Friday, May 07, 2010

Not a Zero Sum Game

I posted a blog entry a few weeks ago on how, through e-mail, I introduced two people I had never met resulting in an increase of happiness for all involved in the transaction. It was aviation related and it was also the highlight of my week, so I blogged about it. I was reporting on the fact that by doing absolutely nothing of difficulty, effort, or cost to myself, I suddenly felt amazing. I claimed no intellectual analysis of the possible improvement in someone's life, therefore resulting in a more peaceful planet. It was just some happy chemical released in my brain when Michael thanked me, inducing joy.

Most people have done something in their lives that was trivial to them, but meant a lot to another person, so most commenters empathized. There were, however, two fascinating dissenting opinions that I want to talk about, and rebut in a way, but not without leaving the comments open for more discussion of the topic. I am delighted to have so many people read my blog and am honoured when people of different philosophies still take the time to visit. It's easy to read things written by people who agree with you, so when I have regular readers who disagree with me, I know I have a connection with people who challenge themselves and want to change the world to the way they think is better. Everyone should be so bold. You might want to open the comments from that blog entry in another window, as I'm going to refer to them but not requote them extensively, and I want you to catch me if I paraphrase something unfairly.

One commenter, Anon #1, felt that the experience offered to the refugee was inappropriate because of his race and religion, and suggested that the newcomer should demonstrate that he has fully integrated into his new country by--if I read the comment correctly--recanting his religion before he he was given such an opportunity. Anon #1 also stated that the opportunity given to the particular refugee represented a loss of opportunity to Christian children. I will look at those two points separately.

Integration of new immigrants into the cultural whole is important for a country. The understanding is that if everyone feels like part of a whole then they will look out for one another, be willing to pay their taxes, obey the laws, join the armed forces and endorse the mores of the community. People who feel disenfranchised might foment civil unrest or become targets for terrorist recruitment. Presumably that is the reason that the teenage refugee programme is funded in the first place. I agree with Anon #1 that young Abdul (I don't know his real name) should integrate into society, and strive like every other American to make it a better, more ideal place to live. So what does that mean he should do?

I don't agree that he should convert to a new religion. As part of his citizenship exam, I'm sure he had to study the US Constitution and amendments thereto, including the First Amendment which begins ""Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Part of his assimilation should therefore include the knowledge that in his new country people are allowed to freely worship in whatever manner suits them. He knows that he can be a fully patriotic American regardless of the direction he faces to pray, and that he may not discriminate against others for not holding the same religious beliefs. Evidence is that Anon #1 values his religion above his country, because he goes to the Bible's third commandment before his constitution's first amendment; therefore he can deduce that asking someone to choose between religion and country will create rifts instead of patriotic new Americans. For all I know, the reason Abdul is a refugee is that he and his family are Christian converts who fled to the USA to escape persecution in a Moslem regime, but that's not very relevant. The ideals of the United States, if not the reality, accept all religions equally and both Abdul and Anon #1 should work as patriotic Americans to discard prejudice against people who are different.

What else do Americans believe in? Would Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness be a good summary? The American Dream, as I understand it, is to work hard, succeed and have a fine home, family and life comforts. (Canadians are more about winning the lottery and having enough beer). Step one in working hard is to work: stay in school and then graduate and get a job. To this end Michael (the reader who contacted me about Abdul's chances as a pilot) elicited from his class ideas on what they wanted to do when they grew up. Having a career goal inspires good schoolwork in children of any background, and to pay for his training, Abdul will have to get other jobs first, and establish himself as a trustworthy person liked by his coworkers. In the United States a commercial pilot must be declared free of "moral turpitude." I think that means he will have to be a moral, law-abiding citizen of his adoptive country. That all seems like a pretty good definition of integration to me.

I really don't see how 'integration first' would work. One day while I was volunteering in an outdoor program for special needs children there was a young client who was deaf and partially blind. Her vocalizations were not intelligible, but she could sign a little and understand some signs if they were made right in front of her face. One of her regular caregivers said that she could do better if she had some specialized glasses that would allow her to see better, but that her parents had said she could have new glasses when she asked for them herself. Asking an immigrant to integrate first and get information about a career second seems like asking an eight year old to learn to communicate in order to ask for the tools she needs to learn to do so.

Anon #1's second point is more interesting to me. He felt that because Abdul and his fellow international immigrants received a tour of a flight ops facility, other non-Arabic children were discriminated against. Perhaps I was at fault for not explaining what happened in more detail. I was sitting on the couch watching Law & Order reruns and looking at pictures of cats with cute captions. Michael was moving down the list of aspirations and looking for a dentist who was willing to tell a fourteen year old what her job was like and how she got there. The people in the airline ops department were frantically solving the latest scheduling crisis, or possibly also looking at lolcats, depending on the weather and mechanical aptitude of their airplanes that day. The airline pilot who would ultimately give the tour was partaking in some off-duty pilot activity, maybe sitting on the couch with a cold one, watching Jamie and Adam blow up a cement mixer. I sent an e-mail and it inspired the airline pilot to take the class on a tour. Wasted leisure time was converted to happiness. It's possible that the airline pilot cancelled an appointment to inspire white, Christian, American-born children in order to meet with the immigrants, but that's highly unlikely. In fact the reverse could be true: perhaps leading the tour was fun enough that he resolved to take a local school class on another tour next week. The point is, as Sarah said, helpfulness is not a zero sum game. It's a fully renewable resource. You don't need to worry that because someone, somewhere, was nice to someone that there is now less niceness in the world available to you and the people you approve of over your lifetime.

Lets say Abdul is inspired, and has what it takes, and works his little tail off over the next ten years in order to buy a small airplane to learn to fly in. (That's actually a smart, cost-effective way to do it, when you consider all the time building he'll have to do). You could look at Abdul's career progress as competition against your kid, but surer threats are the kids with airline fathers who have had all the contacts, the money and the opportunity their whole lives. Abdul's enjoyment of his hobby could inspire other youths to chase their dreams. Generally one person doing well has a better effect on the people around him than one not doing well. Would you rather Abdul become a flight instructor and try to get your kid to spend money on flying lessons or become a drug dealer and ask your kid to spend money on those wares? Maybe your kid gets a pilot licence too and gets to build some cheap time on Abdul's plane. Or after Abdul has been giving airplane tours for a while he buys a second plane and hires your kid to fly the first one. Maybe your kid goes out of his way to help Abdul, so five years later Abdul serves as a job contact for your kid. Maybe your kid does nothing in particular but Abdul pays taxes that ensure your kid doesn't starve. It is of course possible that Abdul is not able to achieve anything and your kid is the one whose taxes support Abdul. The point is, it is in your family's interest that the people around you succeed, even if they don't look or think like you.

The second anonymous dissenter, who signed off as Person in the Middle, is a little more mysterious. He or she (I'll guess he) writes in fluent English with North American "-ize" spellings, and his errors are those of a native speaker such as occasionally using the wrong homonym. I would have assumed he lived in the US, but he states that he is neither in the twenty-five richest western countries nor "at the bottom of the pile, where someone will pick them up and emigrate them to a country like yours." Most have-not countries that use English as a first or widely-studied second language use British English, but I think China may be the exception. But native-like English would be a ticket to ride in China. I think I'll stop playing this game and assume that PitM is an American or Canadian speaking on behalf of the downtrodden of unspecified countries.

His first objection seems to be that I had the opportunity to do something good only because of the advantages I already enjoy. It's true that I have a pretty good life, and I can see that one commercial pilot calling on another might seem like an exotic transaction to someone outside of aviation. Heck, that's part of why I reported it: it was an example of the power of blogging. I knew both of those people only because they had written me in response to the blog. So I had this power as a result of my own efforts in blogging. I suspect anyone who blogs in a specific field will collect an impressive list of associated contacts. But although the feeling of being a power broker was fun, it isn't being someone who knows someone that triggers the happy.

I know this because I felt just as good when I gave a drug addict my socks. (I was out for a jog and she was sitting on the pavement outside the hospital, having been discharged after treatment for an overdose. She had no money and just shredded nylon stockings inside her running shoes, and a long way to walk. I don't take any money or bus coupons out jogging, so I gave her my nice thick running socks and ran home with my bare feet in my shoes). True, it wasn't my last pair of socks, and I'm doing better than most of the world to own running shoes and multiple pairs of socks, but the point I'm trying to make is that you don't have to be Bill Gates to help someone out. You don't have to give anything physical, even. The Dalai Lama makes this point more eloquently:

If people have compassion, naturally that's something they can count on; even if they have economic problems and their fortune declines, they still have something to share with fellow human beings.

Person in the Middle emphasizes that many people are in circumstances from which they cannot escape, and who are ignored by their own countries and the world. It seems like he's saying that because I cannot help these people I should not take pleasure in helping anyone. Kind of like the rule from grade one that you can't bring candy to class unless you have enough for everyone. That can't really be his point, because no one can ever help everyone, so the only way to be fair would be to help no one ever, and that would be a sad world. Unless you're in an explosive atmosphere or have to conserve oxygen, it's better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the dark.

I'll end this by clarifying that neither of these posts is meant as a claim that I am exceptionally generous nor that the things I have done for anyone are particularly momentous, or even positive, either for them or the world in general. The first post I would summarize "isn't it cool that we're hardwired to take pleasure at helping" and this post as "you don't need any special skills or connections to be nice to people."

Feel free to choose your own path to happiness.


amulbunny said...

It's like paying it forward. Do one good thing that turns into another and another and another.

You did good. Very good. Brava!

Anoynmous said...

In my experience, the ability to be nice to people is a special skill, one which is congenitally weak in people suffering from "The Knack". It can be cultivated, but it takes practice.

gmc said...

You summed it all up just in the title alone:
Not a Zero Sum Game

Unhappily some folks can't/won't see it that way.

Rob said...

I think they missed the point of aviation.

A friends dad of mine who works for a major airline has acted as a mentor for me since I was about 14. He has tracked my progress, offered advice, pushed me in the right direction, provided motivation and even written references. Also whenever we meet he always insists on buying the coffee.

I mentioned that I could never repay him for all his work one day and he replied: "You will by helping out a kid starting out when you are my age. I had people help me out, and I am repaying them now by helping you."

This has stuck with me and is one of the many things I love about aviation that it is a passionate, helpful community.

townmouse said...

One day I will be able to react to negative commenters with the same grace, patience and common sense that you display...

Critical Alpha said...

To this point about becoming a "nice little American..." or whatever (in the comments on the first post). This actually stirs me up quite a bit. Australia has a policy, one we struggle with continually, but a policy nevertheless of multiculturalism, rather than monoculturalism. It is a policy I avidly support. Difference, diversity and challenge are what makes a society strong and self aware. It's OK to come here, IMHO, and be an Afghani, or an Iraqi or a Sri Lankan Tamil. Bring your culture and your beliefs, share them with me, enrich and strengthen my culture with yours. Bring your stories of hardship and travel, share them with me. Wear your burqa if that's what's important to you. The only thing you must not do is to bring your wars to _our_ country (your country and mine = _our_) and fight those wars in _our_ country. _This_ is your country, you have chosen it, come and enrich _our_ country - it's yours now too. My children, as a matter of choice, went to a school where 15 languages were spoken in the playground. My son's first "girlfriend" was a Hmong girl, a intelligent and beautiful girl. That is what our life is.
I feel like we must include and cherish diversity. They steal nothing from me and give me much. Who needs more WASP Aussies, Americans or Canadians?
Impassioned without apology.

Sarah said...

Right on, Critical alpha. Waves of immigration are both a challenge and wonderful opportunity for enriching a culture. America, Australia, NZ, Canada ... none of the "new worlds" would be what they are without it. Although, sometimes I wish there were an even newer frontier. Hmmm. How did that go? Space, the final frontier...

And Rob, too. I am always looking for ways to share flying with others. Sadly amazingly, I don't often get a lot of interest. I guess aviators are a small fraction of the population. Less than 10%?

Aviatrix said...

Critical Alpha, that has been Canada's immigration stance for a while, too, the cultural mosaic we call it, although I think the idea may be under examination. The Americans, however have long laid claim to being a cultural melting pot, asking their immigrants yes to contribute their strengths to the richness of the country, but also to be melted down ans reformed as Americans. I think that's simply a difference and not something to be criticized, so I framed Abdul's responsibilities in that context.

Anonymous said...

Very well thought out, and expressed. Keep on being who you are! You have a gift of writing about something with passion. Know that many people get enjoyment out of what you are doing with this blog. I look forward to the next post.


Critical Alpha said...

Aviatrix I probably framed my point poorly in retrospect - a little too much passion maybe and somewhat too little clarity.
I like the way you created the two distinctions - melting pot and mosaic. It's not necessarily the policy that comes up for critique, rather the behaviour of individuals set within it.
Xenophobia is one of the greatest difficulties that immigration programs face. When xenophobia then leads to an insistence that "they" become the _same_ as "us" so that "we" don't have to feel uncomfortable, then I think we all have a problem.

Grant said...

"Can't we all just get along." is all nice and touchy feely - until we get down to the fact that many cultures include practices that other cultures find abhorrent. Then what?

Issues like female circumcision and gender roles come to mind as one example. Sharia law for another. And for immigrants to western culture there can be serious questions regarding western mores in relation to sexuality, promiscuity and abortion - as other examples.

Mosaics and melting pots make for good jargon, but the actual push-pull of cultures interacting gets a lot messier.

A CBC news item last night interviewed a British MP who has been an advocate for liberal immigration policies for many decades, but is now re-thinking the concept and wants British immigration halted. It's worth a look if you find it on the CBC news site.

Aviatrix said...

Grant: Immigrants pledge to abide by the laws of their new country and should be held to that, but where the laws end, there's no question: it gets very messy. Whether it's sending kids to school with peanut butter sandwiches, teaching them the names of their own body parts or requiring them to learn to swim, ordinary actions result in someone afraid that you are threatening someone else's life, moral fibre or eternal soul. I have no good answers to that one. It's a matter of "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose," versus "I was swinging my fist right here before you stuck your nose in the way."

To address the specific example, if Abdul can't handle women in authority over him, he cannot work as a commercial pilot in the United States. He probably can't even get licenced, because he's unlikely to get through his training without having to answer to a female instructor or examiner.

Mark said...

... "Part of his assimilation should therefore include the knowledge that in his new country people are allowed to freely worship in whatever manner suits them. He knows that he can be a fully patriotic American regardless of the direction he faces to pray, and that he may not discriminate against others for not holding the same religious beliefs."

Forgotten is the concept of none. America (and presumably other nations with similar laws and traditions) protects our right to have any belief, or no belief.

Unfortunately the government here in the US has managed to remove hunks of cement from the "wall of separation" (aka Establishment Clause of the US Constitution) by including religious references in its ceremony and then claiming these references are not religious at all (the "tradition" argument).

Lest we get carried away, suffice it to say that here, it's any or none.

Flying Kites Mom said...

I don't post often I read your blog regularly with great pleasure.
I wanted to compliment you on this excellent post- you dealt with what can be a difficult subject with clarity and balance. Thank you. LSP

Anonymous said...

Actually, I had just finished a day of recurrent ground-school in the ops center! So, I was giving up a little leisure time, but, in fairness, my hot date wasn't available for another couple of hours, anyway! ;)

Sarah said...

I just ran across this snippet from an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about Carl Sagan... and thought of this thread. You may get a momentary good feeling from doing such a good deed, but it may have cascading effects lasting a life time.