UPDATE: On place, virtual reality and compatibility

Today, a friend linked me to related coverage in The Atlantic: The Case Against Reality

It’s an interview with a cognitive scientist who believes our perceived reality is just that, a perception, regardless of what our senses “objectively” see, feel, hear, touch and taste. And that’s evolutionary advantageous because it allows us to think in the abstract.

Cool theory, though the best part of this article was the comparison between “reality” and quantum physics. The particles don’t exist until someone tries to observe them. Things only become part of “reality” when someone processes the stimuli. Therefore, the object that caused the stimuli is only as real as the person believes it to be.

A touch is not always a feeling is not a touch.

Well, if that’s the case, I guess we are already living in a kind of “virtual” reality. What’s the point. Everything is an illusion!!! Or is it a perception? My brain hurts.

 

On place, virtual reality and compatability

“Geography is destiny.”

I’m beginning to appreciate the versatility of this simple phrase.

I considered unpacking this year’s election as a prime example (just check out this map of voting patterns by the New York Times).

I’ll spare you. Let’s talk something fun and fluffy: long-distance relationships.

Even in this age of modern tech, when we can “face-time” without moving an inch or find a date through strategic swipes on our smartphones, place still constrains our personal lives. There are just some things we must “feel” to feel. All hail the power of touch!

Until we can upload our tactile senses or some form that connects our physical bodies to this “cloud” of communication, place will continue to matter. Touch is the last barrier, the inevitable next step in breaking the chains imposed on *love* by physical distance. We already store most of our social interactions in this bustling crosshatch of wireless signals and cable cords that span oceans, that bounce off space satellites spinning hundreds of miles per hour, that ping and vibrate and light up our screens. A new virtual reality communication network could make us more likely to commit and stay in long-distance relationships.

But is that a good thing?

I guess that depends on your theory of human compatibility.

If a person’s compatibility is just limited to a handful of individuals, each relationship should be treasured as a rarity. Loss aversion is logical. “There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” or “Good things fall apart so better things can come together,” are meaningless cliches we tell ourselves and our friends to make letting go seem less tragic than it actually is: losing your one and only (or very few). Virtual reality is a godsend for all hapless romantics.

But if you think humans are simply hungry for connection and will savor a bite of salmon just as much as say, a fresh shucked oyster, then virtual reality is a crooked scheme to hold people back, to distract them from life itself. If geography is destiny, virtual reality would be rejecting destiny and opting for delusion. Everyone’s mind would be stuck in the place they were living last. It would stunt people’s networking opportunities and deteriorate local communities. Social capital would sit and stagnate and inevitably rot. Both good and bad relationships would likely get unwarranted extensions.

I’m not sure how I feel about human compatibility or what havoc virtual reality could wreak on social circles. But I am confident that place should matter. Our physical surroundings shape how we walk, talk, think, breathe, eat, sleep — everything! It reminds us what’s real; it calibrates our senses; it connects us to roots deeper than our years. No matter how much of our day is spent floating in “the cloud,” the idea of place grounds us in space and time.

If place ceased to matter, we’d be more fearless in falling or staying in love with whoever, wherever, whenever… but in so many other ways, I think we’d end up lost in our own heads and lonely in our bodies.

The Electoral College needs to be repealed, or it needs a serious retrofit

Amid petitions to either repeal the electoral college or for electors to reject their state’s popular vote, the 2016 election has made it clear, once again, that article 2, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution has been hijacked by the two-party system.

Today’s electoral college reminds me of an armchair (representative democracy) someone tried to convert into a rocking chair (direct democracy). Halfway through, they got distracted. The result? A chair teetering on two legs and a single rocker — rickety, uncomfortable and just plain wrong.

Let’s backtrack to what the original armchair looked like:

Each state got a certain number of electoral votes based on the number of politicians they have in the federal legislature (# of house representatives + 2 senators). On the presidential ballot, you’d be voting for electors, not necessarily candidates. These positions, separate from the house and the senate, would be short-lived; just a month later, sometime in December, electors would meet to decide the next president and vice-president and that would be that.

So under the original armchair model of the electoral college, your 2016 ballot would’ve looked something like this if you were voting in Alaska (1 house representative and 2 senators):

Vote for THREE:

  1. Candidate A
  2. Candidate B
  3. Candidate C
  4. Candidate D
  5. Candidate E
  6. Candidate F
  7. etc.

The armchair was borne out of compromise. Some framers of our constitution wanted the president to be seated on a rocking chair, or by popular vote, while others wanted the president to be elected by Congress or governors (wooden church pew?). The latter, who agreed to settle for the electoral system, envisioned each state’s electors to act as an informed “committee” to pick the next president. They’d be policy whizzes, great readers of personal traits, in tune with the people’s interests and loyal to the basic criteria of what makes someone qualified to be commander-in-chief.

But this is how most ballots looked in November 2016:  

Vote for ONE:

  1. Clinton and Kaine (Democratic)
  2. Johnson and Weld (Libertarian)
  3. Stein and Baraka (Green-Rainbow)
  4. Trump and Pence (Republican)
  5. Write-in candidates

What gives? 

Today, the task of electors is largely left up to political parties. They hire policy experts, consult research think-tanks and (sigh) lobbyists to pick a candidate and craft a platform they believe is best for the nation and will be supported by the party’s constituents. At the national conventions, not only is the presidential nominee and their running mate selected, but so are the 538 “hidden” electors you don’t see on today’s ballot. In most states, minus Nebraska and Maine, a vote for a major party candidate is essentially a vote for the entire bloc of electors in that state chosen by that candidate’s party. Given this winner-take-all scenario, it’s no surprise that presidential politics is a two-player game.

Since the founding of the college, 157 electors have gone against state voters. About half were faithless because the candidate they were slated to vote for died in the one-month span between the November election and the December convention date. But 82 chose to be faithless on their own accord; the most notable being 23 Virginia electors in the vice president pick during the election of 1836. Though this kind of “faithless” voting has never reversed the outcome of any U.S. election to date, this year could set a new precedent (because Trump’s nomination and election just wasn’t enough.)

Although a federal law to punish electors for failing to vote for their state’s popular choice would require a constitutional amendment, many states have passed their own laws to fine or nullify the votes of electors who are “faithless” to the popular vote. This, along with the two-party system, is responsible for today’s dysfunctional half-rocking armchair that seats our next President. It’s neither entirely faithful to the popular vote or to the electors job of “checking” it.

Here are three big reasons our founders created the electoral college in the first place:

1) Prevent the election of a populist candidate who caters to tyranny and extreme political views

In the Federalist papers, John Adams argued it was human nature for people to resist governance. Democracy is dangerous because it gives people the right to pick their rulers when they inherently cringe at the thought of being ruled. Furthermore, Adams claimed the crowd-rallying power of extreme factions made it unlikely for centrist candidates to win the popular vote, despite their level-headed platform to unite the country through compromise. And as we saw in this year’s election, lukewarm policies elicit lukewarm voting patterns while extreme positions inspire populist excitement and passion to get to the polls.

2) Balance of power between big and little states (aka our country is too big and different to rule with popular vote)

The electoral system forces candidates to consider the interests of voters in rural, less-populated states by making their votes “worth” more than a voter in a more populous state. But these bigger states also get a bigger overall chunk of electors in the college vote — it’s a brilliant way to balance any one state’s influence on the election in a nation with that has so much geographic, demographic and cultural diversity.

3) The average Jane or Joe doesn’t have the time or knowledge to vet the best candidate for the most important job in the country.

This one, from Alexander Hamilton (!), we’ve heard a million times over. But technology and media has made it easier for citizens to be better informed about the candidates, their history, and their platforms than was feasible in the late 18th century.  The American people are no longer too dumb and lazy to select their leader through a good old popular vote. But the election of Donald Trump, a man with zero political background or realistic policy ideas, and the role of the media in this outcome suggests otherwise…

In short, the framers built an armchair, instead of a rocking chair to protect against a populist outsider like Trump from wreaking havoc in Washington. The full rocking chair model, electing the president and vice-president through direct popular vote, was seen as too risky.

Whether you think that was a good idea or not is up for debate, but it’s beyond debate that Donald Trump is less qualified and less experienced than Hillary Clinton to work in the Oval Office (though I heard he wants to move the president’s HQ to Trump Tower).

HRC has served as the first lady, was a long-time New York senator and served as secretary of state for the Obama administration. Donald Trump ran on the fumes of an angry and fed-up populace characterized as “anti-establishment,” rallying behind his extreme social positions and unrealistic policy “solutions” like a trade war with China or building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it.

To prevent our federal government from collapsing under the weight of someone so unfit to serve as president, our founding fathers created the stable armchair model. If the electoral college was to function as it was intended by the Constitution’s framers, the electors would put Clinton in office regardless of the popular vote. Giving electors the freedom to do their job, to act as a check on the popular vote, would essentially be retrofitting the half-rocker back to its original form — a functional and comfy armchair with a little wiggle room for direct democracy’s missteps.

But while political parties continue to fight over upgrading it, retrofitting it or burning it altogether in favor of a popular vote, we’re all sitting in these ridiculous chairs, praying this next presidency won’t tip us over.

 

 

The Conversation On Labels, Without Labels

Recent clamor and debate over an op-ed written by Caroline Bartlett ’20 reminds me of Shaun King’s visit to campus last fall. Some liked his talk, others thought it was a little lackluster, but in the packed pews of Mead Chapel, I remember there was a collective eyebrow raise when Charles Rainey ’18 stood up and asked this question:

(I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist)

“How do you get people to understand, to really listen to what it’s like to be black under a regressive administration like Middlebury’s? A campus that is so overwhelmingly white, in a state that is so unbearingly white … white people who consider themselves socially liberal but are really complicit in perpetuating racism on this campus?”

King thanked Rainey for his question. He stepped back from the mic for a second. Then, he began to tell a story. His humble response blew me away.

While serving on the community council at his church, King received complaints that he disrespected women. One afternoon, a colleague took him aside and pointed out that he habitually talked over women at the meeting, but never the men.

“My first response? ‘Pft. No I don’t,'” King said. He bristled at the thought that he, someone who had devoted his life to social justice activism, could be considered sexist, let alone be one.

His colleague calmly cited meeting after meeting, instance after instance, phrase after phrase that King had cut off. All came from women.

But it wasn’t the concrete examples that led King to examine his own bias. It was tone of the person who delivered them.

King described it not as a confrontation, but a conversation with someone who held him to a higher standard, who knew his actions didn’t reflect his intentions, who cared about him  enough to tell the truth: he wasn’t acting like his best self.

This simple story illuminates why conversations on gender and race often spin in circles on this campus; how basic assumptions on appropriate language and behavior are now divisive among students who, on the whole, are thoughtful and intelligent.

While King admitted his habit was sexist, it’d be absurd to label him as a misogynist. Shouldn’t we extend the same compassion to others if we accept the problem is systemic? We live in a society that bombards us with bias, that ingrains terrible assumptions within us. Mistaking these inevitable slip-ups in speech and action as permanent reflections of character, whether that’s an individual, a team or an entire department, just isn’t fair.

One can think sexist thoughts. One can do biased things. But we need to stop throwing around misogynist, racist, bigot or any of these rightfully-so offensive terms as damning nouns unless they are truly deserving.

I fear people will misconstrue my thoughts to be apologizing for the often blatant racism on this campus, the daily microaggressions against women, the structural biases embedded within our social spaces and our syllabi.

Let me make it clear that I’m not. I whole-heartedly agree with Rainey and Bartlett (an incredible first-year skier, and writer, who might not have gotten the credit she deserved for her record-smashing margin of victory). I agree that Middlebury as an institution needs to take a more progressive stance on equality and inclusivity. Students and administrators that perpetuate bias through their actions, or lack thereof, need to be held responsible. Policies need to change. Attitudes need to change. People need to change.

But if we condemn people to these derogatory labels, what hope does it leave for changing their core beliefs? What can it do but create defensive hostility?