On ignorance, or: Potential ways to be less of a jerk

erik

 

We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.” – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

All of us can be prone to stupidity and ignorance, though most of us prefer not to admit it. We like to think we have full control over our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour, but in truth, we are shaped by our genes, our upbringing, our experiences, and our culture.

What baffles me the most in the current western society is the fact that so many people are actually convinced that their culture and their country are the best, and never once doubt the idea that their political views and ideologies are the ‘right’ ones. How they​​ manage to feel a sense of pride in relation to their country, as if the country’s formation and developments had been their own personal achievement. I keep asking myself how so many people refuse to recognize that their place of birth, their culture, and their belief system are purely coincidental. How they can ignore the obvious fact that if they had grown up in another place, they would take that place’s views, beliefs, and traditions for granted, just as they are currently doing with their own.

None of this would concern me so much if the growing popularity of nationalism didn’t also lead to a growing acceptance of xenophobic and sexist tendencies. I feel tempted to blame white supremacists for refusing to study their country’s history, familiarizing themselves with other cultures, or reflecting on other ways of interpreting the meaning of existence. But can we really blame them if they have never been taught to be skeptical and to reflect on the potential flaws in their upbringing, their culture, and their personal outlook on the world and other people? After all, it’s incredibly difficult to detach yourself from the views of those around you, particularly if all or most of them share the same opinions. And it’s all too easy to criticize, or even demonize, a group of people we’re not, or don’t feel, a part of. We need to stop thinking in binaries, we need to stop thinking as ‘us’ versus ‘them’. That’s why we also need to try hard not to demonize racist, nationalist jerks, even if they are already doing a pretty good job of that all by themselves.

As progressive as we think we are, there will always be aspects of ourselves that reflect the shortcomings of our society. Most of us are still born into a culture that favours some people over others. To put it in the binary terms our culture has conditioned us to use, I’m talking about the favouring of white people over black people, of men over women, of straight people over gay people, of cisgender people over transsexual people. In western society, there is also the favouring of Christians over Muslims. And all of us have been influenced by this culture of binaries, whether we like it or not. Take one of these tests and you might be surprised by how much your subconscious thought patterns have been shaped by your very flawed society.

I’m certain that we all fail to see things clearly and without prejudice much more often than we’d like to admit to ourselves. We all find it hard to challenge our own beliefs – even those of us who pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, our critical thinking skills, and our willingness to question the status quo. I’m sure there are hundreds of things I am wrong about, and a lot of biases in my thinking that I’ll never become aware of, despite my best efforts to remain open and self-critical. I’m grateful for my studies, my travels, and my encounters with people who are much smarter/wiser/braver than me, for enabling me to recognize, and let go of, at least some of the biases I had internalized because of some idiotic cultural influences.

In my humble opinion, the key to change and awareness is the willingness to analyze and question all our inherent assumptions. The problem is, a lot of our beliefs about the world, ourselves, and other people are subconscious — we would never even think of questioning them because they seem so normal and natural to us. They are invisible ‘facts’ to us.

 

So let’s take a look at some of the unconscious biases that undermine our rational thinking on a regular basis:

 

  • the ‘anchoring bias’: “Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs,” says Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive on a given subject, and interpret all subsequent information around this ‘anchor’.

 

 

 

  • the ‘herding mentality’ and the ‘bandwagon effect’: Your peers’ behaviour shapes your own, and you are more likely to adopt a specific attitude or belief if a lot of people around you also hold that belief.

 

 

  • the ‘choice-supportive bias’: Once you have made a decision about something, you tend to feel good about it and believe it was the right choice, even if from a rational perspective, this might not have been the case.

 

 

  • the ‘intergroup bias’: We tend to see people in our ‘group’ in a different light than we do people in another ‘group’, often without even being aware of it.

 

 

 

 

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The plenitude of cognitive biases and flawed thought processes undermine my hope that we can ever be consistently clear, rational thinkers. But remaining aware of biases such as the above may lead to an at least slightly less distorted view of the world, help us make more informed decisions and assess our and others’ situations with more accuracy.

So, how, in practice, can we do this? Well, we can make a habit of reflecting on our own thought processes, motives, and choices, we can stop ourselves from relying on our first, automatic impressions and impulses, we can try to get more information on various topics, resort to various channels, read or listen to articles and podcasts that offer new perspectives on something we thought was dull or assumed we knew everything about. We can choose to attend events and join organizations we normally would not be eager to learn anything about. We can actively seek out stuff written or produced or organized by people from another ‘group’ who do not share all our interests or views, read biographies about people we would not normally read, watch films set in places we do not care to visit, watch documentaries on subjects we are afraid to know more about, and generally make more of an effort to read or watch or listen to perspectives that do not necessarily match our own, all the while reminding ourselves to keep an open mind.​

“You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behaviour than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.” – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Here’s a list of things we might want to take a closer look at in order to identify some of the flaws in our own views, thought patterns, and everyday habits:

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  • Your general thought patterns and sense of identity, i.e. the things you obsess about; the things you like and dislike about yourself; the things that make you feel uncomfortable; the things you feel most strongly about; the things you’re most proud of; the things you’re ashamed of; the things that most irritate you in other people; what your parents taught you to strive for; what your parents did well with raising you, and what they neglected to do; the things you remember most fondly from your childhood; the things you remember the least fondly; the things you often fight about with your family/partner/best friend; how you behave in a group as opposed to how you behave when you are by yourself; the things you spend too much time on; the things you spend too little time on; what your values are and whether they are reflected in your everyday life; what you would like to be remembered for.

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  • how you feel about your home country, its history and culture; what you think makes your nation different from others, and what it can learn from other nations and cultures; your preferences when it comes to the places you have visited, would like to visit, or would like to learn more about; the basis of your spiritual beliefs, the rules of your religion, its value as well as its flaws; your culture’s traditions, including the celebration of (national) holidays, and how you feel about them based on your personal experiences and memories vs. how you feel about them when you reflect on the meaning behind them.

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  • how you feel about race, how you approach people with a different skin colour, which articles/books/films you have read/watched that focus on black lives rather than whites, what you know about American and South African history, what you know about African countries and cultures, what you know about native Americans and native Australians, how black and aboriginal people have been depicted in the media.

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  • how you feel about gender and sexuality, i.e. what your culture has conditioned you to believe about women and men, what you associate with the notions “feminine” and “masculine”, how you tend to talk to and about the opposite sex; how you feel about the traditional gender roles; what you think about the norm of heterosexuality; how you feel about transsexuality; how you feel about sex, what turns you on and what turns you off; what you think about porn; what you think about prostitution; what you think about rape and the way it is handled by the legal system; how you feel about abortion; how you feel about having kids.

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  • how you feel about your body; how you define beauty; which types of bodies are favoured in your culture; the types of magazines you read or used to read, and how they define beauty; your thoughts about youth and aging and death; how you feel about your weight, and how you judge others based on their weight; the meaning you attribute to your health and/or fitness; your first assumptions about people you have not met before; the value you ascribe to a certain physical appearance, and the time you spend on make-up / buying and selecting clothes; what you know about where and how your clothes were produced; the money you spend on clothes.

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  • how you feel about food: what you consider comfort food; your parents’ diet and the messages your parents told you about food; which foods are presented to you as natural and essential, and why; where your food comes from and how it was produced; what you think of the multitude of choice in supermarkets; what foods you think you could not live without; how many products you are consuming now vs. how many products you would survive on if a war were to break out; how you think about animals in the food industry as opposed to the animals you consider pets; how you feel about factory farming and what you are willing to do about it; how you feel about your diet as a potential spiritual/political/ethical issue; which foods you would (not) give to your children; how much money you are willing to spend on food.

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  • relationships: what you look for in a partner; what behavioural traits attract you based on the behaviour and relationships you witnessed in the people around you when growing up; what your parents taught you about love and sex; what your culture has led you to believe about love and relationships; the impressions you have of singlehood; what type of life you have been told to strive for; how you view marriage; the meaning of stability; the meaning of freedom; the meaning of trust and loyalty; which situations help you feel most connected to, and at ease with, yourself; which situations make you feel lonely; how you feel about the roles that have been assigned to us according to our gender; how your relationships have changed because of the internet and social media; how much time you spend communicating with others online versus face-to-face; what you believe constitutes a good relationship.

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  • how you feel about money; what you like to spend your money on; whether you like to donate to a good cause, and which ones and why (not); which of your possessions you have purchased only for yourself and which ones you have accumulated mainly to please or impress others; what possessions make you feel good and which affect you negatively or restrict you in the kind of life you want to lead; what possessions you cling to and what they mean to you and your story.

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  • how you feel about your education, your skills and talents and professional shortcomings; how you feel about your work and what meaning you attribute to a career as a whole; what you think of status, recognition, and achievements; which types of jobs you value over others; how you feel and behave towards people with high-status jobs vs. people with low-status jobs; which kinds of things you most wish to receive praise for; in which situations you feel superior or inferior to others; how you feel about celebrities; what type of skills you would like to learn in your work; what kind of a work environment you feel is the most and least pleasant; what you consider one of your most important personal duties and why you are proud of fulfilling it; what kinds of duties you enjoy the least; which personality traits you most and least appreciate in others; which activities you find the most rewarding; in which situations you feel the most useful and why.

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There might be many other topics and issues for you to address, and only you will be able to choose the kinds of reflections and changes in thought patterns that will help you improve your life and become a wiser person. If I can make a suggestion, begin by questioning everything that seems completely inevitable and/or ordinary to you, because those are the kinds of things you are the least likely to address; but if you do, the results might astonish you!

Best of luck!

Just call me an ugly militant feminist

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Two scary faces, both of them mine — for no one to mess with.

How (not) to be cool – pt. 2

Nowadays, it seems that narcissism and an obsession with looks and perfection have become perfectly acceptable, even cool, for women. Social media is overflowing with flattering (often to the point of the person being unrecognizable) selfies as well as posts providing largely unrealistically positive information about the individual’s life (yes, the latter applies to men as well as women).

More than once in the past year, I’ve had to stop and think before I could remember how I knew some of my so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook (possibly an indication for me to remove them from said list). Once or twice, I have been so fascinated by how different a girl looked in photos from the way I remembered her in real life that I had to check other pictures to reassure myself it was actually the same person. And I felt saddened, not as much by how fake and unoriginal she looked, but how proud this seemed to make her. How important it was to her to make an impression on the world. To make herself seen. Apparently, this is what Instagram and Facebook have done to us: it has become perfectly normal to see special occasions as an opportunity to show off our lives to the world rather than as a chance to enjoy the present and celebrate precious times with our family and/or friends (the ones we are with right now). Sometimes this happens subconsciously – of course, we all like to present the ideal versions of ourselves and our lives, both to ourselves and to others. For one of those girls, this means she wears a tight new dress in every photo, with gorgeous hair that must have taken her hours to style, and a ton of make-up that makes her look like just another Kim Kardashian imitation. Perhaps she looks like someone many girls strive to be (though I hope not). But she sure as hell doesn’t look like someone we’d have a great conversation with or who could help inspire us to become better people.

I wonder why we try so hard to present our lives as perfect. Is it because many of us still admire those who (seem to) love themselves the most, and whose lives appear to be easier than our own? However, I’m sure we all agree that it’s harder to connect with people who seem perfect than it is to connect with those who are vulnerable, imperfect, sincere. Maybe we merely wish we could be as oblivious as they seem to be? Maybe we feel our lives would be easier if we lied to ourselves and ignored our inherent, eternal imperfection? Might it not perhaps be more enriching to be able to admit our weaknesses and be willing to change? By weaknesses, I do not mean visual ‘flaws’ as they are defined by society. I mean cognitive and behavioural flaws – including our reluctance to question our obsession with looks and the way others perceive us.

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to a kind of world we don’t want, not merely by focusing too much on ourselves and our image instead of helping others, but also by way of what our posts evoke or ‘confirm’ in others’ heads. For instance, do women who post semi-nude pictures of themselves on Instagram in order to get more likes not feel that they might further encourage the frighteningly fast-growing trend towards general objectification and lack of sexual respect we get from men? Don’t get me wrong: both men and women have a tendency to objectify each other in a sexual or aesthetic context, and in a mutually cohesive environment this would not present an issue. But we shouldn’t allow it to become a trend that harms us physically or spiritually, a trend that has already begun to affect our entire lives, including the way we strive to be perceived by every single stranger on the internet.

I’m not just blaming the Kim Kardashians, though. I do feel disappointed by all those who are making it even harder for other women to be taken seriously as human beings, but more than them, I’m blaming our culture. I’m blaming movies and music videos and ads for still failing to present women who are interesting to watch for more than their clone-looks, and I’m blaming them for failing to reflect the richness and complexity of womanhood. Sure, there is a growing number of pleasant exceptions, especially in TV series (HBO and Netflix offering a great variety of less stereotypical female characters) and independent cinema, and now we even have a blockbuster that many regard as a feminist film (Wonder Woman), and I will look at some of those examples in my next post. But the highest-grossing films are still those which portray women in a more simplistic way, without any depth or individuality (either as the tough and sexy action hero, the cruel but sexy antagonist, the neurotic and superficial career woman, the naive beauty, the manipulative co-worker / boss, the jovial and slightly obnoxious chubby woman, or the selfless and otherwise personality-free mother).

An example: a few weeks ago, I rewatched a 2011 comedy with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston called Just Go With It because some friends love the movie and wanted to see it again. I thought maybe I’d think of it differently now than when it first came out, and I did, though not in the way I expected. The first time I saw it, I thought it was mediocre and not particularly funny. When I saw it again, I thought it was not just average but actually pretty terrible. The number of scenes reducing women to the appeal of their bodies and their ability to please a man sexually by far outnumber any (potentially) redeeming scenes. In order for Adam Sandler’s character Danny to fall in love with Jennifer Aniston’s character Katherine and lose interest in his much younger girlfriend Palmer (whose only appeal seems to lie in her looks), Katherine first has to show off her curves in a bikini, proving that her body is just as fit, youthful, flawless, and thus sexually desirable as Palmer’s. In yet another scene designed to satisfy the ‘male gaze’, Katherine joins in on a hula-dancer competition with her frenemy, played by Nicole Kidman. That night, Danny finally realizes he has feelings for Katherine.

A movie like Just Go With It is not instantly recognizable as misogynistic unless you are already taking everything you see and hear with a grain of salt instead of mindlessly consuming and accepting whatever you are fed like most of us do. Because the movie merely repeats an old pattern which is subconsciously influencing male and female minds.

The worst thing about misogyny in popular culture is the fact that as soon as you point out examples of it, you are very often dismissed as a fun-spoiling bitch. While my friends would never call me that, I’m sure it’s exactly what they thought of me after I tried to make my point. No one likes to see one of their favourite comedies torn to pieces.

As a more complex and interesting example, I would like to mention the first episode of the Netflix show Easy, which still haunts me. Right after I saw this episode, I googled articles about it and was alarmed by the fact that the Internet was not actually filled with articles about how this episode reflects, and appears to comment on, the deeply misogynistic elements of our society. It also alarmed me that one of the people I spoke to about it did not consider the domestic rape scene disturbing in the slightest, and I think many viewers nowadays wouldn’t, because, thanks to internet porn, they are so used to sex being portrayed as something that has to be pleasant for the man, but doesn’t need to be so for the woman. In the final ten minutes of the episode, the otherwise so loving and caring husband completely disregards his wife’s desires and visibly does not care in the slightest that she is in pain while he is fucking her. Doesn’t anyone see this as deeply upsetting in its contradiction? Has it become so normal that no one feels the need to comment on it?

Is it really cool for a man to use and exploit a woman without paying any attention to whether she is into it or not? And is it cool for a woman to sacrifice her own desire in attempts to please a man who doesn’t respect her? Are women still conditioned to feel they don’t own the right to confidently voice their own desires?

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, “we teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. […] Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. […] This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”

Isn’t it cooler to accept and respect yourself at the risk of not being liked, than to bend over backwards for other people’s approval only to (possibly) be liked more, but respected less – both by others and yourself? Being too nice to people (especially to those who don’t deserve your attention) is draining and – I can tell you from experience – not worth the trouble. I still cringe at how much I wanted to be liked at high school. How important it was to me back then: pleasing people I didn’t even like, didn’t find interesting or kind or funny in the slightest. As a consequence of my behaviour, I lost all awareness of my own needs and identity, my trust and my self-worth, all of which took me a long time to rebuild.

Most women are still reluctant to call themselves feminists, and I doubt this is solely because they have yet to realize that being a feminist doesn’t involve hating and destroying all men (though I admit that an awareness of injustice does carry the risk of inspiring anger and frustration – it certainly does in me from time to time). I think our reluctance stems from the fact that feminists have long been considered uncool. Men – as well as women – still tend to think of feminists as dull, butch, unattractive, and very angry people who make a fuss out of nothing. Sure, there is the occasional self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ celebrity who won’t alienate fans when using the term because they still largely adhere to men’s general expectations of what a woman should be (vain, beautiful, pleasant, unrebellious, and thus not a threat to the status quo).

Those suspicious of ‘feminism’ like to ignore the fact that what this concept actually means is the knowledge that women deserve to be respected and taken seriously as human beings, the awareness that this fact is not actually reflected in our culture (no, not even in our ‘progressive’ western world), and the resulting attempt to achieve social justice and equality. And many women are too deeply entrenched in their roles to recognize how convenient the upholding of double standards and extreme paradoxes is for men: women must not show signs of aging, but men may, which means men do not need to worry about their own looks, but they have the power to make women feel deeply insecure about their own; women have to be thin and beautiful, otherwise they are ridiculed or ignored; however, if they are beautiful, they are solely appreciated for their beauty and not actually taken seriously as human beings – it’s a vicious cycle that keeps women weak and ‘in their place’.

To me,
an empowered woman is the coolest thing ever. Women who aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, women who accept themselves with their supposed physical flaws and do not try to change them, women who take it for granted that they deserve just as much respect as men, even when their experiences might have taught them otherwise. Women who have the wisdom and self-respect not to worry about aging, and who have the courage to say no whenever a man tries to convince them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Because there are way too many women out there who allow the increasingly misogynistic aspects of our culture to define the way we should act and respond to the behaviour of men. We let shitty movies and magazines and Internet porn establish the ground rules. Because we are continuously given the impression that we are going to be considered uncool, fun-spoiling bitches if we don’t.

So it’s time to ask ourselves what’s more important: awareness, courage, self-acceptance, freedom, and originality – or standardized good looks and likeability?

 

New Year’s Resolution

Society keeps telling women that wrinkles make us ugly – and apparently, beauty is still the only criterion used to assess our worth. Our looks count more than men’s. And men’s knowledge and freedom count more than ours. I wonder when this is finally going to change – at least, I guess, not as long as brainless misogynists are elected presidents.

I’ve decided that this year and every year from now on, I’m going to be proud of the lines that have been forming in my face, and stop being ashamed of them. My wrinkles show that I have suffered and grown, that I am passionate and like to laugh.

Next month I’m turning 34. I’ve decided that I’m going to stop worrying whether I have begun to ‘look my age’ (note how emotionally charged this expression of a harmless fact of life has become, and how insulting it sounds to us), because it’s a fine age to be. I’m going to quit wondering when men will stop finding me attractive since they are so used to seeing only smooth, flawless skin on women well into their forties (even fifties, if they are so lucky to be selected for a starring role) every time they watch a movie or an ad. I’m going to stop worrying because I don’t need a man to tell me I’m beautiful before I can see it and believe it myself.

I’m not going to give in to the pressure to be thin, because the joy of eating good food and the love I have for my imperfect, but fully-functioning body are larger than my craving for attention and approval.

I’m going to stop spending any more time on things that cause me to lose sight of what actually matters. Our culture makes it way too easy for women to focus on our looks and supposed flaws, but I’m sick of us becoming as superficial as society wants us to be.

I have many dreams and goals, but winning a beauty contest isn’t one of them. I want to be wise and funny and kind. I want to write lots more stories and take lots more photographs and perfect my French and improve my Spanish and live in more places and travel the world and meet lots more people and volunteer at animal sanctuaries and read lots more books and make some silly horror shorts with my friends and be there for my family and friends and become a better listener and have many meaningful conversations and be a role model for my nieces and draw and handletter wise quotes and try out new recipes and open a vegan food van and teach all my favourite students online, from abroad. Yes, there’s a chance I won’t be able to tick every single one of these pursuits off my list, but I do hope I get old enough to experience most of them, and I definitely won’t let sexist, ageist society dictate how I’m going to feel about myself or what types of worries I’m going to waste my time on.

I’m going to stop thinking about how others might perceive me, and stop telling myself I’m not good enough. Instead, I’m going to appreciate the fact that I’m a healthy, living creature, able to enjoy so many things that are enriching and fulfilling and don’t require a specific kind of appearance.

Aging isn’t evil. It’s complex, it’s bittersweet. And it can provide you with the best of human qualities, those not yet known to the young: wisdom, kindness, patience, and serenity.