Saturday, September 04, 2004

More about me

The other day, we were discussing birth order on JREG (, and this is what I wrote about me and my brother:

My older brother and I are quite similar, actually. We were always the best friends, shared everything and agreed on almost everything. He was always a big teacher and role model for me. Any differences?

My brother had an easier time dealing with our parents through adolescence than I did. Fortunately, when I was of that age, he took me out all the time, to parties etc., because he could not stand the idea of me staying home and fighting with my parents. With him, my curfew did not count and we could come home at any time we wanted (sometimes the next day, if we crashed at the party). Thus, I spent a lot of time listening to conversations of people 5-6 years older than me - quite an educational experience.

My brother loves travelling - I am really good at it, an old airport wolf, but I prefer to stay at home with my wife and kids and pets and friends, and immerse myself in the local community. Apart from Yugoslavia and the USA, I spent some time in the UK, Slovakia and Sweden, and travelled through Hungary, Austria, Italy, France, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. My brother spent time in UK, France, Italy, Poland, Chech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Israel, Canada, China and Japan (9 months there). I speak English and Serbo-Croatian, although I have some bare-bones and generally useless basics of French, German and Swedish. He speaks, reads, translates to/from English, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, Russian and Japanese and is studying French now.

He is more of an Ivory Tower, Chomsky-style liberal, I consider myself more of a feet-on-the-ground JRE-style liberal.

We both grew up, of course, in a family of open anti-Communists in a Communist country. Our father was a Strict Father, although he mellowed out later and we became best friends once I hit the 20s.

Our house was a frequent meeting-place for various anti-Communist dissidents. On some nights, we would have a bunch of my Dad's friends - they were conservative Radicals, royalists, with dreams of going BACK in time, insituting monarchy and building a Greater Serbia. They kept taunting my Father because, at one point during the WWII he owned a membership card of the Comm Party for a few hours (he was sent to the frontlines and given a rifle and the card - a few hours later he was recalled to the HQ as his skills were more needed there so he was asked to return the rifle and he returned BOTH the rifle and the card, a dangerous ideological statement considering the time and place).

On other nights, we would have a bunch of my Mom's friends - European liberal democrats, some of them with experience in Tito's jails, and many of them subsequently leading opposition parties against Milosevic, getting elected to the Parliament, one ran for President, one is Deputy Prime Minister, one is Minister for Energy, one was a prominent journalist for the Italian Il Republica, many were University professors, and many were also involved in arts and theater (the best way to be subversive) etc.

There was never a dull moment at our place, and heated political discussions were a norm. We were never sent to bed early - I think our parents wanted us to hear that.

Thus, we learned how to live and thrive under authoritarian regime, and how to subvert it from within. I think that was the most important formative experience of my youth. I think I have a very strong anti-authoritarian streak. I do not let anyone give me orders - even if they have formal power over me, I make it known to them what I think about it! One needs to earn authority over me, and my criteria are high, so very few people ever earned it (my graduate advisor is one: a wise, open-minded man, not to mention that we indulge in a weekly ritual of Five Minutes of Bush Bashing). I also always tried not to follow fashions and trends, and not to jump on band-waggons (that is VERY good for my scientific career, as it seems to be turning out right now).

My analytic mind, and career in science, may be traced to the need for having the best available knowledge as the best weapon against blind authority. Two anecdotes to illustrate this:

1) A couple of years ago, I was robbed at an ATM. A couple of days later, a cop (in civilian clothing) came by my house and whipped out some photos and asked me to ID the guy who assaulted me. I looked at the pics and in two seconds decided that none of them was the guy, and I said so. The cop pushed me to spend more time and look harder and I said that I did not need to look harder and longer - the guy was not in the pictures. A couple of days later he brought another set of pictures. It took me two seconds to recognize the guy who robbed me and point to the picture. Then the cop kept trying to get me to recognize the driver of the getaway truck, although I told him repeatedly that I did not have time to look at his face long enough to recognize him ever again. He kept insisting, but I kept refusing to point to a picture of some innocent (black, of course) guy, just to make him happy and get rid of him. How many people wold have picked some picture at random just to please the person of authority?

2) Back in the mid-1970s I was in 2nd or 3rd grade in elementary school in Belgrade, and I had a legendary teacher. We spent a couple of weeks on solving a particular type of word-problem in math, and we went through dozens of these problems until everyone in class knew (at least by rote) how to solve them. I was very good at math. One day, the teacher called me up to the blackboard and gave me one of these problems to solve. I got started and, after a bout a minute, she said "Hey, it's supposed to be a 'plus' there, not a 'minus'". I said, "No, it is a minus for a reason - this problem only looks at first glance like all teh other problems we were working on, but it had a twist to it that made it different and required a minus instead of plus on that line of calculation". To this day, I do not know if she initially gave me that problem on purpose, or if she genuinely thought at the beginning that it was just like the other problems, but at about that point, she decided to turn this into an experiment and a teaching opportunity. She polled the class how many kids thought I was right and how many kids thought she was right. Majority (but not all) sided with her. She kept arguing with me and forcing me to try to explain my reasoning in more and more creative ways, including drawing pictures etc. Every now and then she would ask the others what they thought. She tried to get them to use MATH to argue against me, but what she got were statements like "Go sit down, who do you think you are to argue against the teacher, ...". Every few minutes or so, she polled the class again, and every time more and more kids sided with her, and less with me. After about 40 minutes ALL of them sided against me. At that point, she stood up and told the class that I was correct all along, congratulated me on sticking with the truth against the overwhelming opposition of all my friends and an adult, and then gave the class a scathing lecture about using their own heads instead of letting the people of authority do the thinking for them. My friends were blushing and trying to hide under their tables. I hope at least some of them learned the lesson. It was like the Asch experiment we discussed elsewhere, in which most (but not all) people go with the majority, even if it is obvious that the majority is wrong. I still remember the problem and its solution. My best friend remembers it to this day, too, yet still thinks I was wrong all along...

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 8:27 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink