Is vandalism part of the human condition?

I have a small gripe. Vandals keep tagging a power pole just along from where I live. Marking territory, animal-fashion. It happens every few weeks. The local council always has it painted out within the day; but it highlights what, for me, is one of the saddest sides of the human moral compass.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comVandalism. If somebody has something, it seems – even something as simple as a nicely painted power pole in a quiet suburban street – somebody else wants to break it, take it away or deny it to them. Anything humans have, it seems, is targeted in its own way. Take computing. Visionaries like Bill Gates and Sir Tim Berners Lee had a concept for a wonderful and better human world, connected by computer. So what happened? Other people wrote software to damage, steal, or cause inconvenience to users. Vandalism! Somebody trying to take away what you have – these days, usually the contents of your bank account.

I see the same phenomenon in the way academics always respond to others in their territory by denying the worth of the other’s skills and work – vandalising repute in intellectualised terms. To me that is conceptually no different from the way imbeciles with paint cans performed – it’s designed to take away something that somebody else has.

It’s been common enough through history. And it always works the same way:

1. “Someone’s got something I don’t have, so I have to show I’m better by breaking it or taking it off them.”
2. “I am marking my place and showing I am more important than others.”
3.”I feel validated by doing so.”

The motives, in short, are entwined with ego, status anxiety, and with validating a sense of self. Most human actions are. However, vandalism is a selfish form of self-validation.  It validates by taking away from others. To me this the exact reverse of the way we should behave.

In fact there are other – and better – ways of validating yourself. Helping others, for instance – being kind, taking a moment to help.

If we work together to build, isn’t that better than trying to tear down what others do? It is the difference between selfishness (vandalism) and generosity (kindness).  Bottom line is that kindness is the better path. And I think that, through history, there are times when society in general has taken that kinder path – overtly and obviously. But right now, as we roll into the twenty-first century, isn’t one of them. And I think we need to change that – to nurture kindness by taking the initiative – by expressing kindness, even in small ways, to each other.

I’ve said all this before, of course, but it’s worth saying again. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Helping some guy who was having a heart attack – and thoughts on our duty of care

Last Sunday my wife and I were out for a walk along the Hutt river, which flows into Wellington harbour. It was a pleasant autumn morning. And then we found someone lying at the bottom of the stop-bank.

He looked derelict. He might have been sleeping, or maybe drunk or something. But he didn’t look right, so I ran down the slope and called to him.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.

The Hutt river and its stop banks.

He stuck his head up and for a moment there was nobody in his eyes. He had, he said, just been discharged from hospital. He was on his way home, though the suburb he named was in the opposite direction. Then I saw he still had ECG leads on his chest.

‘I’m going to call an ambulance,’ I said. He didn’t like that.

‘I don’t want to go back,’ he wheezed. ‘Want to help me? Gimme ten bucks and I’ll get a taxi home.’

‘No, you need medical help.’

He didn’t want medical help. After a bit of debate I finally said:

‘Look, I can’t not help you!’

He didn’t look cyanotic, but he was agitated and incoherent, obviously having a cardiac episode. I went back to my wife, told her what was happening, and we called an ambulance. They arrived within five minutes and took him back to hospital. I hope he was OK.

The moment got me thinking about ethics and morality and that sort of thing. We were infringing on his right to be left alone if he demanded it – and he was demanding it. He was pretty aggro about it too, which may have been symptomatic of having a heart attack. Or maybe in his own mind he was tired of life. I don’t know. Certainly, I am sure, he was tired of being in hospital.

But it wasn’t a moral dilemma for me. He was in serious trouble. He was in pain, his life was possibly on the line. There was no decision to make. He had to be helped, and the best way wasn’t to call a taxi and send him home – it was to get medical support. Fast.

These things are not optional.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Of moral compass and our human duty of care

Even after nearly twenty years, I have not quite forgiven the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for a sequence filmed in the Savage Memorial above Auckland harbour: ‘The Wedding of Alcemene’, involving a cheesy 1990s-era CGI monster named Perfidia.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage was arguably New Zealand’s greatest Prime Minister. His government came to power in November 1935, when New Zealand morale stood at its nadir in wake of the Great Depression. New Zealand had already recovered from the direct effects of the downturn. The coalition finance minister of 1933-35, Gordon Coates had engineered it.

But Savage offered something Coates did not – underscored by the first gesture of Savage’s administration. There was a little money left in the government account. Savage and his cabinet promptly distributed the lot to the needy.

That small gesture – bringing Christmas cheer to New Zealand households for the first time in years – was never forgotten by people still demoralised, hungry and desperate. Savage followed it with other initiatives to make sure everyday New Zealanders were fed, clothed and housed – that they did not suffer when beset with misfortune not of their own making.

When challenged over his policies in Parliament – told they were ‘applied madness’ – Savage retorted at once. They were ‘applied Christianity’. And that was how they were received. There were reasons why his picture hung in many households during the late 1930s, alongside that of Christ.

When Savage died in early 1940, the outpouring of national grief was unparallelled.

In the political context his approach was associated with the left; it stood against much of the thinking of the day.

But if we separate Savage’s sentiment from way it was framed politically, we find humanity behind his approach, which stood apart from political considerations. At this level, Savage – and others in his cabinet – were genuinely concerned for the welfare of others.

As a species, we have an unerring ability to intellectualise ourselves into loss of moral compass. History is riddled with it. I see it in universities where – on my experience – bullying has been intellectualised and acculturated to the point where it is integral to academic life, certainly in New Zealand. I see it in attitudes people take to others on the street. I see it in attitudes by commentators. I see it, subtly and insidiously, in TV shows.

We live in the age of the ‘me’ generation, and it seems that all too often our moral compass is led astray by selfishness, unthinking conviction, demanded behaviours, worries over status, ambitions, and by ‘us and them’ thinking in all its forms. Our needs and wants, our insecurities, our greed, our western cult, since the 1980s particularly, of self-centredness.

All these things, and more, blind us to the basic human values of care and kindness. Values that Savage brought to the people of New Zealand when they most needed them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s Christmas. Again.

It’s Christmas again. Where has 2013 gone? Why, the way every year does – quickly, in a sea of good intentions and reorganised plans.


I hope everybody has a wonderful festive  season. Whether it’s snowing or high summer. And that, somewhere along the way, we get the chance to bring a little more cheer to the lives of those who are less fortunate.

For me and She Who Must Be Obeyed, it’s a Christmas with family. I am trying not to succumb to the temptation to write. We’ll see.

Have a good one, everybody – keep safe, and here’s to a great holiday season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Looking for the missing spirit of Christmas…with zombies…

We went to the local mall on Sunday. It was packed, of course, with the usual shopping zombies, their minds destroyed by the glitz and glam.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

Whenever we visit the mall, She Who Must Be Obeyed forbids me to shuffle along behind them, matching their gait and murmuring “braaaaiiins….”

Well, I’m not forbidden, but she won’t walk hand-in hand if I do, instead she’s on the other side of the mall saying things like ‘I don’t know that weird guy.’

Being the weekend-before-the-weekend-before Christmas, there were a LOT of people shopping last Sunday, interspersed with cellphone-toting teens whose minds were miles away, and toddlers drifting aimlessly around the whole lot like the wayward satellites of some Jovian supergiant. Every so often, one of the squidlings would squeal with the exact pitch and timbre of a gym shoe being scraped across a polished floor.

Looking at the way everybody had been reduced to brainlessness by the pressure to buy, buy, buy for Christmas, I couldn’t help thinking we’ve lost something.

It’s Christmas. It’s a time for caring. A time for families. A time to think of others. A time – well, it’s Christmas Spirit, isn’t it.

What’s it become? A marketing frenzy. A shallow exercise in consumerism. A concerted effort to extract as much cash as possible from the wallets of many who cannot really afford it.

Here in New Zealand, the shops will be open right through Christmas Eve – and open again on Boxing Day when, inevitably, it will be ‘sale time’. I believe that’s true elsewhere too.

Where has the spirit of care gone? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Fun holiday stuff – with some history, geekery and writing stuff. Regular writing tips, science geekery, history… and more… returns in the new year. Watch this space.

Kindness 2013: the power of confidence in yourself

I thought I would wrap this series up with a few thoughts about what, to me, makes kindness possible on an every day basis.

MJWright2011I mentioned a couple of weeks back that one of the reasons why people forget kindness is that they wrap their sense of self-identity around something – often a goal or status. When somebody else intrudes on that – achieves ‘their’ ambition, or tips one of their sacred cows – the rules of common etiquette and courtesy seem to be lifted. Kindness disappears amidst a sudden frenzy of avenging anger.

It’s a pitfall into which humanity seem to keep plunging. Is there a way around it? Sure. One answer, it seems to me, is in being quietly self-confident.

I don’t mean arrogant, or hubris-laden, or self-entitled. These are, of themselves, roads away from kindness. I mean, quietly , modestly self-confident. Feeling secure in yourself. To me, modest self-confidence means:

1. Accepting mistakes – and figuring out how to not repeat ‘em. ‘Sure, I stuffed up. But I know better for next time’.

2. Being prepared to learn.

3. Being secure in your own beliefs, meaning that you are not threatened by the beliefs of others.

4. Humility. There is a difference between arrogant self-entitlement and self-confidence. Self-confident people, in general, seldom indulge in exercises of ego and power over others. No need; they feel secure enough in their own sense of identity.

It’s not always an easy pathway. I think western society, in particular, leans against it. I think the human condition, in general, carries aspects that lean against it. But I think quiet self-confidence – based on humility, acceptance and tolerance  – also fosters kindness.

And hey – at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing. Being nice to people isn’t hard. Often it costs nothing – a simple smile, holding a door open. Little things count as much as the big gestures. And the rewards never stop.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up later this week: more writing tips. And a new series – the funny side of real science. Starting with UFO’s. Good for a laugh? Oh yes.

Kindness 2013: revenge – it’s called epic kindness fail

In the past few weeks we have seen that kindness is a philosophy  – a  way of life that encompasses tolerance, reason, thought and compassion. And, it seems to me, all the more necessary as the planet becomes ever more crowded, ever more polluted, and as our resources diminish.

Alas, a quick glance at any news bulletin reveals inhumanities from civil wars to terrorism to horrific stories of toddlers being run over in China and left to die because strangers are too scared to intervene, lest they be held financially liable. Every day we hear stories of muggings, robberies and other deeds. And that’s without considering the ways people are unkind to each other in everyday life.

There are many causes. However, one of them, it seems to me, is the way we enwtine our sense of self-worth around an ambition, a desire or a cause. And when that is intruded upon – when our self-worth seems slighted – what happens? Why, the wrong must be avenged! And the hatred that follows is neither rational, nor reasonable.

An Airfix 1/76 Mk IV "Male" tank from 1917, which I built when I wasn't writing.

My Airfix model of a Mk IV tank, 1917 – one of the ways the Germans were defeated in 1918.

What’s more, revenge happens on all levels. Remember World War 2? The how-and-why has been subject to relentless analysis, but it boils down to one point; Germany was sore at its defeat in 1918, particularly at the hands of France. A little Austrian corporal with shell shock managed to exploit that sense of popular injustice to get himself into power – and engineer revenge. It was made explicit in 1940. When the French capitulated, Hitler made a point of humiliating them in ways that related to 1918, even down to having them sign the armistice in the same railway carriage used to sign Germany’s capitulation in 1918.

Why do we keep doing it? Revenge initially feels good. Not only good, but – so it’s been shown via scientific analysis more rewarding than kindness. And, as if it wasn’t enough to have that time bomb entwined into the human psyche, we’re also bombarded with the message daily. What’s the slogan? ‘Don’t get mad – get even!’ We always hear that ‘revenge is sweet’. We are even sold books and movies because we can, vicariously, feel that sense of thrill as a character wreaks revenge on those who wronged them.

It’s insidious, and what worries me is that it’s also accepted. You’ve been slighted? No problem – hunt down the miscreant and smash them over. Bwahahahahaha!

There is, of course, a catch; what those studies also found was that the people wreaking revenge not only kept the sense of injustice alive – and thus felt worse for it – but that the act of revenge itself had a psychological backfire point, afterwards.

In other words, it was a momentary sense of satisfaction only.

Kindness? Well, guess what. The feel-good sense lasts. So kindness trumps revenge in the end. A no-brainer, really. Except…well, the human condition also pushes us towards instant gratification – the path of revenge. So I fear that the philosophies of kindness that are important to us – that will make it possible for us to survive as a species, once the planet hits the tipping point and ruin is upon us – will get lost along the way.

Our world, in short, won’t blow up in a sudden armageddon. It’ll get ugly, nasty, and die horribly and slowly. Unless we make the conscious effort to have a philosophy of kindness.

What do you figure about this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013