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

Nepotism and the Trump White House

Nepotism has no place in American democracy, but Trump does not practice that truth

Fresno Bee, July 14, 2017

Donald Trump Jr. jumped into Russia-gate this week. And we have yet another reason to be wary of nepotism. The benign interpretation of Trump Jr.’s Russian meeting is that he is a political neophyte, clueless about the impropriety of trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia. He said on Fox television’s “Sean Hannity” show, “In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently.”

But there are no “do overs” in the big leagues. Experienced and expertise really do matter. The problem with nepotism is that family members get the job, whether they are qualified or not.

The family members of presidents may be smart, virtuous people. Or they may be embarrassing goofballs like Billy Carter. But in most cases, these relatives lack relevant experience, education and expertise.

And anyway, we only elect one person to office at a time. The voters picked Donald Trump Sr. to be president. We did not elect his son, son-in-law, or daughter.

When Ivanka Trump sat in for President Trump last week at the G20 Summit, Trump critics howled. The president tweeted that such criticism should go both ways. He wrote, “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES.”

THE VOTERS PICKED DONALD TRUMP SR. TO BE PRESIDENT.
WE DID NOT ELECT HIS SON, SON-IN-LAW, OR DAUGHTER.

Trump is right. Nepotism is as wrong for the goose as it is for the gander. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it would be wrong of her to empower her daughter or husband. Only one person is elected to serve as president. We vote for individuals, not families.

A further problem is that nepotism means that family loyalty can trump other commitments. About 2,500 years ago Plato warned that this was dangerous and divisive. He wanted citizens to be guided by their loyalty to the state, not by devotion to their families.

Some of the divisive partisanship in our country can be attributed to our bipartisan nepotism problem. Republican animosity toward Hillary Clinton is connected to disdain for Bill. Democrats disliked George W. Bush because he was a scion of the Bush dynasty.

Nepotism creates the appearance of bias and partiality—and yet another reason to distrust the political system. Family feuds and dynastic intrigue have no place in democratic politics.

George Washington recognized this. When he became our first president, he was scrupulous about avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest. He said that “impartiality and zeal for the public good” should never suffer from the intermingling of “connections of blood and friendship.” He declared he would not be influenced by “ties of amity or blood.”

In private life it can make good sense to hire a family member. Families are based upon trust, a sense of obligation and a common set of values. Expertise can also be handed down through families.

INSTEAD OF FAMILY LOYALTY WE NEED OUR LEADERS TO BE DEVOTED TO JUSTICE AND THE GREATER GOOD.

The daughter of a doctor may have shadowed her father and learned about medicine firsthand. But patients don’t hire a doctor because her father was a gifted surgeon. We expect a legitimate medical education. We also expect trained nurses and anesthesiologists in the operating room, not the doctor’s sons and daughters.

In our political system there is no credentialing process. Anyone can run for president. And apparently the chief executive can appoint whomever he wants to serve as an adviser.

Another worry is what this tells us about “the American Dream.” They used to tell us that anyone could become president. Political dynasties make that dream seem hopelessly naïve.

Donald Trump Sr. offered a bit of hope for the unconnected masses. His popularity was based upon his status as an outsider. Ironically, by putting his children in power, he is taking a page from the insider’s playbook.

The risk of this strategy has become apparent. Trump Jr.’s cluelessness undermines his father’s presidency. The Trump family is seemingly unworried about all of this. They are also unconcerned about nepotism. President Trump’s other son, Eric, once said, nepotism “is a beautiful thing.”

Family devotion is important—in the private sphere. But in democratic politics, things should be different. We need expertise and experience in the public sphere. And instead of family loyalty we need our leaders to be devoted to justice and the greater good.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article161419818.html

Religion and Education

Are education and religious liberty mutually exclusive?

Fresno Bee, May 5, 2017

College education generally makes us less religious, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Educated Christians are more likely to go to church on a weekly basis than uneducated Christians. But college graduates are less likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives.

College graduates are also more likely to be atheists. Fifteen percent of those with advanced degrees do not believe in God, while only 6 percent of noncollege grads are atheists. Meanwhile, 42 percent of those without college education think that religious scriptures should be taken literally, compared with 14 percent of those with college degrees.

Science education make religious fundamentalism difficult to sustain. The Earth is a speck among hundreds of billions of stars. Our species evolved long after the dinosaurs went extinct. The land was once covered by ice powerful enough to carve out Yosemite Valley. None of this is recorded in ancient scriptures, which teach that the gods have a special interest in this planet and in human beings. 

HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY ALSO CHALLENGE RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM.

Traditional accounts of the soul are also being explained away. Biomedical science locates consciousness in the brain. And evil is explained in neurological or psychological terms instead of as a matter of demonic possession.

History and anthropology also challenge religious fundamentalism. The ancient Chinese or the Aztecs never heard of the Christian scriptures. Nor do Christian scriptures mention these ancient civilizations. This makes simplistic declarations about God difficult to understand. When we say “In God We Trust” in our diverse world, which God are we are talking about: Jehovah, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl?

Even within the Christian tradition there are disputes about God and revelation. Mormons, who comprise about 2 percent of the American population, believe that the Book of Mormon is a holy Christian scripture. Other Christians claim this is false.

Scriptural interpretation has evolved over time. The book of Joshua explains that God held the sun still in the sky in order to allow Joshua’s troops to slaughter their enemies. But after Galileo debunked the geocentric model underlying this story, it has been subject to reinterpretation.

Others have questioned the morality of a God whose miraculous power is used to slaughter an enemy. Evolving moral standards have led many Christians to reinterpret scriptures that contain morally problematic passages about slavery, the subordination of women, homosexuality, polygamy, divorce, and so on.

Religious belief has often been flexible and subject to reformation and reinterpretation. Religions evolve to take in new information and reflect new norms. We make sense of ancient texts in light of modern ideas.

Atheists may view all of this as an argument against religion in general. And indeed, a quarter of Americans have left religion behind – either affirming atheism or simply giving up on organized religion.

But religions are persistent. The diversity and flexibility of religious belief is a key to this persistence. Religions that don’t adapt go the way of the dinosaur. No one worships Zeus or Quetzalcoatl any more. But Christianity thrives because of the variety of Christian denominations. There are over 200 different versions of Christianity in the US. You can pick an interpretation that suits your preferences.

LIBERTY ALSO ALLOWS PEOPLE TO CHANGE RELIGIONS.
INDEED, ABOUT A THIRD OF AMERICANS CHANGE THEIR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION.

Religious liberty thus helps religion to persist. Liberty allows for innovation and development. Liberty also allows people to change religions. Indeed, about a third of Americans change their religious affiliation.

In the free marketplace of religious ideas, religions sell themselves to people and reflect changing tastes. Catholics no longer say Mass in Latin. Protestants have embraced pop music. And Western faiths have incorporated meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices from Eastern traditions.

In the modern democratic and capitalist world, we value educated and informed choice. We want informed consent in health care, in financial transactions and in elections. We should also value informed choice when it comes to declarations of faith. In a democratic culture, we ought to learn about other faiths and shop around. We also ought to leave each other alone to pursue the religious quest in our own way.

Things may have seemed simpler when a common piety was enforced on the uneducated masses. Freedom and science do undermine traditional religious conformity. But modern democratic people have faith in the power of education and religious liberty to make this a better world.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article148835959.html

Fake News and Media Literacy

It’s actually easy to tell real journalism from fake news. Here’s how

Fresno Bee, April 28, 2017

The fuss over fake news continues to unfold. In February President Trump accused The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN of being fake news and the enemy of the American people. This week he said the “fake media” were falsely reporting that he had changed his position on the Mexican border wall. He also explained away recent reports about his low approval ratings as “fake news.”

President Trump seems to think that stories he doesn’t like are phony. But truth is independent of our desires. Not liking something does not make it false.

Journalists – like everyone else – have biases and opinions. But there is an important difference between biased stories and bogus ones. Every story has an angle. But objective reporting rests firmly on the ground of facts. Legitimate news organizations avoid lies and fabrications.

The objective truthfulness of real news provides the template that fake news imitates. Fake news stories are counterfeit. They look like real news. They appear to provide objective facts. But they do not. Rather, they try to sell us something.

Infomercials are fake news. Internet “click bait” is fake news. Newspaper advertisements written to look like news reports are fake news. The tabloids lining the grocery store checkout are fake news. Political propaganda is fake news.

Professional journalists do not produce fake news. The journalist’s code of ethics has four guiding ideas. Seek truth. Minimize harm. Act independently. And be accountable and transparent.

Mainstream news organizations sometimes exaggerate with attention-grabbing headlines and titillating teasers. But real journalists want to get the facts right. When they get things wrong, they admit it – or get fired.

It is not always easy to differentiate fake news from real news. That’s why we need substantial training in media literacy. We need to teach kids how to read a newspaper and how to avoid being suckered by online click bait. Kids need to learn the difference between objective news reports, the opinion page, commercials and outright propaganda.

We all need to understand that YouTube and other Internet sources offer suggestions based upon what the computer thinks we want to see. Some tech firms are proposing a technological fix for this particular problem. Google and Facebook are working to combat fake news by changing how search and news notification functions work.

The technological fix is good. But the problem of sorting out fact from fiction will remain with us. Fake news is an ancient problem. Socrates was executed because false rumors were spread about him. Charlatans and quacks have always taken advantage of the gullible and the ignorant.

Wisdom teaches skepticism and self-restraint. A story that is too good to be true is likely not true. We are often beguiled by our biases. We want to believe things that flatter our egos and reinforce our deepest beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” But wanting something to be true does not make it so.

So while technological solutions can help reduce the proliferation of fake news, the real solution is critical thinking and self-examination.

The most obvious key is to seek out multiple sources of information. You should also compare what you read or hear against commonly held background knowledge. Critical media consumers also ask some of the following questions:

▪ Who is speaking, what is the source of their authority, and what biases do they have?

▪ Is the story trying to sell me something or advance an agenda?

▪ Who is the intended audience? What is included in the message or left out?

▪ How does this story connect to other things I already know?

▪ What more would I need to know to evaluate this properly?

These kinds of questions should guide our reading of books, our evaluation of scientific reports, and our understanding of speeches, sermons and sales pitches. The process of sifting and winnowing is liberating and edifying. Critical thinkers make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives.

Critical thinking is essential for citizens in a democracy. In order to effectively participate in the project of self-government, we need to be able to distinguish between the phony and the factual. Let’s hope that the fake-news furor stimulates a renewed commitment to media literacy, objective reporting, and basic common sense.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article147400744.html

Trump and Machiavelli

Machiavelli and Trump are brothers, bullying their way to power

Fresno Bee, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump’s victory demonstrates that virtue is not necessary for political success. For those who value virtue, Trump’s victory comes as a blow. But we should not be surprised.

We’ve known that virtue is irrelevant to politics since Machiavelli first explained how princes obtain power. A Machiavellian leader is bold, shameless and aggressive. He is not constrained by truth or morality. He gains power using fear, threats and false promises.

And it works. The people love their Machiavellian princes. He flatters their egos and fulfills their desires. The people can quickly turn against him, since their loyalty is based on mercurial emotion. So once the prince takes power, he must continue to manipulate desire and fear, pride and hope.

In his victory speech, Trump claimed he wanted to “bind the wounds of division.” He said, “It is time for us to come together as one united people.” He said he wants to be president for all Americans.

Those words ring hollow for those who remember his divisive campaign. But most people have short memories. And we want to believe him. We also want to believe that there is a united America, despite the deep and obvious divisions that Trump’s victory exposed.

The red states throb in the middle, while the blue states hug the coasts. In California, the Valley bleeds red (with the exception of faintly fuchsia Fresno). But in the true blue Bay Area they are already marching in the streets, yelling “not my president.”

Our disagreements run so deep that Trumplandia must seem a foreign country to the liberals of Berkeley or Westwood. We disagree about the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, climate change and so on. Some believe in Jesus, others in Mohammed, and some in science. Thankfully, the Constitution allows us to co-exist without killing each other.

But it is inevitable that Americans will continue to take to the streets, the courts and the ballot box. If our team wins, we praise the inherent wisdom of the voters. If our side loses, the system must be rigged. And off we go again.

TRUMP IS THE ULTIMATE MACHIAVELLIAN –
A PARADIGM CASE OF HOW POWER COMES TO THE BULLY WHO GRABS HER BY THE CROTCH.

This generation did not invent political turmoil. Nor did we invent lying, corruption, racism, misogyny, murder or war. Human beings have always been venal and vicious. And Machiavelli has always been watching from the wings.

Republicans obstructed Obama. Democrats hated George W. Bush. Clinton was impeached. Reagan was shot. Nixon resigned. Unprincipled opportunists often rise to power in both parties.

Nor has our polity ever been at peace for long. First-time voters already have witnessed Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11. Each generation has its riots and revolutions. There are more to come.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus explained that war is the father of all, and strife is necessary and common. Machiavelli would agree. He described Fortune as a two-faced female dog who must be beaten into submission. A successful prince rides the wild beast of political discord, holding on long enough to triumph.

The ugly truth is that Machiavellians often prevail. They understand that we define ourselves in opposition to others. They manipulate our hatreds, loves, fears and desires. They pander and cajole, soothe and provoke – as it suits their purposes.

There is no permanent solution to this problem. Education can help. But the will to power cannot be eliminated. It can only be channeled and directed by laws and social norms.

Unfortunately, our social norms have been weakened by TV, Twitter and internet trolls. We succumb to shysters and charlatans. And we tolerate outrageous behavior.

IF OUR TEAM WINS, WE PRAISE THE INHERENT WISDOM OF THE VOTERS.
IF OUR SIDE LOSES, THE SYSTEM MUST BE RIGGED.

This is a bipartisan problem. If Trump had lost, Republicans would lambast the Clinton machine. But Trump is the ultimate Machiavellian – a paradigm case of how power comes to the bully who grabs her by the crotch.

It’s going to be a long four years. The comedians are licking their chops. The critics are sharpening their knives. And we’ve got a lot of thinking to do.

We ought to begin by reading Machiavelli. But then we ought to dust off the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The only known antidote to Machiavellian disease is a division of powers, a system of checks and balances, and the right to protest, criticize and think for ourselves.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article114066188.html#storylink=cpy