Thursday, June 20, 2013

No Rule Can Substitute Compassion

I happened to come across a few episodes of The World's Strictest Parents, a TV show where troublemaker teens are “shown the way.” The message is as conservative and moralistic as can be expected, narrowmindedly blaming the teenagers for just about everything. Still, upon closer inspection, it can't be brushed off all that easily.

The usual adult reflex, especially among people who pride themselves of high moral standards, is to claim complete innocence when their children don't behave exactly as they want them to. In most cases, that attitude is actually what started the problem.

It's not easy to be a teenager. The adult world, though, tends to demand of them to show none of it – as if leaving childhood is illegal. It's even so that they are treated with increasing intolerance and expected to show more self-restrain than ever before. That's detrimental. Often it is really cruel, in a way that no adult would ever accept to be treated.

The World's Strictest Parents doesn't differ from that pattern, not at all. The homes that the teens are sent to all have the same rules – no smoking, no alcohol, no profanity, no sex. They expect unquestioning obedience of the adults and complete adaption to their demands, no matter what. Very often the temporary foster homes are devoted to one or other religion, which doesn't exactly promote tolerance.

If the teens are unable to behave as demanded, the whole blame is on them – as if that proves their inferiority and delinquency. How many adults would pass such a test?

In addition, most of these teens have a deeply troubled past, for which they can't be blamed. Several of them experienced parental divorce when they were children, some of them had even been struck by tragic death within the family. More than once, these events are reported as coinciding with the start of the obtrusive behavior. Well, do the math...

It's nothing but inhuman to demand of the teenagers to be restrained and obedient to an extent that is not humanly possible.

So, I picked one of the shows to examine closer, in order to expose the absurdities I mention above. It happened to be the very first episode of the series, where the kids were sent to a conservative Christian family in Alabama. No Einstein needed to figure out what must follow.

The World's Strictest Parents - s01e01 - Alabama by theworldstrictestparents

Sure enough, the strictness and the rules were what could be expected, as was the initial clash with the teens when complete obedience was demanded. As if they could be expected to reprogram themselves inside out in mere seconds.

But another image emerged, soon into the show. The Alabama parents were non-compromising in their moral beliefs, but they proved to be very sensitive to the simple fact that the teens had another life to try to manage, and their own background stories making all the difference in the world.

So the adults were repeatedly forgiving, a paradigm of Christianity often neglected by those confessing loudly to it. Also, they were genuinely showing hope and commitment to actually help the teens – even when it meant bending the rules.

I was reminded about what Jesus said when the priests accused him for letting his disciples ignore the rules of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

The Alabama family was aware of this distinction, simply because they really cared about the two teens in their temporary care.

At one point, the father became angry and spoke heated words. It was when the teens had smoked contrary to their promise to him. It was not the smoking that upset him, but their breaking of a promise: “If we can't trust you, if we can't have faith in you, there's just nothing here.”

He was obviously saddened more than enraged, although expressing it in the latter way at first. He was disappointed, because he had genuinely hoped for a different outcome. That was evidence of how much he cared, which is just about all that matters and the only way by which serious problems in human relations can be solved.

That's also why they could put the incident behind them and move on, quickly from that point deepening their bond and mutual respect. That's a cure for just about everything.

I had to look at a bunch of other episodes of the show. Some were indeed dreadful in regard to what I've stated above about disrespect for the human heart beating inside the porcupine surface of teen attitude. When such encounters ended well, it was totally because of the compassionate yielding of the teens, in spite of adult rigidity.

But several other shows had that surprising quality of “the strictest parents in the world” reaching the teens and helping them to cure themselves. There was even one Utah Mormon family proving able to do that (season 2, episode 4) – much to my amazement. Mormons have their share of children emotionally crippled in their care.

What was always evident was the recipe for success: It came when the strict adults were moved enough to soften that strictness, really reaching out to the needs of the teens. Compassion is the key. No rule can replace it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Weakness of Rhetoric

President Obama defended the massive NSA monitoring of digital information, which was revealed a couple of days ago. It was not an easy task, not even with his rhetoric skills. There are limits to the power of rhetoric.

The major limit of rhetoric is its inability of hiding something without revealing something else. It might even be possible to express in algebra. We're familiar with the expression “If you have said A, you must also say B.” It's also true that if you don't want to say A, you must instead say B, which is usually not better. Simply put: rhetoric is for saying things, not for concealing them.

It's evident already in Barack Obama's opening remark, as can be seen in the video above:

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one to keep the American people safe, and number two to uphold the constitution.”

That's a terrible example of accidentally saying much more than intended. What he really states by the given order of his priorities, is that he will ignore the constitution when he deems that the safety of the American people demands it. Actually, it's pretty much a confession that it has been done in this case.

Later in his speech he says:
“You can't have a 100% security, and also then have a 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We're gonna have to make some choices as a society.”

Well, you can't have a 100% security. No one is safe. The universe itself doesn't allow for it. Hey, we all die at some point. The whole idea of the Constitution is that the fundamental rights of the people should triumph, even at the cost of their own safety.

That's why we're innocent until proven guilty. That's why we have the right to our privacy. That's why the Constitution limits the power of the government. Theoretically speaking, maximum safety can only be accomplished by maximum confinement.

Any US government official who regards something – anything – as more important than the Constitution, is abusing the office. The question is how much, but the choice has been made.

Obama moves on in his speech with a nonsense definition:
“The programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they are classified.”

Well, that's secret. Or are there things classified which are not secret? Again, we approach math. In this case set theory. Secret always means some get to know, and some don't. The only significance is who – and most importantly: who gets to decide what's to be kept secret from whom?

Democracy depends on keeping secrets to a minimum, for the simple reason that if the people is to govern itself, it needs to have the information relevant to do so.

Sadly, most governments have a tendency to classify things that they believe would meet with the disapproval of the people. That means the governments actively sabotage the basis of democracy, by acting against the will of the people and hiding it.

“Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” Obama stated firmly in his speech. But later he confessed this to be untrue, when there's a court order to the contrary. Phones are listened to. We all know that. The question is to what extent and with how much of a real legal process in control.

Regarding monitoring of the Internet and emails, Obama stated:
“This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”

But what has been revealed about the NSA system indicates the opposite. The monitoring is done on all electronic information exchanged on the Internet and emails passing through accessed media, such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

If all this information is gathered and accessible on an individual level, and the use of it is concealed – then this does mean that all of it is monitored. Most of it may be ignored, but it is accessible and by computer handling anything can be extracted from it – by anyone with access to the system.

President Obama tries to assure his listeners, by stating about his initial attitude as a newly elected President:
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs.”

Apart from the fact that it's rhetorically weak to claim a competence instead of proving it by examples and reasoning, he really diluted the word skepticism by adding healthy in front of it. Skepticism is the ability to question – anything and always. But “healthy skepticism” means being skeptic up to a point. It means questioning some things and not other things.

Since the word healthy is non-descriptive in any context other than medicine, he gives no clue as to what he deemed unnecessary to question. For all we know, it might have been just about everything.

The most important questions about the NSA monitoring are two: firstly, is the measure in proportion to the threat it's supposed to counter, and secondly, what are the risks and consequences of misuse? If Obama regards it as healthy not to ask these questions, there is not much to his skepticism.

Unfortunately, it seems he all but ignores those aspects, calling this enormous NSA monitoring a “modest encroachments on privacy.” At least he used the word encroachment, though not without hesitation. In present society, there's nothing modest about concealed government access to all the electronic communication of all its citizens, as well as hundreds of millions of people in other countries.

“Some other folks may have a different assessment of that,” he added. You bet. And by admitting this, he made the most important statement in his speech. The whole thing is indeed questionable.

When he ended his speech by welcoming the congress to consider and debate the issue, he confessed to its controversy – maybe even hoped for a change that he is himself unable to openly propagate.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


When I was a kid, we got a cat. Then another. Soon enough kittens, as well. That was also the time I started taking photos for more than souvenirs, so I took a lot of cat photos. Here are some of them, from the 1970's.

(Click on the images to see them enlarged.)

You also find those images on my personal website: