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Sunday, January 11, 2015

The world is a work in progress

I saw the movie "Imitation game" last night. It is about Alan Turing and his efforts to break the Nazi Enigma code in WWII. It was simply a tragedy of epic proportions that the world lost him at the young age of 41, after he was convicted of solicitation of homosexual sex and forced under court order to take medications which chemically castrated him. Britain at that time considered homosexuality a crime. He committed suicide in the year of my birth.

I remember my first exposure to homosexuals when I was in college. There were a cadre of effeminate men which I did not recall from my high school experience. I may have simply been unaware of this cohort earlier in my schooling. I was rather young and not tuned into these issues. The thought of being attractive to other men was completely alien to my preferences. It had simply never even occurred to me that could be an option at that point in my life. However, I could not consider that homosexuality was a crime at that time, although I think anti-sodomy laws were on the books. They may still be on the books.

This particular cohort at college was almost universally ridiculed among those who I associated with. At that point in time I did not view this with any sort of moral dimension. I perceived this cohort simply as something very strange. I never acted in a way to personally ridicule anyone for their apparent homosexuality. However, I also did not take any action to step up in defense of anyone or call anyone out on their anti-homosexual actions. Knowing what I know now, I could have been more heroic in coming to the defense of those who were identified as being homosexual men. I was simply struggling to find my way at that time.

Roll the clock forward more than forty years. The world is a very different place. I am a very different person or at least I have a very different perspective on my world. I have had the experience of meeting literally thousands of people, both personally and professionally. I have come to realize just how remarkably diverse people are in terms of motivation, responses to incentives, preferences, talents, virtues, and vices. I have come to realize that David Hume was correct in terms of "reason being a slave to passion" and that many if not most of our passions are beyond our choice.

The world is a simpler place when the choices are binary. It makes for simpler law and simpler choices in the personal realm. However, the world is generally not black and white in terms of our choices. The growing acceptance of homosexuality and what could viewed in historical terms  as atypical sexual practices is a product of recent decades in a small subset of human cultures. It may be viewed as part of a longer term trend in human societies of greater acceptance of diversity in general. It is my belief that this is a consequence of greater human affluence in general.

Cultures which live on the edge have less reserves to play with. Mistakes which affect the ability to feed or defend themselves literally can represent existential threats. An almost universal characteristic of human societies has been to hold anyone or anything that is different with great suspicion. Call it the stranger heuristic. The default response to strangers was violence. The default response to almost everything was violence. In a zero sum world which was the world until that past 500 years, that response may have had some survival advantages.

I have had the opportunity to live and experience a world where we can tolerate outliers. In fact, our world may benefit from harnessing the talents of those who we might view initially as strange.  It is not as if we cannot define certain actions as unacceptable. We need to re-examine what we might have viewed as outside the bounds as acceptable. We will not all agree on what is acceptable or not acceptable but we should be very careful about using the coercive power of the state to enforce anything but the most egregious and unacceptable actions. On the flip side, we should also allow leeway to individuals to define their own comfort zones, using social sanctions to provide feedback to those within voluntary social networks. The world is a work in progress.

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