It’s Valentine’s Day, and it seems appropriate… | Michael Nielsen

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and it seems appropriate to post a love story.

It’s not my story, exactly, but it’s a story I think of often, and I thought a few of you might enjoy it.

I grew up in Australia. This is not news to most of you 🙂

At the time, Australian culture was quite intolerant. One area of particular intolerance was homosexuality. I heard “fag”, “poof” (and so on) used as epithets thousands of times in school.

I wish I could say I stood up against it, but in truth I didn’t think much about it. Like many of my peers, I barely understood what homosexuality (or, for that matter, sexuality!) was. Years later, I learned my closest high school friend was gay. I had no idea at the time.

My first openly gay friends were at University. In some sense that’s when I first properly understood and firmly rejected homophobia. But I didn’t think it entirely through; it was a half thought out intellectual rejection.

The real, gut-level rejection came a few years later.

I was in my early twenties, on a trip home to Brisbane, visiting from my new life in the United States.

I decided to visit the gorgeous Southbank Parklands, by the Brisbane River. I was in an empty area of the park, and could see just two people nearby, a young gay couple walking very happily together along a path, hand-in-hand.

It was night, and I was crossing a dark area of the park, and they couldn’t see me. They thought themselves alone.

As I crossed into the light, they saw me.

Instantly, they dropped hands.

Their faces fell, just a little.

Their bodies tensed up.

They avoided my eyes. Worse, they stopped those casual, comfortable glances lovers share when they are together.

They were still happy, still glad to be there.

But they were just a little sadder than before.

They were now two friends walking along, apart from one another, a little more alone in the world.

Of course, I’ve seen things like this happen many, many times in my life. Some of my earliest memories are of intolerance (mostly racist) in outback Australia.

But, for some reason, this particular event, which lasted just a few seconds, really hit me. Perhaps because it came so out of the blue. It made me — and makes me — furious to see such an utterly pointless and so systemic a diminishment of happiness in the world.

I’m an extremely optimistic person. I think the world has gotten far better over my lifetime, and that it’s likely to get far better still in years to come.

But this story has been on my mind because of the rise of intolerance around the world. It’s easy to point to the most famous instance — Trumpism. But more is going on: Trump, ISIS, Le Pen, UKIP, et al. There are almost certainly underlying systemic reasons.

I won’t speculate here about what those reasons are, though it’s a great subject. Whatever the reasons, it seems that there’s a rise in fear in many parts of the world. And that fear can be exploited and stoked by demagogues and the power hungry, and by fools and cowards, for their own ends.

I’m optimistic enough to believe there are immense positive forces working for us – ingrained institutions which continue to expand our empathy, many functioning powerfully but almost invisibly. Roger Ebert once described movies beautifully as “machines for generating empathy”; we have many such institutions.

At the same time, it’s also deeply unpleasant to realize that in some ways, culturally, we’re going a bit backward, and that there are also systemic reasons for that.

The real optimist in me, though, is hopeful about the response it will all produce. To see the enormous crowd at JFK chanting “Let them in” after the travel ban was quite something. I hope the ultimate result will be a further waking up of our culture, a consideration and eventually a collective rejection of intolerance.

In any case, if you’ve stayed with me this far, love to all, not just on Valentine’s day, but throughout the year!

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Source: It’s Valentine’s Day, and it seems appropriate… | Michael Nielsen

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