‘Down with the patriarchy!’ he says…

Okay, so the title is pungently truthful, but it must be so. As strong of a statement as this is, I hesitate to call myself a feminist, only because I feel that I haven’t done enough research nor in-depth thinking to truly reach the moral standing of ‘feminist’. Moreover, I would probably refer to myself as a ‘feminist in training’. Perhaps this post can show you why.

Following is a picture of me at a global health conference earlier this year, taken in stealth by a woman who as a part of the (stellar, as I came to find out) organisation, Women in Global Health.

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As a disclaimer, I’m trying to be really careful with the language I use (as always, I guess) in this post, but I guarantee you that, as a privileged, white male, I will undoubtedly make some sort of mistake in language or concepts — please comment to correct me if I err.

This specific panel was an all-women panel, occupied by leaders in their respective fields within global health, who also happened to be women. As someone who wants to end up in the field of global health, I thought this panel would be really useful in order to understand (or at least be introduced to) women’s role in global health now, and what is needed for women to excel unhindered by the patriarchy (by which many fields are unjustly ruled, not excluding global health). The amount of men in the room was astounding, mainly because I could probably count them on both hands without running out of fingers. (Here’s where a moral dilemma comes into play – as of now, I’m just trying to set the scene.) As this was a panel discussion, they gave space for questions to be asked — those who had questions merely had to queue up behind a microphone and wait their turn. I had a question, so I got up in the queue, and happened to be the first male to ask a question. One of the panelists noted, “Ah, you’re the first male to ask a question!” And the audience applauded. My question was, basically, “What is my role as a young male in the field of global health?”

The moral dilemma comes as such. Being honest, I loved getting this recognition as the ‘first male to ask a question’, the applause that came with it, and a twitter post from a women’s NGO in global health. One can see this situation as me being a champion for women’s rights, but I feel like the recognition that I received at this conference might have been a little ironic. In short, women do not need the approval of men to do well in global health.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend (hey there, Saffy!) about Malcom X and what he wrote about the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his speech on Capitol Hill. The U.S. administration was terrified for that day, because the streets were going to be filled with ‘negroes’ and they had no way of sufficiently controlling this crowd of people throughout the march and the speech. However, it turned out that a fair amount of white people were in support of Dr. King, and were planning to come out to the march as well. This then calmed down the administration, which led to them coming around to accepting the speech and congregation of Dr. King’s listeners and advocates. Malcom X argues that this sort of assembly was only okay to the current administration because it had de facto ‘white’ approval. Had numerous white supporters not come out that day to listen to Dr. King, the assembly would not have seemed as okay to the administration. Malcom X tells us that this is a dire problem of (at least the U.S.) society.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to what I experienced this past spring at the global health conference. Yes, one could say that I’m doing my best as a white male to be a champion for women’s rights, and that may be required for all men in this day and age, but I might also add that it’s incredibly important to be keenly aware of what kind of moral consequences one’s actions may hold. One must also be aware of the history to which their actions and beliefs are tied. I, as a white male, must be aware that we (meaning, generally, white males throughout history), have taken control of women, their bodies, and their lives. Following this idea, I would think that ‘being a champion’ for women follows exactly that same mould of the control of women by being the voice that gives approval to women’s rights in society.

So going forward from here — what is my role as a white male in society (not just in global health)? I, too, wish to succeed in global health, but I don’t want to unfairly take opportunities of women in this endeavour. One solution that comes to mind is to be aware of the societal privilege that I am (unjustly) awarded as a white male, and to not ever think of utilising that privilege for a work opportunity or a forward move in my career.

Without trying to offer more solutions, the simple answer is that I will never fully know what is required for women to succeed in global health because, quite simply, I identify as a man, which equally means that I am not a woman. I do not know what a woman needs because I am not a woman. Hence, solutions and answers should not be coming from white men, but from women. Embedded in the preceding sentence is an equal moral imperative to listen to all women’s input, not just the white, middle-class, feminist woman from your local university (which is still an important view, but not the only important view).

I think the duty that I have as a male in society is a negative moral duty, which is to make sure that I am not hindering the autonomy or ability of any woman in my life to make her own decisions and lead the life she wants to live. Outside of this, I will do my best to train to be feminist, to be an advocate of women’s rights, to create a more equal world for all — but the knowledge I gain to back up these actions best not come from men, but women — as they, of course, know what the best is for themselves, and they do not need a man to explain that for them.



In writing this post, I’ve left out a lot of ideas and topics, not limited to race, heteronormativity, gender, and class. Granted, these topics are incredibly important, but you would most likely be reading a text the length of a chapter, or even a book, if I was left to leave all of my (perhaps too many) thoughts on the matter here.

My request for those reading this post is to do some research about one influential woman in their own society or another, and perhaps comment below to share the (undoubtedly amazing) stories of certain women with your fellow readers.


It’s been a while! Here’s a note on music…

While working at Black Diesel as a barista, I came to know a patron known as Tim the Lawyer (as we affectionately called him from behind the bar). He really was this successful lawyer that, when talking to him, you wouldn’t know that he was so successful. Tim was also peculiarly interested in the music that I chose to play at the shop, especially when I decided to play jazz. In fact, the first album that he commented on was one by Kat Edmonson, Take To The Sky.

In talking about my move to London and taking my alto or soprano over, this is what Tim said:

“Well it sounds like you’re going to have to bring both saxes over, then.”

I didn’t bring both, but luckily, I took to the trouble of ample negotiations and chance-taking with the airline to get my saxophone onto the plane, free of charge. I undoubtedly was going to bring my saxophone over, or at least find one when I was there (I’m still in the market for that perfect, old tenor in a whole-in-the-wall antique shop, perhaps something that the owner thinks is a throw away but becomes such an endearing tenor in my musical life). However, I figured I would play in a band or find some sort of gig to play at, but I wasn’t aware of how deeply, emotionally-involved I would become with music. I didn’t know how much priority music would start to take in my life, or realise the sheer amount of joy I got from playing music.

After deciding to drop out from the school of music at U-M, I was decently embarrassed to play the saxophone. Every time I met another student who was playing music at the SMTD, I got a pang of nervousness, of being so unqualified to play music because I had made the active choice to leave the music industry (in more of a formal way) earlier on. I still think that I feel this sort of (unfounded) pressure today — every time I start to try and learn some sort of theory, or start to study music, the pressure starts to weigh on my shoulders and makes me nervous to learn more, only to discover how little I know, and how much time I’ve already lost in learning music.

However, as I was walking to the Shaw Theatre to play in a show that we just had this week, a big one, called “Birdland”, I was reminded (perhaps by my subconscious) of how deeply lost I get when I’m playing any sort of piece. I lose myself when playing certain pieces – it’s almost as if, when I finish playing, I wake up from a quasi-dream state having forgotten what I was meant to do the next day, where I came from to get to the venue where I was playing, what I was worried about while I was walking up the stairs. I feel as if whatever meta-feelings I’m having (e.g. those that aren’t certainly concrete, or are situationally-dependent… ‘shallow’ as some might say) are whisked away and I am able to channel only my inner, purer feelings into the music that I’m playing at the time.

Something then should be said for this feeling — with very few things do I lose myself this deeply, so much that I lose the concept of time passing by. I hadn’t really recognised this until I was able to truly lose myself in the music. I have some ideas as to what may explain this, but they really aren’t fully developed — what I do want to exclaim, to iterate incessantly, is this previously untouched feeling of being happily directionless and satisfied in the environment in which I find myself. Another post may be devoted to where this feeling will take me.

Duties to the (not so) distant

Greetings, friends!

I feel like every time I write, I give an excuse as to why I’m late in writing (perpetually, it seems, at this point). I was thinking about this while getting entranced by some (amazing) jazz at a show last week. I might have also mentioned this already in a previous post. Quite succinctly, I won’t be writing unless I feel that I have something valuable to share – I’d quite like to refrain from what an old english teacher, James Pinto (phenomenal teacher, would absolutely recommend his English 325 class to any U-M students reading this 🙂 ) referred to as ‘navel gazing.’

This past week, two of my classes have wonderfully coincided (not planned) within the topic of ‘foreign aid.’ My introduction to this topic (well, introduction within the realm of these classes) was brought on by Peter Singer and his 1972 paper, “Famine, Affluence, and Mortality.” For an explanation that’s not fully devoid of the philosophy that Singer utilises, you can see the TED talk here. Singer starts out his argument via his ‘drowning child in the pond’ thought experiment: If you were on our way to work, and noticed a child drowning in a pond on the side of the road, you would most likely save the child. This would require that you soak whatever clothes you’re wearing, and that you would probably be late to work. Saving the child’s life (obviously) justifies the inconvenience of getting your clothes wet and being late to work.

Singer frames his argument using this drowning example by saying that if we are witness to undue suffering (e.g. we see a child drowning), and if we have the power to stop that suffering without making sacrifices that put ourselves at an equal or worse undue suffering (e.g. getting our clothes wet by pulling the child out of the water), we ought to (i.e. we have a duty to) stop that suffering. To elaborate, Singer also says that distance or proximity to the suffering that we see neither adds nor subtracts moral imperative to do something about this suffering. Nor does the presence of others (at any number) have an effect on our own responsibility to alleviate this suffering. (Can you see where this is going?)

Using these last two clarifications as leverage, Singer extends his argument to the global realm, saying that we ought to donate any ‘extra’ money to foreign aid (e.g. our favourite charity) instead of using that money to, say, buy a new pair of shoes or a new car. His argument is important because it removes the altruistic nature of charity work. With the framework of altruism, one can refrain from giving to charity and not be at fault, but with Singer’s argument (at least the one he made in 1972 – he’s slightly eased his stance since then), if you refrain from giving to a charity and instead buy a new car, you may be morally at fault.

Singer’s argument has faced ample backlash, in many forms. One of the most prominent ideas presented against Singer is that once we give £200 to our favourite charity, that money never actually reaches those in need, rather the money goes into the hands of corrupt state leaders (look at the case of Equatorial Guinea), or gets lost to the ever-expanding black hole of bureaucracy and administration. Many simply say that Singer’s argument is too simple — he doesn’t consider the context around which aid is given, and he doesn’t know how much aid can actually hurt a country (see this article about “Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa”). By giving money to unjust states, are we further perpetuating the injustices that these states commit, casting their citizens into further poverty? Perhaps. However, we still must face the fact that suffering exists – how can we combat the suffering if not with money? (I’ll leave this question here without a complete answer. Some researchers at Oxford came up with the “Multidimensional Poverty Index,” which shows how lack of money isn’t the only thing that contributes to poverty.)

Furthermore, we might realise that the countries that are in worse-off states at this moment did not put themselves there — rather the responsibility for their demise rests completely in the hands of the most wealthy countries today. I was reading a paper that distinguished between the concept of ‘humanity’ and ‘justice’. The former is (this author argued) what Singer’s arguments rests upon, that it is simply inhumane for us to let a drowning child die, and this sort of inhumanity can be expanded to suffering across the ocean. However, to think that we are simply ‘being humane’ (which is not a bad thing at all), implies that we ought to do so because we are good humans (which we should be), but not because we are required to as a matter of justice, or fairness. The ‘humanity’ argument, in this sense, is too weak (in my mind) to ground any sort of requirement that will truly motivate anyone and everyone to work towards ending inequality and suffering (in the global scale). When we change our perspective just a little bit, and consider our duty to alleviate inequality (perhaps by giving aid, or perhaps not) in the eyes of justice, then the duty becomes stronger.

To clarify with an example, take the idea of colonisation – a country with a fair amount of money and resources decides to claim the territory of a far off land as their own. They claim the resources (and oftentimes the very people that live there) as their own, and reap whatever benefits they gain from from that land and people (e.g. harvesting (via slavery) and selling resources like oil or metal). The colonising country then realises (too late, of course), that they probably shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing, so they decide to give the land back to the people from whom they stole the land, and give them independence. This now-free country, of course, is left off in a terrible state, and needs some assistance. The colonising country has even more wealth than it had before colonising this nation, so they decide to use that wealth to loan money out to this struggling, newly-free nation, so long as this new country can pay back whatever aid they have been given.

With this situation, it is clear that some sort of unfairness exists — why would an aid-giving country be giving money to another state from which they had essentially stolen? As a matter of fairness, or fair play, it seems as though we ought to give back the wealth that we have taken from other countries, without any strings attached. Furthermore, with the concept that Rawls calls the ‘veil of ignorance’, we very well could have belonged to the state that had been colonised, and when making a decision based on justice, we ought not to consider the fact that we belong to the ‘rich’ country and not the ‘poor’ one, but simply make the decision as if we didn’t know to which country we belonged. Surely this would require that we compensate, and not give ‘aid’, because ‘aid’ implies charity, not fair redistribution.


I want to leave you with one more concept (of many) that I’ve learned this week about international aid. This comes from some daydreaming in class (two-hour lectures are long!) supplemented by further reading in the matter… I’ve realised that we have been having this entire conversation about aid while attending a top university in London, one of the biggest cities on the world, and that which contains vast amounts of wealth. In other words, we are considering these situations from a vastly privileged point of view. Danger is apparent in this situation, for mistakenly assuming that we (as philosophers, or as engineers (shoutout to the U-M CoE)) know better than anyone how to solve the world’s problems. We face the risk of becoming what William Easterly classifies as ‘planners’. Oftentimes it is those who work in aid who become the ‘planners’, when in reality we are meant to become what Easterly calls ‘searchers’.

Planners think they know exactly what is wrong, and what to do to ‘fix’ the situation (I cannot stress enough how innocently apparent this mentality can be in the young engineer’s mindset). Searchers realise that the world oftentimes contains so many unknowns (even as of yet) that we cannot know the full truth, that we must consult whatever vast amount of possible resources we can in order to fully understand the situation in which we are trying to work. In aid specifically, when the planners come into the scheme, oftentimes doubling as those with the money (perhaps, say, workers from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)), they think that they carry the solution to the problems they see in ‘poor’ countries, and they fail to consult the local views on the matter. (They end up doing much more harm than good by perpetuating problems with their ‘well-thought-out’ solutions.) While I was sitting in class, I realised, why aren’t we consulting, for example, philosophers from Equatorial Guinea when we have spoken so often about the aid situation that deals exactly with that country?

I think two quotes from Easterly’s book, “Reinventing Foreign Aid”, come in handy here. My goal, in a quasi-conclusion, is to become the ‘piecemeal engineer’ in the social setting, to design policy and implementation not considering only my thoughts but local views that will undoubtedly bring us closer to equality and fairness in a grossly unjust society in which we live today.

‘‘The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which makes it impossible for him to disentangle causes and elects, and to know what he is really doing. Holistic or Utopian social engineering, as opposed to piecemeal social engineering . . . aims at remodeling the ‘‘whole of society’’ in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint.’’

‘‘It is . . . precisely because the authors of the report see economic development primarily as an intellectual or artistic exercise by leaders and governments that they fail to do justice to their examination of existing realities in underdeveloped countries. . . . Development depends not on the abstract national goals of, and the more or less enforced decisions by, a cadre of planners, but on the piecemeal adaptation of individuals to goals which emerge but slowly and become clearer only as those individuals work with the means at their disposal; and as they themselves become aware, in the process of doing, of what can and ought to be done.’’


Some updates for you all – I’m leaving for Birmingham this afternoon to go on a weekend with the Jazz Society! Hopefully I’ll snap some pictures and I’ll get to sharing them here. Classes are going well, too. Some have asked that they see what I’m taking for this term, so here goes:

Global Justice and Health

Politics and Ethics

Health Policy and Reform

Key Principles of Health Economics

(might still audit a course called “Madness”).

I’ve also had some recent developments as to what I want to do for my dissertation, as well as what might be happening after this fellowship finishes up. Alas, these are items for another post!

Much love to you all.

Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:


“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”


Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.

Why El Salvador?

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all enjoying this holiday season – I’ve made it to the States and will be here, spending time with family until I come back to London for New Year’s Eve. My time in the US was first spent with a couple days in Ann Arbor, with a necessary trip back to my old coffee shop to see old friends and co-workers.

I’ve been back in the States for a week and a few days so far, and it’s definitely an odd feeling returning to the US after making the UK feel like home. I love seeing my family, especially being able to hold the new baby in the family (Uncle x2 with baby Amelia!). As you might have been able to quite obviously tell, I’ve been a bit behind on the posts – we’re given our essay assignments for after classes end and before the next term starts. Alas, I should have started earlier, but I’ve managed to stay on track with four essays due soon. Two down, two to go!

What I do want to address, though, is a piece of news that came to know a day after I had come back to the US. I was spending a bit of time at the old parish I used to go to, St. Mary Student Parish, speaking to some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. To give some back story, one of my main pieces of involvement at this church was participating in what SMSP called their alternative spring break (ASB) program. This program consisted of about eleven trips that (probably obviously) occurred over our spring break, all of which involved some type of service. These trips were seen as “alternative,” to, say, going home for the week or spending time abroad or down south basking in the warmth and sunlight that Michigan (really) lacks in the wintertime.

One of the sites that SMSP usually has people go to is in El Salvador, with an organisation called CRISPAZ. This organisation was set up mainly to establish a relationship between the United States and El Salvador in the name of solidarity. Without delving too much into Salvadoran history, it’s worth saying that the US-backed Salvadoran military managed to kill, maim, and massacre many innocent people in El Salvador in the 1980s. Hence, the mission of CRISPAZ is to tell the story of El Salvador to those not from the country by teaching about recent Salvadoran history, then to basically have foreigners meet various groups in El Salvador who work towards furthering human rights and solidarity within and outside of the country.

The trip to El Salvador was cut for this year. I’ve asked around and have received various reasons regarding why the trip was cut, ranging from “there weren’t enough people” to “the country is too dangerous.” (Side note: if you hear the “danger” excuse about any Latin American country, I would questions these sorts of claims. Perhaps another post can be devoted as to why I may use this sort of caution.)

Regardless of the answer, I think this decision was a deep mistake. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple different international volunteering trips in the past – I’ve been to the Dominican Republic (DR) and El Salvador on these trips, and have spent about ten weeks outside of this working with various internships in the DR and Haiti. All of the international trips that SMSP has have their individual merits, and I wouldn’t be in the place and mind-set that I am had I not been to the DR and El Salvador. However, I do think that, if one trip should remain while the others go, is should be El Salvador. Why? Because in El Salvador, we look more into why (largely) white Americans like to go down to Latin America to do “God’s work” and “help those less fortunate.” From my personal experience, both the trips to Nicaragua and the DR are dangerous in the fact that they don’t really address the dangers of voluntourism (as it’s affectionately called) and the massively detrimental effects this practice can have on the people involved in this matter.

I don’t want to slander the other trips that SMSP holds, but I do want to show that El Salvador’s effect has been utterly essential to my understanding of international relations between the US and Latin American countries. Without my time in El Salvador, the experiences that I had in the DR and Haiti would not have carried as much weight with me as they do today.

Here’s the difficulty with El Salvador: when you come back from the trip, the conversations go like this:

Interested family friend who is mildly interested in what you’re up to: “What’d you do in El Salvador? Were you helping the poor? Did you see a lot of poverty there?”

Me: “I mean, sure, I saw poverty, but more clearly, I learned about the storied past of El Salvador. I was also really surprised to learn about US involvement in this country, something I surely didn’t learn about in my history classes in school…”

Family friend: “Oh, okay.. so.. what did you do? Did you build a house, or..?”

Me: “No, there are plenty of Salvadorans who can build a house, or do any other sort of labour that may be needed in El Salvador. But have you heard of liberation theology?”

Perhaps a piece of my writing from soon after I arrived back from the trip could help explain. This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to family and friends who helped me out with funding to go to El Salvador, and exhibits what I felt about the worth of this trip upon returning.


I am attempting to describe an idea, a motive, a truth that can’t be done justice with only words. An experience in El Salvador happened to me last week, and I really do think this trip has been pivotal but I just don’t know to where I’m pivoting at the moment. I’ve learned so much, being among a people so shaken and torn by a past so devastating that even their youth are experiencing PTSD from a war they did not experience first-hand.

This impact has left me feeling in a state of numbness, something like the feeling adrenaline gives after one has broken a bone. I know something is broken, that it should be hurting so incredibly badly but all I feel is a blanket of numbness in place of the pain. What’s broken is my heart, part of my soul. I’m waiting for the moment when the adrenaline ceases, when I can really encounter the pain of a broken heart – I happily await this moment.

The time taken to break my heart was filled with meeting Salvadorans of storied backgrounds. We met a representative from Cofamide, an organization that works for finding those who have “been lost” on the way to the United States from El Salvador (“been lost” refers now to the act of someone “being lost,” a.k.a. being displaced by the Mexican or Salvadoran government and killed or sent to jail). We met artisans who described their story by what they make with their hands, filling blank canvases with hope, which many times manifests itself via the face of Monseñor Oscar Romero, the substances integral to Salvadoran agriculture, like corn stalks, or flowers of the Salvadoran backcountry. We lived with families in a rural community, Guarjila, working to share our lives in solidarity and learn of the torment they had to endure in the compo (countryside), in which too many atrocities were committed against these people. We took the time to see that among the many innocent lives lost, thirteen of those belonged to six Jesuits, four American nuns, a mother and her daughter who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the assassination of Oscar Romero.

I want to describe more of what we did and experienced, but your time is most valuable, and my descriptions would be more meaningful in conversation than through prose. We were, however, exposed to a truth so disastrous to our minds that we will be forever broken by what we’ve heard – Rosa holding her near-dying sister in her arms amidst a massacre of her people in the Sumpul River, children being tossed up in the air and more abruptly being taken out of that air by gunshots ensuing from a military soldier’s gun, a perfectly planted exploding bullet hitting the heart of Oscar Romero directly after he finishes proclaiming the truth that was so hard to hear for the haves but was gospel for the have-nots, religious sisters being raped, killed and left by the roadside by the Salvadoran military – embedded in all of these occurrences is a hard truth we all must face, the truth of a broken world that lies right under our noses.

This point I’ve reached upon returning to this trip is very much worth your contribution, and I do appreciate what you’ve done for me. The money you’ve donated to this trip is an act of love, care, peace, and solidarity. I know it’s hard to read what I’ve written, but these few events that I’ve chosen to slightly describe to you (also knowing that they are not exhaustive – surely there are more atrocities worth being told) are only for you to fell how much my heart has been broken.

Something is stirring in my soul and I can’t name it at this moment. Looking to a brighter side of my trip, I felt such a strong connection to Oscar Romero, a man elected as archbishop of San Salvador (the capital city of El Salvador), who was elected to this position because he was seen as easily persuadable. However, after one of his close friends, Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit priest), and two Salvadorans were assassinated on their way back from the compo, Oscar Romero was instilled with a drive to fight for the people of El Salvador, against the oppression and injustice that was being doled out by the Salvadoran government. Oscar Romero fought for his people with the peace, justice, and love – he was given the power to speak a truth that nobody wanted to hear, willing enough to give his life for this truth. I hope to pray more about this and delve deeper into why I felt such a strong connection to this man, soon to be saint.

I want to leave you with a story, given by Sister Peggy on our last full day in El Salvador. Sister Peggy came to El Salvador during their war to be with the people of the countryside in a town called Suchitoto. This town was well-organized (by the Salvadoran women, mind you), and had gained knowledge that the Salvadoran military was on their way to conduct, presumably, another massacre of The People. All those in Suchitoto dropped whatever was at hand and gathered in the bed of a sand truck to haul out of town and run away from the military. The driver of the sand truck ended up taking a wrong turn, causing the sand truck to topple over.

After these people scattered into the surrounding area, away from the overturned truck, Sister Peggy ended up in a tall grass field with two other Salvadoran women, one of which had a new-born with her and for the sake of breastfeeding her child, had brought along a bag of tortillas for sustenance. That night the woman with the new-born wanted to share her tortillas with Sister Peggy and the other woman, but they both wanted her to keep the tortillas so she could keep breastfeeding her new-born. However, this woman told them no,

“Tonight, we share our food

and tomorrow, we share our hunger.”

This is true solidarity, friends. The head of CRISPAZ, the organization that facilitated our trip to El Salvador, described one of the aims of these immersion trips. These words describe what I feel, what I have experienced and what is surely to come in the future:

“Surely, we hope this trip has done at least three things for you. The first – that your heart

is broken. Second – that you have learned how to fall in love all over again. And third –

that you are ruined for life.”

True, true, and true. Friends, I will have more to tell you in the future, and I really do look forward to where life takes me – I trust that I can find the truth and work to find that truth for others, exposing the truth in the name of justice. I hope this letter finds you in peace and love, but also with an agitation to use the beautiful works this world has to offer in repairing all that is broken in our world.


And with that, I will conclude this post. The main point to take away from this post is that decisions are to be made with proper foresight, enough inquiry into as many possible points of view, and, most importantly, one’s decisions should be justified. I’ve been learning a lot in my philosophy classes lately, and one of the take-home messages from a favourite class of mine is that whatever position we hold, we must be able to justify that position. If we uphold a weak justification, we cannot simply expect to let others believe in our position (and subsequent decision making).

This trip to El Salvador truly kicked my life path in a different direction, and I highly doubt that I would be here today had I not learned about this little country when I did. I am incredibly disappointed in the decision to prevent others from experiencing El Salvador, and I do hope that those in leadership positions at SMSP will thoughtfully reconsider their decision.


I’ll try and get some more writing out to you in the next week. I hope you all are having a wonderful time in this holiday season!

On fearing the “other”

Recently, I was speaking to a friend about what happened on Oxford Street last week. Well, I guess I should say that we were talking about what didn’t happen on Oxford Street. For those of you who don’t know, Oxford Street is one of the busiest/well-known shopping areas of London, akin to the Miracle Mile in Chicago. As I was sitting in the library on a Friday evening (hey, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do), my friend sent me this photo, with the caption, “be careful:”


I was a bit concerned, and my other group chats reflected as such:

Be careful guys, there might have been a shooting at Oxford Circus station

Nobody get on the tube in that direction

Was it a terrorist attack?

Fortunately, nothing actually happened at this tube station. Despite the scare, people were held in shops on lockdown, and none of the transportation headed through that area was running. The police responded efficiently and quickly, despite how real the incidents might have been that night.

This friend with whom I was speaking (Maria) happened to be in one of these shops when all of this happened, and after the matter, she told me that she felt scared, but moreover just “powerless,” to use her exact wording. This word brought back a quote that another of my friends from U-M (thanks Indie!) told me after the mis-fired explosion at the Paddington Green tube station back in September.

I told her, “Ah, man, it looks like I’m probably going to have to try and take the bus more often, or the overground.” She responded to this by saying that one cannot really avoid these types of attacks. When I thought more about this, it’s pretty true – we can’t directly avoid the chance of being on the wrong train at the wrong time, unless we choose to never leave our apartment, live in a concrete house, or simply never really live life as a social being. Quite simply, we probably assume more risk of dying from a car accident each time we sit behind that steering wheel than what I assume when I step into the tube carriage.

Another thought occurred to me, combining the “powerless” idea from Maria and the thoughts that Indie shared with me. There is a way to lessen the feeling of powerlessness that may in fact indirectly factor into the ability to avoid a situation like an explosion on the tube. I only say indirectly because, ultimately, there is only so much a common individual can do to avoid attacks categorised as “terrorism.”

To understand my perspective, take another gander at the photo included earlier in this post. Do you see, just one line below the live stream of the Oxford tube incident, what’s included in smaller text?

More than 230 killed in Egyptian mosque

The society in which I live seems to have less regard, care, and notice for those who don’t belong to the commonly accepted “western” world. It’s really easy to not care about an explosion here, a shooting over there, so long as it doesn’t affect those who I believe belong to a similar enough community to mine. It makes sense to be fearful of attacks in Europe because, quite simply, Europeans see an attack in France or London as an attack on Europe as a whole. US citizens fear attacks in European nations because it’s very easy to draw similarities between Europe and the US (for my current purpose), as societies belonging to the “western” world. When an attack takes place in a “non-western” world, then perhaps we just don’t feel as threatened, because a place like Egypt isn’t seen as “similar enough” to the US or the UK for us to fear the same attack in our home country.

The fact of the matter is that those who die, regardless of where they come from, are humans just as much as anybody else. Our media does not reflect an inherent equality in being human, exhibited precisely in the screenshot I included in this post. Whether directly or indirectly, this sort of representation might be harbouring a fear or an alienation from societies that are not similar enough to our own. (I use “our” here as a general term referring to “western” culture. Yes, I know this term itself is way too general and I can’t make these sorts of sweeping generalisations, but bear with me on this one.) Perhaps we can call this the cultivation of a “fear of the other.”

Without going into too much social theory or practical knowledge, I might say that the “fear of the other” has worked itself into mainstream policies and ideas of national protection, perhaps best revealed by how much the state spends on national defence. This idea lies within the general fear, or hesitation, of letting too many of the “other” move into one’s own country, or having incredibly strict border regulations. This concept is more noticeable in the US, as opposed to the UK, where many European citizens live in London especially.

And let me tell you, London is undoubtedly the home of the “other.” I live in an area with especially large population from Lebanon, Jordan, and surrounding countries. Living in London, I will have heard at least three other languages being spoken by the time I end my day. With full honesty, I realise how easy it is to become fearful of the “other” when you live in an area with only “in-crowd” folk, but once you start living amongst the “other,” you start realising the myriad ways in which the “other” contains so many similarities, some that even make you, you.

Is it truly the fear of the other that leads to attacks on certain cultures, peoples, and societies? Why feel the need to make others suffer? Is estrangement and stigmatisation such a powerful negative force in society, enough so to fuel hate between societies? Are attacks in response to the “western” world’s fear and ostracisation of the other, or are they because of a fear of the “western” world?

Without answering any of these questions, I might venture a guess that in many of these cases, those who feel the need to go as far as taking human lives feel deeply unloved. In a truly roundabout way, I’ve reached the point I wanted to make about lessening this feeling of powerlessness that Maria had mentioned to me before. As a member of what has historically (and perhaps unjustly, I might add) been seen as the “in” crowd, I believe that I have a duty to help dissolve the wall between insiders and outsiders. Even if you’re not a white male, but still live a life where you feel, in some capacity, accepted into some sort of group, I still think you have an obligation to let others feel just as welcomed as you might feel. How might this work?

Quite simply, welcome the outsider in. Be it smiling at whoever is walking by, despite their race, nationality, origin, or location of where they call home. I know it’s not as difficult, perhaps, to work myself into British culture, but I can speak from experience that it really makes a difference when someone from the UK truly makes an effort to become friends with me. Perhaps in making an active effort to show love to anyone you meet, you will undoubtedly catch outsiders with that love. In doing so, we can make an effort to let more people in this world feel welcomed and loved, harbouring a more inclusive and peaceful, rather than adversary, world environment.

To clarify, I’m not making a claim that only “foreigners” commit attacks or harm the insiders. Rather oppositely, I’m making the claim that even locals can feel like outsiders, and this feeling of estrangement is so counterintuitive to humanity that it may lead some to commit unthinkable acts. Also, it’s a tall order to make the world a more peaceful place, but we can do this on an individual level for now.  As we work on getting the little things done, some may then have the capacity to start changing world politics, in a way that allows for more inclusion, less harmful nationalistic ideologies that keep people on the outside, and harbour less need for using violence and killing to merely prove a point, or say, “I don’t feel welcomed by you.”

Perhaps, only then, may we start to spend time on fostering the growth of vitality in all human life, even that belonging to the “other.”

Who said it was going to be easy?

This post serves a couple purposes. Firstly, it is to apologise for how late I have been in providing a blog post to anyone who has been waiting for one. Secondly, I felt like using this post as a means for explaining its very own tardiness (hint: it was to do with the title).

Grad school is hard. I can’t actually recall anyone telling me that grad school would be easy. Studying the humanities, at least philosophy (since that’s all I know right now), is hard. I equally don’t recall anyone telling me that philosophy would be easy.

I think embedded in two of the sentences above calls to attention a deeper belief that exists as common (but not necessarily conscious) thought throughout engineering and the sciences. I noticed an unfortunate reality when in undergrad, which was a general idea that the degrees doled out by the College of Engineering carried more weight than those given out by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LS&A). I must add though that those who held these beliefs were, in my mind, rather innocently holding these beliefs. I don’t think they could be held responsible for thinking that their major was harder, and more credible, than another’s. Engineering is hard work, too.

I remember having to balance my music minor and other humanities classes with my engineering degree, such that I always felt like I was merely taking time away from engineering to devote to humanities classes. It was not always the other way around. Not often would I think I was taking time away from the humanities to get my work done for engineering. Neither discipline is better than the other, but I’m realising that now is the time when I finally don’t have to think that I’m taking away from another field of discipline to study (in this case) philosophy. (Don’t get me wrong – I still held a *massive* appreciation for the humanities (as I’m not sure I would be on the RMJ Fellowship had I not held such a view).)

Engineering could always be used as an excuse if I hadn’t entirely finished the reading for an english class, or for not being truly well-read enough in the theory of a topic being discussed a certain day in anthropology. I still managed to do what was necessary for most of my classes, and luckily my teachers managed to notice that I had a strong passion for (in my case) creative writing, anthropology, and music.

However, now that I’m able to devote 100% of my time to studying philosophy, the topic is no longer a superfluous, cool term that I used in describing an idealistic, romantic view of a discipline. I can’t now just read about virtue ethics, or moral relativism, and think, “Yeah, that’s cool, maybe I can throw that into my arsenal of interesting topics to discuss with people… hopefully they won’t inquire further into the topic.” This use of vocabulary quickly changed when I came to UCL. (I recall getting looked in the eye directly, being asked to delve into what I meant about something I had just mentioned, and getting extremely nervous with this task. This is becoming easier each time the situation happens, thankfully.) I find myself, instead of expressing solidly a thought or belief that I had always held, stopping myself in my tracks and thinking of all the possible counter-arguments and descriptions of my thoughts. I’ve literally stopped talking mid-sentence to a friend when speaking about some political issue in the States because I started to really think about what I was saying. I blame this (happily) on philosophy.

To give an example, I think I remember mentioning in my application to LSE something along the lines of “I will use the term ‘inequalities’ in this essay, but I really believe that we should be talking about inequities in life.” This sentence was saying that I really thought that most inequalities were truly inequities. I gave no significance to inequalities, and all moral significance to inequities. What mainly stirred these thoughts was the following graphic that popped up on my Facebook newsfeed:

However, after one lecture I had in my module titled “The Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health” (the same as my course title), we delved into inequalities, specifically as they pertained to health. Some questions that came out of this discussion are as follows:

What makes an inequality an inequity?

What is the nature of an inequity? Is it the fact that it is unfair?

If an inequity is simply an unfair inequality, then what makes the inequality unfair?

What’s telling you that anything is unfair? What school of thought are you using — perhaps some form of egalitarianism?

Is unfairness dependent on who is responsible for the unfairness?

What if someone purposefully puts himself into a position of inequality? Is this unfair if their decision was completely free and autonomous?

What implies autonomy? Is it better to have more choice in life all the time? Is freedom directly related to the amount of choice one has?

As you can see, the questions can spiral into other areas that might not work directly back to our initial question, but this is the nature of philosophy (at least in my mind). I’m quickly learning that I need to truly develop a difficultly intangible frame of reference on which I can build my argument.

Since truly so many ideas have validity in philosophy, some may say that there is no right answer. However, I think this is really the beauty of philosophy. If there’s no right answer, then I had best be sure that I build my argument so well that, when I try to attack my argument as best I can with counter-arguments, the argument holds through and becomes believable by the reader.

I remember listening to a lecture by Dr. Christian Casper in my senior design course, about the failed launch attempt of the Challenger space shuttle (apologies if I get any information wrong in this account!). The day of the launch was predicted to be colder than usual, and those in charge of the launch asked those who manufactured the shuttle to determine whether they believed it was safe for the rocket to be launched that day. Embedded in all of the data gathered from tests on this rocket was the fact that an integral part of the design (an o-ring, I think) had a really great chance of failing if the outside temperature was below a certain point.

Essentially, it was going to be too cold to launch the rocket that day, but those in charge of the launch failed to be convinced by the engineer who worked with the o-rings and the shuttle. Alternatively, and perhaps more importantly, the engineer failed to present his data well enough so those in charge of the launch would be successfully convinced to not launch the rocket. The shuttle proceeded to explode and kill the entire crew aboard.

Here’s where (at least one) utility in philosophy comes into play. Independent of whether or not there is one true, right answer (Truth with capital T), the way in which you present your argument has a large part to do with how those listening or reading will receive this argument.

Humans do not function on facts. We can think of facts as blatantly true or false, or perhaps as 0’s or 1’s, the familiar binary code that computers use to process information. Humans, rather, are perceptive beings, despite how much truth our claims might hold, so we must present our ideas of the truth in such a way that will give them the best chance of being fully understood (where understanding is not the same thing as agreeing).

After I finish this post, I’ll move into an evening of becoming evermore well-read, searching for the best counter-arguments for my own views, such that I can reinforce (or respectively and consciously change) my thoughts on what I believe to be important and worthwhile. Hopefully this process will end in a way that prepares me well for fighting for the health and well-being of various populations and people with whom we inhabit this earth.

In ending, I want to address my use of the word “it” in my title. My old english teacher, James, abhorred the word “it”, only because he believed (and still believes) that the word is a terribly nondescript and useless word to use in writing. However, I wanted to utilise the generality of this painfully ambiguous pronoun. If we learned anything from this post, it is that each field of study has its worth, and is going to require a warranted level of expertise that is required by its students. As the old cliché phrase goes: if I am doing something that I see as easy, I’m most likely not properly challenging myself in the matter, and hence not letting myself grow to my full potential. (Keep in mind that ‘natural’ cannot be substituted for the word ‘easy’ in this sentence.)


Have a happy rest of your weekend, friends! In some news, I’ll be taking part in a couple jazz shows happening on campus soon – one is called Fiesta, and is a night full of Latin, fun-filled jazz and dancing. The other is called “Cross-Currents”, a jazz fusion show that’s going to be played with minimal instrumentation and for an audience in an intimate (meaning small) setting. I’m really looking forward to these shows.