Oh, Those Savvy Ancient Greeks

A couple of years ago, I got on a kick of reading through some classics that I’d never read before. I wrote about that in a couple of posts at the time — Epicurus, Seneca, and Jesus, and More from Seneca: Unhappiness, and Grief — and recently I dug up some notes I made on a few more gems that seem quite appropriate to today’s world.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from The Nichomachean Ethics (Book III, section ii) by Aristotle:

… our characters are determined by our choice of what is good or evil, not by our opinion about it.

Let’s stop right there, before we get to the rest of the passage, and focus on the last phrase: not by our opinion about it. In this age when opinions are shared frequently and widely in all manner of social media, it’s good to be reminded — by someone who lived about 2300 years ago, no less! — that our opinions do not form our characters. Rather, our choices do: Our choices of how we do our jobs, whether well or shoddily; of how we treat people, whether with respect or with disdain; of how we live, whether nobly or basely.

Aristotle continues,

… a choice is more properly praised for choosing the right object than for being correct in itself; but an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth. Also we choose what we know very well to be good, but we form opinions about things that we do not really know to be good. It seems, too, that the same people are not equally good at choosing the best actions and forming the best opinions; some are comparatively good at forming opinions, but … fail to make the right choices.

Far be it from me to say that Aristotle was wrong here, but he may give us too much credit when he says we “choose what we know very well to be good.” Rather, in my experience — i.e., based on my personal choices and the choices I’ve observed others make — we choose what we believe will be good, in the sense of being beneficial. But that’s not the most damning thing about this passage.

The thing in this passage that finds us lacking is his assertion that “an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth.” Certainly we should strive to make sure our opinions reflect truth, and I’m enough of a fan of humanity to believe that most of us think our opinions accord with truth as we know it; certainly, we should praise those opinions which most closely align with truth; but these days many opinions are praised not because they represent the truth but because they align with the hearer or reader’s perhaps petrified beliefs.

(Image: “Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

Moving on,

I mentioned social media above, and in Book III, section iii we find something that, if we adhered to it a little bit better, would make our lives much more peaceful. After stating, “what we deliberate about is practical measures that lie in our power,” Aristotle continues,

Not even all human affairs are objects of deliberation; thus no Spartan deliberates about the best form of constitution for the Scythians; each of the various groups of human beings deliberates about the practical measures that lie in its own power.

Oh, how quiet X (nee Twitter) would be, and how uplifting our Facebook and other feeds would be, if each group only deliberated about things in its own power, instead of deliberating about other groups and the things that lie in their power. The wider world itself might be a bit quieter, if nations likewise deliberated about their own dealings more than others’.

To a certain extent, the same could be said of each of us as individuals — as my mom used to say, we should tend to our own knitting. I have been guilty of it myself, more times than I care to admit. I have been guilty of it on this blog, and on the socials, and probably will continue to be. But I will try to be somewhat more aware of it — and perhaps I can reform myself.

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The ‘Spinach in Their Teeth’ Test

I’m trying to be a better person, but it ain’t easy.

A couple of years ago, I decided that I would try — with all deference to Yoda and his “Do or do not, there is no try” advice, which is patently ridiculous — to implement a leadership principle I learned in the Air Force to my social media and other interactions. Specifically, that I would try to praise in public but correct in private.

In other words, I decided that I would try to avoid coming down hard on people in public — to not flame them in comments on their posts or hold them up personally to ridicule, and instead to try to find good things to say in public (or to say nothing at all, following the advice of Thumper’s mom). That is, if I thought someone needed to be corrected, I would try to do so privately: in person, perhaps, or at least in a private exchange of messages.

Which leads me to what I’ve come to call the “spinach in their teeth” test. When I hear people say things or see them post things on social media that I think warrant some form of correction, I’m trying to treat those people the same way I would if they had spinach in their teeth. I might be tempted to say nothing at all, but if I thought they needed to know I certainly wouldn’t stand up and announce to the world, “Hey, so-and-so has spinach in their teeth!” No, instead I would lean in and say softly, “Hey, looks as if you have some spinach in your teeth.” Correcting in private.

Because being corrected in public can make us pretty uncomfortable:

Being corrected in public can feel rather like being pulled on a scamnum. (Image: “G. Guidi, The correction of dislocations,” from Wellcome Images [UK] on Wikimedia Commons.)

I admit that I fail from time to time — probably more times than not. As I said, this self-improvement thing ain’t easy.

Does it work? Sometimes. I’ve had a few good conversations with people about various issues, though from what I can tell some of them still have bits of metaphorical spinach in their teeth. And that’s life: we can’t expect everyone to heed what we have to say, especially when it’s a corrective. (Lord knows I don’t heed all the corrections that come my way. [Please don’t look too closely at my teeth.])

At the very least, I hope that having these conversations privately, one-on-one, at least comes across better than broadcasting to the world. But maybe I’m just deluding myself.

What do you think? Is that leadership principle even valid anymore, in our social-media-saturated world? Because sometimes it’s hard to bite my tongue, or stop my fingers from typing out responses….

P.S. In case you’re interested, you can find more of my views on leadership in my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds, and in Quality Education. I’d be much obliged if you’d check them out! GR

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Truth and Offense

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is English writer William Hazlitt’s birthday (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830). He was a poet, a painter, and a philosopher, and made a number of interesting observations about life. In fact, I found so many interesting things online that it was hard to settle on a quote to examine today. But in an 1823 collection called Characteristics, item 387, Hazlitt wrote:

An honest man speaks the truth, though it may give offence; a vain man, in order that it may.

I compare this to Saint Paul’s instruction that we should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) — if we do so, we may offend the listener but our intent clearly is otherwise. Any offense is incidental, if not actually accidental. But if instead we speak the truth in order to offend, then the love we exhibit is more clearly love of ourselves, and that is vanity indeed.

After all, we shade the truth when we care for a person and wish not to hurt them. Surely you have done so at one time or another: that suggestion was excellent; you did that very well; I would love to go with you to do that thing you want to do; and so forth. The more deeply we care for someone, the less likely we are to tell the bare, unvarnished truth.

Our capacity for speaking harmful, offensive truth is inversely proportional to how much we care for the people with whom we interact.

Does the truth offend you? (Image: “Truth,” by Tim Abbott, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Thus, particularly in so-called “social media” where we interact at a distance with people who are very nearly strangers to us, speaking some manner of truth — perhaps objective truth, perhaps only perceived truth — in order to offend, in order to provoke, in order even to antagonize, has become something of a diabolical art. I struggle against the tendency myself, and have given in to it more often than I care to admit, but I’m trying to get better.

It’s not easy sometimes to be both truthful and kind, but I hope we figure out how. Have a great week!

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Feeding Upon Corruption

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Given the response to the first full week of our new Presidency, it seemed fitting to share one of my favorite quotes about our tendency — and here I use the royal “our” when in particular I am thinking of the media and of political pundits — to think the worst of those we dislike or with whom we disagree, and to give voice to the worst of our thoughts.

This week’s quote comes from the Occasional Meditations of English churchman Joseph Hall, specifically number 31, under the title “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse.” The language may be a bit difficult (it was published in 1630, after all), but it will reward a close reading:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin!

Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Horse Fly
“It must needs be a filthy creature ….” (Image: “Horse Fly,” by Jonathan Bliss, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Does that not describe our sensationalist media? Does it not often describe many of the rest of us, as well?

Do we not, from time to time, gather at the metaphorical wounded flesh of an opponent, feast upon the blood and fill our bellies with the gore? Is it not both self-serving and cruel for us to do so? Does it not say something about us that we focus our attention not on that which is admirable, but on that which is tainted? Yet of course we do so with only the best of intentions, or so we tell ourselves, forgetting where good intentions leave us.

This week, even when it comes to people with whom I disagree, I think I’ll try to find things I can commend more than condemn. You’re welcome to try the same.

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Fighting My Outrage Addiction

I intend to make this post deliberately obtuse, as general and nonspecific as possible. If you think it may apply to a situation with which you’re familiar or in which you’re involved, you may be right. Here goes:

I get mad sometimes. Maybe more often than I should.

Not as mad as I used to get when I was younger, I think; though the people closest to me might disagree. Same frequency, maybe, but lower intensity? I think that may have something to do with not having as much energy as I used to have. (What was it Heinlein said about how what appears to be “mature wisdom” resembles just being too tired?) I find that what used to induce paroxysms of rage in me now elicits only grunts of disapproval.

But the stimuli to outrage continue. In fact they have increased in frequency because I encounter them on television news, in online news of various types — sports stories or science stories that contain not-so-thinly-veiled references to political or societal turmoil — and pretty much everywhere in social media. The lines in the sand are drawn, have been drawn now for some time, and no matter how often some of us try to smooth them away others are prepared to redraw them, often deeper and more distinct than before.

And all that leaves me struggling against my own addiction to outrage, my long-established and well-practiced tendency to fight back, to fashion my words into missiles and fire them in thundering salvoes.

Sometimes it’s hard not to give in to the outrage. (Image: “241/365,” by Kenny Louie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But I fight against that tendency because the results usually aren’t that good. Too often, surrounded by the exhaust plumes of my tirade, I have exulted in my triumph — until the winds of reality blew away that fog and I realized that the only things I’d damaged were my friends and friendships.

I still get mad, sometimes. Probably more often than I should.

But I’m trying not to give in to it.

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Social Media is a Marvel

Social media has, in some ways, made the Internet itself ironic.

What we know as the Web began as the ARPANET, developed to let Advanced Research Projects Agency scientists share information with one another to advance their researches. It devolved into something much less edifying as it expanded. Today, online courses and encyclopedias and other resources may combine to provide great opportunities for enlightenment, advancement, and fulfillment, but the various social media platforms seem to be strongholds for the ever more banal and degenerate.

Social Media Explained (with Donuts)
(Image: “Social Media Explained (with Donuts),” by Chris Lott, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

On social media, the irreligious can register expert opinions on religion and faith. People who never served a day in uniform or studied a fraction of military history, war, or conflict can share their supposed expertise on strategy, tactics, and military matters. Provincials who have never ventured beyond a comfortable distance from their birthplaces can claim authoritative knowledge on international affairs, those who have never run businesses or managed sums of money can pose as experts on economics, people who have never calibrated an instrument or written a computer model or conducted a designed experiment can proclaim scientific veracity, etc., etc. Add in striking graphics and a healthy dose of vulgarity, and social media enables the uninformed to substitute opinion for reason and feeling for fact.

In effect, by virtue of social media it is as if we have all become … politicians, bloviating and pandering rather than really listening or engaging in meaningful discourse. And only rarely do we step down from our ever-so-precarious soapboxes.

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The Social Peril of Asking a Difficult Question

So, I was “unfriended” by someone on Facebook yesterday.

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Those readers who have dealt with me on the Book of Faces probably aren’t surprised, since I can be even more of a jerk online than I am in real life. But it took me by surprise.

A little context: The gentleman (whom I like and am happy to consider a friend, though I suppose it’s more like we’re just acquaintances now) posted a graph showing an international comparison of the U.S. and a couple dozen other rich nations. He didn’t originate the graph, he “shared” it, so I was surprised by his reaction when I questioned the mathematical choices of the people who put it together.

(As an aside, I should explain that it seemed to me that the graph was contrived to make the U.S. look bad, since we were next-to-last in the select group of nations. I withheld that judgment. I also had questions about the actual data presented, including what operational definitions had been used and whether they were consistent across all the nations represented; from research I’ve done, I understand this can be a problem with international comparisons.)

I was most curious about why the researchers had selected “50% of the median household income” as the cutoff point for the comparison. Knowing the median value of a data set — the middle value when all the data are arranged in ascending order — can be useful, but less so when the mean (the arithmetic average) is not presented, but I wondered specifically why 50% of the median was significant.

So I asked the question. I didn’t phrase it as a question, which was probably a mistake; instead, I said something along the lines of “someone will need to explain to me why it makes sense to use 50% of the median.”

What followed was a confusing illustration of the fragile bonds of social media.

My correspondent posted a couple of links purported to show that the value in question was some kind of standard for defining poverty. Even if that were true — I eventually found other references that showed alternative values — one of the references had nothing to do with median income, and neither explained the rationale behind selecting the specific fraction of the median.

So I asked the question again — and in the form of a question this time. I asked why 50% of the median was selected, as opposed to 50% of the mean, or 50% of the mode, or some other percentage of the median. I hoped that someone who saw the exchange might be able to answer the question.

Instead, the next time I tried to look at the thread I found that I no longer had access to it. Following up, I discovered that he had terminated our FB friendship.

Surprised at his reaction, I contacted him off-line — because I’m just that kind of jerk — and apologized if I had offended him. The details of our subsequent exchange are unimportant, but suffice it to say that I got the impression that he had grown tired of my questioning (let alone challenging) sources he considered unassailable.

I wondered, in all of this, about my own motivation when posting particular news items or research results. Do I do so for the “echo chamber” effect, to collect “likes” and positive comments from friends who think the way I do? If I claim to do it in hope that it might educate or enlighten friends who think differently, am I fooling myself? Do I really post such things for the “poke ’em in the eye” effect? And, no matter my motivation, should I be surprised that provoking thought might lead to provoking responses, including responses that disagree with my own?

I am still disappointed that my question about the statistic wasn’t answered, and my own brief research into the matter hasn’t been very enlightening. But I’m even more disappointed that asking the question wasn’t met with a simple, “Hey, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask someone else” but instead was given the coldest of shoulders. Because if we can’t ask questions and engage in a sincere give-and-take, how can we expect to learn?

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