Category Archives: psychology

Life Lessons From My Father: Hard Work And Relaxing

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Last month, I helped celebrate Mother’s Day by telling a personal story that revealed just how awesome my mother is. I’m proud of that story. I can also confirm that my mother read it and sent her loving appreciation that same day. She really is that sweet and I’m eternally grateful to have a parent like her.

With Father’s Day being tomorrow, it’s my father’s turn. It’s also yet another excuse to talk about how awesome my parents are and I’m not going to pass that opportunity up. Like my mother, my father is incredible and I owe so much to him. His love and support has helped me become the man I am today.

There are a lot of stories I could tell about my father. I’ve already recounted a few. There are plenty I can tell that help affirm why he’s such an awesome dad. Rather than select one, I’d like to focus on a particular lesson he taught me growing up that I didn’t appreciate until I was an adult. Since I know he reads this site too, I think he’ll agree that it’s a critical lesson that can be difficult for many.

Almost as critical as this.

It has to do with hard work and relaxation. They’re two conflicting forces, but both are critical to surviving in this chaotic world. We need to work hard if we’re going to get ahead and forge the life we want in this world. You could argue that this has become more difficult, but there’s definitely a place for it in every society.

On the other side of that coin is relaxation. That’s something we all need just as much. After all, what’s the point of working so hard if you don’t take any time to enjoy it? Relaxation isn’t just important for a good work/life balance. It’s critical to our health. As it just so happens, my dad knew how to do both.

My father, for much of his life, was a hard worker who didn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty. He didn’t just sit at a desk. He actually went out into the world, working with people and braving the elements. He was also an early riser. He was almost always the first one up in the house. At 5:00 a.m. he was out of bed. By 5:30, he was dressed and ready to leave.

As a kid, I didn’t understand that kind of work ethic. Both my parents worked, but I saw that as just something adults do. Even after I learned about making money, paying taxes, and building a career, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I’ve only come to appreciate it more as I got older.

My dad had a tough job, but he never came home looking miserable and angry. He did come home exhausted many times, but not to the point where he carried himself like a Dilbert cartoon. He seemed to take genuine pride in his work. It fulfilled him in a way that showed in how he conducted himself. He had a poise and strength to him, which he still carries to this day.

However, it’s how he managed to relax after all that hard work that has resonated with me in recent years. Part of that is due to how uptight and high-strung I was as a teenager. When I got home from school, I didn’t relax as much as I did dread what I might face the next day. If that sounds like an unhealthy attitude, that’s because it is and it caused me plenty of problems.

What I looked like on a good day.

My dad’s attitude was very different. When he got home from work, he didn’t get anxious or uptight about the next day. He just grabbed a bag of peanuts, opened a bottle of beer, and watched a baseball game while sitting on the couch. He watched a lot of other things too, but he always seemed most relaxed while watching baseball.

I often watched with him. I even helped him crack the peanuts. They’re among some of my favorite memories as a kid, watching baseball with my dad and eating peanuts. I didn’t do it quite as often when I was a teenager and I honestly believed that contributed to the misery I endured during those tumultuous times.

My dad understood those issues, much more than I gave him credit for. He often boiled things down to something that seemed too simple. He would tell me to just take it easy, relax, and appreciate things in the here and now, be it a baseball game or a “Simpsons” re-run. Me being the whiny kid I was, I just rolled my eyes at him. Looking back on it, I realize there was more to his advice.

My dad knew how to keep things simple back then. He still knows to this day and I marvel at his ability to streamline things that seem so complicated. To him, relaxation and hard work didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can work hard all day and still relax once you got home. It sounds so obvious, but people find ways to mess it up.

Some feel like if they’re not working hard, then they’re doing something wrong

Some feel like if they’re not relaxing, then they must be miserable and broken.

Some feel like if they try to do both, then one undermines the other.

I certainly bought into that, even after I went to college. For a while, I made work the center of everything. If I wasn’t working on something school-related, I was making other projects for myself. Relaxing just meant resting so that I had the energy I needed to do more work. It’s as unhealthy as it sounds and I think both my parents understood that.

I admit it took a long time for my dad’s advice to sink in. With each passing year, I appreciate how skilled he was at balancing hard work with relaxation. He always came off as calm, strong, and balanced. When things got tough, he kept a level head. When everyone else was stressed out, he remained the most composed. He was clear, direct, and concise with every word he said.

Those aren’t just the marks of a great father. They’re traits of a great man, in general. My father set a high bar and if I’m being honest, I still struggle to match it most of the time. I’ve gotten a lot better at balancing work with relaxation over the years, but I feel like I made it much harder than it should’ve been. My dad was there every step of the way, giving me real, usable advice. I just didn’t embrace it.

I might have been a slow learner with respect to work/life balance, but that only helps me appreciate my father even more, especially on Father’s Day. No matter how old I get, he keeps finding ways to be awesome. He never runs out of things to teach me, whether it involves relaxing or how to make the perfect pasta sauce. There’s so much I’ve learned from him and I’m a better man because of it.

Thanks, Dad. Seriously.

I’ll always be grateful for having such an amazing father. I admit I didn’t always make it easy for him, but he never hesitated to love me and support me as any father would. Whether I’m working hard or relaxing on a hot summer day, his influence helps me become the man I strive to be.

To my father and all the other dedicated dads out there, thank you for your love and support. Happy Father’s Day! You’ve worked so hard for your kids. Today, you can take a moment to relax and reflect on just how awesome you are.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, men's issues, noble masculinity, psychology, Uplifting Stories

Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

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At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Marvel, psychology, Villains Journey

The (Unequal) Gender Politics Of Divorce

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There are a handful of words that evoke a special kind of dread. I’m not just talking about racial slurs, crushing insults, or George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words. There’s one word that evokes dread that transcends race, gender, and political affiliation. That word is divorce. I’ll give everyone a moment to stop cringing.

I can personally attest to the impact of that word. I have many close friends, relatives, and family members who have gone through divorce. I’ve seen, first-hand, how devastating it can be to individuals and their family. It can be every bit as devastating on children as well. While there is certainly a benefit for spouses and children who escape an abusive relationship, there can still be lasting scars.

Most people agree that divorce is a pretty traumatic experience. It is very much the antithesis of the love, connection, and intimacy we seek in others. It is against everything I generally write about on this website. However, divorce is a significant part of our society.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that the old “half of all marriages end in divorce” saying is not in line with the data. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate in 2015 was 16.9 divorces per 1,000 marriages. That actually represents a significant decline since the 1980 when the divorce rate was nearly 23 per 1,000 marriages.

Whatever the rate is, the effects of divorce are still devastating and heartbreaking. Those effects also get lost in a lot of doom-saying surrounding marriage and the state of the family, which is often led by religious zealots and reactionary pundits. Beyond even the tragic and painful stories surrounding divorce, there is another element to it that often goes overlooked.

Unfortunately, it has to do with gender disparities and I’ve learned in the course of writing about this topic, this often brings out some heated debates. I expect that to hold true more than usual on this issue because it’s already so emotionally charged. On top of that, there’s plenty of data to show that when it comes to marriage and divorce, men and women are not on the same page.

The first major indicator of that disparity is shown in who does the proposing. Even in today’s more progressive climate, men are still the ones who propose 90 percent of the time. Despite the many running jokes about men being afraid to commit, they’re still the ones who pop the question. While more and more women are starting to propose, this gap is still significant.

The second indicator, which I’m sure is going to inflame ongoing gender conflicts, has to do with who initiates divorce. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 80 percent of divorces are initiated by women. Again, that’s not a trivial gap. That implies there’s a major disconnect at work and it’s not getting better, even as more people remain single.

The reasons for women initiating divorce are many. I don’t want to get too deep into them, but there are many conflicting narratives. There are those who see marriage as a tool of patriarchal oppression and divorce is tool of liberation. On the other side are those who claim marriage is just an institutional tool that women use to exploit men for resources with divorce being the oversized sledge hammer.

With the added complication of no fault divorce, alimony laws, and child support, there are more legal mechanisms than ever to rub salt in the wound that is divorce. It’s not enough for a relationship to end and for romance to fade. Involving lawyers and lawmakers adds multiple layers of heartbreak and frustration to the mix.

This is where the gender divide can get especially hostile. On top of the disparity in who proposes and who divorces, there’s also a significant divide in how these laws affect each gender. Even though women have gained much more economic independence over the years, 97 percent of the ex-spouses who receive alimony after a divorce are women.

Add the ease of no-fault divorce into the mix and there’s a painful incentive for women to initiate divorce. If the choice is staying in a boring marriage or leaving with some money without having to prove any wrongdoing, then who could blame someone for taking that option? It’s still heartbreaking and hurtful, but people are going to respond to incentives, regardless of gender.

It certainly hasn’t helped gender relations. Many unabashed misogynists will cite how many women receive alimony and use that to claim that all women are manipulative psychopaths who only see men as a wallet or a sperm bank. Those kinds of generalizations are crude, but when you can cite real-world cases of unapologetic gold digging among women, it’s easy to see where that hatred comes from.

Personally, I don’t believe that hatred is justified. Most men don’t see women with that kind of hostility. In principle, alimony exists to protect women who would otherwise be in poverty after divorce. That is reasonable and well-intentioned. In practice, though, it’s a legal tool that can be abused and further foster hateful attitudes.

The data for who gets primary custody of children is just as striking. According to Census data, 82 percent of mothers get custody after divorce. That same set of data also notes that this stat hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years. That, in my opinion, is the most frustrating aspect of this issue.

Despite all the other changes and trends we’ve seen in recent years with feminism, men’s rights activism, and evolving trends in marriage, there hasn’t been much change in the overall narrative. Even as feminists bemoan patriarchal oppression and men’s rights activities protest gender-driven injustice, the rhetoric rarely translates into meaningful change.

I understand that some relationships are just doomed from the start. I also understand that the nature of romance is changing in accord with culture, society, and law. However, the lack of change in the fundamentals of how we pursue marriage and manage divorce is confusing and even a little infuriating.

Women seek, and have gained, a great deal of rights and protections in pursuing their own path within a more egalitarian society. At the same time, they still hold onto traditions surrounding relationships. They still expect the man to propose and to support her in the event of divorce. I doubt that’s out of malice. This is just what we, as a society, consider normal.

At the same time, men are pursuing their own brand of rights and protections within this society. Issues like father’s rights and reforms to family courts all have a place in pursuing a more equitable system. Even so, men still expect women to play a certain role within a relationship while assuming too much about their own role.

It’s an untenable situation. Society is guiding the genders in one direction while they’re pulling towards another. The old narrative surrounding divorce is just not compatible with the one that’s emerging. The situation today is very different than it was in 1908. Laws, culture, and even the economy are changing the factors that guide divorce. The only thing that doesn’t change is the pain of a broken relationship.

As it stands, men and women both seem to want more equality in the tragic realm of divorce. However, they each seem to have very different ideas of what constitutes “equality.” The narrative, as it stands, is built around men pursuing women and women deciding when that pursuit is over. Anything that deviates from that is seen as abnormal or absurd.

Every relationship is different. Every individual is different. There are probably some women out there who divorce out of blind hatred and there are men who marry women they have no intention of loving for the rest of their lives. There are plenty of vindictive people out there and divorce is a weapon that needs no sharpening.

The late, great Robin Williams once said that “Divorce is like ripping a man’s genitals out through his wallet.”

Feminist, Gloria Steinem, once said “You become a semi-non person when you get married. The surest way to be alone is to get married.”

These attitudes nicely reflect the current gender divide when it comes to divorce. Until that gap is narrowed, the heartbreak and hatred inspired by divorce will only get worse. Men and women have enough reasons to clash with one another. Divorce just makes it worse by giving that animosity legal powers.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, political correctness, psychology, romance, sexuality, women's issues

“King of the Hill” Vs. “F is for Family” And The Evolution/Disillusion Of The American Dream

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What happened to the American Dream? That’s a question more and more people are asking these days. It’s a question people have been asking in some form or another for decades. Even if you’re not American, it’s relevant because as politics and economics become more global, there’s a sense that a great many people are being left behind. More recently, it feels like that trend is accelerating.

Since I’m not a political scientist or an economist, I’m not qualified to break down all the factors behind these trends. However, given my age and relative experiences, I’ve witnessed many of the changes and upheavals that have shaped the current state of affairs. Over that period, I’ve even seen those changes reflected in two iconic animated TV shows from two disparate eras.

One is “King of the Hill,” a colorful slice of the late 90s/early 2000s cultural zeitgeist. The other is “F is for Family,” a show that, despite taking place in the 1970s, heaps plenty of scathing criticism on current American ideals. I’ve written about both shows before, citing the former as a lesson in work ethic and the latter as a perfect satire for its time. I also consider myself a fan of both shows.

Combined

On their own, they each have their own sense of style, story, and overall humor. They’re both entertaining and endearing in their own unique way. When placed side-by-side, though, they reflect an even greater message that goes beyond the themes of either shows. That message can be summed up with one harsh realization.

The American Dream isn’t just failing. Those who pursue it are being punished.

I know it sounds bleak, if not fatalistic. It’s certainly not a message that “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” ever state overtly. However, when placed in the context of their time and their over-arching themes, the overarching themes are clear, if not unavoidable.

In terms of ideals, Hank Hill and Frank Murphy have a lot in common. They’re both hard-working American men who see themselves as embodiments of American values. They take pride in their roles and responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and providers. They’re active in shaping the identity of their community. They both have an idealized vision of what the American Dream entails.

Some of those similarities extend to their family and how they impact the structure of the show. Many plots in “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” revolve around Hank and Frank reacting to events that happen within their family. They have wives that seek their own path and kids who rarely appreciate the work they do. Much of the comedy in each show emerges from these conflicts.

The face of many such conflicts.

Things really start to differ when the bigger picture of their respective worlds comes in. Whereas “King of the Hill” reflects a more optimistic view of the world that was more prevalent in the late 1990s, “F is for Family” paints a more dire picture. In Frank’s world, American ideals are failing and he’s struggling just to keep that vision alive.

In just three seasons, Frank has lost his job, struggled to provide for his family, and had his dreams derailed again when his wife gets pregnant. While his temper and his penchant for threatening to put people through walls don’t help, many of the factors that put him in such situations aren’t his fault. In fact, his tendency to do things the right way, as Hank often does, often work against him.

This isn’t even Frank’s worst day.

Within this dynamic, “King of the Hill” and “F is for Family” diverge in a critical way that speaks to the larger issues surrounding the American Dream. In the world of “King of the Hill,” doing the right thing and following American values are rewarded. It’s one of the show’s most common themes over the course of 13 seasons.

In this world, working hard at a blue collar job is fulfilling, respectable, and rewarding.

In this world, a man can support his family with a job that involves selling propane and propane accessories.

In this world, people who take short-cuts or try to avoid hard work ultimately fail.

In this world, a man who marries the woman he impregnates is rewarded with respect, support, and admiration.

Simply put, adhering to principles of hard work, high morals, and personal responsibility will help someone achieve the American dream. Hank Hill, with his quaint suburban house and supportive community, is the personification of these principles. It’s not always easy for him, given his influences, but that only makes his adherence to those principles more respectable.

This is virtuous system is not present in “F is for Family.” If anything, it’s turned upside down. Frank Murphy followed those principles as closely as Hank. He put his personal goals on hold when his wife got pregnant. He served his country dutifully when he got drafted. He works hard and provides, despite having a slob for a boss. However, his efforts go unrewarded. If anything, they’re punished.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a hard-working man can save the company he works for, but still get fired.

In Frank Murphy’s world, marrying your pregnant girlfriend instead of following your dreams will only get you ungrateful kids, a miserable wife, and an unfulfilling job.

In Frank Murphy’s world, people who eschew hard work and behave irresponsibility are rewarded with cocaine-fueled parties and trophy wives.

In Frank Murphy’s world, a corporation can steal your idea and make millions off it while you don’t even get credit.

The system is harsh, unfair, and completely unconcerned with who adheres to American ideals. The only thing that ever seems to matter is dumb luck and already having significant wealth or privilege. Sadly, this is a lot more consistent with the current state of affairs where the rich and powerful exact immense influence, creating a system that benefits those at the top while straining everyone else.

Frank yelling on behalf of America.

This unfair system even extends beyond the political and economic sphere. In “F is for Family,” there are multiple characters who seem to succeed, no matter how little they work or how unmotivated they are. It’s not unlike those who flaunt their lavish lifestyles on Instagram, which is often fueled by inherited wealth that they did not work for or earn.

That kind of system wouldn’t just leave Hank Hill aghast. It would completely undermine his world, his identity, and his ethics. Whether he would resort to putting people through walls instead of just kicking asses is difficult to determine, but the bigger picture is clear. The American Dream in his world is intact whereas its reversing course in “F is for Family.”

To some extent, this reversal is consistent with how the world has been trending since the late 1990s and early 2000s. People have become increasingly cynical and trust in institutions is declining. Thanks to the media and the internet, it’s getting harder to hide the harsh realities of a world where just doing the right thing isn’t enough anymore. Despite taking place before the internet, “F is for Family” perfectly reflects this reality.

The face of that harsh reality.

It creates a dynamic that’s bound to create more Frank Murphys and fewer Hank Hills. People are told that the American dream is still in their grasp. They just have to be like Hank, playing by the rules, working hard, and not taking shortcuts. Those who buy into that dream aren’t just let down. They’re outright punished.

Frank didn’t become a profanity-spewing rageaholic overnight. As perfectly depicted in the show’s opening credits, the various machinations of this unfair system just kept hitting him and no matter how hard he worked or how much he sacrificed, he never got closer to the American Dream. If anything, it just kept getting farther away.

Both “F is for Family” and “King of the Hill” have plenty to offer in terms of insights. Their respective worlds may take place in an animated world where former presidents and future serial killers can show up, but such exaggerated dynamics help each show convey a certain message that fit perfectly within the context of a certain time.

The idealism in “King of the Hill” and the satirical deconstruction in “F is for Family” paint conflicting pictures of the American Dream. Both still glorify it as an ideal, but each present a different understanding of how it plays out. Within the comedy, there are genuine, relevant messages worth considering.

For many people in the real, non-animated world, the American Dream still matters. Many still work as hard and as passionately as Hank Hill and Frank Murphy. It’s hard enough when those efforts go unrewarded, but when doing the right thing becomes a liability, it’s hard to call it a dream.

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Filed under Current Events, F is for Family, human nature, King of the Hill, philosophy, political correctness, psychology, television

Why Sadism Is Necessary For Both Heaven And Hell

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Imagine there’s this big, beautiful house on the top of a hill. It’s opulent, luxurious, and full of every comfort you can imagine. Inside, there are servants and guests that cater to every conceivable whim. There’s no suffering, whatsoever. The people who live there are as happy and content as can be.

In that same house, however, there’s a dungeon in the basement. Within that dungeon, people are being horribly and endlessly tortured. They’re repeatedly beaten, burned, and mutilated without mercy. The suffering is constant and the pain is unbearable. Every day, more and more people are forced into that dungeon and never let out. They constantly cry and scream for mercy, but it never comes.

Everyone in that house knows the dungeon is there. They’re constantly reminded of it. At times, they can even hear the tortured screams of those trapped inside. Some of the people there might even be friends and loved ones. However, they don’t do anything about it. They don’t show an ounce of sorrow or concern. They just continue enjoying the joys and comforts the rest of the house has to offer.

With this scenario in mind, how would you judge the people who weren’t in the dungeon? How would you judge anyone who is perfectly happy when others nearby are suffering horribly? It would be one thing if they didn’t know the torture was happening, but the people in that house have always known, even before they arrived. To still be happy in that house requires more than just an immense lack of empathy.

This is just one of many fundamental disconnects in traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. While it’s not the first flaw I’ve pointed out, it’s one that I believe is incredibly relevant because it subverts core aspects of our humanity. Regardless of whether you believe humans evolved or were magically created, it’s a biological fact that humans are a very social species. Empathy is a key component of that dynamic.

Empathy doesn’t just allow us to coordinate, cooperate, and relate to one another. It’s at the core of our understanding of right and wrong. You could even argue that empathy is the core ingredient within the Golden Rule that so many religions preach in some form or another, including those that incorporate some form of Hell.

It’s also the foundation on which our innate sense of justice and fairness is built. Both foundations crack once Heaven and Hell enter the picture. However, when eternity enters the picture, which is common in various Judeo-Christian traditions, those foundations shatter.

It’s in that context where simply being callous to the suffering of others, even if you feel they deserve it, becomes unavoidably sadistic. As soon as eternity enters the equation, any sense of proportional justice becomes impossible. Even for the most monstrous individuals who spent every moment of their lives hurting others, a punishment without end eventually becomes unjust.

At that point, the pain and suffering someone endures is no longer about punishment or justice. It becomes part of a sadistic act that only becomes more sadistic the longer it goes on. If Hell is truly eternal, as many devout believers espouse, then its very existence is an act of infinite sadism.

That’s a major problem for any theology that includes an all-knowing, all-loving deity. By definition, a deity cannot be all-loving while exercising infinitely sadistic acts. If that same deity is all-powerful, then that only makes things worse because it means the deity has the power to both stop those acts and prevent them from ever happening. By not doing so, the deity becomes even more sadistic.

Now, there are plenty of traditions that include sadistic gods. The god of the Old Testament certainly qualifies in many respects. If a deity of that power opts to use it for sadistic acts, it doesn’t carry as much weight in terms of how humans approach morality and justice. Granted, it means the people who worship that deity must do so out of fear on some levels, but their approach in that context is understandable.

It’s less understandable when Hell and the concept eternal punishment becomes part of a larger theology because it means adherents must participate in sadistic activities, even if it just means ignoring the torture inflicted by someone else. Everyone in Heaven, no matter how wonderful it is, has to remain numb to the infinite suffering going on below them.

Considering how threats of Hell has been a common tool for proselytizing, the sadism gets compounded even more, both from a human and theological perspective. More than one adherent had used the threat of Hell to warn others about believing in something other than their preferred religion. They likely do so out of genuine compassion and concern for those who don’t believe.

However, once that same person goes to Heaven, they have to become a sadist on some levels. They must now exist in a domain where others they tried to save from eternal damnation are doomed to endless suffering. They know it’s happening at every waking moment. It doesn’t matter if time works differently in the afterlife. Eternity is still eternity.

Even if that same person convinced every person they met to embrace their theology, there’s still the countless others that they never reached. That doesn’t even begin to account for all the other hapless souls that have lived throughout history, practicing other religious traditions with every bit as much devotion and piety. Even if they committed no egregious crimes, they could be damned to Hell.

While many religious traditions offer some recourse for righteous individuals who follow a different faith or lived before those traditions began, the concept is still flawed because it requires some tolerance of injustice. When people are judged by actions or inactions for which they had no opportunity to react, tolerating the results means tolerating injustice.

It doesn’t even work if the deity involved only sends the worst of the worst people to Hell. No matter how bad somebody’s crimes were, they were finite in nature because humans are finite beings. The issues surrounding infinite punishment for finite sins is subject to its own set of theological and moral debates, but the implications are unavoidable.

Think of the most brutally sadistic person who lived 6,000 years ago, a time that even the most conservative Christians agree that humans walked the planet. Over the course of their life, they committed every possible crime and sin. They murdered, raped, tortured, and blasphemed with unrepentant glee. The scars of their crimes lasted years after their death.

However, after a certain amount of time, their deeds cease to have a real impact. The victims and the descendants of those victims move on. The world moves on. Eventually, the memory of the person’s crimes fade. The finite transgression become nothing more than a faded memory. At that point, what’s the purpose of continuing the punishment?

Moreover, what happens to that purpose if and when that monstrous individual seeks to repent? Given enough time and punishment, at least one damned soul would see the light and wish to atone in a way beyond suffering. In most civilized societies, we give those individuals that chance. Hell, if it is truly eternal, offers no such opportunity.

At that point, the punishment is no longer punishment. It’s just sadistic torture. It ceases being a measure of justice and becomes an act of injustice. Even if it takes a trillion years deliver a proportional punishment for a finite person’s egregious behavior, they’ll still be subject to trillions of more years of torment.

All the while, everyone in Heaven has to be okay with this. If part of being a righteous soul means compassion for victims and proportional punishment for transgressors, then nobody in Heaven can remain righteous. Even if the all-powerful deity demands it and they are powerless to change anything, they still have to temper the very empathy that made them righteous in the first place.

Heaven and Hell are difficult, distressing concepts. Whether you’re devoutly religious or a lifelong atheist, it’s never pleasant imaging an afterlife that involves horrendous punishment, even if it’s reserved for the worst of humanity. Not every religious tradition involves an afterlife or traditions of an eternal Hell, but the concept reveals more about our innate sense of humanity than it does any religious doctrine.

Human beings are at their best when they can empathize, appreciate, and understand one another. There will certainly be instances when people commit gross injustices. How we deal with them is critical in terms of how we structure our societies and survive in an ever-changing world. Anything that attempts subverts it or requires that we suspend our humanity will only make every gross injustice infinitely worse.

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The (Surprising) Sources And Implications Of Slut Shaming

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As a fan of romance and people exploring their sexy side, I’m generally opposed to slut shaming. I understand why it exists, to some extent. Nearly every society in history has had certain hang-ups about sex. Considering its role in propagating the species, it’s understandable that people give it extra scrutiny.

That said, I consider slut shaming a misguided form of scrutiny. The definition, itself, has some ugly implications that go far beyond the inherent risks associated with being reckless, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

For one, it’s almost entirely heaped upon women. James Bond never gets called a slut for his promiscuous behavior. Instead, he gets to be a masculine icon. A woman who has just as much sex gets called a slut and is often painted as deviant. Look no further than legendary Bond girls like Xania Onatopp and Pussy Galore for proof of that.

While it can be pretty overt in popular media, it’s even more pernicious in real life. From women who choose wear revealing clothing to those who actively attempt to confront sexual stigma, there’s no shortage of shaming from multiple directions. It’s frustrating in that it amounts to incessant whining about how other people choose to live their lives, but recent research has cast slut shaming in a new light.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior attempted to analyze how behaviors associated with slut shaming differed among genders. The popular narrative is that men do most of the slut shaming. The logic is that men see beautiful women having a lot of sex. That bothers them because those women aren’t having sex with them.

Granted, that’s a gross generalization that I’m sure many men and even a few women find offensive. Despite the details, that is the common narrative and it tends to play out in one too many teen comedies. However, science has a way of disrupting those narratives in unexpected ways.

The study revealed that while men and women were equally likely to not trust promiscuous women, women who were more likely to favor punishing those women. In a comprehensive summary conducted by PsyPost, the differences were pretty striking.

“In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.”

Take a moment to comprehend what this does to the slut shaming narrative. For those who idealize that 1950s sitcom family life that never truly existed, it’s an aberration. While those women make for good one-night-stands, they hardly make for quality long-term relationships.

Why, then, would men be reluctant to punish those women? I’ve noted before how society tends to micromanage women’s bodies. Slut shaming is only a half-measure because it offers no tangible punishment. While certain societies don’t mind punishing promiscuous women, it doesn’t appear to be entirely predicated on male attitudes.

This study shows that women are just as mistrustful of promiscuous women and are willing to go further in terms of punishing their behavior. The reasons for this are difficult to surmise. The researchers hypothesized that men were primarily concerned with avoiding investment in a child that wasn’t theirs. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s something to avoid, but not punish.

Conversely, women may be more concerned with the bigger picture. The researchers surmised that women had an evolutionary imperative to keep the cost of sex high to improve their value as potential partners. Actively punishing potential rivals further served that purpose.

From a logistical standpoint, it makes sense. They see beautiful, promiscuous women as people who use cheat codes in video games. They have an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting potential partners and that has significant consequences, especially to those who aren’t beautiful or sexually flexible.

Beyond distracting partners who might otherwise be interested in them, it lowers the value of the sex they have to offer. Why would men be as interested in having sex with them when there are promiscuous women who were willing to give it to them for a lower cost with fewer strings?

While I believe this may be a factor for some women, it’s also another broad generalization that would offend more than a few women. It assumes too much about how they think and feel. Believing women slut shame because it hinders their own sexual value is as absurd as blaming all misogyny on some vast patriarchal conspiracy.

Like all research, the study is limited and can only reveal so much about the complexities of human behavior. The researchers themselves freely admitted this, but that’s exactly why it warrants further study. Like it or not, slut shaming is still prominent in most modern societies. I would argue that the internet and social media are making it worse.

At the same time, I also believe that slut shaming is something we should confront. It causes real harm to real people. It damages our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. There are instances in which someone’s irresponsible sexual behavior genuinely warrants scrutiny, but shaming can only serve to make things worse, even for people who aren’t sluts.

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Why The Republic Of Gilead Would Fail (Spectacularly) In The Real World

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of dread among feminists, libertarians, and supporters of secular values in the United States. The country seems to be going down an authoritarian path. Traditions of liberty and personal freedom are under threat by a government that seems more inclined to micromanage peoples’ lives for their own benefit.

One path in particular is becoming a lot more prominent. That is the one that could lead the United States to a government like that of the Republic of Gilead, the repressive theocratic regime from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that system, gender politics are pushed to the utmost extreme. The freedom, equality, sex, and love that contemporary society enjoys doesn’t exist.

The reasons for these fears are many. The current state of gender politics has become heated with the rise of the anti-harassment movement and ongoing legal battles surrounding abortion access. During the protests surrounding upheavals on the Supreme Court, it was common to see female protesters dressed in the distinct garb from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Such protest has even spread to other countries.

The message is clear. People are worried that our society is inching closer to a world similar to the repressive gender politics of Gilead. I can certainly understand those concerns. While I’ve often criticized certain aspects of gender politics, I don’t deny the worry that many women feel about the current state of affairs.

That said, I believe the idea that the United States, or any western country for that matter, could descend into a state of gender apartheid like Gilead is absurd. While we should be concerned about the influence of religious extremism, even in the west, the chances of it ever gaining power on the level depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is precisely zero.

Even if a regime like it came to power, it wouldn’t just fail quickly. It would collapse so spectacularly that it would be a joke on par with the Emu War. Gilead is not this all-encompassing, overwhelming power on par with Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” Atwood even implied at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the regime was set to fall.

We’ve yet to hear that part of the story, but Atwood did announce that she’s working on a sequel. One way or another, Gilead’s days are numbered, even in the fanciful world that she created. Before then, I’d like to break down why the Republic of Gilead would be doomed if it ever attempted to set up shop in the real world.

If nothing else, I’d like to offer some perspective to those who fear that the state of gender politics is regressing. To those people, I share your concerns. However, I’m an optimist. I believe both feminists and men’s rights activists can and will find plenty of common ground on these issues in due time.

Even if they don’t, they can take comfort in knowing that Gilead, as both a philosophy and a system, is so flawed that dreading it is an exercise in hyperbole. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but in terms of setting up a competent theocratic regime, it’s a perfect check-list on what not to do.


Reason #1: Establishing Gilead Would Collapse The Economy

One of the first things the Sons of Jacob did when they established Gilead was fire every woman from their job and effectively eliminate their legal rights. On top of it being an exercise in brutal oppression, it removed half the labor force from the economy. In 2010, there were approximately 123 million women in the workforce. Firing every one of them wouldn’t just cause a huge recession. It would destroy the economy at every level.

Even the most ardent anti-feminist would be badly hurt by a world where half the GDP just disappeared. Suddenly, the industries that everybody relies on just cease functioning. Baking, health care, technology, and basic services essentially collapse as both the labor pool and the consumer base disappears.

That means from the very beginning, Gilead would have to navigate the worst economic collapse in history. More often than not, governments that cause collapses or fail to recover from them don’t last very long. Even if the Sons of Jacob found a way to blame it on minorities, feminists, or other religions, they would still be on the hook for fixing things and doing so with half the labor force will be difficult, to say the least.

Beyond the logistics, destroying an entire economy as part of a religious crusade is going to piss off some very powerful people who were thriving in the current system. America, alone, has over 500 billionaires whose massive wealth would be threatened by such a collapse. People with those kinds of resources aren’t going to let Gilead succeed, even if they manage to seize power.


Reason #2: Micromanaging Peoples’ Lives Is Impossible (In The Long Run)

I’ve noted before that fascist systems have many fundamental flaws. There’s a reason why some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in history still ended up collapsing. In the long run, they find out the hard way that it’s just impossible to effectively manage the lives their citizens.

The Republic of Gilead is a lot like Big Brother in that it takes micromanaging to a ridiculous extreme. It doesn’t just have its own secret police to enforce a rigid caste system. Much of its governing philosophy relies on ensuring people stick to their roles and never deviate. Women do what the state requires them to do without question. Men do the same, right down to how they structure their families.

That system only works if human beings are like machines who never get bored doing the same thing over and over again for their entire lives. Since human beings are not like that, there’s no way that kind of society can remain functional in the long run. The fact that the boredom of solitary confinement drives people crazy is proof enough of that.

It still gets worse than that. In every revolution, there’s often a period of heavy solidarity when the people rally behind the new regime as the beginning of a new Utopian vision. This happened in the Russian Revolution and during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Unfortunately for Gilead, it came to power by brute, terrorizing force.

That means this government coming to power isn’t the will of the people. It’s just plain bullying and people tend to resent that sort of thing. Even the Iran Revolution had the good sense to rally the people. The Republic of Gilead didn’t bother with that. It’s hard to imagine that collapsing the economy and subjugating half the population at gunpoint will make them many friends.


Reason #3: Theocracies Are The Least Stable Forms Of Autocracies

Remember when a purely theocratic state managed to prosper without being located atop an ocean of valuable oil? I don’t either and there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to repressive authoritarian states, theocracies are the worst possible choice. That’s because by entwining government with religion, it’s also entwining itself with the various flaws of religion.

Big Brother didn’t bother with religion in “1984.” It didn’t have to because religion, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete. The authority of the state and the authority of a deity was the same thing. The Republic of Gilead doesn’t have that luxury. Their politics and theology is based on an extremely conservative form of Christianity.

While that may seem fine to the Pat Robertson’s of the world, it adds a whole host of complications to the mix. The Sons of Jacob justify their repressive actions by appealing to Christianity and the bible. That’s okay if every single person in the entire republic agrees on one single interpretation of a religion and its holy text. Unfortunately, that has never occurred in the history of humanity.

There are dozens upon dozens of denominations in Christianity. There are also fringe cults, radical sects, and even schisms within those groups. At most, Gilead could have a unified theology at the beginning, but as new generations come along, that unity will collapse.

People will inevitably disagree. Every side will claim God is with them and everyone else are heretics. This sort of thing has been happening with religion for centuries. It won’t stop in Gilead. At some point, someone is going to think they heard God tell them something else and no one will be able to convince them otherwise. When that happens, conflict will ensue.

That sort of conflict can be managed in a more secular dictatorship. When government and religion are entwined, though, it’s much harder to work around. Even if Gilead could survive an economic collapse and the logistics of micromanaging peoples’ lives, it’s very unlikely it’ll survive the never-ending onslaught of religious debates.


Reason #4: Gilead Would Be An Easy Target For Invasion

Whether you’ve read the book or only watched the TV show, it’s hard to tell what sort of geopolitics the Republic of Gilead deals with. There are a few hints that there are other countries who did not descend into theocratic repression. There are even some cases of refugees in neighboring areas where women still have their rights.

The existence of those neighbors is yet another complication that ensures Gilead won’t last long, no matter how much its leaders pray. It already created a huge refugee crisis when it took over a sovereign government by force. At the same time, it handicapped itself by collapsing its economy and relegating half its population to serve as baby factories. It’s not just a source of chaos. It’s an easy target.

Neither the book nor the show reveals much about Gilead’s military capabilities. Even if we assume they get their hands on nuclear weapons, they’re still vulnerable because other countries have them too. More importantly, they know how to operate and maintain them. Religious zealots are good at a lot of things, but science isn’t one of them.

In the same way creationists aren’t likely to understand quantum mechanics, an entire government run by religious extremists aren’t likely to manage advanced weaponry. As time goes on, their emphasis of religion over reality will undermine their ability to develop such weapons. Their secular neighbors will have no such qualms.

Letting Gilead endure with its religious extremism and gender oppression means establishing a precedent that most other countries don’t want. Seeing one country fall to such a violent overthrow would be jarring enough. The first reaction to every nearby country would be to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. One of those steps could be overthrowing Gilead before one woman has to wear those goofy outfits.


Regardless of how you feel about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or where you stand in terms of gender politics, the book offers a powerful message. Like “1984,” it shows how bad things can get when extremism takes hold. Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, we have a lot more incentive to get along rather than fight one another. At the end of the day, that will ensure that Gilead remains nothing more than a flawed, fictional country.

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