The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Lale as he told it to the author, Heather Morris. The book is very well written and so tense that at times I’m afraid to breathe. It’s hard to put down and reads pretty quickly, but not quick enough to be able to finish it without breathing.
The people in the book are all very human. Even the SS officers have their weaknesses.

Lale is a survivor, he does what he needs to do to have the best possible chance to survive the atrocities of Auschwitz. He’s careful not to hurt other prisoners, but he will not pass on an opportunity to get more food or clothes or protection for himself and his friends. You could argue that by tattooing the numbers on each new prisoner who enters either Auschwitz or Birkenau he hurts them by definition. But he figures that if he doesn’t do it someone else will and he’s probably right about that. The situation is a clear example of how hard it is to decide where you stand and how you will behave in a war. I don’t think you can know this if you haven’t been in a life or death situation. And I can imagine your decisions and behavior will change if the life or death situation lasts 3 years.

Lale falls in love with Gita in the camp. Their love lifts their spirits and the spirits of those around them. Their love is heartbreaking and empowering at the same time. It must have been very strong to be more important and more pronounced than their hunger and their fears. They take significant risks for each other. It also makes the story more bearable for the reader as it provides a glimmer of hope and occasionally even happiness.

Despite the love between Lale and Gita it’s a hard book to read. It would be easy to think this won’t happen anymore. That we won’t let one group of humans slaughter another group of humans based on one or more almost random criteria. But we know this is not true. Myanmar has rejected the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar security forces burn down Rohingya villages, murdering and raping the people.
In China at least 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims are being detained and tortured. Their children are often taken away from them and put into non-Uyghur families. We can pretend that ethnic cleansing is a thing from the past but its not.

Humans can be terrible people. And if we feel being terrible will allow us to be part of a tribe we would like to belong to we find it very hard not to be terrible. You don’t have to go to China or Myanmar to see this in action. I’m sure there is a social media pile-on happening as you read this. Someone who presumably said something someone didn’t like or did something they don’t understand will receive a terrifying amount of hate and threats from people they don’t know. No questions asked.

Selfishness has reached peak levels. If you are wealthy you don’t need a community to survive and many feel that they have to protect what they’ve got. Instead of helping those less fortunate than they are they fight to minimize taxes. They keep people who are in any way different at as much distance as possible. If they might get too close then perhaps bullying and threatening will scare them off. If people ask for help they are sent away, preferably to a place more horrible than the situation they originally fled.

Why do we do this to each other? Why not, if you have been lucky enough in life to have everything, share some of what you have with someone less lucky. Why not live and let live, even if people want to lead a different life than you do? It has been proven over and over again that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness (as long as you have enough to pay for all basic necessities). Helping others and bringing happiness to others is much more likely to bring happiness to you than money or possessions are. Maybe we can all just put this to the test. Who knows how much good it will do to us and the world around us.

Be kind to others, respect their opinions and preferred way of life, help people in need. Next time you feel outraged because someone is different, or doesn’t like something you like or likes something you don’t like try to take a deep breath and think about why this makes the other person a terrible person. What is it that upsets you? Can you try and put yourself in their shoes and empathize with them?

The story of the tattooist of Auschwitz is a powerful one, but it did nothing to improve my faith in humankind. This is exactly why the book is a must-read. We need to be aware of how easily we can be corrupted, so we can be vigilant.
When you finish the book you will be rewarded with the story about how the book was written, which is almost as good as the book itself and moving in its own regards.

Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

In Sensemaking Christian Madsbjerg makes a plea for the value of the humanities in a time where there’s a lot of focus on STEM-knowledge. It was recommended by Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer and thinker whose work I love. Sensemaking is defined as the practice of cultural inquiry using human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences. In other words, we want to gain an understanding of other people and their worlds and experiences. What matters to them and how is this different from what matters to us? Sensemaking allows us to empathize. This is valuable from a philosophical and political point of view, but also, at a much more cynical level, from an economic point of view. It can tell us how people will vote in the next election and what type of car they are likely to buy.

The book refers regularly to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his ideas. Heidegger argues that our reality and how we experience the world is highly contextual and historical. Most of the time we are incapable of thinking beyond our own social context. While we feel like we’re completely autonomous individuals, our thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by where and how we live and grew up.
To gain some insights into other people and their lives, we have to let go, at least a little bit, of our own biases and assumptions. The humanities are essential in teaching us how we can do this.

Science and algorithms can explain gravity and solar eclipses and they can eradicate smallpox and measles. To explain why Trump and Brexit are happening and why we are giving measles another chance we need to study people and cultures. Making sense of cultures, customs, and meanings requires a perspective, which is why it’s unlikely that algorithms will be able to figure them out. Algorithms lack a point of view and they lack empathy.
One way to build empathy is by reading. Reading shows you that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. It can be different. Reading allows us to experience other lives and other worlds than our own We get to live them in our imagination. While watching TV you’re a spectator, but reading makes you a participant.

My own journey is somewhat parallel to that of the world at large. Until I started working fulltime I was an avid reader. I read everything I could get my hands on from adventures to spy stories to historical novels. In high school, I got the opportunity to become a lighting engineer in the theatre production that we set. I loved it. I loved the magic of theatre and the combination of technology and creativity. When I went on to study electrotechnical engineering with the aim to make a career as a lighting engineer. I took a different turn and ended up in software development. For over 15 years, most of what I read had to do with technology. I told myself I didn’t have time to read books and I lost interest in them.

Working hard and gaining specific technical knowledge will serve you well up to a certain point in your career. Three years ago I moved away from software development towards a leadership role and I felt ill-equipped. I started reading books on people, culture, and behavior to fill the gap that I felt I had in terms of understanding what drives and motivates people.
For people in technical roles, we all accept that it’s necessary to continue to updates your knowledge. In the past large software platforms released new versions approximately every three years, which means that you had to refresh about 75% of your skillset every three years. Now that these large platforms are all offered as cloud services that are getting new releases at least weekly, a lot of technical specialists have to refresh their knowledge constantly.

What I find remarkable is that we seem to find it acceptable that people in leadership or sales roles for example still base their behavior on insights that were common 20 years ago. They don’t read up on the latest studies about human behavior. They feel that because they have been successful in the past there is no need to change. These are the same people who feel that the people with technical skills should always be fully up-to-date on the latest developments in the world of technology, have the latest certifications and preferably be experts in multiple technologies or skillsets to ensure that they can be staffed on as many different projects as possible. The hypocrisy blows my mind.

Maybe I felt driven to learn more about people and cultures because I was used to always studying technology and it felt unnatural to stop learning just because I moved away from technology. Maybe I was driven by my perfectionism. Perhaps it was just insecurity. Whatever it was my change in job sparked a renewed love for reading in me. I’m alternating reading fiction and non-fiction and both have helped me tremendously in getting to grips with my new role and who I wanted to be as a leader. Reading helps me to get up to date with the latest studies on human behavior, it helps me to get a better understanding of how people and cultures are changing over time and the stories and wisdom that I read about inspire me.

I full support Christian Madsbjerg’s plea for the value and importance of the humanities. We have so much data and logic at our fingertips that at times we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the only truth. We forget or even lose the ability to apply critical thinking. The numbers are one perspective, but it’s understanding the human circumstances that will help us to understand people’s motivations and our world. Human behavior doesn’t follow models, it’s by definition irrational and thus hard to predict.
In order to make a meaningful difference, you have to give a damn and algorithms will never actually give a damn. We need people for caring and the humanities to teach them how to.

Fahrenheit 451 – a classic that makes you think

After The Handmaid’s Tale, this book by Ray Bradbury is another classic and another book describing a dystopian US future. Guy Montag is a fireman and a fireman’s job is to burn books. When some secretly hidden books are discovered, usually through a tip from someone close to the booklover, the alarm in the fire station will sound and the firemen will rush out to burn them. The fire chief explains to Montag that it used to be ok to be different and read books. When the population grew ever bigger and denser it became important for the authorities to make sure there were no outliers and individualists. When everyone is the same there is no reason to compare yourself to others, thus taking away a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This reasoning is interesting, as in The Handmaid’s Tale underpopulation and the need for people to focus on simply reproducing as much as possible is cited as a reason to keep people from thinking for themselves.
We see this in the real world too. Different leaders come up with a myriad of reasons to explain why it’s important that they get more power. Most authoritarian regimes come into power because at least part of the people feel that they might have a point. Most of them will come to regret this later when the veil hiding the regime’s selfish wish for more personal power evaporates.

Both in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Handmaid’s Tale it is suggested that by taking away people’s opportunity to read you take away their opportunity to learn and think for themselves. Both societies were dreamt up by authors and it makes sense for authors to feel that books being banished and reading being forbidden is a disaster.
Personally, I love learning through reading books, but I think there are also other ways to learn and educate yourself on a whole range of different topics. Not reading books doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not actively working to learn and grow. You could watch TV shows that make you think or watch online documentaries. You can read blogs, listen to podcasts and listen and talk to other people and learn from them.

Entertainment in Fahrenheit 451’s society is provided by interactive shows that do nothing to educate or challenge people. The shows are displayed on large screens. The ultimate setup to strive for is for all four walls of your living room to be replaced by the screens. The people in the shows are described as “family”. Montag’s wife Mildred loves the screens (they have three walls covered) and proclaims that she is happy talking to her “family”. When she’s not watching the screens she has earbuds in her ears that allow her to listen to the radio or to the sounds of the sea or the jungle. They are noise canceling, so she can’t communicate with others while wearing them. Mildred doesn’t like disruption and she doesn’t want to be challenged to think. Neither do her friends when they come and visit.
There aren’t many women in the book and most of them aren’t painted in a positive light.
Thankfully Clarisse, the girl who lives next door to Montag, is one of the heroes. She makes him wake up from his apathy by asking him seemingly simple, but provocative questions. She makes him think for himself.

This is also what the author is challenging us as readers to do. Think. Don’t just live your life on auto-pilot, but think about what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This comes back to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” that I wrote about here. If we are the fish from the speech it’s important to make a conscious decision to recognize the water that we’re swimming in. Even when it’s always there. Especially when it’s always there.

After coming back from holiday last year I noticed that I didn’t feel good at the end of my evenings. I needed the disruption of the holiday to even notice this. I live alone and when sitting down with a cup of tea in the evening I always turned on the TV. I thought I felt better with the TV on because it provided some background chatter. Often I ended up watching though, even if nothing decent was on. When bedtime came around I felt like I didn’t get anything out of the evening. To conquer that feeling I stayed up longer, hoping that watching some more TV would make me feel better. It never did, but going to bed late certainly made me feel tired.

It’s been almost a year now since I stopped watching TV on weeknights. I also canceled my Netflix subscription. Instead, I read and I started to learn to play the piano. Both reading and playing the piano give me a lot of joy. It makes me feel like I used my time wisely and like I did something that I will still feel good about in the morning (do you ever consider when you have trouble going to bed because you think just one more episode won’t hurt, whether you will you feel better or worse in the morning because you watched that extra episode?). When I read or practice instead of watching TV I feel like I’ve had a longer and more fulfilling evening. It makes it easier to go to bed on time (sort of, I’m still a night owl).

Your experience might be completely different. You might not enjoy reading and watching TV or Netflix might genuinely make you feel good. If that’s the case then please continue to watch TV or Netflix! The point is to stop and think about it. Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you at least occasionally appreciating the water that you’re swimming in? You need to make a conscious decision to snap out of auto-pilot, as our brains prefer to just do what we always do. The brain is the organ that uses the bulk of our energy and to use it efficiently it usually leaves its System 1 monkey brain (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) in charge.

I know this all too well. I love structure, rhythm, and regularity. It means that I can use my energy on the important stuff like being kind and trying to empathize and having too many meetings and still giving everyone the attention that they deserve. And to occasionally ask “How’s the water?”.

How's the water

Nonviolent Communication

I’ve been a co-trainer on a great program in which we use the Nonviolent Communication approach as described by Marshall Rosenberg, but I hadn’t read his book until now. The book contains so many great insights that I will probably read it again.

When Rosenberg talks about nonviolent communication he doesn’t mean talking without physically assaulting the person or people you are communicating with, although that too is a pre-requisite for creating a connection. Nonviolent means communicating using observations and avoiding judgments, expressing what we feelings instead of our thoughts, sharing our needs instead of using learned strategies to get what we want and requesting instead of demanding. Applying these four steps might sound easy, but it’s very hard to do. We are used to having an opinion about most if not everything and we naturally feel that the world revolves around us and our experiences. This is not surprising as we all look at the world from our own unique perspective. Looking at it through someone else’s eyes requires significantly more effort and is therefore often not bothered with. I’ll describe the four steps of nonviolent communication in a bit more detail to give you an idea of how it works.

Sharing observations instead of judgments (step 1)
Describing what we observe makes it easier for other people to listen to us. Although your observations will always be influenced by who you are, you can describe them using objective language, free of judgment. When we use judgmental language it’s very likely that the person we’re trying to connect with feels put off or even attacked by our words, which gets in the way of creating a connection and communicating openly and effectively.

Express what we feel instead of our thoughts and emotions (step 2)
What we feel is personal and can be directed in two ways, inside and out. What we feel external is fairly straightforward and most people would be comfortable sharing that they are hot or cold or that the chair they are sitting on is soft. Sharing what we feel on the inside leaves us exposed and vulnerable. This makes it very hard for many people to open up about what they really feel. What we tend to do is trick ourselves by creating sentences like “I feel that he might be holding something back”. In this case, we’re not sharing what we’re feeling, we’re sharing what we’re thinking. When the word “feel” is followed by “that” it will almost always be a thought and not a feeling that is being expressed. When we say that we feel sad/frustrated/happy/angry we are sharing what we feel on the inside.

Sharing needs instead of strategies (step 3)
We all have basic needs. A lot will be the same for most humans, although a few will always be more important to you than others. My most pronounced basic needs are recognition, autonomy, and control. If your basic needs are not being met you will generally come up with strategies to try and get back to a situation where your basic needs are being met. If I feel like I’m losing control I might get bossy for instance. If your basic need is attention you might have a strategy of becoming very quiet in the hope that your partner notices or you might start to sulk or stand in front of the TV until you get the attention that you are craving for.
Our strategies might work, but they don’t make us nicer people to be around and they don’t create a connection with others. If, instead of getting bossy, I were able to say that I’m stressed out or frustrated because I feel like I’m not in control the people around me are much more likely to sympathize. They might even be able to help me regain the feeling that I’m in control.

Requesting instead of demanding (step 4)
After sharing an observation, expressing our feelings and revealing our needs we can make a request to the person or people we’re trying to connect with. Making a request instead of a demand means of course that we have to ask a question, but it also means that we have to be willing to accept a “no” to our request. If we make a request and we get angry or upset if we get a “no” that means that the request was a demand after all.

Applying these 4 steps takes a lot of practice. It sounds so simple, but it’s hard to apply in a conversation. I’ve been teaching nonviolent communication for a couple of years and that plus reading the book still only got me to the point where I’m aware that I’m often unable to apply it in conversations. This week I tried to apply it in a WhatsApp conversation, which I immediately admit isn’t necessarily ideal for creating a connection. It did give me time to think about how to construct a sentence using the steps above as contrary to what many seem to believe, WhatsApp communication is asynchronous. Despite the extra time I had to think about the sentence I wanted to use to create a connection with the person I was chatting with I couldn’t do it. I was unable to construct a sentence using Rosenberg’s approach that I felt comfortable sharing. I’ll continue to practice and I’ll read the book again!

For me, nonviolent communication has always been focused on connecting with others. I was surprised to read about using it to show self-compassion. I’d never thought about that, but it makes sense. It’s also very hard to do. You don’t have to worry as much about coming across as weird because you use somewhat unusual sentences, I’m quite comfortable with my own weirdness. Not so much with my own inadequacies though. I find it much harder to be kind to myself than to be kind to others and I know several other people who are the same. We are expecting a lot from ourselves and it all has to be done perfectly and with a smile. I like Rosenberg’s advice to avoid “shoulding” yourself. We feel “we shouldn’t have done that” or “I should get up earlier”. “Should” implies a demand and it threatens our autonomy. We respond badly to demands, even our own demands on ourselves. It might not feel like you have a choice but phrasing it in your mind like it is a choice will make it easier to keep yourself motivated. “I choose to do abs exercises tonight because it will keep my bowels moving and my belly looking tight.” “I choose to go outside in the evening to throw out the trash because I want to get rid of the smelly bin in the kitchen.” I apologize for the silly examples. You can probably tell that I have an easy life, especially while I’m on holiday.

There are so many things worth sharing in this book that I could go on forever, but I won’t. I went back and forth between sharing the things that I found most remarkable in the book and sharing at least some of the basics. I choose the latter, although it pains me not to be able to talk about the role of empathy for yourself and for others in nonviolent communication. If you just read the book and tell me what stood out most for you we can talk about it and I can get it out of my system that way. Thanks!

The 4 steps of nonviolent communication

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic. I hadn’t read it before and I haven’t seen the series. I was triggered because Atwood has a new book out, The Testaments, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future version of the US. A revolution has taken place and the result is a dystopian society.

The population is shrinking so much that the government is interfering to make sure that as many women as possible get pregnant. To achieve this, powerful childless couples are assigned handmaids. Our protagonist is one of them. Her name is Offred. That’s not her real name, but her commander’s name is Fred, which makes her Offred. She is dressed in long red dresses and coats and wears red flat shoes, like all the handmaids. On their heads, they wear white caps that cover their hair and that stick out well past the side of their faces, so they can’t easily look around and others can’t see their faces.

It’s creepy, it would be reassuring to think that this can’t happen in real life, but real-life has gotten to a point where it’s often weirder or crueler than most stories are. I no longer think things can’t happen. Many countries do terrible things to (part of) their people and we mostly let it happen. Leaders can order hitman to kill their subjects abroad and we only complain for a few weeks. World leaders are openly misogynist, racist and foul-mouthed. They break the laws of the country they are supposed to lead repeatedly and they can stay in office.

There are people who are trying to rebel against the regime. Some are actively fighting near the Canadian border. Moira, our protagonist’s friend, escapes and lives an undercover life. Ofglen is part of a resistance organization that exchanges information. It’s unclear if any of it has any significant impact.
As time moves on our protagonist starts breaking more and more rules, but not with the intent to hurt the regime. At first, her commander and his wife ask her to break the rules, both in different ways. Because the commander and his wife have the power to get her shipped off to the colonies or worse, she doesn’t really have a choice. Later on, temptation gets the best of her and she breaks the rules for herself. For love, to break the monotony of her terrible life, as a distraction? Maybe for all of those reasons.

She apologizes for her behavior to us, the readers, suggesting that it doesn’t paint a very positive picture. I felt it did make her more human though. I can easily put myself in her place and imagine doing the same. At the risk of starting to sound like a broken record for those who regularly read my posts: I would very much hope that I would actively try to contribute to bringing the regime down. But if I’m completely honest I think it’s more likely that I’d behave exactly as Offred does. I do hope they would come up with a better naming scheme though. And like our protagonist, I don’t look good in red.

The handmaid's tale - still from the series

I would have expected to get upset by the story but I didn’t. I felt detached. Maybe that’s also because so many horrible things are happening on a daily basis that I’m numb. Maybe it’s because it seems to me that everyone’s life in the post-revolutionary society is terrible. Not just the lives of the handmaids or even just the women. It doesn’t feel right to get upset on behalf of a single person.
I’m also developing a theory that I have trouble getting emotionally involved in a story when the narrator narrates mostly thoughts and theories instead of conversations. I’m not sure about this yet. The feeling I had while reading The Handmaid’s Tale is similar to the feeling I had while reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. If you have any ideas about the commonalities between Less and The Handmaid’s Tale I’d love to hear them.

I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a very interesting story and the world that Atwood creates is very thorough and plausible. There’s no need to read it as a warning, you can just turn on the news for that, but it does invite you to think about where we could be heading in more concrete terms and examples.
The ending leaves a lot of room for a sequel and I’m curious about what will happen next, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading The Testaments too at some point.

The AI Does Not Hate You – A story about Rationalists

The first thing that’s useful to know about Tom Chivers’ book The AI Does Not Hate You is that most of the book is not about AI. This is a book about the Rationalist movement and their figureheads.

Let me save you some time by summarizing the AI narrative of the book.
The Rationalists believe that we might be able to create an AI that is much smarter than the smartest human in the next 50 to 100 years. When this happens they believe that there is a significant chance that AI will either make us immortal or wipe us all off the face of the earth. Immortality in this context should not be seen as ensuring that our bodies can keep going for all eternity, but perhaps by extracting your brain and storing it in an external system that is much easier to preserve than our bodies.

It’s unlikely that the AI’s ultimate goal would be to extinct humans. Most likely we would simply be in the way of the actual goal that it’s trying to achieve. We might be using up resources that it feels could also be used to achieve their assigned task in a bigger, better, more efficient way. The recurring comparison to an overly focused AI causing problems and perhaps even extinction is the broom that is bewitched to fill up the cauldron in Disney’s the sorcerer’s apprentice. The broom fills up the cauldron but doesn’t stop when it’s full, completely flooding the place. When Mickey chops up the broom to try and stop it the little bits of broom all turn into individual complete brooms, now flooding the place even quicker than the one broom was before.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the key figures of the Rationalist movement, came up with the summary that inspired the title of the book: “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else”. At the early stages of the movement, Yudkowsky set out to explain what AI is and why he feels AI poses an existential threat. While writing he felt that he had to explain a lot of underlying or slightly related concepts first. Whatever we think about him, he certainly wasn’t work-shy, and he just started at the beginning. He wrote a series of blog posts, now called the Sequences. The total volume is significantly bigger than the combined books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Rationalists believe that trying to mitigate the risk of an AI killing us all is worth a lot of time and money. They come to this conclusion by evaluating the risk in a very rational way (this won’t surprise you), but they make a few assumptions that I personally wouldn’t make. The most important one is that they assign the same value a potential future human life as to the life of someone living today. They argue that the number of potential future lives that could be “lost” if we go extinct in the next century or so is huge and because of that, even if there is only a tiny chance that AI might kill us all, it is worth a lot if we can take steps towards preventing extinction.
To increase the number of potential future lives that could be lost as much as possible they assume that we will be able to not just live on earth, but also on many other planets and space ships.
I must admit that this was enough for me to mentally discard the Rationalist movement as “slightly out of touch with reality”. I’d choose to invest in other things like climate change to just mention one that is top of mind.

Chivers spends a lot of time discussing if the Rationalists are a cult. Personally, I don’t care. Whether or not the Rationalists are a cult has nothing to do with the risk that AI poses to humanity and they don’t seem to be forcing their view onto anyone. In fact, based on this book I can only conclude that they feel that most of the world isn’t smart enough to understand, so there’s no point trying to convince them.
Chivers himself comes across as a bit of a Rationalist fanboy who gets to play along with some people in the movement in many places in the book, while he positions himself as the less nerdy, more streetwise outsider in other places.

Many Rationalists are polyamorists and as long as it’s consensual that is completely up to them. I don’t even want to know. Especially not if I’m reading a book about AI. Chivers however also discusses some cases where people in the movement were accused of sexual abuse and abuse of power, only to very quickly dismiss these cases as being “no worse than in other communities”.
This was almost enough to make me stop reading the book.

Leaving a book half-read annoys me even more than reading about Chivers dismissing the abuse accusations and the discrepancy between the title of the book and its contents, so I did finish the book in the end. I did learn a bit about AI and more than I bargained for about Rationalists. There are some interesting bits in the book about human brains and biases and there’s an interesting explanation about that fact that a lot of arguments are disagreements about labels, rather than disagreements about content.
However, if you are interested in AI I would recommend that you pick a different book. If you want to learn about the Rationalists from someone who loves the movement and their ideas, I can highly recommend this book.The AI does not hate you

To Kill a Mockingbird – heart-rendingly relevant

This week I read a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee. It had been referenced in many of the books that I read over the last few weeks, which meant that it was top of mind for a while already for me. I was also curious to learn if there is a link between one of the main characters in the book, who is called Atticus Finch, and Tim Minchin’s character in Californication, who is called Atticus Fetch. It seemed too similar and unusual to be a coincidence, but I haven’t found the link if there is one.

I did find that another element of pop culture was inspired by the book. As a teenager, my favorite song was Wake Up Boo by The Boo Radleys for years. Boo Radley (whose real name is Arthur Radley) is the neighbor of the protagonist and her family. They haven’t seen him in years, the kids are even unsure if he’s still alive, although their father assures them that he is. He just stays inside the house.

The story is set in the 1930s in Alabama. It’s told from the point of view of an 8-year-old white girl. It’s an anti-racist story. It should be a story about how things used to be. But it’s so relevant today that at times I found it hard to read on. It’s heartbreaking.
The protagonist is Scout Finch, whose real name is Jean Louise. She has an older brother called Jem (short for Jeremy). Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer. Scout’s favorite attire is her overall and she likes to play outside with her brother and their friend Dill.

At the beginning of the book, the kids are still young and pure. Their souls are uncorrupted and they are raised to be fair and just. Living in a racist environment that is very hard to retain. The hatred and disdain for people who are different are very strong in almost all adults in the book.

A black man is accused of raping a white woman. Before the trial starts people in the streets have already convicted him. Some of them even want to play judge, jury, and executioner themselves. The fact that there is strong evidence that he can’t have done it is completely ignored by most.
Atticus has been assigned to defend the accused and both he and the kids have to deal with a lot of hatred over it. It’s so persistent that it’s starting to taint their innocence.

The book is filled with examples of how standing out in any way can make you the target of gossip, exclusion, and hatred. I wish it was possible to think that this is just the small-minded people in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It’s not. Standing out today is still very likely to make you the target of derision and hatred and in some cases even physical attacks.

Unfortunately, our brain is designed in a way that makes it very easy to hate anyone who you perceive as being different from you. People who support a different sports team to you, people with different skin color, people with a different political preference, a different sexual orientation or from a different country, city or neighborhood. By hating others we feel like we are part of a tribe and that feels good. We all have more similarities than differences, but it’s easier and more rousing to focus on the differences.
We teach our children to do the same from a very young age. Sometimes just because we set an example through our own behavior, but it’s also considered acceptable to teach them to mock “the other”. Most of you will now be thinking about extremist parents, but many have taught their kids songs that make fun of the nemesis of their favorite football team at a young age. Or taught them jokes about people from a neighboring country. I’m sure you can think of more examples.

I plead with you. Next time you think about labeling someone as different, even if it’s just in your mind, try to challenge yourself. Are they really that different? Could they feel the same way about you? Can you think of something positive about the person? Can you put yourself in their shoes? We all once had a child’s innocence, but we lost it along the way and we replaced it with opinions and biases. Let’s try to shed some opinions and regain some innocence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Let’s save the mockingbird. Let’s teach our kids to be respectful of others. To look beyond the first impression and focus on similarities. It feels like the world is in a pretty bad place right now, but we made it so. We can also make it better. One person at a time if we have to. Please.

I think there's just one kind of folks