10 years away from Brazil / 10 anos fora do Brasil

Portuguese version below.

I realized today that it has been 10 years since I moved away from Brazil. March 2011 was when I moved to Vienna, Austria, to pursue a PhD degree. At the time, 10 years sounded like an eternity. Now that they have passed, it doesn’t feel that much. I was reflecting today about an interesting phenomenon that unfolded slowly, and I think it conveys a good picture of the country I once called home.

The first few times I visited Brazil after moving, I was usually asked “so when are you coming back?”. Everyone assumed I was away to study, and that I would go back as soon as I graduated. After a couple of years, I started being told by several people “you know, perhaps it is better you stay abroad a little longer”. Everyone was a bit more pessimistic, talking about how bad the country was. When I got a job at CMU, a lot of people asked if I could use this a chance to stay in the US for good. This year, with the pandemic, I am considering whether to visit Brazil in June/July (I am fully vaccinated). When mentioning that, I got “don’t come, things are a mess here”. ūüėĘ

Hoje eu percebi que fazem 10 anos desde que eu me mudei do Brasil. Em mar√ßo de 2011 eu fui fazer meu doutorado em Viena, na √Āustria. Na √©poca, 10 anos parecia uma eternidade. Agora que eles j√° se passaram, n√£o parece muito. Eu estava refletindo hoje sobre um fen√īmeno interessante que foi acontecendo aos poucos, e que, na minha opini√£o, reflete bem o pa√≠s que um dia foi minha casa.

As primeiras vezes que eu visitei o Brasil depois de ter me mudado, a pergunta que eu mais ouvia era: “quando voc√™ volta?”. Todo mundo assumia naturalmente que eu s√≥ ia terminar meu doutorado e voltar. Depois de uns dois anos, antes de eu terminar o doutorado, o discurso mudou pra “talvez seja melhor que voc√™ fiquei a√≠ mais um tempo”. Eu lembro que ainda estava em Vienna quando todo mundo come√ßou a ficar mais pessimista, falando s√≥ dos problemas do Brasil. Quando eu consegui o emprego na universidade americana onde eu trabalho, muitas pessoas me perguntaram se tinha possibilidade de eu me mudar pros Estados Unidos de vez. Esse ano, com a pandemia, eu estou cogitando visitar o Brasil em Junho ou Julho (j√° tenho as duas doses da vacina, e h√° dois anos que n√£o vejo minha fam√≠lia). Quando eu falei isso, a resposta foi “n√£o vem, est√° um caos isso aqui”. ūüėĘ

Food, shelter, and companionship

I remember December 2018. I was at my parents house and we had a small gathering with my uncle’s family and grandmother to celebrate the end of the year. My uncle came to me and mentioned about 2018 being over and I remember replying tearfully something to the effect “Finally… this was such a hard year I just want it to be over”.

2018 was a hard year. A hard year so far… then came 2020.

In a strange way, 2020 was not harder than 2018 for me, personally. It was probably harder for people on average, and this comforts me a bit since, this time, I am not struggling alone. I see more people burnt out, just trying to get by, tired of online meetings, and tired of being stuck at home. More and more I hear that we need to be easy on each other, that we can’t possibly do everything we were doing before. We did save time on commuting, but now the house needs to be in order if it is appearing in a meeting, or we need to manage schedules so that the whole family is not speaking on meetings in the same room at the same time, or we need to make sure the kids are doing their homework, and the pets are not going to jump on camera, we need to make meals at home, we need to wash everything after coming back from the supermarket. All these things take more time and energy, and time and energy were already scarce resources before…

The same way this crazy year has exacerbated some of our social problems, it has also done so with our personal problems and the way we have been managing our personal lives. We are encouraged (to put it lightly) to strive for excellence. To be ambitious, to embrace opportunities, to accumulate roles. To “be creative” and recreate the same work environment at home. To be a good professional, partner, parent, sibling, friend, daughter/son, all at the same time. We were already working on our limits, when something unpredictable happened and everything goes up in the air. We struggle to find the time to even think about how to manage the emergency. We take it one day at a time, fighting small fires, without being able to stop and analyze the big picture, how we could be spending our time better, and what are our actual priorities. We end up spending time and energy to try and fit all we did before in this “new mode”, without ever considering whether we should be doing these things at all.

The best lesson we could learn from 2020 is to put things into perspective, and be better at figuring out what *really* matters. The more we do this exercise, the more we realize that very *few* things matter, and the rest is bonus:

My experience in a male dominated discipline

I was asked to participate on a panel at the university about diversity, and my task was to talk about “my experience in a male dominated discipline”. I kept thinking about this for the last couple of days, and I am always unsure on how to approach this topic. On the one hand, I have never felt I was at a disadvantage in my career due to my gender. On the other hand, I know of many women who do struggle in their workplace because of their gender. But I was asked to talk about *my* experience, so here we go.

Throughout my career I have met wonderful people (men and women) whom I get along with and who never made me feel for a second that I was “different”. So many names just pop up in my head and I feel incredibly fortunate for that. Most of the times our commonalities are much greater than our differences, and I like that none of these people seem to care that I am of a different gender, or that I look differently. I was very lucky to have been able to choose who I work with most of the time (academia perk?), and looking back I have surrounded myself with colleagues and friends that made working a pleasant experience. I do not remember many instances where I needed to “put up with someone” for too long. Perhaps a consequence of that is that I hadn’t really paid so much attention to the whole gender biased business until much later in life.

As I became more aware of gender differences, I started noticing certain things here and there, and listening to other people’s experiences. Today, my opinion is that the core of the problem is beyond gender, and probably much more related to personality. We live in a society that values the outspoken, the ambitious, the confident one. We are easily impressed and convinced by those that speak their messages loud and clear, even if they are not sure of what they are talking about. And we feel that cautious and nuanced messages are from insecure and unsure people. We are drawn to certainty, even when it is not certain at all. That leaves the introspective and careful people at a disadvantage. (Ironically, the more nuanced messages are usually the more well-thought ones). The fact that women are generally raised to be more agreeable, and less combative, is incidental, and makes the problem worse for us, typically but not exclusively. However, being a cautious person in an overly confident world is tough for any gender.

So I feel like my struggles have been caused more because I am cautious and I don’t like to rush into things, than for being a woman. The way I found around this is to move closer to people that appreciate this trait, and move away from those that feel this is a weakness. I know I am lucky to be able to make this choice, and I know many that are not.

About choices and tech

Do you waste hours scrolling through infinite feeds on your favourite app? Did you check your e-mail for the 100th time today? Did you stop an important task you were doing because your phone vibrated? Did you stop paying attention to someone you were talking too because of a pop-up notification on your desktop? If any (or all) of those seem familiar, I suggest you watch the documentary The Social Dilemma (see trailer) on Netflix. I think this hits the nail on the head when it comes to problems exacerbated by new technology which I was trying to talk about in a previous post.

I really like the way the problem is framed, and I feel somewhat relieved that my resistance to social networks might not be an indication of a character flaw. It also puts in check a general belief that we are in control of our thoughts and choices, something I have questioned over and over again. We are highly suggestible (maybe gullible?) animals and new technology just found out a way to make specific targeted suggestions with microscopic precision. New apps change our habits, the way we think, the way we work, the way we relate to each others, and we don’t even realize it. Maybe you are happy with this situation, maybe you think there is no harm done, since you are getting access to content that you would never be able to see otherwise. But we are really biased for judging what is good for us… For example, we all know that eating too much fat or sugar is bad for our health, but we can’t resist that desert every now and then. If we were less aware of our health, we might think that sweets are good for us because they just taste so good… so what’s the harm? The same thing happens with all this new technology, except we are in uncharted territory, in all senses, and it is not really clear what is and isn’t healthy. So we must treat this with care, and we must be extra judicious when spending time online. Where are we spending time? Is this time well spent? Is there a competition for our attention that prevents us from focusing on one thing? Are we happier with ourselves after unplugging from the online world?

I am definitely not happy. We need to admit that choices are made *for us* and that we are not so much in control. We need to recognize that first, and try to fight it. But we should not fight this alone. It is unrealistic to believe everyone will suddenly have the will power to control how much time they spend online, and how. Like many other aspects of life, we need policies to protect us from ourselves. Like having salads before deserts in buffets, calorie counts on labels, sugar-free options… We need sugar-free internet. This will only happen with a big shift in how the industry operates. And this can be triggered by social demand.

It is not like I believe the big internet giants are evil. This story has happened several times before: we do first, and think second, when we realize the mistakes, we adapt. I hope we are realizing our mistakes, and I really hope we adapt before it is too late.

Realidade Paralela

Quanto mais perto eu olho, mais eu acho que existem (pelo menos) dois “Brasils” acontecendo. √Č bizarra a diferen√ßa abismal entre os lados pro ou contra o governo. Ou melhor, pro ou contra Bolsonaro, j√° que ele e o governo s√£o duas coisas diferentes, e “governo” √© dif√≠cil de definir nesse momento. Eu sou uma pessoa abertamente contra o Bolsonaro, por variados motivos que os que concordam comigo est√£o cansados de saber, e os que discordam n√£o querem saber. A resist√™ncia a um di√°logo vem me frustrando faz uns anos, ent√£o ultimamente eu resolvi ver de perto o que o outro lado v√™. Tenho entrado no Twitter do Bolsonaro com frequ√™ncia, e de vez em quando visito o site de not√≠cias r7 (claramente a favor do governo). Assisti tamb√©m a v√°rios debates na CNN que tentam mostrar os dois lados (devo dizer que ouvir o Caio Copolla foi particularmente doloroso, mas me esforcei). Eu acho que estou come√ßando a entender o que os outros v√™em (por mais que eu discorde), ent√£o resolvi fazer uma tabela comparativa pra fazer sentido de toda essa avalanche de informa√ß√Ķes.

Pro-Bolsonaro Cons-Bolsonaro
Existe um v√≠rus novo e muitas pessoas v√£o ficar doentes, ent√£o vamos equipar os hospitais. O que aconteceu com outros pa√≠ses n√£o necessariamente ser√° o caminho do Brasil porque as condi√ß√Ķes de vida aqui s√£o diferentes. Existe um v√≠rus novo e muitas pessoas v√£o ficar doentes, ent√£o vamos equipar os hospitais, e tamb√©m escutar os especialistas sobre o que podemos fazer e estudar as experi√™ncias dos outros pa√≠ses.
Os cientistas est√£o pensando no pior cen√°rio e s√£o um pouco exagerados quanto √†s previs√Ķes. Os cientistas est√£o pensando em v√°rios cen√°rios e fazendo modelagens e simula√ß√Ķes.
Um lockdown agressivo vai resultar em perdas de emprego, empresas quebrando e a economia desaquecendo. Para n√£o deixar isso acontecer, n√£o faremos o lockdown. O povo quer trabalhar e sabe se cuidar. Um lockdown agressivo vai resultar em perdas de emprego, empresas quebrando e a economia desaquecendo. Mas isso tamb√©m √© o resultado de uma crise de sa√ļde. Devemos ter um plano claro com medidas objetivas para salvar vidas e mitigar as consequ√™ncias sociais.
Discurso inflamado
O líder de um país deve ter pulso firme e falar o que deve ser dito, sem rodeios. O líder de um país deve ser ponderado e respeitoso, dando um bom exemplo para os cidadãos.
Eventuais comentários sobre mulheres e homossexuais não são machistas ou homofóbicos. Não é nada que não aconteça entre amigos num espaço privado onde todos têm liberdade de dizer o que querem. Eventuais comentários estereotipados sobre mulheres e homossexuais perpetuam uma cultura de opressão à estes grupos já marginalizados na sociedade, amenizando a seriedade de certos preconceitos.
A imprensa é contra o governo e por isso só publica notícias ruins, sem dar ênfase a todas as coisas boas que o governo tem feito. A imprensa tem o dever de informar os cidadãos com fatos confiáveis e de interesse popular, incluindo medidas impopulares do governo. Se ela não existir, o que impede o governo de tomar essas medidas sem informar?
O presidente não quis fazer alianças políticas, e por isso sofre com um congresso que é cegamente contra suas propostas, o impedindo de governar e fazer boas coisas pelo Brasil. Seria muito melhor se ele estivesse livre para implementar seu plano de país. O governo é formado por representantes de várias classes e causas. Um governo plural garante que todos os interesses sejam considerados antes de se aprovar qualquer medida. O sistema não é perfeito, mas é melhor do que dar todo o poder para um grupo de pessoas.
Apesar de todos os problemas, o presidente n√£o quer fechar o congresso e o STF. Ele simplesmente quer um governo que esteja alinhado com as suas id√©ias, e isso se faz colocando pessoas de confian√ßa em cargos que ele pode nomear. As rea√ß√Ķes exageradas √†s a√ß√Ķes do STF e congresso mostram que o presidente se irrita quando as pessoas n√£o est√£o do seu lado. Ele se esquece que um governo n√£o √© s√≥ feito com pessoas que concordam entre si, e usa sua prerrogativa para nomear somente aqueles que ap√≥iam sua opini√£o, e demitir quem discorda. Ele se mostra incapaz de dialogar.
Liberdade acima de tudo. Os cidad√£os sabem o que √© melhor pra eles, ent√£o quanto menos interven√ß√£o do Estado, melhor. Um Estado paternalista s√≥ torna as pessoas dependentes. O Estado deve prover os servi√ßos b√°sicos de qualidade para todos os cidad√£os e um sistema m√≠nimo de seguran√ßa social para os marginalizados da sociedade. Em muitas situa√ß√Ķes n√£o podemos contar com o bom senso do cidad√£o.
Devemos defender os valores da família tradicional, que são a maioria da população. Não podemos normalizar aquilo que é atitude de uma minoria. A defesa de valores das famílias tradicionais estigmatizam famílias não tradicionais e as marginaliza. A defesa pela igualdade de direitos e representatividade não é um ataque à família tradicional.
O presidente governa para o povo brasileiro. Ele quer o melhor para o povo que o elegeu, que é a maioria do país. O presidente não deve governar somente para aqueles que o elegeram. Ele deve entender todos os lados e governar para a população como um todo.
Apesar das faixas pedindo a volta da ditadura e AI5, o presidente nunca disse que era a favor desse tipo de medidas. Isso √© s√≥ o que os seus apoiadores afirmam e n√£o reflete o que ele vai fazer. O comparecimento do presidente em manifesta√ß√Ķes anti-democr√°ticas √©, no m√≠nimo, preocupante. Ele enaltece um discurso agressivo que aumenta ainda mais uma grande divis√£o entre a popula√ß√£o.

O propósito dessa tabela não é defender um lado ou outro, mas simplesmente apontar os argumentos mais frequentes. Entender um pouco mais o outro lado é condição necessária (mas não suficiente) para o início de um diálogo, e foi o que eu quis fazer preenchendo o lado esquerdo acima. Por mais que eu achasse que entendesse o outro lado, eu não entendia tanto. Agora entendo mais um pouco, mas tenho certeza que vou aprender mais à medida que conversar com as pessoas. Isso não significa que eu passe a concordar com elas, mas, no meu ponto de vista, o ponto de contenção é geralmente muito diferente do que parece na superfície. Mas encontrar esse ponto exige muita paciência e boa vontade dos dois lados.

Acho que o √ļnico jeito que a gente tem pra crescer e sair desse deadlock √© conversando com as pessoas e acabando com essa divis√£o improdutiva na qual nos encontramos. Sen√£o ficaremos nesse vai-e-volta, avan√ßando com passos de formiga e sem vontade (como j√° dizia Lulu Santos).

What happened?

Six months since I last wrote here, and the world is now upside down. It is not like it was not already messed up before, but this is a whole new level of mess… There are so many things going on, and so many things crossing my mind, that I find it hard to make sense and organize it all. So forgive me if this text is all over the place.

A bit of context if you are reading this too far in the future. The world is now 5 or 6 months in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This is a highly contagious virus that causes a respiratory disease named COVID-19. For more on the topic, you can google it. There is, of course, a wikipedia page about it. The story told in the future about this depends on how we deal with it now. Only you, future person, can know what came out of it, but I must say that, for some of us people of the present, things are not looking good.

I started checking the news again since I am working from home and things are calmer on my side. Big mistake. It feels surreal. I end up asking myself “whaaat??!!” way too often. Here are a few recent headlines, just FYI:

In hindsight, we can hardly blame the virus alone for this chaos. We have put ourselves in this situation, it was a long time coming, and the health crisis is only making our problems more evident.

What happened to knowledge?

For starters, there was a *lot* of skepticism about the seriousness of this illness. In spite of all the warnings of the WHO, scientists, and epidemiologists, decision makers were still dismissive, thinking the studies were alarmists, and these scientists were an “opposition” of sorts. Maybe because mortality rate is not at 50%, and people are not visually sick, it was easy to look to the other side. Then, when things started to look bad, many decision makers put their faith in untested drugs, irresponsibly advertising them and encouraging distribution in hospitals. Even with no evidence that it would work, and a lot of evidence that it had serious side effects.

In my opinion, this is a result of two things: (1) a general distrust in science (e.g. climate change deniers, anti-vaccine movement, flat-earthers); and (2) an enhanced sense of entitlement for an opinion on each and every subject. Obviously these two things are not completely independent, but I think it is interesting to understand how this has come about, and ways to alleviate it. It seems people are unable to critically analyse information, and discern trustworthy sources. I don’t blame them. We can find literally everything on the internet nowadays disguised as reliable information. In a world where everything is true, each person picks their own truth. But you see, science doesn’t really work like that.

what happened to social security?

This reluctance to accept the studies was not a mere opposition to science. There is a very real and practical reason behind it: the economy. You see, all the studies indicated that, in order to curb the spread of the disease and prevent the collapse of health care systems, we needed to reduce gatherings, be more isolated and avoid contact with others. Now, people won’t stay at home because we politely ask them… Governments needed to take action. First thing to close are schools, then shops, then public spaces, and so on. Or at least that was the recommendation. The thing is, some people can move their business to home office, but a big number of people cannot. And with people at home, they don’t buy, they don’t travel, they don’t spend. And that means a lot of business lose income, which means they cannot pay their employees, which results in bankruptcy and unemployment. No government wants to deal with this problem, this is all very familiar, so why would they force business to close and the economy to slow down?

When have our lives become so dependent on an economy running and business working properly? Are we willing to continue this way? I mean, it is quite fragile as we can see now. Peoples’ subsistence depend on them having a job, but not all people have jobs all the time. So what happens when they don’t? That is what a social security system is for. We can compare the social impact of this pandemic in countries with high and low social security to see what a difference this makes. Of course this is hard given all the other factors, but it might be educational in any case. What cannot happen is for decision makers to look away so much because supporting the citizens in a time of need is just not possible (or not a problem they want to handle).

what will happen to us?

A(n optimistic) part of me wants this to be a lesson, that we look at it critically, find our weak points as a society, and fix them for the next emergency (let’s face it, another one is bound to happen sooner or later). The two topics above are simply things that worry me more, but I am sure there are all sorts of other problems that have become really obvious (like international collaborations, access to health care, inequality, to mention a few). A (realistic) part of me is hopeless that this will happen, specially when I see people so eager for things to “get back to normal”. Once again, we fall prey to our urgency and move forward in leaps and bounds (or as we say in Portuguese, aos trancos e barrancos).

About data

I have recently watched the documentary The Great Hack, which explains the Cambridge Analytica scandal: how they used a great amount of data from facebook to spread biased and fake messages and influence the outcome of Brexit and the US presidential election of 2016. The film focuses a lot on the role of big data-owning corporations such as facebook, google, or amazon (the usual suspects). It hints towards holding these companies responsible for what people do with the data they collect, and sort of portraits them as “evil”, but perhaps too much [1]. It also blames the technology and the “algorithms”, whatever those are. In my opinion, this is a very shallow analysis of what is actually going on, and I think they got it all upside down. Let me break down this problem into three parts.

The technique

People that do not understand what is going on behind the curtains of recommendation algorithms tend to see the spread of targeted manipulative information as an extremely bad thing (which it is), and how music streaming services that suggest music that you like as an extremely good thing (which it is). I am no expert in recommendation systems myself, but I know enough to know that the principles behind these two tasks are basically the same. So blaming and prohibiting the technique itself will mean that a lot of wonderful things we have today will no longer be available. And a huge field of research, which can be used for good, will go away. I don’t think this is a good direction to follow…

The data

Our data is being collected all the time. I know that, you know that, everyone knows that. It is because of this data, and the techniques, that we can talk to our phones, that we can search for a photo by a keyword, that our watches can measure our steps, and many other conveniences that make our lives today very comfortable. The corporations that collect and use the data to develop these wonderful things know how this is sensitive information, and how everything should be super anonymized if it is supposed to go into the hands of others (such as researchers).

In the case of Cambridge Analytica in particular, I think Facebook has actually little blame on this [1]. The story plays out like this. A researcher at Cambridge University developed an app and provided it to Cambridge Analytica. The company, in turn, used this app to do a survey and people had to agree that their data was going to be used for academic purposes. It turns out that, because of the way facebook was designed, the app also collected data from all the friends of the person taking the survey. Now, I think this is a serious design flaw, and whoever saw that, the researcher or whoever was working on this at Cambridge Analytica, should have at least informed facebook about it. Instead, they have exploited this to get all the data, and kept quiet. Needless to say, there was no “academic purpose” there. So facebook’s fault is this design flaw. They have openly apologized for that, and implemented more strict privacy rules (GDPR) since then. However, it is not fair to place the responsibility of how others used this data solely on them.

These big data companies tend to be already protective enough of their data. Ask any researcher that needs data how hard it is to get a fraction of what they have. So it is not like facebook is completely irresponsible and is just allowing anyone to tap into their pool. By the way, the researcher who developed the app was actually a consultant for facebook. Which makes me even more suspicious why he wouldn’t report such a breach in the first place.

The use

This is the crucial point in my opinion, and the point that is most overlooked. The problem, in the end, was not the existence of data or fancy techniques to process it. The problem is how this framework was used. And it is not like it was used for a super novel thing. The data was used for propaganda, and propaganda has been around for centuries. And people warning about the dangers of propaganda have also been around for a while now. For example, this quote from Everett Dean Martin: “Propaganda is making puppets of us. We are moved by hidden strings which the propagandist manipulates.” is from 1929. 1929!

The problem this time is that we had propaganda on steroids. Because of the amount of data Cambridge Analytica had, and the ability to quickly analyse it, they could provide the most targeted and efficient advertisements. If you think about it, this is the dream of *every* advertisement agency. Now, does that mean we should forbid propaganda? Well, I lean towards yes, but I also admit that there is a thing such as good propaganda [2]. So we should not discard it as an activity altogether. One could say propaganda/advertisement [3] should not be biased, but isn’t that an inherent characteristic of it? When people are trying to sell something (a product, an idea, an image), they kind of have to be biased towards that thing.

So what is it about the Cambridge Analytica case that bothered so many people (myself included)? I have had this lingering feeling that it crossed a line. But which line? After thinking a lot about it, I suspect this line is ethics.
First of all, these people were using exaggerated messages, sometimes blatant lies, to attack the opposition. Attacking the opposition is a low blow of desperate people, specially in politics [4]. This is a dirty move which I find disgusting. You want to advertise yourself? Fine. Show off your advantages, don’t hit the adversary. That makes me very angry.
Secondly, this was targeted to influence people on important decisions, which ideally should be taken with the minimum amount of bias. The only way people are going to start to think critically, is if they have to in order to form an opinion. If they are bombarded with information from only one side, it is brainwashing. I can see why a politician or government would think this is a good thing (“I know what is best for the people, I am just making them realize faster”). However, if you stop to really think about it, this is a disservice for the society as a whole. It simply creates citizens that follow the herd, and are lazy to think for themselves [5].
At this point, one possible solution would be to forbid advertisement related to elections and any issue that would affect society as a whole. Honestly, I think this would be a good thing, and it could solve many problems we face today in a democratic process (not only the one presented here). But I need to think more about this one.

Ultimately, this whole situation is much more complicated than portrayed in “The Great Hack”. There are fundamental problems that we have been facing for many years now, it is simply exacerbated by the effectiveness of a new method. The issue, as I see, is not the method in itself, but the fundamental problem of advertising/propaganda. Where do we draw the line of good/acceptable propaganda, and unacceptable one? Who should be responsible for regulating this? As usual, there is a whole area of study about persuasion, advertisement, etc. As usual, we will only pay attention and try to solve it when things explode and it becomes obvious that this is the problem. We never learn…

[1] And I hate Facebook…
[2] Government funded campaigns for vaccination, anti-tobacco, more exercises, etc.
[3] I am using the two words interchangeably, since it is quite debatable what distinguishes one from the other. In Portuguese, for example, there is only one word to describe what would be two different things for an English speaking person.
[4] 11 years ago, this was an issue in the election of a mayor where I come from. I wrote about here (in Portuguese), after hearing an admission that, still today, makes me furious.
[5] For example, do you think I just thought about all of these things at once? It took me weeks thinking about the documentary, discussing it with other people, and researching, until I formed this opinion (which could be changed in light of new information).

About handmaids

I was visiting a friend recently and she happened to have a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at her place. I had heard about this book before, and my friend also recommended it, so I decided to read. I finished it surprisingly quickly… Not only because I needed to give the book back ūüôā

If you have not read the book, don’t read this post further. Go read it and make your own opinion about it.

The language is easy and the story kept me interested. Not in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, where we are eager to find out who committed the crime, but in an Alice in Wonderland way, where we just appreciate the surreality of the situation. Except that it is not such a nice and fantastic world, but a scary post-apocalyptic one.

The story takes place in a near-future totalitarian state, which is (apparently) at war with neighbors, and follows a nuclear disaster that left a lot of the land unusable. As with any novel about a totalitarian state (such as 1984 and Brave New World), the lack of individual freedom is the focus here: everyone has their role in society pre-assigned, and no deviation is possible, specially questioning or going against the status quo. Different from the aforementioned books, this one focuses in particular on the role of women in this dystopian society. There are three “classes” of women: the wives, the child-bearing, and the cooks. Men should have at least one of each class (with some exceptions). The story is told from the point of view of one of the child-bearing ones. She contrasts her previous life (not too different from the lives we lead today) with the current one, the training she had to go through, and the struggles to maintain her sanity. She “belongs” to a “commander”, a seemingly high-ranking official, who, at some point, breaks the protocol and starts to have a more personal relationship with the protagonist. This is hardly the main point of the story, but I found one of these interactions particularly interesting. In the excerpt below, the commander attempts to justify the new imposed system on women:

We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five‚Ķ This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?

Than Handmaid’s Tale (Chapter 34)

Indeed, when put this way, it is almost tempting. What a relief it would be to become suddenly free of all these struggles. Not worrying about looking pretty, having the “right” body, face and behavior… Not worrying about finding someone to start a family with, if it will work out or not, if you would be able to raise your kids properly. Rationally speaking, the system guarantees all basic human needs, for all humans. So we see how this would make sense in the head of very pragmatic people.

But very important things were overlooked.

The main character replies: “love”. To which the commander rightfully argues that love might just be something fabricated and imposed on us, as something we *should* feel and how marriages and families work. He points out the fact that arranged marriages were common, and work out just as well.

But in both situations there is a more fundamental principle which is overlooked: freedom. Whether you choose to get married by love, or because your family has found you a suitable partner, the important part is that you *choose*. You choose your partner, you choose the clothes you wear, whether to use make up, have plastic surgery, go to the gym or on a diet. You choose to go out on a date, or ask someone out. You choose to stay married, or to get a divorce.

Or better, you have the impression that you choose.

This situation has got me thinking about the difference between things we choose, and things we think we choose. Unless you live alone in an island isolated from society (in which case you would not be reading this), there are certain expectations about you. This may come from your upbringing, your peers, your friends, and even yourself. Many times we simply internalize these expectations, and live up to them without ever realizing it. Here is a silly example of how this can come about. I recently reorganized my wardrobe and realized I have a disproportionate amount of pink tops. It is by far the most frequent color. Now, do I like pink more than the other colors in particular? Not really… As a girl, I am of course _supposed_ to like pink, and this is how I suspect these tops came about. Some were gifts, admittedly, but maybe half I bought them myself. Since then, I have been more aware of my behavior when I can choose between different colors of the same item. I noticed that my instinct is to invariably go towards pink/purple. Is this because, deep down, I just really like pink, or is it because I was raised always having a lot of pink stuff? I strongly suspect it is the latter…

My feeling is that many people (including myself) make choices according to what is expected of them, and not according to our true selves. These can be as simple as the color of clothes, or as complicated as your career, relationships, values, religion… The problem is that, if we are not true to ourselves, we end up with clothes we don’t particularly enjoy wearing, or worse. Recognizing what is you and what is imposed on you is not an easy task, but it is one worthwhile spending some time on, as this means a lighter and more authentic life.

About mankind

Lately I have been feeling more and more grim about life in general. I think this is a culmination of facts: things I learned, things that happened, things I noticed. It has reached a point where I have very little faith in mankind, and I think that if any stupid leader decides to detonate a nuclear bomb and kill us all, the universe will end up a better place.

This might have started with me learning more about global warming and our environmental footprint. We produce *a lot* of garbage, that needs to go somewhere. It typically ends up in the oceans or landfills around the world, contaminating animals, water, plants, and, eventually, us again (but we kind of caused it, so we deserve). Even with recycling, most of the world’s garbage still ends up in one of those places. And recycling is treating the symptom, not the cause. In practice, we can produce less than half of the garbage we produce if we are just conscious about it. It does not hurt to use our own bags for shopping, use both sides of paper sheets, get a glass water bottle instead of buying the plastic ones, close the tap when washing the teeth or the hands, use less disposable items… among other things.

Then I learned about animal cruelty, which involves killing animals for food, but also for fashion items (of quite questionable taste, really). Turns out that farming for animal production is also a big factor on global warming, and turns out we don’t really need all that meat. Nutritionally speaking, we would still be ok if we ate half of the meat we eat on average. With all these different options of food around, it wouldn’t hurt to go vegetarian three times a week. Concerning fashion items, I don’t see the appeal on leather and furs, so regarding such things as luxury items is complete nonsense as it is. Put on top animal killings, it is an easy “no, thank you”. Animals are also used for testing cosmetics, so reducing the amount of those is not only healthier (for the body *and* mind), but better for the animals.

The fashion industry alone has many other problems. Many brands have sweat shops in less developed countries, where they can get things done cheaper, and don’t need to respond about labor abuse. This practice takes advantage of people that desperately need a job, and are willing to work crazy hours for little pay. Companies need profit and this is achieved in two ways: decreasing the cost for producing clothes and increasing the consumption. On this second front, they bombard us with advertisement every week, creating “trends” to be followed, forcing people to recycle their wardrobe every season unnecessarily and to have a million pieces of clothes. We simply need to realize how manipulated we are being, and start to care less about how we look, and care more about what we do.

By the way, the thing with the profit, exploitation and fake trends is not an exclusivity of fashion, but of many other industries as well. We are manipulated every day by advertisements promising more productive, beautiful, modern, meaningful lives, only so that we will buy the latest release, generate more trash, more environmental impact, and more profit. And we are not happier.

As time passed I became more and more aware of life’s randomness, and how not realizing this can lead to social injustice. If we think that all our success is attributed to our hard work (the myth of meritocracy), then we are willing to bet that anyone could have done what we did. The thing is that, not everyone is at the same starting point. Life is unfair and people are born in all kinds of situations. This can be alleviated by some policies that give the less privileged some benefits.

All of these things alone are not really distressing for me. They are problems, and I like to solve problems. I enjoy thinking about each and every one of them, learning their effects and, mostly, their causes. Many times the underlying cause is rooted on greed, on the need to have profit, and on assigning importance to unimportant measures. Many of the effects have to do with increasing the social gap and manipulation. I think that, if we put our heads together, we could take steps in the direction of improving the situation.

The distressing part, the really really distressing part, is to see how little people seem to care. They care a lot about themselves, the “market”, the “economy”. As long as money is moving, as long as they have the best deal, as long as they can satisfy their immediate needs, who cares about something that happens thousands of kilometers¬† or years away? Out of sight, out of mind. And so we walk towards the abyss.


Some sources:

  1. magazine/