Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone

For a long time now, rich countries have been getting richer. As countries get richer, a lot of good things happen on the back of it. The population’s health improves, life expectancy rises, education improves, more people can get an education, and unemployment rates lower.
At a certain point, this pattern stops. A lot of rich countries today are now so rich that economic growth and increasing the average material living standards no longer directly impacts health, education, and unemployment. As countries reach this threshold there’s something else that starts driving these important metrics, and it’s the level of equality among their citizens.
More equality is better for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a country, a state, a city, or a company. When inequality among citizens of a country lowers, the health expectancy rises. Not just among the poor and not just on average. Even the life expectancy of the rich rises. In The Spirit Level, the authors compare data about 21 developed countries, as well as the states of the US. They looked at several indicators of health and well-being. The most interesting ones for me being:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental Illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • Life expectancy
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? None of this has been a conscious choice. We didn’t set out to become this rich. We are continuously trying to improve our situation. That’s true for people but also countries and companies. When you add up all these small incremental improvements you eventually end up in our current world of plenty.
Because we never made a conscious decision about this growth, we also never considered the impact of all this material wealth. Nor did we think about how it should be spread out across the world population. Everyone is making their own small improvements and because of that feels that the results of these improvements are theirs. We fail to recognize that we are lucky. Living in a part of the world without any major natural disasters is lucky. (Mind you, this could change when sea levels rise as my house is already below sea level.) Having a good education is lucky. Being able to learn in the way the education system demands is lucky. Living in a mostly functioning democracy is lucky. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of this. I just got lucky.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that it caused has made it even clearer how much luck is involved in leading a good and easy life. Many people who had a very good job 6 months ago are out of work today. If your job was in the tourism or event branch the pandemic has pretty much killed your line of work. If you are working as a contractor the economic crisis might mean that you lost your assignment without much notice. None of us have chosen our line of work thinking “what job would be the safest bet during a pandemic?”. If you still have a job you’re lucky. And we have to share that luck or at least the income that we are enjoying because of it, with the people who aren’t as lucky.
Intuitively it makes sense that more equality is better for everyone but when it becomes personal it’s less straightforward. A majority of people want society to move away from greed and access towards a way of life more centered around values, community, and friendship. But to adjust your own life is a different thing altogether.
Personally, I’m happy paying all of my taxes and I regularly give money to charities but voluntarily giving away large amounts of money or accepting a lower income would require me to take several long hard looks at myself. I can only assume that this feeling doesn’t change when you have millions or even billions (although I can’t say this from personal experience).
So how do we ever get to a society with less inequality? The earlier in the process we start, the more impactful and less painful it is. The best place to start is education. Ensuring that everyone has access to quality education, regardless of the color of your skin or the amount of money your parents earn is a good start. Investing in pre-school for all kids can be a huge equalizer. Primary schools that are funded based on the average income (or tax being paid) in the neighborhood where the school is located significantly increases inequality. Schools and pre-schools should be properly funded by governments. Unfortunately, few governments make this a priority. In the end, it might be a choice between paying for social benefits to limit inequality and using public expenditure to cope with social harm like increased health problems and larger prison populations.
Another option is to limit inequality in salaries or redistribute money through taxes. You can argue that some jobs should make a bit more money than others but the differences that we see today can’t be defended, nor are they beneficial for the well-being of anyone, rich or poor.
Structural policy changes will be hard to achieve but the first step is to raise awareness of the impact of inequality on our societies and the people living in it. This starts with all of us. I encourage you to look into the impact of inequality in general and the level of inequality around you. Think about it and talk about it with others. There won’t be a quick fix but everywhere we are able to limit inequality we will improve the well-being of everyone involved.

This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free has two parts that could have been two books. It feels a little bit like Hägglund had two strong ideas and a one-book deal. The book is split into two parts where each part describes one of the ideas. Both ideas are thought-provoking, very well researched, and clearly described and explained. It was easy to stay engaged in the philosophical text.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first part of the book, which is about why mortality makes us free. The second part explains why capitalism can never lead to equality and why redistribution of wealth under capitalism can’t work in the long run. I might come back to that in a later post.

Our mortality might be the one thing that we can all agree on in this world full of division and false dichotomies. We don’t know when or how, but eventually we’ll all die. We are fragile and our lives are finite. Hägglund argues, successfully in my opinion, that the transience of our life is what makes it valuable.
Death makes life meaningless, because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because the finitude of our lives makes every moment precious. Knowing that it can all end makes us care. Hägglund calls this secular faith. I would prefer to just call it caring, but that might be why I’m not a philosopher.

Most religions consider our finitude a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. Our lives on earth are considered a necessary prelude to eternity after death. An explanation of what eternity means is seldom included. It’s often considered to be similar to our lives on earth, except it will last forever. We’ll be together with our loved ones and there won’t be any pain or suffering. This premise means that it can’t be like our life on earth. The happiest day of our lives is so enjoyable because it sits in contrast to other days. Just try and picture the happiest day of your life (or just a happy day) and imagine it will last forever. The lack of contrast would make it bland and even boring. An eternal now would deprive us of a past and a future. There is no risk and no failure and thus no growth.

When we think about eternity after death this not what we have in mind. It turns out that we don’t want eternity. We want to continue to live our lives as we do on earth. When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their earthly lives to continue.
The thought of our own death and the death of our loved ones is painful. We don’t want to die and we often don’t want things to end. At the same time, we shouldn’t want things to be eternal. Eternity would take away all reasons to care and be passionate. A life worth living must be finite and include secular faith or reasons to care. If your ultimate goal is to exist until you die, just so you can move on to eternity in heaven, you have no reason to deeply care about anything that happens during your life.

We enjoy spring because of the contrast of the cold and dark winter. We savior a summer day because we know that fall will be coming to fade the bright colors to a more demure red and yellow and brown. Life can be beautiful because it can be tough.
It is often asserted that life without spirituality suffers from disenchantment. However, it’s the transience of our lives that gives us a reason to care. If only one tiny circumstance in evolution or the lives of our ancestors would have been different, we would not have been here. There is no pre-determined meaning to life, but it can be beautiful. The most meaningful things in our lives often turn out to be the small things. A smile, a laugh, or sharing a spontaneous moment. We can make living worthwhile by caring and trying to make a difference to other people. Perhaps even to future generations. While our death is unavoidable, our legacy might live on.

It’s also a commonly held belief that religion is required to lead a moral life. The atrocities committed and wars fought in the name of religion should make it abundantly clear that religion can also have the opposite effect. The books and stories that are at the core of many religions are said to explain what it means to lead a moral life, but their interpretations differ wildly and some of them are used as excuses for bigotry and cause immense suffering. Leading a secular life, there isn’t a single dedicated text that tells us how to lead our lives. It’s up to us to create our moral compass. I like the humanist concept of trying to live your life in a way that does the least amount of damage and the most amount of good for both people and the planet. Not being sweetened by the idea of heaven or threatened with punishment in hell, leading a moral, secular life depends on intrinsic motivation. Knowing that life is short and death unavoidable provides this motivation for many.
Of course, some non-religious people feel that the meaninglessness of our existence is a reason to not care at all. But religion is certainly not a requirement for leading a good and moral life.

Seeing things in perspective as they happen is almost impossible. Looking back at past events it’s often easier to see them as precious. Time takes the edge of any hurt or worries that you encountered at the time. Appreciating the present is more difficult as it’s raw and unprocessed. Memories are also often isolated, not taking into account the full context of everything else that was going on in your life and the world.
This is especially challenging today. With a raging pandemic that’s causing pain and suffering and that’s increasing inequality, a sociopath in the White House, and the very urgent problem of climate change moved to the background it can be hard to find joy and happiness. If you feel this way try focusing on the small things. I can feel intense happiness when I’m running or when I’m sat on the sofa with a cup of tea after a long day. It’s ok to allow yourself these moments of happiness despite the state that the world is in. Denying yourself the little pleasures isn’t going to make the world a better place and might make you depressed.

I’m not religious and I believe that when I die my existence ends. While I’m not afraid of death I’m also not a fan, so I mostly don’t think about it if I don’t have to. While this book might not have changed my beliefs significantly I found it interesting and uplifting to read and think about why the finitude of our lives is a good thing. I liked both the writing and ideas. The second part of the book on the subject of democratic socialism is just as interesting as the first part and also worth a read.

Something else that fascinated me about the book was the confidence with which Hägglund asserts that the common interpretations of the works of some famous philosophers are wrong and how his interpretation is right. I understand that he has spent a lot of time studying all of these works as well as the broader concept. I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. A lot of Hägglund’s interpretations sound at least plausible. I simply don’t know and I’m not convinced that I would be bold enough to reject the norm and present my own interpretation as the right one. It’s interesting.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The more I learn about racism, the more I realize how hard it is to argue against racist ideas. It’s not hard to oppose them, but it’s hard to say something that will get the other person to at least stop and think, let alone change their mind. This week I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. A lot of the ideas below were triggered by the excellent explanations and sometimes painful truths in the book.

I try to find a balance between consuming new ideas and staying informed and getting depressed from seeing too much hatred and ignorance online. It’s a thin line to walk on and I often get it wrong. Some of the discourse online scares the hell out of me. A good example is an article on a Dutch news site about the unmarked order troops in Portland who pick up protestors from the streets without identifying themselves and take them away in unmarked rental vans. The comments below that article are filled with remarks that what these troops are doing is justified and that the BLM protests and “Antifa” pose a serious threat to these cities and communities. After all, Trump declared that Antifa is a terrorist organization.

Antifa stands for anti-fascist. A definition of fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”. The word was originally used for Mussolini’s party and has since been generalized to include those with similar believes. Against that background and definition, I consider myself to be Antifa. I hope and even assume that most people commenting on the article would not identify as fascists even if some might not identify as explicitly anti-fascist.

Moving away from this specific example, how do you explain to someone who feels picking up BLM protestors of the street is good and just that black people have to deal with systemic and unjust racism and that they are right to demand structural changes? I don’t think many people who aren’t sympathetic towards the BLM organization and protests are afraid of losing their white privilege at this point. I think in many cases they are just scared of change in general. They want things to go back to “normal”. Where normal means that everyone accepts the world that we have today, inequalities and injustices and all. I think. Maybe?

The push for quiet and complacency isn’t new. In 1963 Liberation Magazine published an article by Martin Luther King, Jr that included the following statement: ‘First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” ‘Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think we’ve made much progress in this area since 1963. That’s 57 years and two generations! Can you blame black people for getting frustrated with a society, government, and white people from both the left and the right not caring enough to make some real changes?

Part of the challenge of making society less racist is that the changes can’t be made by black people. Racism is about power. It’s about being a position to negatively impact other people’s lives. Lasting changes will have to be made by those in power. Unfortunately, those at the top also benefit the most from the current racist, misogynist power structures and thus have the most to lose. They will only change things when they are forced to. In places where quotas about the number or percentage of women that are being hired or women that are part of boards and leadership teams are enforced the number of (white) women is increasing.
Going forward we don’t just need quota on the number of women, we also need quota on the number of black people that are being hired and that are being promoted into leadership positions.

Many oppose quotas, stating that “the best person for the job” should be hired. But if you think that the homogeneous flock of middle-aged white men currently clogging the upper echelons of most professions got there purely through talent and hard work you’re fooling yourself. We don’t live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that simple hard work will allow people of all skin colors, genders, religions, etc. to achieve the same level of success is an exercise in willful ignorance.

To change racist laws and regulations we need a different approach as no institution can force a government to make changes. Keeping the status quo needs to lead to a structural loss of power or money to enforce changes. This could be achieved if the protests last long enough and through means like the broadly supported bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama between 1955 and 1956. It can also be achieved if those demanding change get so much support that not meeting demands means losing elections.

Even if you’re not keen on protesting you can contribute to the push for a more just world from the comfort of your own home. Especially if you are white. You can help spread the call for change to racist laws and institutions on social media, through letters to newspapers and among your friends and family. People who are not racist, but even people who are anti-racist are often moderate and polite about the issue.
The far-right don’t hold themselves to the same standards. They use bold claims, fear-mongering, and often lies. They use all the platforms they have access to, regardless of whether that’s a “decent” thing to do. They reach a lot of people with these tactics and speak to fear, which is a powerful tool. Their sympathizers don’t nod passionately at their screen when they read these lies, they amplify these right-wing voices in all the ways they have available to them. And they don’t fight among themselves even if they might not agree on all the nitty-gritty right-wing details.

We need to do the same. We need to share our passion for equality and anti-racism with the world. It’s uncomfortable and it might mean we end up in the occasional online shitstorm, but agreeing quietly at home isn’t helpful at this point. To weather the shit storms and limit the number of storms we need to also form a left-wing, anti-racist front. We are too happy to shout at people whose opinion is slightly different from ours while we avoid engaging with people who have a wildly different opinion. Let’s suspend our internal disagreements. They are, frankly, not relevant at the moment. We have bigger fish to fry.

Let’s agree to work together for now and amplify the voices of minorities. The mess we are living in was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a small hoarding few. It won’t be easy but we have to keep working at it. And just as important: we have to continue to believe that we can achieve real change. Because if we lose hope they win and we’re f*cked.

How to be an Antiracist

Yes, it’s another one about racism. We’re not done learning yet. We probably never will be. And you don’t get to complain about having to deal with racism until you’ve had to endure it for dozens of years as black people have.

Besides continuing to learn about racism, I’ve also learned something about books about racism this week. Literally for every book about racism that I’ve read or am considering to read I’ve seen people in my social media timelines explaining why the book is no good, doesn’t explain the issue correctly, or even corrupts the debate. I’ve also seen significant praise about all these books. At first, I felt discouraged by this and wondered what the point is, but after contemplating how to find the “right” books I’ve decided that as long as you’re not just reading one book and keep thinking critically, you’re probably going to be ok. Reading different perspectives can help you to shape your ideas. Those ideas can and should then be adjusted as you absorb more information.

The main insight that I got from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracists is that there are different kinds of racism. When you read about it, it makes sense. But I’d never thought about racism as anything other than just a single concept. The easiest to define and understand types of racism are:

  • Biological racism – the ideas that there are genetic racial differences and that these differences create a hierarchy. If you want that properly debunked I can also recommend reading Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Even if that book doesn’t really explain how to argue with a racist unless they are using pure biological racism, which I think is rare.
  • Bodily racism – portraying and treating black bodies as more animal-like and violent than others
  • Cultural racism – creating and imposing a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy. A proponent of this is suggesting that black people will be better off if only they adopt white culture. We consider white customs the norm and anyone with different customs slightly or not so slightly barbaric.
  • Behavioral racism – is about making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and projecting the behavior of individuals onto entire groups.

Antiracism is to actively work against racism and racist ideas. This can start with simple things (theoretically simple at least). Behavioral racism is probably the type of racism we are all guilty of most often. When a white boy isn’t paying attention in school and getting back grades the boy is considered a bad student. Probably undermotivated and undisciplined. When a black boy is getting back grades and isn’t paying attention in school the behavior of the boy is extrapolated to all other black boys. Black boys aren’t worse students than white boys. But we do often feel that the bad behavior of one of them confirms our ideas about the behavior of the entire group. The fact that many white people believe this is problematic, but what’s worse is that these boys internalize those ideas too. And it’s been proven many times that if you believe that you are not as smart as the people around you, your results will suffer because of it.
Ibram Kendi writes that he grew up having many racist ideas himself and that he was sabotaging himself and his future opportunities because of them. He felt that if he messed up he was failing all black people. Can you imagine a white kid feeling like they failed all white people when they do something wrong?

We also extrapolate the positive achievements of individuals to the groups we identify them with, as many immigrant professional athletes can attest to. If they win, they are seen as an integrated part of the country they represent. If they lose they are referred to by their original nationality. This isn’t just true for black people. As a tennis fan, I know that Andy Murray has commented multiple times on the fact that he is called British by the British media when he’s won and Scottish when he’s lost. Of course, his achievements are his and not related to his country of birth or residency.
The same is true for black athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the 100 and 200 meters because he was a very dedicated athlete, he worked very hard, was very disciplined. He wasn’t an extraordinary athlete because he was black “and black people are better sprinters”. This idea is biological racism. The fact that there are more world-class black sprinters has to do with culture, role models, and motivation. Not with an innate ability to run faster.

Ibram Kendi argues that the source of racist ideas isn’t just ignorance and hate, it’s self-interest. Racist ideas are a by-product of racial policies. Getting rid of the policies is proving to be so hard because the people who have to adjust them have a self-interest in keeping them in place. The people in charge benefit economically and politically from the current system that benefits white people disproportionately.

An example that makes it relatively easy to explain is how schools are funded in the US. Schools are funded by property taxes in the school’s neighborhood. Property taxes are based on the prices of houses and when many black people live in a neighborhood, housing prices plummet. As a result schools in black neighborhoods are underfunded. This could be resolved by designing a different system by which to fund schools. But the people in charge are mostly white. Their kids live in white neighborhoods and go to white schools. Implementing a system that would allow for better funding of schools in black neighborhoods would mean that there will be less money for schools in white neighborhoods. The self-interest of the people in power ensures that the school funding system will not change anytime soon.
This video explains the school funding system very nicely

School funding is just one example. For most racist policies you’ll find similar self-interests keep them from being overturned. This means that the most effective way of protesting is to make it in the self-interest of those in power to change the policies. That’s very hard to achieve and can’t just come from black people. This fight gains more weight when both black and white people in power stand up against racist policies. But these people also have the most to lose. Will enough people be able to accept losing part of their privilege to enhance equality. Remember, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. A lot will have to change before we can overturn policies and power structures that support racism today. It will take many self-less people and a lot of time, energy, and courage. I hope we’ll get there and I realize that just reading and writing about racism isn’t enough to contribute in a meaningful way. I also have to examine my privilege and get comfortable with the idea that I will have to give it up to ensure that we all have equal opportunities and resources.

I have been extremely lucky in my life and it’s time to share that luck with as many other people as possible.

White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.

My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.

Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.

Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.

We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.

Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.

I think all white people should read White Fragility.