Sunday, September 28, 2008

12 Angry Men and the Justice System

Scene of Twelve Angry Men with all jury members staring at the camera
Just recently I indulged in watching this classic film again, the debut of renowned director Sydney Lumet. I had seen it some years ago, and I remembered being impressed; the same sensation prevailed on my second viewing. I think it is one of the best examples not only about how the justice system works or rather should work, not only about standing up against the majority and voicing your personal opinion, but it also portrays a quest for certainty in a dubious world that can only offer partial clues and answers.

The film is shot in a minimalistic manner, and most of the action takes place in a confined stifling room where 12 jurors fight over a unanimous decision. For some of them justice is a game. One of the jurors wants to get his jury duty over with so that he can watch an upcoming baseball game that same evening. Others simply use the opportunity to take out and dump their own prejudices on the poor boy on trial.

The boy who comes from a poor family and neighborhood has allegedly killed his own father. The evidence seems to be completely against him; there are testimonies that he has been heard threatening his father, and he has been seen running down the stairs shortly afterward. His alibi does not hold either; he cannot even remember the title or the actors of the movie he claims to have seen in the movie theater the night of the murder.

But then there are some discrepancies. What seemed to be a simple case is suddenly fraught with doubt. One of the jurors keeps punching holes into what seemed solid evidence and approved testimonies. Are the witnesses reliable or do they simply seek attention? Are the jurors free from prejudice or do they use the trial to attack the lower class youth that they believe have gone astray and are good for nothing? One of the jurors might even use the occasion to symbolically punish his own son who has not talked to him for a long time.

Either way, the movie opens up many more questions that are left hanging and unanswered but are vital for the American justice system. Can jurors be objective? Do they really consider the evidence or do they only see what suits them best? There is an undeniable burden of responsibility on their decisions something that must never be taken lightly.

The great feat of this movie is that we are left guessing. At the end, we still do not know whether the boy is guilty or not, but we do agree after listening to all the discussions and the evidence presented that there does seem to be room for reasonable doubt.

An interesting question would be this: Is it better to let a guilty man get away at the expense of killing an innocent person? Should we give people the "benefit of the doubt"? Let the 12 men discuss the issues carefully and elaborately and see what their verdict is. It's not a game; after all, a person's life is at stake here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Stoicism can change your Life

Fortuna card showing the wheels of fortune

What does “being stoic” really mean? Is it someone who is indifferent, bold and courageous, and unaffected by pain and emotions? Is such a person impassive, almost robotic when faced with pleasure, pain and suffering?

As a philosophy, Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (333 – 262 BC) who used to teach at a painted colonnade called “Stoa” in Athens. It has been developed over the coming centuries by Greeks and Romans and has had an important effect on Christianity. Unlike many other movements of the time, it was practiced across social lines and boundaries, where slaves such as Epictetus (50-138 AD) and emperors like Marcus Aurelius (121-180) equally embraced this current of thought.

What are the main premises of their philosophy? One can divide them into two related assumptions about the world. Stoics believed in absolute determinism. Hence, everything that happens is and was meant to occur, and we have little, if no, influence on the outcome of events. The notions of Fate and Destiny are the two terms we use nowadays to explain this rather fatalistic view.

However, it is important to note that the Stoics believed that underneath horrible events and tragedies in life, there was a living and divine being in charge of it all. This was called the “Logos,” which was ruled by reason. The “Logos” is a rational plan meant for the benefit of each person, even though at first sight, we might believe it to be a disaster. A person that you have relied on most of your life suddenly passes away, and you feel shocked, lonely, and at a loss. It is a tragic event. But Stoics claim that it was meant to happen and that it was a “good” event in disguise because now you have to learn to be more independent and stand on your own feet.

A second concept is that one should control and even eliminate strong emotions and attachments similar to the Buddhist view. We all have to die and everything has its own end. When we over-evaluate things or people, when we have a strong attachment towards them, their loss will cause us much more unhappiness and perturbation. In other words, we cannot control or change our environment, the outside world, but we can learn how to deal with our own internal mental world.

What are the consequences, dangers and benefits of the Stoic movement then? Each time period had their own reasons for following this school. To the Romans it was appealing because it gave them the necessary courage for battle. There was en even blind faith in the fact that all is planned out and that if you were meant to die in the next battle, it was how it should be. It could not be dodged or avoided. On the other hand, it appealed to the Roman temper since they frowned upon being swayed or led astray by emotions, something they considered a feminine trait. The ideal was to have a clear head in times of distress and suffering so that one never lost control of oneself or the situation.

The Christians were more interested in the fact that one should devote their whole life to a higher purpose, God and the spreading of Christian ideals and virtues. As a result, there were a high number of martyrs during this period. For them, life on earth was only a temporary state and one of little significance compared to the never-ending afterlife in heaven. They endured torture, persecution, even horrible death with a sense of calm and an evident lack of fear.

There are, nonetheless, many dangers implicit in this view. It can create radicalism or a fundamental conviction in one's beliefs. I have always been a fan of doubt because it gives a glimpse that things are not always what we believe them to be. Doubts in moderate degrees I consider healthy and beneficial, and they can protect us from falling into fallacies. To die for a higher noble cause frightens me, especially when it comes to religious fundamentalism, whether it is the Crusades or modern-day terrorist attacks.

Another drawback is that some erroneously believe that accepting and surrendering to fate and destiny implies passivity or even laziness. Some might say, it doesn't matter whether I am proactive or simply remain idle in my life, destiny will happen anyway. There could also be a certain dangerous recklessness. I can drive home drunk and if I am meant to die, that's how it was meant to happen. These thoughts, in my opinion, do not represent Stoicism, but they are rather an escape from life, responsibility or one's duties.

To me, stoicism is a life-empowering positive philosophy for various reasons. First of all, it provides us with faith in times of distress. As we say, “everything happens for a reason,” it gives us support to come to terms with many tragic events and losses in our lives. The belief in an essentially “good” universe, God, Lord Krishna, Allah with a concrete plan for our growth helps us deal with the myriad difficulties we encounter in life.

Some might say that we are just fooling ourselves - and that might be true. Yet there is always a possibility that it is not make-believe or a foolish assumption and that there is a spiritual entity with good and beneficial intentions and that life is, as Buddhists and Christians claim, an illusion, Maya, or a “test” for moral virtue and fortitude.

How many times have we been paralyzed in the face of fear of rejection or simply have doubted our own abilities? Many times we find ourselves tangled up in negative thoughts that cripple us, that make us immobile. So many chances and life opportunities pass us by for that very same reason. Stoicism can teach us to become more courageous and confident in our approach to life by getting a grip on our emotions.

By not attaching ourselves to things, to events and beings, we can also protect ourselves. It does not mean that we do not love them or that we have no feelings for them. There is a silent acceptance that nothing lasts forever and that one day we will have to say good-bye to this cherished being or state of life. Yet throughout our lives, it is our own personal reaction to events that we can learn to control.

Some are thrown into deep depression; others toy with thoughts of suicide, while other more stoically-minded people accept it with their whole being, learn and grow from it and move on. Stoicism does not mean an escape from reality; it means facing the truth while not letting it wrestle us to the ground.

That is, I think, the strongest and most empowering contribution of stoicism to our lives, confronting adverse events, accepting pain and suffering with our heads held high and our hearts rooted in deep convictions. It may not be for everyone, but many can use it to improve their lives and to be prepared for everything else life, fate, or destiny has in store for us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Telenovelas and Soap Operas: Junk Food or Food for Thought?

Drawing of star-shaped chocolate on a stick

Soap operas have been a popular form of TV entertainment since the 50s when the tube took over the households of many homes around the world. Although they started in the US, Latin countries did not take long to follow suit: Cuba began with their own brand of soap operas, which in the Latin world are called tele-novelas. Before the advent of television, both radio and foto-novelas were quite popular with the public. Yet the concept of having an audiovisual form of storytelling took over the Latin continent by storm.

What is the main difference between tele-novelas and soap operas then? First, they differ in length. American soap operas can last forever; shows like General Hospital started in 1963 and to my knowledge continue even today. They usually employ open narratives with no clearly set concepts except the location in this particular case: the setting is a hospital and the actors, of course, go through wholesale changes after each decade I would assume. I followed that show for the amount of a few months, and I must say that one should always be very careful with these programs; they are indeed addictive as hell, and I am glad I got off it cold turkey and without scratches and bruises.

On the other hand, the tele-novela is more limited and focused in its concept. They are as the term implies “novels for television," while the term soap opera comes from previous radio broadcasts that used to advertise soap products.

Usually the script of a tele-novela should have a clear outline and the average running time for a program is about six months, with a maximum of another additional term, so one year before they are taken off the air. Of course this depends on the ratings, and some shows are canceled prematurely, but there are very few if any shows that last as long as their American soap opera counterparts.

Although most of the stories are now original and expressly written for television, there has always been the temptation of remakes. There can be often up to three versions of the same tele-novela in the span of a few decades. Literary sources have also served as inspiration; for example, there was recently a modernized account of the Count of Monte Cristo, which had reasonable success in Mexico.

Why use remakes? Is it because the writers are just lazy? Is that the reason why we constantly see remakes of Hollywood movies? It actually follows a simple and logical premise: if movies have been successful in the past and have been proven to work with previous audiences, then we might safely assume that they will continue to attract crowds. It comes down to business sense and the manufacture of popular products. All they might do is add a new spin to it, modernize it and people will flock to these programs. Tried, tested and true with a faithful fan base.

Yet it works only so long, while not every product is suitable for all audiences. A recent remake in Mexico of Desperate Housewives was a huge flop. The reason was probably that the Mexican audience could not relate to the glamorous lifestyle or the particular sense of humor and although the show in its original was successful, the Latin remake just did not convince the public; it just did not translate nor sit well with the Mexican public.

Tele-novelas are often more than simple shows to the public; people have the need to identify with the characters, their economic standards, their language, the situations, the plot, the location, and the themes. Fairy tale stories of a poor woman winning over the love of a rich man, the age-old “Sabrina formula” if you will, is very popular in Mexican tele-novelas. And since their society is more conservative due to a strong Catholic following, the tele-novelas often need to reflect that stance to get an audience.

However, nowadays some Latin countries have become more aware of the power of tele-novelas as a means of educating people. More and more in its Brazilian and Colombian brands, tele-novelas have focused on more relevant and urging social and political issues, such as corruption, tolerance, discrimination, and even organ donation.

In Venezuela a group of women protested against the intended ending of a tele-novela in which the wife was to forgive her unfaithful husband. The screenwriter was harassed until he changed the script and had the wife ask instead for a divorce in the final episode. This clearly demonstrates a shift in the views of the television public and that some sexist norms are not accepted any more.

In Mexico too there have been more and more attempts to include a more realistic portrayal of society, as they started to include topics like abortion or child and sexual abuse in some of their programs. In addition, many people are tired of the predictable formula and are looking for originality.

This is the reason why Ugly Betty, originally a sitcom from Colombia has enjoyed great success in Mexico and the States, simply because the protagonist is not your typical beautiful character, but quite the opposite. It is a refreshing stance to not have your usual pretty well-dressed protagonists who always look good; whether they have just woken up, are serving a jail sentence or have just been shot at or kidnapped, their hair and make-up is always in place.

But it is an undeniable fact that tele-novelas have had their success worldwide. Mexico alone produces more than 3000 hours of tele-novelas totaling $250 million US equaling the cost of making Titanic. Yet they must be getting substantial benefits to spend so much money; it is astonishing that their tele-novelas have been dubbed in more than 50 languages and that Televisa, a major TV network, is looking to enter the large and growing Chinese market by flooding them with mandarin-dubbed Mexican tele-novelas.

It is true that for some people tele-novelas and soap operas are stories to identify with, to talk and marvel about, to use as an escape from harsh reality, from work, from stress, yet apart from its entertainment value, if used properly, it can also serve as a form of education for many.

It may be like “churros,” a popular Mexican type of junk food, cheap and not good for your health, lacking vitamins and minerals and filing you up for only a little while. But it can also serve as food for thought as we analyze its particular stance and reflection on society and social issues, which provide us then with valuable insight and knowledge.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Historical Outlook on Mankind: Angels or Beasts?

Lisa and Bart Simpson with angel and devil shades

During the Middle Ages, it was assumed that the earth was the center of the universe. As such, the earth was a copy or mirror image of the heavenly realm and humans were seen as angels; they were created in God's image.

In those times, people felt that they were special, given the fact that God had made them Lords over His creation, and they were seen as inherently good. The notion of sin had not fully caught on yet and came with some of the radical Christian saints such as St. Jerome and in certain degrees with St. Augustine.

Humanism tried to shed some of the religious lingo, yet put humanity at the center of its philosophy. Humans were glorified: Leonardo da Vinci and other painters looked to give a more faithful representation of the “perfect” human body; Shakespeare began to delve into the intricate psychologies and the individual differences between one person and another.

Individualism was on the rise and human relationships grew in importance. At its core, humans possessed reason, something that set them apart from all other living beings on the Planet and which made them almost equal to God Himself.

This view continued even with Descartes, who claimed that animals were mere machines and did not have a soul because they lacked both language and consciousness. One of the precursors of romanticism Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the goodness of mankind. To the question of why some people are evil, he claimed that it was all because of society that corrupts us and turns innocent angels into manipulating impostors. If children were brought up in a less restrictive manner and did not witness and imitate the hypocrisy and vice of society, they would develop according to their natural state, and be inherently good.

Not all philosophers and thinkers agreed with this assumption though. Thomas Hobbes thought that humans needed rules and laws that would ensure harmony and respect among each other. These laws should be checked and enforced by a ruler or dictator. If mankind was left without proper government, they would turn into beasts and loot and kill each other because they are driven by egocentric impulses, looking for personal benefit and gain.

Somewhat later, Freud had also a rather pessimistic outlook on mankind. He claimed that our personality contains three parts - id, ego and superego - and that the major part, where dark and aggressive impulses reside can be found in the id, the unconscious. These are the strong driving forces that the ego and superego try to oppose to the best of their abilities. If not handled carefully, it could turn into neurosis. However, in the deeper recesses of our self, we are inherently evil and do not obey morality nor do we shy away from acts of brutality and aggression.

Throughout history, we have witnessed horrible acts committed by mankind. Science explains that a combination of genetic make-up and an aggressive environment or traumatic childhood are most likely factors that can turn people into cruel monsters or assassins. We label those cold-blooded assassins as mentally ill because any normal human being would feel horror or remorse about such acts.

Nonetheless, given specific circumstances, times of distress or war, any human being can shed their ethical standards and can turn from an angel into a beast within a matter of seconds. I believe we are born with both aspects, that we are capable of committing any atrocious acts, so it takes immense effort and skill to keep the beast within us deep asleep.

The Funeral Rites of the Romans

Empty leaf-spattered stone road

Romans had various gods and traditions that they followed closely. From our modern point of view we might take many of their beliefs as superstitious or irrational, but we must keep in mind that they lived in another time and era and tried to make sense of life using omens as their guide.

When it comes to funerals, they had specific procedures that they followed closely. When someone was on the verge of death, the family and relatives would watch over the dying person. When the final hour struck, the closest relative would try to catch the last breath with a kiss and close the dead person's eyes.

Then the dead man's name was called out loudly, a practiced called conclamatio. That must be a frightening experience really. All is quiet, the dying man has passed away; his soul is slowly leaving the body, still numb and in a daze and in great confusion, and all of a sudden somebody shouts his name a couple of times!

After that a small silver coin, obolus, was placed under the tongue or on the eyes of the deceased, which was intended as payment for the skinny and cranky ferryman Charon in Hades. Charon was responsible to take the soul of the dead person across one of the five rivers, the Styx being the most famous one, into the underworld and the coin, along with proper burial or cremation, was to ensure he would be able to pay his fare down that dark river. Yet Charon was a moody and unreliable fellow and often he could not even be trusted; when you are looking the other way or enjoying the after-world scenery, he could push you into the river for no apparent reason.

After death, the corpse would be washed and anointed with oil and perfumes, which was usually done either by slaves or by undertakers. Then the body would be dressed in the person's best clothes and displayed in the atrium for all to come and mourn.

Funerals had started as a nocturnal tradition, but later richer Romans preferred the day, so that they could give sumptuous funerals to impress others and display both the riches and the popularity of the person in question. The poorer people who could not afford elaborate and costly rites usually held their funerals at night, in secret, where nobody could see them and their lack of display went by unnoticed.

The funeral was usually held on the ninth day after death and was headed by musicians. In memory of the deceased often theater actors and buffoons were hired to represent the character and personality of the deceased by imitating his words and actions in his memory. So much for speaking well of the departed. Sometimes women, called praeficae, were hired to wail and cry in grief; these were so-called professional wailers who had their own calling cards for funeral services.

Female relatives and friends would usually mourn and lament in loud wailing voices, beat their breast and tear their hair. Men were mourning too, but were careful not to show their feelings and control emotional outbursts, since a public display of emotion was considered effeminate. Romans were quite "macho" in this respect.

The deceased would be carried along in a coffin or a stretcher, and the last rites would be performed outside of the city, where the body would be either buried or cremated along with objects that belonged to him, that he held dear and that he could possibly need in the afterlife. Not only his teddy bear, but also objects like combs and gel so he could still look good and spiffy in the afterlife.

While cremations became more common in later Roman times, especially during the Republic, the poor continued with burials. Burials became a more common and widespread practice after the growing influence of Christianity. Yet Christianity had a different perspective of how funerals should be held and barred buffoons and professional wailers from this ceremony; in other words, dying became a dead serious matter.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Kant’s Dogmatic Slumbers: CPR for Metaphysics

Toy ambulance coming to the rescue

When reason and scientific thought were dominant, when Hume's skeptical ideas were widely accepted and religion and idealism were steadily losing ground, that's when Kant appears on the scene and gives a long-awaited, enlivening shot into the arm of metaphysics. Kant himself claimed that it was thanks to Hume that he was awoken from his “dogmatic slumbers.”

Up to that point, Kant was a follower of Leibniz, but with Hume human knowledge and experience came under threat, and life offered no certainties or truths. As a result, Kant made it his philosophical mission to reconcile scientific thought with the not trendy unscientific Platonic notions of the times and to rescue human knowledge from the growing abyss of doubt.

How did he go about it? For the scientists, Newton had been their long-awaited Savior. “God said let Newton be,” Alexander Pope gloriously exclaimed. Everyone was caught up in a physical mechanical explanation, the mathematical ways of the world. Everything can be reduced to cause and effect, which was the magical universal formula.

Kant was into absolute statements and shunned the relativist point of view of the humanists as well as the skeptical outlook. Truth should not be simply useful, it should be true and valid in all cases and without exceptions. So what did he do after he actually “woke up,” after Instant Karma hit him over the head, as John Lennon would say?

He spent all his time and energy to come up with a coherent theory, which would both fit into the scientific worldview, yet at the same keep idealism apart and intact. It was, so-to-speak, an updated version of what Plato intended to prove more than two millennia before Kant. The latter clothed Plato's theory in modern jargon and made it more resonant and consistent with our modern day beliefs.

In fact, Kant's idea in a nutshell is simple and straightforward. There are two kinds of events in the world. The one we mostly refer too is called phenomena. This can be equated with Plato's illusory world of shadows and appearances. All such physical events have an underlying cause. Natural laws, such as gravity, apply to these events at all times. So far, it seems to embrace a materialistic point of view, which would make Newton smile.

Yet then he adds that there is another set of events called noumena. These events are un-caused and separate from natural laws. They are how things really are ("das Ding an sich"), the Superior Reality that Plato describes when all is seen in the light of the illuminating sun.

An example of a noumenon would be free will. We are all free to decide and hence always responsible for our actions. According to Kant, it is not only what is observable, our behavior, that defines us, but more so, our mental representations and intentions; they actually reveal much more about us. There is also what he calls the Transcendental Ego, that part of us that would most resemble a soul. This is however different from an empirical ego, the storehouse of our sensations and mental contents; the Transcendental Ego has no content; it is pure thought and hence 100% noumenon.

In other words, yes, there is another plane of existence not one far away from us but actually within us. Science cannot delve into those mysteries because it lacks tools for it. Science can only observe and make laws about phenomena and that's as far as it can get. So the question whether God exists or not is not a valid scientific question. One cannot prove nor falsify the existence of God or a spiritual entity simply because these questions all belong to the world of noumena.

Some might not be convinced yet about the contributions to philosophy and even psychology that Kant's views bring. According to Kant, the mind is active in creating and organizing our worldview, a point of view that strongly influenced Jean Piaget. Our mind is not simply passively taking in information, yet it is quite involved in shaping our thoughts and our opinions. In fact, it is actually the objects that conform themselves to our understanding. These thoughts and impressions are later categorized in what Piaget later called "schemata.”

We can see that Kant rescued us from a dilemma that would have engulfed idealism once and for all. It is not saved yet, but there are many who try hard to make others see that there is more to human beings than all that is visible and scientifically and rationally explained. There is another part that simply defies logic, that knows no boundaries, that cannot be explained and tracked down by science and that is, after all, pure noumenon.