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.

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

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article287422570.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

Deep fakes, AI, and the need for ethical supervision

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2023

In the era of deep-fake videos, tech companies must not dismantle their ethics teams

Someone forwarded me a story about Microsoft laying off its ethics team. My first thought was “fake news.” It’s surprising to learn that Microsoft even had an ethics department. It’s even stranger to hear that the group has been disbanded at a time when technological innovation is getting wild.

These are the days of deep-fake videos, internet trolls, and artificial intelligence (AI). And so, in chasing down this story, I used my best internet skills. I checked multiple sources. I refused to believe websites I had never heard of. Eventually I found a report on Popular Science. A reporter there named Andrew Paul explained, “This month saw the surprise dissolution of Microsoft’s entire Ethics & Society team — the latest casualty in the company’s ongoing layoffs affecting 10,000 employees.”

The article explains that the Ethics and Society team once had 30 members. It was reduced to seven people in 2022. And now it is gone. The article notes that Microsoft still has a department of “Responsible AI.” That led me to search Microsoft’s website for the Responsible AI department. There I discovered a number of documents and reports based on the following six principles: fairness, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, transparency, and accountability. It’s reassuring to see that Microsoft has this guidance in place. But one wonders how humans are administering this, as personnel are being cut.

Anyway, I recount how I tracked down this story as an example of online critical literacy. You need to actively search for information, rather than letting it flow into your feed. You should check multiple sources, rather than relying on the first click. Double check URLs to make sure they’re not phony. Seek legitimate sources in mainstream or legacy media. Corporate documents, policy statements, and legal filings are also useful. And legitimate sources of information typically include an author’s name.

Of course, it requires effort and experience to sort things out. It helps to understand that the internet, in all of its tainted glory, is as much about making dollars as it is about making sense. Websites want clicks. They entice with spicy stories and sexy pictures. Algorithms force-feed us stories and images. Search engines profit when we click.

There is money and mayhem to be made online. So, you should enter that space with a suspicious mind. Don’t take anything at face value.

This is especially true as AI and deep fakes become better. I discussed the challenge of AI in a previous column. Here, let’s consider deep fakes.

Two recent deep-fake stories are worth considering. In one, students made a deep-fake video of a school principal uttering a racist rant that included threats of violence. In another, actress Emma Watson’s face was turned into a sexualized ad for an app that could be used to, you guessed it, make deep fakes.

In the first case, it is easy to see how deep fakes could be weaponized, as a fake video could be used to discredit an enemy. In the second case, the goal appears to be to allow for customized pornography, where any face could be “swapped” into a porn video. In the first case, yikes. In the second case, yuck.

One solution to this problem takes us back to the ethics teams at big tech corporations. Now is the time to build these teams up — not tear them down. These groups should be monitoring content and establishing norms and guidelines for the use of technology. Beyond that, we need a full-fledged movement for better education about media literacy, critical internet usage, and respectful community standards for the online world. And lawyers and legislators need to regulate and litigate.

Someone said recently that the internet broke our democracy. It is also possible to imagine how deep-fake technology can break people’s hearts. But this kind of damage can be prevented with ethical guidance, wise legislation, and human ingenuity.

I look forward to reading future stories about the expansion of ethics teams at tech companies. Maybe someday there will be college majors and high school classes in critical thinking and the internet. Of course, when I run across these stories, I’ll double and triple check them to make sure they are not fake news.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article273252600.html#storylink=cpy

On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.