If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

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Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship

Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?

The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.

Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.

I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.

I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.

One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?

Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?

Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.

I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.

However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.

Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?

Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.

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Blank Panther, Violence, and The Wretched of the Earth

Our book club finished reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth just about the time that Marvel’s Blank Panther hit the theatres. This convergence wasn’t planned, but it distinctively shaped the way a few of us experienced Black Panther. Watching the film through the ‘lens’ of Fanon’s arguments about colonization and liberation was… unsettling? I am personally still not sure of the right word is to describe it. In this episode, Jasmine Jasani, a fellow book club member and Curious Public podcast contributor, joins me at London Public Library to talk about reading Wretched of the Earth and watching Black Panther in such proximity. Is violence a legitimate tool to overthrow an oppressor who has or is committing violence against you? Who has the ‘right’ to tell an oppressed person how to achieve their liberation? What does it mean to transcend the binary of ‘us and them’ when one has colonized and brutalized the other?

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Subjugated to be Free, or Free to be Subjugated?

Perhaps there are two definitions of liberty?

The first definition asks: if liberty does not protect me from the power of others over me, how can I be free?

The second definition asks: if liberty does not protect my right to amass power for myself, how can I be free?

In the first case, liberty is protection from external subjugation.
This is equity through legislating shared access to power.
This is liberty as the antithesis of being oppressed.
This is freedom in the sense of living among equals.
Here, freedom of speech protects the voice of the minority speaking truth to power.

In the second case, liberty is the right to consolidate power.
This is equality in the license to centralize influence.
This is liberty in the sense of rising above the crowd.
This is freedom in the sense of opportunity to become greater.
Here, freedom of speech turns into a monopoly on rhetoric, brandished by the power majority.

Critics of the first definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equitable rights afforded to everyone by an institution more powerful than anyone’ leave anybody free?

Critics of the second definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equal opportunity to take advantage of one another’ leave anybody free?

What does liberty mean to you?

If your definition of liberty culminates in restricting the freedom of others, how do you distinguish between your definition of ‘liberty’ and your concept of ‘oppressor’?

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The Good, Great, Bad, and Terrifying: adapting to the world of social media

When we weigh all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

…does it bring people together to mobilize for their rights? Or just give corporations and governments the ability to track our every move?

…does it introduce us to new ideas and different perspectives? Or does it surround us in “echo chambers” of our own voices and beliefs?

…does it spawn innovation, creativity, and collaboration? Or is it a psychological liability that leaves us addicted to our newsfeeds and notifications?

On Monday, I hosted a panel in the Curious Public at Central Library series to explore some of these questions. My guests were Tim Blackmore, Emma Blue (@EmmaJaeBlue), Carmi Levy (@carmilevy), and Rowa Mohamed (@RowaMohamed).

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