Thoughts…

SheSays Think about your Biases

An evening of drenched mostly-female wanderers from the tech world escaped from the sudden thunderstorm witnessed an exploration of bias — something we all have but rarely like to admit. In ThoughtWorks’ (@thoughtworks) Manchester HQ, a collection of speakers enlightened an audience to how bias is built, its effects on us and how it pervades within the workspace and manifests as microaggressions. Another @SheSaysMCR event organized by @ThatGirlVim was a real success — perhaps talking about social responsibility in a room full of social activists is a bit of preaching to the choir but if nobody else is listening, it’s up to the choir to sing that message into daily life sometimes!

Christina Connelly (@Digital_Orange), UX & Design head at DigitalBridge (@DigitalBridgeHQ) opened the topic with a series of descriptions, personalities as we wrote our impressions of who they might be — their gender, age, race, perhaps even species. She challenged our assumptions, showing that perhaps even the best-meaning openness is not a prescription for avoiding bias and that there is nothing that can be done, nor should there be, about the fact that we all have perspective. What makes a difference to how we interact with the world around us, in our personal lives and at work, is what we do with the second thought, the third, and the actions that result from them. Our impressions might be inaccurate but they’re automatic. It’s what we do when we choose that makes a difference and that’s the separation between bias and stereotype, impression and prejudice. We’re all humans, she said, and that means we’re biased. We need to stop pretending we’re not, embrace our perspective and learn from them so we can overcome the disaster of letting bias run rampant with our emotions, thoughts and actions.

ThoughtWorks’ diversity champion (with her trademark blue hair in fine form) Amy Lynch (@Amy_Lynch) continued with the theme describing a way to overcome unconscious bias — the prejudice that hides in that time before thinking, what leads us to make decisions until we make ourselves aware of it. She presented a three-step approach. Look, challenge, do. She invited us with some examples to look around us and figure out what our biases are (not to mention those in our friends and coworkers) and see when we might have a negative or positive view on something that doesn’t really make sense. Are we predisposed to like women? Be afraid of those with little education or money? Generally find annoying those who wear well-pressed ties and come suited, booted and fresh from the Russell Group? (I admit, these are three of mine…) Then comes the hard part, she informs us, not simply to figure out where these ideas come from, although that’s interesting in far too many ways to explore, but to challenge them and see how they may be useful and may not be useful in each situation they are making their appearance in. Then action seems relatively simple — once we’ve challenged our biases, the right action should be far more obvious and we can do our best to be, if nothing else, better humans (or cats, I suppose).

She then went on to discuss feedback biases, especially in leadership. What do we think of a leader, especially in business and politics, as someone who is loud, direct, aggressive, driven, outgoing and passionate to the point of painful. In short, we think of a man. And women are described as team players, empathic, kind and gentle. It is an interesting reflection on our society that the things we’d like to see not only in ourselves but in others are mostly characteristics traditionally used to describe women. And they’re usually wonderful characteristics. But, and here’s the issue, not only are they unhelpful (which is a significant problem when you get a review of what you’ve done in a role and have no idea what any of them mean because, not to be too direct, they’re meaningless character descriptions rather than important to the job, the actions and the interactions you’re thinking about improving) they’re not things we think of as leadership material. To be a leader, we expect you have to have the qualities of, simply, a brash ass. And be a dude. Not that women are always one thing or another, or men, for that matter. But it’s definitely how we’re described!

Annie Mbako (@nieniedoo) from The Heroworx Institute dived deeper into the idea of social initiatives like diversity and inclusion. She invited us to reflect on our own programming, how repetition turns an idea into an assumption and how we act without necessarily turning impressions into thoughts — especially not before those thoughts become regrets for having done things that were rather less socially-conscious than we’d like to admit we were capable of — we woke pseudo-millennials are a great lot for criticizing the biases in society but not quite going far enough to subvert them in our own daily lives. What do we do when we really stick out, when we don’t fit in even with where our companies are going? What if we’re really on the negative side of institutional bias? Her answer is exactly what you’d expect but it’s not what we’ve been paying attention to — which is, rather, the point. We need to think. A psych study informs us that people almost always act on our first impressions, even if we manage to rein ourselves in later. Unless we stop to think — not just about our bias but about ourselves and our bodies. Using meditation and mindfulness to calm fleeting thoughts and still our minds to the point that we don’t act without at least a few considerations as to why we’re feeling how we’re feeling changes bias from negative stimulus to positive self-reflection. In all the choices we make every day, she challenges us, if we can even be slightly more aware of what we’re doing, we may be able to make vast improvements in the results and, while we’re at it, simply be more present in our lives. While she was at it, of course, she couldn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us that she is a black woman and that we shouldn’t be afraid to notice that, what that makes people think and why we are so scared to address the obvious about people and what it might stimulate in our own minds.

Rosie Turner (@rosie_h_turner), co-founder of InChorus (@workinchorus) spends her days fighting bias within organizations and firms both in her company and with her talks but it’s a different kind of bias. It’s the institutional mistake that has resulted from centuries of giving in to microaggressions as if they don’t exist and pretending that the more we become like expectations (how white, how male, how western, how insular but outgoing, leadership potential compared to caring, since caring is something only women do, it seems, and women aren’t welcome in boardrooms unless they’re cleaning them or posing questions for someone else to hear the answers to) the less we will be marginalized, sexually objectified and harassed and otherwise simply not made welcome in a world not of glass ceilings but of casual sexism, secret racism and not-so-secret catcalls and invitations to the privacy of leaders’ offices.

Looking at bias from the perspective of data analysis, she invites us to tackle the notion of reporting and awareness at work in a more systematic way. The things that fall between the daily “are you happy here?” and, on the other extreme, whistleblowing and formal complaints, they’re often lost and unrecorded so it is easy for those in positions of authority to pretend they don’t exist, even if they know they do, simply because they don’t care and feel that such things aren’t problems, because they’re not problems for them. Building up (often anonymous) datasets for incidence reporting gives those of us who are on the receiving end of microaggressions, microinsults and thinly-veiled bias-driven action the power to say that there needs to be a change in how things happen, as only numeric data speaks this loudly and, until recently, such has simply not existed — to do a study, you need to want to know the result and, honestly, how many business leaders have historically been concerned with how someone else truly felt in their daily interactions?

All in all, the takeaway was clear. We are humans, therefore we are biased. It’s not that we need to change our instincts and our reactions inside our minds. It’s about challenging where they come from and whether they’re useful and taking those challenges, turning them into more reasonable, responsible, developed and adult reactions to the world rather than simply behaving like we don’t know the difference and pretending we’re always right, that we should never change. It’s an important, if slightly distressing, lesson!

Letter

Monday 8 April 2019

An open letter to the International Olympic Committee

Regarding the question of social gender and the theory of human sexual dimorphism

Dear Members,

The theory of human sexual dimorphism is an idea whose time has come and one whose time has passed. In many ways, statistically speaking and from a perceptual obviousness that cannot be challenged, it is a beautifully simply solution to the age-old questions of who and what I, the self, am. What I present here is in some ways a statistical argument but I present no statistics. These numbers are open to manipulation and I present only a methodology that I believe to be sound but I invite you to perform the specific calculations for yourself, as I have done, so as to avoid the bias that is inherent in using numbers to form arguments. I present arguments that you have already heard and, perhaps, some that you have not yet been made aware of. What I offer is not a solution but a pathway to compromise that avoids the inherent conflict and disconnection between societal progress, social awareness and the amazing human achievement that is sports and physical excellence.

The question of biological sex and its inherent incompatibility with gender identity is one whose presence and discussion is tearing apart the whole world of sports. Some individuals decry the end of “women’s sports” and others declare that international sporting organizations, including your committee, must lead the way on social change to end the centuries, the millennia of exclusive policies of segregation that allow bigotry and cultural xenophobia to flourish and to perpetuate a hierarchy of gender identity and disrespectful competition as veils for an underlying misogyny. Neither of these positions is wrong but it is an error to see them as opposing arguments without common ground, if and only if both sides are stripped of their aggression and hatred.

I will begin with a declaration of my position so as to avoid potential confusion. I am not, nor have I ever been, a serious competitive athlete. I have the experience of amateur sports, as most humans do, where I was a solid but unremarkable track participant and where I was able to make up for my lack of physical abilities with my understanding of applied mathematics in racquet sports. I give this not to demonstrate empathy but to show my simple lack of potential for gain from either side of the argument. I am not in any way connected with professional sports and, although true objectivity is a myth of the misunderstanding mind, I approach that objectivity in this matter to whatever degree is possible by existing as an outsider, not to the debate on gender identity but to that of competitive sports. I am, in fact, a teacher and that is the position from which my perspective is informed and it is from the place of an educator of young people, who I see divided in their loyalties to what they see as two opposing and fundamentally uncompromising arguments that I feel compelled to write this letter.

We must address the question of gender, in short, before we discuss the question of physical mechanics. Gender is purely a social construction. It is not sex nor is it hormone or chromosome quantity or diversion. It is a performance, not in the sense that it is necessarily artificial but that it is selected, trained and is built from identifiable elements of expectation and comprehension within an environment of human comprehension. Put another way, what it means to present as female or male are two extreme ends of a spectrum but not an independent spectrum, one that is defined by the society in which it acts. To give an example,  not for its completeness but for its obvious truth, I invite you to take the American stereotypical view (I emphasize the stereotypical view, as we are all aware that this is certainly not the viewpoint of all Americans but it is present enough in popular culture to be an obvious point for comparison, not a judgment of the American perspective on gender identity) of what it means to be “manly” or “womanly”. At one end of this spectrum, there is the rugged outdoorsy person clothed in red plaid and heading into the forest to shoot an elk, whose antlers will be mounted above a fireplace. On the other, there is a beautifully-wrapped human package combining outward sexual modesty with perceived desirability with perfectly-applied lipstick and glossy hair above a just-revealing-enough dress whose actions speak of availability combined with passivity. These are not, as you may have already guessed, even close to what it means to be a modern American of any gender identity. They are extremes on a particular spectrum and their presence in the psyche of popular culture function more as a premise for comedy than any form of reality. You will not find these fictitious people on the streets of New York, Seattle, San Francisco or Houston. You will not find them in the forests, wandering the deserts or working the ranches scattered across the country. Yet, in their absence, you will find evidence of existence of pieces of their identities scattered throughout many, not in a complete sense but as individual traits. They are the goalposts of measurement that are used within American culture as to how “manly” or how “womanly” someone is. They are what are meant when someone says “man up” or “don’t be such a woman”. These are statements full of hatred but they are also built on a cultural understanding of these stereotypes of what the identities of man and woman inherently symbolize — strength or weakness, activity or passivity, making decisions or accepting them, being sexually dominant or submissive. In their very inaccuracy is their usefulness to a comparative, adversarial perspective on gender. To understand just how culturally-determined this is, please take this spectrum and apply it to the understanding of masculine and feminine traits in another culture. I will not presume to describe the extremes of the stereotypes in these other cultures but I expect that each of you has enough familiarity with at least one of them that I shall mention to make a comparison significant to demonstrate the point that this is not a fixed scale but a dramatically-shifting spectrum. The cultures to which I invite you to compare the American stereotype to are those of the following countries, only for the purposes of example, not of judgment, as it is not that they have a better approach, simply one that is obviously different enough to dispel notions of objective cultural relevance of the gender question – China, Japan, Korea, France, Russia, Uganda, New Zealand. I rest my case as to the fluctuating nature of the spectrum of gender identity here.

We must now move to the question of physical dimorphism in humans but first we may wish to address the question of generalized sexual dimorphism in animals, specifically in mammals. When we teach basic biological science, the question of sexual dimorphism arises nearly instantly. It is, perhaps, the first question that one must answer to say anything important about any species, human or otherwise. Is the species sexually differentiated? Animals, with a few notable exceptions that are irrelevant to this discussion, generally present obvious sexually-dimorphic characteristics. Mammals, those who give live-birth, among other characteristics, do so through the union of a male and female in copulation, producing through the combination of egg and sperm (in time) live young — babies, if you will. It takes both the male and the female sex organs, the male and the female genetic material to build that new life. There are physical traits that are commensurate with these sexually-dimorphic realities that are unmistakable and beyond question – a penis and a vagina, ovaries and testicles simply to note two comparative groups. While these are not the only markers of sexual dimorphism, they are blatantly obvious ones and, while surgery may alter their presence and appearance, their physical nature without surgery is not in question. To deny that mammals are sexually dimorphic would be an unfounded error. That being said, this is neither relevant to the question of gender identity nor to that of sports competition in the least and I intend to demonstrate this disconnection shortly.

There is more than physically-demonstrable sex characteristics to differentiate those of those who contain particular hormonal mixtures and chromosome states. It has certainly been presented to you that there is a question of hormonal quantity, in particular that of testosterone, that defines male and female in a sexually-dimorphic species like the human. This is certainly the case but there is a wide band of disagreement resulting from the argument and it is, sadly, often dramatically misinformed and based on questions of athlete-doping for the purpose of performance enhancement rather than that of sexual differentiation. There have been proposals to your committee and other sports organizations that declare that those individuals who identify long-term as female and whose testosterone concentrations are below a certain concentration (some argue for 10nM, some 5nM, others for different amounts but they are arbitrary at best), should be permitted to compete in sexually-dimorphic sporting competitions. What these arguments miss, either by design or by accident, is that the current level of testosterone defines little in terms of absolute performance, only in terms of time-specific abilities. There is nothing, not chemical, not physical, not surgical that may be done to reverse the development procedure in its entirety, of a body. Decades of increased testosterone levels between birth and adulthood will create a proportionally stronger body, not compared to other individuals but compared to that body that would have otherwise existed – we are never comparing one person with another but only that person with an alternate version of the physical self, as that is all that is possible in these matters. Chromosome and hormone functions will decide developmental questions from early (as early as three months in some cases, perhaps earlier) in fetus growth, continuing throughout life. To shift these is to change future development, not past development. While muscles in a lowered testosterone environment will almost certainly become weaker, muscles in a starvation environment will do the same, as will muscles in a reduced-gravity environment and neither of those two situations is proposed as a factor for sex-status judgment for competitive sports. The truth of the matter is, simply put, that nature cannot be reversed; its future path may be changed to resemble a different history but that is by active compensation rather than rewriting the history of an individual’s body. While it is unquestionably important to ensure fairness through the measurement of naturally-occurring chemicals in the body compared to those artificially-introduced by drugs, this is not a test for performative gender nor for biological sex traits and its use as such is of questionable scientific or social merit at best.

There is the question, then, of statistical viability. As I have mentioned, I will present no numeric evidence here, as this is open to interpretation and selection bias. I invite each of you to take the data available to you historically and perform calculations as you see fit to verify what I state here. There is, as many have presented to you, vast overlap on each measurement criteria of determination of male and female performance. I speak here of developmentally-typical individuals. There will always be extremes that fall outside what I will give as general tendencies due to disordered growth and this is not a judgment of those individuals, only a statement of the norm, statistically-speaking. The tallest and shortest of humans may be grouped so that the vast majority of the tallest will be men, the vast majority of the shortest will be women. The strongest and weakest of humans may also be grouped so that the extremes of the strong will be men and the extremes of the weak will be women. This is easily verifiable and, in many ways, goes without saying. What is left, however, is that the overwhelming majority of humans fall in a medium area where height varies across a wide spectrum, where strength ranges dramatically. The overlap is not simply a small center of the population but the vast majority, where an unremarkable height or strength range for female and male are center-shifted but whose extremities, where they do not overlap, are minuscule by comparison to the overlapping quantity. This argument is often made and it is undeniably true but it is, in a word, irrelevant to the world of international competitive sports. It may be a valid argument for sports at the amateur level but, even there, it is somewhat questionable for many reasons, the most obvious one of which is the fairness of comparative training regimes across divergent body types. Why, you may ask, is this irrelevant, but I believe you likely already have the answer in mind. Without a doubt, those athletes that are competing at a level that you are deliberating on are not in the middle region. They are, by definition, the extremes of important measures, such as strength, endurance, capacity for training improvement and fitness. They are predominantly, as you will likely already know, male in any objective sense of physical excellence. This is, I caution, not a judgment of males as being better than females but a simple statement of the statistical data that may only be interpreted to show that those on the upper extreme of sports performance will undoubtedly, in a numerically-balanced population, be male. This is partly due to hormones during development but it is certainly not due to hormone concentrations on the day of the competition, much as having a good breakfast may make a minuscule difference to performance but the question of spending ten years being malnourished compared to eating a healthy diet will most certainly have dramatic results, all other things being equal, on almost every aspect of an individual’s physical ability.

We cannot deny the presence of sexual dimorphism in terms of these physical characteristics, many of which make substantial difference in the question of sports performance. To attempt to do so would be lunacy and riddled with self-contradiction. There are excellent arguments for gender inclusion but a mistaken impression that there is no biological difference in the physical bodies of biological male and female would be an unmistakable error and one not in keeping with the scientific approach to sports that we continue to adhere to as an example of fairness and understanding.

What can be denied, however, is that sexual dimorphism is the deciding factor. It is one of many factors – environment, nutrition, training practice, sleep, mental health, genetic profile to name but a few others whose importance may be less or greater than sex traits but whose presence is undeniable, among many others of varying levels of importance to the outcome. This is not to say that those of varying gender identities must be allowed to compete in sexually-divergent sports but simply to point out that sexual divergence is not an accurate means of differentiating the categorization of competition in sports.

It is a historical generalization for the sake of simplicity and nothing more. To argue that men and women should be held to different competitive standards is as insulting to those who compete in the female category as to that of the male, demonstrating an impossibility of equality that is, in a word, disgusting. This is perhaps even more extreme in group sports (ice hockey, soccer, football), where the assumption that a group of females and a group of males cannot be holistically competitive with measurably-unpredictable results divergent enough for fair sports practice. That aside, however, the notion of using obviously-visible sexual dimorphism as the deciding characteristic for sports is not in keeping with the level of scientific understanding nor that of cultural responsibility that is inherent in the notion of sports as an egalitarian system of competition through merit rather than predetermined outcome. Sports are held up as the pinnacle of self-determination and rightly so, except in this area of sexual determinism and it is here that we must question this and overturn its legacy for the future of our children and our culture.

It is not because I am female that I do well or badly in physical exercise. It is not because I am male that I do well or badly as a runner, as a hockey player, as a tennis player, as a skier. My sex will undoubtedly determine some of my physical characteristics and yours, as they will everyones. It is through environmental change, training and myriad other considerations that we all work for improvement of our bodies in the service of physical performance and excellence thereof. But to use a loose determiner such as sexual dimorphism when what we are really measuring is a group of other characteristics is both confusing and confused in logic and in social responsibility. We are being seen through the lens of society for the first time in the history of human society, in that we must no longer hide behind the notion that physical sex and individual identity are the same — that they are even linked in any meaningful way other than through cultural expectation is no longer understood to be more than stereotype or trained-in performance and the politics of inclusion. As the example to human excellence, fairness and inclusion that the Olympic Games has been held up, rightly, to be, this cultural hatred must no longer be preserved within the games.

The only true measure of fairness in competition is that which is already, to a large degree in many cases, employed in many sports already. It is often used in combination with sex traits but on its own carries far more socially-responsible outcomes without the necessity to give up on competitive fairness or a motivation for excellence. In horse-racing and boxing, for example, physical size and weight are the determiners for competition. We already, especially in many areas of track competition, have all competitors in the same field – take, for example, the idea that in a marathon, all runners run the same course (approximately) simultaneously and their scores, in this case their times, are compared and grouped afterward. To apply this to other sports is not trivial but it is, I would propose, a necessary compromise. This would entail an end to the sex trait selection of male and female but would not include all athletes in a general comparative pool that would exclude based on physical characteristics, rather open the field to a greater degree of sport excellence. As an example, we can take the winter sport of ice hockey, one that has been a notable part of the culture of my childhood and, if this is less familiar to you, you may use any example that you like from your own background and the result would be similar. The typical professional “male” hockey team is built from those who are of large stature and high strength. There are exceptions to this and there is variation between the expected norm for those in goal, defense or offense. This variation is obvious and I need not describe it in detail. A “female” hockey team, by comparison, is generally of smaller individuals with less strength but who play what is often termed a “finesse” game compared to the more brute-force style of their male counterparts. This is neither judgment nor should it be. And to suggest that these two approaches should be meshed would result in either an extreme of brutality on the ice or technical mastery that would easily be destroyed by physical aggression – neither state of competition would be self-sustaining or, to be just as to the point, enjoyable either to play or to watch. What I would suggest, which I am certainly neither first nor the last so to do, is to maintain these divisions and add several others for varying types of physical and stylistic variations. Groupings with varying degrees of physical contact being permissible, for example, varying potentials for weight, height and other types of size, muscle density, speed determiners and so forth. This would result in perhaps five different competitive models within the overarching discipline of competitive ice hockey. This generalization may then be applied to other sports – in track, for example, it would be similar to the differentiation between 100m, 200m and 5000m. Different athletes would compete in different events categorized by a divergence of physical characteristics and intent (physical characteristics being height classification, weight group, muscle density and similar, intent being, in this case, the distance but in others, potentially, the style of play, level of physical contact, level of interpersonal aggression compared to technical skill, point scoring compared to physical confrontation).

I present this publicly for the thoughts of all but directly as a response to what I have seen as a global phenomenon of divergent support from youth on both sides of an issue that I see as neither necessitating confrontation nor requiring absolute adherence without compromise. What I have spoken of here neither destroys the ability of those who identify as women, men, or otherwise to compete, to compete together and to compete fairly, nor capitulates to the demand to include all in a single competition where fairness would be eliminated by physical determinism but the performance of social equality would be upheld. In keeping with the necessity for social understanding and inclusion of all, regardless of gender identity, classification by physical measurement and intent of action is, from my perspective, the only possible solution that neither overturns social progress nor denigrates the value of advances in inclusion in sports that have been made since the modern Olympic Games were begun more than a century ago, one of the most socially-inclusive forces that we have yet seen even as early as the beginning of the twentieth century when the extremes segregation by race and sex were norms throughout the world but those of various races and genders competed on the field together before the eyes of a world not yet willing to embrace equality.

In furthering the advances both of sports and society, I pledge in hope that progress will be made in the games to come both in the immediate future and into the centuries that follow.

In the spirit of cooperation and understanding, I submit this humbly to you in thanks for your thoughts,

Avi Sato

Whiteness

Let’s speak for a moment about hate. You may think that this is not a problem but I assure you that, more than anything else, this will be the force that destroys humanity. Climate destruction is a massive issue. But I believe we will not make it far enough into the future for it to actually cause our extinction as we will get there first out of our indulgence for hatred.

I am certain that, if you are reading this, you will already be thinking that hate is a problem that other people suffer from. But hate goes by many names. Some of them are obviously negative – racism being the one that comes to mind right away. But there are other words for hatred that are often spun as positives. Nationalism, patriotism, pride, community spirit. These are all simply forms of exclusion and hatred that divide us and cause us to fight rather than work together.

I can already hear what you are thinking. Being patriotic doesn’t sound like it is a bad thing. I assure you, it’s going to kill us all.

There was a time when patriotism, nationalism were incredibly powerful tools for progress. These were ages where it took weeks to travel across a distance of a few hundred kilometers. When the capital city wasn’t a place where you visited for an afternoon but made a pilgrimage to for a month, taking weeks to get there and weeks to return home, at great personal risk. Now it’s a short drive or flight. Travel has ended the age of nationalism being a positive force. It used to be a unifying idea that brought people together. Now it tears people apart.

You are wondering how that is possible, I imagine. It’s because of time. When you live in a small community, dozens or hundreds of people sharing a similar outlook and way of life, nationalism is a way to strive for a larger common goal. If you are in a medieval farming town, nationalism is a way to overcome petty rivalry between you and the next village through a solid identity as part of a much more all-encompassing whole, the nation. But in the modern age, this is not its effect in the slightest. If you can travel to another nation in a matter of hours at no particular risk, it means that the idea of coming together with others of a different place is not served by defining that place as a single nation – it must be redefined as something that actually does include the people that you are likely to encounter on a regular basis or it has only the effect of making those you see appear different, as outsiders to be treated as “other” rather than “same”. It must be redefined to be the entire species, humanity.

At a time when people are increasingly mobile, when the place where you live is not a defining factor for your outlook as it was only a century ago, nationalism is our driver for hatred. You see the people in the next street, not the other side of the world, as being un-American, un-British, un-European. They do not fit in with your sense of what it means to be of this place where you live. But why should they? They are human and entitled to their thoughts and feelings and beliefs.

Of course, there are limitations to this freedom. I am often criticized for my willingness to abandon freedom in such things as religion or vice. But I see that as being true freedom, honestly, not less of it.

My freedom is not a freedom to do things but a freedom from things. I should be free to think without judgment. I should be free to live without danger. I should be free to live in general, actually.

Let’s look at this simply. I believe you should have the right to be free until that freedom causes someone else’s freedom to be restricted. If I am free to be healthy, that means that you cannot do anything that makes my health less and I cannot do anything that makes your health less. So that means that I should not have the right to smoke. And since healthcare is provided through a limited budget, if you get sick through self-neglect, it diminishes my possibility for effective treatment if something goes wrong so you also then would have a duty of care for yourself to ensure that you do not take more than the necessary component of healthcare provided. As such, no right to self-indulgence in a manner that is dangerous to the body. No drinking, no recreational drugs, no self-harm, healthy food, exercise. In other words, living a healthy life is a necessity so as not to deplete the rights of others.

But the issue of hate, that is a dangerous one. We have recently seen horrible acts engaged in in the name of defending white culture. As if white culture was a homogeneous thing. But even if it were, it would not be the only thing and others have a right to engage in their own cultural beliefs, as long as those beliefs and actions do not restrict the rights of others – if you wish to pray, pray; if you wish to kill someone else in the name of religion, no, not so much.

Being afraid of someone because of what they believe, where they come from, what they look like, this is the root of modern hatred. You are equal to me and I am equal to you. Not better, not worse. We must live together and coexist without competition, without fighting, without harm. It does not mean we have to be friends. It does mean that we have to be neighbors in a world that we share.

In faith

I am in no uncertain terms a Buddhist. I believe that the path to enlightenment is not one of faith but of understanding, that the peace within us is the peace that we must live into the world. I see the proper reaction to aggression not to submit nor to fight but to remain still and silent. I believe that the answer to force is to ignore it regardless of consequence, to confront loud anger with permanence and stillness, immovable in the face of opposition, not fighting back nor backing down. It is not a question of running away from those who oppose but of staring them in the face and remaining still, calm and silent.

I am also without doubt a believer in the ancient ways of Shinto. There is a spirit within everything, the same spirit that is within us, there being no division between the human and the animal and the plant and the inanimate. There is no divine, only the greater entity that is the combination of our spirits and those of all things. The gods are our spirits lived into the world and we are one with a universe neither created nor creating but simply reborn in its own image from endless past toward endless present. When we die, we simply change form and the spirit within us inhabits other beings, not as an entity but as a series of flexible fragments of that greater spirit that is within and around everything, the cause and the result.

The question, of course, becomes that of Christianity. I live in a self-proclaimed Christian country, although I see little evidence of it except in the stone monuments built to the glory of the church. In being a Buddhist, I follow the ways and teachings of the Buddha. Christians, however, ignore the teachings of the great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, and instead focus on dogmatic ritual. Jesus says not that we are children of god but that we are children in god. That we are one with the spirit. That we are equal and must love and live a life of service. I see these as universal truths and that we as humans must devote our lives to them, to follow in his path. But is this what it means to be a Christian or is it about belief in a trinitarian deity who desperately requires worship and acts in the world, separate from us, who judges our actions and decides our fate for all time? If it is this, I could never follow such an idea. But I could follow such a teacher as I believe Jesus was, a spiritual follower if not in name certainly in thought of the Buddha.

Stones of Sadness

I kneel on stone that feels like ice under my legs but that may in fact be melting my skin for all the awareness I have of my surroundings. It’s unlikely that it’s warm in the slightest, this being March in England. I’m simply amazed that it’s dry, as it’s been raining with only brief pauses for what I imagine is two weeks, although I would certainly swear to the fact that it has not stopped since the time of the crucifixion. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, o Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. The words ring in my ears as I speak them but am silent inside my mind, a state that I once would have thought impossible but now permeates every experience I have in this building. I speak the words and feel the presence of the Spirit but there seems to be no connection between me and the words, the words and the Spirit, or the tradition and any sort of comfort I keep showing up trying to find and blatantly failing at. There is peace, calm, silence. But it takes me nowhere. Still I am here on my knees feeling the brutal pain of hard stone that I hope will shake me from the misery of thought but it does nothing of the sort and standing I know that I am now a part of the decoration for visitors. There are few of those, I admit, who do not know me in this ancient sanctuary, yet in my loneliness I long simply to be alone. They know me so well yet my mind is a mystery to them that they do not realize exists — even from within the darkness of my personal clouds, it is no less unknown to me.

It’s not pain. Suffering rarely is, to be perfectly honest. It’s more like hallucination. I don’t imagine things into being. I experience them. They are no less real than anything else. They taste through my senses and I cannot separate them from what is truly out there, if indeed there is anything there in the first place other than my terrified self. I imagine with what passes these days for hope that there might still be a real world that I do not ever remember having experienced, although I may have. But that hope has taken a severe beating and looks more like rice paper than it resembles the stones against my legs.

The confusion is less dramatic than that, though. It isn’t a conflict or a fight. There’s no reality to fight for and no obvious interpretation. It simply is how each moment passes. But there is confusion. It is here, embodied in these words. Have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Have mercy on us, it echoes in my head or, perhaps, against the solid walls whose reverberations remain unsoftened by the few humans engaged in ritual around me. What have I done? If this is how I experience life and life is the consequence of that part of nature that we embody, I must have been a truly awful person throughout the ages, perhaps in this age.

Here is part of the problem. I know that I can find peace through embracing forgiveness. I might not have much faith in the idea of redemption in a Christian sense but I doubt Jesus would have been particularly troubled that I arrive here along a different path, even if the people around me might be a bit shocked by where my mind’s footsteps have led.

But that’s just it. Forgiveness for what? This is where I am lost. I simply don’t remember. I am sure that, like all humans, I am guilty of having hurt people. I sincerely wish that I had not been and try always to make sure that I do not. But there have definitely been times in my past when it has happened. They’re pretty far back, though. Not because I’ve been all that good the last decade of my life but I have little memory at all of it. Fleeting images but they’re incomplete and, more than likely, false.

I began with love. At least, love began before me. I don’t remember, mostly because I was not yet. But that part I have no difficulty believing is true. Parents and grandparents, overwhelmingly caring, teaching and demonstrating what a life is supposed to be. Until school happened. Then things didn’t simply go off the rails. The train ran without a slightest hint of ritardando into a mountain through which no tunnel had been cut. Peace ended.

I know what you’re thinking. I wasn’t miserable because I had to leave the warmth of family love that predated starting school. Well, sure, I did that, too, and like all other children it was not a pleasant experience. That, however, was not the real problem. Intelligence, you have abandoned me, and that absence has a name, and that name is primary school. A place where intelligence is mocked and knowledge is limited to what you can fit on a handheld chalkboard. Usually the sum of two twos. Or, if you’re very lucky, the correct spelling for cat.

At home there was reading and writing. Books were imbued with a living spirit. Each poetic word had a life that jumped from the page or the lips and danced into the world. Basho’s frog jumped ripples into the pond in the middle of the living room while Keats’ belle dame danced with the beautiful Rosalind on the rug beside my bed. Numbers flowed in unrestricted clouds of abandon through my daydreams and Bach’s pedals underpinned Scarlatti’s dancing sixteenths. But at school, idiocy found a voice and thought was abandoned. And that’s before we even got to the other students. There may well be teachers out there who despair at the lack of thought that goes into teaching young children. But I don’t know if I encountered any of them. Perhaps they have just become so used to what is normal and the fact that most people who are young have no desire beyond playground and nap time and crayons. But it would have been lovely to have been inspired just once in all those years the way that I was with every new day at home.

But that’s not what’s going through my head most of the time as I kneel here. Yes, childhood was a combination of brilliant sunshine and unthinkable darkness with little between. The education system is a failure. We all say it but nothing really changes. Curriculums come and go, as do teachers and students, yet there is an assumption that common knowledge is common knowledge and that what one generation learned is what the next generation should learn, stereotypical behavior and performed normalcy must be perpetuated, and age is important to learning. It’s all ridiculous. But, as I said, that’s not what I’m thinking, at least not actively.

The real issue isn’t even what happened next. I always imagined that this thing people called love was something worth pursuing. Perhaps they even thought it was and weren’t just performing for the benefit of others. I didn’t know that at the time, though. I really did believe that everyone else was also just pretending so that they’d fit in. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanted to have someone touch their hands, certainly not other things. People were always too close. Yes, very special people warranted hugs, even cuddling. But the general public would be far better off in another room, if not on another continent. They were, I cannot emphasize enough, too close simply by virtue of existing. They were unpredictable and twitchy, noisy and, more than anything else, constantly seeming to be busy thinking about things that made no difference and doing things that simply didn’t need to be done. They called it getting on with things. I called it stupidity. I still do. Stillness is beautiful yet that’s not why I’m still here kneeling on the stones.

I did what most people would call falling in love. I call it friendship. True partnership, finding a person with whom I would happily spend my life. Not because I wanted to see them naked or lie in bed with them. I had no idea why people wanted to do those things. I still have no real idea but I had, even then, learned to pretend that this was the root of interest. But she was brilliant and understanding, accepting and didn’t pretend. Not ever, at least not to me. She spoke her mind and her mind was, in so many ways, clear.

Yet in one way, it wasn’t. I’m not sure how this happened. She believed truly that she was hurting people by her presence and that we would have better lives if she were not here. I couldn’t convince her that she was wrong. I didn’t care if there was no other person in the world who wanted to spend time with her. I’d happily do it without a moment’s pause if she’d let me. But she was adamant.

She asked me to save her and I failed.

We have erred. But it’s not quite that simple. I have failed to do the one thing that was in my power to do to make this a better place. I let her die.

I am here kneeling and time is flowing past but so slowly that I really haven’t taken up any noticeable amount of it to the people around me. I am asking forgiveness for this but I don’t know what else I have done wrong and that was so very long ago.

I cannot be forgiven for it, though. Not ever, because she is gone and forgiveness requires making amends, fixing the problem that I have caused. And she is dead by her own hand that I failed to prevent, failed to save her from herself and with every day I live without her in my life, I am aware that I can do nothing to make that past untrue in the present.

There is always more, though, as one would expect there to be. I lost myself that day. I don’t think I realized it at the time and I kept acting, kept pretending to think and behave as others did. But it was all rote performance after that. It’s not that I didn’t ask for help. I did. And occasionally someone even tried to give it. Which is a huge portion of the problem. I was always terrified.

I don’t see things as they are. I see things as they are merged with what I fear they might be in the moment. There’s no way to tear those two things apart once they enter the mind. Fragments of conversations or, far worse, television, overlayed onto whatever my senses are taking in, that by the time they reach my brain, they are indistinguishable. You may call it hallucination, I said. That’s not quite what it is, I must admit, but it’s pretty close. It’s not what normal people think of as perception or interpretation. But it’s how I experience the world.

Why, you may ask, but the answer is complicated. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. I pretended it wasn’t the case, just as I’d been pretending by that point for a decade or more that I cared about what other people cared about, wanted what they wanted, and acted naturally how they did, even though every moment was just a memorized acting job. I told them it wasn’t true even though I knew within myself it was.

And when she left, I didn’t just pretend. I started to believe it myself. They gave me round, white tablets that would stop me from having to be afraid, panic no longer, and turn acting into reality.

So I swallowed them every day and sank deeper into the fuzziness of a world that I could imagine simply didn’t exist and in that dream it would disappear and I could live within the moment. It was. It wasn’t good or bad because I was far too asleep for that. I jumped and skipped and danced and had no idea I was. I became passionate and angry, even though my subconscious knew those weren’t in the least real for me, but my conscious self was so disconnected that I thought it was the truth.

I forgot most of the past and created a whole new self. Often with each new day because yesterday’s self simply stopped existing. It was likely an intensely troubling existence but I didn’t know.

And then it ended.

It ended because the pills did. Gradually they gave way to panic and fear and pain in spite of swallowing them at exactly the right times. So I had no choice. They had to go away and I would rejoin a world that I had forgotten existed — a world that I had no idea what it was like and wouldn’t know until the pills were in the past. This world of hard stone and pasts that cannot be escaped or forgiven.

I have spent so much of this time contemplating what I have done wrong. It’s not like what other people are asking forgiveness for — although, I expect they are asking for it in a vastly different way, if they truly think someone came back to life and is now living in some theoretical afterlife. They have feelings of lust and hurt people with their actions, perpetuate a segregated society where competition is the norm and people play emotional games rather than saying what they feel and think. They hate and they forget that they are no more than a part of the entire Spirit of nature. So they ask forgiveness.

Me, I am tortured every moment by an existence that is only in the loosest sense attached to reality. Is that a punishment for letting her die? I hope not. I stand and hear words of absolution yet I cannot remember ten years of my own performed evil. He sounds so certain and I hear only echoes. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall me. Yes, it certainly feels that way. But I can hope it is not true. Perhaps the spirit of the stone that I now stand on will save me from myself and return me to a peaceful nature. Let us pray.

They tell me people are good but you know that’s simply ridiculous. People are so terrifyingly evil and we know it and we still pretend that there is some redeeming spark within them that we should dig through layers of filth to discover and polish with effort and present to them as a gift of honor. But if it’s not obvious how good someone is, I ask you why would you search it out within the darkness that pretends to be their soul? I have spent months wandering in the depths of the hell that is humanity, surrounded by people who were looked at as being the pinnacle of goodness, academics and educators, searching for the secrets of the past for no reward except the knowledge and beauty that is to be found there. There were exceptions to the blackness of heart. But, as you may imagine in your more realistic moments, the exception only made the rule far more blatant — and made others even more determined to hide it from sight.

Son of God?

Hatred is not good. Vengeance is not good. Division is not good. We approach these things as if they are a part of human nature. We are not violent. We are not greedy. We are not evil by nature. They are things that are taught to us in exactly the same way as we have learned everything in our lives, from spelling and subtraction to walking and playing the piano. Practice, repetition, and endless belief in the fact that we should do something endlessly to make sure we can do it without thinking.

That’s where the idea of tradition comes from. We say change is bad. We say modernization is bad. We fight against it not because there is something particularly good or spiritual or even enjoyable about the way things have been but we are afraid of changing in case we don’t like what it’s changed to. The older people get, the more they usually hate change. It’s not about nature. It’s about practice. If you’re older, you’ve had many years more getting used to whatever it is being however it has been. But there was a time when that was new, that was something you had to get used to. You might not remember it but it happened and you managed. It can’t have been all that bad or you wouldn’t be fighting to keep the idea that was, back then, brand new — a change.

You may be curious what I have in mind because within the context of faith, change is perhaps the only word almost as hated as evil — and in many places, although you might not be prepared to admit it, you can forgive evil but will complain about change until the end of time.

And I’m going to ask you to change something that is fundamentally wrong with modern Christian understanding of faith and of the world but that you’ve held onto for an incredibly long period of time. It’s an error of translation that has become so deeply rooted in the dogmatic adherence to the church, rather than to faith, that it is often used to symbolize the faith itself. What I’m speaking of is the trinity. I’m not going to refer to it with respect or give it the often-used title, the Holy Trinity, because not only is it a silly concept but it’s also completely at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the original text of the gospels and the epistles. And if we’re not going to believe Jesus on this one, well, perhaps we’re looking at a whole other problem with organized Christianity.

Let’s take a look at this from a basic perspective. What does the church mean when they talk about the concept of the trinity, first of all? It’s probably the most hotly-contested concepts in the past hundred years of faith-directed scholarship. God as a single entity with three parts — all of them equally God but separate and distinct. If that sounds like a confusing idea, you may not even have recognized just how brutally convoluted it becomes when self-declared intelligent people have a multi-hour discussion with the express purpose of exploring it theologically. Because you can’t. You can’t get an answer on it because there isn’t one. Look all you want but it’s not going to appear so if you want to keep looking intelligent and hold the position that the idea of the trinity is sensible, you have to confuse everyone else into misunderstanding what you’re saying — a straightforward view of it will quite clearly result in the idea being, finally, abandoned.

So where did such a concept come from? Simply, it’s an error in translation. Anyone who’s ever studied languages in school will see where this comes from. We are talking about the issue of articles — “the” compared to “a”. Now, in English, which I assume you are all somewhat able to comprehend at least, since that’s the language we’re working in at the moment, the difference is very obvious. I pick up a book — some random book makes its way into my hand and now I’m holding it. I pick up the book — a specific, single book that we have already been talking about does the same thing. It’s quite a big difference. But in most other languages, it is rather less blatant. Comparatively few languages use an indefinite article, “a”. So if you want to talk about a book, all the books, or some of the books, it really is much the same. The only change appears when you are speaking of a specific book. I know that’s a little technical and this isn’t a language lesson. But I just want you to understand that this is a huge textual difference in English, one word meaning something specific and the other meaning something general, everything of a particular type. Which is why this argument generally falls on unreceptive ears among English speakers. But try it in Ecclesiastical Latin or Biblical Greek and the difference is between specifying that you’re talking about a particular object or person, or just leaving it out altogether and speaking of all things or people.

Three possible versions exist for this in English but two of them would be identically translated in most other languages. “Jesus is the son of God”, “Jesus is a son of God”, “Jesus is son of God”. The first one implies that, although it doesn’t specify, there is only one son of God. The second and third ones pretty much guarantee that there are more. The first one is ambiguous. Perhaps he is the son of God but his brother is also the son of God, in the same way that you could say they are both the son of Mary. But that’s neither here nor there since what it actually says, in every single case, is the third one — “Jesus is son of God”. It doesn’t say it all that often, realistically, which is a little curious, since it makes it into pretty much every service I’ve ever encountered in all walks of Christian practice.

But what does this actually mean? Well, it means something very frightening for people who don’t believe in the sanctity of equality for all people. It also means something far more revolutionary, something that would justify the people of Jesus’ day being frightened of him. There’s pretty much nothing else in his teachings that’s all that scary. Yes, he wanted people to have a personal relationship with God but he wasn’t the first Jewish scholar to point that out and certainly wasn’t the last. And that was really only frightening for some of the leaders and even then, he didn’t say ignore the spiritual leadership, just that you have to speak to God directly. So it wasn’t revolutionary, wasn’t an incitement to massive structural change.

Being God’s child, though, that’s not just a revolution, that’s the one and only revolution the world ever needed to see and that was going to scare anyone with a position of power. Because power was all about proximity to God. Leaders appointed by divine right and even leaders within the church being there because of their understanding of the teachings as written in scripture. So if you are a child of God, do you really need to listen to other people? If your parents have the ultimate power in a situation, you don’t need intercession. You don’t need guidance. You can just talk to them directly and that’s the only authority you need.

You see what I mean. This was the end to oppression, the end to slavery, the end to financial competition, the end to all competition, for that matter. If we are all children of God, we are all equal and must not be oppressed any more than we would allow it to happen between our own children.

If you’re beginning to see how this could cause quite a problem for Jesus, that’s exactly the point. He was saying something that was dangerous to everyone in power and not always for the same reason. The Romans had reason to be scared because empire was by definition unequal and they were on top with everything to lose. The Jewish leaders had reason to be scared because they weren’t going to have power anymore if people truly shifted to following these teachings. Sure, they would still be able to help with spiritual matters and their role as priests and teachers wouldn’t change but they wouldn’t be able to turn spiritual understanding into cultural and political supremacy and inequality anymore. And men were scared because equality meant that ownership of women would be impossible — you can’t own your equal, only property. And the rich would be scared because equality means everyone’s holdings tend toward the mean, the average, and that means they’d have less. So the powerful would be less powerful and the rich would be less rich and the greedy would be less satisfied. But the oppressed would be free, the owned would be liberated, and the poor would finally have enough, the voiceless would have the means to talk, and women would now speak in the temples and meet men as partners rather than as, as it was in the law, livestock.

So it was overlooked. And it wasn’t an error. There really were discussions — “can we get away with this?” and so forth. Of course the answer was yes. The common people would believe whatever they were told to believe because they couldn’t read the original texts and, as a huge bonus, the people who had the power had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were. So the idea of Jesus being the son of God instead of him speaking quite intentionally of himself and all of us being the children of God, deserving of forgiveness and happiness, as long as we accept that we are not alone in that, it was an idea that got buried.

What now, though? We live in a society where women are free, where slavery has been abolished, you say. Not quite. Two thousand years of church-mandated inequality and hierarchical, patriarchal training doesn’t get eliminated like that. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have even been attempted in most ways.

Every study done of men in the past two decades, and there have been thousands of them, has found that men see themselves as better, stronger, more important, smarter, and more deserving than women. That white people see themselves as better than other races. That people see hierarchy as just and natural and the best way to live, even if they are on the bottom. And that submission and subservience are qualities they value in others but not in themselves.

And we wonder why people are being killed, starving, oppressed? We shouldn’t wonder.

No, it’s not the fault of the church that this is happening. At least, it’s not only the fault of the church. Subjugation was around long before Jesus. But he gave us a weapon to conquer it and for two millennia we haven’t taken up that weapon. We’ve pretended it doesn’t exist and ignored it and in spite of being told to treat every human as family, as equal, regardless of sex or age or faith or race or language or place of birth. We spend our lives giving thanks for the words of Jesus. We call ourselves people of faith.

The basis of Jesus’ teachings was revolutionary equality, of being equal in the eyes of God, of being equal to him. That’s the other implication of the statement. Not that he’s greater than everyone else but that everyone is as good as he is, in the eyes of God, and that we should simply get on with acting like God’s children and stop fighting among ourselves and treating our siblings with disrespect and hatred.

You may not have known this until today and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not your fault that this horrendous crime of intentional misrepresentation was committed against you. You were trained and taught through thousands of repetitions that you should feel ashamed of being less than Jesus but be comfortable with human delegations of power. But it’s simply, unequivocally, irreversibly, and painfully wrong.

Jesus told us we were equal, all of us. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he put it in words for us so that we would believe and understand and stop acting like we’re better, or worse, than everyone else.

So you have a choice at this point. You can ignore what Jesus said or you can listen and believe his words. It’s up to you. Thank you.