Blog, Politics, Sociology

Engulfed By Madness: Abnormal Times Defy Normal Explanations

Originally published 10/25/2017 on The Huffington Post

We live in deeply disturbing times. They defy normal explanations.

America is beset by the confluence of three powerful forces. Any one of them by itself is overwhelming. But all three acting together and reinforcing one another have made us especially vulnerable. They are: 1. Massive Denial; 2. Splitting; and, 3. Unmistakable Pathology emanating from the highest office in the land.

One of the strongest examples of Massive Denial is the fact that ardent gun proponents are generally not just dismissive, but contemptuous of the fact that owning a gun increases substantially the occurrence of a homicide and/or suicide in one’s household. The preponderance of studies is unequivocal in this regard[i]. Indeed, those states with looser gun laws have substantially higher rates of gun homicides and suicides. Guns, the things that are supposed to make us more secure and safer, have just the opposite intended effect. They pose extreme dangers to their owners, and not by just a small margin. And, this is only one of the many things of which Americans are in denial.

Splitting is evidenced by the fact that the present occupant of the Presidency constantly proclaims to the sentiment “You’re either with or against me.” The world is thereby sharply split into “good versus bad guys,” with nothing in-between. But then so does the NRA by ignoring the fact that “good guy guns” are substantially at fault in home homicides and suicides.

Unmistakable Pathology is evidenced by the clear signs of disturbance that emanate daily from the President: little if any impulse control as indicated by a never-ending series of rambling tweets, if not the overuse of tweets themselves to convey the “thoughts” of the President; dangerous bluster that threatens nuclear annihilation; sheer and utter contempt and disregard for America’s critical institutions, etc.

Defense Mechanisms

If Sigmund Freud had discovered nothing more than the phenomenon of Defense Mechanisms, it would have been more than enough to ensure his lasting fame.

On occasion, everyone uses various devices to protect their psyches from disturbing, unpleasant ideas, thoughts, and realities. These range from out and out denial to compartmentalization, grandiosity, idealization, intellectualization, projection, and projective identification.

If an event or situation is highly disturbing or unpalatable such as directly witnessing the death of a loved one, becoming a victim of incest or a serious crime, experiencing the horrors of war, etc., then one’s mind can literally shut down and refuse to register the event, or at least not to do so consciously. This is an example of outright denial. But since denial is never perfect, unpleasant experiences often resurface in the form of dreams, nightmares, and severe anxiety attacks in response to, say, loud noises that are mistaken for gunshots.

America is in denial of so many things that it would take a legion of articles to cover them all. The most potent example is those who not only voted for Trump, but continue to defend him. They are in Massive Denial when it comes to the dangers he poses daily.

Compartmentalization occurs when one part of the mind registers one aspect of a horrific event—say, the sounds—and others register the sights and smells associated with it. But since it would be too overwhelming, and hence traumatic, if the sights, sounds, and smells were brought to together as parts of a single unified experience, the mind unconsciously keeps them apart. One of the clearest examples is the oft-expressed rationalization by those who voted for Trump. Namely, “We wish we would say things better, but at least he’s saying what needs to be said.”

Grandiosity occurs when one believes that one is all powerful such that he or she can defeat any force however strong it is. To say that Trump suffers from delusions of grandiosity is a gross understatement.

Idealization occurs when one takes on the attributes of perfection such that one is without any imperfections whatsoever. For example, one exaggerates one’s abilities to meet and surmount any challenge however onerous it is. Count Trump here again! ! It also occurs when one is unwilling to acknowledge and thereby apologize for any discretion whatsoever.

Intellectualization occurs when one overly uses and hence becomes lost in abstractions that have little to do with the realities of everyday lives. A prime example is Secretary Clinton’s oft-repeated assertion during the 2016 Presidential campaign that she had a “policy for attacking unemployment”—if not for every problem we face—that people could look up on her website. This may have worked well with elites, but it failed miserably to connect with ordinary workingmen and women. It only reinforced the impression that not only did liberals not care about ordinary working people, but held them in contempt.

Projection occurs when we disown parts of ourselves that we don’t like and project them onto others. Thus, the media “lie” but not those who are making the accusation. Projective identification occurs when we accept or identify with—“own”— the projections of others.


The highly influential child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is generally credited with discovering the phenomenon of Splitting. It’s said that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then Klein discovered the infant in the child. She thus pushed back even further our understanding of the roots of human behavior.

Klein discovered that under the age of two or so, children believed that there were two distinct and separate mothers: the “good mother” that catered to the child’s every need when he or she wanted it, and the “bad mother” that couldn’t always be there when the child demanded it, and even more, had to discipline the child. In short, the child’s mind was not yet mature enough to accept that “both mothers were one and the same. “

In a word, Splitting is one of the earliest and most primitive Defense Mechanisms available to humans. It protects very young children from the frightening experience and thought that the caretaker on which one is totally dependent is a threat to one’s very existence.

Most children typically develop out of Splitting as part of the normal process of development, but some form of Splitting stays with us our entire lives. It’s especially prominent in times of great stress and danger. Thus, Splitting is responsible for the sharp division of the world into “good versus bad guys and forces.” In other words, in times of great stress and danger, we revert to one of the earliest, most primitive Defense Mechanism. With his continual sharp division of the world into “good versus bad guys” –those who are completely with him versus those who are opposed and thus the enemy—President Trump is under the grips of Splitting.


Psychoanalysis is one of the few fields that offer deep insights into the human condition. For instance, all of the various factors that have been identified by psychoanalysis are capable of acting both as the causes and the effects of major crises. Causes become effects, and effects become causes. At the very least, they are deeply intertwined. Thus, a preexisting tendency towards paranoia not only makes one more susceptible to anxiety as the result of experiencing various threatening events, and thus paranoia fuels, if not causes, tremendous anxiety, but paranoia is often one of the major effects/outcomes of intense anxiety and trauma as well. Such is also the case with other factors such as being predisposed to as well as experiencing the effects of illusions, delusions, psychotic breaks, etc. These in turn are capable of leading to one’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, being a member of White Supremacist and Neo Nazi groups, etc.

If the goal of psychoanalysis is always the same, this doesn’t diminish its importance one iota: the weak Ego of the individual and society need to be strengthened so that both individuals and groups can withstand the growing threats of an increasingly hostile and unstable world. In brief, the Self needs to be strengthened so that it’s able to face, thus withstand, increasingly complex and dangerous realities.

This is the difficult task facing us. I pray fervently that we can rise to it.

[i] Melinda Wenner Moyer, “Journey to Gunland, “ Scientific American, October 2017, pp. 54-63.

Blog, Philosophy, Sociology

The Post Reality Society: Truth in The Age of Disinformation – Chapter One

Originally published September 6th, 2015 of Nation of Change

Chapter One: Is Reality Nothing More Than What One Believes?

“All political campaigns use symbolism to inspire emotion. And, Swiss people…have some real anxieties about the nation’s future, in an era of declining fertility and economic fragility. Why, then, does [the campaign to ban minarets from the roofs of Swiss mosques] raise particular concerns about fear running amok? The first problem is that it distorts facts so flagrantly, trying to make people think that all Swiss Muslims are aiming at something like a military takeover, in which women will be brutally subjugated and the Swiss countryside will be a war zone…The symbolic significance of the minaret…is that [its] shape…can be made to signify a missile, thus reinforcing the idea that Muslims pose a security threat. But the minaret-as-missile metaphor is by itself a gross distortion of reality…”[i][Emphasis mine]

Martha Nussbaum

“…ideologies are often more influential than evidence.”[ii]

Joseph E. Stiglitz

There are an endless number of stories one could use to illustrate what many believe is true about Reality. The frontispiece quote about Swiss minarets is certainly one. In fact, many believe that Reality is nothing more than what someone chooses to believe. Consider the following.

Story One

Because his family thought he was being too nice to strangers, and, therefore, he needed to be taught a lesson he would never forget, a 6-year-old Missouri boy was subjected to a terrifying four-hour, staged kidnapping.[iii] As a result of the intense emotional pain and trauma that were inflicted on the helpless child, the boy’s mother, grandmother, aunt and the aunt’s co-worker who actually carried out the mock abduction were charged with kidnapping and other felonies.

If the actual abuse wasn’t horrific enough, then the reactions of the family after the fact only showed how demented their Reality was. Because their primary intent was merely to educate the child, the family felt that they had done nothing wrong.

The mock kidnapping started when child was lured into a pickup after getting off a school bus. He was then tied up, threatened with a gun, taken to a basement where his pants were removed, and told he could be sold into sex slavery. The boy was also told that he would never “see his mommy again,” and he would be “nailed to the wall of a shed.”

When he started to cry, the co-worker showed the child a gun and said he would be harmed if he didn’t stop bawling. Plastic bags were used to tie the child’s hands and feet.

Still unable to see, the boy was lead into the basement of his mother’s home, where his 38-year-old aunt took off the boy’s pants.

The child remained in the basement for several hours before he was unbound and told to go upstairs where the child’s family then lectured him about the dangers of talking to strangers.

The boy’s 25-year-old mother, Elizabeth Hupp, was charged with felony kidnapping, felony abuse, and child neglect. The 58-year-old grandmother, Rose Brewer; the aunt, Denise Kroutil, and the aunt’s co-worker were also charged with felony abuse.

Finally, after he told school officials what happened to him, the boy was placed into protective custody.

One can only imagine the trauma the child suffered, and will undoubtedly continue to suffer for years, after he was taught a “hard but apparently much-needed lesson by a loving family” that only wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of the world.

What Reality indeed was the family living in? It was certainly not “normal” in any sense of the term. It not only borders on, but firmly crosses over into the land of the Demented and Evil.

Story Two

Because I identify so strongly with Liberal, Progressive causes, I am especially distressed when the Left engages in its own forms of denial and faulty reasoning. When this happens, I feel that the Left is no better than its Right-wing counterparts.

The rendition of the various versions of Reality and Truth that I examine are obviously influenced heavily by my strong political beliefs and sentiments. For this reason, I admit freely that I am governed by many of the same forces to which others are subject and for which I criticize them so roundly.

I admit that I feel nothing but disdain towards the Right when it denies the science that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that global warming is not only a scientific fact, but that primarily it’s due to humans. Naomi Klein’s excellent book, This Changes Everything documents masterfully why Conservatives are loath to accept the science behind global warming.[iv] The science challenges every aspect of their belief system, especially their economic self-interests.

For this and other reasons, I found The Ethicist Column in the Sunday, January 18, 2015, New York Times Magazine, equally disturbing. It contains a powerful example where the Left is often equally reluctant to acknowledge scientific evidence when it goes against their own narrow self-interests.

The unidentified person who wrote to The Ethicist noted that he lives and works in Hollywood where he has several friends who are screenwriters and politically Progressive. His friends lambast Conservatives for not accepting the science behind global warming. And yet, when it comes to accepting the effects of screen and TV violence on young children, they reject 35 years of social science research that shows unequivocally that screen and TV violence are harmful beyond any reasonable doubt.[v]

Having lived in LA for 26 years when I taught at USC, I repeatedly heard the rationalizations of the movie and TV industry. They never tired of pointing out that research does not establish direct causal relationships between the exposure of children to simulated violence and their heightened aggressiveness. The research only shows that there are correlations between the number of hours young children are exposed to movie and TV violence and their heightened aggressive behavior. That is, the greater the number of hours spent viewing violence, the greater the aggressive behavior.

True enough. The research does not establish strict causality. Nonetheless, the correlations are not only statistically significant, but persistent. Furthermore, since they watch TV more, young children from economically distressed households are even more susceptible to depictions of violence. While many factors are of course involved, there is no doubt that movie and TV violence are prime contributors to, but not the sole causes of, the heightened aggressive behavior of young children.

Except in highly idealized and strictly controlled settings, when are we ever able to say that a limited number of variables are the sole cause of something else? We can’t. If all we had was the concept of causality, then we couldn’t say that there was ever any relationship between two or more variables.

If the effects of violence weren’t so tragic, it would be utterly laughable to find Liberal Hollywood screenwriters and executives suddenly becoming so concerned about arcane matters of social science methodology when all they really care about is their freedom to do what they want. And, of course, the considerable monies involved. All of a sudden they are experts in research! Equally disturbing is that many of these same writers and executives are rightfully critical of the NRA when it comes to our out of control gun culture. And yet, they defend to the death their right to depict gun violence no matter what (pun intended!).

Of course, in the name of free speech, I defend the “rights” of artists to do what they feel is warranted dramatically. But because something is a right, is it always prudent to exercise it?

I found Chuck Klosterman’s, the Ethicist, responses to the young man who turned to him for ethical advice particularly feeble. Because Klosterman is right that one can’t predict precisely how all parties (stakeholders) will react to a work of “art,” this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t even attempt to consider such reactions at all. The New York Times certainly did so in its recent decision not to publish Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed.

What especially rankled me was Klosterman’s justification for the depiction of violence. Apparently, if an artist’s motives are “pure,” then he or she shouldn’t be particularly disturbed how others will respond to one’s rendition of violence or anything else for that matter. The trouble with this, of course, is that it gives Hollywood a free ride to do anything it wants without any consideration of the public good.

No wonder why the Right often views Liberals as soft-headed and feeble-minded. If we see their hypocrisy, then they see ours just as well.

I’ve long ago given up expecting Conservatives to think about and act in the public good. I wonder about Liberals as well. Thus, even though I am a confirmed Liberal, Progressive, I am more than critical of Liberals and Progressives when they deserve it.

Belief Systems

Warranted Scientific Belief

“The truth is [that] most of the individual mistakes [that led to the Great Recession] boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of the government should be minimal…”[vi]

Joseph E. Stglitz

Since one’s version of Reality is a direct function of one’s beliefs, it behooves us to examine the general nature of belief systems.

Since scientific inquiry is the standard for warranted belief in Western societies, let me start with a description of how science generally reaches well-grounded beliefs, and in this very limited and special sense, science’s version of Truth. After doing this, we’ll be in a better position to see how ordinary, non-scientific belief systems work by comparison.

Virtually all scientific inquiry starts with a set, or sets, of well-established evidence (data, facts, observations, etc.) about the phenomenon of interest. Next, statistics, prior scientific theories, mathematical models, etc. are used to treat the evidence in order to reach a set of valid conclusions about the phenomenon under study.

An important contemporary example is the difference between what climate scientists and the general public feels about global warming. The evidence for ascertaining any differences between scientists and the general public are typically the data that are gained from questionnaires that are carefully designed to capture attitudes towards global warming, e.g., whether a respondent feels the Earth is warmer now than in the recent and ancient past and whether, if it exists, global warming is due primarily to humans, etc. Next, the data are then sorted and analyzed by various statistical tests to see if there are any significant differences between men and women (gender), older and younger respondents (age), levels of education, geographical location, whether one is a scientist or not (job classification), etc. If there are significant differences, then one is warranted—justified–in claiming that scientifically there are valid reasons for believing that, for instance, there is a significant gap between the views of climate scientists and the general public with regard to the effects of humans on global warming. Thus, about 97 per cent of climate scientists believe that humans are primarily responsible for global warming while about only half of the general public believes this to be the case.

Of course the views of scientists are not necessarily ascertained from surveys, but from their published work in peer-reviewed scientific journals and presentations at scientific conferences. Once again, with a very small exception, virtually all scientists are in agreement that global warming is due principally to humans.

Notice carefully that in this system what one believes about Reality and Reality Itself are intimately connected. First of all, not only is there a strong belief that evidence is needed to support our beliefs, but that evidence is characteristic feature of Reality itself. In other words, there is a strong prior belief in Empirical Reality. The philosophical school of thought that posits that Reality is not only reducible to facts, observations, etc. but fundamentally is facts, observations, etc. is known as Empiricism. According to this system of thought, if one can’t gather “hard facts” about something, then it isn’t a fitting topic for scientific investigation.

Next, there is also the strong prior belief that statistics and/or mathematics will reveal deeper “truths” about the nature of the evidence. That is, there is a strong prior belief in Conceptual Reality. Historically, the belief in the conceptual or logical nature of Reality is characteristic of the philosophical school known as Rationalism. Certain truths are known by pure logic or thinking. For instance, no one has never observed, nor ever will, an angle that is exactly 90 degrees, but according to Euclid’s geometry, there is no doubt whatsoever that such angles exist if only in pure thought. Real angles only approximate true angles.

The end results of scientific belief systems are warranted beliefs about Reality. Thus, according to this system, our beliefs about Reality cannot be separated from how we determine and justify our beliefs.

Of course, this is a highly idealized account of how scientists actually operate, let alone how they should. Being human, scientists don’t always act in accordance with the dictates of the ideal.[vii] While they don’t blatantly rig data to support their pet ideas, their favored ideas steer them consciously and unconsciously to collect the kind of data and to analyze it in ways that support their pet ideas. Nonetheless, as part of the long and arduous process of becoming a scientist, the ideal is drilled into them so much such that many scientists mistake the ideal for the real. But then, when one studies scientifically how science actually gets done–as I did in my four year investigation of the scientists who studied the rocks from the Apollo moon missions–one finds that many scientists are not only aware that they don’t always follow the ideal, but that they have strong reasons for not doing so.[viii] For instance, unless a scientist does everything to promote his or her ideas, then they are more likely than not to die prematurely. Science thus becomes a battle for the survival of the strongest ideas.

Non-scientific Belief Systems

In sharp contrast, the reasoning of most people doesn’t even begin to approach the ideal of science. And while scientists themselves may not always behave in accordance with the ideal, nonetheless, the ideal is kept constantly in mind as a kind of “gold standard” that one strives constantly to achieve even though there are often very good reasons for departing from it. In fact, scientists often depart from the ideal of scientific in order to achieve it!

The ideal of scientific inquiry provides a clear baseline for comparing and contrasting non-scientific systems of reasoning. Since we explore various examples in detail later, at this point, I only want to give a general outline of non-scientific belief systems.

Non-scientific belief systems are characterized by the fact that they generally start with sets of deeply held, core beliefs from which they thenwork backwards to find whatever evidence–if it’s even felt that any evidence is needed–to support the core beliefs. In many cases, the prime objective is not just to support but to protect one’s core beliefs from any and all enemies, real and imagined. Thus, supposedly unlike scientific belief systems, non-scientific systems are riddled through and through with all kinds of anxieties, fears, and worries. The core beliefs are not just taken as foundational, but often as the only protection one has against a world that is perceived to be hostile, uncertain, and exceedingly dangerous. The denial of unpleasant, disconfirming facts and ideas is thus prominent feature of ordinary belief systems.

If the description of scientific belief systems is an ideal, then that of non-scientific belief systems is of course a bit of an exaggeration as well. Nonetheless, exaggeration or not, it applies unfortunately to many belief systems that purport to explain Reality. Indeed, how else to explain the bogus claims that there are studies that prove rigorously that children who are not vaccinated are generally healthier than those who have been vaccinated? Of course such studies are only featured prominently on anti-vaccine web sites.

There is another important aspect of all belief systems—scientific and non-scientific–that needs mentioning. The various components do not exist independently of one another. Indeed, they are tied together by means of an overarching narrative or story that gives coherence and meaning to the entire system. Among many things, the stories feature clearly a set of heroes, mentors, victors, and/or villains, forces, etc. that must be overcome.

No wonder why it’s often so difficult to take in information that goes against the grain of one’s core beliefs. One has to revise and give up one’s fundamental stories about oneself, others, and the world.

Given that it’s an institution that is composed of people with their own basic hopes, dreams, and fears, I cannot overemphasize that science has its stories as well. The supreme story is that science is a rational enterprise through and through and that it’s best for all concerns and issues.

Finally, even though I give many more examples later that I examine in detail, I want to give a single example of an extreme belief system that is unfortunately far too common in today’s highly charged environment. I cannot stress enough that the example is not representative of all non-scientific belief systems. Far from it. It is however representative of the extreme, paranoid beliefs that circulate all too frequently in the vast conspiratorial dungeons of the Web:

“The opposition [to a proposed interfaith center near the site of the 9/11 bombings] can be traced above all to a right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who runs an organization called ‘Stop the Islamicization [sic] of America’…Geller quickly took the line that the proposed center was a place for radical organizing and that it’s very existence would be a triumphalist statement by Muslims, insulting to the victims of 9/11 and their families. One typical headline was ‘Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.’ No friend of evidence, Geller once suggested that in all seriousness that President Obama’s father was Malcolm X; she has also alleged, totally without evidence, that the president used to have a girlfriend who was a ‘crack whore.’ And she has consistently repeated the canard that the president is a Muslim…”[ix] [emphasis ours]

Two Examples

Returning to the two examples with which this chapter began, one can easily see the operation of non-scientific belief systems and the realities they purport to describe, if not justify.

In the first case where a six year-old child was subjected to unspeakable horrors and trauma, I suspect that the core beliefs read something like: (1) the world is a very dangerous place that is constantly seeking ways to attack young, naïve, and extremely vulnerable children, if not all persons; (2) therefore, one must constantly be prepared and on guard; (3) the only way to drive home the need for serious preparation to naïve minds is to stage an attack that as much as possible is like the “real thing;” (4) therefore, a realistic simulation is not only necessary, but entirely justifiable. Note that beliefs (1) and (2) border on out-and-out paranoia, whereas (3) and (4) act on it.

Given that they not only express one’s fundamental beliefs about Reality, but even more that they reinforce one another, what if anything could possibly convince the proponents that their beliefs are false, not to mention their irreparable harm? Unfortunately, the fact that the mother, grandmother, aunt, and accomplice were arrested and charged with child endangerment is only all the more likely to prove to them that the world istruly as dangerous as they believe. Consequently, I would expect that their arrests would only reaffirm their beliefs. After all, it really is “us against them.”

In the second case where Liberal Hollywood writers justify the use of violence by denying that it has any causal effects on young minds, in effect, the underlying argument is that the so-called scientific studies that purport to show the influence of movie and TV violence do not live up to the ideal of scientific method. In other words, Hollywood writers are actually living up to the True Ideals of scientific reasoning more than social scientists! Hollywood writers are thus more in touch with Reality!

Concluding Remarks

This chapter has laid out the general nature of beliefs systems. They are the platforms upon which our descriptions of Reality are based. Even more, they are the “Bedrock Realities” that underlie our descriptions of and beliefs about Reality.

Throughout the rest of the book, the ideas in this and the next chapter provide the basis in terms of which we will evaluate and contrast various belief systems about the nature of Reality. The various systems are instrumental in determining how one feels about hot-button issues such as global warming, gun control, etc.

A strong caveat is in order. As not all instances of scientific thinking are the same, all non-scientific belief systems are not the same. For instance, religious belief systems differ considerably. Many accept science and are thus anything but hostile to it. Many incorporate the testing of their beliefs, although not necessarily in the same ways that science does. And, not all are burdened by excessive fears and worries, or at least not to the same extent.

Western philosophy generally makes a fundamental distinction between (1) Epistemology (what’s “true knowledge” and how can we best achieve it?), (2) Ethics (what is the nature of “The Good” and, what Ought we do to be “good and just?”), (3) Aesthetics (what is Beauty?), and (4) Ontology (what exists and what is the nature of Reality?). Nonetheless, in everyday life, the vast majority of belief systems do not make such distinctions. Thus, it is not a contradiction in the slightest to speak of Moral Epistemology. For most people, what’s Ethical and what’s True are not only hopelessly entangled, but fundamentally inseparable. Our basic Truths about others, the world, and ourselves are Moral Truths. They allow us to live and to act with Moral Certainty. They are also Pleasing and in this sense, they are also Aesthetic Truths as well. Given that they also speak to the nature of Reality, they are Moral, Aesthetic, and Ontological Truths all wrapped up into one. In a word, we don’t live, nor is it clear that we should, in the divided world of academic philosophy.

Finally, as the frontispiece quote to this chapter demonstrates, one of the most important aspects of all belief systems—scientific, political, religious, etc.–is that they not only exist, but are fundamentally experienced as narratives, as stories in the truest sense of the term.

Most people don’t walk around with “core principles” and disembodied “facts” in their heads. Instead, we live and experience our lives through a succession of narratives. Our lives literally are the stories we tell about others, the world, and ourselves. The stories have clear sets of helpers, heroes, victims, villains, etc.

To know and compare different Realities is to better understand different stories about Reality, and by doing so, to be better able to handle the enormous challenges and horrendous problems facing us.

Finally, some of the most interesting and important cases involve the direct clash between scientific and religious belief systems (“major stories” if you will), especially when they occur within the same individual. Thus, in Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Dr. Paul A. Moffit cites the case of an Orthodox Jewish medical doctor who justified the religious practice of sucking blood out of babies who have just been circumcised even though it increases significantly the chances of transmitting herpes and thus causing permanent brain damage to a child. Although many ancient practices have long been abandoned for health and other reasons, “when faced with two conflicting ideologies—an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and a scientific and medical training—the doctor yielded to his religious beliefs, choosing a weak rationalization that ‘all medical procedures have side effects.’ Such is the power of religious belief.”[x]Especially when the practice under contention is not even a “valid medical procedure!”

[i] Martha Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming The Politics Of


Fear In An Anxious Age, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass. 2012, p. 47.


[ii] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies And What We can Do About Them, Norton, New York, 2015, p.12.

[iii] Buzzell, op cit.


[iv] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Simon &


Schuster, New York, 2014.


[v] See


[vi] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Opcit, p. 48.

[vii] See Ian I. Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Psychology of the Apollo Moon Scientists, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1974; reissued by Intersystems Publishers, Seaside, CA, 1984


[viii] Ibid.


[ix] Nussbaum, op cit, p. 195.


[x] Paul A. Offit, M.D., Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Basic Books, New York, 2015, p. 73.


Blog, Philosophy, Sociology

The Post Reality Society: Truth in the Age of Disinformation

This is a book about the application of philosophy to some of our most pressing problems and issues. More specifically, it’s about why Americans are divided more than ever over the nature of Truth and Reality.

“From the very beginning, when life takes us under its strict discipline, a resistance stirs within us against the relentlessness and monotony of the laws of thought and against the demands of reality-testing. Reason becomes the enemy.” [Emphasis ours]

Sigmund Freud

“Far too many Americans seem to have become persuaded that what’s true is what you say is true — not what exists in actual reality. Facts are seen as fluid, flexible and adjustable according to one’s personal beliefs, political inclinations or business interests.”

Linda Buzzell


Introduction: The Battle Over Truth and Reality

This is a book about the application of philosophy to some of our most pressing problems and issues. More specifically, it’s about why Americans are divided more than ever over the nature of Truth and Reality. Indeed, much of the current political divide and dismal polarization is over what different factions take as Truth and Reality. And, if philosophy is about anything, it is about what’s “true” and what’s “real.” But then, it’s also about what’s “good and just,” as well as what’s “beautiful.”

In a word, we don’t inhabit the same realities any longer, if we ever did. For instance, the recent clashes over whether it’s necessary and safe to vaccinate one’s children and whether global warming is real are just two of the many examples of the on-going battles over what’s “real” and what’s “true.”

Apparently, for more and more people, Reality is nothing more than what one believes and feels deeply about. And because we obviously don’t share the same feelings about crucial events and issues, Reality is more personal and malleable than ever.

It’s not just that facts don’t matter much any more, but rather, what one calls “facts” is a function of what one regards as Reality.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, there is a huge gap between what scientists and the general public think about key, hot button issues such as evolution, genetically modified food, global warming, nuclear power, pesticides, etc. For instance, scientists are far more certain than the general public that: (a) global warming is caused by humans, (b) evolution is a well-established scientific fact, and (c) vaccinations against childhood diseases should be made mandatory.

“In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science…”

In brief, the public and the scientific community not only see the world very differently, but they have fundamentally different ideas about the nature of Reality itself. These differences are far from trivial. They affect greatly what one believes one should do, if indeed anything at all, with regard to some of our most pressing problems such as global warming. In short, the battle over what’s real and what’s true has very important consequences.

Again, the differences between scientists and the general public is just one of the many battles occurring daily between the proponents of very different versions of Reality and Truth. Thus, religious fundamentalists of all stripes—Christian, Muslim, or Jewish–have profoundly different views of the nature of religion and its place in daily life than their more moderate counterparts.The views of Islamic extremists such as ISIS and Boko Haram regarding the use of terror and violence are not only repugnant to the overwhelming body of ordinary, lawing abiding, and peaceful Muslims, but are a gross misinterpretation of Islam. More accurately, the unmitigated use of terror and violence is a throwback to a 7th century, medieval version of Islam.

Members of the Tea Party obviously do not share the same views regarding taxes and the need for compromise than more moderate Republicans. Democrats and Republicans don’t share much in common on the important issues of the day. Indeed, they differ often and much over what’s “truly important.”

Add to these the heated battles over the role of guns in American society, whether gays should have the right to marry, whether to drill or not to drill for more oil, whether to transport dirty oil from Canada to Louisiana, and it seems that we are truly engaged in Reality Wars of the first order. More than ever, it feels that we at the breaking point, that civilization as we have known it is in dire danger of falling apart.

The Thesis

Even though I may not always refer to them explicitly, I naturally draw upon some of the best minds in Western philosophy and science that have historically thought about the nature of Truth and Reality. But more importantly, The Post Reality Society is about what the proponents of the most highly divergent views of those alive today regard as Reality and Truth. What are the different views of Reality that both divide and unite us? What are the forces that form and nurture different views of Reality? And, does this understanding help us in any way to heal the differences that are tearing us apart?

The primary thesis bears repeating. We are divided politically and socially because we are divided fundamentally over what we take as Reality and Truth. For this reason alone, it behooves us more than ever to explore different versions of Reality and Truth.

Laying out differing views explicitly allows us to answer, “In the age of social media and citizen journalists where everyone is supposedly an ‘expert,’ is Reality no more than what one ‘feels deeply?’ Are all views truly equal? Is there any role for “hard facts?” Indeed, are there any ‘hard facts’ any longer?”

The Post Reality Society is a hard look at ourselves. The goal is not only to help us understand ourselves better, but to see what if anything can help to heal the bitter divisions that are literally tearing us apart.

The fundamental battle is between those systems that believe basically in testing their views of Reality versus those that do not. Equally, the battle is between those that are open to change and those that are rigid and closed. It is also between those that believe that their Truths are given and fixed and those for whom they are constantly under construction and revision.

Blog, Psychology, Sociology

Reality Wars: The Battles Over Truth and Reality

Originally published 8/19/2015 on Huffington Post

Recently, my wife and I attended a social gathering in Marin County, which as is well known is a hotbed of intense opposition to mandatory childhood vaccinations. One of the people with whom I spoke was not opposed to vaccinations, at least not in principle. Nonetheless, the person disagreed strongly with the idea that all children had to receive all of their vaccinations in a single session. When I asked why the person felt this way, I got an adamant response: “My own online research tells me that the idea is wrong!”

I wanted to ask, but didn’t, for it was apparent that it would only further inflame the situation, “And what medical school did you go to such that you are qualified to evaluate medical information?” Instead, I just walked away. End of story, and discussion!

Once upon a time, reality used to be nothing but all the hard stuff in the outside world that we bumped up against every day of our lives. And, truth was nothing more than all the true facts that were known about the external world. We don’t live in this simple world any more. Reality and truth are more complicated than ever.

In a word, Americans no longer inhabit the same realities, if we ever really did. The recent clashes over whether it’s necessary and safe to vaccinate one’s children and whether global warming is real are just two of the many on-going battles over what’s “real” and what’s “true.”

Increasingly, reality and truth are nothing more than what one believes and feels deeply about. And because we obviously don’t share the same beliefs and feelings about crucial events and issues, reality and truth are more personal and malleable than ever.

It’s not that facts don’t matter much any more, but rather, what one calls “facts” is a function of what one regards as reality, and thus, the web sites one turns to for “information.”

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, there is a huge gap between what scientists and the general public think about key, hot button issues such as evolution, genetically modified food, global warming, nuclear power, pesticides, etc. For instance, scientists are far more certain than the general public that (a) Global Warming is caused by humans, (b) evolution is a well-established scientific fact and (c) vaccinations against childhood diseases should be made mandatory.

The differences are far from trivial. They affect greatly what one believes one should do, if anything, with regard to some of our most pressing problems. In short, the battles over what’s real and what’s true have very important consequences.

Ideally, in science, an idea is accepted as “provisionally true” if and only it survives repeated attempts by scientists to prove by means of “hard data” that it’s false. And, the longer an idea has been accepted, the more science tries to overturn it.

In contrast, in everyday life, people try to hold onto their ideas for as long as possible. Indeed, the more an idea is at the core of a person’s belief system, the more he or she tries to protect it. Or, at least this is the commonly held stereotype of the differences between scientists and the general public.

The differences between scientists and the general public are just one of the many battles occurring daily between the proponents of very different versions of reality. Thus, religious fundamentalists of all stripes — Christian, Muslim, or Jewish — have profoundly different views of the nature of religion and its place in daily life than their more moderate counterparts. The views of Islamic extremists, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, regarding the use of terror and violence are not only repugnant to the overwhelming body of ordinary, lawing abiding, peaceful Muslims, but are a gross misinterpretation of Islam. More accurately, the unmitigated use of terror and violence is a throwback to a 7th century, medieval version of Islam. In other words, Islamic extremists are stuck in a 7th century version of Reality.

Some of the most interesting and important cases involve the direct clash between scientific and religious belief systems, especially when they occur within the same individual. In Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Dr. Paul A. Moffit cites the case of an Orthodox Jewish medical doctor who justified the religious practice of sucking blood out of babies who have just been circumcised, even though the practice increases significantly the chances of transmitting herpes, and thus causing permanent brain damage to a child. Although many ancient practices have long been abandoned for health and other reasons, “When faced with two conflicting ideologies — an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and a scientific and medical training — the doctor yielded to his religious beliefs, choosing a weak rationalization that ‘all medical procedures have side effects.’ Such is the power of religious belief.'” Such beliefs are especially strong when a particular practice is part of an ancient religious ritual.

There is little doubt that we live in very different realities, and that the gaps between them are only growing greater with every passing day. What then, if anything, can be done to bridge them? Interestingly enough, social science research shows that the gaps between scientists and the general public cannot be spanned by logic and rational thought alone. While necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves. Logic and rational thought only turn off even more those who believe in their own versions of reality and truth.

As a scientist, I believe with all my being in the power of science to keep us honest. But I also believe that scientists are among the least equipped to bring about the changes we need so desperately. To effect significant change, it’s necessary to present ideas, especially those that go sharply against the grain of a person’s belief system, by someone who can speak plainly and simply, in short, someone the person trusts implicitly because “He or she is one of us.” More than ever, we need people who can speak from the heart and the head, not one or the other.


Blog, Sociology

Reflections on Ferguson: Two Deeply Disturbing and Highly Conflicting Stories

Originally posted on December 4, 2014 on the Huffington Post

By any measure, what happened in Ferguson is deeply disturbing. It is nothing less than a monumental tragedy. How could the death of yet another unarmed black teenager fail to ignite widespread outrage and, unfortunately, violent demonstrations? The death of one unarmed black teenager is one death too many.

However, there is another aspect of the tragedy that I also find disturbing. This aspect has received virtually no acknowledgement, and hence no discussion at all. As we know, there are essentially two widely conflicting and, on the surface, at least, deeply incompatible stories of what happened. For most people, to believe one story is to automatically judge the other totally wrong. In contrast, I believe that both stories are “right” and “wrong” in the sense that both have elements of credibility. That is, neither is totally right or totally wrong. Of course, merely to say this is to incur the wrath of both sides, for how could they be equally credible, if indeed they are?

In one story, Michael Brown is clearly the villain. According to this version of events, Officer Darren Wilson acted out of dire fear for his life. Brown had just committed petty theft. A surveillance tape shows him pushing a convenience-store clerk and making off with stolen cigarillos. According to his friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him during the theft and at the encounter with Wilson, Brown was planning to use the cigarillos to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because Wilson had been alerted to the recent theft over the police radio, he was on the lookout for the perpetrator. When he came upon Brown and Johnson walking in the middle of the street, he realized Brown fit the profile. When Wilson, sitting in his car, asked Brown to step out of the street and onto the sidewalk, Brown, instead of complying as he should have, became belligerent. Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but Brown slammed the door shut, knocking Wilson back into the car. Brown then violently confronted Wilson through the car window, savagely punching him in the face. Rightly fearing for his life, Wilson reached for his gun, but Brown wrestled him for it, and in the tussle the gun went off in the car and left an unmistakable injury on Brown’s thumb, demonstrating that he had indeed been at close range at the time. Brown fled, and Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots when Brown turned back around and appeared to be charging Wilson. At least one of the shots was fatal. Brown’s intimating size and weight figured into Wilson’s decision to use deadly force. Because the grand jury believed Wilson’s testimony, they voted not to indict him. The grand jury also voted not to indict so as not to undermine police authority.

In the other story, Officer Wilson is the clear villain. According to this version of events, Wilson was the aggressor. Unaware of the convenience-story theft, he came upon Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the street and, from inside his car, rudely ordered them to get on the sidewalk using profanity. When Brown didn’t comply quickly enough, an enraged Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but the car door ricocheted off Brown’s body, knocking Wilson back into the car and further enraging him. He seized Brown through the car window, and a tussle ensued, with Wilson’s gun going off inside the car and Brown fleeing, fearing for his life. Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots. Realizing he’d been struck, Brown stopped and turned back around, facing Wilson and putting his hands up in surrender, but Wilson fired several more shots, killing Brown. The death of another innocent and unarmed black teenager understandably outraged the black community. Michael Brown was not a thug, as some in the media portrayed him, but a “gentle giant” who was getting ready to go off to college. There is no way that he was a threat to law and order. The grand jury was wrong in failing to indict Wilson. If Wilson had been brought to trial, then he would have been cross-examined in a proper manner. Once again, black people were denied justice. The shooting of Michael Brown is another example of the racism that is rampant in American society.

On the surface, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile these two sharply conflicting stories, yet this is exactly what we must do if we are to learn from the tragedy and get beyond it, if one can ever truly get beyond a horrific tragedy.

Both stories have elements that ring true. Brown clearly committed a theft, for which he needed to be apprehended and arrested. Moreover, his considerable size and weight would have intimidated most officers, who, by virtue of the nature of their jobs, live in perpetual fear for their lives. On the other hand, it is not difficult to believe that Wilson also inappropriately provoked Brown, thereby leading to an avoidable tragedy. For this reason I believe that Wilson should have been indicted, if only on a lesser charge like involuntary manslaughter, so that he and the witnesses to the tragedy could have been cross-examined publicly in a court of law.

One of the most difficult tasks for human beings is to accept that there are elements of truth in widely conflicting accounts of horrific tragedies. But that is the task with which we humans are charged repeatedly. What single story ever has a monopoly on truth? If there is ever anything approaching the truth, is it not arrived at and known through the clashing of two widely conflicting accounts of events?

All of this suggests what is required if we are to move on, and why it’s so difficult for us to do so. Those who believe the first story have to accept that in not indicting Wilson, justice was not done in the eyes of those who believe the second story. And those who believe the second story have to accept that Michael Brown was not entirely innocent. But in no way does the theft justify his being shot, let alone fatally.

In short, both sides have to accept a fundamental part of the other’s story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” We are far indeed from even approaching a society with “first-rate intelligence.”

Blog, Psychology, Sociology

Completely Out of Control: Technology Gone Amok

Originally Published November 25th on the Huffington Post

In the 1980’s, because I taught at USC, my family and I were fortunate to live in Manhattan Beach, a small beautiful jewel of a city in Southern California that borders directly on the Santa Monica Bay. Thus, we were greatly saddened to learn from a close friend who has a teenage daughter at Mira Costa High School, the same school from which our daughter graduated, was shut down recently because of repeated bomb threats on the social media site Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is so bad that many have called it “The Bullying Site.” This doesn’t begin to describe how truly wicked it is.

This is not the first time that social media have been implicated as a major contributing factor in the cause of extreme anti-social behavior. For instance, the cases in which young girls have been driven to suicide after have been bullied repeatedly on social media sites are well known. For this reason, I prefer to call them “Anti-social Media.”

Clearly there is something very wrong with technology from its invention, implementation, and general overall management or control.

Recently, my wife and I attended a talk about a relatively new super high-tech university. While the technology discussed was utterly fascinating–e.g., 3 D printers and the like–the talk made perfectly clear why we get the mismanagement of technology that we do. Nowhere in the curriculum were there any courses in the history, management, philosophy, or sociology of science and technology. None!

This is not to say that such courses would somehow have magically prevented cyber-bullying or any of the other negative side effects generally associated with social media. Rather, such courses are indispensable in helping us to confront the dark sides of technology.

It is no longer sufficient merely to invent technology, unleash it on the general public, and then only belatedly try to deal with its negative consequences. I don’t accept that before Facebook and others were invented that it was not possible to imagine how they would be used in ways their inventors never foresaw, or didn’t want to foresee. If one of the primary audiences of social media were young people, then why weren’t parent oversight groups formed and empowered from the very beginning?

Yes, scientists and technologists are driven primarily by the thrill of discovery, invention, and nowadays, the enormous profits to be made. But that’s precisely why they are not necessarily well suited to the management of their inventions, especially if they are averse to thinking about the social consequence of their inventions, which unfortunately is too often the case.

And no, I am not inherently anti-technology per se. I have in fact a PhD in Engineering Science from one of the world’s leading bastions of science and technology, The University of California at Berkeley. The difference is that when I was studying for my PhD in Engineering, I took a three and a half year minor in the Philosophy of Science, an action that I constantly had to defend to the College of Engineering since no one had taken such a minor before, and to their way of thinking, “What did Philosophy have to do with Engineering?” Even though I couldn’t give it then, my answer is “Everything!”

We cannot leave the management of science and technology to scientists and technologists alone. But then, we cannot leave their management entirely to managers or politicians either. While not prefect by any means, the best we have is to strengthen the role of intelligent government and citizen oversight groups before, during, and after the invention and deployment of technology.

Blog, Politics, Sociology

Gender Differences: The Spectrum of Attitudes Towards Trans genders

In my view, the Civil Rights’ analogy is both a powerful and appropriate one. In time, I believe that all institutions will not only have to acknowledge the reality of trans genders, but to make significant changes so that everyone has an equal opportunity to live a equitable and rewarding life.

Originally posted November 2, 2014 on Nation of Change

Two recent articles in major news publications help to capture some of the fundamentally differing attitudes towards trans genders. In brief, it is still far easier to transform one’s sex than it is to transform one’s attitudes towards trans genders.

In “What Is A Women? A Dispute Over The Meaning Of Gender,” Michelle Goldberg makes abundantly clear that radical feminists do not accept the basic proposition that men who have physically transformed themselves into women are really women. [i] For radical feminists, the privileges that men have enjoyed for centuries and have used to brutally subjugate women still persist no matter how much they change their outer appearance. In short, transgender women bear indelibly the seeds of male domination and oppressiveness, which by definition, they can never rid themselves. Needless to say, such attitudes have not endeared radical feminists to trans genders. Indeed, in a number of cases, radical feminists have been subject to violent threats in places where they have been scheduled to speak.

In contrast, in “The Men of Wellesley: Can Women’s Colleges Survive The Transgender Movement?,” Ruth Padawer also makes clear that while there is noticeable opposition, on the whole women’s colleges have been more open to accepting and letting stay women who were initially admitted as women but who have transformed themselves subsequently into men.[ii]While it is true that many students, professors, and college administrators feel that the basic identity and tradition of women’s colleges should not be compromised, and therefore not changed in any way, there are those who feel that women’s colleges need to change with the times.

Those who feel women’s colleges shouldn’t change their traditional mission stress why women’s colleges were formed in the first place, i.e., the fact that men’s colleges wouldn’t accept women for admission or treated them badly if they were admitted. They also stress that women fare far better in women’s colleges. Because men are not there to begin with, they can’t dominate and take over classroom discussions.

Those who feel that women’s colleges should accept trans genders argue that women’s colleges have a fundamental duty to welcome those who have suffered considerable abuse and pain as women have historically and still face.

In talking about both of these articles with friends and colleagues, I have discerned a number of attitudes that lie along a kind of spectrum. First of all, because of where I live–the San Francisco Bay Area–and my Liberal, Progressive attitudes, I don’t really know anyone personally who espouses a true Conservative point of view, i.e., that gender roles ought to remain fixed as they have been for millennia. Instead, people differ over whether someone who first enters a women’s college as a woman and then becomes a man ought to be allowed to stay at a women’s college.

On the one side are those who believe strongly that women’s colleges still have a needed and vital role to play such that the fundamental role of women’s colleges should not be changed. While acknowledging the fact that trans genders have faced considerable discrimination and pain, they feel that special trans gender colleges should be set up to accommodate them. Women’s colleges should neither abandon nor dilute their fundamental mission.

Those on the other side feel equally strong. For them, the Civil Rights’ Movement showed unequivocally that all institutions needed to change if equal rights were to become a true and living reality.

(I should note that no one with whom I spoke sided with radical feminists on the issue of trans genders.)

In my view, the Civil Rights’ analogy is both a powerful and appropriate one. In time, I believe that all institutions will not only have to acknowledge the reality of trans genders, but to make significant changes so that everyone has an equal opportunity to live a equitable and rewarding life.

[i] Michelle Goldberg, “What Is A Woman? A Dispute Over The Meaning Of Gender,” The New Yorker, August 4, 2014, pp. 24-28.

[ii] Ruth Padawer , “The Men of Wellesley: Can Women’s Colleges Survive The Transgender Movement?,” The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, October 19, 2014, pp. 34-39, 48-50.

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

The Banality of Evil Arguments

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

In April 17, 1775, Boswell recorded one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous lines, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” If he were alive today, I believe that Johnson might well say, “Evil arguments are the first and last refuge of scoundrels.”

On the April 9, 2013 edition of the PBS NewsHour, there was a mild debate of sorts between Jim Johnson, Police Chief of Baltimore County, and Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The topic was of course background checks for gun owners. Predictably, Johnson was for checks and Keane was against them.

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I was particularly shocked by Keane’s use of a particularly insidious argument against background checks. Given that painful interviews with some of the family members who lost loved ones in the tragic Newtown shootings had aired recently on the CBS program 60 Minutes and were thus still fresh, the more I listened to Keane, the more that the phrase “the banality of evil arguments” flashed through my mind.

Time and again, Keane argued that if background checks were required before someone could purchase a gun, then it would place an inordinate burden on “small mom and pop gun dealers.” The particular word that Keane used repeatedly to signify the burden that small dealers would face was “inconvenience.” That is, they would be “greatly inconvenienced” by having to fill out all the forms that background checks would require. After all, why should they be required to do the work of the government?

If this is not a prime example of an argument that is both evil and banal, then I don’t know what is!

As a parent, spouse, relative, or friend of someone that has lost their life in a senseless shooting, how does one weigh the “inconvenience” of a gun dealer versus the inconsolable pain that one will experience throughout all of one’s life? One can’t! This is precisely what makes Keane’s argument banal and evil.

If I wanted to insult those who had lost loved ones and cause further pain, I couldn’t think of a more inappropriate word than “inconvenience.”

By the repeated use of such utterly wicked arguments and words, gun proponents don’t know it, but they have already lost the argument with regard to greater gun controls. Whether this Congress finally votes for background checks or not, gun proponents are in their last throes. To be sure, greater restrictions on the manufacturing, sale, and ownership of guns are still a long ways off, but they will happen.

One shouldn’t even have to say it, but given the hysteria surrounding the issue, this doesn’t mean that honest, law-abiding citizens won’t be allowed to have any guns at all. They will. It does mean that eventually there will be a ban on military assault type weapons in the hands of civilians.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

Enough Is Enough: It’s Time to Get Tough on Organizations That Involve Children in Any Form or Manner

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (manmade and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, terrorism, etc.). I have particularly studied the general lessons that all crises have to teach. I want to apply a few of these lessons to one of the most egregious of all crises: child abuse.

Whether we are experiencing an “actual, real epidemic” of child abuse or because of the overwhelming presence of the media we are just more aware of it is beside the point. What is not beside the point is that some of the most important and highly esteemed organizations have not only engaged in serious cases of child abuse, but engaged in concerted and repeated actions to protect and/or shelter those guilty of committing abuse. These include: 1. The Catholic Church; 2. The Boy Scouts of America; 3. Penn State; and 4. BBC. To add to the list, recently, the voice of Elmo supposedly had a sexual relationship with a then-underage boy. As a result, he abruptly resigned from The Sesame Street Workshop in order to protect the organization from further unpleasant publicity.

In short, some of the most highly esteemed organizations and institutions have engaged in nothing less than the worst kind of betrayal of the public trust.

Since the cases are well-known and have been covered extensively in the media, I shall not bother to review the livid details. Instead, I want to cover what my years of studying crises lead me to suggest.

The first and primary lesson that it is never ever the case that no one in an organization knows or knew what was going on or occurred. Instead, out of obedience, misplaced loyalty, or fear, they are pressured to keep it to themselves. Or, if they do report it to a higher-up, they are assured that the situation will be dealt with firmly and promptly. When they see that nothing is done and/or that those who report it are dealt with harshly, they soon learn to turn a deaf ear and blind eye.

The second primary lesson, which is strongly related to the first, is that, no matter what the particular kind of crisis, the vast overwhelming majority of organizations cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. (This is one of the other lessons that crises teach.) For this reason, I insist in no uncertain terms that at their own expense organizations and institutions that involve or serve children in any way be monitored for any hints and possibilities of child abuse at least once a year by outside organizations specifically equipped and trained to do so.

I am extremely well aware of what I am calling for. It will not be cheap or easy. But then, it will cost substantially less that the cost of a full-blown crisis. (This is another of the other lessons that crises teach. Crises always cost more than preparation and/or mitigation efforts.)

To be perfectly clear, I am calling for trained interviewers to conduct broad open-ended interviews with a broad cross-section of the members of organizations to probe for potential cases and indicators of child abuse. Under no circumstance are the interviews to be designed to seek out and punish gays and/or consenting adults for whatever they wish to engage in the comfort, privacy, or security of their homes. It goes without saying that whatever the practices, they are not to be engaged in at work.

I am well aware of the response of civil libertarians to such ideas and proposals. For this reason, the individuals and organizations that conduct such interviews have to do everything in their power to respect and comply with the privacy of individuals. Indeed, to avoid their own crises, they must do everything they can to seek out and work closely with civil libertarians to design interviews that will meet their standards. Whether they can meet those standards or not, I still recommend that such interviews be performed.

As a social scientist, I am of course well aware that nothing is perfect in assessing the behavior of individuals and/or organizations. But then crisis management also teaches us that perfection is not the standard. Despite our best intentions, we can’t prevent all crises. But this doesn’t relieve us from doing everything in our power to lower the chances of crises.

In balancing the rights of adults versus those of children, I am obviously squarely on the side of children. Those who choose to work in organizations and institutions that involve or serve children have no alternative in my mind but to subject themselves to greater scrutiny.

Finally, it is to their benefit that organizations allow themselves to be monitored. How else can they not merely protect but ensure their reputation? If not, then they had better be prepared for severe losses in financial support and membership.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Sociology

It’s a Grim Day for Our Children

Originally published on The Huffington Post, June 30, 2011

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in striking down California’s law prohibiting children under the age of 18 from purchasing violent video games is a travesty. It perpetuates harm on the most vulnerable members of society by means of a complete misunderstanding and ignorance of child development. It is based on a profound misunderstanding of fairy tales.

In equating the violence in the Grimm fairy tales with that of video games, the Court committed a grievous error in arguing that free speech protected the producers of violent video games. In short, the Court’s argument is that if we shouldn’t ban fairy tales because they contain violence, then we shouldn’t ban video games, as well.

The argument is false, because neither the violence nor the purpose of the two is even remotely the same. Adults generally read fairy tales to young children so that adults both mediate and interpret the violence. Most important of all, unlike in video games, children do not cause the violence themselves.

The Grimm brothers did not invent, but brought together and embellished the fairy tales that had already existed in European culture for hundreds of years. In other words, fairy tales were spontaneous creations of the human psyche. They were not created for the “marketplace.”

A number of prominent psychiatrists and psychoanalysts — among them Bruno Bettelheim, Marie von Franz and Melanie Klein — have pointed out that fairy tales serve the psychosocial development of children in crucial ways. In particular, Melanie Klein identified a primary psychological mechanism — Splitting — which very young children used to cope with the world.

Up to around the age of five, children regularly split the image of their primary caregiver — typically the mother — into two distinct images: the Good Mother and the Bad Mother. The Good Mother is instantly available to tend to the infant and young child’s every need. In contrast, the Bad Mother is not instantly and always available to meet the child’s needs and wishes. The Bad Mother is also responsible for dispensing punishment for unacceptable behavior.

Fairy tales not only represent, but deal with the psychic conflict that children experience in terms of the Fairy Godmother (the Good Mother) and the Evil Witch (the Bad Mother). Thus, the child rejoices when the Bad Mother is killed, for the child is figuratively killing off a part of him or herself that he or she is not yet mature enough to accept and incorporate into the psyche. That is, the child is not yet ready, psychologically, to accept that the Good and the Bad Mother are two aspects of the same person.

Unless there has been severe trauma that impedes normal development, eventually children do come to accept that the Good and the Bad mother are one. Indeed, this generally happens around the same time that children normally “grow out of ” fairy tales. Nonetheless, the propensity for Splitting remains throughout all of our lives. For instance, we regularly split the world into “good and bad guys.”

To equate fairy tales to video games is akin to equating world literature to comic books. Fairy tales engage the imagination of young children in helping them surmount a psychological hurdle at the times when they desperately need it. They imagine violence through reading about it, but they do not actively choose to cause it, even if it’s virtual. Furthermore, while gruesome at times, the violence is not that of raping women or committing horrific acts on them.

There may not be the over 30 years of impressive, massive and longitudinal research on video games that there is on media violence, but the research shows unequivocally that prolonged exposure to media violence has harmful and long-lasting effects, especially on those from the most at-risk households.

All arguments rest on a bed of basic assumptions and distinctions. If they are wrong, then so are the final conclusions. In the case at hand, the basic assumptions and distinctions are so flawed that the final conclusion is not just “wrong,” but harmful to all of us.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, June 30, 2011