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Posts Tagged ‘Social Media’

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

Of Big Dawgs and Bitches: The Hillary Identity

In Politics on July 28, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Hillary Clinton has an identity problem. After all of her decades in politics, after being First Lady of Arkansas and First lady of the United States, after being a U.S. Senator, after being the first female Secretary of State, after years of advocacy on a huge range of issues, even after being feted nationally after the first ever commencement speech by a graduating senior at Wellesley, during which she challenged a sitting U.S. Senator who was the guest of honor; people don’t really know her.

I think I may have figured out why.

Hillary Clinton grew up at a time when men who sought power, who had ego and ambition and drive to achieve great things were the Big Dawgs, an epithet often applied to her husband. Women who had the same attributes could never aspire to be anything more than Bitches.

And so they were.

Women like Hillary Clinton played the Big Dawgs’ game. They used whatever power they could get hold to carve out a place in a world that had been built by men to serve men. They married their way or slept their way, or bought their way; they said what was expected of them, they did what they had to in the public eye while they schemed and fought and lived and died in the shadow of men. And everyone who knew them knew that they were Bitches.

And here’s the thing. They knew it, too. And they were not only willing to be Bitches, they were proud of what they had accomplished. Think of one great feminine – or if you prefer, feminist – heroine who advanced the many causes of women in a male-dominant American culture who was not called a Bitch, not once, but many times. That was the price of standing up and standing out. You were a Bitch.

Think it’s changed? You’re not paying attention.

Nancy Pelosi is famous as a Bitch. Elizabeth Warren has been called a Bitch. That classy, elegant woman Michelle Obama has been called a Bitch for nothing more ambitious than suggesting that the nation should do more to ensure that even the poorest children should have access to good nutrition on a daily basis, and for doing it while being Black. Hillary Clinton has been a Bitch for most of her life. She has spent a lifetime building a career and a political destiny predicated on being the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room.

But times have changed. Having finally gotten to the point where she is poised to become the first woman ever to hold the office of President of the United States, she finds that people want her to be something else: a woman. After playing for more than four decades with the Big Dawgs, beating them at their own games, playing by their rules, she is told that she is disliked, not trusted, because she is too much of a Bitch. They want to see her softer side, her feminine side, whatever that means.

Male candidates parade their masculine. They are tough, strong, aggressive, they say what they are thinking, they bellow and belch and strut about with their cocks leading the way, and few ever ask if they could show a little softness, a little of their feminine side. They boast of their membership in the fraternity of Big Dawgs.

Maybe it’s time for the Bitches to rule. Stand up and shout it, “Damn right I’m a Bitch! And now is our time!”

But, in a tribute to the words of the old song, “I’ll never let you forget that I’m a woman.” Give Hillary a chance to be the woman – caring, nurturing, soft, feminine – that you want her to be. She can be all that and more. She always has been. Tell her, gently and respectfully, that you want more of her and she’ll do her best. But first acknowledge the value of her (and of all the Bitches who led the way before her) being a Bitch for so many years.

For the women of this country who need to believe that they may finally be taken seriously, that they may have a powerful voice, a seat at the table with the Big Dawgs (and not just any seat, but the one at the head of the table), who want to know that their place and their purpose and their value to society may never again be measured in comparison to the men they love, or the men they compete with; Hillary has a chance to give them that.

Enough with the Big Dawgs, barking and howling and strutting their stuff on all the stages of the world! If a woman is to finally be the President, let her be the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room. And let her bring in with her all that makes her a woman; because the feminine is what’s been missing for far too long.

That’s the challenge Hillary has to face now. She has shown that she can play with the Big Dawgs and beat them at their own game. Now she has to change the rules, make it her game, make it a woman’s game. If she can do that she could be a whole lot more than just the “first woman President.” She could be one of the great Presidents, no gender qualification needed.

 

There is No Such Thing as an Isolated Incident

In PeaceAble on July 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Life is an ecological system. And in the age of ubiquitous social media we are ever more aware of how events are interconnected.

Whenever something terrible happens we naturally look for causes; but there is a tendency, especially in the current atmosphere of divisiveness, to look for causes that suit our various agendas. And there are some usual suspects for us to assemble: racism, out-of-control police, protesters, “he shouldn’t have resisted, had a gun, had a record,” “she was dressed provocatively,” gun control, lack of gun control, and so on ad infinitum. And as soon as we get enough people to agree that something specific is, indeed, the cause, a chancy prospect at best, then we vow to do something about it; and sometimes something specific to the agreed-upon cause is in fact done. But the problems, of course, aren’t actually solved.

First, let’s try to be honest with ourselves. We have not solved or erased or outgrown or moved into eras of post-anything. Our culture continues to harbor and express deep systemic strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious fanaticism, militarism, and economic inequity and oppression. And that is not an exhaustive list. And let us also recognize that these are the diseases of the privileged and the powerful, but the symptoms are most notable in their effect on the disenfranchised and disempowered.

So, when a Muslim gunman shoots up a nightclub that caters to homosexuals and we try to decide if the cause is “radical Islam” or homophobia or mental illness or the American relationship with guns, or whatever; the answer is “YES!”  And when a clearly disturbed white man shoots up a church full of people of color and the pundits weigh in on whether it is properly an instance of mental illness or racism or right-wing Christian fanaticism, or (again) issues of gun control, or a media narrative that is helping to create an atmosphere of violent rhetoric and violent action, or any of a dozen other proposed causes; again the answer is “YES!” What we are seeing are not isolated instances of any one of those things, they are the meeting points of them all, and a whole raft of others that we haven’t even thought of.

And the truth is, I believe, that we all know this. We all know; and our cultural messages through our media and our general behavior confirm it and reinforce it every day. The American culture, as defined by the norms it establishes, is dominated by a white, male, Christian, oligarchic, individualist, and nationalist voice. And all attempts to counter that voice are met with suppression, dismissiveness, deliberate misrepresentation, and polarized divisiveness. Because all of those problems are things that challenge the cultural norm, and cultures are built on power, and power does not yield itself easily, and cultures change only very slowly.

But cultures do change. And they change most rapidly (for good and ill) when the masses of people subject to them begin to make the changes and insist upon them.

But does that mean we should not try to determine proximate causes and correct them? Do we have to say to ourselves that none of this will change until we change the whole culture? Of course not. But is necessary that we be careful not to get too caught up in one or another cause; that we should be careful and deliberate in our analysis of every incident – both major traumatic and catastrophic events and the smaller events of our daily lives – and see the broader picture as well as the immediate exigencies.

Keeping people on a no-fly list from purchasing guns won’t by itself prevent future mass shootings (or at least we won’t really know if it does, since one can’t prove a negative), but without a careful look at the very existence of a no-fly list and its relationship to our collective fear and easy suspicion of the other and the erosion of our basic civil liberties and the reality of the risks and dangers that we face, both from “others” and ourselves, it has the potential to make things worse. What, in other words, will be the cost to all of us if we get it wrong?

Arming police departments like military assault units and deploying them against citizens not only doesn’t solve the problems of violent confrontations, it exacerbates them. “All Lives Matter” isn’t a statement of inclusion and acceptance, it’s a failure to recognize that “Black Lives Matter” identifies a particular area of special need, and it attempts to diminish the very real and special importance of that need, and in doing so it makes the need greater and the problem worse rather than better.

The positive aspect of all this is that cultural change is always within our personal grasp. It is, in fact, the only place it’s ever been. But it requires us to strive consciously to practice every day what we claim to want in the world. Do you want less violence? Avoid the use of violent language, violent metaphors, and even small violent actions. Do you want a more equitable world? Stop holding onto what you don’t need, examine the degree of excess and privilege in your own life and try to spread a bit of it around to others who have less. Do you want us all to “just get along?” Pay attention to how your own actions and language create or encourage or unintentionally support bias, prejudice and discrimination (including in what you find funny or what click bait you chase, for example). Would you like to see a healthier world, the end to the terrible diseases that affect people? Examine where in your own life you choose to support unhealthy practices, and give some of your junk food money to health-focused charities or to support legislation and legislators fighting for better and less expensive heath care. Do you want to reduce the effect of hate in the world? Examine your own feelings of hatred and look inward for compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and love. Ask any question about what change you would like to see and look first at your own life to make those changes.

Once we begin to realize how challenging it can be to make the small but significant changes in our own lives, we can begin to see what needs to be done to bring about those changes in our communities, our nation, and our world. Perhaps we will see that the answers aren’t out there somewhere in the hands of a super hero who has the power to change it all. And perhaps we can see that most of what passes for solutions is at best just using a teaspoon to drain the ocean, and at worst, throwing gasoline on the fire. Because everything is connected, everything makes a difference, there are no isolated incidents and we are neither alone nor powerless.

Take Offense. Please.

In Politics on May 12, 2016 at 1:59 pm

One of the most overworked words in the American lexicon these days is “offended.” And like Vizzini’s use of inconceivable in The Princess Bride, I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Offended does not mean, for instance, that one disagrees; finds your comments or your behavior to be rude, hateful, ignorant, biased and prejudicial, unsupported by objective evidence, or deliberately provocative and misleading; or that one is angry, saddened, disappointed, fearful or disdainful.

Offended also does not mean that one wishes you harm, hates you, is at war with you and whatever you believe in, or is trying to silence you, censor you or violate any of your rights.

It is, of course, possible that any or all of those things are happening, but they do not mean that one is offended.

It is also possible that one is offended and any or all of those other things as well; but too many people have begun to use offended as an attack on the other person, often even as a preemptive declaration that is intended to discredit any unfavorable reaction.

This is the “I’m not politically correct” strategy. And it is most often used when the originator’s intend is to actually offend someone. Offending as many people as possible is, in fact, the best evidence that one is being “politically incorrect.”

So politically correct becomes the equivalent of “not wishing to offend,” which is seen as weak; and being offensive is presented as “not politically correct,” and therefore strong. It’s a twisted sort of logic that depends on allowing the person making the claim to define both the rules of engagement and the meaning of the words. It is the strategy of the bully.

The “not PC” bully is sending a mixed and contradictory message. On the one hand he is saying, “I am proud of my ability to offend others.” On the other hand, he is saying “Those others shouldn’t be offended.” And he is claiming superiority and control in the situation.

But the proper response to the “not PC’ bully is simple. Reject all or any part of his message and respond only to what is relevant with what is true. To “I don’t want to offend anyone,” respond “Then don’t do or say whatever it is you thought might be offensive.” To “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” say “I don’t think you are, since it is clear that you anticipated my taking offense and yet plowed right ahead.” To “You shouldn’t get offended,” respond with, “You don’t get to tell me what should or should not offend me; if I take offense because you have said or done something that gives rise to that offense; I will take responsibility for my being offended, now it is up to you to take responsibility for having done something that was offensive.” Or perhaps, “I’m not offended. I am angry (or whatever is true) and I can explain to you what I find wrong with your words or actions and why, if you would care to listen. If, however, your only purpose was to demonstrate power by deliberately trying to offend me, then we are done here.”

There is nothing wrong with being offended by something you find offensive, no matter how trivial or unworthy of offense someone else may proclaim it to be. There is much in the world that is deserving of offense.

But check in with yourself. Are you really offended? Or is something else going on? I’m not offended by the Confederate battle flag, for instance, but I think it is past time to remove it from official use and consign it to museums along with a frank discussion of all its symbolism. I’m not offended by anyone else’s religious beliefs or practices; but I have my own, thank you, and I feel angry when someone tries to impose their religious practices on me. I’m not offended by that weapon you have slung over your shoulder in the grocery store, I am frightened by it because I have no idea who you are or what your state of mind is.

So stop telling trying to tell me what I am feeling and what I should feel. And if that offends you . . . well . . . there you go.

The “Joke’s” On Us

In PeaceAble on February 29, 2016 at 9:56 am

It has always been true that a society’s entertainment is one of the primary voices of its cultural norms. As a society’s focus shifts, its popular music, movies, literature, television and advertising reflect that shift. The entertainment media reflect more often than they create the rise is certain attitudes and behaviors. When a society feels especially afraid, for instance, or defenseless against large, terrible, uncertain dangers, there will be a rise in super hero movies, in television shows about heroic police, and ads that use those fears to sell everything from home alarm systems to pharmaceuticals to bullet-proof backpacks; not to mention guns. Because normative cultural messages reflect shifts in how we see ourselves and reality, and because social media have become so prominent I the dissemination of those messages, I am disturbed by the appearance of certain memes on my Facebook feed. Two recent “humor” trends illustrate the problem, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Blond “Joke”: I thought we had settled this 30 years ago. There is nothing inherent in being a young, blond female that makes you dumb. And there is no joke, whether basically funny or not, that is made funnier by making the central character a dumb blond female. Yet I keep seeing the “jokes” popping up as click bait. Many of them seem harmless enough in the few sentences visible before you click on them, but it quickly becomes apparent that the authors feel comfortable once again in using this sort of irrelevant, pointless and insulting image as a basis for “humor.”  At a moment in history when we have a woman as a front runner for election to the presidency we are also seeing a resurgence of attacks on women’s right and women’s health, and the return of the dumb blond female “joke.” This is not a coincidence.

The “Funny” Mexican: As Donald Trump has been fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia in his presidential campaign (and his success has led his rivals to head down the same pyromaniac path), I have been seeing a Facebook meme that consists of a picture of a grossly grinning “Mexican” in a clownishly stereotypical serape and broad-brimmed hat, with various punch lines about how “Mexicans” speak English. We are being told that it is once again okay to use racial and cultural stereotypes to get laughs at other people’s expense. Again, as we try to engage in a national conversation about immigration, this is not a coincidence.

The argument being made by those who post such things, of course, is that everyone is too easily offended, and they are not going to be “politically correct.” You can fertilize an 18-hole golf course with those arguments.

If we seem to be more easily offended it is simply because we are becoming more conscious of the offenses. Before people pointed out that blackface on white people was offensive, there were already people of color who were greatly offended. Long before the Washington Redskins were being told that their team name and mascot were offensive, there were already First Nations people who were greatly offended. Long before Reese Witherspoon was “Legally Blonde,” generations of young blond women had to endure the offensiveness of such jokes. The only reason the rest of us were not aware of these offenses is that those who were offended were also marginalized, discriminated against, and shut out of the cultural messaging that was creating, reflecting, and perpetuating the offenses.

“Political Incorrectness,” like religion, is a refuge for scoundrels. The truth is that political correctness is a Loch Ness Monster. There will always be people who will believe in it and others who will be sure they’ve seen it, but it probably doesn’t really exist. Asking that we, as a culture and as a society, not do pointless, insensitive things that are hurtful and offensive to others is not political correctness, it’s maturity. As individuals we are expected to grow out of certain behaviors. Things that are cute in a 5-year-old are disgusting and immature in a 30-year-old. A society that continues to think that stereotyping of entire groups of people, discrimination against the “other” of the day, and the perpetuation of racist, sexist, xenophobic images and ideas is funny isn’t “politically incorrect,” it’s immature.

Now let me ask you. Are you someone who has reposted these sorts of memes and materials? Did you do so because you found them funny? Are you now feeling uncomfortable and perhaps, dare I suggest it, offended? There are times when every one of us might be reasonably offended by something. There isn’t anything wrong with that. If I were poking you with a stick, you would be right to feel pain. And you will feel that pain even if I do not intend to be poking you and I am not aware that I am poking you. You aren’t being “too sensitive.” And if you tell me that I am causing you pain, you would be rightly angered if I kept poking you because I thought it was funny, and even angrier if I told you that it was your pain that was wrong, not my behavior and I refused to be “Painfully Correct.”

There seems to be a growing sense in this political season that being offensive is a sign of honesty, of “telling it like it is,” and “speaking one’s mind.” In reality, it is a sign that we are regressing culturally. And we are easily made complicit in this regression. When we long for simpler times when the stereotypes of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual and/or foreign people were fair game; when the objects of our humor were expected to simply recognize that not being white, male, heterosexual or American was justification enough for us to make fun of them; when “I was just joking” was legitimate cover for our insensitivity and offensiveness; then what we are really missing is our own culturally normalized superiority.

And as I close this argument, let me say that I am equally disturbed by those who make jokes about Trump supporters or Tea Party supporters as “Southern Hicks” who hump sheep and marry their cousins; or any “humor” that reinforces the polarizing, prejudicial attitudes that keep us from finding common ground on the high ground rather than the low. We can make a point of not telling these kinds of jokes, not laughing at them when others do (not even politely), and speaking up in protest against them. We are all responsible for the voices that define and reflect our culture.

The Unfriendly Meme

In PeaceAble on May 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

I was just unfriended by someone over a meme. I bring this up because I was caught off guard by it, and because it is indicative of a couple of related major problems in this country: the substitution of easy imagery for actual thought and the tendency to personalize and over-simplify everything rather than to see the larger picture.

First, the offending meme. A picture of a bucolic rural scene; barn and man on tractor in the background; old Phillips 66 sign; in the foreground one of those roadside message boards, and written on it the words “God Bless the Old America! I sure miss her.”

Now my comment: “Which old America? The one that owned slaves? The one that imprisoned and stole the property and lives of Japanese Americans in an irrational fear response to Pearl Harbor? The one where there was child labor and sweatshops, and where only white men could vote? I could go on. The existence of some idyllic “old America” is a myth. America has always ben a great many good things and a significant number of not so good things.””

Harsh, I know. Too harsh? I won’t try to defend it on that point. I thought it was clear that I was criticizing the meme, not the person who posted it. I certainly never thought she would think that I was suggesting she actually wanted to return to those things. I thought that my last sentence made it clear that I did not think that America was all bad.

I was wrong.

Her response: “I was going to reply to your comment. But it was not worth the effort. With friends like you who needs enemies.”

And because I was wrong, because I had not been clear about the intent, and because my comment was more harsh than I intended, my first instinct was to apologize; not because I believe my opinion of the meme was wrong or bad, but because my choices in expressing that opinion had led to her feeling judged and demeaned. But I couldn’t apologize, or even offer further explanation, because I could no longer post on the thread. She had unfriended me.

There was another consequence to this unfriending, also. Other of her friends (one a mutual friend) could continue to post things about me and my comment to which I could not respond. One response: “It seems David has a big old bitter taste in his mouth when someone says something nice or puts up a photo or a sign of our flag. I guessing he was NOT BORN HE.(sic)” I was, of course arguing that what the meme was saying was not all that nice, so we disagree about the niceness thing; but there was no flag in the meme and if she was trying to say I must not have been born here, well I don’t have a clue how she got to that. As for bitterness, my comment wasn’t, in my opinion, bitter at all. It was, as I said, harsh, but so what? Are we supposed to treat every meme like videos of babies and cute animals?

Perhaps the harshness (which I think anyone who has read my blog or comments on other posts would agree is not typical of my comments about such things) deserves some explanation, however.

We are being told two things over and over by those who would lead us, and by the media which influence our attitudes and help to shape our culture.

First, we are told that we do not need to, and should not think too much about the complex issues facing our nation and the world. Every issue, we are told, can be divided into two distinct opposing camps and we must choose our side; every idea can be reduced to a slogan or a meme or a sound bite, and that these contain all we need to know about it. Ideological purity and adherence to a simplistic and rigid moral code are the only standards. We must be for or against, ally or enemy; there is no room for complexity, for nuance, for understanding the ecological nature of ideas, of societies, of human behavior.

And corollary to that, we are told that we should be afraid. We should fear the “other,” of course. Difference is threat, disagreement is attack, everyone is either friend or enemy. We are sold everything from goods and services to public policies to spiritual beliefs by appeals to fear. We fear our government, our police and military, our teachers, and our religious leaders. We fear our children, our neighbors, our communities. We fear the black people and the brown people and the yellow people, and the female people and the male people; and we fear anyone who does not share our ideas about what God might be like or whether there is one. We fear that science is right and we fear that science is wrong. One respondent to my comment presented the argument, which is a reasonable one given the reality I have just painted, that it is her “perception (that) lately there has been an increase in crime that just doesn’t make you feel safe anywhere.” In support of this she cites school shootings and terrorist bombings, and even the fact that several people she knows have been the victims of minor hit-and-run motor vehicle accidents in the past two years. But how realistic is the generalized fear these things engender? National crime statistics show that violent crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years, that crime over all is down and the deaths of law enforcement officers are at a 50 year low. Violent crime rates actually peaked in the 1990’s.

So why are we afraid to let children walk outside alone, why do we not feel safe anywhere? The Dali Lama was once asked how he could remain so centered and optimistic in the face of all the horrible things being reported around the world. He replied that things get reported precisely because they are not the norm. By the time we saw the spectacle of children killing children at Columbine, children had been dying in the inner cities for decades, but because the national media believed (along with most of the rest of the country) that such things were normal for the cities, they didn’t report it. But when it happened in the privileged communities of rural and suburban America, the story caused schools everywhere to begin transforming into high security facilities. Similarly, we don’t see a lot of “good things” reported simply because those things aren’t remarkable, they’re ordinary, they’re more common than the other. Also, of course, we need to know about the bad things that happen because they represent problems that need solutions; but we cannot find solutions through unrealistic fear, or through a haze of rigid either/or perceptions. Our reality is personal, shaped through the filter of our perception, but society’s reality is perceived through the filter of our cultural messages. The public media have become more interested in creating exciting, vivid and dramatic stories than in the presentation of facts. We not told what is, but how to think about what is. Something called the vividness effect causes us to attach importance to a story based on its presentation rather than its content.

The particular meme I commented about caught my attention because we are now being told by a great many people that America is in decline, that our problems are too great and too urgent for calm, rational discussion, that there is some imagined point in the past that, if we could only return to it, would eliminate all our problems.

There is no such point.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, The United States of America has seen tremendous progress as well as terrible tragedy. There is much work to be done, and there is even some backsliding, but that is the nature of cultural change. It takes time, it’s difficult, and it requires us to be willing and able to work together; we cannot do it by just shouting at each other and retreating into the comforting company of those who already agree with us. America is as great as it has ever been; but we are being told to look over there instead, see the bad things, fear what you see, all else is a lie.

I remember thinking these same things about the proliferation of issues-oriented bumper stickers in the second half of the last century. There was quite a bit of commentary about “bumper sticker arguments” and the danger they posed to rational discussion. But encountering (and actually being able to read) a bumper sticker was fairly random. Now social media has made the meme so ubiquitous that one cannot avoid being confronted with all kinds of foolish, ill-considered, fallacious, manipulative, and even outright deceitful and malicious messages if one is to enter that great modern marketplace of ideas. Technology has given us tremendous tools for communication, interaction, and cooperation, and all we can think to do is use them to drive us apart. My reasonable respondent talked about a rising fever of hate and entitlement. Part of this perception is the result of that technology giving a voice and a platform to people who have never had those before. As a society and a culture, we need to learn how to use the tools, how to act responsibly with all this new-found power; how not to let those who are already powerful use it to manipulate and control us.

The past is prologue, not prescription. There is no such thing as “the good old days.” Memory does not recall so much as it reconstructs the past. We need to replace a false nostalgia for an idyllic time that never existed with a commitment to see the world as it really is right now, at this moment in history; and we need to look forward to how we can do better tomorrow. The lessons of the past cannot be learned through rose-colored glasses, but through a more realistic, albeit sometimes harsh, examination of who we have been, who we have become, and who we want to be.

You’re an Un-American, Knuckle-Dragging Nut-Job If You Don’t Agree With This! Why We Need to Cool the Rhetoric.

In PeaceAble on April 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

Facts exist independent of us. Truth does not. We discover facts, but we construct truth. Truth is what we find where the facts and our perceptions intersect.

Thus, in any situation, there may be many truths; and since the facts are often harder to determine than our separate truths, it is those that will most often prevail, for we would sooner reject the facts than change our truth.

When we become polarized over issues that might seem easily resolved if everyone just knew the facts, it is important to remember this simple principle. When you attack my truth, when you force me to defend that which is so important a part of me, then you have just lost the battle to teach me the facts which might lead me to alter that truth on my own, in my own time and my own way.

Ask yourself a simple question. How often have you been convinced to change your mind about something because someone with an opposing point of view called you names, ridiculed you, impugned your honesty, your morality and your intelligence, and in various ways dismissed and dehumanized you? In the face of this kind of onslaught did you suddenly have a revelation that, my god, they’re right and I am wrong? Or did exactly the opposite happen and you became even more adamant about rejecting everything they might have to say on the issue and more convinced than ever that you were right?

This is the state of public discourse in America today. And it’s dangerous.

A democratic society relies on the ability of its citizens to engage in active, free, informed, and reasoned debate about issues. And the more critical the issue, the more passionate the advocacy on opposing sides, the more pressing the need for a solution, and the more important it is for both citizens and their representatives to engage in rational, productive discourse. When even the most minor differences of perception or belief become scandals and crises fueled by unrestrained outrage and immoderate rhetoric, then our ability to function as a democracy is undermined; and compromises, workable solutions, and even the routine functions of government become impossible.

As a progressive, I believe that there is a better way, and I think that progressives have a responsibility to set the tone for a future that is more democratic and less confrontational.

First, let’s stop the use of pointless name-calling and characterization of those whose ideas we oppose. Let’s eliminate from our own language terms such as “repugs” or “rethuglicans.” Let’s not make up “funny” names for our opponents, or stoop to characterizations such as “America’s Dumbest Congressman.” And we can stop creating broad classifications of people based on their position on a single issue. A reasonable person can disagree with the scientific conclusions in one area, without being “anti-science” or a “science denier.” We can speak our truth directly, forthrightly and clearly without resorting to fallacious arguments and dehumanizing tactics. If we can’t stand what Rush Limbaugh is doing, then let’s not imitate him. If actual comedians and satirists who identify with the left want to make fun of right-wing ideas and those who espouse them, fine; but let’s not let it become the go-to strategy for every discussion we get into about important issues.

One other consequence of making these kinds of polarizing and unproductive knee-jerk responses our fallback argument is that we make enemies of ourselves. I recently saw a comment on a post about the issues surrounding childhood vaccines in which the writer lumped “anti-vaxxers,” “right-wing nut jobs,” “science-deniers,” and two or three other things all together in a single rant. That isn’t just unproductive, it is flat out wrong. Only the most fundamental extremists are purely one thing or another. When we start to lump all the things we personally don’t like into these kinds of hybrid evil-doers, we forget that people who are just as passionate as we are about some things disagree with us about others. If we make enemies of them over one issue, how can we expect to work with them on others? This happens at both ends of the spectrum, of course. A writer for a sports magazine suggested reasonable restrictions on firearms and received death threats from people he mostly agrees with about guns. If progressives want to create a genuine coalition around our issues, we need to be willing to accept the kind of diversity of opinions about those issues (and the positive discussions those differences can create), we can’t go into attack mode every time someone strays from what we consider the “correct” position.

Secondly, and I’ve said this before, let’s stop talking about every disagreement as a war on something. We cannot, to paraphrase Einstein, both speak like war and work for peace. And this is true about both the things we have characterized as wars and those characterized that way by our opponents. So let’s stop getting into arguments about a “War on Christianity.” Let’s just say there is no such war, and move on. Let’s stop calling it a “War on Women.” It is a systemic cultural problem that limits women’s free exercise of their rights as citizens and denies them equal access with men to full participation in the privileges, opportunities and responsibilities of our society; but who is the enemy except the culture itself? Cultures change slowly, and we can’t speed it up if we start thinking of major portions of that shared culture as enemies. All that does is reinforce their perception that they are under attack. In wars of rhetoric, just as in wars of military engagement, what would happen if someone like Bill O’Reilly called a war and we simply refused to show up for it?

Let’s get in the habit of taking a breath before we jump into an unproductive argument. Let’s just say no to reposting memes or restating simplistic “bumper sticker” arguments without at least checking them out first to be sure we know the full story, the context, whether the facts are accurately and fairly portrayed, and whether we would, on our own, arrive at the same conclusions. We are entitled to have our own experts on controversial arguments, of course, but we should choose them carefully, expect them to be wrong sometimes, be careful of creating confirmation bias, and be willing to change our minds as our knowledge and understanding changes.

Finally, let’s stop calling for extreme consequences for every insensitive word, every distasteful attitude, or every prejudiced or unenlightened action.   If a clerk in a diner somewhere makes the mistake of posting a rant that goes viral, we don’t need to destroy him, his job, his family and his whole life. That will simply convince him of the rightness of his opinions, If someone lives her life in a way that is different from ours, we won’t change that by “shaming” her publically on social media. All that accomplishes is to drive people into opposing camps and increase polarization, which quickly gets unproductive and completely irrelevant to the real issues. Instead, let’s criticize and say what we believe is wrong about a person’s ideas or actions, not turn those whose minds we would change into martyrs for the extremists we stand against.

And let’s encourage those who disagree with us to do the same things. People, generally, are getting tired of a constant state of high alert over everything. They are worn down by the polarization, the vitriol, the self-righteous outrage, and the intolerance that they are inundated with every day in the twenty-four hour news cycle and the ubiquitous and incessant cacophony of social media. They are dropping out. A democracy functions best when its citizens participate. But that participation is most effective when the culture itself encourages reasoned discussion by an accurately and fairly informed citizenry. Every citizen is not just entitled to a voice, but to have that voice listened to and respected. We can help achieve that by making a greater effort, each of us, to listen to and respect those voices with which we most disagree, even as we act in advocacy for our ideals and in committed opposition to what we see as wrong.

If FB is a Marketplace, Why is Every Aisle Filled With So Much Junk Food?

In PeaceAble on December 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Now let me say that this is not intended as a rant. It is more of an observation, a public service message if you will, about the impact of Facebook, Tweeter and other social media platforms on the erosion of our sense of personal and social boundaries and appropriateness in our daily communication with others; and vice-versa.

Allow me to illustrate.

Suppose you were in a public place with a lot of people, some of whom you knew well, others you knew only slightly, and a whole lot of others who were strangers to you but friends and acquaintances of the others in the gathering. Now suppose that someone suddenly, without any provocation, stood up on a soapbox and loudly announced, “Jesus is the only path to salvation! If you agree, raise your hands and repeat this. 99% of you won’t have the guts to repeat it, but I’m proud to be one of the 1% who are real Christians!”
What would your response be? Would you think, “Wow, that’s really inappropriate”? Would you feel embarrassed? Would you think the speaker was some kind of egotistical nutjob with a bad case of verbal diarrhea? Or would you think that this was clearly a sincere believer expressing his devout belief; and good for him?
Before you answer, take out “Jesus” and “Christian” and insert “Allah” and “Muslim.” Does that change your reaction any?
Now imagine that two people in the crowd began a discussion about some current issue of concern or interest; let’s say the minimum wage. Suddenly everyone within earshot began shouting about libtards and repugs, and making derogatory statements about lazy welfare moochers who should get a job and greedy rich people who are trying to destroy America. And let’s imagine that the discussion begins to spread throughout the whole crowd and turns into a shouting match in which every extreme position on every conceivable issue is turned into an obscenity laced rant, even though the obscenities are cleverly muffled just enough so you know what was said, you just can’t hear them clearly.
Now imagine that you are invited to return to the same place with the same people the next day and every day after that with the expectation, even the promise, of more of the same.

This is not to say that no one should ever talk about religion, money, politics or sex on Facebook. All of these are legitimate topics of public discussion, and it is through this public discussion that we all engage in a great ongoing cultural conversation that helps us to understand who we are.
But who are we?
Are we a civilized society capable of engaging one another about our diverse perspectives, experiences, beliefs and opinions? Are we a people who value the importance of honest, informed discussion of the issues that confront our society and require workable well-thought-out solutions? Or are we a nation, a world, of foul-mouthed, bullying, self-righteous, arrogant boors; who want everything our own way or not at all? If our democracy were a sport, would it be more like golf, or more like professional wrestling?
Social media have the potential to be a wonderfully liberating, truly democratic place. But they are also a distillation, a reflection, and an encouragement of all that is the worst of us. When we begin to break down the social boundaries that help us to work together and engage each other in peaceable ways, then the fabric of society gets unraveled a bit more every time we cross a line that our social conventions used to keep us from crossing. And we can see these things happening all around us, not just on line. Our social behavior is becoming less reasonable and democratic, and more confrontational and violent.
Sometimes these boundaries need to be crossed, of course; no fabric exists forever without some fraying, some normal wear and tear; and even the necessary regular laundering and ironing out of the wrinkles can do some damage; but these kinds of things develop the character of a nation, increase its value for us, and give it its history. The danger is that everyone has stopped caring about the fabric itself and we are instead just tearing it apart as we each try to claim it as our own, refusing to share any part of it. We are taking the scissors to it as we try to get rid of all those parts of the pattern we don’t like, as if it were a photograph of friends that includes our ex — to mix my metaphors some more.
Look, the point is this: engagement through social media, like our engagement in society itself, requires that we respect one another’s boundaries, show some restraint and personal discipline in our behavior, and treat others as we would like to be treated. So before we post something, or get caught up in the latest viral reposting of whatever is the latest outrageous meme or pointless hoax someone has decided to drop in our news feed; let’s take a moment to breathe, check our prejudices, check our facts, consider what sort of persons we want to be and what sort of society we want to have; and maybe not hit post or share quite so quickly.

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