Message Received

I’d like to broach a subject,
About something we all do.
While we might be social creatures,
Some folks make us mad or blue.

So what are the things you do,
To avoid having a conversation?
Have you ducked into a restroom,
Feigning troubling constipation?

Have you ever silenced your phone,
Or just tossed it in your trunk?
Claimed a received message was errant?
Then said, “Boy technology is junk!”

Have you minimized a window,
Or changed the size of the page,
Just to not even see the name,
Of someone who causes you fits of rage?

Have you said you’re off to bed,
Even when you stay up late,
Just to binge on your favorite show,
Or get rid of that annoying date?

Have you just replied “LOL”
Just to get the parlay to end?
Or said, “Aw, I meant to reply,
But I forgot to hit ‘SEND’”?

Have you ever received an e-mail,
But just didn’t give a damn?
And replied in the second one,
That their first one went to spam.

Sometimes you’ve missed a message,
And don’t want anyone to know,
Thankfully software has no feelings,
Or carries grudges to let go.

I am not saying that it’s right,
To act with so little grace,
But in this communication age,
We all need a bit of space.

And truly, people can be annoying,
I’m no exception to the rule,
And we often escalate the drama,
As our response just adds more fuel.

Go too far and you may risk,
Being without and job and all alone,
We need goodwill and interaction,
No human is a stone.

But there is no shame in practicing,
Some insanity prevention,
By not sinking in a morass of time,
From some acquaintance’s dissension.

Find your peace and your balance,
With your tricks and your white lies,
You’re going to feel a little guilt,
But it also might be wise.

If I don’t have time to reply
To your comments about this verse,
I promise that the excuses I give,
Are all very well rehearsed.

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Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.

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?

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?