Tag Archives: human nature

Boredom Vs. A Lack Of Belonging: Which Drives Outrage Culture More?

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Here’s a quick non-rhetorical question. Which is worse, crippling boredom or social isolation? There’s no right answer, but every answer has distressing implications. More than anything else, those answers reinforce why solitary confinement is rightly considered torture.

I ask that question because I had an interesting conversation with someone on Reddit about what drives certain people to be constantly outraged about whatever happens to be controversial that day. I’ve talked a bit about outrage culture before and how professional trolls exploit them, but I haven’t really dug into the mechanisms behind it. Given how new controversies seem to trend every day, I think it’s worth scrutinizing.

In the discussion, I singled out boredom as a possibly underrated factor. Having highlighted the power of crippling boredom, I felt qualified to make the case that boredom may very well be an understated, under-appreciated cause. I still feel there’s a case to be made.

In the grand scheme of things, humanity is in uncharted territory when it comes to boredom. For most of human history, we had to live our lives under the constant threat of plague, famine, war, and natural disasters. Whether we were hunter/gatherers or subsistence farmers, life was chaotic and unpredictable.

Say what you will about those harsh, pre-modern eras, but they weren’t boring. They couldn’t be. There was always work to do. Given the lack of effective birth control, there were children to raise. Even if social media had existed 100 years ago, who would have the time or energy to even be outraged about a man wearing a sexist shirt.

Fast forward to the 21st century and things like war, famine, disease, and crippling poverty are all in decline. This is objectively good on so many ways, but for some people, especially in well-to-do middle class people, it leaves a large void that quickly becomes boring if not filled with something. Sometimes, it can get so bad that it can lead to outright murder.

When I made this argument, I think more than a few people took it seriously on Reddit. It was easy to see how someone whose life is so affluent and devoid of heart-pounding conflict that they will latch onto petty outrages just so they can feel something. Like someone stuck in solitary confinement, they’ll do anything for some sort of stimulation beyond counting the tiles on the floor.

Given how our brains can’t always discern the source of arousal, sometimes it’ll settle for whatever adrenaline rush we get from righteous outraged. Some go so far as to call the rush we get from outrage an addiction and it’s not a wholly inaccurate idea.

However, one person in that discussion pointed another element that also relies on that part of the brain that can’t always discern what gets it aroused. Instead of combating boredom, though, this issue deals with our inherent need to join a group and become part of a larger movement.

It’s very much an extension of tribalism and, like seeking stimulation when there is none, human beings are well-equipped by evolutionary biology to form groups. Whether we’re a small band of hunter/gatherers or a group of Taylor Swift fans, it doesn’t take much for us to form those groups and our brains reward us greatly.

Being part of a group feels good. Being part of something gives us a rush. It’s a major reason why peer pressure works and why tribalism often overrules reason. That solidarity we feel when we’re part of a group isn’t just intoxicating. It’s a fundamental component of any highly social species, which includes humans.

What this means for those constantly outrage isn’t that far off from the implications relating to boredom. Like boredom, our current society is pretty unprecedented in terms of how easy it is to form a close-nit group and share in that solidarity that has been driving our species since the hunter/gatherer days.

Thanks to social media and mass communication, it’s possible for people to do more than just share their opinions, no matter how outrageous they might be. It’s also possible to connect with those who either share in those opinions or despise them. In terms of forming a tribe, it’s a two-for-one-deal because it creates both a sense of “us” while revealing a “them” to rally against.

For anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media, it doesn’t take much to see the whole us versus them mentality to take shape. If any amount of disagreement goes on long enough, Godwin’s Law usually takes over and the battle lines are set.

On top of this, the social issues in 2018 aren’t quite nearly as clear-cut as they were in decades past. In the past, there were some pretty egregious injustices surrounding civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights that required major social movements to combat. By and large, society has done a lot to improve the state for these marginalized groups.

There’s no question that being part of such righteous movements is laudable. We, as a society, rightly praise civil rights leaders who stand for such righteous causes. Naturally, some people seek to emulate that. Whether by ego or altruism, it’s only natural that they want to experience that kind of accomplishment.

Thanks to the sheer breadth of human progress, though, there causes on the levels faced by Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. However, because that drive to be part of a movement is just that strong, those same people will settle for pettier movements that protest sexy women in video games or bemoan the lack of diversity in old TV shows like “Friends.”

Make no mistake. Those outrages are petty and asinine when compared to the real injustices that past social movements have fought, but the brains of the outraged can’t tell the difference. From their perspective, their movement is every bit as righteous as every other civil rights movement in history. The outrage they express and the solidarity they feel is every bit as fulfilling as something that alleviates boredom.

Even if these causes are petty and the outrage is shallow, it’s important to note the alternative here. If these same people who protest the lack of diversity in the tech industry didn’t have this sort of thing to drive them, then what would happen to the group they’d formed?

Absent that outrage and protest, the group has nothing to rally behind. The person has nothing provoking arousal, be it anger or excitement. Without this dynamic, they don’t belong to something bigger anymore. They’re not the ones marching alongside famous civil rights leaders of the past. They’re just alone, by themselves, contributing nothing of value.

For many people, that’s just untenable. I would go so far as to say it’s almost as untenable as crippling boredom. Even self-proclaimed introverts and ardent individualists, we seek an identity and a constant source of stimulation. When we lack one or both, we lack a core element of any social species. In the same way we’re driven to meet the rest of our basic needs, we’ll be driven to find that somewhere, no matter how misguided.

In the past, we might have found that sense of belonging and purpose through our small communities or organized religion. Today, the world is much bigger and more diverse, thanks to technology and civilization. Organized religion is also not effective anymore due to factors too numerous to list. People are still going to seek belonging.

It’s somewhat ironic that civilization has advanced to such a degree that there aren’t as many clear-cut, good versus evil movements to be part of anymore. However, there’s still this longing to be the hero of our own story and be part of something greater, even if it means actually going out of their way to feel outraged.

Getting back to the initial question I posed, I think the influence of boredom and belonging are inherently linked. We agonize over escaping boredom and over having a sense of belonging. We can’t get that same rush our ancestors felt when surviving bear attacks and hunger so we’ll settle for whining about protests during football games. It’s still annoyingly petty, but distressingly understandable.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, Reasons and Excuses, War on Boredom

Finding Greater Hope In Disturbing News

Every now and then, there’s a news story that comes along that’s so disturbing, so horrific, and so utterly offensive to every level of decency that it makes me question the faith I have in humanity. I know I’ve said before that I genuine believe that people are naturally good, at heart. I’ve even shared stories about how I came to believe this. However, there are times when that believe is tested.

Last week, I got an unexpected test in the form of one of the most disturbing news stories I’ve heard that didn’t involve a mass shooting. At least with mass shootings, it presents the opportunity for good people to show their strength in the face of those who are truly deranged. In this case, there were many of those opportunities to say the least.

While the story is still unfolding with each passing day, it has already made national headlines. It involves the now-infamous Turpin family and the unspeakable horrors they inflicted upon their own children. To those of you who haven’t heard this story, consider yourselves lucky. This is one of those stories that tests both your stomach and your soul.

The details are disturbing to recount. They involve abusive parents, abused kids, gross neglect, intentional malnourishment, and all the disturbing forces in between that drive such deviant behavior. The full story is still unfolding, but accord to a report from ABC News, these are the current facts:

An investigation is underway in California after 13 siblings – ages 2 to 29 – were allegedly held captive in a home, some “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks,” the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.

Parents David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested in the alleged torture and child endangerment case in Perris, California, about 27 miles south of San Bernardino.

The investigation began early-Sunday morning when a 17-year-old girl apparently escaped from the home and called 911, saying her 12 brothers and sisters were still being held captive there, the sheriff’s office said.

Responding officers said the teen “appeared to be only 10 years old and slightly emaciated.”

Inside the home, several children were “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” the sheriff’s office said. “The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty.”

Seven of the alleged victims were adults, ranging in ages from 18 to 29, the sheriff’s office said. The others were children as young as 2. The siblings – who authorities say claimed to be starving – were given food and drinks and interviewed, the sheriff’s office said. They were then hospitalized for treatment, the authorities said.

I’m not going to lie. I felt sick to my stomach reading this story. The idea that anyone, let alone parents, would do these sorts of things to children is pretty disturbing. While there are all sorts of crazy theories circulating about the psychology behind such sadistic behavior, the full truth will probably never be known. Besides, the damage has been done. These children will probably carry some deep scars for the rest of their lives.

News stories like these often remind us that as amazing a species we are, there are still parts of it that are undeniably devious. While I prefer to emphasize the good in people, as well as the progress we’ve made, it’s neither logical nor just to ignore the bad. Parents torturing, neglecting, and abusing their children is objectively bad by any sane measure.

As awful as it is, however, it’s still important to balance out the terrible with the hopeful. In most great atrocities, there are often glimmers of hope. That may seem impossible for a story like this, but it is there if you look. The horrors of the holocaust were undeniable, but even that darkest of periods can reveal moments of true heroism and inspiration.

Even with that in mind, how could anyone find such moments in a story like this? Something this atrocious makes that difficult. However, the moments are there. Even if the worst of this story has yet to come out, there are some powerful lessons to be learned. Here are just a few.


Bright Spot #1: Atrocities Rarely Stay Hidden (Especially These Days)

There was once a time when it was much easier to hide from the authorities and public scrutiny. A truly sadistic person could take their victims out into the vast wilderness, away from prying eyes, and commit their atrocities without much risk of getting caught. For most of human history, that was the norm and not the exception.

It’s different today. Thanks to modern infrastructure, the media, and mass communication, it’s much harder to hide these sorts of atrocities from the public. That’s especially true in a modern, industrialized country where we have internet, emergency services, and a semi-functional justice system.

If the Turpin family had lived in a less developed country, chances are their crimes would’ve gone unpunished. Even if one of their children had escaped, they probably wouldn’t have been able to get proper help or convince the authorities to aid them. In some parts of the world, those authorities don’t even exist.

Say what you will about the state of the industrialized world. It certainly has its flaws. However, when it comes to committing atrocities on children, those crimes are hard to hide and are rightly condemned. That counts as both progress and justice.


Bright Spot #2: All That Abuse Did NOT Prevent The Children From Escaping

Even though the Turpin family couldn’t hide their atrocities forever, they still managed to hide them for much longer than most people will ever be comfortable admitting. One of the ways they hid it was to condition and control their children to an extent not seen outside of a North Korean prison camp.

Stories of the sheer breadth of the neglect these children suffered are still coming in, but one thing is clear. The parents of these children worked tirelessly to control every aspect of their lives. They were sheltered, starved, restrained, and completely cut off from the outside world. By all accounts, there was no outside world, except the world their parents wanted them to see.

Despite all this, though, one of these kids still found the strength and the will to escape. The only reason these crimes were even exposed was because the 17-year-old daughter climbed out a window and managed to call 911. The fact that this girl, despite all the abuse and deprivation, still found the will to escape says a lot about her and the human desire for freedom.

As repressive as these parents were, it still wasn’t enough. They still sought to escape. The strength of the girl who managed to escape cannot be overstated and it highlights, what I believe, is the biggest takeaway from this otherwise horrific story.


Bright Spot #3: It’s REALLY Hard To Control/Break Someone

 

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No matter how disturbing this story gets or what kind of horrific details emerge in the coming weeks, there’s one important lesson we should all take from such a disturbing crime. No matter how much a person is abused or how much someone tries to control them, it’s extremely difficult to completely break them.

These children, including the girl who escaped, were conditioned from birth to live under their parents’ authority. They grew up literally not knowing any other way to live. As far as they knew, the idea of not being controlled by their parents was an alien concept. In terms of controlling and/or breaking someone’s will to resist, the parents had every circumstance working in their favor.

Despite all that, they still failed. They still could not completely control their children because they still tried to escape. It only took one of them to succeed to make the point. No matter how strict the control or hard the abuse, they can’t subvert the natural desire to be free. If nothing else about this terrible story inspires you, let that be it.


I don’t wish to dwell too much on this story, if only because much of it is still playing out. While we shouldn’t discount the horrors involved, there are some small bits of hope that we can glean from such a story. It may not completely overshadow the breadth of the atrocities, but it should remind us that as flawed as the human race may be, we will fight such atrocities when we confront them.

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Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History (Seriously)

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These days, being an optimist is hard. In some cases, you’ll get laughed out of the room for not thinking the world is on a steady descent into a dystopian hellscape in the mold of “Mad Max,” “1984,” or “Idiocracy.” I don’t deny that current events, especially after the 2016 Election, have made optimism difficult. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth talking about.

I do consider myself an optimist, at heart. I sincerely believe that, on the whole, things are getting better for the world, the human race, and everything in between. I’ve even tried to make my case through personal experience and through empirical data. I don’t imagine I’ve changed too many opinions, but I still think it’s important to put that perspective out there.

With a new year upon us, I think that perspective is worth belaboring once more. This time, however, I’m not alone in my optimistic sentiment. There are others who share in my optimistic outlook. Some of those individuals are far smarter, far more accomplished, and far more charismatic than I’ll ever be.

By those standards, Steven Pinker checks all the necessary boxes. While he’s somewhat of a controversial figure in some circles, the man has some solid credentials. He’s an accomplished professor at Harvard and has written multiple books on issues ranging from language to psychology to human nature.

His seminal work, though, is his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature.” If you want a compelling reason to believe that the world is getting better by most measures, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s not just about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Mr. Pinker provides real, verifiable information that the world is getting better and human nature is far better than we give it credit for.

Beyond his books and his famous TED Talks, Mr. Pinker continues to make his case for a more upbeat outlook in various ways. Recently, his work was cited in an op-ed article in the New York Times entitled “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History.”

Granted, a title like that is a bit heavy on hyperbole, but the writer, Nicholas Kristoff, is dead serious in making that case. Link Mr. Pinker, he doesn’t just interpret all the ongoing trends in the world through the mind of a stoned hippie. He puts the state of the world into a context that goes beyond all the horrible headlines we saw in 2017.

He, and other optimists like him, tend to look at the broader trends in human society. The data is out there, but it’s hard to put into a compelling headline. That doesn’t stop men like Kristoff and Pinker from making a concerted effort, though.

We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.

But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.

A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

Again, these trends are hard to see and harder to report on because they don’t happen all at once. If tomorrow, all poverty was magically wiped out, that would be a big news story. However, human progress doesn’t work that way. It’s slow, gradual, and sometimes boring. It does happen, though. The events of 2017 were no exception.

Violent went down. Poverty went down. In fact, they went down to their lowest levels in modern history. Compared to a year ago, 5 years ago, or 50 years ago, the trends we saw in 2017 were all improvements by most objective measures. A lot of these trends are things Mr. Pinker has been talking about for years. Mr. Kristoff simply builds on them.

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

For most individuals, these trends are difficult to notice. That’s largely because they’re driven by forces that most people don’t notice or understand beyond their personal existence. Even in a world that’s so connected and becoming more connected with each passing day, it’s easy to overlook this kind of progress.

It’s also a lot harder when the news is largely dominated by negative headlines that highlight how dissatisfied the general public is with the direction of society. Again, there is a context here and one that I’ve tried to point out before. It’s one of the first lessons I learned in college when interpreting media of any kind, be it the news or superhero comics.

The reason why all these negative headlines are headlines in the first place isn’t because they’re common. It’s because they’re so rare. Stories such as mass shootings, brutal murders, and war crimes make the news because they don’t happen every day. That’s why they qualify as news. They’re aberrations and not normal occurrences.

Conversely, good headlines rarely make the front page because they lack the same novelty and emotional impact as bad news. Naturally, people are going to react more strongly to a horrific headline because our survival instincts compel us to devote more energy to the bloodier, more dangerous information.

That’s why, even if 2017 was the best year in the history of the human race, our caveman brains aren’t going to process that because it’s so focused on all the negative news that came out over the past year. That news may very well be a tiny sliver of the events that transpired in 2017, but that news will still garner more attention, especially in the current digital economy.

We can still take comfort in the progress that happened in 2017, though. No matter how many negative headlines there were, that doesn’t undo the genuinely good things that transpired in the past year. Mr. Kristoff even went out of his way to provide an anecdote, of sorts, that highlighted just how much good can come from even the worst parts of the world.

Granted, this column may feel weird to you. Those of us in the columny gig are always bemoaning this or that, and now I’m saying that life is great? That’s because most of the time, quite rightly, we focus on things going wrong. But it’s also important to step back periodically. Professor Roser notes that there was never a headline saying, “The Industrial Revolution Is Happening,” even though that was the most important news of the last 250 years.

I had a visit the other day from Sultana, a young Afghan woman from the Taliban heartland. She had been forced to drop out of elementary school. But her home had internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus with the help of the Khan Academy, Coursera and EdX websites. Without leaving her house, she moved on to physics and string theory, wrestled with Kant and read The New York Times on the side, and began emailing a distinguished American astrophysicist, Lawrence M. Krauss.

Think about that story, for a moment, and reflect on how 2017 made it possible. Thanks to all the progress made in global communications, a woman in Afghanistan in 2017 was able to pursue opportunities that would’ve been impossible a mere 20 years ago.

This woman, despite living in one of the most war torn parts of the world, still managed to gain access to the kind of education and informational resources that were once reserved for aristocrats and academics. That, by any measure, is an astonishing accomplishment for humanity.

In many respects, 2017 was the best year ever because it continued the trends had been going on for years. As a result, more people have access to information, education, and the basic necessities of life than at any other point in human history. That, more than anything, is why it’s not unreasonable to say that 2017 was the best year ever.

The fact that concerns over celebrity scandals is a greater concern than poverty, war, or famine shows that we are making more progress than we think. It also bodes well for 2018 being an even better year than 2017. Despite what negative headlines may say, the human race is on an unprecedented winning streak and I hope, along with men like Mr. Pinker and Mr. Kristoff, that the streak continues into 2018 and beyond.

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Why We SHOULDN’T Judge People For The (Stupid) Things They Say In Their Youth

We all say dumb things when we’re young. That’s not an opinion. That’s an inescapable fact, right up there with gravity, taxes, and the inherent sex appeal of Jennifer Lopez. I doubt anyone would argue that young, inexperienced people say foolish things that they later regret. Despite that, why do we belabor that foolishness later in life?

This is an increasingly relevant question in the era of social media. For much of human history, you could usually get away with saying the dumbest, crudest, most ill-informed shit anyone could possibly say at any age. That’s because peoples’ memories are exceedingly fallible, so much so that even the courts recognize that.

Then, the internet came along and, on top of all the free porn and cat videos, some of that filthy, misguided rhetoric ended up in the digital coffers that are frustratingly robust. It’s become a popular meme that “The internet never forgets.” However, I think it has graduated from meme to a fundamental law of the digital universe.

Like most things, there are benefits and drawbacks to having a system that can remember how foolish and pig-headed we all were in our youth. A little perspective in terms of who we once were and how far we’ve come can actually be healthy. That said, it can also undermine our ability to function as adults who once were pig-headed youth.

This brings me to Cenk Uygur, a media personality that I mentioned earlier this year in a post about winning arguments versus being right. He’s a member of an internet media group called The Young Turks and, for a time, they were at the cutting edge of a new kind of news media.

They were unapologetically progressive in their message, often poking fun at extreme right-wing personalities who probably said less foolish things in their youth. They also provided genuine insight that didn’t always make it into the cable news networks, which was part of why I found them appealing for a while.

Then, the 2016 election happened and The Young Turks began getting more extreme. They became less about covering the news that cable news networks ignored and more about bemoaning the fact that some of their politics were falling out of favor. Cenk Uygur, being one of the most outspoken of the bunch, became one of the loudest voices.

Now, I didn’t care for his exceedingly vocal tactics and have since unsubscribed to the Young Turks network. However, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Mr. Uygur when the laws of the digital universe caught up with him and revealed an old blog post that could only have been written by someone young, uniformed, inexperienced, and in this case, horny.

I won’t get into all the details of the post, since others have already done so. Even by the standards of an aspiring erotica/romance writer who has said more than his share of stupid things on the internet, it’s still pretty crude. Here is just a clip of what Mr. Uygur said.

“Obviously, the genes of women are flawed. They are poorly designed creatures who do not want to have sex nearly as often as needed for the human race to get along peaceably and fruitfully.”

I don’t deny that the rhetoric is crass and offensive. I certainly wouldn’t blame any woman who felt offended reading it. However, and I know this is probably one of those things I’ll end up belaboring again at some point, people say stupid things when they’re young and/or misinformed.

Mr. Uygur may have been in his 30s when he wrote those, but I would still put it under the kind of ill-informed foolishness that we all experience in our youth and even as adults. It’s also worth noting that these blog posts occurred in the early 2000s before YouTube, FaceBook, social media, and cat memes. The internet was a very different place back then is what I’m saying.

Now, because of this crap that he wrote over a decade ago when he was in a different time, place, and mindset, Mr. Uygur is getting all sorts of criticism about this. Just this past week, he got kicked off the board of the Justice Democrats, a group he helped found, no less. Again, it’s not because of crime he committed in the present. It was because of something he wrote over a decade ago.

Think about that, for a moment. Imagine that your boss, parents, or enemies suddenly had access to records for all the stupid, profane, and flat out wrong things you’ve ever dared to say. Most of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves, would be sweating bullets at the prospect. I certainly would. I know there are things I’ve written and said that I would prefer not become public. Who else can claim otherwise?

I’ve often asked this question to some of my older friends and family. I try to get them to seriously contemplate how different their lives would’ve panned out if the internet, cell phones, and social media existed in its current form when they were young. Most don’t really give me a straight answer. A few honest people flat out tell me they would be screwed.

That’s an important perspective to have because our propensity to say and think stupid things goes beyond the internet’s ability to never forget. Youth, inexperience, and an overall limited understanding of the world are unavoidable . We don’t come out of the womb with a sense of context to the complexities of the world. We’re basically limited minds with limited perspectives trying to make sense of an unlimited world.

Have you ever heard a kid, teenager, or horny twenty-something pitch a fit about how the world hates them? Never mind the fact that they live in one of the most prosperous periods in human history and have access to more information than any generation before it. From their perspective, they might as well be a real-life Charlie Brown.

Most people, observing from the outside, would rightly roll their eyes at that sentiment. Even I don’t deny that I’ve engaged in that kind of whining in the past. At the time, though, that’s how it really felt. My perspectives and my understandings of the world were just too limited to convince me otherwise. It wasn’t a flaw in my thinking. It was just a lack of information.

That’s not to say there aren’t truly despicable people in the world who say and think these things, despite having no excuses for seeing the bigger picture. However, I would not put someone like Cenk Uygur, or most people for that matter, in that category.

He said something stupid and offensive years ago. He has since apologized for it and, as I’ve espoused before, we should make an effort to forgive him. People say stupid things when they’re young, dumb, and misinformed. No matter how powerful or robust the internet gets, people will continue saying stupid things. Until we can upgrade our caveman brains, that’s just the nature of who we are.

Accepting that also means understanding that, despite all the stupid things people say, there is a context to consider. Even in a world where the internet never lets us forget any of the stupid things we say or do, we shouldn’t judge someone solely on the basis of the dumbest things they’ve said.

That’s not to say writings like Mr. Uygur’s should be completely overlooked, but it shouldn’t take away from the man he is now and the man he’s trying to be. If we’re not willing to let people learn and grow from the dumb things they say, then nobody will be able to gain the perspective they need to stop saying dumb things in the first place.

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The Doug Stanhope Principle (And Why We Should Apply It)

In my experience, comedians offer the most memorable and insightful commentaries on otherwise serious issues. Even if they’re just trying to be funny, which is their job, I think those commentaries have worth beyond the laughs. There are even times I think comedians don’t realize just how insightful their humor can be.

I’ve made my love of comedy known before and not just through my weekly Sexy Sunday Thoughts. I’ve cited accomplished comedians like Christopher Titus when exploring very non-funny issues, such as jealousy. I don’t just do this to help lighten the mood on a site I want to keep light and sexy. I do it because comedy can reveal more than the breadth of our sense of humor.

With that in mind, I’d like to cite a comedian by the name of Doug Stanhope. I’ve never mentioned before, but has been one of my personal favorites for years. He’s not on the same level as a Jon Stewart, George Carlin, or Lewis Black. However, given his brand of humor, that’s not too surprising.

Stanhope’s comedy is decidedly NSFW, touching on issues that would give most network producers brain aneurisms. His opinions are overtly harsh and unconcerned with your delicate sensibilities. If you’re wondering just how harsh he can be, here’s a quick taste.

That said, he is not a shock comic in the tradition of Howard Stern or Andrew Dice Clay. Stanope’s comedy, as crude as it can be at times, is very smart. One bit in particular stands out. It comes from his “Deadbeat Hero” album, one of my personal favorites and one I think every comedy fan should listen to at least once.

In that album, he talks about a number of issues, but one in particular stands out. That issue is marriage, one I’ve discussed too on this site, albeit not with the same level of humor. On this topic, he makes one of the most insightful observations I’ve ever seen on a treasured institution.

If marriage didn’t exist, would you invent it? Would you go “Baby, this shit we got together, it’s so good we gotta get the government in on this shit. We can’t just share this commitment ‘tweenst us. We need judges and lawyers involved in this shit, baby. It’s hot!”

The bolded parts are my doing because I think the implications of that question go beyond the comedy, more so than I think Stanhope himself intended. In a sense, it reflects the paradox of marriage and traditional romance that I’ve talked about before in that we see it as natural, yet we need all these social institutions to protect it.

The fact those institutions exist is a subtle, but telling sign that these traditions aren’t as natural as we think they are. More than anything else, they’re the product of taboos and social norms that people cling to out of fear, familiarity, and ignorance. I won’t go so far as to call it a form of excuse banking, but I think it highlights our imperfect understanding of human nature.

One of Doug Stanhope’s greatest strengths as a comedian is his ability to break down a treasured and cherished concept in a way that’s both revealing and insightful. What he did for marriage with this one question immediately makes us ponder the flaws in our current understanding of it.

Once we stop laughing at the punch-line, though, I would take it a step further. I would ask that question again in more general form as a means to help us scrutinize our traditions, values, and everything else we hold sacred. Sure, that’s bound to make some people uncomfortable, but that’s exactly the point of certain brand of comedy, especially Stanhope’s.

Like the Simpson Filter I coined earlier this year, let’s coin another using this question. Since I’m not a branding expert with only a fraction of the wit of Doug Stanhope, I’ll call it “The Stanhope Principle.” The core of that principle can be summed up in one simple question.

If something didn’t exist in its current form, would you invent it that way?

Sure, it’s not nearly as funny as Stanhope’s bit on marriage, nor is it meant to be. In essence, it’s a question meant to get your brain thinking about things that it usually doesn’t think about. In some cases, they’re issues you’ve gone out of your way to avoid.

Take any current issue, be it a major political controversy or a certain state in your personal life. Now, apply the Stanhope Principle and try to answer the question honestly. Here are just a few possible examples.

  • If our tax system existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our health care system existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our current relationship existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If the job we worked existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?
  • If our website/blog/product existed in its current form, would we invent it that way?

If you ask that question and answer it honestly, which is key, you might be surprised by what you find out. You might think your personal relationships are functional, but applying the Stanhope Principle could expose flaws that you’ve been overlooking or ignoring.

Apply in a larger context, such as politics, marriage, and gender issues, and the insights get a bit more complicated. Given the current inequalities that still pervade in our society, as well as the double standards we apply, the Stanhope Principle reveals the breadth of the flaws within these institutions.

It can be distressing, acknowledging those flaws. That’s usually where the excuse banking enters the picture, but that can only further mask them. Another honest application of the Stanhope Principle will only remind us of those flaws and even reveal how we’ve made our situation worse.

Ideally, the Stanhope Principle should be a basis for improvement. A good example is Apple, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak probably didn’t know they were applying that principle, but they were.

They saw the current state of computers. They saw there was a lot of room for improvement. Given how cumbersome computers were for much of their early history, they decided to innovate and create a better way of using them. The result is a company that is worth over half-a-trillion dollars.

Applying the Stanhope Principle for worked out pretty well for Apple. I’m not saying it can make everyone a billionaire, but it does help break down a situation and an issue in a way that allows us to see the bigger picture.

More than anything else, it exposes the imperfections of our current situation. For some, it motivates them into improving their situation, be it a relationship, a business, or a social policy. For others, it’s an uncomfortable reminder that there’s a flaw in that they need to cover up or mask. In that sense, it should be easy to see who are more likely to become billionaires.

There are all sorts of way to apply the Stanhope Principle. I’ll certainly try to apply it to future issues that I discuss on this site. For now, I just want to offer my sincere thanks to Doug Stanhope and the principle he inspired. He has made the world inherently funnier and more interesting to explore.

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Filed under Current Events, Marriage and Relationships, Reasons and Excuses

People Who Admitted They Were Wrong (And Why We Should Respect Them)

There’s one sentence that nobody likes saying. Hell, it’s a thought we avoid thinking at all costs. It’s painful, stressful, and downright damaging to our entire understanding of who we are. No, it doesn’t involve distressing phrases like “unfortunate accident,” “slight complication,” or “broken condom.” This incredibly gut-wrenching concept can be boiled down to five simple words.

“I admit I was wrong.”

I’ll give everyone not named Kanye West a moment to stop shuddering. I know. Just reading over that sentence was stressful. I’m only being half-sarcastic here, but I’ve been on the internet long enough and seen one too many comments sections to know the sheer power of those words, if only because they’re so rarely said.

More than ever, we live at a time when nobody wants to admit how wrong they are. It doesn’t even matter, in some cases, when someone is proven wrong beyond any possible doubt. People will still deny it. To make matters worse, a lot of these people tend to be in major positions of power.

There are a lot of things I can say about this phenomenon. Hell, I don’t deny that there have been times when I’ve clung to demonstrably wrong sentiments much longer than I should have.

A lot of it has to do with the flawed wiring of our caveman brains, which I know I constantly belabor on this site. We have this mental picture of who we are in our minds and being wrong is like a stack of dynamite to the foundation. It’s often why people will go to egregiously misguided efforts to protect that mental compilation of who they are.

However, I don’t want to spend too much time belaboring that. I’ll save that for other topics, preferably for a time when our collective faith in humanity is due for its regular gut punch. Instead, I want this post to inspire a sense of hope.

As hard as it may seem, it is possible for people to admit they were wrong. It’s even possible for them to make amends. It’s even possible for some of those people to be celebrities, individuals whose grasp on reality is often tenuous at best. I admit it sounds as impossible in an age where celebrities believe in aliens, chemtrails, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. It does happen though.

Recently, the fine and sexy folks at Cracked.com did a compilation, which they call Pictofacts, of people who undertook the agonizingly difficult task of admitting that they were wrong. Here are some highlights that should give everyone pause, if only to marvel at how any human being can humble themselves in the face of such distress.

Entry 20

Entry 19

Entry 17

Entry 15

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These are just a few cases. There are plenty more out there that are every bit as profound. Even so, take a moment to appreciate the breadth of these admissions and the change of heart that these people underwent.

These aren’t just people who watched too much Fox News or listened to their crazy uncles too closely. These are admitted racists, homophobes, bigots, and even a goddamned Neo-Nazi who stood up, admitted they were wrong, and tried to make amends.

It’s impossible to overstate how dramatic this is, from a purely personal standpoint. The inability to admit when we’re wrong is hardwired into us. Making such an admission is akin to resisting the urge to eat when you’re starving or avoid staring at a pair of exposed breasts when you’re horny. It goes against some fundamental forces of biology.

It essentially requires that someone take a baseball bat to the entire foundation of their psyche and rebuild it from scratch. That is not an easy process, nor is it pleasant. It can cost friends, family, reputations, and even careers, as some celebrities like Leah Remini are finding out.

Despite all this, these people still do it. They still do what they understand to be the right and decent thing. It’s not just something that warrants respect. It should be celebrated. Stubbornness isn’t just an unfortunate default setting in our biology. It’s one of those forces that’s getting a lot worse. Anyone who can overcome it in this environment has a strength that not everyone has.

It’s because of that environment that cases like this, where people admit outright that they were wrong, will become more rare. In the age of the internet and social media, it’s too easy to find a group of like-minded people who will reinforce any position, no matter how wrong they are. Why else would flat earth societies still exist?

That makes acknowledging those who do admit their mistakes all the more important. Now, that’s not to say that everyone should overlook whatever misdeeds they did when they were wrong. As I said in my piece about forgiving sexual misconduct, there are some things that just shouldn’t be overlooked.

Even in the extreme cases, though, it’s important to give people a chance. We need to place faith in people, something I’ve lamented before. We, as a society, need to reward those who endure the agony of admitting that they were wrong. We should keep in mind just how difficult it is for anyone to come to such a realization, especially if they’re a celebrity or someone of major influence.

Admitting that you’re wrong requires strength. It should not be seen as a weakness. At a time when billions of people have access to unlimited information, including half-truths and outright lies, it’s important that people value what is true and just. It’s still a difficult process and our flawed biology will fight us every step of the way. However, that’s exactly why it’s so important.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, gender issues

Being Right Vs. Winning An Argument Vs. Ben Shapiro

There’s an old saying that I just made up a few seconds ago, old being a relative term.

“You can either win the argument by merit or be right in principle, but only one matters in the long run.”

It sounds cynical, but it’s something I think most people realize at some point in our lives. The truth is a harsh mistress and it’s rarely the sexy kind. Truth is the kind of mistress that has no safe word, never offers any lube, and rarely gives overt warnings. When she wants to whip us in our most sensitive areas, she’ll do so without asking for permission or a second thought.

I’ll ease up on the BDSM terminology because I’m trying to make a serious point, one that’s a lot more relative in the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” More and more, we’re learning the hard way that our caveman brains aren’t equipped to seek truth. Survival and reproduction are our primary imperatives. Truth is optional, at best, and an afterthought at worst.

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It’s for that very reason that public debates or major speaking present a false sense of perspective that exploits our caveman brains. It gives the impression that the truth can be presented in a slick, concise, and easy-to-digest message that helps us make sense of the world. That kind of certainty in an world of cheap knock-offs and practical jokes is more valuable to our psyche than gold, diamonds, and good Wi-Fi.

I say that as someone who finds a lot of entertainment value in debates. For a time, one of my favorite things to do was to look up debates between scientists and creationists, which always seems to bring out the best and worst of our caveman brains. They nicely highlight how real, functioning human beings can hold such radically different viewpoints, as well as the excuses they’ll make to cling to those viewpoints.

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I won’t get into all the absurdities behind creationist debates. That’s not what prompted this post. The primary inspiration for this topic came from the recent news surrounding Ben Shapiro’s recent speaking gig at UC Berkeley. By every measure, this incident highlights all the problems with such debates better than any creationist ever could.

For those of you who don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, it’s not too hard to know what he’s about. He’s a fast-talking, quick-witted talking head in a media landscape that’s full of them. He specializes in espousing staunch conservative principles and you could make the case he does it better than almost any other conservative, at this point.

Personally, I like Mr. Shaprio’s style and I agree with some of the points he makes and not just because he makes them well. Many of them are points I’ve come to embrace on my own accord in trying to make sense of this crazy world. However, as much as I respect the man and his principles, he does embody a dangerous phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent in the digital age.

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It’s one born from that not-so-old saying I mentioned earlier about being right versus winning an argument. They are not the same thing, but they’re easy to confuse, thanks largely to our caveman brains.

Think back to the Simpson Filter in appealing to large swaths of people. For the Homer and Marge Simpsons of the world, winning the argument is enough to win them over. They leave the truth for the sad, lonely, and miserable Lisa Simpsons of the world that nobody listens to.

Ben Shaprio, and others like him, are highly skilled at using the Simpson Filter to get their message across. They’re slick, compelling, and charismatic in the sense that they check all the boxes that appeal to our tribal instincts, which I’ve noted before are a major source of conflict.

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By appealing to these instincts, they don’t have to be completely right. They don’t even have to be half-right. They just have to get people thinking and feeling that it’s right, so much so that they won’t bother checking the facts, doing some research of their own, or even giving it a second thought. Why would they? Ben Shaprio comes off as so smart and so knowledgable that he’s done the thinking for us.

Therein lies the biggest problem, though. By focusing on the argument and not the truth, it’s easy to conflate the two. Ben Shapiro is not a scientist, an economist, a politician, a philosopher, or even a used car salesman. He’s just a commentator, who happens to be exceptionally well at commentating in an articulate manner. That’s a valuable skill, but it’s not the same as being correct.

This actually played out in another event that occurred earlier this year at Politicon 2017. At that event, Ben Shapiro debated Cenk Uygur, another professional commentator who is at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Like Shapiro, I respect Mr. Uygur and agree with some of his positions. However, he is not as skilled a debater as Mr. Shapiro.

If you watch the debate, listen to the crowd, and note the speaking styles of both men, it’s not hard to see who has more skill and experience in that field. If you read the comments and look at the reactions, most agree that Mr. Shapiro won that debate. I’m sure it’s not the first debate he’s won, nor will it be the last.

That’s just it, though. Mr. Shapiro could win a billion more debates against a billion other people much smarter than Mr. Uygur. He could go down in history as the most skilled debater in the history of the human race. It still wouldn’t change one inescapable fact.

The real world, as in the world that operates outside our caveman brains, doesn’t give two whiffs of dried wolf shit about who wins a debate or by how much. Reality still operates under the same facts, rules, and principles. People still operate in ways that are at the mercy of their caveman brains and their collective circumstances.

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Ben Shapiro could convince every person on this planet that Ronald Reagan was right about everything, that the Jewish religion that he practices is the only correct one, and that everyone whoever worked for Hillary Clinton was an alien spy. That still doesn’t change reality. At the end of the day, the truth is still that same harsh mistress that will whip all our asses without warning.

That’s why, in the long run, it doesn’t matter how many debates Ben Shapiro or others like him win. It doesn’t matter how well they craft their message. In the long run, if their ideas don’t line up with reality, then reality will eventually win out. It always does. People die, take their ideas with them, and leave reality to sort out the rest.

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Shapiro is sincere in his beliefs. I also don’t doubt that his opponents, like Cenk Uygur are just as sincere. That’s why I wouldn’t classify them as professional trolls, such as the Ann Coulters and Lena Dunhams of the world.

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They don’t say what they say, just to provoke our caveman brains and draw attention to themselves. They aren’t outright con-artists either, like certain televangelists. They’re just good at conveying their ideas and making them feel legitimate. Unfortunately, that’s as far as they can take it.

Ben Shapiro, Cenk Uygur, and everyone like them may think they have the answers. They may even believe that their way will make the world a better place, as a whole. They’re not entirely malicious in attempting to convey their points, but they are misguided.

There’s also a danger to their approach, conflating debates with truth. They present the false impression that an issue like politics, evolution, and economics can be resolved through simple debate through a series of talking points. As anyone who has worked with a tax attorney knows, that’s just not how the real world operates.

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The world is complicated, complex, and chaotic. No human brain, or collection of human brains, is equipped to make sense of it. Some of these issues aren’t just complex, either. They’re impossible to resolve because there just aren’t enough resources for everyone.

A skilled debater, like Ben Shapiro, is good at convincing people there are quick fixes. The world can be improved simply by adopting the policies of his favorite ideology. He may convince you, me, and everyone around you that he’s right.

The truth, however, can never be swayed by fast talking, fancy rhetoric, or skilled arguments. At the end of the day, it will stay on the side of the harsh mistress that is reality. In the short term, the Ben Shapiro’s of the world will be able to bask in many victorious debates. In the long term, however, the truth knows whose asses will be stinging in the end.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, Jack Fisher's Insights