Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

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.

 

 

Are we ourselves?

Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works.  A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the

From Illinois.edu

love we have for ourselves?”  In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self.  For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves?  Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother?  A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism.  How do we become the people that we are?  How do we know ourselves?  Is our sense of self just an illusion?

From http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu

In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother.  Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes.  🙂  For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others.  Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things).  I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others.  As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self.  I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy.  Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.

Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well.  Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings.  I have no doubt that this is true.  But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.

It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences.  No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education.  We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.

So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives.  Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to

From http://www.chameleion-web.co.uk

others?  People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice.  No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care.  What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome.  It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.

I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share.  This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism.  After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.