Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flat Earth & the Alt Right

I had a bit of an epiphany today. It involves to seemingly-unrelated topics - one pretty trivial and the other very important. But they share something important in common. I'll start with the trivial one.

Debunking "Flat Earth"

A few days ago, I made the mistake of reading the comments on a Facebook post about some astronomy thing and was painfully reminded that there are a bunch of people who are convinced that the world is flat, and that all the evidence to the contrary is either forged or misunderstood. For some reason, it really, really bugs me to think that there are people who believe this. I find myself wishing that I could sit down with these people and have an honest conversation; I felt like if I could just ask them one or two questions, I could convince them to change their ways.

This begs the question: if you only had their attention for one question, which would you ask? It can't be too complex or rely too much on math, because if you have to rely on something that abstract then you've already lost the argument. I had a progression of questions that came to mind (along with some of the responses I might get):

  1. Why hasn't anybody just taken a picture of the edge? That should settle the matter pretty easily. (I guess they believe the South "Pole" is the edge, and it's dangerous to get there, and your navigation gets messed up, so you're not where you think you are.)
  2. If you can't get to the edge, then why not just do a trip around the edge of Antarctica, and measure the distance/time? With the globe model, the trip should be the same as a trip at a high northern latitude. But with the flat model, the trip should be much longer than it would be even at the equator.
  3. My wife brought up the question of seasons - that doesn't really make sense in a flat world. (I guess a lot of people don't understand the seasons anyway.)
  4. Similarly, what about the sun rising in the east? If I see the sun rise on the eastern horizon, shouldn't everyone? (I wondered if maybe they thought that horizon is just as far as you can see, so maybe they'd think that the sun on the horizon just means the sun is really far away but in the sky?)
  5. Even simpler: If it's noon for me, the sun is high above. Shouldn't it be high above for everybody? Why is there no sun in the sky at all for some people?

I think question #5 should do it. The fact that some people see the sun to the east, others to the west, some straight up, and others not at all - at the same time - has to mean that the world isn't flat. And it's super simple - it relies only on a phenomenon that we experience every single day.

So, why do I care so much about people not believing this? Hold that thought for just a moment.

Debunking White Supremacy

There are people in the country right now who are convinced that white people are in danger. I'll discuss why this is wrong later, but for just a moment, let's try (I know it hurts) to understand their claims. They see all the good stuff in American history and American culture, and guess what? Most if it involves white people. These people, like all people, have problems. And they look around and see efforts to lift minorities out of what seems like very similar problems. Scholarships. Quotas in schools. Diversity efforts in companies. From these people's perspectives, these efforts can't help but displace white people and supplant their culture.

To be very clear, that's all a distortion of the truth. It's too big a topic to discuss fully, but let me give a quick example of why. Let's say you're a white guy who's applying for a job. There are ten positions open, and twenty people applying - ten white and ten black, all of them qualified. The employer is a white supremacist. Guess what? You have a 100% chance of being hired!

Now change the scenario - let's say that the employer isn't racist, and laws prohibit hiring based on race. Now your chances of getting the job have dropped to 50%! From a purely self-centered, unprincipled point of view, the change in policy has hurt you. It has taken a chance that was once yours and given it away. I guess that's why the "alt right" is worried. But of course we can see that the extra chance you had originally was unfair, and the new system is actually better. It's just not more convenient for you. And if you're a moral person, that distinction matters.

And one more thing: Since before this country was founded, you've had white people who knew that racism was hypocrisy in a nation that believed in freedom. You have also had people who were afraid that if you granted freedom to minorities (particularly black people), then they'd use that freedom to retaliate. And guess what? Those people have been wrong every time. The slaves didn't try to take over the south. When black people could vote, they didn't try to eradicate white people. Sure, you've got the occasional evil person who has advocated violence, but the fact is that white people at large have never been in danger from the people who have managed to get free of the historical oppression that has afflicted them.


The second point has been on my mind in the past few days due to the Charlottesville thing. And today as I was thinking about the flat earth bit, I realized why it bugs me. It's because of the mentality that leads to it - and that it's exactly the same mentality that leads to a belief in white supremacy.

Believing that the world is flat involves limiting your point of view to your own experience, ignoring the multitude of experiences that show that the world is more complex and more interconnected than you can tell from any single point. If you open yourself up to what the world is like to someone on the other side of it, you have to realize that the flat earth model is inadequate. And the same is true of white supremacy. Sure, you can find someone with darker skin who has life a little easier than you. But if you listen to just a few of the stories of this country, you'll see the obvious - that there's this big, ugly stain on American history made of racism. We have come a long way toward removing it, but there are still people suffering from it. A lot of people. We can disagree on the best way to fix it. But pretending that white people are in danger from our dark-skinned neighbors is just as wrong - and even more infuriating - than believing the world is flat.

And that leads to an important distinction: While people's belief in a flat earth doesn't really hurt anyone, the belief that white people are superior and threatened is extremely damaging. It's making that big ugly stain grow even as we're trying to wash it out. People are literally dying because of it.

I'm really not sure what the best way to fix the problem is, especially since I'm pretty much preaching to the choir as I write this. But I hope that someday I get to talk to a white supremacist. Not to yell at them or tell them how embarrassed I am to have them in my country (although that might be the gut reaction), but to sincerely talk and maybe ask them one question in an effort to force them to see the world in a new, broader way. To change their mind. I wonder what question it would take to get them to do it.