Opinion Pieces

All opinion pieces, editorials and commentaries on world affairs

Too Privileged

This post number two following the earlier one titled ‘Privilege‘, hence the pun in the title, on something that has been bothering me for a long while. This isn’t aimed at anyone or any group, mostly just a personal reflection/struggle.

Still struggle to put this all into words, but thankfully The Broad Experience has nicely encapsulated it in this podcast.

The Broad Experience – Episode 94: https://www.acast.com/thebroadexperience/episode94-classandcareer.

A not 100% accurate transcript: www.thebroadexperience.com/transcripts/2016/10/27/episode-94-class-and-career, though I think the differences sometimes add an element to the message.


CONTEXT: From 9-13 August, I went on a Project Mingde Voluntary Teaching Summer Camp in Dabao Village, Guangxi, China. The following was the reflections I wrote for the trip specifically, but also happened to be something I had thought about more generally in the last few months, so I felt it had heightened meaning, even if it doesn’t necessarily capture the breadth of my thoughts on this.

Hiding safely in our air-conditioned multi-storied concrete edifices, it is easy not to realise how truly privileged we are to live and grow-up in Hong Kong. It certainly was not at the forefront of our minds as the 20 of us made the trip to Dabao Village some 600 km away.

Gathering at the border crossing at a mean 8am, we made our day-long journey to Danzhou Ancient Town. The quaint and beautiful old island surrounded by a yellow silt-filled river began as a bit of a shock – what with the unfamiliar food, unstable internet connection, and undesired company of various small critters. But it soon came to represent a comforting respite from the even more foreign environment a half-days travel away. Along the way into Dabao our bus (perhaps inevitably) broke down, live animals and vegetables were sold in street stalls literally within reach from the car’s windows, and our walk into the village was pre-emptively cooled by heavy rainfall as the bus climbed upwards (though the sky had thankfully dried up by the time our walk started).

The Media Spotlight

For anyone that has been following US politics, it might have crossed your newsdesk that Eric Cantor lost his House Republican seat against David Brat. Not a small loss given that Cantor is the House Republican Majority Leader, so certainly worth some media attention. But if there’s a surer sign of the excessive media spotlight, its when a single story gets run into the ground with frankly excessive coverage. Beyond the news that Cantor lost (somewhat unclear how that single issue can get restated in so many different ways) and who might take over his job as House Majority Leader, there all manner of articles ranging from its impact on the Democratic Party, the role of the media, the role of money, the future of issues like immigration, the rise of the Tea Party, reactions from senators and house representatives.

My RSS reader exploding with Cantor related stories...

My NYT RSS feed exploding with Cantor related stories…

My point is, the fact that US politics focused almost exclusively on this singular story – devoting considerable coverage, air time, column space – is just a sign of both the intensity and excessive nature of the news media spotlight. Yes, he lost, yes it probably matters for Republican leadership, at best it’s a sign of other underlying trends. But no, it doesn’t deserve the excess of news coverage it’s garnered. Almost nothing does. Profiles on every possibly connected individual, excessive analysis of possible causes and even the most tenuous effects.

Perhaps it’s better if we all just chilled out. Analysis in the heat of the moment is almost never very useful.

Hong Kong’s Tiger Tutors

Lots of people have probably heard me joking about the asian stereotype of studying all the time. If you’ve got some free time, then I’d encourage you to watch this documentary.

Admittedly it is somewhat exaggerated and of course this sort of experience isn’t universal (so don’t go around talking to everyone from HK as if they did go through all those), but certainly it’s representative of the experience of lots of people. It also gives you an idea why I dislike the tutorial system in general. It’s not that it doesn’t help people, but rather that it should be a necessary component of the education system.

All that said, having not been through this system myself, my own experiences are only peripheral.

Why humans like to cry

This is a random collection of thoughts that came after a talk organised by the Oxfordshire Branch of the British Science Association. It was titled ‘Why humans like to cry – tragedy, evolution, and the brain’ by Professor Michael Trimble.

Why even worry about this issue? Simple really. Animals have emotions and are capable of producing tears. But humans are unique in that they cry and produce tears emotionally rather than for biological reasons.

Women cry more than men at a ratio of about 5 to 1. This raises the question of whether this is for biological reasons (in terms of the way men develop or their brains are wired) or whether this is attributable to sociological reasons (such as societal views that make crying acceptable or unacceptable in particular circumstances or for people of different genders).
I think this is, for the most part, a social construct. That said, it may have arisen from perfectly defensible societal demands such as the fact that men in hunter-gatherer time had to continue hunting or growing crops even in the face of hard times and adversity, whereas women may have had more time to mourn and grieve so to speak.
What is more interesting, as was noted by Prof. Trimble, was the question of why the gender gap hasn’t been reduced if its source has been sociological. One would expect that societal views might change given the new circumstances. And yet, men are more likely to apologise for crying, more likely to cry quietly and in less discoverable places.

Undoubtedly, crying is very much a contextual activity. The perhaps obvious explanation for crying is that it is something triggered by emotions. Joy, sorry and bereavement can all be causes, in some instances injustice also triggers crying. More interestingly are instances where there is no prescribed or specific emotion that is easily identifiable, but rather the weight of a myriad of emotions that triggers crying.


Social Media at War

Not really a large collection of new thoughts, but certainly some interesting reminders (and a few new perspectives). The CCW seminar by went through some of the obvious facts about the growth of Social Media and trends in its use by security forces and in a military context. Quite a few of the people attending were a little skeptical of whether social media would really change the way wars were fought on the ground.

The Bin-Laden raid live tweeted (from turnstyle)

I can’t say I know much in that respect, but one fo the more salient ideas was the ability for competing narratives and messages from both sides of the conflict to engage on a more immediate basis to seek to influence the conversation. I have doubts over whether this has an impact more broadly speaking, but in terms of shoring up existing supporters I can certainly see how it might work. Of course, the powerful thing about social media is the ability to instantly and continuously tailor the message depending on the feedback and sentiment that are gauged over the social network.

There was some discussion in the presentation about the psychological aspect of social media, and how social media engaged with the more emotive and spontaneous side of our minds than, say, the cognitive side of things. I would hope that doesn’t mean my ability to be rational is diminished, but I guess the point was more that social media could better influence and connect on an emotional level whereas traditional filtered media was more cognitive.

For me, perhaps the biggest point to take away was social media’s capacity to build groups and coalitions that are limited to intersections over unions. So while old forms of coalitions and groups had greater inertia, perhaps from how they are constructed, and thus are better conditioned to creating a union of interests amongst people, social media allows people to move around with greater flexibility, leading to the creation of coalitions or movements that can at times be stronger, but are also more likely to b based on the intersection of interests rather than a union of them. Which is better? I’m not sure.

5th February 2013