About handmaids

I was visiting a friend recently and she happened to have a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at her place. I had heard about this book before, and my friend also recommended it, so I decided to read. I finished it surprisingly quickly… Not only because I needed to give the book back 🙂

If you have not read the book, don’t read this post further. Go read it and make your own opinion about it.

The language is easy and the story kept me interested. Not in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, where we are eager to find out who committed the crime, but in an Alice in Wonderland way, where we just appreciate the surreality of the situation. Except that it is not such a nice and fantastic world, but a scary post-apocalyptic one.

The story takes place in a near-future totalitarian state, which is (apparently) at war with neighbors, and follows a nuclear disaster that left a lot of the land unusable. As with any novel about a totalitarian state (such as 1984 and Brave New World), the lack of individual freedom is the focus here: everyone has their role in society pre-assigned, and no deviation is possible, specially questioning or going against the status quo. Different from the aforementioned books, this one focuses in particular on the role of women in this dystopian society. There are three “classes” of women: the wives, the child-bearing, and the cooks. Men should have at least one of each class (with some exceptions). The story is told from the point of view of one of the child-bearing ones. She contrasts her previous life (not too different from the lives we lead today) with the current one, the training she had to go through, and the struggles to maintain her sanity. She “belongs” to a “commander”, a seemingly high-ranking official, who, at some point, breaks the protocol and starts to have a more personal relationship with the protagonist. This is hardly the main point of the story, but I found one of these interactions particularly interesting. In the excerpt below, the commander attempts to justify the new imposed system on women:

We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five… This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?

Than Handmaid’s Tale (Chapter 34)

Indeed, when put this way, it is almost tempting. What a relief it would be to become suddenly free of all these struggles. Not worrying about looking pretty, having the “right” body, face and behavior… Not worrying about finding someone to start a family with, if it will work out or not, if you would be able to raise your kids properly. Rationally speaking, the system guarantees all basic human needs, for all humans. So we see how this would make sense in the head of very pragmatic people.

But very important things were overlooked.

The main character replies: “love”. To which the commander rightfully argues that love might just be something fabricated and imposed on us, as something we *should* feel and how marriages and families work. He points out the fact that arranged marriages were common, and work out just as well.

But in both situations there is a more fundamental principle which is overlooked: freedom. Whether you choose to get married by love, or because your family has found you a suitable partner, the important part is that you *choose*. You choose your partner, you choose the clothes you wear, whether to use make up, have plastic surgery, go to the gym or on a diet. You choose to go out on a date, or ask someone out. You choose to stay married, or to get a divorce.

Or better, you have the impression that you choose.

This situation has got me thinking about the difference between things we choose, and things we think we choose. Unless you live alone in an island isolated from society (in which case you would not be reading this), there are certain expectations about you. This may come from your upbringing, your peers, your friends, and even yourself. Many times we simply internalize these expectations, and live up to them without ever realizing it. Here is a silly example of how this can come about. I recently reorganized my wardrobe and realized I have a disproportionate amount of pink tops. It is by far the most frequent color. Now, do I like pink more than the other colors in particular? Not really… As a girl, I am of course _supposed_ to like pink, and this is how I suspect these tops came about. Some were gifts, admittedly, but maybe half I bought them myself. Since then, I have been more aware of my behavior when I can choose between different colors of the same item. I noticed that my instinct is to invariably go towards pink/purple. Is this because, deep down, I just really like pink, or is it because I was raised always having a lot of pink stuff? I strongly suspect it is the latter…

My feeling is that many people (including myself) make choices according to what is expected of them, and not according to our true selves. These can be as simple as the color of clothes, or as complicated as your career, relationships, values, religion… The problem is that, if we are not true to ourselves, we end up with clothes we don’t particularly enjoy wearing, or worse. Recognizing what is you and what is imposed on you is not an easy task, but it is one worthwhile spending some time on, as this means a lighter and more authentic life.

About questions

I used to think that people, in general, had problems when it comes to asking questions. What was my surprise when I recently realized that, in fact, we also have problems in *getting* questions! Given the important status questions have for the exchange and construction of ideas [1], it is really a shame that we both don’t like to ask questions or receive them.

You might be very familiar with the feeling of holding back a question because you might sound [insert here whatever adjective works best for you]. But being asked? Yes. It turns out that instead of listening a question as it should be, i.e. just a question, we add our own interpretation to it and reply (or not) to that. We see questions as criticism, as challenges, as disagreement… but have you ever thought that it might be, in reality, *just* a question? (In spite of what your biased self might “notice” about language, tone, etc.)

Try that for a while. Get rid of your prejudices and take the questions as they come. You will see life becomes much much lighter. Answer sincerely (even if it means saying “I do not know the answer”) and ask sincerely (even if you think it’s a [same adjective as before] question). You will notice how communication improves, how it is possible to have an argument without it getting to your head and how everyone feels less intimidated. It’s good all around!

And if it just so happens that someone does have an ill-intended question, you can see the disappointment in their eyes with your honest answer 😉

 

[1] I must leave here a special thanks to my classmates from grad041, who taught me the importance of argumentation, and that friendship is independent of agreement. There are very few circles where questions are so well received as with these people 😀

About stupidity

Recently I came across this quote:

“When you are dead, you don’t know that you are dead.It is difficult only for the others… It is the same when you are stupid.” [1]

Isn’t this the best quote ever?

At times when people are voting for Donald Trump, enormous corruption scandals are being unveiled, terrorist attacks are becoming the norm as well as bombarding others’ countries, we all have something to say about stupid people. As unbelievably stupid as others may seem, we need to keep in mind a couple of things:

1. We might appear equally stupid for others as well, and;
2. In the end, we are all just people.

For the sake of not appearing stupid and for reducing the general level of stupidity in the world, let’s try to understand how this happens. Fortunately I am not the first one to ask this question, and much more competent people have studied this before. We should learn from them. In 1999, David Dunning and Justing Kruger ran a series of experiments to test how people assess their own competence at a task. This was inspired by a very interesting fact:

“The study was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras.”

I know… I know… How in the world can a person think that lemon juice would make their face invisible on cameras? And if they thought so, why haven’t they tested it *before* robbing a bank? It turns out that the lack of competence is so big, but so big, that they are unable to doubt their reasoning and think for a second that they might be wrong.

Now, this is an extreme case, of course, but the study has shown that incompetent people were often over confident, and guessed a much higher score than they actualy got. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

At this point you might be thinking: “Sure, but I am not a stupid person.”
Aren’t you? Think again. If a stupid person is not able to assess their own stupidity, how do you know you are not one of them? [2] How do I know *I* am not one of them? No one wants to be seen as stupid by other people, so we should really find out.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is observed when unskilled persons have what is called “illusory superiority”. The name is self-explanatory. It is also known as the above average effect (e.g. in a survey, 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their performance above the median — something which is mathematically impossible). How can we avoid the self-inflated judgement of ourselves? This being a cognitive bias, it is virtually impossible to get rid of 100% in practice. Nevertheless, I believe there are some things we can do to alleviate it:

Doubt yourself

Whenever you think you know about something, google it. But don’t just take the first link, google also makes mistakes and the results of searches are biased. Make sure the sources you are checking are reliable, and be aware how far your knowledge goes. Inform yourself, check the facts and make sure you are not over simplifying (or maybe complicating!) things. (That is healthy doubting. We do not want the kind of unhealthy doubting that makes us crawl underneath the covers and feel bad about ourselves!)

Challenge your beliefs

It can be very healthy to talk to people that disagree with you, if they are equaly engaged and willing to explain their point (and not ofended by your questions [3]). It is good to understand the other side’s reasoning that led them to a different conclusion than yours, and it is good to explain your reasoning to others. Explaining is a very nice way to sanity-check your reasoning.

Learn from experience

If you are in a situation that others have been before, take a look at the past experiences. How are they similar to what you are going through? How are they different? What actions were taken? What was the outcome? Has someone conducted scientific studies on this before? Learn something from them.

Don’t let emotions get in the way

When someone says we are wrong, our first reaction is to listen to the “you are wrong” part and ignore completely why they think we are wrong. We are humans and we don’t like being wrong, but the moment we start being defensive is the moment emotion takes over reasoning. And emotions tend to make us even more biased. So if you feel your heart beating harder when you listen to something, take a step back, breath, and think coldly what exactly it was that made you startle. You might even learn a thing or two about yourself.

Give information instead of opinions

When you think someone is being stupid about something, give them some information they can reflect on. If they even think you implied they are wrong, they will stop listening to you. If you have ever changed your mind, you know that this is not a straightforward procedure. It takes time and it has to come from within. The best you can do is provide more information so the person can think for themselves.

Good luck and stay wise!

[1] Possibly attributed to Philippe Geluck, but I could not check with absolute certainty.
[2] I am not saying you will put lemon juice on your face and rob a bank. Please don’t be angry. I am not calling anyone stupid.
[3] This happens more often than not, unfortunately.