More than Ourselves

I just came back from a (para) church camp. There was quite a lot of interesting things that I learnt from it and I will share these insights bit by bit. Here’s just one of them:

I think in Singapore, when it comes to morals (particularly in the religious sense), we’re pretty individualistic. There’s quite a lot of history and reasons behind this, I suppose. Our post-colonial mentality – ‘individualism’ as an inherited concept from the west, as opposed to the eastern ‘communal’ (arguable), the post-modern age (more grey areas, ‘you do you and I do me’, rise of relativism). You could even quote scripture for this: Matthew 7: 3-5; take out the plank in your own eye before you comment on the sawdust in your brothers – be more self-reflective. We’re a conflict avoiding society, we believe peace necessitates conflict avoidance. We lack a rebuking culture.

Yet, this camp challenged me to think about ‘communal’ sins. Communities are known to have been punished for sins of the individual – yes, families, but also those ‘unrelated’ to the individuals. In a contemporary sense, think about the many deaths in human history (genocides, wars, and ethnic cleansings) because of a few individuals sins. We’re complicit in those sins because of our inaction, we’re a part of those sins, it’s a passive sin, but a sin nonetheless. It’s so related to my unhappiness about being trapped in society: (I believe I’ve wrote about this before?) our society’s terrible failures at combating global problems like poverty, climate change, etc., individuals being so deeply entrenched in the capitalist system (exploitation of nature, animals, and people. And there is no way out for the individual, in a sense). In this societal/systematic sin, we’re all, as individuals, either unaware, uncaring, or simply, choice-less. It reminded me of how I used to be so passionate about the sins I committed (thinking about the everlastingness and severity, being consumed by the guilt). And now?

I don’t have a conclusion. But let us remember that we’re much more than ourselves. We’re responsible and accountable for the state of other’s lives (and afterlives, salvation).

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‘How to be Good’

What do you think being good means?

I’ve been reading ‘How to be Good’ by Nick Hornby (spoilers in this post?) and I’m quite surprised at how much I like it (I’ve read English authors from a young age and that’s why I can identify and understand them. I’m glad to have discovered him again – bad experience with Funny Girl and didn’t read him until today). Lots of wise words and relatable stuff in his book, perhaps because I’m in a situation which is similar to both Kate and David (I’m a little more David). Lots of nice themes too.

So what does it mean to ‘be good’? Kate repeatedly mentions that she is a ‘good person’: she is a doctor (a fulfilling career, she heals people, it’s something noble, isn’t it?), she has a good family whom she begrudgingly loves, she is still together with David (even though she isn’t sure whether she still likes him; he’s rude and mean, but now that he has changed for the better, she isn’t quite sure whether she loves him either). She’s generally a ‘girl next door’ (that’s a compliment, right?) She’s not different from everyone else (but does her doctor thing make her slightly better than everyone else?) Is David good/better? (He changes for the better; now he’s sympathetic to all people out there, he’s more understanding. Hell, he wants to help the homeless! He opened up his house and got people on his street to do the same). But what happens when people take advantage of your goodness – there is safety to think about (besides, you don’t exist by yourself, what if your good deeds affect the people you love/people around you. Have you considered how becoming a monk would rob your parents of, greater financial stability knowing that they have a son whom they can count on in the future if they so need money? Not to mention emotional closeness and stuff). I too have made some changes in my life, I am trying to be ‘good’, but this book really challenges what it means to be so; perhaps Kate is ‘more good’; she has been good her whole life compared to David whom ‘just learnt how to be good now’; ‘good’ is something which she IS, rather than something she aspires to be, it’s her whole career and life, she doesn’t need to change anything about herself to be good (or is that a cop out excuse for her not to think about how she can be better?)

 

“What is the point (in all these efforts at ‘doing good’)? Please tell me, because I don’t understand.”
“The point is … The point is how I feel. I don’t care what gets done (giving away all my possessions, anything radical or simple.) I just don’t want to die feeling that I never tried (note the emphasis on himself). I don’t believe in Heaven, or anything. But I want to be the kind of person that qualifies for entry anyway. Do you understand?”

Give up things that don’t mean too much to you (for the betterment of our world)

I will readily admit that I’m hypocritical.

As I transition to consuming less meat/going vegan (which I guess I have for the past 2 years), I’ve had quite a few ‘conceptual’/mental/idea challenges. ‘Is veganism really going to help the environment?’ Issues of mono-cropping, flaws in it (plastic over biodegradable things, food miles vs consuming local food). Should I spread the message about this; should I make more people eat less/no meat? That answer is an important one: if I believe that it is important for the environment, I should advocate it to more people. But then again other questions like ‘how much should I enforce this/persuade people to do it?’

I’ve been asked before, why do I do this. There are plenty of good reasons out there; I’ve attached videos before (honestly, we all know that this is the right thing –this video again, ‘Why Vegetarians are Annoying’) popular words like ‘ethical, environmental’, and very importantly which we don’t usually think about, but for ‘other humans’ too (yes, while consuming vegetables puts those who rely on meat for income at risk, we too need to remember those exploited by the meat industry. Think about the very exploitative fishing industry – this article on slavery being one out of many).

But I have this very important tenet: I live this way because it is easy for me to do so. Not easy as in ‘I’m never tempted by the smell of meat’ and ‘I hate the taste of meat’, but rather I don’t see it as a HUGE sacrifice compared to people who may be way more attached to their meat.

I was considering about my own personal ‘sins’/hypocrisies regarding my purported care and concern for the environment. A huge one would be electricity usage. I’m on my computer and phone quite a bit, something I think I’m unwilling to give up. Energy usage in general: I take public transport freely without concerning myself too much about the emissions – while some argue that the buses will still run with or without me taking them, it does send a signal and feeds into data collection. If everyone thought like me and took public transport freely, there is the cumulative effect, transport authorities would put even more buses on streets and trains to run more frequently.

So perhaps my conclusion is 1) obviously, not to judge. 2) I think it’s important for each and every individual to question ‘what can (I) do to make my world a better place’? In particular, my ‘environment’, the world. As stated above, it’s not just about nature, but if you cared for people, you’ll be concerned for the environment too. You have to do something; give something up that ‘doesn’t mean a lot to you’.

(Of course, there are lots of other questions. Even if we are completely self-focused and take people out of the equation, consider how many things can you give up? New habits can be made; when you deny yourself something you’ll learn to let go of it more easily in time? How much responsibility do you have in giving things up?)

Values of human, human values

“In Twana society, individuals gained prestige and social status not by hoarding up their surpluses, but rather by generously giving goods away, in a manner that signified the incorporation of other people.” (The value of a river – Lansing et al., 1998)

How different is it from our society, where we ascribe worth to the rich? Sure, there are philanthropists, but how much are they talked about, how much are they celebrated? While we say that the people who give their lives away are admirable, we don’t really want to be them. Selfishness, the traits, is deemed better. We may be disgusted with other’s selfishness, but maybe we are secretly jealous of their unashamed self seeking ways.

The tether of Thought

I’ve been studying quite a lot about politics lately. Usually I hate politics – I’m not the most sociable person, I don’t like dealing with ‘political situations’: this person said this and that, all the ‘drama’ (I don’t keep up with it, I do hear but I pretend not to know. Or I don’t tell people that I know). I usually am quite careless with what people tell me (not in a bad way, IMO), I’m not afraid to say what I think/what other people think, as long as I deem it within reason (i.e. I know that relationships aren’t going to be severely harmed if I decide to speak my mind). I would say I’m quite a logic driven person, I like to get things done, I don’t like dealing with paper work, I don’t mind if you hurt my feelings (usually, haha. I mean, feelings are temporary, and I would like to think that people are generally nice and know how to be tactful. I can see things from people’s point of view).

Anyway. Politics, to me, is something that like most things, everyone should know and think about, but not specialise in. Politics, IMO, doesn’t really get things done. You can learn about it forever. Methodological practices – who is speaking, are they being heard/represented, are actual things being done etc. (tons of readings and information out there about this), justice and all that stuff.

I suppose I’ve come to appreciate politics a little more, after studying about it. Ok, well, I kinda already found it fascinating to a certain extent but perhaps more so during the last year. I watched videos about the flaws/manipulation in statistics and stuff.

I want to talk about logic, reasons and other associated terms:

  • REASON: broader, includes logic, but includes arguments/rhetoric. Anything can be reasonable but not everything logical. Reason gives meaning to things; modernism?

I don’t particularly like reason.

I usually say that ‘while I understand your POV, I don’t think that excuses it’. Think about all the crappy reasons that has been given to excuse things – I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t feel like it. That’s a reason, but it isn’t a good one. ‘I stole because I’m in need’. Sure, it may be humanly forgivable/understandable, but not divinely forgivable/ethically and morally correct? And of course there are implications not taken into account/impossible to measure: even though you were in need, who is to say that the person you stole from is not in greater need?

  • LOGIC: branch of math/science that is concerned with deductive theorems which can be dis/proven with absolutely/certainty. A positivist approach?

I usually veer towards this. A little Weber-ian – I believe in the dictatorship of the official, the one who knows more, the expert who knows best. I think I’m fairly submissive to (excellent) authority (you must prove your worth, but I think I can follow pretty easily. I am willing to sacrifice myself for the greater good? Generally. Even if I am disadvantaged. I can withstand ‘bad things’.) But unfortunately, now, knowledge is impossible to know and creation of knowledge is so political. Logical deduction can be correct, but also contradictory and has huge flaws (read this: http://www.whirledbank.org/ourwords/summers.html – it argues that the World Bank should encourage more migration of dirty industries to less developed nations? It’s ‘true’, utilitarian, logical.)

  • EMOTION: yet another way in which we can make decisions. And I guess there are many more; COMMON SENSE, LISTENING/PARTICIPATORY COLLABORATION.

Is making decisions based on emotions what makes us human? While we may accept that sometimes the poor are as such due to their own fault, we need to acknowledge that sometimes its chance, misfortune, circumstance, inequalities which has been passed down from generation. We need to have the human quality of being kind (if that is possible/such a thing). But emotion is so un-grounded, we can argue about whose feelings are more important forever.

I suppose I’ve just been thinking. How do we make and dream of a better world?

Unequal valorisation

We got back our results for our summer school modules last week and the quiet people who could write but did not party got good grades while those people who were loud and mingled a lot did not. This is a generalised statement (I’m assuming the louder ones were not as good writers), but this is true from the few people I heard from. I had wondered how the professors would grade the course. There were some sentiments but nothing definite: we want you to get out of your comfort zones, human geography is about interactions and forming relationships rather than grades, etc. I wish everyone would just get an A. It really doesn’t make a difference. To me, at least?

I was working with someone very different from myself and I think it wasn’t necessarily a bad team. We were very dominant in our different talents. One to socialise and collect/ask for information, the other to record, think and make coherent thoughts. That does not mean that one is more important than another. But the value we ascribe to different talents is very different.

This differentiation of value is natural? What is the point of doing research and finding out a great many things if you are unable to record it, to communicate your findings to other people, to make what you have found useful/apply it to situations? But at the same time, if you merely thought and did not find out information/your data is flawed due to limited understanding and interaction, what good is your research as well? (This idea can be applied to many things like in our capitalist society – we value services more than real goods, but this definitely doesn’t mean that real goods aren’t any less important. We value leaders, but a leader is not powerful without followers).

I think this unequal valorisation is precisely why the idea of communism cannot really work (or at least my idea/the convention idea of all people being equal, greater equality; I don’t mean the dictatorial kind of communism that we see in certain places) – ah, I had a stronger argument, but I lost it. Maybe I will write it as a comment if I remember, another time.

It’s about us VS them, it’s about hierarchies and seeking differences. It’s the differences that draw us closer together as communities (being able to bitch about the same person draws people closer together. It builds trust, a common identity, stuff like that). It’s natural for us to seek out these divisions and to say that one is better than the other? (That’s how divisions – of labour – came about? Is there anything wrong to say one is better than another? It’s necessary, isn’t it?)

I’m not really bothered by this difference in value; I guess I just see it as life, I don’t see the need to create a more equal world. Things about the gender wage gap, how I am doubly discriminated as an Asian Female (but not really, here in this part of the world, where I am the dominant race, although the gender thing MAY be an issue). I’m just tired of being calculative – there is no end to counting my privileges nor my dis-empowerments.

But ‘uncertainty doesn’t mean ignorance’: I should still dream of a better world. It’s just the question of ‘How do I make the world a better (more equal?) place’?

Perspectives on giving

The study of morals is not always about the big questions; it’s not always about what I need to do, but rather who I want to become, and how my every day actions are shaped by this direction.


Struggles that I/we have with giving, reasons not to give to the poor:

  1. They deserve to be poor

    With the culture of meritocracy, we see the poor no longer as unfortunates, but rather deserving of their own fate. They didn’t work hard enough, they didn’t study enough. They deserve their position. I have no obligation to give them anything.

  2. Giving is fruitless, not the most effective way of helping people

    I don’t know who else thinks this way. Sometimes I feel like I’m asked to constantly give and I’m quite lazy to give. Not that I’m heartless, but giving takes effort. Sometimes, giving feels like I’m being cheated: I’ve written about embezzlement, misuse of funds by corporations, wastage etc. But also that I constantly give and nothing big seems to be changing. The poor are always going to be around; not giving once wouldn’t hurt anyone, I can give another time.

We’re also told that we should not give money mindlessly. The better way of helping people is to ‘empower them’; give them money so that they can invest/start companies/be entrepreneurs, getting themselves out of poverty forever. It’s almost like we’ve become calculative with our giving, a little cold, without sincerity. We give and expect to see results, multiplications, spectacular changes. We don’t give because it’s good, we give because we want them to get out of poverty and pester us no longer.


These are thoughts that we all have, we are all aware of them, we know that there are flaws in these mind sets, but it’s so hard to break out of them. Meritocracy is flawed: it’s a nice label, we’re more equal than we are before, but in reality it’s impossible for a society to be completely meritocratic – there is imperfect information, too many factors to control. Simple things like the variations in pay not being completely proportional to how much work you do, the gender pay gap, stuff like that. We know that people don’t always deserve to be poor, there are many reasons why people end up in the situations that they find themselves in.

We know, but more often than not we are more critical than kind.

We feel unhappy that people are pestering us to always give. Haven’t I just given? Haven’t I given enough? I give ___% of my income already. But we don’t see how much we are left with, and that we still can give more. We look to the richest people in the world – they have so much more than us, why can’t they give more? In truth, the percentages of their wealth that they have already given away is more than the percentage we have given. Isn’t it ‘equality’ that we should be giving more?

We think that we need to strategically give, to get people out of their problems forever (also so that they would stop bothering us). In truth, some people are bound to be dependent, for life. We need to realise that that’s a reality. For whatever reason that they may be (I don’t want to name a group, because it can feel disempowering for them lol or perhaps that my assumptions may not hold true, but I’m thinking about people like the destitute elderly who no one will hire, or people with mental disabilities who although they may get paid, they perhaps will always need help in certain areas?)

We can always afford to give more. Let us think less about where to give, how much we (should) give, who to give to, etc. Don’t try to control where the money goes – even in the most ideal situation, things may not work out. We may give to places where the money ‘is guaranteed to grow’, there is no such thing as definite guarantees, we cannot control perfectly. Let us not be burdened with all these decisions such that we fail to give. Trust in a divine force that would direct funds where it is best utilised.

‘It is not our intention that others may be relieved while you are burdened, but that there may be equality. At the present time, your surplus will meet their need, so that in turn their surplus will meet your need. Then there will be equality. As it is written “he who gathered much had no excess, and he who gathered little had no shortfall.”’