The Union

13 February 2015
13 Feb 2015
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. - Kayla Mueller, humanitarian worker killed while in captivity under ISIS*

First of all, apologies for the slight delay on this particular post – I was swamped with coding work on my future projects yesterday all day, and couldn’t possibly get to it. Secondly, I want to do something different for this post than from others. Normally, I choose a topic of interest and talk about my thoughts on it. But this time there were several, related things that I wanted to touch on, and share something I found that was common throughout all three of the stories I want to share. So I’m going to first share my ideas on each story in itself, then talk about the common idea as a whole. And hopefully, you also find in them something touching and hopeful.

Last Tuesday, on the 10th of February, President Obama confirmed a statement from ISIS that Kayla Mueller, one of the last American hostages in captivity, had just passed away. Mueller was a humanitarian worker in her mid-20s, held by ISIS for around one and a half years, who remained undisclosed at the wish of her family during that time**. This news comes in the heels of many other instances of cyberattacks from an anonymous, related group working under the name CyberCaliphate, including a recent hacking of a twitter account threatening the lives of Michelle Obama and her family, and another one directly targeting US Central Command’s social media. In response to their increasing influence, the President has been pushing Congress for a plan to engage in war with the terrorist group, but not without signs of setback. And just a few weeks ago, the same militant group also challenged Japan that they would execute two of their hostages unless Japan negotiated with them to give them an ungodly sum of money – the worst example of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the worst situation in which any government could find itself. In other words, the conflict between the world and the terrorist group is obviously extremely complex – far, far beyond the scope of this particular post, or anything that I could wrap my brain around and explain. But one common factor in the continuing, crowded discussions of the terrorist groups’ impacts is the idea that the United States, as a single entity, should take action, or that the world, or the UN, or Germany, as a single, unified whole, should take action against the group. I think this is really interesting, that a country split with violence just a few months earlier on continuing racial profiling and homophobia also chose to unite, work, and hope together against a more prominent and arguably much more criminal idea that is the ISIS. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of other social issues, but I think there is something more to take away from how the world reacts to these acts of absolute horror and tragedy. When people fall victim to a tragedy, the world seems to take a breath, to pause if only just for a moment, to absorb the sadness and stand in a collective silence for a short while, as if to sympathize with the victims. This is my first example of a union, a union of people against something larger than what we can control, and something more devastating than what we can comprehend.

My second story is also about unions, but a completely different kind. Alabama is at the time the last U.S. state to lift the ban on gay marriage, allowing same-sex couples to officially welcome more recognized unions. But there’s been unusual doses of political tension in the state on the matter. As one report put it: “This is the first time that there has been so much resistance by state judges to a federal court decision that invalidated a state ban on same-sex marriage.” And while almost four in every five states look forward to a more just future of marriage, these tensions still exist. Even if all legal problems were to go away, though, as history still shows us with the remnants of the civil rights movement, the most fundamental and influential social changes are not those that are forced by law, but those that take place at the heart of culture, in how we think about ourselves as a community. Ultimately, after legal issues are long out of the picture, it becomes not a matter of whether or not love between two people of the same gender are recognized by the tax system, but whether or not we as a community acknowledge and recognize their love. And there’s certainly no more suitable example of this distinction than the attention around Ferguson’s tragedy last year. Social changes and cultural shifts are only possible with the cooperation and acknowledgement from the society and the culture itself.

Morality is moral only when it is voluntary. - Lincoln Steffens

This brings me to my third and final story, on the idea of a union itself. In an empowering TED talk, Brene Brown talks about a seemingly paradoxical idea, the “power of vulnerability”. The media talks and writes a lot about creativity, as one of the things that makes us unique, that enable humanity to “rise above” the rest of the world and create all of the marvels that it has. But I don’t think it’s creativity we have to thank. Even if the world consisted only of Michelangelos and Michael Jacksons, if nobody were willing to cooperate, if nobody wanted to work together through compromises and tradeoffs towards a vision, I don’t think any of the innovations that we enjoy today would have been possible. Steve Jobs is hailed as one of the heroes of the American Dream, but truthfully, he didn’t make the Macintosh by himself, nor did he design most of the iPod or the iPhone, or even build the single most valuable company in the world by himself. Along the way, perhaps more important than the singular vision from Jobs was everyone else who shared the same idea and worked with him to see the future unfold. More than creativity, I think it’s our vulnerability and the ability to open up and sympathize with others that’s the most powerful characteristic that we share.

When there are problems that we cannot individually solve, when the negative issues seem to overwhelming, our natural instinct is to find others to work with, to form communities and carry out your ideas. And fortunately, it works. When communities of people respond with a single voice, regardless of if the union is a nation, a movement, the Internet, a school, or something larger, the world responds. That’s how we collectively denied SOPA / PIPA copyright bills, how we defended net neutrality, how we drew attention to racial discrimination, how we coped with 9/11, and how we would hopefully recover from the two stories above. And I think those unions, and our power to create them, are something we can all appreciate a bit more every day.

* The distinction between the terms Islamic State, ISIS, and ISIL are all very nit-picky and irrelevant to a broader discussion, not to mention the fact that none of those are completely accurate descriptions of the group so much as a name the world gave the group as a placeholder because we needed a name. So today, I’ll use the term ISIS to mean all three.

** There have been reports (including one from ISIS themselves) that her death was caused by a US-lead airstrike. But even if that’s credible and true, does the fact that our efforts for peace killed a hostage they were holding change the fact that our efforts are positive and theirs are not? I find this notion completely nonsensical, that just because the US’ peace operations caused a terrible casualty, the US is suddenly pulled into a similar air of criticism and negativity as ISIS, a terrorist group. Let’s move on.

Resolved: debate is like Silicon Valley

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