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

Lying in the Media: Cynicism, and Hope

Truth is complicated in today’s fast-paced world

Fresno Bee March 9, 2015

The truth is often stretched in the name of a good story. But that rarely bothers us. OpwvX.AuSt.8Some nitpicking quibblers demand accuracy in every story. But the truth is often boring or complicated. So we embellish or simplify.

Journalism and nonfiction writing are, however, held to a different standard. The fibs of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Ederly are worrisome. So are other scandals involving authorial confabulation. Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” embellished much of his story.

One of the challenges of truth-telling is that gullible audiences rarely question heroic and inspiring stories. We like tales that fit our preconceived notions. Liars often tell us what we want to hear. Through repetition, untrue stories come to be accepted as true — perhaps even by the liar himself. The best liar is, after all, the one who believes his own lies. Lying and self-deception go hand in hand. Audiences deceive themselves, too. Once trust is given, it is difficult to admit you’ve been duped.

This points toward troubling questions about the foundational stories of culture and tradition. The same social and psychological forces that explain lying and exaggeration today were also at work in the past. The witnesses of history most likely embellished in the name of a compelling narrative. Those with vested interests bent the truth to their own purposes. The victors told heroic stories at the expense of their victims. Meanwhile, credulous and captive audiences repeated what they were told.

George Orwell warned that when lies pass into history, they become truth. Cynics will conclude from this that history is mostly hogwash. The cynic sees power, propaganda and self-promotion at work in politics, religion and culture. Given our recent experience of liars, phonies and frauds, it’s possible that much of what passes for true history has been warped in Orwellian ways.

On the other hand, perhaps P.T. Barnum was correct when he said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” We hope that the truth eventually comes out. But of course, even that quote from Barnum is in dispute — some attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. And so it goes.

Truth is complicated. Knowledge takes diligence. And perfect certainty is rare. In important cases, we set up elaborate procedures for finding the truth. The courts use an adversarial system and assumptions about the burden of proof. Scientists engage in methodical experimentation, while subjecting their conclusions to peer review.

Philosophers advise us to doubt everything. We know that our senses can deceive us. Eyewitnesses and experts exaggerate, misremember, ignore evidence and misinterpret data. Occasionally the experts deliberately lie. Truth only arrives at the end of the long, deliberate process of sifting and winnowing, which includes a substantial dose of self-examination.

But gossip, public opinion and the media work differently. In the world of tweets and pompous posts, there is little time for fact-checking or deliberation. Self-examination and expressions of doubt are rare in the public sphere.

The speeding flow of contemporary information leaves little time for study, reflection and inquiry. Each scandal, crisis and event seems to require an immediate response. But truth is a tender flower. It dies in the hot house of instant opinion and incessant self-promotion.

Truth-seeking requires nurturing attention, quiet reflection and open-minded inquiry. Truth results from attentive listening and careful observation. Truth-seeking is not glamorous. It looks like a scholar in her study, the scientist in the lab, and the jury in the jury room. This is quite different from the breezy certainty of the celebrity blowhards and vain pundits who stand to profit from the tales they tell.

We know that people stretch the truth. Healthy skepticism is always in order. But we should resist cynicism. The fact that we know that there are so many disgraced liars gives us a reason to hope. These scandals may be viewed as an encouraging sign that, in the long-run, most liars will be caught with their pants on fire.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/09/4417448_ethics-truth-is-complicated-in.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Voting, Cynicism, and Irrational Optimism of Democracy

Act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-06-16

Most Californians elected not to vote last week. Statewide voter turnout was less than 30%. Fresno County turnout was around 20%.

It is rational not to vote — especially in an election like this one. There were a couple of referenda where your vote might have made a difference. But in other races, the incumbent had no viable opposition. Republicans already knew that Romney was the party’s choice; and Democrats had no choice at all. It is remarkable that anyone bothered to vote, given the inevitability of much of the ballot.

What is even more remarkable is that some voted for candidates who had no chance of winning, like Ron Paul, who got 10% of the Republican vote. This seems quite irrational. Why vote for a candidate who cannot win? Isn’t it easier to just stay home?

I talked about voting with professor David Schecter, the chair of the Political Science Department at Fresno State. Schecter maintained that democracy is not a spectator sport. We have the opportunity — maybe even an obligation — to get involved and to vote.

Schecter suggested that there are many reasons why people vote. Voting can be an expressive act. When we vote, we affirm solidarity with others who have fought and died to achieve the franchise. When we vote, we act as role models — showing our children what we value. Some may even view voting as a moral obligation or a duty of citizenship, along the same lines as military service or jury duty.

Schecter pointed out, however, that social scientists also explain voting behavior as a matter of habituation. If your parents vote, you are likely to vote. People who voted in previous elections are more likely to vote in the next election than people who have not voted. Political scientists also can predict electoral behavior based upon demographic data.

But we like to believe that there is more to our own decisions than mere habit or demography. Can mere habit explain why we continue to vote when we know our votes don’t matter much? Or why some people vote for candidates who have no chance of winning?

One explanation is hinted at by the American philosopher Josiah Royce and his analysis of “lost causes.”

Royce discusses the spiritual power that is generated by those who persevere in the face of loss. When we remain loyal to a lost cause, we grieve what we’ve lost while renewing our efforts toward the future.

In many cases, it is rational to give up and surrender. But for some people, the lost cause provokes even more effort.

Royce describes a kind of energy and joy that comes from idealistically serving a cause “of which the world, as it is, is not yet ready.”

Royce’s idea helps explain why people remain committed to religious faith. It even helps explain why people keep getting married despite the fact that many marriages end in divorce.

And it explains our irrational faith in electoral politics. We want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that our votes count.

Every election season, we somehow find the will to believe that this time things will be different. We set our cynicism aside and go to the polls. Even when we know our votes don’t count for much, we vote. Or we vote for candidates who have no chance of winning.

There is a kind of irrational optimism and idealism among those who vote. Voters express faith in the system when they vote for losing candidates, the lost causes of American politics.

Why bother? The lost-cause voter wants to somehow send a message to someone, hoping that someday the world will be ready for a change.

The act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism with enthusiasm.

Voters were right to conclude that their votes didn’t matter much last week. Chances are that the turnout will be greater in the fall — when there are more choices that really matter. But we might worry that we’ve lost our idealism and given in to cynicism.

The 70% to 80% of voters who stayed home last week may suspect that American politics really is a spectator sport. If that’s the conclusion, then democracy itself is on its way toward becoming a lost cause.

 

Animal Freedom and Cosmopolitan Human Borders

Wildlife knows no man-made political boundaries

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-05

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala has just returned from sabbatical, which took him to Israel and Greece.

Birds and other migratory animals are cosmopolitan. They move across borders, following the seasons. Migratory animals remind us that no species owns the world or a particular place. We pass through the world. We don’t possess it. And we share the earth with other humans and species.

Before I returned to Fresno, I visited a Greek wildlife hospital, which treats and houses dozens of injured birds from a variety of species: storks, pelicans, eagles, including many endangered species. These birds fly through Greece from Europe to Africa and back. Even though Greece has many safe havens for such birds — isolated mountains and uninhabited islands — many birds are killed for sport by hunters or inadvertently poisoned. The wildlife refuge houses a sad population of once- beautiful animals who have been permanently disabled by human ignorance.

Healthy birds make amazingly long migrations that take them across heavily contested borders. Every season hundreds of millions of birds pass through Israel and the Palestinian territories. These birds cross borders, which the humans below them cannot cross.

Another important migratory flyway traverses the politically fragmented island of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. Millions of migratory birds pass over the border that divides Greek and Turkish parts of the island. Unfortunately, many of them are trapped and eaten in a yearly slaughter that appalls bird lovers.

I had a conversation with some Greeks about the conflict in Cyprus and remaining tensions with Turkey. One woman said that she hoped that the Greeks would eventually take back Constantinople — using the Greek name for the city that is now called Istanbul. People around the world continue to hold dangerous ideas about borders, possessions and national pride.

From the standpoint of the animals that roam the earth such things are irrelevant. The great animal migrations existed long before humans invented cities and nations. In fact, we were once migratory animals, following the herds out of Africa. It is only fairly recently, a few millennia, that we have created the borders that corral us into nation-states.

A number of philosophers have been trying to imagine a world without borders, arguing that such a world would be more natural, less violent and more just. The cosmopolitan vision wants justice to apply equally to all people across the globe. Cosmopolitans want to address global problems such as world hunger, poverty and inequality. A cosmopolitan world would be open to migration, allowing laborers to move across borders to find jobs. And it would be less inclined toward nationalism and war.

The cosmopolitan idea has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek. It can be literally translated as “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism is focused on the common interests of the human species, instead of on narrow national and cultural identifications.

One source for this idea is the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes maintained, “the only true commonwealth was one that was as wide as the universe.” Diogenes chose to live according to nature — renouncing the trappings of civilization. His critics said he lived like a dog (the word “cynic” is related to the ancient Greek name for dog). Diogenes claimed that our cultural, religious, and political ideas make us unhappy and unnecessarily confine us.

The Cynics were on to something. From the vantage point of nature, our political differences do not matter much. We often forget that all human beings are members of the same species. Just as we often forget that we share the earth with a variety of other species with whom we ought to learn to co-exist.

Human borders enclose temporary settlements. The ancient Greeks gave way to Romans, Christians and Turks. And now the Eurozone is teetering. Civilizations rise and fall. But the birds and butterflies continue their yearly journey. These migrations will persist long after our civilization is forgotten — unless we kill the animals first.

Human beings like to believe that we are smarter than the other critters roaming the earth. But are we? If we were really smart, we’d stop fighting about names and borders and learn to cooperate with the other citizens of the world. Truly rational animals would strive to live in harmony with all the animals — human and nonhuman — with whom we share this small, fragile planet.