Author: revbjbecker

Minister of the Universal Life Church, Art Minister, Rational Humanist Minister.

One Out of Three Isn’t Enough

statue-of-liberty-construction-historic-photo

On the 28th of October, 1886, amidst much celebration, the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was officially dedicated on what was then Bedloe’s Island at the entrance to New York harbor. It was a gift to the people of the United States from the people of France and was the work of the French sculptor Frédéric Aguste Bartholdi. It was meant to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of U. S. independence, but for financial reasons and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 it was delayed. It is, of course, one of the most iconic symbols of the United States. 

Unfortunately, I fear one statue isn’t enough.

Americans certainly take their liberty—their freedom—very seriously. They also take it for granted. Unfortunately, far too many Americans take the idea of personal freedom to mean that no one can tell them what to do, ever. I say unfortunately, because this is the point of view of a dick. Or, if you want me to kinder about it, it is the world view of a spoiled three-year old. Which, come to think of it, is really the same thing, except that in a three-year old it is at least excusable. Because in this imperfect world, no one has the right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and they never have.

It is true that in our Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers stated that they held certain truths to be self-evident, and that among these were that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. These self-same Founding Fathers then went on to write a Constitution that sets forth exactly how the government of the United States was going to limit those rights. 

It is worth noting that one of the first things they added to the framework of the Constitution was an Amendment deliberately excluding God from the process of limiting or extending the citizens’ rights. And even the most fundamental rights of a citizen of a republic were limited to white male landowners. That all adults of every race can now vote is a right that was given to us by the government. It was not automatic, and it was not by any means God-given.

And there are certain acts that a three-year old might hold to be self-evident that are clearly a bad idea. The right to drive a car on the wrong side of the road. The right to walk into a crowded building and open fire with an assault rifle. The right to do damage to someone by telling lies about them. Even the right to shoot someone to death during a break-in to their house by the police does not exist, though certain people seem ready to question that.

In a country of something like 327 million people, people’s rights have to be limited by laws. None of us can do just what we want, because one person’s rights must not impose on another person’s safety. That’s why we have laws controlling traffic, guns, and slander among other things. What the Founding Fathers had in mind was the right to be governed by laws that you had a hand in making. Up to and including the right to demonstrate when you feel that the laws are unjust or being unfairly enforced. It has never included the right to put people’s lives at risk by dangerous, foolish, or selfish acts.

Which brings me to why I think one statue isn’t enough.

In 1889, ninety-three years before the people of France gave us the Statue of Liberty, they had their own Revolution inspired, in part, by ours. The motto of that revolution was not Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but liberté, égalité, fraternité — liberty, equality, and fraternity. In fact, this was adopted as the motto of France by the Third Republic, the government that sent the statue to us. 

I really wish they had included statues of the other two at the same time. Because it seems we need both equality and fraternity to moderate our overblown demand for liberty. The freedom to pay workers a certain amount should be met with the equality of fairness, that people doing the same job should get the same amount, whatever their age, sex, color, religion. The freedom to choose whom you offer services to should be balanced by the equality of the rights of the person wanting your service.

The freedom to vote for public officials should be shared by all equally. The value of one vote should always be equal to every other vote, not discounted, undermined, or denied by gerrymandering electoral districts.

And most of all, the rights of all before the law should be equal, regardless of sex, age, religion, race, wealth, or elected office.

But even the equality before the law is not enough if we have no respect for our fellow citizens. If we have no sense of fellowship, of fraternité, with the others who make up our society, liberty and equality count for nothing.  No one has the right to abuse a salesperson because their shop insists on customers wearing a mask to slow the spread of disease. But more importantly, no one should think that somehow they have the right to abuse another human being for any reason. Screaming into the face of a nurse in her hospital scrubs is not the act of a free man; it is the act of a spoiled child, of a dick.

We call ourselves the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, but we have become the Land of the Entitled and the Home of the Dick.

I think we need two more statues, one maybe in New Orleans, perhaps of a beautiful black woman, to symbolize Equality, which we so sorely need in this country. The other maybe in San Francisco, perhaps of a Native American, a figure of Fraternity, our sadly undervalued shared humanity. 

Because clearly, Liberty alone isn’t doing it for us. 

 

I Can’t Breathe

 

White House3

I wanted to write a different sermon. In fact, I’ve already started it. But it will have to wait, which I suppose is alright, because we’ve all gotten used to waiting these days. And in any case, this sermon has to be delivered now. Because while it’s good to learn to wait for some things, in this instance, now is not soon enough.

Black lives matter. They really do. And although the reason they matter is because all lives matter, the truth is black lives in the United States have not ever counted for much. Since the days of the founding of the country, when black lives were literally set at three-fifths of the value of white lives, to the present day, black people have been less than second class citizens. For far too many of us they have counted for absolutely nothing. Disposable people.

Now, to begin with, counting anyone as less important than yourself and believing that you are worth more than anyone else, is being a dick. I want to be clear about this because if you think about it, you must see that it is true. The first step toward being a full-time dick is thinking that you are more important, more worthy, than someone else.

Now just imagine what life would be like living in a country more or less full of absolute industrial-strength dicks. Where everyone thinks they are better than you, and your family and your friends and your kids and everyone who looks like you. Imagine living in a whole country of dicks.

That’s the United States of America. A whole county of dicks.

At least if you are black, that is. If you’re lucky enough to be white, not so much.

Now I can hear you thinking, now wait a minute, not all white people are racist. And you are right. Maybe most are not. I don’t believe there are any data on this, but let’s say it’s a majority. But too many people are, and the system is built to be racist, so what does it matter if 55%, or 70% or 90% of the white population are not dicks, but the whole system is?  Because if the people around you aren’t being dicks to you, how would you know?

So, if you can get your head around the awful idea of what being constantly surrounded by dicks must be like, imagine how frustrated, how angry, how desperate you would feel. Everybody is a jerk to me! They all treat me like dirt! One step out of line, and they will kill me, and not think twice about it! (Which must be the ultimate in dickishness.) Just imagine.

And then you pop. You lose your rag. You explode.  

Would it be surprising if you acted just a little dickish yourself? That you, just might throw some bottles of water, or break a window, or even worse? Because arson, looting, and destruction are also the acts of a dick. Because you are putting yourself over someone else.

But there’s a lot of provocation there.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make.

Not all bad actions are equal. Not all dicks are equal. In fact, two people doing the same dickish thing aren’t always equal. Because although thoughtless, destructive, hurtful things done out of frustration and righteous indignation are dickish, they are also human. But thoughtless, destructive, hurtful acts built into the system are institutional dickishness. And institutionalized oppression and injustice is more than inhuman. It is inexcusable. It is unforgivable. It is unacceptable. And anyone who encourages institutional injustice is taking dickishness to a whole new level.

Now the reason I am talking about all this is because of the understandable complaints that I have heard that some of the demonstrators may have vented their centuries-old frustration on property. ‘Isn’t that wrong?’ people ask. And the short answer is, yes, it is.

The long answer is ‘it depends.’ First of all, it depends on whether the damage is actually done by a demonstrator. There is a lot of evidence that there were people using the demonstration and the violence let loose on the demonstrators by the police to set fires, loot stores, and burn cars. In those cases, it’s just dicks being opportunists.

Second of all, it depends on what provocation there was. If it was done by an angry, frustrated demonstrator it is more understandable. Because, ask yourself this, would you have been better? Because unless you allow other people the same feelings and actions you allow yourself, I’m sorry, but you are being a dick again.

And let’s face it, we are all dicks at some point. All of us. Some worse than others, true, but none of us is perfect. Not white people, not brown people, not black people — no one. Not the police. And that’s where we come to the crunch.

When people say there are rights and wrongs on both sides, they may be factually correct. But we have to also look at the relative levels of dickishness. On one side, an outburst of quite normal human anger resulting from frustration and years of institutionalized abuse. And on the other side, centuries of injustice, murder, violence, and that very institutionalized abuse that caused the anger. Just who is the bigger dick?

Once upon a time, many years ago, I got beat up for being a Hippy. And at that time, I thought, “If I cut my hair, and wore shoes, and took off my love-beads, this wouldn’t have happened. Black people can’t take off their skins. They have no choice.” And as I limped home I thought, “This really sucks. I can’t imagine how much it sucks to be black in this country.” 

I imagine it must be like living in a whole country full of aggressive, untouchable, belligerent, armored, heavily-armed dicks, who are just looking for an excuse to kill you.

No wonder the signs say “I Can’t Breathe.” 

There’s No Going Back

backward-clock

 

More than anything else I see online these days are comments about what life after Covid 19 will be like. Some people talk about “going back to normal,” in other words, a return to the status quo. Some people talk about a future that excludes things that were considered normal prior to the pandemic but are, in their view, unjust, unworkable, or unacceptable in a democracy.

I’d like to talk a bit about both of these points of view; because whatever kind of brave new world we move into, one thing is obvious: to preserve what is good, or to build something better, we have to have an idea—a national plan—that is both acceptable to the majority and actually achievable. To achieve both these goals, we have to start by recognizing that we cannot turn back the clock.

After all, although we may talk about going back to how things were, we must not fool ourselves. People have died. Businesses have closed and are gone. Ways of doing things have changed permanently. For my friend who teaches in Brooklyn, the fact that one of her 14-year-old students died of Covid 19 changed her life. Not as much as the grieving family, of course. But for her, and that family, and for all of us, the world has changed. Nothing anyone can say or do or think will alter that fact. To pretend otherwise is not just naïve, it is dangerous.

It is naïve because it gives us permission to discount that life lost and that future denied. It is dangerous because it allows us to make mistakes that will continue the pattern of failure and death that has been our recent history. Life goes on, we say. Yes, it does, and it never turns back. Not ever. Denial may be one of the seven stages of grief, but it is no way to organize the world. We must move on to acceptance that the world has changed. And when we accept that we have a chance of shaping the change that comes. Until we do, we are helpless.

One of the most important things we must do, if we are to make a better future, is to realize that we have clung to myths and misunderstandings that have hobbled us and held us prisoner. And first, I want to address one of the most insidious misunderstandings in our national psyche—the illusion of personal freedom.

No one has ever been free to do whatever they want, and yet the myth of personal freedom is trotted out on a daily basis to justify the most horrendous antisocial acts. Let’s just consider this for a minute.

First of all, you are not free to do things that are physically impossible. You cannot fly. You cannot breathe underwater. There is no law that allows you to live forever. This much I hope is obvious. But more relevant is that fact that since the first hunting band of Homo Sapiens got together to kill a mammoth, we have had to cooperate with one another. If Ugg is told to stand on the clifftop and drop the stone on the mammoth’s head and he goes off fishing instead, he won’t get any mammoth to eat or mammoth hide to wear.

But more importantly, neither will any other member of the tribe. Because without cooperation, the mammoth doesn’t get killed. And the whole tribe, including Ugg, dies of starvation and cold.

Fast forward forty thousand years. The rules are more complex, but the outcome is the same. As a society, as a country, we rise or fall together. This is not a pious hope, it is an inescapable fact.

Now, to examine this idea that we have undeniable freedoms, I want to highlight one in order to look at another.

The second amendment of the Constitution states, “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” This has been interpreted in a number of ways over the years, but in general it is taken to mean that in the United States, private citizens can own weapons, in particular, firearms, guns. All right, let’s take that as a given. People can have guns. Many people also assert that, as they can have guns, they are allowed to carry them in the street. Now, this is a bit more contentious, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept that premise. But can you randomly fire them—just walk down the street and pull out your pistol and shoot someone? President Donald Trump’s assertion that he could do so in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and not be arrested notwithstanding, randomly shooting people is not allowed. So, the right to bear arms is limited. You can have a gun, but when you start shooting, the law quickly comes into play.

What about randomly waving the gun around, even if you are not shooting it? What about pointing it at people? I think most people would agree that the police would take a dim view of this, and interfere, and quite possibly shoot you. Again, what you can do with your gun is limited.

Now, let us say you take a gun that is not loaded, or is loaded with blanks, and go into a shop and start pointing it at people, or firing off the blank shells. Again, this could get you arrested or killed. The fact that the gun was in fact not dangerous is not taken into consideration. Threatening someone with a gun can be an offence. Again, your gun rights are restricted, and I think just about everyone would agree this is a good thing.

All legislation aimed at controlling firearms is based on these ideas: people for whatever reason should not act irresponsibly with guns because guns can cause harm and even death. All laws to restrict access to guns are based on this idea.

Now, it would be considered irresponsible if I were to take a box of loaded guns into a kindergarten and start handing them out to the children. If the children, not understanding the possible effects of playing with guns were to shoot and injure or kill themselves, or another child, or their teacher, this would be a tragedy, and I would be to blame. The child who pulled the trigger or dropped the gun would be traumatized, but they at least would not be responsible. I would. And for such a stupid action I would be sent to prison and quite rightly.

And if the box only held some guns with live ammunition, and some with blanks, and some that were unloaded, would this be more acceptable? It would not. Because, even though the chances of someone getting killed would be lessened, the risk would still be too high to be allowed by any rational person.

These observations about the restricted freedom in our society concerning one of the rights that are definitely enshrined on our laws are leading me to another case of restricted freedom currently being enforced. This is the several restrictions regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks.

The Covid 19 virus is like a giant super-sized container full of guns that has been randomly dumped into our midst. Willy-nilly we have been like a kindergarten full of five-year-olds who may (or may not) have grabbed a gun (or a toy pistol or an unloaded gun) and have popped it into our pocket. Because the truth is, we really don’t know how dangerous the thing we have is. It may be harmless. It may only be a B-B gun. It may hold blanks. Or it may kill the next person we meet. What is more, unlike the guns in the kindergarten, these guns multiply. They spread from person to person until we have no idea who is carrying a loaded Mauser and who is just glad to see us. And, because we don’t know who is armed with Covid 19, we have to treat everyone as armed and dangerous.

Any state governor or city father who lets kids run around with potentially lethal weapons would be thrown out of office. Any state governor or city father who lets adults do the same thing would be thought insane.

Yet the right to bear arms is no different than the right to leave our homes and do what we want. By which I mean, when either of these two things become dangerous to ourselves and others, those rights are quite rightly curtailed. They must be.

And the fact that no one has been shot recently does not mean that all the guns are unloaded or safely put up out of reach. By comparison with checking to see if someone is carrying a weapon, testing for Covid 19 is rather more complicated. It’s going to take time. But, for the good of the whole of our country, of the world, we must take that time. 

As Lois Beckett in the Guardian said, “Americans don’t have much of a national vocabulary for talking about collective action and sacrifice. Jon Stokes, a gun rights activist from Austin, Texas, has strong opinions about tyranny and freedom. But he said he was frustrated that some of his usual allies did not seem to understand that dealing with a novel virus, in a country where no one has immunity, required a different kind of politics.

‘Our rights are being violated. That is all actually real,” Stokes said. “But this is one of the few times when that’s OK. Pandemics call for a collectivist response. They don’t work without one.’”

Now, I would argue that no right is being violated by the current lock-down regulations. Is the law against murder a violation of the first amendment? No judge in the history of the US has thought so. Likewise, there is no right to endanger your neighbor whether by violence or disease. In fact, virtually all of our laws are about denying this supposed right. As I have mentioned in an earlier sermon, my “right” to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.

Your right to own and use a gun stops the instant you point it at me without justification. And remember, what constitutes justification is a tricky subject.

Your right to carry a deadly virus stops the moment you step out of your house.

There is absolutely no difference between playing Russian roulette in a shopping mall and going into public while this deadly infection is still rampant in the country. And remember, every single person out there is, or might be, carrying a pistol with a bullet in the chamber. This has nothing to do with rights.

The title of this sermon is “There’s No Going Back.” I said at the beginning that in order to move forward and make the changed world better than it was before, we have to change some of our underlying assumptions. One of these assumptions is the idea that our rights take precedence over our responsibilities. The idea that we have some unalienable right to do what we want, when what we want is a myth and a dangerous one. It is the mindset of a dick.

In one way, Ugg may be said to have the right to go fishing. But when the tribe is at risk, Ugg has to step up and play his part. Screaming and shaking his fishing pole won’t cut it, because not only will the tribe starve, Ugg will starve, too.

Building our shared responsibility to each other into our national psyche is a step we have to take. Because our unwillingness to do so has already cost 100,000 lives. 

Back To Normal

Dogwood

I went shopping today. At the door, there was a young man, spraying disinfectant on a cloth and wiping down the handle of the shopping cart. There were directional markers at the end of each of the aisles: green arrows on the odd numbered ones, and stop signs on the even ones. By the check out desks, there were markers on the floor, saying stand here. They were six feet or more away from each other, so when you were in line, you weren’t too close to the next person in line. The check out positions had Plexiglas screens. The woman at the checkout was wearing a mask and gloves. Because I had my own shopping bags with me, I had to do my own bagging, but I couldn’t put my bag on the checkout counter. I had to fill them in the basket.

Shopping in the time of COVID-19

There were a number of people wearing masks in the store (I was one) Virtually all of the staff were wearing masks and rubber gloves. That was progress from a week ago. The last time I popped out and ran to get a few things to tide us over, the workers were less well protected. People have risen to the challenge of keeping social distancing and staying at home quite well, by and large.

But not all of them.

There was one young woman, dashing up and down the aisles, ignoring the arrows and stop signs and pushing past anyone who was in her way. She wasn’t wearing a mask. She wasn’t wearing gloves. She didn’t wait in line in the marked spaces, but pushed up behind the man at the checkout and started loading her shopping on the belt right next to his. Clearly, none of the precautions we were taking applied to her.

Neither, apparently was putting her shopping cart into the collection area. She left it in the parking space next to her car and drove away.

Now, if you are young (She couldn’t have been over thirty) it is easy to imagine that the advice to avoid the COVID-19 virus isn’t really important. Because it seems that the younger you are, the less the virus affects you. Many under twenties don’t even realize that they are infected. They are, in the jargon of our times, asymptomatic. 

But for all I could tell (Since there is no way to tell) she might have been infected. She might well have been spreading the virus all over the store. And at the age of seventy two, with a history of chest problems, I am what they call “at risk.” If she has an elderly parent or grandparent living, or a friend with diabetes, or heart problems, they, too,  are “at risk.” 

That means at risk of getting very ill; at risk of dying. And the thing is, from the outside, you can’t easily tell who is at risk of spreading the disease, or at risk of being killed by it. So, if, like the young woman in the QFC, you ignore the guidelines (in the case of the aisle markings quite literal guide-lines) you are, intentionally or not, making a clear statement: I don’t care whether you live or die.

Now I am sure that if I could have stopped her and put this point to her, she would have been very surprised. Shocked, maybe, and quite possibly insulted and outraged. But that’s what it amounts to, whether she likes it or not. Because for once in our communal lives what we all do, how we all behave, can have literal life or death consequences for ourselves and those around us. By ignoring the instructions to stay at home, wash our hands and avoid close contact with each other we kill one another.

Oh, not everyone. Fortunately, nothing like everyone. But to the woman who posted on Twitter her confusion and distress in the form of “How can this have happened? Yesterday I had a husband and now he’s gone. Just GONE!” to her, it is not abstract. To each and every person who is ill, or dies or has a loved one die, it is up close and personal. Those of us who follow the rules don’t matter. It’s the ones who ignore the rules that break our hearts. 

We are all statistics, and the statistics are us. 

And each of us, you, me and the woman in QFC can save a life – or finish one. 

She wasn’t the only one ignoring the rules, by the way. I was in a sweat by the time I got myself out of the store. Because if there had been people walking through the store randomly shooting guns you can be sure there would have been some notice taken. But that’s only because gunshots are so loud. The results can be the same, though. Pain. Distress. Death.

It is literally vital that we look out for each other now. It is the only way that we will, as a society, as a country, as a species, come through this. I don’t think it has ever been as clear as it is now that we rise and we fall together. And the mere fact that you might be young enough or healthy enough to survive shouldn’t be any kind of excuse for putting others at risk. 

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin at the time of the Revolution, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or surely, will all sicken and die separately.” 

And the thing is, it’s so easy to help each other.

It’s more a case of not doing things than making some Herculean effort. Just stay at home. Just stay apart. Just wash your hands. Just treat each other as if we mattered. Because more than ever it is obvious that this is what will bring us through. Doing unto others as you would have them do to you. 

The name of this Blog is “Don’t Be a Dick”. And I am happy to say that most of the customers (and all of the staff) at the store were definitely not being dicks. They were being careful, for the benefit of the good people working there, to make sure that we can all keep on hiding at home. They were being respectful of other people’s safety. They were being careful, because perhaps like me, they are “at risk.” They were thinking about other people, because others were thinking about them. That’s how this works, people. That’s how we get through this. By not being dicks.

And, I should like to point out, when all of this is over and done with, and we can meet and touch, and hug and kiss the ones we love, whom we have kept safe by being apart, the same thing will still be true 

It is ONLY by looking after each other and taking care of each other that we survive. Today, tomorrow. Always.

 

Made Up

1280px-Flag_of_Esperanto.svg

I am not a Pastafarian, so I can’t really speak on their behalf. I would like to talk about them for a little, though. 

The other day on the Universal Life Church Ministers’ home page, I read an article about a Pastafarian minister reading the invocation at some public meeting. Fair enough, if you feel that meetings of the town council or similar public institutions need the oversight of a supernatural being to fulfill their function, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is as good as any other, I suppose.  

Or is it? 

You see, in the article, it was pointed out that apparently the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster was instituted as a kind of spoof religion, a take-off of other beliefs. So the question was raised, is Pastafarianism “real”?  Which in turn raises the question of whether any belief system is “real.” And what constitutes reality in this case?

Let me hasten to say at this point that if you are a believing Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan, or anything else, I am not casting even the faintest shadow of a doubt on your sincerity. We believe what we believe, for whatever reasons. But let me begin by examining the belief in things that are “made up.” In other words, the belief in things whose beginnings we know about. 

Which, by the way, includes Christianity.

I have said I am not a Pastafarian. I am, however, an Esperantist, that is, I speak Esperanto, the language created in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, to be an international, secondary, auxiliary language to facilitate interpersonal and inter-communal communication. It is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. Estimates vary as to how many people are fluent, and what exactly constitutes fluency, but numbers have grown significantly recently through the use of the internet and language courses such as Duolingo. Duolingo used Esperanto as its first experimental language when the app was launched, precisely because it is one of the easiest languages to learn. After all, it was made to be easy.

Now here’s the first point: Esperanto is clearly “made up.” We know when it was written, by whom, and what it is based on. In this respect it is like the Mormon Church. (Except that Zamenhof never claimed any heavenly guidance in his efforts to create a new language.) 

The point is often raised by people who for whatever reason are opposed to Esperanto that it is not a real language. But how exactly would one tell the difference between a real language and one that was not real? People write and read Esperanto, converse in it, write scientific papers in it, broadcast radio programs in it, pray in it, recite poetry, cook recipes, sing songs, hold meetings, make love, and rear their children all through the medium of this so-called “unreal” language. It is estimated that there are over a thousand people for whom Esperanto is their first language—their mother-tongue. For them, Esperanto is entirely real. With an estimated two million speakers worldwide, there are nearly four times as many people who speak Esperanto as speak Welsh. Never tell a Welshman that Welsh isn’t a real language. 

It seems to me that Esperanto passes the test of realness by virtue of use, numbers, and history. People died because they spoke it, which indicates a pretty strong level of belief, I’d say.

Now, every speaker of Esperanto knows it is a constructed, artificial language. At some point the ones brought up in Esperanto learn this. This does not make it any less real.

Might not the same be said for Pastafarians—especially the ones brought up in that noodly faith? In the matter of faith, of conviction, it is the quality of belief that is important, not the quality of the thing believed in. After that, it’s what you do with that belief—that conviction—that matters. How what you believe leads you to act.

So with that in mind, let us consider what we believe in. 

Our society is based on certain ideas, convictions that are not questioned, which I have referred to as the mythos. Every culture has its mythos, and ours is no exception. One of the base assumptions of the mythos is that the mythos itself is “natural.” We do not question our mythos, because it is the set of assumptions upon which we base everything else. In fact we use the mythos to test the reality of other things, ideas built upon that mythos. 

We may argue over which party is the most democratic, or the best (And boy! Do we argue!) but we always work on the assumption that we are a democracy.  Do remember, though, that statistically speaking what the majority of people in the country or state support has almost no bearing on the laws our government enacts. The fact has been clearly demonstrated that our governing bodies work almost entirely to the benefit of a small percentage of the population and not the majority. This is neither here nor there. We say we are a democracy, so we must be.

But what if our mythos is no more “natural” than Pastafarianism or Esperanto? What if our assumed core beliefs are just as artificial as they are? After all, to the speakers of Esperanto and (presumably) the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there is no way to tell the difference. The language and the religion, work just as well as any other “natural” system. And that’s the whole point: none of our systems is natural. They are all constructed, just like Esperanto.

I chose to learn Esperanto. I find that it is useful, enjoyable, flexible, interesting, and it allows me to reach out to people whom I would otherwise never contact—just like any other new language. And just like any other new language it allows me to think in new ways, to have different understanding than I had before, speaking only English. Looking at the world through a different language, even a made up one, changes the way you see things. 

The same, I presume, would be true of religion.

So how about politics?

Or economic theory?

Or value system? 

What, if instead of attacking someone because they say they are a Socialist, we look at this idea and see if it works? Not just assume it’s bad, or wrong, but really honestly look at it? And even if we don’t want to do that, how about seriously looking at our own capitalist democracy and see if it’s really doing what we want it to. Even remotely. 

I often find it incomprehensible that when people learn that I speak Esperanto, they attack the idea. In what possible way is Esperanto a danger to any established language? How can it possibly hurt anyone, to learn a means of expanding your horizons and communicating with people you would otherwise never be able to reach? Why, in short, do people (especially native English speakers) feel threatened by Esperanto?

Could it be because it makes them question part of their underlying mythos? Is that why they scream at anyone speaking Spanish in a shop? They really can’t believe very much in their mythos, if it’s that fragile, can they? If it can’t stand up to one, tiny, made up alternative? And if their faith in their mythos is so weak, what exactly do they believe in? 

Isn’t it more honest to admit that you are pretending? To accept that you don’t really believe that our country is a democracy, and that it has all the answers? Or that our confessed religion is leading us to act in selfish, distructive, bigoted ways? And if that’s the case, why pretend at all?

Because, of course, admitting that we are pretending would require us to change. After all, it’s so much easier to pretend to be a True Believer, when it gives you permission to be a total dick. 

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Esperanto flag by Gabriel Ehrnst GRUNDIN – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=447664

 

Believe It or Not

Gargoyles

Last time, I talked about my friend John and the idea of friendship and the nature of belief. 

Because believing in something is different from knowing something. As John and I sat talking I knew I had a glass of beer in front of me. I also knew that John was my friend. But this knowledge was predicated on the belief that friendship exists. Because, other than our experience of friendship, there is no way to prove it exists. And in fact, as an object, a thing of atoms and mass, friendship doesn’t exist. It only exists in our minds, or in our hearts, if you will.

Now for John, there was a time when Friendship, as a concept, didn’t exist. He hadn’t really experienced it, so he didn’t believe in it. It took a “Leap of Faith” for John to accept that the bunch of writers, musicians and artists in our D&D group could be his friends. Because, since you can’t see it, or taste it, or smell it; you can’t measure it, or weigh it, or touch it, there is only one way to prove the existence of friendship: by being someone’s friend. You have to live it. You have to believe in it.

There are many intangibles like friendship that we take for granted in our lives.

Do you believe in Good and Evil? Or maybe their more common form, Right and Wrong?

Do you believe in Society?

Do you believe in Democracy?

Do you believe in the Law?

How about the Truth? Do you believe in that? And is believing in the Truth different from believing in Facts?

The fact is, I was drinking beer. The truth is, John is my friend. I can show you a photo of the beer glass. I can’t record my friendship in any way, except here, by telling you about it.

I can prove a fact. I can’t always prove the truth.

The trouble is, people today confuse the truth with facts. They think because they believe that something is true, that makes it a fact.

Do you believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world? Because that is a matter of belief, of opinion, possibly of faith, not of fact. By many standards, the US is far from the best. Infant mortality? Way too high. Inequality? We’re not all that hot. Standard of living? Depends on who you are. Freedom? Now there’s really a question.

Let’s take the matter of Law. Now laws are things that exist but have no physical being, which is to say they aren’t real. They are conventions, agreements, standards, sets of rules, if you will, but they aren’t real in the way that a glass of beer or a bullet is real.

Which means that like friendship, the law can exist only to the extent that we agree that it exists. And the only way that we can understand this thing called law is by our experience of it. And like friendship, how you experience the law depends a lot on who you are.

If you are an educated, white, adult male in the United States, your experience of the law is going to be rather different than if you are a teenage black girl. Or even an educated, black, adult male. In fact, if you are anything BUT an educated, white, adult male, the chances are your experience of the law will not be, shall we say, as pleasant?  Hispanic transgender? Not good. Arabic anything-at-all? Risky.

And since, like friendship, the law only exists to the degree that we experience it, for some people in this country, we don’t have a legal system, we have a privilege system. And whether you believe in the law or not kind of depends on how you live it. Like friendship.

How about education? Oh, we have schools, alright. You can prove that. Schools are facts. Education is an opinion. And once again, whether you have an education or not depends on your experience of what happens in the school. And that depends on a lot of things too. Like where you live. What your religion is. What your skin color is. What gender you are.

I frequently say that the most important things in our lives, the things like friendship, and society, and love and trust are the intangibles. The things that only exist because we believe in them. Because they make all the other things, the tangibles, possible.

But here’s a funny thing about that. Let’s think about Justice. Which is supposed to be connected to the law, but sometimes seems to be something completely different. Let’s assume that as a society we believe in justice. But for some members of our society, justice doesn’t exist? Why doesn’t it exist for them? Is it because they don’t believe in it? Or is it that they don’t believe in it, because they have never experienced it?  Or is it that they don’t believe in it, because we don’t believe in it for them.

You see how much justice is like friendship? It’s not enough that we believe in it for ourselves. We have to believe in it for everybody. You can’t believe in friendship while not being anyone’s friend. You can’t believe in love without having a loving heart.

And you can’t believe in justice and not grant that justice to everyone. 

OK, let’s say justice is a little complicated! How about fairness? That doesn’t exist either, unless you practice it. And you can’t be fair to half the population and not the other half. Because half-fairness is unfairness. Half justice is no justice. Half equality is inequality.

What makes our lives worth living, what makes our lives possible, are these intangibles, these all-important myths that we pretend are real. These truths that we hold to be self-evident. If we don’t have them, we have nothing. But we only have them if we believe in them and live them. Pretending doesn’t cut it. You can’t say you believe in friendship and act like a dick to your friends. You can’t say you believe in fairness and rip people off.

You can’t say you are a Christian, and then break every teaching your Bible gives you.

You can’t say you believe in justice, and then deny justice to someone because of their sex, or religion, or where they were born.

Justice doesn’t exist except in the act of justice.

Kindness doesn’t exist except in the act of kindness.

Love doesn’t exist except in the act of love.

Believe it or not.

Beyond Belief

Friendship2

The other night at the pub, because it seemed to come up in the conversation, I asked my friend John, “Do you believe in Friendship?” His answer was a very firm “yes”. After all, we are friends, and were we not, I might not have asked him the question.

It was a bit of a set-up, I admit.

But in John’s case, an important one. Because as he said himself, not all that long before, if asked he would have said just as firm a “no”. Because until he started hanging out with our writers’ group and D&D sessions, John really didn’t have that many friends. What is more, he didn’t believe in friendship. He was better off without the nuisance of other people.

And when you come down to it, why should he believe in friendship? Why should any of us believe in something that we can’t put our hands on? Friendship has no mass, no molecules. Unlike light, it is neither a wave nor a particle, and you can’t see it. It takes up no space, has no weight, and is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. As far as physical existence goes… well, it doesn’t.

The glass of beer I was holding as we talked clearly existed. The glass, the beer, and the drinker (me) were all there to see – to weigh, to measure the volume (decreasing), to smell and taste. But the reason we were there drinking together, the only reason I might add, was one we couldn’t prove.

But that is the nature of belief. If you can prove something exists because you can see, hear, smell, or touch it, you don’t have to believe in it. Belief is reserved for things you can’t prove. I didn’t have to believe in the beer or John, because there they were.

And yet of all the things there, the thing that was the most important couldn’t be proven to exist. Because without our friendship, John would not have been there to ask. I wouldn’t have been there either, because I don’t drink alone as a rule.

As we talked more about friendship, John made the observation that it was really difficult for him to come to believe in friendship. He hadn’t experienced it in any real way, I suppose, and so he had decided that it really didn’t exist. And after all, the fact that other people said they had friends meant nothing. Some people believe the earth is flat, and I believe them to be stupid. But their belief isn’t going to convince me of anything.

Besides, the spherical nature of the earth is something we can prove, so I don’t have to believe in it.

Friendship, however, requires an effort to believe in. You have to make an effort to make friends. You have to make an effort to trust people. You have to take the risk of liking people if you are going to be their friend.

And what if they don’t like you? What if you believe that you are just basically unlikable – not worthy of friendship?

This was how John felt. And his belief that he was not worthy was just as strong as his new belief that I am his friend. But it was a belief he had to give up. In order to believe in friendship, he had to give up believing that he was unworthy of friendship.

And giving up beliefs is harder than learning to believe. If learning to trust people is hard, giving up the habit of distrust is harder. Because very often the things we believe in are given to us before we understand what our belief entails. Sometimes even before we realize that they are our beliefs. I think most things we believe in are like that.

We grow up with beliefs that are given to us when we are young. We believe our parents love us. Mostly, I hope, because we have evidence that it is so. But in some families, maybe not so much. And perhaps, in those families, people grow up not believing in love.

We grow up believing that we live in a free country, though often with less evidence than that we have a loving family. And since very few have any experience of any other country, we don’t really have anything to compare it with. We just believe in it. Because…. It’s always there.

Same thing with God. If you live in a family that goes to church, you believe in it. If you live in a family, or a community where Santa Claus brings you presents on the night of the 24th of December you believe that – until some kid two years older than you laughs and says, “You don’t believe in baby things like that!” (That kid, by the way, is being a dick.)

If you are forty years old and say that you believe in God, however, the fact that somebody who’s forty-two, says, “You can’t be serious!” doesn’t make much difference. When you are six, and someone doubts Santa, it sets you thinking. God, somehow, doesn’t get questioned so often – even though Santa has been bringing you presents for as long as you can remember, and God has done squat as far as you can tell.

Not that I am calling into question the reality of God. That’s for you to decide. But it’s interesting that the quality of belief is different, isn’t it? Santa, no; virgin birth, yes. Easter Bunny, no; resurrection, yes. Where is the difference – for you?

Socialism, no; Capitalism, yes?

Maybe, for some of us, not believing in the Big Things we’ve always believed in is just too difficult. Losing that belief would cause us to question too much. If capitalism isn’t the best system, what else do we have to look at? What if our laws aren’t just? What if our society is rife with inequalities? What if we aren’t living in the best country in the world? We might have to do something about that. It’s easier to stick with what we think we know.

But John had to give up something well known and, as far as he knew, true. He had to give up the image of himself as a fat, clumsy, unlikable nerd. And in fact, it wasn’t until he couldn’t stand the pain of believing these things that he found the strength to change and to risk finding something better to believe in.

Friendship.

Hope.

Who knows, maybe even love.

But when it was too painful to stay as he was, he took a leap of faith.

And he got a pint of beer out of it.

Funny thing, that. Friendship, hope, love and faith…You can’t prove they exist – not the same way beer exists.

But you can’t live without them.

Any more than John could.

 

Conflagration

A-notre-dame-fire-paris

This week, Notre Dame burned. One of the things interesting about this sentence is that I don’t have to say which of the many churches dedicated to “Our Lady” was involved; there is only one Notre Dame. It is probably the most iconic church in history, which is why the reaction in Paris and around the world was so marked: people wept, there was horror and outrage. Over and over I read comments starting, “I’m not Christian/Catholic, but that church….”

Yes. That particular church. Somehow, whatever our nationality, whatever our religion, or lack of one, we all somehow feel a connection. We feel that that church is ours. Because, of course it is our church. It belongs to the whole world. It is, as I said, an icon.

But an icon of what?

To Catholics, no doubt, it is an icon to Christ and the Virgin; to Frenchmen, it is an icon of France; to Parisians, Paris. But to an Art Minister in Seattle? Well, let’s just consider that word, icon.

An icon, in its original meaning is a holy image, venerated as an aid to devotion. It has come to mean any symbol, but let’s stick with the more traditional meaning. Something venerated, not just for what it stands for, but for its own sake. Notre Dame is the symbol of Notre Dame.

So just what do we value when we value that old building? Well, its age, its place in history, its architecture. We value its status as a work of art and as a fantastic cooperative effort. We venerate Notre Dame, because it is an example of mankind at its best. Beautiful, sublime, spiritual, artistic, cooperative. So many people working together for so many decades to produce something so wonderful! Notre Dame ceased to be strictly a cathedral ages ago. It is a monument to our common humanity. To our ability and our drive to rise above our limited selves and to create together something so vast, so wonderful, so beautiful.

So iconic.

I love the idea that god created mankind in her image; because if we are the image of god, then we are creators. And if you believe that man created god in our image, it still amounts to the same thing: the best of us is our creative spirit. The spirit of Notre Dame. No wonder even atheists wept to see her burn!

As the world watched the spire fall, the reaction was wonderfully uniting, if gut wrenching. Even in destruction, Notre Dame united us.

Then came the day after.

It didn’t take long for the relief that the destruction was less than feared to be replaced by the voices of discord. “Why is everyone donating to Notre Dame, when the Al-Aqusa Mosque burned on the same day? Why are the rich giving millions to restore Notre Dame, while thousands are starving in Yemen? If you want to give money to a burned church, how about the ones in Louisiana?” All legitimate questions, but kind of miss the point.

You can’t tell people how to feel. You can’t prejudge what someone else thinks is important. Religious buildings all around the world are important to the people who are involved with them and deserve help if we wish to help. You can’t tell people to rebuild churches they are not involved with; but we are all involved in art like Notre Dame – because it is art. It doesn’t matter what the original stimulus to build was.

By and large, icons are works of art, and art is about making things that transcend their mere physical attributes. This can be said about all human creation. Notre Dame touches us all, because it is a symbol of all we can be, all we can do, if we act collectively.

We do not know the names of the builders of this cathedral, and they did not expect to be remembered. Masons, carpenters, metal workers, laborers, cart drivers, glass makers, sculptors, painters, farmers, the list goes on and on, all devoted their time and effort, yes, for pay, but more importantly for the sake of the building itself. For a hundred and eighty-two years, generations of people worked for the glory of god to put up that phenomenal building.

In 1163, when the foundations were laid, the people who worked on the project had a Catholic world view. To them, working together to build the cathedral was a no-brainer. Their whole understanding of Paris and the whole world was linked to that religious foundation. That common understanding, that common goal was what made Notre Dame possible. And the building is a monument to that unified vision.

But we don’t need that medieval world view to appreciate the result. In fact, the world that names Notre Dame a World Heritage Site doesn’t have a medieval mindset. We, in the twenty-first century share almost nothing with the medieval population of Paris; except that, like them, we can do wonderful things if we act together. In fact, I say that we can accomplish anything if we act together. All that’s necessary is a common will – a shared sense of purpose.

We are not going to be building cathedrals for the glory of god any time soon. We could, if we had that shared vision, but we live in a divided age – an age where almost any subject creates an argument. As soon as someone says, “I want to help rebuild Notre Dame,” someone else says, “That’s a waste of money! Give your money to my favorite project instead!”

It’s not the money nor the technology that holds us back, it’s the common cause – the shared understanding of who and what we are. It isn’t a case of, “Together we can do anything.” It’s a case of “Unless we are together, we can do nothing.”

I’m not saying we need a resurgence of religious belief so that we can solve our problems. Religion is just one  story we have made up to believe in. Monarchy, nationalism, democracy, fascism, communism, religion, these are all ideas that we as people have created – stories we tell ourselves to give a foundation to our civilization. With these stories as a shared basis, we can build the pyramids, or the Great Wall, or Notre Dame. With these stories, we have tamed the wilderness, built cities, erected monuments, and reached for the stars.

What we really need these days is a better story. Maybe if we stop shouting at each other long enough to listen, someone might come up with one.

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The image of the falling spire of Notre Dame is from the Chicago Tribune.

Spectrum

 

RainbowCrop

I told my students the other day, “The first rule of color theory, is that all color is relative. But there is another rule that comes before the first rule. That rule is: value first.”

In color theory, we don’t actually use the word color much, because it is too inexact. “Red” is too vague a word to describe the four-dimensional visual event caused by using a certain paint in a picture. Instead, we talk about hue – the place in the spectrum of the paint, or value – the lightness or darkness of the hue, or saturation – the intensity of the hue.

Color names try to push all these distinctions together. Pink is a red with white added. Scarlet is a red leaning toward orange. Puce is a pink with violet in it and black to make it desaturated. Color names try to combine the first three dimensions of color: hue, value, and saturation.

Then there is the fourth dimension: what the color is compared to. A given pink next to a blue looks orangish. Next to orange it looks violet. Next to white it looks dark. Next to black, almost white. The way we actually perceive the color changes according to context. Color is always relative. This is why the first rule of color theory.

We use names to pin them down: red, orange, yellow. But words limit our thinking. Clearly, if there is an orange, it is distinct from red and yellow. However, orange doesn’t exist except as a blend of red and yellow. And how can you distinguish between a really red orange and a really orange red? There is no visible dividing line – one color blends into the next. Naming conventions don’t matter. Naming something blue merely means that it’s bluer than something else and really, really NOT orange.

We use the word spectrum to describe a lot of things: the political spectrum, the autism spectrum. How about the gender spectrum? Or the racial spectrum? Or a religious spectrum?

We do the same thing with these spectra of abstractions as we do with colors – we give them names and think that names the differentiate them from each other. We think that because this is called blue, it can never ever be green. But wife and I used to argue about a hue of teal that I saw as blue and she insisted was green. In the end we agreed to call it glaucus. This didn’t change the hue, but it stopped the arguments.

Giving something a name doesn’t change what it is, nor how you see it. Calling someone a name, doesn’t change who they are. If you are called Henry at birth, and later decide you are Joe, it alters nothing.

Telling someone on the left of our political spectrum that they aren’t liberal enough is kind of like saying. “You, Red! You aren’t the saturation I like! You are Pink!” What does that even mean?

We talk about blue and red on the political spectrum. Are they any different from blue and red on the color wheel?

Are male and female any different from green and orange?

All yellows are either greenish or orangish, depending on context. All greens are partially blue and partially yellow. People are the same. Why is Barack Obama called the first black president even though he is just as much white as black?

Whether you are talking about race, or religion, or politics, or gender, we are each of us, all of us, somewhere on the spectrum. Our particular flavor or person is a mixture of a lot of things – hue, saturation, and, yes, value.

Which brings us back to the rule that comes before the first rule of color: value first. Because of the way our eyes work, the amount of dark and light has more impact than the colors. When you are making art, how relatively light or dark something is compared to its surroundings is more important than what color it is. This is why black and white photographs or films work so well. If the colors are slightly too red, or blue, or green, it really doesn’t matter, but if the picture is too dark, everything changes.

And that is why I would like to suggest that the rule that comes before the other rules is most important. Because (play on words here) values matter more than where you are on the spectrum.

Are you a conservative? Fair enough. But what are your values? How do you treat people? When do you give honesty a space in your life? What about charity?

Are you a socialist? Excellent! How tolerant are you of other people’s ideas? Are you generous with your time to your friends and family? Will you cut someone a little slack if they don’t entirely agree with you?

Is your heritage Spanish? You do realize that there’s a fair chance of some Visigoth blood in your background along with the Basque, Greek, Moroccan, and Jewish? Me, I’m German, which means mostly Scandinavian, with a big dose of French, Dutch, German, Hunnish, and probably Ostrogoth, along with a dash of Etruscan and Pole. Probably. Who knows?

Take green and add a dash of yellow, and it’s chartreuse. That’s called a tertiary color. We are all tertiary humans. Every last one of us.

So think about the rule that comes before the spectrum. Values first.

At one end of the value spectrum we have every decent person who has changed the world for the better.  

At the other end we have dicks.

Values first. The rule that comes before all the other ones.

Toxic

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For something like a year and a half I have been posting my sermons on this blog. Mostly they are meditations on the things I see around me: essays on not being a dick. And I want to say right up front, that I believe that every time each one of us refrains from being a dick, the world is a better place.

And although the world might not improve drastically because you don’t cut in front of someone on the freeway, I believe that you are yourself changed each time you don’t get angry, each time you refrain from saying something hurtful, each time you make a point of putting someone else first. I certainly believe that whenever you treat someone the way you would like to be treated, you are better for it. Certainly their life is improved, but so is yours, because being aware of how your actions impact others makes you happier. It makes your life more pleasant.

Whenever you stop yourself from being a dick, you are being what the Buddhists call mindful. Mindfulness is the awareness of the world around you, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. What this gives you, the non-dick, is the ability to live in the precious moment that if unnoticed, will speed past, leaving you the poorer for a bit of your life you threw away.

“Live in the now, dude!” If you take a second to ask yourself, “What would a dick do?” and then decide not to do that, you are slowing your life down for that second. In that second you are mindful, and the minute that follows – the minute when you don’t drop your garbage by the side of the road, when you don’t ignore a colleague just because she is a woman, when you don’t cut in front in traffic, that next minute is a moment of peace for you. A moment of happiness.

I honestly believe that’s all we have to do to start making all of our lives better.

But it’s not all that we can do, and I want to talk a little about that right now.

The guy who throws his half-empty McDonald’s shake into my front yard is a dick.

The girl who takes hers home and puts it in the garbage is not a dick.

And the person who sees the garbage by the side of the road and picks it up, is an anti-dick.

The guy who stops his friend from interrupting their female colleague and says, “Hang on, let her finish,” isn’t doing much, but he is being an anti-dick. Because the interrupter is being a dick.

In our apartment building there is a rubbish room on every floor for the garbage and for storing the recycle for pick up. It’s only a small room, and what with pizza delivery, the Amazon boxes, the flat pack furniture, and the paper grocery bags full of cereal boxes, it gets filled up with recycle really fast. By Friday evening it’s hard to even get near the garbage chute. I love the guys who come Monday morning to clear it all out, believe me. Who I don’t love are the neighbors who ignore the instructions to break down cardboard boxes and just dump them in front of the biodegradable bin. I mean, come on now!

So yeah, the neighbor who leaves his boxes piled up? Dick.

The neighbor who flattens his boxes and stuffs them up against the wall behind the bin? Not a dick.

The guy who takes his box knife with him and flattens other people’s boxes? Anti-dick. (That would be me, by the way.)

And yes, this is really trivial. But our days are filled up with the trivial, and doing something about the trivial helps, too. If flattening boxes is one way to make the world just a little better to be in, it’s worth doing. It’s easy. All it takes is mindfulness, a little time, and a box knife.

Moving the abandoned shopping cart out of the parking place and putting it into the collection area is trivial. Letting the person with one loaf of bread go in front of you at the check out is trivial. Goodness knows, just holding the door open for someone whose arms are full is trivial, but I’ve been glad of it. And I’ll bet there are a lot of you that have been glad of a trivial act of kindness.

A trivial act of kindness is remarkably easy. Less easy is standing up to intervene when some dick is insulting a counter worker because he thinks she’s too slow, but we need to do that. Even harder, perhaps, is standing up when our political leaders seem to take misogyny in younger men as some kind of god-given right and attack the women who complain about it.

It seems to me that whenever a man says he was sexually assaulted as a boy, it is taken as a matter of fact, but when a woman finds the courage to do the same thing, she is doubted, insulted, threatened, and shunned. Any man who makes that kind of a judgment, without any information to go on, is a dick. And if he’s a person in a position of power, he’s a king-dick. Holding yourself or your group to a lower standard than you demand for others is the exact opposite of the Golden Rule. Legally, morally, spiritually, socially, individually, it is toxic. Poisonous.

And the only anti-toxin we have is to be an anti-dick. Because that social poison is killing us.

The good we do doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just make good someone else’s bit of dickishness. Maybe we should be like the anti-dick organizations that “adopt” a stretch of I-5 and clear up the mess. Just chose a piece of your life where you won’t let people drop their physical, emotional, political, or sexist garbage. Maybe at work. Maybe at the roadside. Maybe at your local Starbucks. Maybe just in the recycle room.

Be an anti-dick when you can.

But at least, you know, in the first place…

Don’t be a dick.