Posts Tagged 'religion'

A tale of two parties

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Athens’s working-class suburb of Peristeri. In a makeshift mosque in a basement on Leventi Street, the Greek capital’s Pakistani community is celebrating the birth of the Prophet.

In the kitchen off the main hall, the cooks are hard at work. In two large steel cauldrons, rice and chicken broth bubbles away. The pungent aroma of curry wafts all the way to the street.

Well-dressed men arrive alone or in groups from various parts of the city. They go down the stairs, slip off their shoes onto an ever-growing pile, and enter the spacious prayer hall. Malik welcomes them with a warm smile and a glass of milk scented with cardamom and almonds.

They cover their heads with green or white caps, close their eyes and pray. They listen to sermons, interrupting them to wave their hands in the air and loudly praise Allah. They chat, laugh and take photographs of one another against a backdrop of hundreds of colorful fairy lights and twinkling stars. The hi-fi’s speakers kick into high gear. The fuse gives out – once, twice, three times. The celebrations continue. For the final act, they lay down a large piece of plastic on the floor and sit down to eat.

But it’s not always party-time. The mosque has been firebombed three times in the past few years, luckily without casualties. And if there is one thing this year that reminds the community of its precarious situation, it is the absence of Shahzad Luqman. The 27-year-old Pakistani man was stabbed to death last year in the neighborhood of Petralona while cycling to work. His father is among the praying men at the Peristeri mosque, in Athens for the trial of his son’s suspected killers.

At the same time at a central Athens hotel, Golden Dawn announces the candidacy of Ilias Kasidiaris for Athens mayor and of Ilias Panagiotaros for Attica regional governor.

Speaking to the press, the ultranationalist party’s spokesman, currently under criminal investigation, promises to create a network of grocery stores and medical centers that will provide free goods and services “to Athenian citizens but not to illegal immigrants who have come to Greece to commit crimes.”

He also announces that he plans to set up a service for the protection of stray dogs and cats, saying that in the city’s rundown 6th Quarter there are no strays “not because [Athens Mayor Giorgos] Kaminis has done anything about it but because they have been eaten by migrants.”

A celebration of hate at a fancy hotel and a basement full of prayers. Athens 2014. Is this the new normal?

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

Hate speech: The lesser of two evils


By Harry van Versendaal

Expecting a state that has failed to enforce a smoking ban in public places to penalize hate speech is wishful thinking. It should also be undesirable.

Keen to burnish their democratic credentials and to differentiate themselves from conservative New Democracy, the leader of Greece’s power-sharing administration, junior socialist partners PASOK and Democratic Left have pushed an anti-racism bill aimed at curbing a burgeoning wave of xenophobia in the debt-wracked country. The rise in hate speech and racially motivated crimes is widely associated with the rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party controlling 18 seats in the 300-member House that wants to kick all immigrants out of the country.

The proposed legislation, drafted by Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, who is supported by Democratic Left, aims to criminalize communication which might incite violence against groups and individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The bill reportedly foresees up to two years in jail for offenders and fines of up to about 30,000 euros for individuals and 200,000 euros for organizations.

There is no doubt that, unlike the more cynical policymakers out there, many advocates of the contentious bill are motivated by the best of intentions. However, as other European states have painfully found out, laws against hate speech come with hidden costs and unintended consequences.

A piece of legislation that caters to the needs and sensitivities of a particular section of society is by its nature exclusive and potentially open to criticism from others who are, or who may feel, vulnerable. Introducing a ban on Holocaust denial may, for example, prompt calls for prohibition of gulag-denying speech; or Muslim demands for measures against the defamation of Muhammad which – as Western governments were painfully reminded of in the 2006 Danish cartoon row – also includes depictions of the Prophet.

Put simply, what constitutes an offense is very much in the eye of the beholder. A victim of communism, to bring up a recent example, might sue Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for suggesting in public that he would send anyone who does not support leftist SYRIZA to a gulag. Depending on the interpretation, even religious texts like the Quran or the Bible can be deemed unlawful. A ban on hate speech can be a stepping stone to curtailing the freedom of expression.

New Democracy has expressed objection to the bill, citing the fact that Greece has already had anti-incitement rules in place since 1979. This is true. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to incite discrimination, hate or violence against persons or groups on the basis of race, origin or religion – although it says nothing of sexual orientation. Also, the 1979 law stipulates it is a crime to set up or join organizations that promote racist propaganda and activity.

Nevertheless, New Democracy’s real concern seems to lie with the reaction from the more reactionary folk among its electoral base: the influential Orthodox Church and the armed forces. The party has proposed a bill, basically a revision of the 1979 law, that reportedly grants immunity to civil servants, as well as clerics and military officials. Meanwhile, the bill does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Democracy’s misguided motives are confirmed by its proposal to introduce penalties for Holocaust and genocide denial.

The main concern here is that taking action on “opinion crimes,” as it were – like sanctions against those who deny the genocide of Black Sea Greeks by the Ottoman Turks toward the end of the First World War, officially recognized as such only by Greece and Cyprus – inevitably leads to restrictions on free speech. In a sign of the inevitable deadlock, Turkey has passed the law in reverse, making it illegal to refer to mass killings of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as a “genocide.”

Laws against Holocaust denial were introduced in Germany and Austria after the Second World War and they made sense given these countries’ historical background. Interpretation of the past should be left with historians rather than lawmakers and prosecutors or you risk what Greek historian Antonis Liakos has called “political control over history.” Freedom of speech in an open society should include the right to question historical facts. Instead of banning uninformed and foolish ideas, it is better to expose them to scrutiny and ridicule.

And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. It is extremely unlikely that laws against genocide or Holocaust denial will deflate anti-Semitism or discourage people from joining the ranks of Golden Dawn. Such initiatives would most likely play into the hands of the party’s supposed anti-systemic profile and allow wrongheaded thugs to pose as martyrs. An all-out ban on the party would probably fail for the same reason.

After all, Golden Dawn’s discourse and deeds are well beyond a bill such as this and are well into the criminal law code. If the political system really wants to stop the neo-Nazis in our midst, it must start by doing what it failed to do in the case of the anti-smoking legislation: stop the political gesturing and enforce the law.

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

God is not secular

By Harry van Versendaal

There are many things about the Roman Catholic Church that should provoke outrage – such as its evasive posturing on the burgeoning pedophilia scandals involving Catholic clerics – but the recent ban on women becoming priests should not be one of them.

The Vatican earlier this month ruled the “attempted ordination” of women as “graviora delicta,” one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law, in fact putting the practice on par with clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy, apostasy and schism. Any cleric who attempts to ordain a woman will be defrocked, the Vatican said, causing a fury among liberal Catholics and women’s groups.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, a US-based advocacy group, denounced the decision as “medieval at best” and a “scare tactic.” “The Vatican is using this attempt to extinguish the widespread call for women’s equality in the Church,” the organization said in a statement.

Terry Sanderson, president of the UK-based National Secular Society,” shot down the ban on female ordination as “one of the most insulting and misogynistic pronouncements that the Vatican has made in a very long time. Why any self-respecting woman would want to remain part of an organization that regards their full and equal participation as a ‘grave sin’ is a mystery to me,” he said.

But to seek greater participation by women in ecclesiastical affairs is to confuse theology with democracy. Those who are looking to eradicate gender inequalities within the Church merely wish to play the religious, metaphysical game by modern, secular rules. However, like all religions, Catholics have their own mythology and, well, Jesus was not selected by vote.

“The Bible insists on the absolute equality of men and women but gives them different functions in the church, so that men can show leadership through self-sacrifice and thus reveal the character of God, and women can demonstrate Christian discipleship to the wider church, thus helping us all follow Christ better,” Rod Thomas, vicar of St Matthew’s Elburton, Plymouth, wrote in The Guardian. “These are theological issues, not ones to do with justice or fairness.”

Thomas is right. Calls to update religious principles are preposterous and those who say that Christ was only behaving according to the norms of his times are missing the point. Religion is by design all about timeless, unchanging truths. It does not come with an automatic software update. Religious credo is based on godly wants and desires revealed to people who lived thousands of years before us.

The fact that these people knew less about the natural world than the average primary school student today is a completely different story.

Uttering the d-word

By Harry van Versendaal

Irvin Yalom has seen many people lie on his couch all these years to rid themselves of unwanted painful feelings and fantasies. None of the symptoms have been more pervasive and at the same time neglected, the psychiatrist-turned-author now says, than the terror of death: people’s fear that their own personal world will disappear forever in a black hole of nothingness. Yalom, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Standford University who was catapulted to fame in Greece with his best-seller “When Nietzche Wept,” explains to Athens Plus how staring down at one’s personal death can result in a richer and more fulfilling life. Yalom’s latest book on the issue, “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,” has been published in Greek by Agra.

Why is your book titled “Staring at the Sun”?

It’s an aphorism by Francois de la Rochefoucauld, a French writer, posted under the title of the book. I call it “Staring at the Sun” just to point out how we’ve always been taught not to stare straight at the sun or death. But I think the idea of being afraid to even think about this thing and keeping it all kind of repressed is sometimes a bad idea, and staring death down, learning from death is another thing entirely. It can be enriching to your life.

I read your books as being about man’s search for meaning in a god-less, meaning-less universe. Is that so?

They are partially about that because I do work with meaning. I think of meaning as being one of great ultimate concerns, and dealing with mortality is different one… This book is more about death, but you can’t separate them. Meaning is in there. In this book, I am focusing primarily on people who are terrified of death.

Different people seem to fear different things about death…

Well, some people fear death because they haven’t lived life. They haven’t lived their life completely. That’s when I used the quote from Kazantzakis, you know Zorba’s idea that you have to leave death nothing but a burned out castle.” Other people fear death because they worry of what it will do to their children. Some people might fear death because they fear of the afterlife, something that Epicurus told us not to do. Some people fear death because they really want to hear the end of the story. It varies tremendously among individuals.

You have said that to deny death is to deny our human nature. How is that?

Well, we can deny death. There are many different belief systems that deny the presence of death. We can also do it on a very individual notion by having it out of our mind and believing that we are so special that we’re going to get larger and larger and more famous and more powerful all our lives and never think of the decline in life. Some people have a mid-life crisis, sometime quite late in life when they suddenly realize that – my god – they are going to perish just like everyone else. Or we can also deny death through lots of thought experiments or religious systems which promise immortal life.

What is your problem with religion? Is it that religion is a lie or that it is naive, in the sense that it prevents you from living your life to the full?

I won’t agree with either of those, because no one is going to read my book if I do that. It’s too controversial. And I do have to have respect for people’s religious beliefs – people who I see. But I think that the people who are religious fundamentalists and take religion too much into their lives in a sense may not be seeing human nature and the human condition as it really is and may be denying mortality and not facing to the existential facts of life.

Is your book of any use to a believer?

I sure hope so. I’ve had a lot of people write me who are believers. The point is there are all kinds of different sort of believers. If you have a fairly closed mind then I think the book may be unsettling to you. if you can believe in what the basic message of the scriptures is, which is to love others as you love yourself, then I think it can be very useful.

What do you think of the wave of the so-called new atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens?

I pretty much agree with everything they say. I think Hitchens perhaps is far more abrasive than he needs to be because he is preaching to the converted.

Do we pick books that merely cement our convictions?

I think many people do that. That’s why I think it’s so important to have a more open mind. It is quite surprising when you think about America and all of these statistics that you see about the huge percentage of people who believe in heaven and god and all that and yet take a look at the sales figures of Dawkins or Hitchens.

You seem to draw a lot on Nietzsche…

This book is written from the standpoint of someone who is a secular humanist. There is nothing in this book that probably Nietzsche would not agree with.

You seem to have a lot to say about Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy. But he wasn’t a particularly happy character himself, was he?

No, he wasn’t. But he was not a despairing person. And despite a life of tremendous illness – he was a very sick man – he had enormous persistence. He managed to overcome it in his spirit and in his philosophy as well. That’s what I like about Nietzsche compared to Schopenhauer who is much more life negating.

You have in the past quoted psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis’s story about a man who envies his dog because it has a purpose in life – fetching a stick thrown by his master. But it seems to me that the dog is happy because it doesn’t know – it is ignorant. Is it perhaps better not to know?

Alan Wheelis I think appreciated that. But at the same time because he was quite a despairing individual he sometimes longed for the kind of simplistic mind of the dog who doesn’t have to think about himself. For whom the burden of too much self-awareness is lifted. And I can’t tell you how many people, how many patients I’ve seen who wished they could believe in religion and have all these problems solved to them… so some people don’t have the knack for it or otherwise they are blessed or cursed with self-awareness.

The unbearable lightness of being…

Yes exactly.

You have said that therapists tend to avoid the issue of death. Why do they do that?

Well, it’s not built into any of the major theoretical systems. And I am trying to change that. It’s not built into it from the very beginning with Freud. Freud really has no place for death. He turns it into something else, into abandonment or into castration. But he feels that death is not important in the unconscious because we have no unconscious experience of death. It’s convoluted acrobatic kind of system on his part – I think he made a great error in that.

The second reason is much more personal. I think therapists aren’t dealing with their own death very much. Sometimes they don’t want to the patient about that, because they’re not quite sure they can deal with it themselves. They have actually nothing to offer to the patient. I write this book in order to try and correct that.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in July 2008)

The kindness of strangers

By Harry van Versendaal

“Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are,” the saying goes. Dr Nicholas Christakis, 47, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University now says we may as well show the friends of our friends.

After studying a database of some 5,000 people over the course of 20 years, Christakis and collaborator James H. Fowler found that social networks can transmit things like obesity or smoking but also moods like happiness. More amazingly, Christakis claims, emotions can travel even between people who don’t know each other directly. For that finding, he was included in the TIME’s “100 most influential list” for 2009. The Greek American scientist talked to Athens Plus explaining, among other things, why we shouldn’t quite expect the ripple effect reaching our office cubicles.

First of all congratulations for making the list of the 100 most influential people of TIME magazine. Do you think this will help your work in any way?

This sort of unexpected recognition draws attention to this kind of work. And the kind of work we’re doing is to study social networks. We are very interested in why people have networks and what purpose networks serve. It is pretty obvious that people are influenced by the people they are directly connected to, but what is much more interesting is how people are influenced by people they’re not connected to. We are not interested in person-to-person transmission but person-to-person-to-person – like three degrees of influence.

Last week Sydney hosted a conference examining the causes of happiness. Do you think some people are born happier than others?

Yes, I do. It’s not totally genetic, but there is no doubt that there are disposition. Part of the variation of who’s happy and who’s not can be explained by genes.

Is happiness measurable? Have you based your research on a certain definition of happiness or on people’s statement of being happy?

We do use a standard measure of happiness. There are different ways of measuring these things, but I do think it’s possible. Human beings, we observe all kinds of subjective things all the time; we see whether people are in pain or not, we draw conclusions about people’s honesty or badness all the time.

According to a recent report, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands rate at the top of the world’s happiest places. Could your theory explain why people in some countries are happier than others?

Our work is about social networks. We look at how all kinds of things, ideas, behaviors, emotions spread in social networks. It’s easy to imagine how things like germs or money move across social ties. But we are interested in how unconventional things like hate or desire, behaviors or emotions move across social networks.

Could it be that happy or obese people for that matter are simply drawn to each other?

Of course that’s a possible explanation, but our work takes that into account. There’s a variety of possible explanations for this clustering of similar individuals within networks. One is a good Greek word, “homophily,” which is birds of a feather flocked together. So people who exercise hang out with people who exercise, people who are happy hang out with people who are happy. Another possible explanation is that some other factors that make people have similar traits in unison for example maybe there is an economic recession and that makes a lot of people unhappy. If you and I are friends and we both work in the same factory and lose our jobs we’re both going to become unhappy but not because I made you unhappy but because we were exposed to this other factor. And a third possibility is that my unhappiness causes your unhappiness and it is important in these kinds of analyses to take all of those possibilities into consideration.

You have said that the spread of happiness is more geographically limited than the spread of obesity is that so?

Our interest is in how things spread in social networks. But not everything that spreads in a network spreads by the same mechanism. And we think that emotions require face-to-face contact. And that has to be some kind of interaction. So therefore people who live far apart from each other may not come into contact with each other.

What about Schadenfreude. Does that contract your theory in any way?

For sure there is Schadenfreude. But on average there is more of the opposite. In our work we found that happiness does not spread among coworkers. We thought that this might be because of Schadenfreude.

Back to social networks now. You have said that the architecture of social networks and our position in them is genetically affected. Are you saying something other than that being shy or outgoing affects your status in society?

Yes we are. Most people wouldn’t be surprised if you said that some people had many friends and some people had few friends, some people are shy and some people are outgoing and that this has a partially genetic basis. We all know people who are from birth very shy for example. So if I said that some people had two friends and some people had ten friends the fact that that had a partially genetic basis would not be surprising. But here is something that should surprise you. I might have four friends and you might have four friends but my four friends might all know each other and your four friends might not know each other. This is something called transitivity in social networks. And it turns our that you and I would have different genes. What we find is something very interesting. We find that if Tom, Dick and Harry are in a room, whether Dick and Harry know each other depends not just on Dick and Harry’s genes but also on Tom’s genes. It’s very bizarre. If Dick and Harry know each other depends on a third person’s genes. And we think the reason is that people have a genetic tendency to introduce their friends. Some people are more likely to introduce their friends than others.

Where does religion fit in all this? Would you say that religious belief can be contagious like happiness or a habit?

I believe that religious beliefs spread, absolutely. That’s one way. Another way is one of the functions of religion is to bind social networks together. So if you and I both believe in the same god, I can feel connected to you even if I don’t know you. It’s like we’re friends of a friend.

Have you been able to draw any significant patterns from online social networks like Facebook or Twitter?

We’ve been doing some work with Facebook. We’ve looked at for instance smiling on people’s Facebook profiles. People who smile in their profile pictures have more friends who smile in their profile pictures and also have more friends in general.

Some scientists have criticized you of not having replicated your findings.

That’s not true. We’ve replicated our findings in several ways and other scientists have also replicated our findings. So for example our obesity findings we published a replication in the journal of Health Economics and our happiness findings have been replicated by several other groups both at Warrick and Oxford University in England.

What do you plan on focusing on next?

We are looking at the biology of social networks.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in May 2009)


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