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?

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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

The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

Syrian Refugee Crisis Nearly Solves Homelessness in the U.S., Again

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Omran Dagneesh who nearly solved homelessness in America

Washington, D.C. – Last week, the bombing of Aleppo, Syria caused social media in the U.S. to surge with evanescent concern for their over 500,000 homeless people.  Experts are saying that the plight of Syrians has been one of the best tragedies for getting people to feign interest over the increasingly prevalent problem of homelessness in the U.S.  One of the more moving scenes from last week’s bombing was the vacant expression on the face of a young boy, Omran Dagneesh, who was pulled from the rubble in the aftermath and bolstered vast amounts of fleeting sympathy for homeless people.  Once his wounds had been tended to, reporters had a chance to speak to him about his reactions to the near end of homelessness in the
U.S.  “Of course,” remarked the traumatized young boy, “I am pleased that my town, my neighbors, could all be bombed so that people in America could demonstrate momentary outrage at the terrible homelessness problem.  I mean it’s the most powerful economy of any country on Earth so I was glad that bricks and cement could bury me like that so that people could seem to care for homeless people, even if just for a day.”

Omran Dagneesh’s father echoed his son’s joy at being part of the short-lived concern for homeless people in the U.S.  “I only wish,” said the smiling father whose life was recently destroyed, “that we could have shown pictures of the other children, particularly the ones that died.  Oh and my neighbor who was pregnant and whose unborn baby was killed in her womb.  I’m certain that concern for homelessness could have trended on Facebook in the U.S. in a much more significant way.”

But social media experts say last week’s wave of false concern was small in comparison to last year’s overwhelming spurious concern for the homeless.  Reporters asked Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether this was true. “There is no doubt that when millions of Syrians were desperately fleeing the deteriorated conditions in Syria last year, the concern for homeless people was so great that it almost felt tangible.”  Zuckerberg added, “not tangible enough to do anything, but boy you really felt liked homelessness would be over soon.”

Long time Facebook user David Olsen of Battlecreek, MI remembers the time well.  “I don’t know what came over me,” reflected Olsen, “as I saw so many articles being posted about taking in all these Syrians who were completely destitute and in need of help, I suddenly become aware of all those who were destitute and in need of help, and thought about our own homeless.  Unfortunately, I was too busy reminding everybody about them to donate any money or volunteer any time to actually help them.  But you know it really felt good to get the information out.  When news about the Syrians disappeared from my newsfeed, it was like the homeless problem disappeared as well. Problem essentialy solved.”

Other Facebook users like Shirley Potter of Enid, OK however had a difficult time showing overall temporary care for homelessness.  “In general I think homeless people just need to pull themselves off their bootstraps,” said a resolute Potter, “but I am very pro-military, and when I found out that many of our vets were homeless as I learned about how much help the Syrians needed, I was able to join the chorus of people with transient sympathy for homeless people.”

To get the opinion of those who were at the receiving end of this ersatz concern, reporters asked homeless man Barton Kirby how he felt.  Kirby however was too moved to respond by the fact that in 12  years nobody had asked him his name and also that reporters didn’t spit at him.

mcconnellAt the political end of the spectrum Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answered numerous questions from reporters at a press conference last week.  “Ultimately as a nation we can only act like we care for so many things at once, and we simply don’t have the resources to be helping Syrians with so many homeless people about,” exclaimed the senator from the nation that spends a higher percentage of their GDP on health care than any other developed nation.  “Currently we lead all developed nations in the category of child homelessness.  This problem isn’t going to go away unless we really get exposed to some long term suffering of the Syrian people so we can generate some solid and temporary concern for the homeless.”  The senator then added “We also have other problems we need to pay lip service to.  There are our veterans.” asserted the senator from the country that spends more per capita on defense than any other nation over 30 million people, and still has homeless veterans and veterans without proper physical and mental health care after their service. “We also have many people unemployed,” declared the senator, part of a congress whose work to pass jobs bills has been dwarfed by the over 60 times they tried to repeal the ACA, “so you see we have our hands full with all these other things we pretend are important, and can’t possibly help Syrian refugees.  And we’d like to thank the media for exposing the issues the good people of Syria face so we can continue this very moral and serious façade of being too busy working on our own problems to help others.”

Some detractors say that ultimately helping people is really more about the political and popular will to do so, but Dave Olsen disagrees.  “The only way we can solve homelessness through mock empathy is if we remain vigilant to stories about the suffering of the Syrian people.  I, along with many others on social media, are working together as a community to make sure that the Syrians never get helped while inspiring us to keep talking, but not actually doing anything, about the very important topic of homelessness.”

Social Media, Fear, Change and Love

It has been a rough past few days.  Even though I thought I had thinned my social media friends to a group of more reasonable people, you still end up seeing the most ridiculous comments come up under friends’ threads in regards to the Syrian refugee situation.  And still there are others that you feel obligated to keep as friends, but at this point I just feel like I can’t do it anymore.  While I feel that it is important to not isolate myself intellectually, what I see through social media does not present me with intellectual diversity, only differing opinions.  Opinions not based on any evidence, but simply fear and rhetoric.  Is it important for me to know that such viewpoints exist?  Sure.  But I know they exist now, and I think it’s time to be done with it.  Let’s face it.  Social media just isn’t the place to change anybody’s mind.  There was one person whose opinion I influenced in my entire 7 years or so on Facebook.  I remember it fondly.  It was a beautiful moment.  Perhaps I hoped I could relive that moment again somehow, but either I’m utterly awful and changing people’s mind, or social media just isn’t the place to do it.  Or maybe it’s both.  Either way the result is the same.  My sanity and well-being is more important, because being bombarded with the kind of people there are out there just drains me of my strength. And I’m not talking about ISIS.  I expect evil to exist, but I also expect us to fight that anyway we can.  Not just with guns, but with the most powerful weapon we have against hate and that is compassion and love.  And I just don’t see enough of it right now.

A lot of the impetus for this e-mail came from reading an article this morning here about fear.  Something I knew, but I reminder of how fruitless the battle is on social media is no matter how many studies or facts you post, ultimately what you are fighting is fear.  People who don’t want Syrian refugees are afraid.  Whether that fear is unfounded or not, this is the culture we live in.  Politicians (especially on the GOP side) and the media love to make people afraid.  People who are afraid are easier to control, the less likely they are to think critically, and the less likely they are to use reason to get them out of that state of fear.  I must ask myself the question then if engaging someone in an issue directly isn’t working, how do I make people less afraid?  I can find no way to easily do that on social media, so I’ve decided that ultimately maybe it’s better that if social media is going to be relaxing and enjoyable than I just need to make it a community that I want to be in.  I’ve thought about dropping Facebook altogether, but with family far and wide, and good friends I want to stay in touch with I know that’s not realistic, but maybe it’s my own weakness, or maybe it’s just age, but I can’t keep getting bombarded with bigotry and hatred every time a tragic event happens and we have the compassionate reaction continues to get treated as the worst idea ever.

To those of you who are afraid.  I wish I could take that fear away.  I wish I could help you realize that statistically, the real things you should be afraid of in this world have nothing do with refugees fleeing for their lives, black people, or gay people.  I wish I could convince you that nobody is coming for your guns, nobody is persecuting you for being Christian, nobody is turning your children autistic or trying to poison you with vaccines, and the anthropogenic climate change is a real problem and not a liberal agenda by scientists.  I wish I could convince you that most people really do want to help you and that most people want to simply enjoy the same feelings of freedom and safety that you have even if you do live in too much fear to really enjoy the life you’ve been given.

Many of you who live in fear, live in a land of what ifs.    I wish I could ask you to ask a different set of what ifs too.  What if things actually get better if we help people?  What if by embracing the unknown it becomes known and we aren’t so afraid anymore?  What if instead of creating more enemies, you gain more friends.  What if defeating an enemy is actually done through compassion than hate?  What if those people who you dehumanize are not that different from you?  What if the difference in whether the outcome of a situation is good or bad, depends mostly on your attitude and that you can make things better simply facing a situation with courage, love, and humility, instead of running and hiding?  And since history teaches that empires often crumble, what I really wish is that you seriously sit down and ask the question what if that destitute Syrian refugee who once had all the comfort in the world but who is destitute, scared and has lost friends, family, and love ones was you?  Really think about it.  Really think about what kindness would mean to you at that point.  Really think about how desperate you might be to even have a remote chance of feeding your children.

And finally to those whose concern for the homeless and impoverished in our own nation have come to the fore.  Assuming you are not just making excuses, then bravo.  We have a lot of people who suffer here too.  We have growing income inequality, a shrinking middle class.  We have a high cost of tuition that prevents many people from getting educated unless they start off life in a great deal of debt.  We have a lack of sex education, we have a lack of social support for families who need more maternity and paternity leave.  We have disparity in public education K-12, and many states that lack funding, accurate historical textbooks, and are forced to not teach strongly supported scientific theories like evolution, the big bang and anthropogenic climate change.  We have a corrupt political system that favors money over serving the people.  We have incarcerated far too much of our population for minor crimes, and a tilted justice system against minorities that prevent them achieving the equal status that law guarantees them.  We have spent vast sums of money on foreign wars that haven’t seemed to make us feel any safer, and have most likely bred more harm in the world than we have helped.  And if this compassion that is overflowing in your heart for your fellow man or woman here in the U.S. I encourage to fight for it every day, not just on days where we talk about Syrian refugees being let into the country.  I encourage you to always be politically active and vote for those people who can bring about the change we need to help our own people.  I even have a presidential candidate just for you. 🙂

You live in a country that over time has helped many impoverished people from other countries.  You have helped women, blacks, and LGBT’s become more equal and gain more freedom.  These are all things to be proud of.  Compassion requires perseverance as well, so don’t ever think you are done.

Technological Literacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately. There are times when I feel I have made it too big a part of my life.  While I tend to be positive about this new age we live in, as I’ve written before, there are times when I feel like I might not be made for it because it can get very draining.  I see too much of the compassionless banter in comments sections or Facebook threads; story after story of tragedy, injustice, or prejudice.  Then there are times when I miss it.  There are people I have good conversations with over the internet.  There are moments where I laugh, and there are plenty of moments when I learn something valuable, something important, and something that will make me a better person.  I think about my many friends, some who I have known in person and live far away from, and I can still keep in touch and follow their lives to a certain extent.  I care and wonder about them often and the internet gives me ways of staying in touch that would be harder without it.  Some friends, I have never even met in real life, yet all of who I enjoy learning from, getting to know better, and some who have become as close as any other friend in my life, always provide me with an enriching experience.  In some ways I feel like my life would be less for not having met them and am thankful I have this thing called the internet that has such long arms that I can reach across the world and hold on to people that seem amazing to me and when they reach back I know it’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

I’ve been listening to a podcast on NPR called Invisibilia and one episode on there is looking at how computers have changed our lives and how they might change our lives in the future. What’s interesting is that you find many people who have zero problem with the way computers and related technology (smart phones, tablets, Google glasses) have become a regular part of our lives and have made us better humans.  They are ready for the future and all the wonders it will bring.  One gentleman named Thad Sturner believes that in time humans will have interfaced with computers so completely that eventually we will all become essentially cybernetic.  Those that have lived more “integrated” lives claim that the technology has made them better in every way, from how well they do their job to more meaningful face to face interactions with other humans.

Still of course there are those who have a not so favorable view of it. It can be addictive like anything else, and often not in a healthy way.  The validation we often get when we post things on-line through likes and comments can often give us a dopamine release but doesn’t necessarily help us really solve problems we might have or understand issues that make us upset.  A study of Chinese tweets found that anger was the most common emotion expressed over social media, and the anonymity of the internet can cause many people to let out cruelty that they would never let out in a face to face situation.  However that anonymity can also allow people to participate in discussions and express themselves in positive ways, that they may be too shy to do face to face, or because of societal pressures that prevent them from expressing themselves in ways that they would wish.

Rather than spend a lot of time posting all the research about how social media and the internet has or can change us, what’s clear is that academically a lot of people are studying it. People find adverse effects and positive effects.  It seems to me that most of what gets posted are negative impacts of technology or that our choices are between using technology and dealing with the consequences or backing away from it because it is seen as an unhealthy source of stress, shame, or anger.  But perhaps the time has come where we shouldn’t be trying to fight technology.  Our children are going to be immersed in this world, and while there is no doubt that developmentally children need time away from the screen, they are still going to be using smart phones, and tablets, and computers regularly in their lives.  So what they really need from parents, teachers, and society is the simple acceptance of this fact and need to be taught what are the harmful and beneficial behaviors in this new world of the internet and social media.  They need to learn about better ways to communicate through this medium.  They need to be reminded that technology is always a tool to be used as a means to end, and not the end itself.  As a tool, the internet, computers, social media have a vast variety of uses some good and some bad; some enhancing our functions, some suppressing or adversely shaping our functions.   As parents of this next generation we must help our keeps be effective navigators in this digital world, not just literate in finding information and surfing the web, but navigating the emotions, the attitudes, the pitfalls, and the advantages of this world.  Just like being aware of cognitive biases helps us perceive the world in a better way.  Being more aware of the impacts of computers in our lives will help us utilize the technology better.  I would support modern research about the interaction between humans, computers, and social media being used to design a curricula to be taught to school children. Perhaps around middle school.  I think it’s become that important.

I had recently reblogged a couple of good ethics posts about robots and artificial intelligence and what challenges our future holds. This era is coming sooner or later and so it’s time we gave up the fight against these technologies and start using them in a more moral and impactful way.  I say this not in any kind of judgment either, but rather as one who struggles with this myself.  We need to gain the literacy and positive ethics with this technology so that as new technology develops with the potential to be more world changing, that we can don’t find ourselves behind the curve as we seem to be today on the more negative aspects.

I for one am making a vow that I am going to work to use technology in a way that enhances me  and my world instead of diminishing me and my world.

The 4th Age of Sand

As I have immersed myself more into the world of social media, commenting on articles, the blogosphere there’s a very real attraction to it for me.  I like putting ideas out there, I like being social, meeting people I never would have met.  Overall I’m very positive about the way we communicate.  Douglas Adams in a wonderful speech he gave (transcript here) talked about how humanity has made enormous leaps via, what he calls, the four ages of sand.  Sand being made of silicon he outlines the 4 ages as:

1) Using silicon to make glass for the telescope

2) Using silicon to make glass for the microscope

These two allowed us to see the macro and micro universe around us.

3) The silicon chip.  Computers with their ability to do many calculations quickly allowed us to model the process of how things work.

4) Silicon for fiber optics in the communication age.

From http://www.cbstelephone.com

Although of course at the time of the speech we didn’t use satellite as much as we do today, but there are still a lot of computer chips involved in those!  The point is that Douglas Adams saw the power of being able to communicate with people remotely as a powerful tool.

Yet when we look at this great age where the world is being connected we tend to get overwhelmed by stories of social media addiction, the loss of time spent in the physical world, face to face communication, and some often harmful interaction.

It is this last one that is on my mind right now.  I watched the interview recently with Jon Ronson on The Daily Show and he has a new book where he talks about internet shaming.  One of the people he focuses on in his book is Justine Sacco.  You may remember her, she was the one who made a joke tweet on her way to South Africa from Heathrow and from only having 170 followers to a landslide of people waiting to lambaste her at the end of her flight.  His book looks at the history of shaming and what it means in todays day and age.  He wrote a good piece in the New York Times if you don’t want to read the book.  It’s a great article, long, but most definitely worth a read.

After years of using digital media for communication there are many challenges to overcome.  I think that ultimately when you write things that people are going to read, you have to be a great writer.  Without our physical gestures and voice intonation it’s easy for meaning to get lost.  It’s easy for a joke to sound serious.  It’s easy for well meaning advice or information to sound condescending.  It’s easy for sincerity to be taken as sarcasm.  But I was thinking that good writers are not so unambiguous and we pick up things like sarcasm and sincerity better.  Maybe when we communicate through writing we need to think about how we say it more deeply before we do so.  I think part of the illusion lies in the fact that we think we are actually having a conversation and try to type out things like we are, but in fact communicating through writing is not very much like a face to face conversation at all.  Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed for making a joke to her few twitter followers, poking fun at white privilege and walked out of a plane into an absolute hellscape of a virtual mob who wanted her to hang.  Someone on twitter was even there to take her picture as she walked off the plane.

This story also reminded me of recent events concerning the pizzeria owners who said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.  A friend of mine linked me an article about how we really don’t benefit from publicly shaming those owners regardless of how discriminatory and prejudiced their views might be.  Seeing that those bigots had over $800,000 raised in their name infuriated me and I could feel the anger rise in me and wanted to join the mob of people shaming the for their views.  Luckily it occurred to me that being upset and shaming bigots doesn’t really change anything and that it would be better to put goodness into the world instead and decided to set up a fundraising account for an LGBT youth group in Indiana that does a lot of good work in schools and for young members of the LGBT community.

It’s amazing how easily we can succumb to being part of “the mob” through digital media.  I’ve been caught up in it and I am sure many who read this have as well.  When you reflect on it, it’s an empty feeling though.  You get to feel bold for being part of

From http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com

a righteous fight, and yet remain anonymous in that sea of virtual people calling out for someone’s blood.  This is the other facet of the age of the internet is that posting comments behind the veil of a computer screen, or smart phone screen is that we feel protected and thus we say and do things we wouldn’t normally do.  Everybody is familiar with “trolls” and the divisiveness they cause with their comments.  In the end best advice really is “don’t feed the trolls”, but someone always does and arguments ensue.  I know for me the internet allows me to be bolder than I am perhaps in real life and while sometimes I think it helps me gain some additional confidence in myself, more often I just use the internet as a shield to give compliments and say things I am too shy to say in person.  Too often I also find myself assuming a more negative intention in the comments of others because the internet is full of people saying things that I don’t think they would say to your face.  It’s kind of like how drinking affects people.  Some people become open and honest in a kind way, others become belligerent and mean.  For me I feel that it’s something I have improved on and need to keep improving to be the man on the internet that I am in real life.

I am not down on the communication age, I just feel like we’ve invented an important bit of technology that we haven’t figured

from http://harvardpolitics.com

out how to use to the best of its ability yet.  I think that there are a lot of important ways that the internet can be used that our too valuable to ignore.  We can learn about issues all over the world that can foster our love of humanity and can help us see that we do truly live in a global community.  Social media was used to organize a revolution in Egypt to overthrow a terrible dictator (sorry Egypt it hasn’t gotten much better), when in the past there would have been no easy way to send the message to everybody simply through a land line.  Social media has been used to bring things to the light that would have caused more harm.  A video of cop shooting a man in the back, racist chants from a sorority in Oklahoma, a video of a NFL football player knocking out his wife (not really about exposing the football player, but how it helped exposed how the NFL organization tried to cover up evidence they had about the incident) are examples of how the sharing of certain information has value.  But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and take ourselves away from the mob mentality.  What if Justine Sacco had made her joke to your face.  Even if you weren’t clear that it was a joke would have you ran down the halls calling her a racist?  You probably would have just removed yourself from her social circle, but you could have also taken her aside and turned it into a teachable moment about why her joke might not be found as funny, or asked follow up questions to understand her intention.  Shaming is a terrible thing and how many of us have made jokes or comments we regret?  How many times have we been wrong in our attitude or thinking and needed a chance to learn from our mistakes to come out better on the other side?  Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance?  Is it necessary to traumatize somebody for a few thoughtless words?  Let’s instead try turn negatives into positives.  Let’s try to teach instead of shame.  Let’s try to understand instead of judge.  I am no saint in this area, but I’m going to keep trying, because the benefits of this communication age I think are enormous.  It is our disconnection from each other that leads to fear and mistrust I believe, and we can know and understand so many more people and issues today than we could 30 years ago and I truly believe that the power of the internet can lead to a new golden age for humanity.