Social Media, Civility, and Intelligence

Do social media make us wiser or dumber? That depends on our choices

Fresno Bee, September 15, 2017

Is the world getting dumber? Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thinks so. In commenting on Twitter’s role in electing Donald Trump, Williams said people are isolated and narrow-minded in their consumption of news. He said the whole “media eco-system” is “making us dumber.”

Of course, stupidity has always been with us. Ignorance is the birthright of every generation. But Twitter has a unique role in fueling the comedy of errors – the “covfefe” – playing out across our screens.

This week, U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or someone using his account, apparently “liked” a porn video on Twitter. Cruz blamed “a staffer who accidentally hit the wrong button.”

This makes you wonder about security issues and the risk of hacks. It also reminds us that porn is just a click away: at work, at school, or in the statehouse. If Ted Cruz can stumble upon it, so can any kid with a smart phone.

Twitter is responsible for other mayhem, especially when it is used as a vehicle for public policy. President Trump’s confusing recent tweets about DACA have kept people guessing. He has proclaimed unvetted policies via Twitter, such as the ban on transgender persons in the military. And he continues to use Twitter to launch ad hominem invective at “crooked Hillary,” “the fake news” and other enemies.

IT IS WE, THE PEOPLE, WHO ALLOW OURSELVES TO SUCCUMB TO THE TEMPTATIONS OF STUPIDITY.

But the technology is not to blame. A tool is not responsible for malice or error. The Internet was not designed specifically for pornography. And Twitter was not intended as a platform for policy statements. The great dumbing down is not the medium’s fault – it is ours.

The social media ecosystem does provide a temptation for rudeness, crudeness and lewdness. But it is our eyes that move fast across our screens. It is the human user who swipes and pokes, looking for stimulation.

The speed of the medium favors the salacious and obscene. Click-bait preys upon short attention spans. It does not reward subtlety or complexity.

twitter logo

The American attention span is shrinking along with our vocabulary and our sense of privacy. But it is we, the people, who allow ourselves to succumb to the temptations of stupidity.

Information swirls, unfiltered and raw, simple and direct. This is a great democratizing shift. Now the politicians and pornographers can go directly to the people. The Internet knows what you like and it will deliver it to your inbox.

But important things – public policy and sexual relationships – are complicated. Relationships and ideas need time and privacy. A policy is more than the flick of a thumb. Love is more than clicking the “like” button.

Understanding and intelligence are cultivated in quiet solitude. Wisdom grows slowly through a process of exploration and revision.

Our ever-present screens prevent us from finding privacy and silence. This makes us impatient and cranky. Courtesy and eloquence are rare. Civility is a quaint relic of a slower time. And compassion? Well, there is no button for that in the comments section.

We also lack guides and mentors. Experts have been demoted. Editorial expertise is replaced by robots and algorithms.

“Power to the people” is the slogan of the social media revolution. But who is to guide us or teach us how to interpret the information we circulate?

SO ARE WE WISER OR DUMBER?
THAT DEPENDS ON WHAT WE CHOOSE TO DO WITH OUR LIBERTY AND OUR TECHNOLOGY.

Plato feared democracy because it puts the mob in charge – the dumb, vicious and reactionary mob. He warned that the mob easily succumbs to false prophets and demagogues who flatter our baser instincts. I’m sure he would be appalled by the Twitter revolution.

Democracy is dangerous. But it is also precious. The freedom to Tweet is a modern invention. Long centuries of war and turmoil have secured our right to forward outrageous images on our tiny screens.

So are we wiser or dumber? That depends on what we choose to do with our liberty and our technology.

Social media creates an opportunity for better choices. We really do have the world at our fingertips. We can use this incredible resource and our liberty to build a better world.

We can choose to be civil, eloquent, and compassionate. We can educate rather than denigrate. Instead of accepting stupidity, we can strive for wisdom. The first step is to stop blaming the medium, while taking a look in the mirror.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article173413896.html

Morality: worse or better?

Americans see nation’s morality as worse, but history shows otherwise

Fresno Bee, May 26, 2017

Americans believe that we are getting worse as a country. According to the Gallup Poll 81 percent of Americans rate our country’s values as “only fair” or “poor,” while 77 percent say morality is getting worse. Our view of ourselves has been “consistently negative” since Gallup started polling about this in 2002.

Gallup attributes this to ongoing culture wars. Conservatives don’t like gay marriage, abortion, and so on. Liberals don’t like Trump-era threats to abortion rights, transgender equality and other policies. Each side views the other as a sign of moral decline.

This negativity undermines norms of civility. In the middle of a moral disaster, extremism and incivility become normal. A Republican congressional candidate in Montana allegedly assaulted a reporter this week. And the California Democratic Party chanted “F— Donald Trump” with extended middle fingers.We seem to be in the middle of a rude race to the bottom.

THERE IS MUCH TO CELEBRATE IN 21ST CENTURY AMERICA:
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN RIGHTS.

But are things really worse today? For millennia, prophets and philosophers have condemned their contemporaries. It seems that we have always been going to hell in a hand basket. And yet, we have also made progress.

There is much to celebrate in 21st century America: science, technology and human rights, to name a few. Consider this: despite the problem of fake news, the average citizen has more access to information now than Thomas Jefferson ever had. Would anyone really want to change places with someone from the 19th or 20th centuries?

On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, nearly beat Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts, to death with a cane in the Senate chamber. The cause of the dispute was slavery. Soon enough the Civil War killed over 600,000 Americans.

Would you trade now for then? Would you want to go back even a generation or two, to a world of unapologetic racism and sexism?

The long view of history does not support the claim that we are getting worse. But we modern people are never satisfied. We always want things to be better. We are thoughtful and self-critical. But this makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied.

Discontent drives us forward. This is a world of upgrades and enhancements. We are never good enough. And we fear that things are getting worse.

Our low estimation of ourselves may offer a glimmer of hope, however. We might even claim that self-criticism is a sign of moral enlightenment.

Progress depends on moral critique. Modern people don’t rest on our laurels. We engage in constant self-criticism and we aspire to make continual progress. It would be odd for a modern civilization to say of itself: “Hey, we’ve made it to the promised land—it’s all good.”

THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IS A SOURCE OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT.
THE DOWNSIDE IS THAT THIS CAN MAKE US CENSORIOUS AND GRUMPY.

The critical spirit is a source of self-improvement. The downside is that this can make us censorious and grumpy. We are quick to judge others. Self-criticism is difficult. It is easier to see your neighbor’s faults than your own. But moral maturity demands that we scrutinize ourselves more than we do others.

The critical spirit can also leave us indifferent to our own successes. Complacency is viewed as a vice in the modern world. Complacent people think they have all of the answers. They believe that there is nothing left to learn and no need for improvement. They are comfortable and content.

Complacency is related to self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Smug moralizers think they have all the answers. They quickly condemn others. But sanctimonious prigs often fail to look in the mirror or question their own values.

At issue here is a question of having the right amount of pride and humility. We ought to be proud of our accomplishments. But we should remain humble and admit that there is work to be done.

An old motto suggests that we ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is a strenuous call to action, which should cause us to strive for improvement. Unfortunately it can also leave us feeling dissatisfied and guilty. We could always be better at doing better.

So once you are through rolling your eyes at the decline of civility and our moral failings, roll up your sleeves and get to work. This world is only as good as we make it.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article152751389.html

Hospitality and Civility at Thanksgiving

Take 10 steps to defuse post-election tension that threatens a family Thanksgiving

20090914_anger_politicsMore than one person has told me they will avoid relatives this year at Thanksgiving because of political disagreements. Someone suggested segregating Thanksgiving by political party, with a Trump table and a Clinton table.

How sad! Thanksgiving should bring us together in celebration of liberty, civility and hospitality. We should agree about these values at Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving myth commemorates religious liberty in the image of the Puritans escaping religious persecution. It describes civil relations between native peoples and the early colonists. It revolves around the act of sharing food and giving thanks.

Hospitality is an ancient virtue, celebrated in all of the world’s traditions. We are vulnerable beings, who depend upon the kindness of strangers. We are dependent social beings, who enjoy sharing food, song, and laughter. We thrive when we live together in shared community. And we discover wisdom by opening our doors, our hearts and our minds.

Unfortunately, in a world of fast food and Facebook, civility and hospitality are often forgotten. Parents have little time to teach manners. And rude internet trolls normalize repugnant behavior.

So in the hope of a Happy Thanksgiving, here are a few basic principles of hospitality:

Give thanks. Hospitality and gratitude are closely related. Hosts and guests should say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” A hospitable host is thankful for those who arrive. A good guest is grateful for the invitation. Enmity is easily dissolved by a welcoming handshake and a grateful smile.

Respect liberty. Everyone has a right to think and speak freely. Do not be surprised when people think differently. Liberty gives birth to nonconformity. Enjoy the unique individuals who share our world. And recognize diversity of opinion as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

Be modest. No one is perfect – including you. You might be mistaken. Modest people don’t insist. They don’t expect much. And they are thankful for what they receive. Wait for your turn. Defer to others. Let others speak. Serve your neighbor before you serve yourself. And find satisfaction in helping strangers feel at home.

Seek peace. Anger, rudeness, and abuse have no place in civil society. They destroy hospitable relations. Gracious hosts and polite guests avoid aggressive words and contentious topics. Mediate conflict with humor. Express goodwill. Do not give in to a bully. But do not become a bully yourself.

Be gentle in conversation. Conversations are not competitions. They are opportunities to build relationships. Listen carefully and speak kindly. “Listen” is an anagram for “silent.” So allow time for silence. Ask questions and wait for a reply. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But always speak with open ears.

Seek wisdom. Speak the truth to the best of your ability. And work to understand what others think. Avoid idle talk, gossip and rumors that sink into the muck. Think more than you speak. Be curious and contemplative. Create moments for mindful concentration, uplifting words, and shared attention to enlightening thought.

Acknowledge what you cannot control. The world frustrates our desires. Things rarely turn out according to our plans. There is much that is beyond our control, including the opinion of others. But you can control your emotions, attitudes, and words. So give up the illusion of control and stop being irritated by the inevitable.

Celebrate common ground. People disagree about much. But everyone loves children and family, music and laughter, food and drink. We all grieve and suffer. The need for sympathy is universal. And we all value liberty and peace. Explore those common values. Share nurturing goods. And downplay difference.

Offer and ask for forgiveness. We all make mistakes. Relationships grow when we admit and forgive them. Defensiveness and denial are natural. But they are unproductive. Be honest about your failures. And be generous to others who are as flawed and fragile as you are.

Have hope. Civility and hospitality depend upon the hope that wisdom and virtue will prevail. Nothing is perfect. One obnoxious boor can hijack a conversation. But fear and distrust undermine freedom and happiness. Have courage to expect the best from others. Hope that decency is common. And have faith that hospitality can create a world you can be thankful for.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article115571648.html#storylink=cpy

Schadenfreude, Civility, and the Presidential Debates

Presidential debate reminds us we need less spite and more pity

Fresno Bee, October 1, 2016

 

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse has issued a set of civility standards for the presidential debates. These standards ask us all to be respectful, responsive and responsible.

After this week’s debate, the group conducted a civility survey. Most respondents thought Hillary Clinton was more civil than Donald Trump. But civility is often in the eye of the beholder.

There were strong remarks from both sides. Clinton accused Trump of saying crazy things. She laughed at him. She accused him of being a racist. And she warned about his temperament.

Trump accused Clinton of being “totally out of control” and lacking stamina. At one point, Trump said he could have said something “very rough” about Clinton and her family, but that he refrained from doing so because it is “inappropriate” and “not nice.”

Trump went on to complain about Clinton’s negative attack ads. Trump said, “It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.” Soon enough Trump was attacking Clinton out on the campaign trail.

Watching wrecks

I leave it to you to draw your own partisan conclusion about who is naughty or nice here. I’m interested in a larger problem. I worry that we secretly hope for outrage and scandal. And it seems we often get what we ask for.

The debate drew a huge TV audience. Some people probably tuned in for the same reason they occasionally watch auto racing. We like to watch people get smashed up. Hypocrisy is fascinating. Buffoonery is entertaining. Offensive remarks give us something to preach about.

I have to admit that I watched the debate secretly hoping to witness a train wreck. As I watched, I felt for a moment like a kid egging on a fight. I’m not proud of that. A presidential debate has profound implications for the future of the world. But I watched it hoping for scandal.

What’s wrong with us? Why do kids yell “fight, fight, fight” with such glee? Perhaps they, and we, are bored, secretly hoping for mischief.

Civil discourse and serious deliberation is often boring. Reality television, the 24/7 news cycle, and the rest of pop culture keep us addicted to bizarre behavior. It is not edifying but it is entertaining.

Schadenfreude

Another concern is that we are often motivated by schadenfreude. That’s the feeling of joy that is experienced when witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

17420schadenfreudeThe philosopher Immanuel Kant called schadenfreude a devilish vice. It is connected to selfishness, envy, cruelty and bloodthirstiness.

We laugh when other people fail. We enjoy seeing the powerful fall from grace. We are fascinated by humiliation. We gawk at other people’s shame. And sometimes we egg on cruelty.

Of course, this is all morally corrupt. Cynicism and schadenfreude do nothing to make the world better. Cruel laughter is hateful. Sarcasm breeds contempt. And cynicism causes us to disengage from the world.

Another way

The solution is a moral one. Other people’s failing should inspire compassion, not cruelty. It may sound naïve, but it is true: We need less spite and more pity, less hate and more love.

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down. Rather than honing in on other people’s defects, we ought to strive to see their beauty. It is wrong to put someone else down in order to boost yourself. Our words and deeds should contribute to the common good.

This is all part of a humane and civil morality. It’s what we ought to teach our children at home and in the classroom. This is how businesses ought to be run. And it is essential for a functioning democracy.

We are all responsible for growing incivility. Insults, taunts and bullying only work when there is a receptive audience. At the Trump-Clinton debate, the audience was instructed to remain silent. But the audience could not restrain itself. They laughed and applauded, despite themselves. And soon enough, back out on the campaign trail, partisan audiences egged on incivility.

Incivility in the presidential campaign is a symptom of a larger disease. If the candidates are more uncivil than they used to be, that’s because we allow them to get away with it – and also because we get a thrill from watching train wrecks.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article105137046.html#storylink=cpy

Political Correctness and Free Speech

We need to hear bad ideas so we can argue against them

Fresno Bee, June 11, 2016

  • Free speech is the best cure for bad ideas
  • Political correctness gets in way of genuine dialogue
  • Americans don’t like political correctness

People don’t like political correctness. A February poll by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that 55 percent of Americans think that political correctness is a danger to free speech. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans don’t like political correctness.

Donald Trump has made this a theme. In a January speech Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In a recent response to the backlash about his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump said, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”

Trump supporters agree. In a story about a Fresno kid who was not allowed to wear a Trump hat to school, Brooke Ashjian said, “If he wants to wear the hat, he should. If people are disturbed, too bad. There is so much political correctness people are afraid to rally.”

Travel Trip Seeing Miss LibertyDemocratic dialogue depends upon liberty, honesty and accountability. Without sincerity and freedom we end up with hypocrisy and duplicity. This is not good in a democracy.

Nor is it good for the pursuit of truth. Philosopher John Locke once said, “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Speech codes that limit the free exchange of ideas undermine the pursuit of knowledge.

When people say what they mean and mean what they say, we have a basis for judgment and evaluation. Without free and honest speech, we do not know what anyone really thinks. That’s a problem in democracy, in business, and in life.

Frank and forthright speech is revealing and occasionally disturbing. Consider what Trump’s unconstrained speech teaches us about him. He has admitted he is suspicious of Mexican-Americans and Muslims. It is better that we know this than if he kept those ideas to himself.

WE SHOULD HOPE THAT LIBERTY PROVIDES THE BEST CURE FOR STUPIDITY.

Free speech allows for education and progress. Consider the case of Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a letter in support of a friend who was convicted of rape at Stanford. Rasmussen blamed her friend’s conviction on political correctness. She wrote, “Stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

To claim that rapists are not always rapists is a contradiction. The complaint about political correctness is a red herring. But that’s why we need free speech. If we don’t know what people think, we cannot evaluate their ideas – or criticize their logic. Nor can we change their minds.

Rasmussen’s remarks provoked a backlash. Her band was dropped from a number of concerts. Some may see this as an example of the stifling effect of political correctness. But it’s part of the free market of ideas. And the backlash allowed Rasmussen to clarify her position. She recently apologized for her remarks.

That’s an important lesson. Unconstrained speech can result in dumb things being said. No one is perfect. Sometimes our tongues outpace our brains. When we say something dumb we ought to correct it and apologize. Honesty and liberty require accountability.

WITHOUT SINCERITY AND FREEDOM WE END UP WITH HYPOCRISY AND DUPLICITY.

We learn and grow through free, sincere and accountable dialogue. When people say what they believe, we can evaluate them accordingly. We can even try to persuade them to think differently. But when discourse is constrained and people don’t say what they mean, we cannot have a productive dialogue.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no hateful words. But in our flawed world, the next best thing is for bad ideas to come out of the closet. Political correctness can cause people to say the right thing for the wrong reasons, while remaining committed to dumb or indecent ideas.

Genuine civility remains an important good for social life. But genuine civility is not mere political correctness. Authentic civility is grounded in respect, compassion and commitment to the common good. Gandhi explained, “Civility does not mean mere outward gentleness of speech … but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Eloquent courtesy can mask cruelty and violence. Political correctness can be oppressive. And inhibited speech prevents genuine dialogue.

Americans have the right to say what we believe. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article82987487.html#storylink=cpy