Q: Where does conflict come from?

A: Our innate Superiority complex

It is strangely easy for us as human beings to see ourselves as separate from others … or in an ‘us’ while ‘the others’ consist of a ‘them’ — and, naturally, we regard ‘them’ as inferior to ‘us’ in every measure that matters.

In the same way that herd animals recognise their own and expel outsiders as intruders, we humans are tuned for the differences that define our ‘in’ group as apart from the ‘other’ group. And, we are ready for conflict. We expect it.

People have tried to explain the conflict between groups. Notably Tajfel’s experiments with ‘notional groups’ dismantled the until then widely-held idea that conflict between nations (scaled-up groups) resulted from competition for scarce resources creating a history of conflict that self-perpetuated.

Broadly, his work showed that very little is required for one group to regard itself as superior to another group — morally, intellectually, physically — you name it.

All that’s needed for Group A to think itself ‘better’ and more worthy and deserving than Group B is:

For Group A and Group B to ‘exist’

That’s all it takes. No history of conflict, no competition for scarce resources, no experience of the ‘other’ culture to assess and meaningfully evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘other’ group. No knowledge. Not even a meeting…

All that’s needed: An IN group (‘us’) and and OUT group (‘them’). The rest is pure psycho-babble, or post-facto justification for decisions and evaluations already made on the basis of our bias. Continue reading →

Handling the truth… and a parable

Can you handle the truth?

Can you handle the truth?

Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: You can’t HANDLE the truth!

Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?
I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and curse the Marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.
We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you,’ and went on your way.
Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

from A Few Good Men (1992)

Now that’s good writing! Aaron Sorkin. (Are we surprised?) Brilliant.

I had reason to remember this interchange this afternoon when a friend suggested I wasn’t being told the truth about a situation not because I couldn’t ‘handle it’, but because the people involved felt they couldn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth. They felt they had something to lose if they told me the truth.

So (my friend suggested) they lied to me.
And thus proved untrustworthy themselves.
See how it starts? Continue reading →

Pushing the boundaries

Now these guys are just playing with us.
It works, though. Good for them, no comment about the product.

Potshots from behind a mask of anonymity are, by definition, cheap

I wholeheartedly agree with the court decision to order Google to identify the blogger who [allegedly] defamed this NY model.

My view: People need to be accountable for their public statements. Anonymous log-ins tend — in some — to breed a recklessness and nasty damaging discourtesy. And they shouldn’t get away with it. (I still defend the right of whisteblowers to post anonymously — but not personal abuse or lies.)

Model forces Google to unveil ‘skank’ blogger


WINNER: Liskula Cohen has forced Google to release the name of a blogger who allegedly defamed her. (Image SMH)

WINNER: Liskula Cohen has forced Google to release the name of a blogger who allegedly defamed her. (Image SMH)

Model Liskula Cohen sued Google in January in the hope of forcing the company to reveal the person responsible for allegedly defamatory comments on a blog called Skanks in NYC, which was hosted by Google’s Blogger service.

‘I would have to say the first-place award for ‘Skankiest in NYC’ would have to go to Liskula Gentile Cohen,’ the anonymous blogger wrote.

‘How old is this skank? 40 something? She’s a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank.’

Cohen, who is actually 37, believed the posts were defamatory but was forced to take action against Google in order to unmask the blogger’s identity before she could take further action.

On Monday in the US, Judge Joan Madden ruled that Cohen was entitled to sue the blogger for defamation and, in an unprecedented move, forced Google to provide the blogger’s name. The name will presumably be revealed in court. It is unclear when the matter will return to court.

The tall, blonde Canadian, who is based in New York, has modelled for Giorgio Armani and Versace and appeared on the cover of the Australian edition of Vogue. But Cohen’s modelling career ground to a halt in January 2007 when a man stabbed her in the face with a broken glass, requiring her to get 46 stitches, the New York Post reported. The man, who was sent to jail, became angry after she objected to him stealing a bottle of vodka from her table.

Judge Madden rejected the claims by the blogger’s lawyer that the comments were mere opinion or ‘trash talk’, and that only factual assertions could be considered libellous. Continue reading →


Once, in a hotel in California, I stepped onto an elevator in which a large well-dressed black man, and his equally large wife, stood. “Going down?” the man asked. “Yes, thank you,” I answered.

Quietly the elevator slid downwards. The couple did not know me and so had stopped their private conversation. Because, I did not known them, and our time together would be brief I simply watched the floor numbers as we descended. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the big man was studying me closely. After a couple of floors he spoke up.

“Is everything alright, son?”

It was an honest question and one that was well intentioned. I decided that it deserved an honest answer.

“No, Sir it is not.” I told him truthfully.

He did not ask me what was wrong, nor did he offer consolation or help. Instead he simply reached over and put his hand on my shoulder and said “this too will pass, son.”

At that I smiled and laughed. And he was right. Just having those words spoken to me at that exact time lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. My troubles changed not one iota but with his words something did in fact change – what? I’m not sure exactly – but change it definitely did.

I got off the elevator at my floor and thanked the man for his kind words. In fact, I was so affected by his words that I actually reached out and offered my hand. He took my hand in a big bear grip of a fist and we shook. He smiled back – and then the elevator doors closed and he and his wife were gone.

What an extraordinary thing! I’m not one of those personable guys who are easy in a crowd: walking, talking, laughing or interacting with passive, but somehow intimate, conversation – and yet – just for that one brief moment, there I was interacting with a perfect stranger on a very personal level. And somehow this stranger was able to recognize something about me — he saw the pressure I was under. Continue reading →

Am I a luddite? Neh!

… [T]he project of digitising the information held in the world’s printed books is too important to be dealt with purely as a commercial venture between rights holders and a potential supplier of services.

…. If we let Google have its settlement we will all be the poorer. Not for a while, perhaps, but one day we will need more from this new library of Alexandria than Google is willing to offer, and find that the price it demands is more than we can pay.

Bill Thompson BBC NEWS – Keeping Google out of libraries Via Beatties Book Blog

Yes. OK, so I opted out of the Google book settlement — before the deadline, and despite, it seemed, most other local publishers e-signing on the dotted line. Many, it seemed to me, consented on the basis of ‘better the devil you know’ and, with respect, dreaming that they retained some ‘control’ that way. (Er, not so much.)

Another argument was that you should ‘opt in’ unless you intended to sue Google yourself(!) That idea, of course, is presented as unthinkable for a small publisher or author out to protect their rights. Hmpf.

Dear Google: SORRY, You can't just plant a flag and take our rights.

Dear Google: SORRY, You can't just plant a flag and take our rights.

Well, not so fast. Having crossed swords with Google previously over the unethical use of my name, business name, authors’ names and trademarks in Google ads by an unscrupulous, um, er, ‘businessman‘, in the end, I found Google “OK” to deal with.

One certainly needs to marshal one’s argument with Google and to be persistent and well-organised, and allow them time to process the issues at stake, even push back on their initial response (hey, it’s the information age). From my experience, Google actually does pretty well on the communication score. (Do they want a million lawsuits? No.)

For me, the USA-centric aspect of the proposed book settlement deal is the eye-watering thing. “Like, Shah! It affects the whole world. OMG!” Good on the Germans for objecting to the cultural imperialism. (Ha! Ironic. Didn’t see that coming.) Continue reading →

Merlin Mann on the internet

Relativity - MC Escher

Relativity - MC Escher

The internet is becoming this thing where it’s just people trying to become successful on the internet by showing other people how to become successful on the internet.

It’s this unbelievably fractal ponzi scheme. It’s very Escher.

Boy, it’s a terrible terrible ghetto of information out there. It’s like a snake masturbating its own tail.

It’s miserable.

— Merlin Mann Aug 2009 on In Box Zero (transcript)

At the risk of being thought a derivative fan-boy, Merlin is saying what I’ve been thinking … gulp … especially about the new breed of shallow self-proclaimed ‘experts’ hyping up their affiliate programmes selling, you guessed it: ‘How to make money on the internet’.

But there are exceptions. Merlin’s one. So is Fake Steve Jobs, Seth Godin, the delightful Havi Brooks and, someone I’ve recently discovered, Humorless Bitch.

Any other recommendations? Pop them into Comments, if you like.

A loss of moral authority

There is added moral authority when someone who hasn’t had to struggle sounds a call to help those less privileged.

Beyond mere noblesse-oblige, Teddy Kennedy became a leading voice of ‘liberal’ ideology, with an emphasis on equality and innate justice best expressed in the civil rights movement of the 1960s — but applied far wider than that.

Teddy Kennedy

Teddy Kennedy RIP

The ’cause of my life’ Kennedy identified as universal health care is much more than a mere struggle for power or influence.

Such reform was (and is) opposed by fair means and foul by unimaginably wealthy vested interests in the health insurance industry. It is noisily opposed by such fat-cats — and their media lackeys who care not-a-jot for the less-advantaged except for what they can scoop out of them.

These cold-hearted interests see it as appropriate to leave the poor ‘without cover’ — and therefore at the mercy of some who, as my old PE teacher Jack McManus once colourfully said, ‘wouldn’t give you the steam off their piss’. Continue reading →

Future Think

While the current world economic crisis is definitely one for the record books one wonders what history will say of this meltdown? Was it predictable? Were there signs? And if there were signs why did the people of the first decade of the 21st Century not follow them?

With hindsight as a guide it would be easy to play “Sunday Morning Quarterback” and proclaim this and that about the situation. But, let’s not do that shall we. Let’s get practical and imagine what we could find out if we leapt forward through time 100 years and looked back on this first decade of the 21st century and see what we can see. When they speak of us – what do they say? Of our economics – what do they say?

As luck would have it I just happen to have a time machine handy. I shall zoom forward 100 years to the 22nd Century and see what I can find out. Hang on. I’ll be back in moment.

* * *

Well, I’m back!

Wow! What a mess. But, I’m only reporting on the economic meltdown of the first decade of the 21st Century — I don’t even want to start with what happened the day Earth ran out of oil or the day Sarah Palin became President of the United States – thank God for our new alien overlords that showed up a month later — and now rule over us all with an iron tentacle.

Perhaps, another time…

The first thing that struck me about us when I read about ourselves from the eye of our-future-selves was how clear and uncluttered the past can seem. A mere 100 years can do a lot to expose a calamity. Continue reading →

Groping for the truth

Why does a lie offend us?

Why is it that a lie — especially a lie to our face — vexes us so?

Our efforts to identify the veracity of a claim (sometimes a very basic claim), can be frustrated by liars and rogues. So much of our lives can be taken up with efforts to locate or verify the truth about something or someone.

And lies are told every day — about big issues and small. The expression, ‘seeking the truth’ has a real ring to it … but it ain’t easy.

Over the years, dealing with some professional con-artists and liars, in politics and in business, I have come to see there is no single tell-tale factor that will readily help you identify the liar. Except perhaps one (and even that is not totally reliable):

How they treat other people — particularly those who they perceive as of lower ‘status’ to them.

Arrogance is a HUGE indicator.

A bully is almost always a liar. (But not every liar is a bully! Far from it.)

In my observation, there often seems to be a sort of cognitive link (is that the right expression?) between excessive ego — however it’s expressed — and a lack of truthfulness.

The thought: ‘Those rules don’t apply to me’ has led many a narcissist or sociopath into deception.

Just a theory.

Any other ideas?

The power of an appeal to decency

A recent reference to a made-up threat of ‘Death Panels’ led me to recall a famous political showdown. Legend tells us this interchange sparked the beginning of the end for Senator Joseph McCarthy.

While McCarthy was not without opponents to his paranoid demagoguery, lawyer Joseph Welch went down in history as a giant-slayer. Welch was representing the US Army at a Congressional hearing (which had become in effect another platform for McCarthy’s ongoing anti-Communist self-aggrandisement) and drew a line at an attempt to assassinate the character of one of his firm’s young lawyers, who was not even involved in the hearings.

His killer blow was the rhetorical question:

Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

There’s a video of the interchange available on google video:

Worth watching, in my opinion. (Right to the end.) Transcript here.

And here’s how Language Log recalled it on June 09, 2004 …

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of an event that should not go unremarked on Language Log: it’s exactly half a century today since a pair of well-crafted sentences rang out across a Congressional hearings room in Washington DC and began a process that was of great importance to the integrity and honor of our country:
Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was famous for his aggressive anti-communist stance, and speeches in which he claimed to be in possession of long lists of names of communists in the State department, the military, and elsewhere in government. He made full use of his position as chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Committee on Investigations. He destroyed the careers of many people by claiming that they had belonged to communist front organizations or associated with communists. His success at this owed a lot to the fact that he was able to play (as Harvard law dean Erwin Griswold put it) ‘judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.’ Continue reading →

Falling into error: when we think we know why…

Fundamental attribution error

It’s intriguing how often you will stumble across someone’s hallucinations about another person’s motives for action.

In earlier posts I’ve discussed the character attacks that a critic (any critic) can commonly expect to endure in response to them giving their gift:
‘Oh you’re just saying that because you’re … [fill in the space] (jealous/competing/not willing to share the spotlight etc).

Broadly speaking, it seems common, even normal, for people to suspect that ‘ulterior’ internal motives — related to character — lie behind someone’s actions, whether this is actually a rational thought or not. It turns out it is normal.

Using the term ‘fundamental attribution error’, psychologists point to our irrational tendency to explain behaviour — particularly other people’s behaviour by assigning character attributes — e.g. dishonest, angry, impatient, inconsiderate, somehow aggrieved or biased against the person acting. (We also use these traits to ‘explain’ why things happen to them as well, but that’s another story.)
Continue reading →

Remembering Karla

They can be strange lands, the pathways of our memory.
Our recent discussions about animosity and forgiveness and letting go of disappointment and anger has provoked recollections of a case which I haven’t thought about for long time.

Lotus, Oregan House CA (photo by Peter Aranyi)

When I was a news reporter twenty years ago I covered the search for a young girl (13, I recall) who had gone missing on a bike ride to her local shops. The police organised door-to-door canvassing in her home suburb, and search and rescue professionals and volunteers from tramping clubs combed the bush and foreshore all around the valley and beaches within short driving distance of where she was last seen. I joined the bush search.

It was very easy for me to get caught up in the espirit de corps of the search and rescue group. With my woollen bush shirt, sturdy footwear, sunglasses and my new-fangled cell phone (about the size of a loaf of bread) I raced up and down bush tracks calling out and looking for any sign of the young girl.

The chill sets in

After a day or two of fruitless searching, the tone of the team changed. By the end of the third day a chill crept into all of us. Now, we realised, we were looking not for a lost girl, we weren’t calling out for someone waiting for us to find her. We were looking for a body. The dread was powerful. My mum, hearing one of my live voice reports on the radio during the day, called me at home that evening concerned about me. ‘Peter, you sounded so sad,’ she said. I told her I was. What an understatement.

We didn’t find her.

Continue reading →

“Do I believe in the forgiveness of sin?”

I heard this question in a BBC Heart & Soul documentary today about a family where the father had sexually abused his young daughter. The wife described how she had come to a place where the question, “Do I believe in the forgiveness of sin?” arose when considering her husband’s actions towards her daughter.

Her answer was, “Yes, I do.” and she forgave him. She did so with an unopened envelope in her hand — inside the envelope was his confession to the police, which she had not read until that point! Wow. That forgiveness was the start of another journey, but still, Wow.

One of the common promoted ‘benefits’ of forgiveness is a sort of self-preservation — we forgive others for own own sake, not theirs, necessarily. (The conditions, if any, we may seek to place on our forgiveness is another subject.)

graphic: Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate by Michael Henderson

graphic: Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate by Michael Henderson

We forgive, so the theory goes, to prevent ourselves carrying toxic bitterness, to counter an aspect of the ‘spiritual risk’ I referred to in my previous post on Animosity. It’s better, we’re encouraged, to ‘move on’, ‘let it go’, ‘get over it’, to not hold a grudge.

And generally, I would agree with that. But it doesn’t mean you forgetContinue reading →

The Paradox of Animosity

I’ve been thinking, prompted in part by a comment from Chowbok who said:

Hatred is the easiest of emotions to invoke.

Is it possible to be trenchantly, even violently opposed to what you perceive as wrongdoing without slipping into HATRED of the perpetrator?

If we agree (you and I) that bitterness of spirit is a dangerous and toxic thing, how do we keep a clear vision, maintain our standards (which implies rejecting some actions and behaviours as, at least, ‘inappropriate’) … without slipping into the slimy pool of ill-will?

However virtuous one’s starting point, it seems there is what some call ‘spiritual risk’ involved whenever we exercise discernment.

Like radioactivity pioneers Pierre and Marie Curie, who died of diseases caused by exposure to the very radiation they studied — can a ‘crusader for right’ become contaminated, or infected (even mutated?) by the object of their attention?

Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them.

Some call this proverb History’s most ironic lesson. Whatever you think of the ‘spiritual risk’ aspect, the truth of the proverb is, sadly, often borne out by the record of human history. Victims can, in turn, become victimisers. (Examples, anyone?)

A variation of the proverb is:

Choose your enemies carefully for they DEFINE you.

A song on rock band U2’s No Line On The Horizon album contains this:

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you/
Make them interesting, because in some ways they will mind you/
They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends/
Gonna last longer with you than your friends.

— from Cedars of Lebanon

As we’ve seen, anyone who expresses an opinion or takes a principled stand against others’ actions is liable to stir up anger and hatred. (That’s why we resist doing so. Fear of that reaction. The bully, the liar, and the oppressor count on this fear.)
So, Question: Is it possible to take a stand without succumbing to strong negative feelings oneself? What if those strong feelings are needed to ‘motivate’ us?

Mahatma Ghandi‘s ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner‘ overstates it … but goes towards what I’m asking.

Bitterness, we agree is unhealthy.
So, surely, is unforgiveness. Continue reading →