Tag Archives: Ethics

The coronavirus is not about you

Watching the emergence of the coronavirus unfold, I’m baffled by the degree of individualist thinking we as a western society are throwing at this issue. I’m saying that as an ecologist, aware of how all things are connected. Journalists and politicians repeatedly ask the wrong questions. “What can I do to stay safe?” should be “What should I do to keep society safe?” And “What should we all do keep the place running as smoothly as possible? The short answer: minimize spreading the virus and buffer the impacts.

Understandably, everyone’s first response to the news of the virus is: “Does this threaten me?”. Normal response, so far so good. But an important immediate question which many people are missing is: does this threaten our society? And while the answer the the first question is: “Probably not”, the answer to the second is “Certainly!” That’s why I want to shortly explain this thing from a graduated ecologists’ point of view. And yes, I have thoroughly studied this thing, and I’m aware there are uncertainties. I’m also not going to answer all basic questions. Just give a commentary on what I’m hearing and reading.

A quick first illustration of my issue: coughing in your elbow. I have not seen a single outlet which hasn’t called this a measure to protect yourself. “What can you do to protect yourself?” And then somewhere between point #3 and point #5 “Cough in your elbow.” You don’t cough in your elbow to protect yourself if you already have the virus! You do it to protect others. A single person you infect today, could infect thousands down the line. It’s remarkable that media, including the WHO campaign are ambiguous about this. Are they playing on fear for survival? Who are they thinking to fool, then? In which framework are they placing this campaign? That of you and yourself.

 

Herd immunity

I’m hearing people compare COVID19 to a common flu because of the effect it may have on their individual health (a flu is something different than a cold, by the way). When it comes to these problems, ecologists, and epidemologists, don’t think in terms of individuals, but in terms of communities and populations. Whenever a new virus gets introduced, none of the members in the population have ever built antibodies for it before. I’m still hearing leeks say something like: “O, okay. So if I contract this coronavirus, my immune system will have to save me, just like with a normal flu. Well, I’m not getting a flu vaccine now, so I’ll probably be fine.” Where these people go wrong, apart from forgetting their own memory T-cells, is where they ignore the protection they get from the immune systems of their neighbours, colleagues and family members.

Here’s how that works. Any new virus infection you get is a race against the clock between the virus, multiplying, and your immune system, multiplying virus-specific T-cells to neutralize it. Usually, you never notice this race, because your immune system wins hands down. If not, you get sick and may even develop a fever which then helps break down the virus, causing your immune system to win the race anyway.

Now, once you had a certain strain of virus, your immune system has memory cells which remember it. The next time you contract it, these cells will be able to take faster action, so the chances of the virus winning the battle will be even smaller. And since you were not the only one to get this virus – how else would you have got it? – more people around you now have a similar level of immunity. Sure, the virus will mutate, but not enough to make it look like a completely new virus. Hence, people around you will act as a barrier between you and the virus, and you will act as a barrier for them. So even if your immune system is weaker, because you’re under some stress, aren’t sleeping well or because you got old by now, chances you get sick are low.

This insight provides an end goal in case we can’t stop this virus with quarantines: global herd immunity to Sars-cov-2. By the time 60 to 80 % of a certain group is immune, it becomes harder and harder for a virus to procreate in that community. If that scenario becomes true, and that’s what it looks like, we should try to reach this state with as little trouble as possible. In practice, this means finding a healthy balance between giving people an antivirus, waiting for people to build up their own immunity against it.

 

Dosage matters

If you would get a single particle of the virus in your body, it would start multiplying from that point onwards. A few days later, you may have 10.000 particles (I have no idea how high actual numbers would be), but your immune system is already working hard to get it under control. You may never even notice you had it, and perhaps not even passed it on, yet you are now better protected against it.

If instead, everyone around you is sick, and they’re all coughing in your face, you might immediately get 10.000 virus particles in your body, giving the virus a head start. That means that the more people in your surroundings have this virus, the more likely it is for you to get severe symptoms. So, here again, it’s not just about you and your great immune system. Circumstances decide fates in this story. Think about the healthy Chinese doctor Li Wenliang who discovered weird symptoms, treated tons of patients, then died of COVID19 himself. You not coughing in someone’s face a single time, even if that person already is infected, may make a difference. We’re not talking yes and no, we’re talking about clouds of possibilities. And what we want to do, is keep those clouds as far from each other as we can.

 

How about the system?

But not only is the problem a collective one, the potential solution is as well. One common question I’m hearing asked in media, is: “Should I stock up?” I’ve heard otherwise completely reliable experts say it is not necessary or even harmful to do this, because you’re removing food from people who really need it. First of all, this answer unwillingly admits that shortages may arise. But what this statement ignores, is our collective capability and responsibility to buffer the impact of an outbreak in a certain community. Again this expert reveals an egocentric approach to this problem. Let me explain.

If you’ve read stories on the recent stock market flumps, you have probably read the hypothesis that local outbreaks could bother a supply chain, thus temporarily interrupting the arrival of goods. For example, if a big truck company in your area has to go on lockdown, a different company has to compensate the supply. The drivers may have to work harder, get under more stress and thus be more susceptible for illnesses. At that point, it would be great if we as a collective society would be able to do a step back and reduce our pressure on the system. If 10.000 people keep two weeks’ worth of supplies in their basements, that allows these truck drivers to supply 10.000 households worth less of food for two weeks. The system has extra time to adapt.

So instead of hoarding food in a panic and disrupt the system the moment the virus hits your neighbourhood, you could consider buying a little extra every time you shop, untill you have a few weeks’ worth of supplies. That way, we collectively build a buffer for the potential impact once the virus hits our community. This will also reduce our shop going frequencies, thus reducing the risk of contracting, or worse, spreading COVID19.

Once the virus hits your community, any pressure you put on the system will indeed potentially come at the cost of the weak and the elderly. But you can still do something now to reduce that effect. And once it’s here, you can help your neighbours, of course.

 

It’s a state of mind

Here’s something to think about: if you’re a healthy individual, one egoistic thing to do right now, would be to go catch the virus somewhere, then self-quarantine. Here’s why: in the unlikely case where you do get severe symptoms, hospitals will still have plenty of space for you. They will treat you with the best possible care you can imagine. You will come out of the hospital with an immune system that now recognizes the virus and will have the summer of your life, nakedly running through the empty streets and catching cheap last-minute flights to go to hotels with ‘corona’ in their name.

But if you’re a little more, say, altruistic, you’ll do everything you reasonably can to slow down the rate at which this virus spreads. This way, herd immunity has the chance to build slowly and the shock on the system is reduced, saving lives and reducing long-term health impacts of this virus. Every meeting you skype, every cough you intercept and every time you wash your hands could save hundreds of lives down the line.

My call is basically this: think about this virus not in individual terms, it does not think about you in that way either. Think about the collective. There’s no need to be afraid, but there is plenty of reason to prepare. It may not be you, who is most at risk, but you do play a vital role in the way this story will unfold. We have to solve this together. If that is by washing your hands and avoiding meeting people, then so be it. You truly have a chance to make a difference here. And though you’ll never know the exact impact of your individual actions, the global community will.

Education

People sometimes use the word education when in fact they mean brainwashing. I’m quite sure that most people who do that are not aware of the fact that they do so because they have been brainwashed themselves.

An example: “We should put more funding in education of African countries so that they can build a democracy from the bottom up”. Great idea, but how would this look in practice? Money would go to certain organizations, monitored by their funders according to Western standards. They would employ people to build education programs, benchmarked along Western thought, then train people to teach the deep truths that stand at the base our beautiful democracy, powered solely by light and guided by the highest ethics. Then, at the end, of course, they are checked for optimal performance.

Such structures provided by nation states are often seen as education. Mandatory programs, packages of concepts, knowledge that is transferred and tested, ranking the students into their overseeable life paths, may lift society to a different standard, but they are only a limited part, a controllable bit, of a collective learning process that could also be tuned to enlivening, respect and curiosity-driven exploration of whatever it is that the human mind is eager to find out. I would say real education starts at the point where teacher and student receive the space and the freedom to show each other their views on reality in all its colours.

Transmission of knowledge is important, but we should honour the pathway through which this occurs. That pathway would in my view be called mutual trust. The possibility that another might see something out there which you don’t, not because he or she is more or less capable or suitable to see it, but merely because that other stands on a different position. Exams and profiles undermine such trust.

To translate this back to the omnipotent West, perhaps indeed, there was a time when our long fought for ideals made sense and empowered society at large. But these ideals are starting to take the form of dogmas, heritage we should protect and keep in place with tighter rules and regulations. Our knowledge is growing old, expiring, starting to fail us and begging for fresh inputs from the same societies we have kept in the enlightened dark for centuries.

And yet more importantly, I think we should all allow our inner wise guys to sometimes shut up and listen to the voice of the weak and silent for a change. The fact that we still understand education in a top-down way, taking all these quality checks for granted, shows us a whole lot about our status quos. If only we could see that in the mirror…

The Metaphor of Geert Wilders

For a long time, I have avoided writing about the Dutch politician of this era. The guy pissed me off whenever I saw him. I didn´t think he deserved my attention or that of my readers. Pollute my blog with him. Yet for the past ten years, he has kept his status as a nagging presence in Dutch society. It makes us wonder: what has given this childman his power? How has he managed to become so persistently annoying that he convinced me to write about him? Where has our society failed to ignore him to death? Which lessons does he throw in our midst?

A brief history for those who´ve missed it. Around the year 2000, Pim Fortuyn was the first politician whose party got big because he addressed the problem of integration in the Netherlands. He got killed (by an educated Dutch guy who thought he was saving the country) and left a gap in the political offer while the demand remained. Wilders filled that gap. When, after some years, he managed to enter the government, he dismantled it after a year. Today, no politician wants to govern with him. He yells bombastic language from the sideline and crosses some ethical lines for which he is then punished.

Some people admire Wilders´ rethorics. They see quality in his capacity to frame things simply, in a language that people with little education can follow. He called other politicians mental, has framed their plans as garbage, and has insulted cultural groups, delaying big decisions in the process. Even if he can make me laugh, I don´t think his intelligence is the reason for our fascination, because if you look at him closely, he acts like a little boy.

Wilders is the personification of his own incapacity to cause productive change. He does not dare to go into dialogue with strangers because he is afraid it might threaten his worldview. He has translated his unwillingness to listen to others into a program that reveals his identity as a sissy who calls his daddy when he gets into a conflict. The daddy, here, are the cops that do the dirty work for him.

What intrigues us in Wilders, is his reminder of our own cowardly attitude to change. Our laziness in the search for truth. Dutch politicians cannot call him to order because of their fear for the points he addresses. They too lack the creativity to solve them, so they pretend there is nothing going on. WIlders is our collective lack of interest in our neighbour, and our incapacity to move ourselves towards a happy life.

What this man has sublimed will keep tormenting our subconscious until we solve the fragmentation in our communities. He exists among us until most of us learn how to be peacefully curious about the realities of the other. He´ll be here until we perceive understanding as an action instead of a state of mind. He will reflect our fears until we gather the courage to look them in the eyes.

Wielding Attention

Do you own your attention? Do I have it? Are you giving it to this text? Am I luring it?

I’m on the final two pages of my booklet. The first text, ‘Revolution’ was written in 2012. I kept it close for all that time. These papers have grown dear to me. They are turning from a living presence in my life into an artifact on a shelf. End of an era. To make our final union count, I’d like to write on a subject that matters.

Attention is our most intimate tool of perception. Think about it. A nagging pain in your knee disappears if you have a good meal. Worldly troubles fade when we fall in love. An ugly face turns beautiful once we get to know the person behind it. Our attention, more than anything else, determines who we are. And yet we are so unaware of it. So limited in our capacity to use it.

Knowledge. Beliefs. Habits. Patterns the attention follows over and over again. Until bolts of insight pierce them. Seduce the attention to flow over their borders, see them from another side. Some patterns of belief do never crack. Dissolve, at most, when their container treads the grave.

Can you watch your attention? Can you see where it goes? Can you direct it? Redirect it to a place it never went before?

If I’m frustrated in life, it is because I see how many people are not free. And don’t want to be, either. Most believe they already are. There are so few who dedicate themselves to their attention. So many just wave it around, letting it spill on places where others do before them. People in the modern world waste so much of their precious, limited attention on worthless things. If I call myself a freedom activist, it is because even if I don’t know how, I need to break that chain.

Whether something is painful or beautiful, attention will see it. Jew, muslim, atheist? Attention will be with you. We blame ourselves for looking at midgets on the street. Our attention did not judge. It just travelled, as it would, if we didn’t pull that leash. ‘Stay away from that midget’. ‘Run from the weak’. If we let it be, our attention will go where it is needed.

By giving attention to the world around, senses sharpen. They become receptive. If you give attention to your garden, it will flourish. By listening to another with care, two souls will shine brighter. Attention is our pathway to bring the world to life.

Do you sometimes hold your attention in your mind’s hands? Pet it gently? Does it stay with you?

By giving my heart to this booklet one last time, I imbue it, one last time with a desire that does not sleep. I see the scratches of my previous words, I feel my booklet push my pen, I see the black ink stick here, on this paper, for as long as it will. From a far away conceptual world, I bring down images, experiences, meaning which, when I close it, will keep living as a part of me. I try, I have to try, to testify of this potential. It’s an urge that reveals itself in the interaction with this last page.

Of course, attention is meaningless. It’s a concept, like all others. Elusive, uncontrollable. Tell another he is not free, and he’ll present to you his freedom to hit you in the face. You’re a prisoner of your own mind. Hit me. But break the wall between our cells. I want them to crumble.

Have you cleaned your attention today? Thanked it? Let it wander for a bit? Did you follow? Did it come back to you? Did it bring you something?

My last words in this booklet, better make them count. A final kiss. A final breath of us together. In a few short lines, can I still imbue it with something meaningful?

How much charge can you contain before the charge contains you? How much pain do you need, before you accept this responsibility?

Do you charge your attention with love?

Winter Ramblings

Over the years, I have accumulated some subconscious rules as a blogger. Customs, so to speak. Most of them for the benefit of clarity. One is to treat one topic at the time. Another is to write the article in pen first. There are phases when I have to do effort to find a topic to write about. This week, I have gathered so many impressions and frustrations, that I’d like to break my rules and fire an incoherent set of thoughts back onto the internet. My lunch consists of a piece of precut raw brocolli of which I take bites only when I manage to lift my fingers of the keyboard.

Charlie Hebdo and his clan got killed. What a surprise. We all saw that coming for years. Is this an attack on freedom of expression? No it is not. It is an attack on insults to a religion. An over the top reaction, I agree, but a reaction nonetheless. We in the West are lucky to be able to get killed while doing the thing we love. Thousands of journalists are killed world wide every year (just a passionate guess, I admit), For saying far less bad things.

Yesterday, the ECB announced that the deflation in Germany is worse than expected. Bad news, we would say, but the European stockmarkets went up. Huh? Because investors have learned by now, that when this happens, the ECB pumps in some new artificial money to prevent a crash. Therefore, they invested their own money, just to be able to fish more out of the market later. I sincerely hope the ECB takes a wiser decision this time.

My new favourite word is Wiggle. Wiggle is a great word. Not only is that because of the sound it makes when you say it and the smile you put your face in when you do, or the feeling you get when you wiggle your toes, but also because I discovered that wiggle is also an emotion, and I’m looking forward to write an article about that one day and I know this sentence is way to long but I don’t care.

O yes, I posted a new video with my friend Michael Kailis, yesterday. If you want to kill me for it, come visit me. By the way, I just noticed I have outsling. I hate rain. Don’t expect me to reread this, just going to look for a picture now, and post it right away, breaking another rule as I go. Deal with it.

Outsling

As I mentioned earlier, I’m ascribing names to emotions and sensations I know no name for, in order to be able to talk about them in a more tangible, physical or maybe visual way. Today, I’d like to discuss outsling. It’s a happy day for me, because it means that from now on I can say: “apologies, I have outsling” to justify my behaviour.

I chose this word because of the outward, slingshot-like movement in it. When I have it, it feels as if some force from inside me pushes the mental, witty part ahead. Sometimes it’s as if my face is pressed against that of the person I’m talking with. I get in between myself and the environment without being in relationship with it. It is out of control in the sense that the aware me agrees with this propulsion, even if it is recognizes the risks.

When I have outsling, I will not respect the laws of politeness, nor will I attempt to spare someone’s feelings, even if I’m vaguely aware of them. I don’t mean to disrespect them per se. My actions precede my morale, meaning I feel careless about that aspect of myself. Perhaps my care concerns the wrong things. But even if I’m divided I’m alert, as if a part of me is more blended with the events around me. In outsling, I’d be the first to make a comical or sarcastic remark about superficial things. I think of myself as funny and some people may indeed laugh. I could buy crappy food or drink too much alcohol. Instead of making love, I hammer. If I’d find the button that annihilates the universe during outsling, I could push it to express my disagreement with its designer.

Outsling can be brief, but it could also last for a few hours. Short events are usually triggered by strange names, ideas I find silly or unusual aspects of someones outfit. They feel like a subtle revenge that was called for: excellent filters against people who cling too much to their act.

Longer lasting outslings are mostly caused by exhaustion, high doses of caffeine or simply because it’s that time of the month. They are harder to call back and usually end up in a lack of force. I feel empty and meaningless afterwards, as if most of myself has indeed been shot in all directions and I have to go around to recollect all pieces. The alertness is then completely gone. Such longer lasting ones work against myself in a deeper way. As if I run so far ahead, that I can no longer protect the more delicate me.

Outsling can be lots of fun, but it can also be destructive for myself and people close to me. As I grow older, I learn to control it better. If I can persuade myself to make an effort to halt it, I go clean up the house, walk in a park or do some sports. As if one being has to catch up with the other to be able to calm it down.

Under fire

De Snijtafel has taken on the verdict on Zwarte Piets image in Amsterdam. What? Okay, let me explain this…

Kasper Jansen and Michiel Lieuwma have recently emerged as a YouTube hit called De Snijtafel (The Cutting Table). They take fragments of tv programs and verbally cut them into pieces by pointing at their errors and stupidities. If a song text says: “I love you not because you give me your hand, but your fingers that point towards me”, you will see them speak about an unknown number of fingers hovering in the air in front of you. Lately, they have also criticized several popular TV programs, sometimes painfully revealing how they manipulate us into main stream thought patterns. Some episodes are very interesting to watch if you get the language.

Their latest video touches on the theme of Zwarte Piet. That story in a nutshell: Dutch kids believe in Sinterklaas. That’s a tall bisshop with a red dress and a white beard who navigates from Spain every year with his steamboat and deals out presents with help of his clowns who look like black slaves without chains who are called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). One year ago, if you would have asked a dutch person why black pete is black, the answer would have been: “Because he goes through the chimney to deliver the presents in children’s shoes.” Don’t ask.

There has long been hidden frustration about this tradition, but it has also been celebrated as an innocent, joyfull event. Recently, UN discrimination specialist Verena Shepherd has declared this tradion racist, meaning it will probably change.  The jurisdiction set in motion here are means to induce the changes. It seems puppet play to me, but I don’t know the details.

In their video, Kasper and Michiel analyse the verdict of a case against the municipality of Amsterdam. The city has given authorisation for the public celebration of the Sinterklaas event in 2014. The verdict now calls that a racist act. Without necessarily disagreeing, Kasper and Michiel expose that in the verdict itself, black people are framed as opposers of the white people’s tradition. They note that while the court claims to counter stigmatizing cultural expressions, they in fact are guilty of it themselves. With that, it loses yet another bit of its credibility.

It seems to be a trend. In the past year, politicians as well as other influential dutch personalities have publically expressed critique on the dutch court. Don’t get me wrong, I think it will remain an established entity, but its reputation is becoming flawed. It seems that authority is trusted less than before.

Will this lead to consessions of the juridical system? Will its members become increasingly carefull? Will there be a democratization of law in general? Or will the gap between juridical positions and their trustworthiness increase? If so, what follows? Interesting times indeed.

Economy

I enjoy looking up the origin of words in etymology dictionaries. Did you know that the word “mystic” comes from “secret”? And the origin of “sex” may have a relation to “seco”, meaning “cut in half”. Meanings of these words have shifted over the years. The same has happened with the word “economy”. It comes from “oikos”, house and “nomos”, management. How did house management turn into the imperative of growth of states, so closely associated with its modern definition? Can we blame the neighbour?

If we would transpose the original meaning of the word economy onto contemporary society, we would probably end up with a definition such as “global gardening”. After all, managing our highly advanced household nowadays means working to ways of sustainable use of our collective limited resources. It seems, though, that the human mind has trouble taking the concept of limited resources seriously. I think the reason for that is that we somehow fail to care for whatever we don’t feel belongs to us yet.

We are facing a problem that is hard to describe. In the 17th century, when economy received its state bound definition, western humans collectively stepped out of their limited, state bound existence and literally discovered that there is more behind the horizon. In my experience, the turn from heaving the attention on a limited, defined set of “own” surroundings towards an area of the “unknown” not only requires guts, but also a form of blindness. Whenever I leave my safe, managed territory, I enter a place where I don’t know the rules.

In that sense I totally get the way things currently are. We humans are constantly struggling with the “mine” versus “not mine” aspects of our lives. If it is in our control, in our familiar domain, we know the rules and probably accept them. If it is not, if it transcends the limits of our day to day experience and understanding, our known code of conduct does not apply anymore and we are forced to break our known rules. Consequently we allow ourselves to do stupid things.  In the unknown, we don’t know the limits because nobody we trust ever taught them to us. Humans lose part of their ethics if they are in unknown territory. This is what happened in the imperial age, and it is happening still.

So far, the global scale has been far too big and complex for a human mind to think in. As a species, we weren’t evil, just too small and simple to see our physical and ethical limits. But they are upon us now, so it’s time to revalue the rules.

Idols

I’d like to contemplate the human tendency to look up to their examples. I recently read that all people do that. The idea made sense.

Are you susceptible to idolatry? Myself, I used to cling to male figures when I was a kid, because I lived in a house with only my mom and my sister. Then, from my puberty till my twenties, I fell in love with many girls and lifted some of their characteristics into an unreachable space. But I never had idols such as writers or TV personalities or, and especially not, gurus. I do think that many people do.

One can wonder if this tendency is part of our physical code or that it’s a mental thing we acquire as we grow. It would fit the bio-belief to assume that as monkeys we needed to look up to our leaders, or else our communities would have fallen apart, and we’d have lost the struggle for survival to other groups.  I vaguely remember a phase in high school when your identity was defined by whom you looked up to. Even now, the characters you like give shape to who you think you are yourself, and how you present that person to others.

Some religions condemn “worshiping an image of the divine”. In the context of society, I think they’re right. It is probably quite a pragmatic ethical decision to keep some initiative to yourself instead of blindly following whoever you think holds truth or has the X-factor. Still, idolatry exists, and what’s more: masses simply obey strong individuals on many occasions.

I just wonder: how would a society look which is not based on this deep inner urge to follow impressive individuals? Would it be leaderless? Would such a society have brought us to where we are now? Could it even exist?

Million Masks

I should perhaps start this post by admitting that I was not present on the streets last Wednesday, the 5th of November. Were you? Did you know about it? There was a global demonstration.

The March against Monsanto on May 25th was the first global protest in history that aimed against a single global company. Even though the Amsterdam Dam Square was filled, the protest barely reached the Dutch news. The Monsanto Stock market did drop temporarily. This week, the European Commission nevertheless recommended the Council to grant permission to breed the genetically modified maize 1507 which, by the way, was not produced by Monsanto but by a Dutch company. Where are Greenpeace when you need them? I suppose they are too busy saving Faiza from the Russians.

Back to the Million Mask March. They have called themselves an alliance between Occupy, Anonymous and Wikileaks. From the online information sources the magnitude of the actual events are hard to grasp. Mass media have smaller head counts than some twitterers and smaller media do. We know for a fact that Russel Brand was there. And the Vendetta masks, imitating the face of Guy Fawkes,  involved in attempt to assassinate the king of England on, guess what, November 5th 1605. Not so long ago, people wore scream masks. What happened there?

V. Vendetta. A rebel with a cause. A legend, who decides for himself what is good and what is not. He suffered. His goal justifies his means. He is an example now. His mask enables others to express their pain. It helps them say that the big ones have messed up. Once again, a movie character stepped off the screen.

The call for peace is loud and clear. It’s message is not so much rational as it is ethical. You guys are cheating! You’re ignoring the rule of respect! You’re not cleaning up after you played the game!

Even if few people have heard of this one, such movements have impact. Occupy encouraged a first indigenous rise to politics. It inspired the guy who makes clean phones to start his business. It opened the dialogue about the banking system. Has it been enough? No. Yet the ball is rolling, and symbols of change keep joining the field.