Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/20/4438246_andrew-fiala-on-ethics-fighting.html?rh=1#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

Hope and the Wreckage of Civilization

Remember and honor sacrifices before us

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-21

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala contributed this column from Greece, where he is doing research while on sabbatical.

Sometimes hope is hard to find. Times are tough. Jesus was crucified. Socrates was killed. And so it goes.

My experience in Israel left me pessimistic. I asked nearly everyone I met — Israelis and Arabs — whether they were hopeful about the future. The vast majority admitted that they were not. A few confessed that they hadn’t felt hopeful since the Prime Minister, Yitzakh Rabin, was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing radical who was opposed to the Oslo peace plan. That’s a long time to live without hope.

And the turmoil continues, with rocket attacks, missile strikes, protests, arrests, hunger strikes and rattling sabers. One Israeli confessed that he had obtained European passports for his children — just in case.

But Europe is not much better. The economy is so bad in some places that suicide rates are climbing and journalists have described a new phenomenon, “suicide by economic crisis.” Things look particularly bleak in Greece, where I’m concluding my sabbatical research. One in five Greeks is unemployed. There is more austerity to come.

On April 4, just as I arrived here, a 77-year-old pensioner, Dimitris Christoulas, killed himself in Athens in front of Parliament. His suicide was not merely an act of despair. It was a political act. Christoulas left a note calling on people to take up arms and “hang the traitors of this country.” Riots erupted the next day in Athens. And so it goes.

The day after the riots in Athens, I visited the Parthenon, the massive temple to Athena that sits on the hill overlooking the city. Later, I had a conversation about the economic crisis with a Greek woman I had met. I told her I visited the Parthenon. She scowled. She said she hates the Parthenon. “It was built by slaves,” she said, “a symbol of oppression.”

It is possible to draw a dark conclusion from the history of the world. In the end there are only ruins and graves. And much of what is left was built on the backs of slaves who worked and died in obscurity. And so it goes.

I’ve been surprised to discover that many archaeological sites are littered with unfiltered shards and uncounted fragments. There are too many broken pieces of the past to collect them all. The remnants are too small, too insignificant. In many places, crumbling columns and shattered pottery lie piled in heaps, covered with weeds.

The earth is littered with the wreckage of proud ancient civilizations that have vanished. The saddest cases are the relics of cultures whose languages remain un-deciphered, whose rituals and gods and slaves are gone forever.

This can leave you feeling hopeless. The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once asked, “what can a thoughtful man hope for, given the experience of the past million years?” He answered: “nothing.” But we must be careful with this conclusion and the apathetic shrug of “and so it goes.”

It is better to listen to the words of Rabin, the murdered Israeli Prime Minister: “We will not let up. We will not give in. Peace will triumph over all our enemies, because the alternative is grim for us all.”

If you don’t have hope, why bother to complain — what difference would it make? If you give up hope, then the grim alternative comes true. Hope is an act of solidarity, a protest against evil, and a rebuke to the indifference of the universe.

The American philosopher William James once explained — in an essay called “Is Life Worth Living?” — that a sense of honor and gratitude toward all of those who have lived and died before us should give us a reason to keep working for a better world. He said that we must do some self-denying service in return for all those lives upon which our own is built.

The ruins and violence in Athens and Jerusalem remind us of the long struggle of humanity. How many millions have lived and fought and died so that the world could be a better place? When things look dark, it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who came before: the prophets, politicians, philosophers, and slaves upon whose shoulders we stand.

 

Recent Nobel winners echo King’s wise words

Recent Nobel winners echo King’s wise words

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2012

Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.  In December of 2011, the Peace Prize was awarded to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia; Leyma Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a leader of the Yemeni version of the Arab Spring.  These women represent the power of women’s movements for peace in Africa and the Middle East.  In their Nobel Prize speeches, they each cited Martin Luther King as a source of hope and inspiration.

Gbowee’s speech recounted the terror of war in Liberia, which included rape and sexual abuse.  Despite the horrors she had witnessed, she remained hopeful that nonviolence can improve things.  She quoted King’s words: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

Sirleaf spoke of the need for continued expansion of democracy and women’s rights.  She said, “I urge my sisters, and my brothers, not to be afraid. Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered. Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small. Be not afraid to demand peace.”  And she cited King’s optimistic idea that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Karman is the youngest person, and the first Arab woman, to be awarded the Peace Prize.  In her speech she said that King’s idea of “the art of living in harmony” remains the most important thing we need to master. She expressed her hope as follow: “Mankind’s feeling of responsibility to create a decent life and make it worth living with dignity has always been stronger than the will to kill life. Despite great battles, the survival of the human race is the clearest expression of mankind’s yearning for reconstruction, not for destruction, for progress, not for regression and death.” Despite obstacles in Yemen and elsewhere, she foresees  “a humane, prosperous and generous history full of love and fraternity.”

The spirit of hope in the face of violence and injustice is central to King’s message.  In his last sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he acknowledged the threats against him.  But he explained that the struggle for justice was more important than his own life.  King concluded: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”  He was killed the next day at age 39.

In that last sermon, he explained how moral courage works by retelling the story of the Good Samaritan.  In Jesus’ original parable, two people—a priest and a Levite—walk past a wounded man on the road to Jericho.  Only the Samaritan stops and helps.

King suggests that the first two men were too afraid to stop.  The road to Jericho was dangerous—a prime place to be ambushed.  The priest and the Levite may have been concerned about their own safety, possibly worrying that the injured man was faking it in order to take advantage.

King explains that they may have thought, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”  But the Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

This reversal is the key.  When we stop asking, “what will happen to me?” and start asking, “what will happen to him?” our perspective is changed. Suspicion is replaced by care.  Fear is transformed into hope.  And self-interest becomes compassion.

It is hazardous to help others and to speak out against injustice.  Evil dictators crush resistance; and bad guys do take advantage.  But people who risk doing good, tend to experience the world in a hopeful, optimistic way.

In his own Nobel Prize speech, King admitted that “those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death.”  But in the end King says that it is possible to see “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair.”  The fact that this message is being shared in places like Yemen and Liberia is good reason to remain hopeful.