Liars

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I’ve been watching a show on NetFlix called “Lie to Me.” It is clever, the acting is superb and the show, like all great dramas, presents many moral ambiguities. However, the central premise — that you can determine that people are lying through micro facial expressions, linguistic gestures and body language — is at best on shaky scientific ground.

Lying — especially by people you don’t know very well — is quite difficult to detect. Which is why so many conmen prosper. ‘Traditional’ lie detectors don’t do much better than any other system; they primarily measure stress and produce many false positives. Still, our entire legal and financial system depends on being able to determine whether someone is lying, or more importantly who should we trust.

Years ago, when I was a summer student in Toronto, I was recruited into a graduate study that tried to test exactly how well strangers could read each other. We were asked to answer a set of standard questions — some with the truth, some with lies. The other person was to guess which were which. I asked the supervisor how the results were going so far. Not statistically significant. It didn’t make for as interesting a graduate thesis but that’s science for you. Sometimes the null result is the result you get.

Courts have developed a complex system to measure truth and lies. First of all, we make it a serious offence to lie under oath. You might think that would not deter a determined liar who doesn’t expect to get caught but apparently it does weed out some. People prepared to lie in other situations — for example, to police — are reluctant to do so under oath. For some, the oath actually does involve them with their God. For others it may be more complex.

We also require people to face their accuser — and vice versa. Again, this acts as a deterrent for some and in other cases will actually lead people to lie — that is to deny what happened because they are afraid or embarrassed. Still, history has shown that it is more likely to lead to the truth than not.

Of course, the primary mechanisms to find the truth is cross examination and the comparison of stated testimony to physical evidence. When witnesses are inconsistent or when their story begins to contradict provable facts, we — the judge and jury — may be more inclined to disbelieve them. Still, there can be no doubt that it is at best a flawed system.

Some people are so good at lying — con artists and sociopaths — that even they don’t know when they are telling the truth. Some will actually choose to lie because — in contrast to commonly held aphorisms — it is actually easier to keep track of their lies than to admit to the truth.

It would be nice if we had a perfect way of reading people but we don’t. We’ll just have to muddle through as best we can. Fortunately, in civil societies based on the rule of law and well-ordered systems of trust — we’re pretty good at that.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Walking Away

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One the hardest things in life is to simply walk away. Try it sometimes when you are in an argument. The person you are fighting with will be enraged. They will scream at you to come back, call you a coward, gloat that you have given up and they have won. Walk out the door and you will have to hear about it for weeks or years. Yet walking away is sometimes the best thing you can do.

Violence is often averted and friendships and relationships saved by the simple act of walking away. As long as you come back, of course.

Much harder than walking away from a fight is walking away from your own life, your own stated values. It often requires a complete gestalt shift — a conversion of some kind — so you don’t see yourself as walking away from something but walking toward it. People who leave their families for another person have to be convinced that they are not so much leaving as being driven away or that the person they are leaving for is somehow a higher goal, a better love, a safer or healthier choice. Is it true? Sometimes, but it always will begin to feel true — never more so than if you feel the pangs of guilt.

Relationships are hard but we actually are wired to form new ones. It was essential for the survival of the species. Too many women died in childbirth; too many men died in war or while struggling with nature. If we couldn’t make new attachments where would we be?

Maybe the hardest thing to walk away from is yourself. We all have an image of who we are. We make commitments to others but especially to our own consciences. Deals with the universe if you like. No one, even killers, think of themselves as the ‘bad’ guy even when they embrace their own wickedness. They are locked into their own code of conduct and community — hence there is nothing worse than a snitch.

So where does that leave people who honestly think they are ‘good’ guys or gals? They believe in honesty but find themselves lying; they believe in strength but find themselves weakening in the face of adversity. How do you sleep at night when you feel you are about to break faith with yourself or someone else?

Mostly you don’t, I suppose. You lie awake trying to rationalize the things you know you have to do. Because sometimes it is not a matter of choice. Sometimes, things just get the better of you and walking away isn’t a positive thing but a necessary one.

Most of us only face these things once or thrice in our lives and the good thing about being older is that you learn that as long as you stay on your feet you can get to the other side.

And that’s ten minutes.

Gone Fishing

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I fully intended to delve deeper into philosophical issues like the central tenets of post-modernism or perhaps the role of the police in a democratic society but I’m tired and obsessing about the tasks that stretch ahead of me on this so-called day of rest. Frankly my brain has gone fishing so I shall, too.

Some of my fondest memories centre around fish. Or rather the catching thereof. When I was a kid my dad would often take us fishing. Sometimes it was just me; others it included my brother (who was less keen) and our friends. After a week spent on the road (he was a traveling salesmen) he would pile us in the back of the station wagon and drive us twenty or thirty miles (this was before we all converted to kilometers) to one of his favorite fishing spots. It was called the Red River but it was more of a creek – not more than two or three feet deep and perhaps a dozen wide at its broadest part. Most of it was heavily overgrown and you had to find a way into the water and mostly wade through the stream or, where it was deep, crash along through the brush on the bank.

It was a great place to fish because it was so hard to get to. A dirt road off a gravel road and then a fifty yard hike along a barely discernible path. You couldn’t even put your rod together until you got to the stream. Most people couldn’t be bothered so the fish were plentiful and not too shy. Almost anywhere you dropped your line you would get a bite so even the youngest of the kids would get rewarded by pulling a shiny fish from the water. There were both brown and speckled trout and some of them were a good size — seven or even nine inches was not uncommon. Anything shorter than six we threw back but there were always enough to have for lunch cooked over an open fire in a clearing not far from the brook.

We went there for several years and then one year when we went back it was gone. A logging company had bulldozed the stream to create an easy road to access lumber. No more fish. No more anything. Companies were allowed to do such stupid things back in those days; all they needed was a licence to cut on crown land and everything was fair game.

Fortunately we do a better job now protecting fish habitat — or at least we did until the recent government gutted environmental protection laws to aid commercial development. Companies still can’t get away with what they could in the early sixties but that may change too if we continue to put profits over people and a quick buck over sustainable development. Just another reason why I’ll do all I can to see a change is made come October.

But that’s ten minutes.

Captain America

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Perhaps one should never delve too deeply into the political messaging of any movie, let alone an action film filled with super heroes but Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides more grist than the average mainstream film. I was struck that this film — part of the ‘civil war’ theme being developed in the Marvel Universe opposes two fundamental strains of American political philosophy. Not left versus right but rather law versus order.

{Spoilers Ahead!} The film has a lot of subtleties, such as casting the quintessential Hollywood Liberal , Robert Redford as Pierce, the head of Hydra, and, when the death machines are targeting individuals for destruction (for the greater security of all) the target map displayed is the island of Manhattan, but these take a back seat to the more critical story being told.

Hydra represents the ultimate in authoritarian mechanisms and not surprisingly springs from the remnants of Nazi Germany. Yet it is perfectly able to infiltrate and take control of Shield, a putatively international (though essentially American) security organization. This is because authoritarians of all stripes are largely indistinguishable from one another. Hence when Captain America is asked – how do we tell which are the bad guys, he is forced to reply: They’re the ones shooting at us. The bad guys are distinguished from the good guys not by appearances or uniforms but by actions.

So what is offered up to this plea for security — Hydra’s promise that 7 billion people will be happier and more secure if we just eliminate these 20 million troublesome voices — seems on the surface nothing more or less than the individual heroism of the libertarian dream: the one man who can see past all the machinations of the state and triumph over evil in all its forms.

Yet Captain America is not quite so simple a figure. He doesn’t doubt for a minute that there is a role to be played by Shield but what he disagrees with is Nick Fury’s certainty that the ends always justify the means. He is convinced that the means can easily subvert the goals of society and turn even war heroes into nothing more than killing machines, tools to do their master’s bidding. The moment when Fury acknowledges that ‘I guess you’re giving orders now’ turns the movie from a competition between two authoritarian world views into one that acknowledges the essential opposition between security and freedom, between order and law.

Steve Rogers believes in fundamental things — his duty to his country and to his fellow citizens and his belief that society should be based on something more than what is expedient and necessary for the protection of itself. Rogers’s simple view is that society is based on things like human to human relationships, on friendship and love and mutual respect. His gesture to the Winter Soldier — a reprogrammed version of his best friend in a previous life — is a simple one. We are friends and we are in this together. We are indistinguishable from each other but one of us — maybe both — have lost our way. Ultimately, he stakes his life on that bond. He essentially lays down his weapons and trusts in their common humanity — a humanity that crosses enemy lines, ideological lines — to save his life. And more importantly to save Bucky’s soul.

And this is what distinguishes law from order. Law is about common values and about human to human relationships. Order is simply about control and power, about the termination of human intercourse under the guise of father knows best. An interesting film — I look forward to where the story goes next.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Rock the Vote

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A new study suggests that young people in Canada are more progressive than older ones. This may seem like an obvious conclusion. Many people right now will be misquoting Churchill and saying: If you aren’t a socialist when you are young, you have no heart, if you are still a socialist at 50 you have no head.

This is a political myth, not much different than repeated claims that leading atheists convert to religion in their final years. That is to say, it may happen from time to time but as a general rule it simply isn’t true. Many of my friends who were socialist or at least progressive when they were young remain so today. They may be less strident but they are more focused and have a deeper practical understanding of their values. I’ve seen as many conservatives move left (maybe more) as I’ve seen progressives move right. Recent research shows that most livelong political views are formed in your 20s.

I suspect that after thirty years of neo-liberal governments (I like to go back to the actual philosophical roots of modern conservative thought because it raise their blood pressure) and betrayals by so-called progressives like Tony Blair, I suspect we have a large group of people who have become convinced that there is a better way to govern societies and economies — a way that does not lead to gross inequalities and heightened civil strife.

The real issue is how do we get younger people to go out to the polls and reverse the tide in areas like social and economic inequality, the environment and the provision of core public programs. There is no doubt that if people under 35 voted at the rates of those over 55, the current administration (in many countries) would fall though who would replace it is uncertain.

I have no real answers. Exhortation really doesn’t work all that well and references to duty and so on are limp arguments at best. Why should I have a duty to vote when the state has shown no duty towards me? It is not a logical argument perhaps but it is an emotionally strong one. Having given up on the efficacy of the state — despite professed beliefs that the state should play a role in their lives — it is difficult to get people of any age but especially the young to continue to vote.

When governments make matters worse by actually making it harder to vote — and these are actions of mostly conservative parties and governments who can read the writing on the wall — or actively discouraging efforts to get out the vote, it is a tall wall to climb.

But Obama succeeded in raising the youth vote to its highest levels in two decades in his 2008 campaign, so it can be done. And the leader who can manage it in Canada in 2015 is almost certainly going to be our next Prime Minister.

And that’s ten minutes.

Lawful Protest

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The Prime Minister has promised that Bill C-51 will not be used to stop lawful protests —- the words are right in the Bill — or squash legitimate opposition, His trained seals, sorry, caucus members, dutifully recite their talking points or send out inflammatory polls in their 10-per-centers (paid for by all Canadians). Meanwhile, in Montreal, the police use truncheons and teargas to break up student protests against austerity after declaring the protest unlawful because protest leaders had failed to file a complete route with the police before setting out on their march. As if the police agents in their ranks didn’t know exactly where they were going.

That’s how it works. Lawful protest is fine but we’ll make sure it is damn easy to declare the protest unlawful — just watch us. Then the RCMP and CSIS can properly do their job and intimidate the populace into silence or into chanting slogans of support. It is precisely because of this pernicious possibility that the words ‘lawful protest’ were removed from the Canadian laws brought in after 9/11. Cooler heads prevailed and the government of the day realized that there has to be a balance between security and the rights we were trying to secure.

Cooler heads no longer prevail in Ottawa. Instead we are governed by a bunch of hotheads who let their emotions overwhelm their reason. They let fear and anger top the desire to make things better rather than worse. This is a government that claims to be based on law and order but they seem to only be able to focus on the second part — order — while flouting the law or deforming it into an instrument of their own desires. The Canadian constitution calls on our governments to promote peace, order and good government but again our current PM seems to only care about the order part of that admonition. It’s a shame we don’t have people running the place who can deal with more than one thing at a time.

There are exceptions. Michael Chong, who earlier this year tried to get a private members bill passed to limit the powers of the PM (it was gutted by the government and now languishes in the Senate), has broken ranks with his colleagues to call for greater oversight as part of C-51. He was once a promising junior Minister who quit when he couldn’t stomach the machinations of the PMO. Now he sits on the backbench. One wonders where he’ll be when election time rolls around.

Still, MPs like Chong give me hope that Parliament is not completely broken , that it can be fixed by a different PM and a different attitude in Ottawa, But first Canadians will have to wake up from this dream, this nightmare, and face the reality of authoritarianism growing like a fungus in Ottawa. And we all know how a fungus grows — in the dark, fed lots of bullshit.

And that’s ten minutes.

Casual Sexism

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I saw an image on Facebook today where a doctor is advising a patient who doesn’t feel well and doesn’t know why. The doctor recommends meditation, exercise, a balanced diet, getting back to nature and to stop worrying about things you can’t control. Seems like good advice yet it struck me as fundamentally wrong.

The doctor was an older white male; the patient was a young woman. One wonders if a young female doctor would give the same advice to an older man. Would he listen even if she did? Why didn’t the doctor say at the end of his advice — and we’ll do some blood work and an ultrasound to make sure everything is okay?

Essentially the doctor has told the women that her symptoms are an illusion and her problems are all in her head. He is also saying that her health is unimportant to him. This casual sexism is found throughout daily life. It is so pervasive that we often don’t even notice it. Yet, studies have shown that these biases are probably killing women.

Overt sexism is obvious and is hardly worth discussing or arguing about. Men’s Rights Movements are usually puerile. Those that are violently misogynist are a fringe group — a dangerous one, it is true and possibly more of an immediate threat than terrorists in faraway lands. But their arguments are fairly transparent and easily disproven.

Overt sexism has been a target for progressive people for over a hundred years. It started with the suffragettes who faced the same (only much more extreme) abuse that feminists have always faced — death and rape threats were only implied because it was a more ‘civil’ time but they were there nonetheless. Imprisonment and police action against protests were not uncommon.

Still, women got the vote and have gradually taken their place beside men in all aspects of western society. There is a way to go in legislative bodies and corporate boardrooms but progress is being made and in some countries it is hardly an issue anymore.

Yet, implicit sexism still underlies much of our society. The continual denigration of women’s stories about rape culture is one example. Sexism in the professions that discount women’s experiences as being as valid as those of men is another. It has real consequences in the daily lives of both women and men. Sexism still governs our views of what issues are really important versus those that are only peripheral.

We see this even in as simple a thing as the debate over the wearing of religious symbols. It is always assumed that women are forced to wear the Niqab because they don’t have the strength to choose for themselves. When have you ever heard someone say that Orthodox men are forced to have untrimmed beards or wear their hair in pe’ots? You don’t hear it and you never will. Because men are always assumed to have agency. The fight never ends and none of us should stay silent in the face of casual sexism, racism, homophobia and the denial of equal human rights.

But that’s ten minutes.