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How Bad Should We Feel For Certain Bad People?

New Research on TV Binge-Watching Behaviors – Department of Communication  Arts – UW–Madison

In general, I try to be forgiving, empathetic, and understanding, even towards people I think are total assholes. I also think it’s generally good for society to be forgiving and sympathetic to others, even when they’ve done bad things and fostered bad events.

Now, there are always exceptions. There are certain people on this planet who are genuine monsters and they deserve only scorn and condemnation. However, this isn’t about them.

I’m of the opinion that most people, broadly speaking, are decent human beings. They may act like assholes on occasion, especially online when they can be anonymous. When you’re actually with them, though, they will show some semblance of humanity.

That has been my experience. I have met people who are real assholes on Facebook, but genuinely nice in person. That’s why I generally favor being kind and understanding to others, even when you don’t like their personality, their opinions, or their agenda.

However, there is a line to that sentiment. I certainly have a few hard lines that, if crossed, will keep me from feeling any semblance of compassion for someone. I’ve only met a few people who have crossed that line over the course of my life. There are other celebrities and media figures who have done so. As a result, I refuse to support anything they do.

This brings me to a situation involving a man I’ll just call Dick Spencer. If you’ve been following politics for the past five years, you’ve probably heard of him. In fact, you probably know him as the guy who got punched in the face and that got people cheering. In case you haven’t seen it in a while, here it is again.

Racism Blacklivesmatter GIF - Racism Blacklivesmatter Neonazi GIFs

I’m not going to lie. That’s still very satisfying to watch. I try not to take too much pleasure in it, but if you’ve read up on this guy, you understand completely why he got punched.

I won’t go over all the deplorable things he’s said and done. I don’t even want to link to it because he’s not worth the energy. All you need to know is that this guy is a textbook neo-Nazi and that’s not an exaggeration. This is a guy who actually wants racist, sexist policies implemented and enforced on a large scale.

He’s as bad as you think he is and then some.

For that reason, and plenty of others, he’s made way more enemies than friends over the past several years. For a time, his voice carried weight and influence. That was then. Now, it’s a very different story.

A recent story from the New York Times revealed that Dick’s life has taken a massive turn for the worse. Apparently, being a hateful bigot who openly advocates neo-Nazi policies is not good for your career, your social standing, or your bank account. Vanity Fair offered a more colorful take on his situation, which I think encapsulates how many feel about this man.

Vanity Fair: Richard Spencer, Racist Putz, Is Having A Lousy Labor Day Weekend

Richard Spencer, the loathsome alt-right skunk best known for getting clocked in the jaw during an interview, is feeling the repercussions of his actions, according to a report published in The New York Times on Sunday. The article details how one of the central figures in recent white nationalism, who shouted “Hail Trump!” in a widely seen video as his followers made Nazi salutes, has been effectively silenced by his neighbors in Whitefish, Montana.

Spencer, who is “unable to get a table at many restaurants” according to the report, faced bipartisan pushback, led by local synagogues and human rights groups as the summer resident’s notoriety increased. Currently, Spencer, whose organization is dissolved and whose wife has divorced him, faces trial in Charlottesville, Virginia next month for his role in instigating the deadly white nationalist rally in 2017. However, the man who once lived in his mother’s $3 million summer house can not, according to the Times, afford a lawyer.

I’ll say it again. I try not to take too much pleasure in other peoples’ misfortunes. I try, but I don’t always succeed. I admit that hearing how this guys life has gone since becoming the face of racist hatred in America brought a smile to my face. It reaffirmed that the forces that oppose bigotry are generally stronger than those that ferment it.

At the same time, this guy is in a very bad place, to say the least. The organization he founded has been dissolved. He has little to no money. His wife divorced him. He’s been kicked off every major media platform. He’s being sued for instigating the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. The man is in an objectively bad place.

However, he’s responsible for putting himself in that place. He’s not a victim. These are the consequences of being such a racist bigot. Dick probably didn’t think they would be this severe, but that doesn’t make him any less responsible.

Believe me when I say I’d rather not know anything about this person, his politics, or his egregious behavior in the past. I doubt I’m alone in wishing that Dick never became a relevant figure in any capacity. Unfortunately, he was and still is to some extent. We are aware of him, his past actions, and his current situation.

That still leaves us with one relevant question

How bad should we feel for this guy?

It’s relevant because this guy has no power, money, or influence. He’s not some politician or rich celebrity who can twist the narrative to his liking. He’s just a guy with some very deplorable political beliefs who may very well be broke, homeless, or in prison at some point within the next few years.

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve those consequences. I think he deserves most of them. However, he’s still a human being. The hate and bigotry he spouted is no restricted to him. There are others who share Dick’s beliefs and who will not face the same consequences. Does he still deserve any sympathy or compassion, however small it might be?

I’m honestly torn here. In the Vanity Fair article, he claims he’s just a guy and he’s not the same racist firebrand he was several years ago. However, at no point does he come out and apologize for anything he’s done, nor does he concede that he was wrong to espouse such hateful rhetoric.

Near as anyone can tell, he hasn’t changed his mind on anything. He’s still a racist bigot and no amount of public shaming will change that. For that reason, I just can’t feel bad for him in the slightest.

If he actually tried to apologize, I might feel differently. If he came out and apologized tomorrow, while also committing to atone for his past behavior, I might even give him a chance. Right now, I just can’t muster any ounce of compassion for him.

A part of me worries that the utter lack of compassion he gets could only make him more hateful. Another part of me worries that any compassion whatsoever would only keep him from facing the consequences that he has brought upon himself.

I’m honestly torn. I don’t know how to feel about a guy like Dick. I guess time will tell.

In the meantime, I open this question up to everyone else. If you have any feelings or sentiments that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

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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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