Monthly Archives: August 2008

Why you can’t get enough scandal

Nothing titillates and arouses like a good scandal, particularly if it involves sex, betrayal, or avarice.  The question is why.  Among the array of the things that do or could impact us, why are we more interested in a scandal which touches us only in the remotest sense?

One evolutionary psychologist believes he has an answer.  In a recent Washington Post article, Why Fluff-Over-Substance Makes Perfect Evolutionary Sense, Hank Davis from the University of Guelph in Ontario explains that the primal parts of our brains evolved long ago when knowing information about “who needs a favor, who is in a position to offer one, who is trustworthy, who is a liar, who is available sexually, who is under the protection of a jealous partner, who is likely to abandon a family, who poses a threat to us” conferred survival advantages.  Yes, our brains have become more complex since then, but these primal parts still remain as instinctual guides.

Sounds very plausible, so far.  But the article goes on to suggest,

[I]f the evolutionary psychologists are correct, people will tend to choose leaders they can relate to personally — and reject the leaders with whom they cannot see having a personal relationship.

This is true, but I don’t think it’s necessarily for the reasons the evolutionary psychologists propose.  Earlier in the article, it was mentioned that questions over the military service of John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush dogged these two politicians for years, yet that didn’t prevent them from being politically successful, as the model might have predicted.  And consider Bill Clinton, who long battled accusations, some of which turned out to be true, over sexual infidelity.  He also lied about his dalliances.  This cost him dearly among some, but for the most part, voters looked the other way–again, contrary to the model. (I could go on…*cough*DC’s Marion Barry*cough*).

Instead, I think perhaps our values wield a stronger influence over our perceptions of others, and our receptivity to them.  If I, for example, value economic equality, I’ll be more receptive to thinking I could have a personal relationship with politicians who share it, and overlook whatever “character flaws” they may have.  These values don’t necessarily have to be public policy-oriented, but policy proposals should be framed in general value terms, e.g., “the minimum wage is a question of fairness” or “the war on terror is about protecting our families”.

As much as I like their theory, I don’t think the evolutionary psychologists have got it quite right.

Oh noes! My religion has been mocked!

When it comes to religion, one treads from the calm pools of reason to the dangerous currents of high emotion.  It seems that some religious beliefs are so fiercely held, that to challenge them invites an almost primal response.  We’re all very familiar with the massive and violent demonstrations in the Muslim world at any real or perceived slight of the Qu’ran or Muhammad.  Many in the west are appalled such displays, but, apparently, only because it’s not their religion that’s being disparaged.  When a college student absconded with a  Eucharist wafer, for example, it earned him instant Catholic vilification and calls to kick him out of school.

I was reminded recently of this tendency toward emotional overreaction, abeit on a milder scale, when chancing upon a recent blog entry from a Christian remarking on an atheist “de-baptism”.  It seems some atheists are marking their deconversion from Christianity by having themselves blowdried, a mocking counterpoint to baptism’s immersion in water to signify the washing away of “sins”.  This Christian found the event “sad,” “sarcastic,” “insipid,” and “uninspiring” because “baptism is a statement and commitment to humility, growth and change. The de-baptism…is simply about declaring ‘unfaith'”.

This is the religious myopic mind at work, which categorizes all its sacred practices and beliefs as “good,” and, therefore, every other practice or belief as automatically “bad.”  The real point of the event was ignored on this Christian, which was to bring atheists out of the closet and demonstrate to politicians that we are voters too.

You see, the religious mind allows no possibility that its cherished beliefs may be false.  The entertaining of such a notion is even held to be evidence of the devil’s influence and a sinful demonstration of one’s lack of faith.  This is why even the most innocuous expressions of mockery toward religion are met with disproportionate outrage and disdain.  All religious followers may not be so dogmatic, but the teachings of the major religions logically lead to absolutist, albeit incompatible, paradigms.  This fact explains religion’s tendency to fracture, even within sects, and the concordant violence which periodically erupts among them (Catholic vs. Protestant, Sunni vs. Shia, etc.).  If you believe you hold The Divine Truth, it follows anyone who disagrees is “evil”.

The Potemkin Olympics

In 1787, as the story goes, the minister in charge of the successful Russian campaign to conquer Crimea, Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, erected fake villages to impress the visiting Empress Catherine II with the new conquests.  Thus a new expression entered the lexicon: Potemkin village.  It means to give a false veneer of progress or success in order to mask an undesirable reality.

Anyone who has followed China’s preparation for the 2008 Olympic games will immediately appreciate the parallels.  The Olympics are tremendously important to the country, in the eyes of its leadership. They are a chance to show the world how far it has advanced toward modernity.

To be sure, China has indeed made huge strides, but as story after story has amply documented, the underlying reality apparently is not quite up to the standard China’s leaders hope to convey.  And so, no effort has been spared in order to correct the “deficiency”.

The latest example to come to light is the performance of the little girl who sang “Ode to the Motherland” during the Opening Ceremony.  It turns out her voice was considered not suitable, in the minds of China’s supremely image-conscious leaders, and so another was subsituted in its place.  Only her face was fit, so she was required to lip-sync the performance.  It was “in the national interest,” rationalized a member of the Chinese ruling circle.

Small potatoes, you may think, but this is merely the latest string in a long pattern.  Just a few days ago, we learned that parts of the Opening Ceremony were actually computer generated.  China’s Potemkin efforts have not been restricted to simple enhancement.  Entire sections of Beijing have been walled-off as too unseemly for foreign eyes.  Information on the Internet considered unfriendly to the country has been blocked by the Great Firewall, even to visitors.  Even some Olympic athletes had their visas revoked for fear they would speak critically of the hosts.

And so it goes.  Our view of China during these Olympics has been carefully managed by its censors and propagandists.  The real China?  Who knows.  But a country which needs to manipulate its image more carefully than a Hollywood star is not a modern one.

I’m skipping these Potemkin Olympics.

This Blog’s Purpose

Humans are quintessentially social animals, and the Internet offers opportunities for interaction never before experienced in our history. Since 1993 I’ve traversed this new medium, in countless ways, variously exploring new ground or remaining within my favorite haunts.  The net is inherently a part of me.  It connects me to the world.  It makes humanity a little larger than it has ever been, and I feel I’m contributing a small part to this positive development.

I love discussion, but have never been very good at thinking off-the-cuff.  I need time to collect, consider, and express my thoughts.  The web is thus an ideal platform for me, and I’ve made continual use of it, from Usenet, to discussion boards, to blogs.  Discussion of this type offers an ideal way to expand my knowledge, to interact, and yes, sometimes to simply sound off.

This blog will be my soapbox.  Readers will not be treated to a single topic, but a diversity.  You may not agree with my opinions, but if you challenge them (and I hope you will), be prepared for a spirited and informed debate.