Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

The Ripping Point

Originally published February 24, 2017 on The Huffington Post

Years ago, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of The Tipping Point. This occurs when a system suddenly moves into a dramatically different state. I believe we are confronting a far worse condition, The Ripping Point. We are in a very real danger of ripping apart as a nation. Worst yet, I don’t see any way out.

Differences are the essence of democracy. But some are injurious to its very existence and foundation. Take the issues of a free press and an independent judiciary.

To my knowledge, Trump is the only President who has called the press “The Enemy of the People.” In defending him, Republicans are at best disingenuous. At worst, along with Trump, they are suffering from a collective thought disorder: the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, indeed to make up whatever reality suits them. When they try to excuse his odious remarks by saying that all Presidents have criticized the press for being overly critical of them, they not only distort the truth, but reality itself. It’s one thing to be critical of the press, which at some point all Presidents have been, but quite another to delegitimize it as an institution, which Trump has done repeatedly.

The same goes for the judiciary. One is always entitled to be critical of a court’s decisions, but not to defame individual judges or the entire judicial system.

The tearing down of the basic institutions of democracy begins with the corruption of thought itself.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

Ethics for a Complex, Dangerous World: The Moral Imperative for Thinking and Acting Systemically

Originally published February 15, 2017 on the Huffington Post

The Odious Concept of Ethical Thresholds

Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the fundamental nature of ethics. Yes, the ultimate purpose is to arrive at actions that are clearly ethical. However, the method or process by which one arrives at and justifies an ethical proposition is as important as the proposition itself. Thus, ethics is basically about the different methods that different schools of ethics use both to arrive at and to justify ethical propositions. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is by putting a proposed proposition in the form of a generalized assertion to help determine if it applies universally.

One of the most important cases is President Trump’s justification for his policy of banning Muslims from entering the U.S. Putting it in the form of a generalized ethical proposition not only shows how poor his grasp of ethics is, but more importantly, how odious it is: “Whenever the numbers of people who are detained from entering a country are small in comparison to those who are let in, then one is warranted ethically in enacting such a policy.” In other words, “Whenever the numbers of people who are harmed by a policy are small, the policy is justified.” To which a good Kantian would reply, “To harm just one person is to harm all the members of society for the principle cannot be generalized such that it leads to a just world.”

Worst of all, the proposition both promotes and dignifies the dangerous concept an ethical threshold. As long as the numbers of people who are hurt are below some magic number, then our actions are ethical. It thus raises the treacherous question, “How many would have to be hurt before one’s actions are deemed unethical?” All of this is not only morally odious to a Kantian, but extremely dangerous.

Yes, weighing benefits versus disbenefits is the hallmark of Utilitarian Ethics, and as such, always tugs at us for who can be oblivious to benefits versus costs, especially if the costs are cataclysmic? While it must always be taken seriously, Utilitarianism can never be the sole basis for acting ethically, for it invariably leads to the odious concept of ethical thresholds. Therefore, there must be other bases.

In those societies that strive to be just, they struggle to arrive at and practice a set of principles each of which is just in and of itself. Thus, a person applying for entry is to be judged primarily on his or her individual merits, not on their country of origin, race, religion, etc. Whether a person can support one’s self or requires which kinds of help, affirms primary allegiance to the country to which he or she is applying, and especially to its democratic principles, etc. are potentially legitimate criteria, depending of course on how they are actually implemented. In other words, the criteria for admittance must not be rigged against particular countries or groups unless it can be demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the members of a particular group such as ISIS are irredeemably dangerous. The burden of proof is thus intentionally set high for he or she who would impose barriers.

Making Connections: The Moral Imperative of Our Times

Thinking and acting systemically is key. Indeed, it is the moral imperative of our times. At a minimum, it requires us to acknowledge that the major schools of ethics in Western societies were formulated when ethics was primarily a matter of rightful conduct between a foreseeable number of individual actors or agents with clearly foreseeable benefits versus disbenefits.

In contrast, thinking and acting systemically means asking among many things, “As best as one can determine, who are all the parties who will benefit as well as be hurt the most by any proposed action?” This in turn requires the ability to see and to acknowledge the intended and unintended consequences of one’s actions. In short, it requires the ability to make important connections before they are crystal clear, let alone certain.

In a world that is interconnected along every conceivable dimension, the ability to foresee and to make important connections is more vital than ever. Indeed, only those who have the ability to make important connections will survive, let alone prosper.

For instance, because we’d all be forced to pay higher prices, a 20 % tariff on Mexican goods is a direct tax on American consumers. The country imposing tariffs thus has as much, if not more, to lose than the country being targeted.

Slowing down and preventing Muslims from entering the country hurts the U.S. in that it alienates Muslims worldwide. Just when the cooperation of Muslims is needed more than ever, there is less incentive to help a government that is viewed as inherently hostile to them. It only furthers the fear that banning Muslims plays directly into the hands of ISIS, which it has. It also encourages long-time allies to rethink their commitments to the U.S.

As Republicans are discovering, as odious as they find the Affordable Care Act, getting rid of it poses severe problems. For one, it threatens to blow up insurance markets, for what will be the size of the remaining pool of people able to afford coverage, and who will they be, both of which are crucial in determining premiums? For another, millions who have had coverage, often for the first time, are threatened with losing it. And of course, there are no viable alternatives on the horizon. The potential political damage to Republicans is thus enormous.

Despite the fact that over 97% of reputable climate scientists worldwide believe on the basis of sound science that humans are primarily responsible for Global Warming, far too many still vehemently deny the connection, and thereby the entire phenomenon. Unfortunately, by the time they finally admit it, it’ll be too late to do anything serious about it.

With the exception of Global Warming, none of the foregoing is automatically or conclusively true. Every one of them is highly contentious, which is generally true of all issues that are important. Indeed, the matter is easily turned on its head: something is important if and only if it raises intense differences.

The Age of Uncertain, World-Changing Connections

Obviously, one’s level of education, political affiliation, ideology, raw intelligence, etc. all play critical roles in determining whether one sees potential interactions. Although it’s tempting to portray conservatives and Republicans as least likely to acknowledge interactions, especially the more complex they are, far too many academics and those with narrow world views are unable to admit them as well. For this reason, it’s false to single out any particular group.

In short, the ability to think expansively is more critical than ever. We are deeply in The Age of Uncertain, World-Changing Connections.

This does not mean that we should take seriously, let alone accept, every proposed connection, least of all those that are the result of conspiracy theorists, the purveyors of Fake News or “alternative facts.” It means that traditional forms of handling and portraying complex issues are no longer adequate. We need both new and old media outlets that can display side by side the opposing arguments and evidence for and against important connections. It’s no longer sufficient to turn to separate sources to get the arguments pro and con for important issues.

Dialectic Reasoning

It’s not that both sides of important issues necessarily need to be equally credible, but that one of the most important ways of determining what’s credible is by viewing the strongest case that can be made for and against any important proposition. The issues we face are too important not to be examined in such a manner.

In short, dialectic reasoning needs to be front and center. It’s the foundation for ethical thinking in a complex, dangerous world.

Blog, Media + Politics

Fake News: The Product Of Fake Inquiry

Originally published 12/16/2016 on the Huffington Post

Fake news is due primarily to the serious loss of trust in established institutions. Far too many have abandoned traditional ways of arriving at the “truth.” Since “truth” is fundamental to the issue, let me analyze fake news from a philosophical perspective.

One of the preeminent ways of acquiring valid knowledge is by means of expert consensus (historically known as empiricism). “Truth” is that with which a group of independent, well-qualified experts agree. More generally, it’s the average of independent data, observations, etc. The tighter the agreement between the data, experts, etc., the more that the average is regarded as the “best approximation of the truth.”

For example, the “body of ‘reputable scientists worldwide’” is in strong agreement that human activities are largely responsible for global warming. Thus, that humans are responsible for global warming is essentially settled.

Those who are susceptible to fake news—especially conspiracy theories—generally start with a set of “preconceived truths such as “one can’t trust the biased news media, etc.” These “truths” are so strongly held that they are incontrovertible. One then works backwards to find sources that unequivocally support one’s predetermined views. Instead of using independent journalists who are experts in seeking out facts and counter checking them meticulously, one gravitates—indeed, seeks out— instead towards groups of partisan advocates, i.e., “favored experts.”

Well-known cognitive biases are paramount in both forming and in confirming one’s favored beliefs. Confirmation bias—deliberately searching out those sources that support one’s favored conclusions—is predominant. So is cognitive closure. One’s preferred truths are impervious to modification.

With the growth of social media, one cannot counter fake news merely by presenting scientific evidence and engaging in reasoned argument. Scientific evidence and reasoned arguments are generally rejected. Instead, one needs friendly, trusted faces that can embed scientific evidence in compelling stories.

If social media were truly responsible, it would deliberately develop sites that were devoted to countering fake news. It would also hire editors to ferret out fake news. In addition, it would employ reputable scholars to test what’s most effective in countering fake news.

We’re naïve if we think that “scientific facts” alone will counter fake news. It wouldn’t exist if it didn’t fulfill deep emotional needs.

To respond to such needs, we need to bring Jon Stewart out of retirement to host a new show along the lines of Fake News Exposes! Stephen Colbert is expert enough to take on the job as well!

In the end, fake news is anything but a joke.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

Getting Beyond The False Contentions That Keep People From Voting For Hillary

Originally Published October, 10, 2016 on The Huffington Post

I am astounded by the reasons (more accurately, “raw feelings!”) that people give for not being able to vote for Hillary Clinton. Basically, they boil down to four.

The first and most pernicious—a lie actually—is that not only is she untrustworthy, but even worse, she’s totally corrupt. For this reason alone, she is basically unfit to be President. As Trump’s supporters never tire of shouting, “Lock Her Up!”

The second follows almost automatically from the first. She is too guarded and therefore not authentic. In brief, she’s unlikeable. She’s unable to show her true feelings and thus connect with larger audiences. Once again, this makes her untrustworthy.

The third is that voting for her is merely a vote for the lesser of two evils.

A fourth is that a vote for a third party candidate is a vote for someone better who can live up to one’s ideals.

Let me respond very briefly to each with the clear recognition that if one is committed fervently, then there is little that I or anyone else can say that will cause them to abandon their beliefs.

If Hillary were as corrupt as she’s alleged, wouldn’t 30 years be enough time to convict her? Haven’t enough parties tried their damnedest to do exactly this to no avail?

Making mistakes and lapses of judgment do not make one evil. Lack of perfection is not equivalent to being evil.

Hillary is not the lesser of two evils. By virtue of her intelligence, long years of public service, depth of knowledge and experience, she is eminently qualified to be President. The same coolness and reserve for which she is so roundly criticized are the very attributes that, unlike her opponent, make her temperamentally fit to be President.

There is too much riding in this election to throw one’s vote away. And sadly, that’s exactly what a vote for a third-party candidate is, especially for someone who is supremely ignorant of world affairs.

I will never forgive Ralph Nader for allowing George W Bush to be elected under the false contention that there were, and are, no real differences between the two major parties. There certainly were and there are now between the two candidates.

Unfortunately, a quote—and I paraphrase— that is attributed to Jonathan Swift sums up the matter, “You cannot reason a man out of that he was not reasoned into in the first place.”

I hope fervently that there are enough people who can be reasoned beyond the falsehoods that are attributed to Hillary.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

The Donald: An Incredible WWE Star

Originally published May 24th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

Everything about Donald Trump is straight out of the World Wresting Entertainment (WWE). To use his own language, he fits the bill “tremendously.”

First of all, he struts around the “ring” (uh “stage”) continually pumped up on steroids. He constantly flexes his muscles by saying how “great” and “fantastic” he is. His proclamations to make “America great again” and to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico is just part of his “manliness,” along with the “size of his you-know-what!”

Second, he whips the crowd up into a constant frenzy. They and he are and must be excited all the time. They embody the energy that is a sure sign of American greatness.

Third, his ridiculous hair, general appearance, facial contortions, the endless waving of his hands, etc. are all part of his costume and act, which of course he flouts constantly.

Fourth, there are no doubts whatsoever who the real heroes versus the villains are. The differences are clear-cut for all “good, God fearing, true Americans to see.” Under no circumstances must the villains be let in, and those who are already here by nefarious means must be thrown out of the ring by any means. The villains have nobody to blame but themselves. They must be thrown to the mat and pummeled mercilessly. No wonder he leads the chants to “throw them all out!”

Fifth, racism and sexism play are major players. Thus, whites against blacks, whites against latinos, and latinos against blacks are mainstays. But so are the divas, over sexualized women in skimpy costumes who trot around endlessly displaying their big t**s and shaking their a$$*s.

Sixth, the crowd knows that it’s all an act. None of it is “true,” because “truth doesn’t matter.” It’s completely beside the point. Performance is the main draw. Indeed, everybody is “in on the secret!”

The crowd doesn’t mind any of this because the spectacle itself is immensely comforting. Predictability is the key. Trump’s unpredictability has become predictable. He’ll say anything to get and hold attention. Most important, he says the very things that others have been punished their whole lives for even thinking, let alone actually saying. PC is for Wimps and Pussies!!
He’s the biggest, baddest, meanest dude around. He can’t be bought and thereby forced to shut up. His powers are unlimited.

It’s tailor made for those who have been made powerless and useless by a world that doesn’t need or want them anymore.

It’s a match made in heaven!

What happens though if Trump actually gets elected President but cannot possibly deliver on his and the crowd’s shared fantasies? What happens when people finally see he’s a clown and not a “real phony WWE star?” What do they do after the show is closed down for failing to deliver? Who and what’s the follow-up act? Will real violence then erupt?

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Technology

The New Media: In Your Head and in Your Body All the Time

Originally published May 16th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

The early days of commercial TV are aptly characterized as “appointment media.” One had to make specific “appointments” as it were to watch one’s favorite shows since they were broadcast only at precise times and rarely repeated. With the advent of cable TV, we moved to “destination media.” Certain channels offered 24 hours of programming that was targeted at specific groups such as kids, gardening enthusiasts, news junkies, etc. Today, we have “always on media.”

A personal experience, but one which is all too common, illustrates the nature of “always on media.” More than once, our out-of-state niece has stayed with us. She literally sleeps with her cell-phone next to ear, which of course is “always on” lest she fail to be instantly “in touch” with all her friends. Anything less is cause for great shame and humiliation.

In a word, we’ve moved from fixed TV screens to small portable ones that are integral parts of our every waking moments, and unfortunately for teenagers everywhere, when they should be asleep.

The psychological and social effects are enormous. Parents report great difficulties in getting their children to turn off their cell-phones, iPads, etc., and to engage in meaningful conversations at the family table, assuming of course that families still have regular mealtimes at which they eat together. When families do get together, parents report that heated arguments often break out over getting kids to turn off their “screens.” But more than this, occupational therapists report that today’s children do not have the necessary core strength to sit and walk properly because too much time is spent slouching in chairs glued to their “screens.”

Yes, we know that there have always been complaints over new technologies that have both improved and disrupted our lives. Thus, when air-conditioning came into widespread use, it was feared that it would destroy a sense of community because people would no longer congregate on their steps on hot nights. Instead of talking with one another, and thus getting to know their neighbors, they would retreat to their homes where they would be isolated. Of course such fears were overblown.

Nonetheless, we feel that something is very different about today’s media and technologies. Today’s technologies are not only disrupting old established businesses (think Uber and Airbnb), but they are disrupting our lives even more. In part, this is because those who develop such technologies have little if any training, and hence even less interest, in human, and especially, child development. Instead, what happens is that the latest, great technologies are largely dumped on society, and more often than not on the most fragile and vulnerable members, without any forethought given to their potential deleterious social effects.

Take Facebook. If one had deliberately set out to intentionally design a perfect mechanism to bully young children relentlessly 24/7, one couldn’t have designed a better platform coupled to cell phones! Ideally, parents, child psychologists, and even kids themselves should have been involved before the launch of Facebook to talk about possible ways to curb cyber-bullying.

While not perfect by any means, enough is known about the history of technology such that there are no valid excuses for not having historians, psychologists, and sociologists involved from the very beginning in the development of new technologies. In the case of cell-phones, the genie is already out of the bottle. It will take a concerted effort by parents to band together politically to push for greater controls.

If you think that cell-phones have bad effects, stay tuned. Even more worrisome are technologies on the horizon. We already have clothes and gloves that are full of sensors that “meld” seamlessly onto one’s body, “sense, “and relay all kinds of data to interested parties for their personal gain. The day is not far off that we will have implants such that we won’t need external cell-phones. They’ll be integral parts of us by literally being in us.

If there are any doubts whatsoever about whether such concerns are overblown, then consider that recently Carnegie Mellon announced that engineers have developed new technologies whereby a person’s skin essentially becomes a “touch screen.” Talk about “being always on and literally ‘in’ one’s body!”

Who’s thinking about the effects, both positive and negative, of such “developments,” if we can truly call them that? If we don’t start thinking about them now, it’ll be too late.

Blog, Media + Politics, Politics

The Donald’s Incredibly Poor Record of Damage Control

Originally published April 8th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

Since the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, I am one of the early founders/workers in the modern field of crisis management. Since that time, no one even comes close to the sheer number of hateful, inflammatory, and downright ugly statements than those that have been uttered consistently by Donald Trump. If any other person had made just one or two of them, in all likelihood they would have resulted in major crises such that the person would not have survived.

Compounding the problem is that with the possible exception of backing off from his utterly irresponsible assertion that women who have abortions should be punished in some way, his record in damage control is abysmal. In virtually all cases, offering “no apology” and “doubling down,” i.e., saying and doing more of the same, have been his overwhelming responses. It’s bad enough just to create or to have a crisis, but poor damage control only multiplies the harm even more.

Below is a brief list of The Donald’s many insults and his resulting attempts at damage control. In virtually all cases, The Donald’s preferred form is to offer no apology (NA) and to double down (DD) by repeating the assertion/insult.

1. Insult: Criminalize Mexicans
“They’re criminals and rapists!” “I will deport all 12 million of them. I will
have Mexico pay for a wall to keep them out.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

2. Insult: Disparage John McCain
, “He’s not a war hero! Heroes don’t get caught!”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

3. Insult: Mock the disabled, mock impression of Serge Kovaleski — a reporter who suffers
from a congenital joint condition — at a Trump rally.
Damage Control: NA, DD.

4. Insult: Criminalize Muslims, “I saw thousands of them applauding the fall
of the Twin Towers.” “We can’t allow them into the U.S.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

5. Insult: Megyn Kelly, “She had blood coming out of her.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

6. Condone Violence, “The Media are awful. They pick on me more than they
do others.” “They attempted to hit me first.” “I will pay for the lawyers of those falsely
accused of roughing up the Media.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

7. Insult: Marco Rubio, “He’s such a little man.” “My ‘hand’ is bigger than his.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

8. Insult: Ted Cruz’s wife, “He did it first. He showed a nasty picture of my
Damage Control: NA, DD.

9. Failure to Reprimand His Campaign Manager for Battering a Reporter
“He’s an excellent person.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

10. Failure to disavow David Duke, “I don’t know much about him.”
Damage Control: NA, DD.

11. Punish women, “There has to be some form of punishment for women
who have had abortions.”
Damage Control: Belated Apology after howls of protest from both Pro-
life and Pro-choice groups condemned Trump.

Since insults feature prominently in nearly all of The Donald’s outbursts, I can only surmise that he is appealing to people who have been deeply insulted in some form or another throughout their lives.

The biggest insult is being fired with no future prospects. In essence, one is relegated to the junk heap. The message is that one is entirely useless, that society doesn’t care at all.

By insulting everyone and everything freely and repeatedly, The Donald is acting out what others would like to do but can’t.

His candidacy is the biggest insult of all.