run to go get help. We are the help. We just have to show up.

With enough practice under our belt, we show up consistently. We show up sooner. We tactically deploy our emotional detachment so that we don't act blindly. This lets us take a step back and take in the broader view and make sure we are aren't missing some crucial data.

But we never detach 100%. We show up because we care.

Choose to Care and Choose Ownership

Choose ownership and lean into it and I promise you, the situation will feel less grim. When faced with darkness all around, you have chosen to be the light. And the morale boost your teammates get may help them to fight harder and run faster as well. And it will probably turn out that they are a light for you, to help you to keep your morale going.

When your actions are a positive impact on morale, you know you are making a difference. This is the meaningful work you've been looking for. You have become the sort of impact you have always wanted for everyone around you. Soak it up!