And in the Red Corner, Liberty​

It has come to my attention, evidently moving from one side of my brain to the other, that the words freedom and liberty, used both often and liberally, have many different perceived meanings; which are then debated, argued and fought over. To a more conservative minded person, freedom and liberty may have very different meanings than to a liberal minded person. Not to mention the fact that there is also significant disagreement inside both conservative and liberal circles over what these words mean. (I hate the term “not to mention” because invariably, directly after saying it one mentions what is allegedly not to be mentioned.)  Not to mention the fact that these terms are constantly used to describe and define essential elements of American democracy. Sad.

When people use these words, freedom and liberty, they assume they are universal concepts universally understood; they feel certain everybody knows what they mean. But in reality, it’s only what that particular person thinks they mean. It’s the “everybody knows” mistake. Everybody does not know. Not everybody sees liberty and freedom just like you do. It is contradictions like this that gets us into loads of trouble from a societal standpoint. Misinterpretations lead to misgivings.

When we talk about freedom or liberty, and we assume we are all talking about the same thing, we go a little crazy when the other guy says something that clearly shows we are not talking about the same thing. We either think they are stupid idiots or they are trying to subvert and undermine what we are saying. Neither of those things is likely to be true and neither do they lead to anything good.

It’s hella frustrating.

So, in discussions about freedom and liberty, I think it wise to start off by explaining our definition of terms. Rather than creating discord and argument on the backside, it’s a good idea to define terms on the front side, as in a formal debate. When you talk about freedom and liberty, tell people upfront what you mean by these words. For example, don’t say:

“I think people need to be free, but when xyz does abc they are preventing 123 from being 456 and that takes away their freedom”

What does being 456 have to do with freedom exactly? Depends on what you think freedom is.

instead, you could say:

“Freedom means 789 to me and when xyz does abc it stops 123 from having 789 and that takes away their freedom to be 456”

Then at least you know they think 789 has something to do with being 456 and to them that has something to do with freedom.

You may need to read that bit over again.

Anyway, starting a conversation about freedom or liberty with what you mean by freedom or liberty gives the other person a reference point to engage in a respectful, meaningful discussion, rather than reacting negatively to something they think they heard that they think they know which may or may not be true or at all relevant. Unfortunately, when definitions aren’t made clear, contested concepts like liberty and freedom can spark the kind of needless arguments that plague civil discourse and turn a legitimate debate into angry violence, emotional and/or physical.

The contested nature of many contested concepts is not always naturally occurring. Entities with agendas actively foment misunderstanding and will intentionally muddy the waters by promoting their opposing definitions of certain terms. If they feel the use of a certain word doesn’t serve their agenda they will work to subvert the meaning of that word by constantly repeating their alternate definition, constantly repeating it in as many ways as they can to as many people as possible. They will constantly repeat it over and over, by constantly repeating it, over and over. When constantly repeated, over and over, over time their definition will come to be accepted by enough people so that in a discussion there will be contention over the meaning of terms. A strong contention that can engender anger and fighting, spiritual, emotional, mental and often physical.

Therefore, it is crucial that we listen closely to how people use words and to hear their words contextually. We can then discover what they really mean when they use a word, especially when it means something different to us.

We need to listen for agendas. We can’t live in a bubble. If we accept and understand conflicting meanings and find where they originate, then knowing why people define their terms as they do we have a much better chance of reconciling our contentious, gridlocked issues.

Words and their meanings are so important.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

OK, I need to get back to freedom and liberty.

I believe in working with these words it can be valuable to recognize the subtle differences in their natures. I would say that a majority of people use them interchangeably. But freedom and liberty are not quite the same things. If you look closely at the concepts these words describe you will see that freedom is about what, and liberty is about who. Freedom is about being, and liberty is about doing. That is, what is being versus who is doing.

For example, looking at slavery in America, emancipation made slaves FREE to no longer BE slaves, but as things turned out they did not always have the LIBERTY to DO what they wanted. This was the essence of issues faced by freed slaves in the Jim Crow era. They were freed by law from being owned, but the dominant white power structure took away their liberty to do as they desired. Freedom gives us the opportunity to BE a banker if we so choose. But it is in the choice to DO so where the liberty lives. When people talk about freedom, look for WHAT they want to BE FREE from. And when they talk about liberty, look for WHO claims they have the LIBERTY to DO something.

We should remember that freedom is a more concrete word than liberty. Not having a freedom is a clearer concept than not having liberty. It could be why freedom normally trumps liberty in contested situations. And why there is nearly always indignation arising out of those victories.

Looking at it from the standpoint of rights, freedom relates more to a constitutional right and liberty to an inalienable right. Freedom is an earned right and liberty is a birthright. We have freedom from something but have the liberty to do something. Freedom is granted by government and liberty is granted by God. Frankly, although the words mean nearly the same exact thing, the difference is substantial enough that there will always be a battle between that which is given by Caesar and that which is given by God.

A good example of this esoteric struggle is the clash between Cliven Bundy and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. Essentially Bundy claimed that he had the God-given right, the liberty, to graze his cattle on federal land, simply because he could. And the BLM said no, that’s the government’s land and your cattle aren’t free to graze there.  The disagreement originated in a clash between claims of liberty and assignments of freedom. And in the end government and its bestowed freedom triumphed over Bundy and his claimed liberty. And much indignation arose out of the government’s victory.

As an aside, but relevant, I also see the irony inherent in this relationship of freedom juxtaposed with liberty as the basis for a meaningful contradiction of spirit. It is a contradiction displayed by people who want to supplant civil law with biblical laws, all the while fearing that sharia law will supplant civil law.

As we see, the differences between the concepts of freedom and liberty are subtle and do nothing to help us avoid contention. In this time, sadly, the words are used interchangeably but are understood to mean many and often vastly different things. Yet in a disagreement, yea an argument, understanding those differences just might give you the subtle edge that allows you to establish your definitions, create some movement of hearts, and perhaps change a mind or two. At the very least, understanding that freedom and liberty are contested concepts and the guy on the next barstool over might not hear them the same way you do gives us all a better understanding of how difficult it will be to bridge the gulf of partisanship we now so sadly live with.

Words make a difference.

A big difference.



You Won’t Like This

Las Vegas.

It usually takes me several days to process dramatic and truly damaging events that permeate our shared public consciousness. Las Vegas is such an event. It has made such a deep impact on America that I cannot even speak of it in the past tense, as it will linger and fester in our souls for a long time. I don’t even have to qualify it. Simply the name of the city is enough. And this will probably be the case for a long time. Unless the arms race of massive death creates another tortured soul with a plan.

Heroes is not necessarily the only word I would use to describe the many whose acts of courage and compassion are rightfully honored and revered. So many, in all disasters are called heroes. But in this, as in those, heroes is an incomplete concept. For me, it is not enough to simply say they are heroes. I need to hear why they are heroes, either big or small, either saving lives or soothing scared children.

Heroes do what they do, they run towards not away, because they love their neighbor, out of compassion and empathy. Because they intuitively revere and love life and people, who all deserve to be saved. Tragedy destroys the boundaries between people and carries suffering down the path to hope. The clarity of our shared pain shows us we are one, individual yet part of something greater, something that lives deep inside us and manifests when we need it. This is the divinity and beauty of heroism, not merely a selfless deed.

Now the authorities are looking for motive. Desperately. The motive is simple, as it is for all mass killers. They are in pain and choose to assuage that pain through heinous murder. No matter their state of being they all make a choice. Whether suffering through political anger, mental disorder’s damaged thinking or aggrieved despair, the pain is the same and the choice to act with violence is the same, to make others suffer as they do. Having known severe pain I cannot hate them. But why do we make so many more of them than anywhere else?

These killers act out because American culture permits us to resolve conflict and pain with violence. Not only is it permitted it is the preferred means. Immorality as social norm. But one cannot legislate morality. Conservatives know this but are so heavy-handed and self-serving they cannot serve that truth in a way that serves society. Liberals want to help save people but sell themselves short out of fear. They cannot maintain outrage because more tragedy is always around the corner to overwhelm them. And the twain shall never meet.

Everybody knows subconsciously that the American culture’s affair with guns makes the gun violence dynamic here different than the rest of the world. We cannot be another Australia no matter how much we legislate gun sensible laws. Law can only scratch the surface. Sensible gun safety legislation will help, but not enough. There must be more.

Many say we can’t stop invisible lone wolves from acting, from committing mass murder. That it’s impossible to ferret them out. They use this as an excuse to never try stopping them. The gun makers tell us the solution is more guns. Plenty of us believe this to be true. And a majority of the country does not trust the law to solve anything. In this case, they may be quite right. But I see these people as cowards, throwing up their hands in insincere despair. Selling death for profit.

To my mind, there is a good solution here, perhaps the best solution. Instead of trying to stop these evil killers when they are fully grown and engaged, we should change the way we raise our children, especially boys and especially white boys. Call it sexism/genderism and racism but the statistics bear it out. White men make up a large majority of mass murderers.

The way to stop us from accepting gun violence as a solution to social problems is to stop teaching our children this myth, this soul-crushing lie that violence is the way to go, the way to make everything right. The circle of violence can only be broken by Americans acting in concert to stop telling our boys to “be a man” and then equating that manhood with violence. I feel strongly that this “be a man” syndrome is sinful. The Christ does not ask us to turn the other cheek for nothing.

The glorification of violence is outdated at best. The fight or flight autonomic reaction existed for a creature with few reasoning skills, creatures without language as a tool of peace. There is a reason it is buried deep in our brains. It is no longer a viable means of avoiding pain or resolving conflict. As thinking beings, we can overcome our instant calls to violence. This is not easy. But as humans, we can call on the power of mind over matter. It works.

We must begin the hard work of creating fewer and fewer men with unbearable pain, those who feel horribly wronged but who hide it well, those subjected to abuse who process violence as normal, and even those who are barely aware of what they are doing. Of course, there are anomalies. There are women who act out in this way but as much as prehistoric women were rarely called upon to fight for existence, modern women are rarely acculturated to violence. This, I feel, is part of why they make up a small percentage of mass murderers. Yet another anomaly, in the instance of the sins of psychopaths these souls may never be inclined to abandon violence.

As said, it is imperative that we contribute to the solution the right way, by telling our children that violence is never acceptable. We must still learn the ways of violence as a defense against an existential threat. Complete passivity is naive. But the best way is to show our sons and daughters that violence is not the way is by our actions, modeling peaceful negotiation and mediation as the preferred method of conflict resolution, that through human interaction we can ease our pain.

The best way is better than the right way. And the example we set is the best means of successfully moving our pain into hope, as befits sentient beings. The Sanskrit word for weapon is also the word for tool. We can, as the Christ intimated, beat our swords into plowshares. We can use our hearts, souls, and minds to change society, to join many of us together as one without needing a disaster to unite us. We would no longer need to battle in the halls of Congress. We wouldn’t have to fight so much at the taverns, cafes and dinner tables of America. We could change.

An addendum

You won’t like this.

This will be seen as and called racism and it probably is. But I must say my piece. The situation in the black and much of the Latino communities, as I observe it, is that the relative lack of mass murderers from these communities is due to the fact that their suffering involving gun violence is intimate, up close and personal. It is directed at the individual, the person right there in front of you. Violence here is not an anomaly, it is omnipresent. One need not meticulously plan a bloodbath of the anonymous. Here the pools of blood will be at their feet, and the plan was formed quickly, specific to the grievance. So when those in the public eye conflate murder in these POC communities with mass murder they are terribly wrong. Though the solutions to the violence are similar the essence of the problem is different.

Mea Culpa. Please forgive me if I am wrong about this. I cannot know for certain but I witness. I fully accept a charge of racism for these comments and the mantle of racist. I speak what I feel.

You won’t like this either.

A word about prayers, including candlelight vigils and moments of silence. Prayer is a good thing. Praying for the peaceful repose of the lost souls and healing grace for their friends and families is a good thing. Candlelight vigils and shrines and moments of silence are good things. But they are all also feel good actions. They allow us to feel as though we have acted, we have done something good, something to help. We can do this and then go home and not take any further action, thinking we have done our part. In this, I do not judge. I only bear witness. Think on it yourself.

As powerful as is prayer, for the departed, we must also pray for the strength to do the hard work of changing the nation’s zeitgeist. It will take several generations but we must change the way we do this business. Praising those we call heroes and changing our laws and offering prayers are all good things but they can only save a fraction of the lives we need to.

These things are right things to do but they are not the best things to do. It is not easy to find and choose the best thing over the right thing. Doing the right thing we are so tempted to be satisfied and go home. I am convinced that, for America, the best path to hope out of pain is accepting our own pain and finding our own hope. This will give us the confidence to teach our children well. I believe we all know in our hearts that this path is true.

Let us start on this path together in love.


It’s In The Cans

Some time ago my daughter came to me saying she was tired of the ear bud headphones most kids use with their iPods and such. She wanted a “nice” pair of over the ear headphones for college. She was, of course, most familiar the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre, which are de rigueur for anyone for whom street cred is the least bit important. The most popular models are the Solo, which are expensive for a 16 year old at $200, and the Studio, which, for a teen, tempt burglary at $300. The main feature of the Beats, that which gives them their cool factor, is their bass reproduction, which features the same kind of teeth rattling booming that you hear when a car full of gangsta wannabes pulls up next to you at a stoplight. This is what most teens want to listen to whether they are into hip hop, dubstep, death metal or classic rock. Monster sells them in droves.

The fact that a particular market segment has particular taste in what they like music to sound like is the basis for my observations of the headphone world, as I have been researching a pair for my daughter as she heads off to find adulthood in college. To get an idea of the positive and negative features of the various brands and models readily available I have been reading the user comments at websites such as Best Buy and Amazon, where the average user would purchase. I figured the more esoteric websites offering lesser known yet quality brands were the domain of audiophiles and aural fanatics and would skew my opinions of a product meant for an iPhone and laptop and not a studio or a top drawer entertainment room featuring class A amps and space age speakers with the best 7:1 surround sound crossover unit.

I found that the consumers who actually took the time to comment and review these products were primarily of two types, serious pro musicians and sonic aficionados with limited budgets who were looking for near state of the art, pro level equipment at high end consumer prices and high school kids who wanted to be cooler than their friends and have phones that were more expensive and had better bass than the ubiquitous ear buds worn by the mere peons.

Regardless of brand, model or price the comments were overwhelmingly either raving positive or bitterly negative. One could pretty much determine which category of buyer the commentary was from by the nature of the judgement. A scathing negative comment was invariably from a musician or self appointed audiophile while the “best I ever heard” comments were from kids whose best previous audio experience likely came from a pair of $12 budget ear buds from Walmart. This disparity speaks to many cultural values, our expectations, our perception of value, marketing, design and manufacturing strategies, who creates our entertainment media and why, the realities of sound frequencies, pressure, recording techniques and the human perception of same, and the broadly diverse range of subjective truth among humans relating to their relative perception of the exact same phenomenon.

It is the disparate perceptions, embraced by different people, of phenomenon witnessed by all people, pretty much from the same viewpoint, that are what I see as important here. People perceive both things and concepts, in some ways the same and in others quite different. The frames people use to process these phenomena depend on which perceptions they accept as true. We communicate our truths through language. If we agree that language deals with things and concepts then it is my contention that all things and concepts have both an absolute and a relative nature. I’ll examine this further.

Let us first look at things. The government gives people Food Stamps. This is a tangible activity. It has a giver, a taker, requirements, a physical transactional document that is honored by certain businesses as valid, and a result. It is an absolute thing whose metaphoric frame can be known by knowing any of those various segments separately. It is real and has a recognizable substance. Yet, different people see and judge its value in dramatically different ways, using radically different language to describe and define it. In this sense it is totally relative and one must be aware of the perceiver’s relative agenda before they can know the other parts of their base frame, see it in it’s entirety, and know the language that triggers it into consciousness. To simplify, the glass that is equally full and equally empty is absolute, tangible and universally knowable. But it is relative to those seeing it as half empty and those seeing it as half full.

Concepts are another thing entirely. Concepts are not tangible and therefore there are often as many perceptions of the definition of a concept as there are people perceiving it. But this does not represent relativity. Contrary to things, there is no physically tangible reality to perceive. The absolute nature of a concept must include every disparate perception, for everyone’s perception is real and has to be included in any definition of the concept.

Perhaps this can be slightly more simply stated by using mathematical set circles to describe these ideas. With things there is a real object which means there is something all viewpoints share. Thus all sets intersect and share points of data. These intersected subsets represent the absolute nature of the thing, qualities that everyone accepts as truth. For example everyone sees that a certain chair is made of wood. People who say it isn’t wood are considered as not being truthful. Their set does not intersect the “truth” subset. The relative nature is represented by all the different sets of perceptions, however slight, of the thing. These relative sets may include subsets of shared perceptions of their own but always include exclusive qualities that separate them from other sets. They are sets on their own and not subsets.

Regarding concepts the sets are much different. In this case all the relative sets are actually subsets of the gigantic absolute set of qualities. Once again they may share qualities, creating other subsets, but are again unique subsets unto them selves and thus relative.

So to summarize, the absolute nature of things are subsets and the relative nature sets, and the absolute nature of concepts are sets and the relative nature subsets.

Back to the headphones. Applying the aforementioned principles, the actual headphones are a real and physical thing. They have an absolute nature, the subset of construction materials, color, name, packaging, which everyone sees as the same, and a relative nature, represented by the sets of semi pro and amateur listeners, with their different perception of what the headphones do, how they perform. These differences are revealed through the reviews. Although the relative sets are all different, the subsets created by the shared perceptions of certain relative sets point to a modestly dualist relationship between those sets. They break down basically into those who, for a number of reasons, think they sound good and those who think they sound awful.

This is where things get interesting from my perspective. There are undoubtedly those who would say that how the headphones sound is not about the physical reality of the thing at all but a subjective thought process, in other words, a concept. This sounds logical but it is not quite accurate. Yes, it is subjective process but it remains a thing and not a concept. Regardless of the relative perceptions of sounds good or sounds bad those perceptions are still dependent on the thing being the thing. Therefore the perceptions are also a thing. This is the logic behind the statement “perception is reality”. The thing itself represents the physics of it’s existence and the perception of the thing signifies the metaphysics of it’s nature.

Where we get into concepts are in the reasons for the perceptions. Yes, reasons also relate to the thing but are not dependent on the thing. A reason may relate to several other things. Reasons that relate to many different things, often in a large shared subset, can sometimes be called ideologies, or a logic of ideas. So a reason can exist outside the realm of the thing and must be considered a separate idea, or concept. This subtle but significant difference between perception and reason is confusing to many of us and, when applied dishonestly, can blur the line between the perception and reality of both things and concepts.

Often when coherent collected concepts, ideologies, are applied to perceptions, things can be made to appear to have several different realities, and the agenda behind the ideology directs and focuses all perceptions of the thing into a particular desired reality, somewhat like cattle being led to the killing floor. Absolute truths can appear relative, and thus subject to seemingly logical doubts that the truth might not really be universal. Relative truths can be made to appear universal and apply to everything. It can get kind of scary.

But back to the headphones. The concepts dealt with here are the “reasons” people use headphones in the first place. They relate to the use of the thing, the headphones, but they are more broad reaching. In this instance they line up in a simple, if over generalized, duality of “I want to be cool and have fun” versus “I want state of the art and have a superior experience”. But they could also apply to a relationship with other things, such as the choice of buying an X Box or an iPad, or the choice of going to a poetry slam or a theatrical play. So the reasoning is more conceptual than tangible and thing specific.

What I find interesting about this is the phenomenon of people using the same words to describe essentially different concepts. This muddying of the waters has been called using contested concepts. Words such as love and freedom have become contested concepts because there are many unrelated ideas that use the very same word to describe all of them. For example the people with the highly disparate concepts above, about headphones etc., could all describe their reasoning as doing what is cool. Cool is perhaps the ultimate contested concept.

So how did I get off onto all this esoteric tangential stuff just from thinking about buying my daughter some headphones. Because sick minds leave no stone unturned when it comes to complicating a simple task. But I do think its not bad to understand that we all share at least some truths about “things” even though there are those who say we don’t. And many of us have very few or no shared “concepts”, outside of a sharing of contested words, when we are often told that we not only do share but must share.

So Monster can market Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones to impressionable kids because they are able to convince them that the concept of being cool can only become an absolute reality when they buy those headphones. This flies in the face of the relative reality that any number of headphones, some more and some less expensive, are perfectly able to satisfy their initial reason for having “good, over the ear headphones”. But it is a clear example of how smart marketers use psychology and knowledge of metaphysics to influence our nation of consumers.

Confusion about absolute and relative truths and ideas, concepts, perceptions and reality abound in our world. But we don’t have to suffer that confusion. It can be as simple as believing what we feel or believing what we are told. Yes, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Just try to remember that both men are in the same building.