Critical emotional education: the power of words, language, and thought

Fresno Bee, April 7, 2024

People often respond to ethically charged issues with strong emotions. Anger, indignation, and disgust are a normal part of the moral life. If we didn’t have these negative emotions, we would not be motivated to fight for justice. And if we didn’t have strong positive emotions, we would never fall in love.

Some philosophers think that morality is purely a matter of emotion. But feelings alone are an insufficient guide for moral judgment. We need words, ideas and theories to correct, improve, and evaluate our emotions.

In my teaching and public speaking, I often encounter folks who are overcome with emotion. Recently I was discussing the ethics of war with students. One brave young woman raised her hand and offered a comment on current events. Her emotions were so strong that it was difficult for her to speak.

I gave her time to compose herself and I acknowledged the depth of her passion. She took a deep breath and did her best to talk through her tears. But it was tough. Others in the audience were visibly moved by her effort. Emotions are contagious. We weep when others weep. We laugh when others laugh. We are social animals who communicate with tears as well as words.

After we all caught our breath, I tried to help this young woman articulate the source of her indignation. I encouraged her to consider some of the concepts and ideas from the just-war theory. I don’t know if this ultimately helped. But one of the goals of ethics education is to provide people with a moral vocabulary that helps them understand and evaluate the world and their emotional responses to it.

Indeed, one of the benefits of a broad education is that it helps us learn to describe and assess our emotions. Education teaches us to put words to our feelings. That process of recognizing and naming our emotions can help to moderate and direct them in appropriate ways. A critical moral education helps us transform our passions into coherent sentences and complex judgments. In doing that, we gain the ability to think critically about our feelings and about our responses to the world.

I worry that this kind of critical emotional education is missing in our expressivist culture. Rage and disgust, giddiness and glee drive much of our public discourse. We emote and enthuse without restraint. People whoop and holler at sporting events. They yell and yowl in public meetings. And on social media, emotional complexity is reduced to simplistic emojis requiring no thought at all. But to be fully human, we must move from passion to poetry, from feelings to phrases, and from simple words to complex thoughts and theories.

Language is a unique human capacity. Dogs growl and bark, howl or wag their tails. Those sounds and gestures are expressive. But they only convey a limited range of emotions and experiences. The great gift of human language is that it allows us to clarify, restrain and articulate our emotions. It also allows us to evaluate complex ideas and to communicate the dense and thorny knots of human experience.

Human beings have the capacity to experience and express a large variety of emotions and ideas because we have a complex system of language and meaning. Poetry, music, and religion move us in ways that transcend mere animal behavior. The experience of art takes us quite far beyond the animal’s howl. The arguments of lawyers and theologians allow us to develop complex systems of social life. And scientific theories are infinitely more complex than the dog’s wagging tail.

Words are tools. The more tools we have, the better. If your tool kit only includes a hammer and a screwdriver, you’re not going to be able to build many things. But if your tool kit is broad, diverse, and subtle, you are on your way to creating new and amazing things.

A broad education provides us more words and more tools. This includes a whole range of metaphors, idioms, and paradigms that come from art, history, literature, philosophy, and religion. This linguistic tool kit provides us with the opportunity to clarify, and refine our emotional lives. It also helps us articulate and evaluate things in a way that transcends laughter and tears.

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Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article287422570.html#storylink=cpy

The Power of Thought and the Wonder of Nature

Fresno Bee, April 14, 2024

Far from being fearful, the total eclipse inspires wonder, awe and humility

Last week’s solar eclipse shows us how far we have come in our understanding of nature. We now predict eclipses with precision. The calculations of modern astronomy are obviously superior to primitive superstitions that saw eclipses as omens or as the work of gods and demons.

Western philosophy and science are often traced back to the ancient sage Thales of Miletus, who was famous for predicting an eclipse in May 585 BCE. Some say that Thales was the first ancient star-gazer to correctly predict an eclipse. I doubt that. Ancient cultures carefully observed the sky. Thales likely learned astronomy from the Egyptians. Nonetheless, the ability to predict an eclipse was a sign of wisdom.

As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Understanding the causal story behind an event provides us with power. Broad understanding of nature creates a kind of mastery. And knowledge alleviates the anxiety of the unknown and uncanny. Knowing why things happen makes them less spooky. It also allows us to take action to avoid harm, generate benefits and gain control. This is the promise of science, mathematics and natural philosophy.

Despite this promise, it took centuries of cultural struggle for the scientific method to prevail. Religious institutions often resisted that change. The most famous case is the Inquisition of Galileo, which began on April 12, 1633.

Galileo defended the idea that the Earth moved around the sun — the heliocentric model of the universe. He based this on the astronomical calculations of Copernicus and his own observations of the heavens through telescopic lenses. But the religious dogma of the day held that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the other celestial bodies moved around our fixed world.

Galileo challenged that idea. But he was not an atheist. He thought that science helped elucidate the divine order of things. His scientific observations were meant to read the book of nature as a supplement to the holy book of Christianity. But Galileo’s heliocentric model called some of the Bible into question. Galileo lost his struggle with the church. He was forced to recant.

It took centuries of further development to come up with the present model of the cosmos. Today we know much more about our place in the universe. We know that our sun is one star among the billions in the Milky Way and that our galaxy is one among billions of galaxies. We also know that there are other planets orbiting distant stars. It is likely that eclipses happen on other planets as well, since there are other moons orbiting other planets, even in our own solar system.

And yet, there is something special about an eclipse as it occurs on Earth, since there is a kind of symmetry between the apparent size of the moon and the sun. If the moon were smaller or were farther away, there would be no such thing as a total eclipse. Nor would there be a total eclipse if the sun were larger.

Scientists predict that at some point the sun will grow larger and the moon will move farther away from the Earth. This means that at some point in the distant future, there will no longer be total eclipses on Earth.

That fact should inspire wonder, awe and humility. We are fortunate to live here now. On this planet at this time, our satellite and sun work together in a special way. Even if there are other planets out there with other moons, and other forms of intelligent life, total eclipses may be rare.

It is important to dwell in this kind of wonder and awe. Scientific knowledge shows us how privileged we are to be here, now. It reminds us how fragile our existence is. From this we might develop a kind of humility and insight.

Thales seemed to possess that kind of wisdom. He celebrated the unique beauty of the universe as a divine gift. He said that the mind is swift and powerful, since it is able to expand everywhere. And he claimed that time is the source of wisdom, since it brings everything to light. There are moments of darkness. But if we are patient, persistent and wise, the light may dawn.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287610835.html#storylink=cpy

“What is truth?” Truth and Power in the Trump Era

Fresno Bee, March 31, 2024

Truth and power have always been at odds. When Jesus claimed that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pontius Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?” The powerful do what they want, indifferent to the truth. The meek end up suffering.

The Donald Trump melodrama provides a more recent example. Trump is skilled at twisting the narrative and making people wonder what is really true. While he was in court for his porn-star-hush-money trial, Trump shared a post that compared his tribulations to those of Jesus. But is it true that Trump is being persecuted like Jesus was?

Well, “What is truth?” Was the 2020 election a fraud? Was Jan. 6 an insurrection? Did Trump pay off a porn star? Did he really rape E. Jean Carroll? Leaving those sordid affairs aside, what is Trump really worth?

Trump seems to have made billions as his social media company went public. The company is not profitable, but the stock price jumped. Pundits are describing it as a meme stock, whose value is divorced from reality.

At the same time, Trump has been convicted of fraud in New York and fined more than $450 million. Despite his wealth, he claimed he was unable to post a bond while the decision is being appealed. The court reduced the amount to $175 million dollars just as Trump was making those newfound billions. Is he rich enough to pay the fine or not? Is his company really worth all of those billions? What is the truth?

These are unimaginable sums for normal, honest people. The story of Trump’s financial ups and down exposes the rotten core of modern capitalism and political life. This is a “let them eat cake” economy in which wealthy fraudsters get rich while homeless people sleep on city streets.

The name of Trump’s social media application, “Truth Social” discloses part of the problem. Truth is not social. Truth is solid and substantial. It is based in the world of facts. More importantly, truth requires honesty and sincerity.

Fraud, lying, and deception undermine truth. But when there is so much nonsense circulating, it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood. Quacks and charlatans take advantage of this situation. Many of us don’t seem to care. Or perhaps we have been subject to so much misinformation, disinformation and noise that we just throw up our hands, asking, “What is truth?”

A number of us seem eager to jump on the latest bandwagon, indifferent to the truth. We all do this from time to time. If a stock is trending higher, we buy it. If a celebrity endorses something, we use it. When everyone is mocking someone or sharing a stupid meme, we add to the pile. Instead of keeping our eye on truth and virtue, we are distracted by the shiny bells and whistles of the latest craze.

But the bandwagon has no substance. The opinions and beliefs that percolate through social media are merely gossip and gas. Things do not magically become true because people keep repeating them.

In an economy of bubbles and bunkum, we don’t know what anything is really worth. The rise and fall of meme stocks and celebrities as much about herd mentality as it is about any concrete value. And the “truths” that bounce around on social media are produced by “influencers” instead of experts.

The antidote for this is obvious. We need better critical thinking. We also need faith that in the long run the truth will triumph.

This takes us back to Jesus and his interaction with Pilate. It is there that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This is a reminder that there is another, better world in which truth and virtue matter. The kingdoms of this world float on hot air. Wisdom and truth have deeper roots.

It is instructive to note that Jesus did not argue with Pilate. The powerful are not interested in genuine arguments about truth. They pander to the mob, do what they want, and then wash their hands. This means that in the short run, untruth may succeed. But one of the hopeful messages of Easter is that in the long run the truth will prevail.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287190845.html#storylink=cpy

Intellectual Freedom and Resurgent Censorship

At Fresno State, we recently hosted a discussion of book banning with Professor Emily JM Knox, who presented a compelling case for the need to think critically about resurgent censorship. Professor Knox discussed efforts to remove, restrict, redact, and relocate books in libraries. She has made similar points in Congressional testimony in September, 2023, where she reiterated ideas found in her book, Foundations of Intellectual Freedom.

Here in Fresno County, county libraries are restricting access to certain books, that as a Count Board resolution states “contain sexual writings, sexual references, sexual images, gender-identity content, and other sexual content or content deemed age-inappropriate.” This effort prompted the Freedom to Read Foundation, the ACLU, and others to write a strongly worded letter opposing the plan.  That letter stated that the rule would violate the First Amendment and “impose an unlawful and invasive censorship regime on the constitutional right to access library books.”

The effort to balance freedom of thought with the desire to protect young people from harm is a legitimate conflict of values. There are well-meaning people on both sides of this debate. First Amendment rights are fundamental to an open society. And yet, there may be good reasons to restrict the liberty of children. We do not allow kids to buy alcohol, firearms, or pornography, or hang out in bars. But there are always risks when limiting liberty, and critics of censorship fear a slippery slope toward other restrictions of freedom of thought.

This issue seems to breed polarization. Some book ban proponents are conservative reactionaries, unhappy with society’s permissive views of gender and sexuality. A similar kind of “anti-woke” conservatism inspires those who want to ban books that discuss critical race theory. Meanwhile, the liberal critics of the anti-woke movement describe it as a war on truth and a war on black history. Liberals tend see censorship of sexual content as prudish, bigoted, intolerant, and closed-minded. But right-wingers claim that those liberals are anti-American “groomers” intent on destroying civilization. And so it goes in a polarized culture, where it is increasingly difficult to find common ground. 

For my part, I am worried about a slippery slope toward broader censorship and authoritarianism. The new censorship must be understood in connection with dangerous nonsense about ‘fake news’ and the press as ‘the enemy of the people’ (as I have described in my book on Trump and tyranny).

History provides some warnings. Censorship has occurred throughout American history. In one of my first publications, I discussed the Kansas state school board’s ban on the teaching of evolution, which occurred in the 1990’s. Given this bit of recent history and the rise of Christian nationalist ideology, we ought to be worried about resurgent censorship. 

Authoritarian political movements generally want to limit liberty. This is not a partisan issue. Although recent cases, and the Kansas evolution case, involve right-wing censorship, left-wing causes can also employ authoritarian tactics. Mao Tse-Tung once said that more books you read, the stupider you become.  During Mao’s Cultural Revolution books were burned. More recently, Chinese Communists have staged book burnings as the Party seeks tighter ideological control.

The antidote for this is to remain committed to the fundamental value of free, open, and critical inquiry. Philosophers have defended intellectual freedom, ever since Socrates was executed for asking critical questions. Philosophers think that persuasion is superior to coercion. We think that good ideas can defend themselves without the need for censorship. There may be, in some cases, a need to protect children. But in the long run, the best way to protect both truth and democracy is to affirm the importance of a broad conception of intellectual freedom. 

In my paper on the Kansas school board’s ban on evolution, I turned to one of America’s great philosophers, John Dewey, for inspiration. Dewey was a staunch defender of open inquiry and democracy. In conclusion, I want to share a couple of sentences from an essay on Intellectual Freedom written by Dewey during his visit to China over a hundred years ago:

A dictatorship can endure only when its people are denied the freedom to think, to speak, and to publish freely; to state the converse, the enjoyment of intellectual freedom would guarantee the overthrow of the dictatorship…. Freedom of intellectual life is not only indispensable to a democratic society, but is also the most greatly feared threat to a dictatorial government. In fact, we can say that this freedom is a necessary condition to human progress.

It Ain’t Easy Being Good: Living Well in Exhausting Times

Fresno Bee, March 17, 2024

It is not easy to live a good life. In fact, the difficulty of the task is what makes goodness worth pursuing. If you think it is easy to live well, you’ve misunderstood the nature of morality and the world. The anxiety of virtue is a fundamental feature of the project of living well.

A recent essay by Professor Travis Rieder in Time describes the present age as “morally exhausting.” Rieder says, “Modern life is morally exhausting. And confusing. Everything we do seems to matter. But simultaneously: nothing we do seems to matter.”

Rieder frets about whether drinking almond milk or driving an electric car does enough for the environment. He worries about whether it does any good to “boycott” artists by not watching them on Netflix. I don’t doubt that some people worry about such things. But we Americans are lucky that this is all we have to worry about. In Russia these days, moral courage can get you sent to Siberia or poisoned by the state.

At any rate, moral exhaustion and confusion are not bugs of modernity. Rather, this is a perennial feature of the pursuit of goodness. New technologies and new knowledge must be integrated into our moral lives. But it has always been difficult to be good.

Imagine, for example, the moral confusion of the followers of Socrates or Jesus, beloved leaders who were executed by the state. Or imagine the moral exhaustion of life in Nazi Germany or Cold War Eastern Europe. For that matter, imagine life today in Gaza, Haiti, or Russia. There are places on this earth where violence, deprivation and oppression threaten moral integrity as well as life itself.

From a historical vantage point, Professor Rieder’s worries about almond milk are quaintly bourgeois. The moral struggles of the American present pale in comparison to the struggles of our past. This continent has seen violent conflicts between colonizers and indigenous people. The American revolutionaries made a difficult moral choice to break away from their British cousins. And during the Civil War, neighboring states went to war over the morality of slavery and the identity of the Union.

Rieder uses his examples to point out that it often seems that individual choices have little impact on huge problems. This is true. Your individual dietary choices won’t stop climate change or change Hollywood. Nor will your single vote change the political dynamic of our country.

The fact of our smallness can lead to an existential crisis. It seems that nothing individuals do has much of an impact on the great big world. Recognizing your smallness can provoke anxiety and despair. It can also lead you to give up trying. If nothing you do will change things, then why bother?

But nihilism and neglect are forms of complicity. You should feel guilty if you stop trying to make things better. Your moral effort matters. You may not change the course of history. But your individual commitments are significant for you and for those who know you. History won’t remember your choices. But you have to live with them. Your friends will remember your words and deeds. Your life establishes a model for your colleagues and loved ones.

It can be tough to constantly worry about the morality of what you choose to eat, drive, watch and buy. It is also draining to worry about who gets elected, whether the wars we fund and fight are justified, and the daunting challenges of racism and climate change.

But the moral life is not supposed to be easy. It helps to develop good habits of ethical hygiene. You must practice kindness, gratitude, and truth-telling. It also helps to have good friends and mentors who keep you on the right path. But at the end of the day, each one of us has to choose what kind of life we want to live.

Luckily, most Americans are free to make these choices in a relatively stable environment. Even then, we all confront despair and anxiety. But morality requires tenacity and zest. It is hard work to live well. If you want to succeed in living well, it’s up to you to rise to the challenge.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article286716915.html#storylink=cpy