Social Media Warnings and Education

Fresno Bee, June 23, 2024

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent call for warning labels on social media is a good idea. He notes that children who spend significant time on social media are at risk for mental illness. Murthy concludes, “The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children.”

But how best should we protect kids? Murthy recognizes that a warning label is a simple solution to a complex problem. Last year, his office issued a more detailed report noting that schools, parents, policymakers, and technology companies have a role to play in protecting kids. And long-term solutions depend upon education.

There is probably also a role for prohibitions. Smartphones have been banned in schools in Fresno and recently in Los Angeles. This week, Governor Newsom called for a statewide smartphone ban in California schools. Social media and smartphones are not the same thing. However, a school ban on smartphones is effectively a ban on social media during school time.

Tools and technologies can be employed in good or bad ways. A hammer can be used to build or to destroy. Prohibitions are justifiable when the risks are obvious and severe, and when the purported benefits of a tool are unclear. And with kids, their relative immaturity matters. A ban on social media access for kids might be justifiable and there is some wisdom in prohibiting smartphones at school. But at this point, a ban on these technologies is akin to closing the proverbial barn door once the horse has already galloped off.

People disagree about the risks and benefits of various technologies. One might argue against these bans by claiming that these technologies are more beneficial than dangerous. These tools help us stay connected, access the news, and conduct business. Of course, these tools also provide instant access to cyberbullying, exploitation, scams, and disinformation. But there is some truth to the claim that with smartphones and social media, it’s not the tool that is to blame, but how it is used.

Some technophobes are opposed to any innovative tool. Calculators were once viewed with skepticism, as was the Internet. These days technophobes are worried about artificial intelligence. But skeptics often adapt to new technologies, when their safety and usefulness are proven.

Hard-core libertarians resist every effort at prohibition. The recent Supreme Court case allowing “bump stock” weapons is worth mentioning here. The decision depends upon a technical matter involving trigger mechanisms. But the bigger question, not decided in this case, is whether there should be limits on dangerous weapons or whether individuals have a right to own even very dangerous weapons.

Social media and smartphones do not seem as dangerous as machine guns. So, it is easy to imagine a libertarian argument against Newsom’s proposed ban. Furthermore, social media is useful for kids. It’s how they socialize, organize clubs and teams, and how they communicate with each other and even with their parents. Smartphones can be useful in education when used properly to access information.

An outright ban may take away useful tools. And a school ban will have no impact on after-school usage. But there is no doubt that education is part of the solution. Teenagers must take driver’s ed and pass a licensing test to drive. Perhaps a similar training course and qualifying exam could be created for social media and smartphones.

Kids need critical lessons about cyberbullying, peer pressure, the bandwagon effect, and the power of misinformation and exploitative algorithms. They also need frank examples of the dangers of social media and smartphone addiction. They would benefit from a training course that includes lessons in “digital citizenship,” “ethical A.I.,” and “virtuous virtual reality” that encourage best practices online and good moral habits in cyberspace.

A Surgeon General’s warning is only a starting point for a broader conversation. We need to continue this conversation. A ban at school might help. But the social media and smartphone horse is already out of the barn. Kids need to be taught the skills and virtues that are required to ride that horse without getting hurt.

Read more at:

Climate change, spiritual development, and the gates of hell

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2023

Climate change forces Americans to reconsider profit, greed, power and truth.

This past week, the Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, described the climate emergency with apocalyptic language. He said, “Humanity has opened the gates of hell.” He called for quick action to avoid the climate inferno.

This call to action is not directed primarily at individuals like you and me. Individuals can drive less, for example. Or you could eat less meat. But the climate-friendly choices of individuals are less important than institutional and systemic change. To close the gates of hell, nations, states and corporations need to be transformed.

One interesting step occurred in California this past week. The state sued five major oil companies, claiming these firms lied about the climate impact of their products. The lawsuit alleges that the oil companies encouraged “disinformation and denialism” about the link between fossil fuels and climate change. This included a deliberate effort to “discredit” the scientific consensus about that link.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us — covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet.” Attorney General Rob Bonta said, “Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment.”

Activists have called out this bad behavior for a long time. But the California lawsuit puts teeth behind the accusations by aiming to punish the oil companies. The proceeds of any settlement will establish a fund that would be used to respond to climate emergencies and to pay for mitigation and adaptation efforts. All of this is occurring at a time when gas prices are high, cars are expensive, and auto workers are on strike.

Could this be the beginning of a radical shift in the fossil fuel infrastructure? Maybe. But while lawsuits aimed at corporations could be part of the solution, the long-term solution must be cooperative rather than hostile. The oil companies should stop lying. But greed, power, and short-term self-interest are not easy to overcome. And so, while punishment and blame are on the table, the ultimate solution requires a change of culture and moral development.

Consider the moral and cultural shifts that have occurred in prior movements for social change. The abolition of slavery in the United States required a war. But that war was accompanied by a shift in moral thinking, which held that slavery was simply wrong. The movement for women’s rights required a struggle in the streets. That struggle was paralleled by a shift in our understanding of women and men. A similar process unfolded in the civil rights movement.

There is a chicken-or-egg question in these movements. Did the moral shift come first, or was it a result of struggle? There is no simple answer here. There are layers and phases and feedback loops in these cultural transformations. Antagonism is part of any struggle. But the long-term goal is moral development. Cultural shifts ask us to re-conceive our humanity, to reorder our priorities, and to respond in new ways to the world.

One hundred and fifty years after slavery was abolished, it is no longer imaginable that any human being would be enslaved. A hundred years after women gained the right to vote, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have denied that right to half the population. That’s the kind of change that is needed to solve the climate crisis. We need to create a world in which it would be unimaginable for powerful corporations to lie and profit while spewing destructive chemicals into the atmosphere.

Secretary General Guterres said that we have opened the gates of hell. That’s a metaphor with religious resonance. It points toward the need for a spiritual solution to the climate crisis. To close the gates of hell, we need structural change, but also moral transformation. Lawsuits will help. But in the long run we need to change the way we think about profit, greed, power, and truth. In short, we need to rethink what we value, and we need to re-imagine the world we hope to leave to our grandchildren.

Read more at:

The Ethics of Resigning Governors and State Recall Elections

Fresno Bee, August 15, 2021

To resign or not to resign? That’s not quite Hamlet’s question. But it’s close.

In New York, the governor resigned in disgrace, while Californians are trying to kick our governor out of office. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is accused of sexual harassment, fudging the numbers during the pandemic, and other misdeeds. Cuomo said he would step aside so as not to be a distraction from the business of governing.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is not accused of sexual harassment. But he is accused of mishandling the pandemic, being soft on crime, contributing to rising poverty, and so on. In California, there will be a special recall election.

It may seem obvious that if a leader misbehaves, he or she should step aside or be removed.

But Donald Trump and Bill Clinton provide counter-examples. Both clung to power, despite the sleaze and the impeachments. The Trump-Clinton model is one of pugnacious resistance. They teach us to fight the opposition, malign the accusers, and circle the wagons. In both cases, this strategy worked.

Bad guys who refuse to resign typically claim that they are defending their integrity and honor against false accusations. They are lying, of course. But once you are on the highway to hell, the cover-ups are par for the course.

For decent people, this is appalling. If the accusations are true, you should step aside. That’s what a good person would do. Of course, if you are a good person, there probably won’t be any accusations.

Cuomo’s resignation complicates this somewhat. He claims that the accusations against him are false. But he resigned anyway. He said, more or less, I’m not guilty but I’m resigning.

But isn’t that what a guilty person would say? We suspect that by stepping down, he is admitting guilt. That’s the way most people interpret Richard Nixon’s resignation. He said, “I am not a crook.” He resigned before he could be convicted for his “dirty tricks.”

A good rule of thumb is that when scandals get in the way of your job, it is time to go. For most jobs, even governor or president, there are lots of competent people who could do them. If you are plagued by accusations of wrongdoing (whether true or false), you should get out of the way and let someone else take over. Once your leadership becomes a liability, step aside in the name of the common good.

But we cling to our jobs. Sometimes this is malicious. Lascivious scout masters and pedophile priests hang on to their positions. In other cases, people feel entitled to the prestige they have earned. They want to hold on to the money and the status, come hell or high water.

Furthermore, political leadership in a democracy is connected to the will of the people. Newsom won the 2018 election by a 24-point margin. It would seem undemocratic for him to resign. This would subvert the will of the majority who voted for him. And since we have a recall procedure in our state Constitution, this is the most democratic way to proceed.

Of course, Trump supporters made a similar point about Trump during his impeachments — that impeachment was like spitting in the eye of those who voted for Trump. And so it goes. The democracy trump card can be played by anyone.

All of this is exacerbated by polarization and distrust. When our guy (or gal) is in office, we circle the wagons. When the other party is in control, we go on the attack. Our political life can appear to be a game of partisan “gotcha.”

But there are cases when ethics rises above politics. A few Republicans have refused to circle their wagons around Trump. And in Cuomo’s case, his own party turned against him.

This points toward the solution. Hamlet felt himself to be alone in the world. But American politicians are not alone. Their power is the result of a social process. It involves parties, donors and voters.

In the long run, what matters is the truth and the common good. The hyperpartisans on the barricades will be remembered as hypocrites and sycophants. Those who pursue truth, justice, and the common good are the heroes of democracy.