Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?

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Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

Discussion: Shaming and making amends

In a time before social media, if, in your life, you did something you weren’t proud of.  Say perhaps over several years.  Maybe you were a bully in school, maybe you made some bad mistakes in how you treated women or men and you came to realize at some point how wrong your behavior was.  You might simply just move forward, never making those same mistakes again, perhaps even making sure you advocated to others the harms of certain behaviors because you once practiced them yourself.

What do we think about such a person?  Is it enough to say lesson learned, they are now a force for good in the world and sharing their wisdom with others in hopes that patterns aren’t repeated?

We live now in a time where getting away from your past is not as easy as it once was.  What if you had changed, became even enlightened, but somebody from your past decides that you are a charlatan because of a behavior you once espoused.  What if you were an outspoken feminist, but suddenly someone mentioned that back in school you weren’t the feminist you are now, and that you are a fraud.  You may have moved on, but the harm that you caused someone has left them hurt for years, and a number of other people are hurting to, because of who your past self was?

It feels like this call out culture we have on social media can be a vicious force.  Socially isolating people from communities they are making positive impacts in, and in some cases losing credibility for their entire life as a result of it.  And yet I also can’t help but feel some sympathy for victims of someone’s behavior.  Seeing that they are becoming loved and admired for views they now espouse, but never having made amends to the people they hurt in their past. Thirty years ago this was hardly an issue, but now it is so easy to find people from your past and hold them accountable no matter how much they may have changed?  Should the fact they have changed be enough to sate us, or should we bring them down as hard and fast as possible?

Maybe as we become enlightened as to the error of our ways, we should always be trying to make amends before we embark on a new crusade to enlighten others.  Maybe that’s the better path if we want to make a more meaningful crusade for a better world?  Maybe just trying to bury the past in the past is just being cowardly without facing up to it first and making amends with those we’ve hurt.  Perhaps people shouldn’t be just allowed to move on without any consequences.  Or this just us interested in hurting back instead of moving forward?  Is it realistic to expect true apologies from those who have hurt us, or do we just have to find a way to move forward to and let be, what is?

Thoughts?

American Idol vs. Islamic Extremism

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday, called Invisibilia, and the show focused on a unique attempt to counter Islamic Extremism, which was to run an American Idol type reality show in Somalia.  If you don’t have time to read the 40 minute podcast, you can read about it here.  If you don’t have time for either, the gist of this was that there was a plan supported by the U.N fight extremism by impacting the emotional landscape of the country.  The government at the time was unstable but had recently replaced the far more extreme Al-Shabab government that had previously held Mogadishu.  So things were better, but delicate.  Previously Al Shabab had forbit music, even at weddings, and went so far as to kill many important Somalian musicians and poets.

Hearing this story brought a number of thoughts to my head.  One was how pop culture might be used to transform a culture in a positive way.  In my last post I talked about the harms of excessive moral outrage exacerbated by social media, which polarizes and brings more instability to a culture.  Here was an attempt to do the opposite.  It might seem surprising but some of the advantages that American Idol has are:

  • democratic voting process
  • a panel of judges that are both men and women
  • one mean/tough judge, that increases the joy of the contestant when the mean judge soften to approve the contestant

It may not seem like much, but when you think about the just act of getting into the habit of voting, and getting a say in an outcome, seeing authority that is both mean and women, and a nation of people watching and sharing in the joy of a contestant who has overcome a number of hurdles.  Well maybe it’s the upper the country needs to continue to stem the tide against extremism.

Of course this also made me think how easy it is to erode culture with western culture, and that’s an entire other conversation, but the good thing here is that they not only made it about music, but also included a poetry, as part of the competition, which is big in Somali culture.  At the very least they were trying to adapt their idea to fit Somali values and traditions.

These are of course only seeds, and real change will happen slowly.  As the article says:

Which brings us to this question: Did this reality show actually change reality in any way?

It would be impossible to make the case that Somalia is a completely different country now. It isn’t.

But there is at least one undeniable change since 2013. Music is back in the streets. Brought back, slowly and painfully, through a complicated combination of political strategy and personal courage.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting story and wanted to share it.

Discussion: Moral Outrage and Social Media

Since I have left Facebook, I want to do more to create conversation that is productive and civil, so I’m hoping to have more discussion posts like this where I post a little bit of info that I hope leads to more expansive dialogue.

Part of the reason that I left Facebook was how angry I was often getting.  One could argue that I wasn’t strong enough to resist the trappings of Facebook but it should be noted that this is part of the design of social media – to manufacture outrage.  I strongly recommend reading this article on the topic, and I think reading the link to Dr. Molly Crockett’s Nature article on the topic is also an excellent read.  From the CSM article:

“Moral outrage plays an essential role in human society. It drives people to expose and rise against injustice. At its best, social media can channel moral outrage into action, as seen in the success of petition drives, boycott campaigns, and protest planning.

But under the attention-driven model that underpins social media, there is little incentive to steer users toward action offscreen. Instead, it is in the interest of the social media companies to encourage sharing of moral outrage in a way that fosters amplification rather than action. Decoupling user attention from profit could break that cycle, say observers.”

On Facebook I would often see people expressing the same level of vitriol for those who might commit minor offenses against societal norms, to those who were truly monsters causing great levels of harm against other humans.  As an example the amount of outrage towards comments from Matt Damon in regards to the #MeToo movement at times seemed indistinguishable from things said about Harvey Weinstein.  Some questions come to mind and you can feel to address some or all of them:

Are there times when you have felt yourself feeling equal levels of anger for different levels of offensive behavior?  Or do you think that equal levels of moral outrage are justified even for the full gamut of what might be considered microaggressions to serious offenses against societal norms.  This seems very much like the “broken windows” approach to moral outrage.  Is this valid?

Is social media causing us to lose our way in really addressing the big problems by diminishing our ability to detect nuance among the “bad actors” in our society?  And as a byproduct of this do we risk pushing those who might just be slightly on the wrong side of some reasonable set of moral behaviors, further away from where we would like them to be?  It seems like we so easily ostracize and shame even small offenses on social media.

Perhaps the net effect of social media is still positive, but even so how can we use social  media to be more positive, given that the current model, as it stands, is designed to exacerbate outrage, and not promote productive conversation?

Thoughts?

Why I Am Leaving Facebook

Dear Friends,

This decision does not come lightly or easily, but I think that I need to leave Facebook.  Actually I am 100% sure of it.  I am not 100% sure for how long, or if it will be for good, but the latter is certainly a possibility.  Before I explain to you my personal reasons for doing so, I want to say that my reasons are no judgment on anybody else.  Maybe you’ll connect with some of what I feel, maybe you won’t.  I know there are many of you who seem to be able to use Facebook in a way that I wish I can do.  Some of my reasons are broad and for what I feel are based on reasoning, others are simply based on personal reflections and knowing myself and my own weaknesses.

I will start with some broader ethical concerns that make me feel it is the right thing to do.  All of that can be best summed up by this TED talk.  We live in an attention economy and companies are working to grab hold of my attention, and they’ve succeeded.  There are people out there who are starting to think about ethics in this realm, but as it stands I don’t think I want to be part of this game where possible. I probably can’t get away from Google or Amazon, but I can do something.  There are entities out there who want to learn about us and dictate how we want to live, and I want to at least take back some control and make more decisions about how I want to live.  I don’t think that Zuckerberg or any of his crew are evil or anything, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into what they are actually doing and wondering how they might change society for the better with this powerful tool.

But really it boils down to personal reasons.  I don’t believe social media is inherently bad.  When I see how useful it is for mobilizing something like March for our Lives, I think social media is a tool we need.  Through Facebook I have met some incredible people.  People I know will be friends for life.  I have many friends who have helped expose me to insightful articles that help me learn and have meaningful discussions.  But there is another side to all of it.  There is seeing friends all posting the same horror stories on their news feeds.  It’s not that they shouldn’t, they care about these things, but when you see the same headline over and over again it gets to you.  Then there are the idiotic and poorly reasoned comments and this is where I fall into the trap over and over again of getting into these conversations.  They get me angry, and I find myself unable to calm my mind.  Sometimes these thought linger with me while I’m trying to sleep, trying to meditate, or when I get up in the morning.  I’m getting angry at people I don’t even know and will never meet, even when I try to remain civil in the conversation.  And then as comments and status mount, I’m seeing who replied, who reacted to my comment or status, and it all adds up.  And I wonder, what am I really counting, and is there a point to it.  If I make a comment that a lot of people like does that mean anything?  Is this how I should be deriving a sense of value?  I ask this question a lot.   Facebook feels noisy to me now.  The best analogy I can think of (and this dates me) is that it’s like a radio station with a lot of static and interference.  There is definitely a signal I want from social media, but I can disentangle it from the noise.  I fight to just focus on the part I want to hear, but I can’t tune out the static.   I see other people do this and I know it’s possible.  It just doesn’t seem possible for me right now.  It just seems like the best idea to turn the radio off and read a book instead.  It doesn’t feel like it’s increasing my happiness, contentedness or peace in life.

The weight of the world has been heavy on me these recent years.  Even before Trump (Trump certainly hasn’t helped).  I know this has been true for many friends my age.  As you become more aware of what’s going on, there is a price to pay for that, you want to do something, you want to make a difference.  In that vein I decided do some volunteer work in my local community to help neglected and abused children.  With a second kid arriving, the responsibilities of now being a department chair, I am more acutely aware of my own limitations in both time and energy.  I contemplated giving up my volunteer work with the second kid coming, but given the amount of time I spend on Facebook it just became crazy to me to give up the volunteer work.  Don’t get me wrong, it means a lot that I mean something to people who might feel sad that I’m leaving, and there is obviously value in maintaining a relationship between people you value and admire, but as of right now, while I’m unable to shut out all the noise I have to truly ask myself, “Is the time and energy I’m putting into Facebook the most effective way I can use my time and energy?”  I have to ask myself “Am I inspiring, teaching, helping by being on Facebook?”  Now maybe I am, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It often feels like I’ve just used Facebook as a way to ‘feel’ like I’m doing something; to ‘feel’ like I’m helping.   I feel like I can’t know the answer to these questions until I break away from Facebook for awhile; to sort of de-clutter, and see what paths lay out before me.   I was very inspired by this TED talk recently about how we can affect change in the world and I believe that sometimes I on Facebook when there is value I could be adding to the lives of family and friends just a few feet away from me.

I started this blog as outline to express myself intellectually and creatively.  Whether people have enjoyed my blog posts are not, I have found it immensely helpful to me as an individual and this is also something I don’t want to give up as my time grows shorter with a new family member on the way.  I don’t plan on leaving Facebook until the end of April.  In that time I hope that those of you who read this, and who want to keep in touch will talk to me so we can find out a way to do that.  But certainly following this blog is a good way to do that.  There is a way to follow this blog by e-mail, and am happy to have discussions with you on here.  There are other messenger services (like gchat) where we can still have conversations, and there is e-mail (sgill1974@gmail.com), twitter (@profswarn) for quick shout outs, and you can message me for my number for texting.  I realize though that there is going to be losses with this.  And while this decision might seem sudden, please know, that with all life decisions I have put in a great deal of thought into it, and this is something that has been growing in my mind for the last 3 years as I have tried, unsuccessfully, to have mastery over Facebook.  I hope that maybe after a good break I can come back to it with better control and use it in a way that compliments my life.  Right now I just feel like I’m in a mire and I just need to get out for awhile.  At the very least it will make me a more present father, and that alone has value.  I hope you can support me in this decision.  And for all the people that enjoy my company on Facebook and who might not interact as much once I leave, just remember that my doors are always open if ever you are in the Pittsburgh area.  Just give me a heads up even if a lot of time has passed.  The memory in my brain might not be reliable but the memory in my heart always looks forward to interacting with a friend.

Thank you for traveling with me along my journey in life, I hope that many of you will continue.

Be good to each other and do good in this world in the way that serves you best.

With Love,
Swarn

Men Not Being Believed? Blame the Patriarchy, Not Women.

A friend of mine linked me an article that she said pissed her off, and when I responded she asked me to turn the response into a blog post because she said I articulated her thoughts better than she could.  I have elaborated on my response a bit here for more clarity.  The article in question is here.  Reading at least a portion of it will put my response in context, but I suspect many of you have read posts by the men’s rights and so my response might just make sense on those grounds.  For the record, I think the article has some valuable points that are worthy of further discussion.

My response:
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As is often the case with these types of arguments some valid points are mixed in with just some unnecessary vilification which makes me less apt to take it seriously. I would agree that if we are going to tear down men for their inappropriate sexual behavior then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have those same standards apply to women, and in the article he discusses an incident involving Mariah Carey.  I do think there is a case to be made about men not being believed when they are victims of domestic violence or harassment. However when this argument is framed in devaluing the experience of what women have gone through I think this is where this person and others like him begin to lose my sympathy.

I think one can see part of the reason why the person feels the way they do because they sort of give the game away with rejecting the idea of systemic oppression. The model isn’t flawed it’s just more far reaching than he is able to recognize. First, his analogy about terrorism is a poor one, because he’s the reason why we don’t take Muslim deaths at the hands of Christians seriously is because of systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, not because terrorism isn’t systemic oppression. In a way his analogy actually contradicts his argument about systemic oppression of women. More importantly what all such people like this lose sight of is that the systemic oppression of women does oppress men as well. And a lot of feminists get that. For instance, if we value some hyper-masculine version of man the result of this is that it defines both women AND men in a certain way.  In a binary view of gender, whatever a man is, a woman therefore is not.  Any deviations outside of those category definitions results in criticism and a loss of freedom for both genders.  Both genders suffer.  The man holds the power to be sure in some respects and this is his advantage, but his humanity is diminished. Want to be emotional? You can’t. Want to think football is stupid? You can’t. Hate cars? Too bad. Want to become a florist? You’re being a pussy. So men do suffer in at least some ways (maybe not as many ways) from the systemic oppression against women.

I would also suggest that most of the “disbelieving” of men comes not from unsympathetic women (and sure there are likely some) but more likely from other men who maintain this hyper-masculine view of society.  I mean let’s ask why you might not be believed as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic abuse.  The arguments might go something like this:

“I mean you’re a man, you’re supposed to be tough.  Just hit that woman back, show her whose boss.  And if you did get hit, well you’re a man, you’re just supposed to suck it up.” 

“Did you get sexually harassed?  You’re a man you’re supposed to like women touching you, anywhere and at anytime.  It’s sexy when women want you.  You must be gay if you don’t like women coming on to you.  I mean every man wants to be as irresistible to women as you are.”

Such attitudes are the result of systemic oppression of women in which hyper-masculinity is valued and femininity is not valued.  The quote on the cover photo here is about a male victim from another male, but one could easily see how such a dismissive attitude would even be enhanced if the perpetrator was a woman. Complaining about sexual harassment, being the victim of violence inflicted by a woman, these are all considered feminine qualities and are devalued in a patriarchy.  Thus you are treated just like a woman.  Disbelieved at best, and at worst ridiculed for being essentially a traitor to your gender.  The attitude can even be bore by women, because we are all born into a society that normalizes the patriarchal structure.

As I’ve always argued, being feminist has advantages to both men and women.  The sooner we tear down the patriarchy, we improve the condition for all genders and sexual orientation.
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