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[Chalice] R-E-S-P-E-C-T [Chalice]

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Presented January 13, 2008, by Michael Flanagan

Opening Words - Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

"And who are these?" said the Queen pointing to the three gardeners who were lying round the rose-tree; .

"How should I know?" said Alice, surprised at her own courage. "It's no business of mine."

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming "Off with her head! Off -- "

"Nonsense!" said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.

The King laid his hand upon her arm, and timidly said "Consider, my dear: she is only a child!" . . .

"May it please your Majesty," said Two, in a very humble tone, going down on one knee as he spoke, "we were trying -- "

"I see!" said the Queen, who had meanwhile been examining the roses. "Off with their heads!" and the procession moved on, three of the soldiers remaining behind to execute the unfortunate gardeners, who ran to Alice for protection.

"You shan't be beheaded!" said Alice, and she put them into a large flower-pot that stood near. The three soldiers wandered about for a minute or two, looking for them, and then quietly marched off after the others.

"Are their heads off?" shouted the Queen.

"Their heads are gone, if it please your Majesty!" the soldiers shouted in reply.

"That's right!" shouted the Queen.


James Nayler, after meeting the Quaker, George Fox in 1652, became the most prominent of a group of traveling Quaker evangelists known as the "Valiant Sixty." He attracted many converts and was considered a skilled theological debater. He is described as a charismatic with a somewhat Christ-like appearance. Some of his actions were extreme and controversial and provocative. About a year after he was released from a prison in 1659, while he was traveling to rejoin his family in Yorkshire, he was robbed and left near death in a field. He was taken to the home of a Quaker doctor. This is part of a statement he made the following day, only two hours before his death at the age of 44:

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. . .

Today's talk is titled "Respect." I want to read two short lists - I think you'll recognize them - and I'd like for you to keep the word "Respect" in mind as we go along:

Seven Principles:
Ten Commandments:

If we were asked to distill these two lists into only one word, the word "Respect" might be a pretty good choice.

These two lists reflect a particular world-view. I don't think either of them excludes the provisions of the other. I look at these lists and I see an outline for a vision of an Utopia. Wouldn't our world be a wonderful place if there were
Never any murders;?
Never any theft;?
Where even politicians always told the truth, the whole truth, always;?
Where every individual was valued for being exactly the person that they are;?
Where justice wasn't dependant upon the splitting of legal hairs?
Where every governing body had as its goal, the welfare of all - not just all of its constituents, but ALL?

There is a big part of me that is an idealist. Some of the ideals that I hold would be viewed as simply "Whacky" by many people. For instance, I think that all national borders should be as open as the border between Missouri and Illinois; or between Adams and Pike Counties! I think that every effort to "Secure" our borders is a step in the wrong direction. I think that we should all have freedom of movement, all over the world; for Everyone, and with very few exceptions.

Among the advantages: It would promote a more equitable distribution of the wealth of the world. People who had few opportunities in the place of their birth would be free to pursue better opportunities, presented in other parts of the world.
Of course, there would be disadvantages: The United States, as the richest country in the world, would give up its hoard of disproportionate wealth. And then this whole idea of "Security" would have to be re-thought out.

In the current political climate in the United States, think about what would happen to me if I espoused this particular ideal too loudly or too forcefully? Well, Incredulous astonishment and Ridicule would be certain. Many people would immediately feel threatened by my idea. Threatened first by the thought that, "All those terrorists would have free access to my home." Threatened again by the thought that, "Those foreigners are going to take my job." Short term, I have nothing to offer to assuage those fears. Those fears are valid fears. But it is my fervent belief that in the best of all possible worlds, there will be no borders; there will be no artificial lines drawn to hold back the progress of any individual from her own personal growth.

We are obviously at an impasse. The United States isn't likely to move in my direction, and my viewpoint is destined to meet a steam-roller or a bulldozer or whatever huge piece of earth-shaping equipment that you might choose for an analogy. I will have to accept that my pet idea is not likely to be understood, or respected, much less adopted.

Before I go on, let's remember what it is that we're talking about here. I'm not just asking you to listen to MY "Whacky" idea, I think we should be listening to EVERYBODY's "Whacky" ideas. And why, you ask, should you have to listen to all the selfishness, the arrogance, the miserable excuses for logic that every ordinary, little pip-squeak of a person will come up with? It has to do with, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." It has to do with, "The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process." It has to do with R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Pardon me while I wax pedantic. Aristotle was the court physician to the rulers of Macedonia. As a philosopher and a logician, Aristotle was first and foremost, a maker of lists. His most significant contribution to logical thought was his propensity to sort his lists into piles. Those of you who have studied botany and biology, the natural sciences, know about Species and Genus and all that. Aristotle is credited with inventing that way of thinking. He collected biological information from every corner of the known world, and he designed a system of categories intended to make sense of every scrap of that information.

When Aristotle turned his attention to politics, he was no less rigorous. He looked about his world and catalogued the characteristics of the governments of the city-states known to him. Aristotle first divided all types of government into two classes, the 'right' and the 'perverted'. The 'right' governments were the ones which ruled with a view to the common interest. The 'perverted' governments served the personal interests of portions of the whole population.

Aristotle's next grouping separated the kinds of governing civic bodies on the basis of number. Kingship, Aristocracy, and Polity, corresponding to rule by only one, rule by a few and rule by many. He is quick to point out that these three subdivisions of governments are 'right' civic bodies only when they rule with a view to the common interest. On the other hand the governments whose goals favor the personal interest of the One, or the Few or the Many, must necessarily be 'perversions'.

"Three perversions correspond to them. Tyranny is the perversion of Kingship; Oligarchy of Aristocracy; and Democracy of Polity. Tyranny is a government by a single person directed to the interest of that person; Oligarchy is directed to the interest of the well-to-do; Democracy is directed to the interest of the poorer classes. None of the three is directed to the advantage of the whole body of citizens."

Intuitively, I've always had a hard time reconciling Aristotle's conception of the word Democracy with my own. I simply don't want to agree that Democracy is the same thing as Rule by the Poor.

There are so many people who have derided the masses as a decision making body: H. L. Menken said, "No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." Bernard Baruch said, "Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable -- as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead." And Henry David Thoreau lamented: "The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest." Nietzsche wrote, "Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups." And Thomas Carlyle stated, "I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." Still, it was the 19th century Scotsman, Charles MacKay, who wrote the book on the subject. In 1841, he published the wonderfully entertaining, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

There are endless examples of crowds behaving irrationally. MacKay popularized the story of the great tulip bulb bubble. Bernard Baruch credits MacKay's book with his decision to sell all of his stock market holdings before the crash of 1929. Mob behavior at its very worst propels us towards lynching and riot.

James Surowiecki, a writer for the New Yorker Magazine, published a book titled The Wisdom of Crowds in 2004. It has a rather long sub-title which offers a clue to the book's thesis: "Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations". The analogy that he presents in his introduction, sets the tone for the remainder of the book.

In 1906, Francis Galton, an elderly British scientist and statistician, went to the fair in Plymouth. There he found a weight-judging competition.

"A fat ox had been selected and placed on display, and members of a gathering crowd were lining up to place wagers on the weight of the ox. after it had been 'slaughtered and dressed' Eight hundred people tried their luck." Galton speculated that, "The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes." Galton "turned the competition into an impromptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes had been awarded. Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them. Galton arranged the guesses in order from highest to lowest and graphed them to see if they would form a bell curve. Then, among other things, he added all the contestants' estimates, and calculated the mean of the group's guesses. That number represented, you could say, the collective wisdom of the Plymouth crowd. If the crowd were a single person, that was how much it would have guessed the ox weighed."

" The crowd guessed that the ox would weigh 1,197 pounds. After it had been slaughtered and dressed, the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. The crowd's judgement was essentially perfect. . . .Galton wrote later: 'The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.'"

The author goes on to say there is a,

". . . simple, but powerful, truth that is at the heart of this book: Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision. . . ."

I'm impressed by this idea. Somehow, it has always seemed intuitively "Right" to me that democracy makes more sense than monarchy or oligarchy, aristocracy or theocracy; more sense than any other form of governing. I wish we could have one in the United States! Surowiecki presents a refinement of our understanding of group behavior that I can buy in to.

Surowiecki details three conditions that are necessary to make this whole "Collective Wisdom" idea function properly: (1) Diversity, (2) Independence and (3) a particular kind of decentralization.

The kind of diversity that Surowiecki is advocating is not a sociological diversity in any sense. It is instead, a conceptual, cognitive diversity.

"You want diversity among the people who are coming up with the ideas, so you end up with meaningful differences among those ideas rather than minor variations on the same concept." ". . . what makes a system successful is its ability to generate lots of losers and then to recognize them as such and kill them [those ideas] off. Sometimes the messiest approach is the wisest."

One of the strengths of Francis Galton's statistical experiment was the fact that the participants came from diverse walks of life. Some could be considered expert. Most were simply guessing. Surely, some of them asked others for an opinion. But: ". . . a group of people is far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group are independent of each other."

"Independence is important to intelligent decision making for two reasons. First, it keeps the mistakes that people make from becoming correlated. Errors in individual judgement won't wreck the group's collective judgement as long as those errors aren't systematically pointing in the same direction. . . . Second, independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is already familiar with. The smartest groups, then, are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn't imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you're independent, you won't make the group any dumber."

What must be avoided is tipping into the herd mentality. There are conditions that serve to short-circuit the growth of the herd mentality. Decentralization is the term that Surowiecki chooses.

To see how this might work, lets look at a sociological experiment where first, one person is placed on a busy street corner, and he stares up at the sky for sixty seconds. The reaction of the passing crowd is noted. In the second step of the experiment, they put five people on that same street corner, staring at the empty sky. Four times as many passers-by stopped to take a look into that sky. The third time round, the psychologists planted fifteen men on the corner and 45 percent of all of the passers-by stopped to take a look. The experiment generated a growth to more than 80 percent of the passing traffic when they found their optimum number of plants.

Look past this as an example of promoting a herd mentality. Think of it instead, as the "social proof." It is an perfectly natural assumption that if a lot of people are doing something, then there must be a good reason why. If one restaurant is crowded and another is empty, there might be a good reason why. It is not an unreasonable assumption to think that if lots of people are doing some specific something, that there really is a very good reason why. The problem comes when too many people adopt that strategy as their main method of making decisions. The problem comes when too many people are not willing to do their own homework. The problem comes when too many people stop trusting their own instincts. Then, the group stops being smart.

When everyone is buying in to the tulip bulb market, or the stock market, simply because everybody is doing it and everybody is making lots of money, and the more people who make a lot of money doing it, the more people see that it is a good way to make lots of money. And then even more people decide that buying into the market will make them a lot of money -- ad nauseum -- That bubble is a bubble that will burst.

Surowiecki tells us that the wisdom of crowds requires three conditions:


1) Diversity - We want truly different ideas, not simply variations of the same theme.
(2) Independence - It is important that the individuals in the crowd feel free to express whatever ideas they might think up, themselves. And then
(3) this particular kind of decentralization - We must be willing to mistrust the wisdom of a crowd when everybody in the crowd is saying the same thing. When it becomes the most safe, the most comfortable, to hold a specific opinion; then is when we must be the most wary of the validity of that opinion. Then is when we must be the most willing to seek out the "Whacky" ideas from people like you and me.

I'll finish with a fable:

Not so very many years ago, a great nation suffered a great tragedy. In its sorrow and its grief and its anger, that great nation sought revenge against someone, even anyone, who could be thought responsible for such a great tragedy. For revenge, war was made upon the nation which had befriended the faction who claimed responsibility for the great tragedy. The great nation spoke with one voice of the fear it knew of yet a third nation. This third nation was ruled by a tyrant, a man who had murdered many people. His nation was invaded. Many people lost their lives. As karma would have it, the tyrant was executed by those he had once governed, in a place where he had executed many of his subjects. And there was still more grief and anger in the world than ever there was, before.

Revenge is not sweet. Revenge is costly. War is waste. This revenge wasted resources that could have been used to benefit the grieving. This revenge wasted the lives of thousands of brave and beloved warriors and tens of thousands of innocent and beloved people. And this revenge wasted the greatness of the nation; all the world came to see that, in the fury of its revenge and its grief and its anger, this once great nation had simply lost its head.

Closing Words - Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank -- the birds with draggled feathers, little animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable . . and they sat down [again] in a ring, and begged the Mouse to tell them something more. . "You insult me by talking such nonsense!" the Mouse only shook its head impatiently and walked [away] a little quicker. .

"I wish I had our Dinah here, I know I do!" Said Alice aloud, addressing nobody in particular, "She'd soon fetch it back!"

"And who is Dinah, if I might venture to ask the question?" said the Lory.

Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: "Dinah's our cat. And she's such a capital one for catching mice, you can't think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why, she'll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!"

This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. Some of the birds hurried off at once: one old Magpie began wrapping itself up very carefully, remarking "I really must be getting home; the night-air doesn't suit my throat!" and a Canary called out in a trembling voice to its children "Come away, my dears! It's high time you were all in bed!" On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.

[And she said,"Oh,] I wish I hadn't mentioned Dinah!"

Works Cited:

©2008 Michael Flanagan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Flanagan, Michael. 2008. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, /talks/20080113.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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