Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cynics and Skeptics

Cynicism is generally thought to be a bad thing. It’s not even generally qualified as good in certain contexts. Healthy skepticism maybe be acceptable, but healthy cynicism seems an aberration, a contradiction in terms.

A skeptic thinks carefully and critically, gathering information before passing judgement.

A cynic may have been a skeptic at one point, but a cynic has reached his conclusion. Whether through astute observation, detailed analysis of data, or simply a gut feeling based on no evidence whatsoever – a cynic has embraced a lack of hope, a lack of faith in humanity, and has come to the conclusion that nothing is to be done.

A skeptic worries that humanity’s worst nature will surface.

A cynic accepts that it will.

You can see, perhaps, why cynicism is so frowned upon. Skepticism leaves room for hope – it accepts that the world is not perfect and there is much to be done. Cynicism crushes that hope with a stark assurance that life will always be hard, broken, and imperfect.

But is cynicism so bad, really?

What if life really will always be hard, broken, and imperfect? Is it better to accept that fact or to cling with grim hope to dreams of a better tomorrow?

A cynic would accept it gladly, Better to embrace the hard truth than a comforting lie.

A skeptic and others more optimistic might dismiss the question outright. The question is a false one, they would argue – it doesn’t matter what is best in an immovable world, because the fact is that things do change. Sometimes they change for the better and sometimes they change for the worse.

And as long as you accept the inevitability of change, you hold on to a glimmer of hope. No matter how broken or unjust you think the world is, no matter how much damage you’ve seen man inflict on man, if you have hope, then the worst you can be is skeptical.

A cynic, they would claim, knows better.

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Superlative Inflation

Last week, a friend proposed a moratorium on the words “awesome” and “unique.”

This morning, I saw a new commercial from Maxwell House which attempts to re-brand “good” as a superlative. Apparently Good to the Last Drop was looking a little shabby.

While it has raged on for decades, the superlative arms race seems to have escalated in recent years as every message – from brands and from friends – fight each other for space in the crowded information landscape.

And it’s not only words being conscripted into this battle, but whole sentences or ways of phrasing. The art of click bait is changing the game and bringing superlative wars to a whole new level.

One weird trick…

You’ll never believe what happened next…

I don’t say this necessarily to complain. Being somewhat of a traditionalist, I’ll admit to favoring the idea of awesome being reserved for those rare moments of sheer awe – when you emerge from the wilderness to find a scenic vista overlooking a mile deep canyon which has been painstakingly carved over centuries by the mighty Colorado River.

But I’m also a strong believer in a living language. Words change, meanings change, and ways of talking change. And that’s okay.

I’ll throw an awesome for a cheap trick, and I’m not about to change that.

But I do think this superlative arms race is something we should all be aware of. Those of us who are communicators should choose our superlatives with care – mindful of the need to keep pace with the landscape, but cautious against accelerating the trend.

I count the exclamation points I put in every email.

I usually take a few out.

At the end of the day, I don’t care what words we use. I don’t care what sentence construction we use, or what punctuation we ultimately put at the end.

But I do care that we don’t lose a deep sense of wonder, of awe, at those truly remarkable and rare moments in life. When the world seems to stand still and you can’t help but be breathless, heart pounding in your ears, as you grasp for a word that could possibly describe the feeling that you feel.

Awesome.

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Games

Today I’m headed to PAX East, the largest gaming convention on this side of the country.

Folks who aren’t gamers might conjure images of poker, Candyland, or perhaps…Dungeons and Dragons (Satan’s game). But really, what’s in a game?

Well, many things, actually. You can separate games by the type of equipment used – card games, dice games – or you could organize games by the type of play – strategy games, cooperative games.

And each game has its own personality.

You might play a game while waiting for something to happen – solitaire or Zombie Dice. Or you might play a game with a large crowd – Pictionary, kings, or Fluxx.

Perhaps my favorite types of games are those you play with a small group. You gather around and work together, or talk smack at each other, or perhaps both.

You tell jokes and stories, share a community and a gaming culture.

And once a year, all these people – these weirdos, nerds, and misfits who find their hobby widely disdained by those beyond their small circle of fellow gamers – once a year, these people come together.

And that is a community to behold.

So level up, distribute your skill points, and get in the game.

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Ideal Power

I think a lot about power. Or at least I write a lot about power.

Without doing an inventory of my own writing, I suspect that much of my language seems negative – or at best critical – on the subject. Analyze power. Fight power. Systemic power…entrenched inequality resulting from systemic power. These are all phrases I’m likely to rattle off at a moment’s notice.

But while I think power is a critical topic, I wouldn’t say that power is intrinsically bad.

I would, however, say that power is intrinsic.

That is, power is a feature of the universe. It exists. It’s just there.

In a physics sense, power is the rate of work over time (P=W/t), where work is a force exerted an object. Changing the speed, direction, or characteristics of any object takes work, and work done over time is an expression of power.

A system without an exertion of power is static. Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion. And nothing ever changes that. No power, no work, no force exerted on any object. Static.

Being uninspired by the static universe, I prefer to embrace power as an articulation of change. Of the dynamic nature of existence. Of life.

But what does that mean in terms of social interactions?

A world in which no person has power over any other person at any time seems…unfeasible at best.

First, there are the simple cases of the very young or the infirm. Should a newborn infant have total and complete autonomy? I’m not child development expert, but I’m going to go with no. Perhaps there are certain rights that every person should have – a newborn shouldn’t be abused, for example – but the reality seems to be that a newborn can’t make all its own decisions.

For better or for worse, a mother has power over her child.

Once you’ve admitted power into your universe, the rest is just quibbling over details. Should people become autonomous at 5? At 10? At 18?

That’s a topic for rich debate, and noticeably different from an argument over whether power should exist in this adult-child relationship at all.

There are, of course, deep problems of power within our society. Those in power tend to grow and maintain power, while those without power tend to be permanently shut out of power – suffering dire consequences as a result.

I’d be the first to argue that the distribution and perpetuation of power is a problem, but that’s different from arguing that the existence of power is a problem.

In some ways, that frames the discussion differently. Instead of talking about how we should fight the power or build our collective power, perhaps we should step back and ask what power would look like in an ideal society.

It would still exist – it would have to. But it would be spread more fairly and subject to change.

Perhaps we would all have equal power, but only when averaged across an ever shifting sea of interactions.

You ask me a question about my expertise and I have the power. I ask you a question about your expertise and you have the power.

The power’s still there, but, you know – it all comes out in the wash.

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Pause

Sometimes life can be hectic.

No, I’ll amend that. Life is often hectic.

Whether that’s self-willed or thrust upon us, packed schedules and busy lives seem to be the norm.

Personally, I’m okay with that. Of course, sometimes it’s nice to not be busy. When I finished grad school, I’m pretty sure I was dead to the world for several months before I emerged from my cave. Well, I continued to work full time, but it’s all relative. At that point, having evening and weekends free felt like some miraculous new invention I’d just discovered.

But eventually I got restless. I needed to learn, to grow, to challenge myself. So I found an organization to work with, then another, then a few more. And before long I was buried in an avalanche of community meetings, boards, and committees.

So, overall, I enjoy being busy.

But even in that tumult of time when tasks are flying wildly and to-do lists endlessly grow and never seem to shrink – even in those busiest of hours, I find it valuable to find a moment to pause.

To listen to the wind. To watch the birds. To stare blankly out the window trying to remember what it’s like to complete a thought.

It’s often not easy. It feels like there’s too much to do and no moment to breath. And some days, indeed, you have to push through without a second to yourself.

But most days you can find a fleeting moment. Waiting for the bus. Pouring a glass of water. Walking to a meeting.

Most days its possible to carve out at least some solitary time when you can put the world on hold. When you can stop worrying about this task or that deadline.

When you can pause. Alone in the universe.

A moment where you don’t have to worry about doing this or being that. Everything slips away and you can just be.

Be.

Then you take a deep breath and dive back in. The world keeps on turning and there’s much to be done.

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The Importance of Being Wilde

I’ve commonly heard “gay rights” or perhaps “gay marriage” cited as an example of a recent social movement. “It really just took off in the last two years or so,” someone told me.

And to some extent, that’s true. Marriage between same sex couples became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, and in the last couple of years other states have adopted similar positions.

There have been many recent victories in the gay rights movement.

But is the movement new?

Gay people, of course, have been around a long time. The existence – and often acceptance – of homosexuality is well documented in ancient cultures around the world.

But even with these ancient roots, the modern disdain for homosexuality has served major setbacks to equality.

Gay people were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition and exterminated in the Holocaust.

Discriminatory Americans laws have only been the recent assault that the gay rights movement has confronted. The fact that the gay rights movement has been successful in changing these laws doesn’t make the movement new.

The “invisibility” of gayness has brought unique tones to the movement.

In the late 1800s, everybody knew that Oscar Wilde was gay. I mean everybody. That was no secret, nor was it intended to be.

Wilde was eventually imprisoned for the “crime” of sodomy not because he suddenly came out, but because he chose to sue a lover’s father for libel.

When Marquess of Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club inscribed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic], Wilde could have walked away. He chose to sue. When he was found to be “guilty” of sodomy, he could have walked away. His friends begged him to flee town. He chose to stay. He chose to serve two years hard labor for his “crime.”

History doesn’t well document Wilde’s motivations. He was in love, and he honestly thought Alfred Taylor – his lover and the son of his accuser, Queensberry – he honestly thought Lord Taylor would speak out to save him.

But I like to think as well, that Wilde followed the path he did because he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. He’d been insulted in his own club. He’d been confronted and publicly shamed. It was his right to step up and face his assaulter.

But, of course, Wilde went to jail and spiraled down a dark path prior to his death. Each man kills the thing he loves, he wrote, but each man does not die.

I couldn’t say whether Wilde intended to become one of the many martyrs of gay rights indelibly spread throughout history. But he is.

And his but one story of many. Gay people have fought for lifetimes for acknowledgement, for acceptance, for equality.

Is the gay rights movement “new”?

No, I think not.

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Money, Speech and the American Dream

The “speech” whose freedom is guaranteed in the constitution has long been interpreted to be more than literal speaking. In the landmark 1989 case, Texas v. Johnson, for example, the Supreme Court found that flag burning constituted “symbolic speech,” and was therefore protected by the First Amendment.

But if “speech” can mean symbolic speech, that raises broader questions about what symbols or symbolic acts qualify for protection.

Is money speech? Or more precisely, are political donations?

Supreme Court decisions in recent cases such as Citizens United and McCutcheon seems to indicate that money is speech and therefore protected.

In the Johnson majority opinion, Justice Brennen wrote:

In deciding whether particular conduct possesses sufficient communicative elements to bring the First Amendment into play, we have asked whether [a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and [whether] the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.

By that definition, a political contribution could easily be seen as speech. It certainly conveys a message.

Just this past week, Brendan Eich was forced out as CEO of Mozilla after a campaign targeting him for making a financial donation in support of Prop 8, California’s most recent anti-gay marriage bill.

Just a financial contribution? Perhaps. But from the reaction – he may have well announced that he hated gay people.

For better or for worse, money was speech.

To be clear, I think both Citizens United and McCutcheon pose serious challenges to our democracy – and to the capacity of all people to participate equally.

Perhaps most troubling is not the mere fact that money is interpreted as speech, but in the ramifications that brings.

In the majority opinion Chief Justice Roberts writes:

No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to “level the playing field,” or to “level electoral opportunities,” or to “equaliz[e] the financial resources of candidates.

Well, that’s not quite what I remember from civics class.

Freedom of speech is precious because we each should have equal capacity to exercise it. In whatever form we chose to exercise it,

You and I – we can talk respectfully as equals or we can scream at each other as equals. Both of our speech is protected. Both of our speech is valid. Both of our speech has the opportunity to be heard.

Of course that’s an ideal more than a reality, but no where is that ideal more absent than when money gets involved as speech.

You and I don’t have the capacity to make the same financial contributions. Not only that – from the moment I was born on this earth, and from the moment you were born on this earth – we set out on paths that guaranteed you would never have my capacity and I would never have your capacity. We are deeply, intractably, socially stratified financially. The American dream is a fantasy.

And that fantasy is the real culprit here.

If you gave every American a dollar and let that person choose – keep the dollar or donate it. Then, sure, maybe that is speech and maybe that is fair. Maybe.

But in a reality where the circumstances of your birth so strongly predict the circumstances of your death, there is nothing fair about that. There is nothing democratic about that.

Money is speech, you say?

Fine, fine, if that’s how you want to play it. But if money is speech, then you best be making the distribution of that “speech” fair.

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Trust

A Pew report released a few weeks ago announced that, among other things, Millennials are low on social trust:

In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

They have a graph and everything.

The implication – from Pew and others – is that a decline in trust is a bad thing. In Robert Putnam’s model, for example, a decline in trust correlates with a decline in social capital. And low social capital leads to a whole slew of negative outcomes for individuals and communities.

More generally, its easy to look at low levels of trust two ways: either people are trustworthy but not trusted – which doesn’t sound ideal – or people are not trusted because they are not trustworthy – in which case, you’ve probably got bigger societal issues to deal with.

So, which kind of society are we?

Pew postulates that low levels of social trust come from the unprecedented diversity among this generation. Previous Pew research showed that “minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups.” Additionally, “sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust.”

So, basically, if you’ve been screwed over by The Man, you’re not likely to trust The Man. Well, that seems reasonable.

Maybe Millennials say that most people can’t be trusted because…most people can’t be trusted. I mean, seriously, what is news beyond a series of reports on people and institutions you’d be wise not to trust?

But maybe the deeper story is more complex than that.

There is, it seems, an important difference between people and a person.

People are likely to trample you if the building catches on fire. People are likely to get whipped into a frenzy – or to stand by in apathy, assuming somebody else will act. People are a generalization, an abstraction, a stand-in for the formless masses you’ve never met.

A person is different. A person is specific. Whether their deeds are heroic or despicable, their acts are theirs alone and you can judge them individually.

Do I trust John Smith? Let me evaluate that based off his character.

Do I trust people? Aw, hell no.

I can see why Putnam and others would find a lack of trust disturbing. It may indeed bode ill for civil society.

But it doesn’t have to.

When strangers strike up conversation – which happens all the time – I don’t trust them. I consciously monitor what I say, being sure not to give away too many personal details. Where I live, where I work, where I’m going.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a perfectly lovely conversation.

Everyone’s a stranger when you first meet them. Some are totally unvoutched for – a stranger at a bus stop – while others seem automatically trustworthy through a trusted acquaintance. And, of course, there is everything in between.

It seems perfectly reasonable – and probably wise – not to trust a stranger at a bus stop. I’m okay with encouraging that kind of behavior.

But you know what I’d like to see more of? More conversation about about to be neighborly in an untrustworthy world.

If you smile at a stranger on the street – yeah, sometimes your gonna get that creeper who will cause you to detour into a store – but most of the time, you’ll just get a smile back. Or you’ll be completely ignored.

A lack of trust doesn’t have to lead to a lack of civil society. Perhaps we just need to rethink the rules of the game.

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Anger and Love

Anger can be a powerful feeling.

Not just “a little put out” kind of anger, but deep, passionate, blood-boiling, seeing-red, beyond rational thought kind of anger.

The kind of anger that easily leads to an explosion of violence. As if the anger has a will of its own which simply cannot be contained any more.

Restraint can also be a powerful feeling. To look into the eye of your own seething wrath and refuse to let it control you. To show your enemies that you are in control – but ready to unleash hell with a single command.

Consider this scene from Henry V where Exeter – the real power behind the throne – threatens the King of France with war if he refuses to concede England’s authority.

Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That, if requiring fail, he will compel;
And bids you, in the bowels of the Lord,
Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head
Turning the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries
The dead men’s blood, the pining maidens groans,
For husbands, fathers and betrothed lovers,
That shall be swallow’d in this controversy.

Strong words, spoken with power, but with restraint.

Of course England and France still go to war.

But here’s the real question: is love as powerful as anger?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly thought so. As he said in 1967:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

As a society we often think of anger as power, of violence as power. Love may be desirable, but collectively we can’t seem to shake the feeling that love is soft. Love is weak.

Those who would dare confront anger with love will soon be eradicated, so little is their power.

But is it possible, is it, that if we really embraced love. Embraced it with a blood-boiling, seeing-red passion.

Is it possible that we’d find it more powerful after all?

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Too Many Hats, or, A Tale of Intersecting Frames

Caps for saleEver feel like this guy?

You know, that guy from Caps for Sale?

I mean, maybe you don’t feel like you’re napping under a tree or being hassled by monkeys – but, do you ever feel like you’re “wearing many hats,” so to speak?

The very fact that there’s an expression for this is an indication that it’s not an isolated phenomenon. We all have many roles and we constantly step in and out of those roles. Sometimes with grace and sometimes…not.

Personally, I don’t generally mind wearing many theoretical hats – I find my boundaries and my balance, and I make it work for me.

But here’s what I do find: I am terrible at making connections between my roles.

I find this particularly surprising because much of my work is about making connections. I look for communication gaps, holes in process, and (I like to think) I regularly seek to find and establish connections between people.

Perhaps I am the only person with this problem, but I find it significantly easier to connect Person A to Person B, then to connect my own Role A to my own Role B.

When I do this, I have to be intentional about it. I find myself saying things like, “Well, with this lens, I think this. With this other lens I think something else.” Then I have to step back and try to figure out what that all means for what I – an indivisible individual – think.

It’s all very confusing.

I’ve thought about this for awhile, but I recently started thinking about this – of course – through a slightly different lens.

David Williamson Shaffer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with others, has developed a framework of around Epistemic Frames.

Essentially, a professional in a field has a an epistemic frame, which can be visualized as a network “in terms of the connections between elements usually described as: skills, knowledge, values, identities, and epistemological rules, from any particular domain.”

A professional’s epistemic frame encompasses the way they approach an issue – the type of questions they ask, the type of knowledge they seek, the type of people they engage.

Much Shaffer’s work looks at the effect of online games which seek to educate and mentor students in a particular field. Using Epistemic Network Analysis, he demonstrates how certain games cause student frames to develop to be more like a professional mentor’s frame.

But more generally, this approach brings a new way of thinking about my hat problem.

To “change hats” or “shift gears” a person would have to alter their epistemic frame – to think differently and approach a situation differently.

I’m not sure that get’s me any closer to integrating my thinking, but it’s an interesting way to look at it.

In theory, at least, I could map all my epistemic frames, figure out how they fit together, and then, perhaps, transition between them more seamlessly.

Or, perhaps, I should think about this with another hat on…

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