The Silver Lining of Social Media’s Negativity Obsession

Shockingly evil things + news often seem to defeat good things + good news in the war for human attention, especially on social media, TV, etc.

There’s one silver lining to all this, though:

The good is going to have to become that much better to stand out and win. Good people are going to have to work harder, and that’s probably a good thing.

To drown out the shockingly evil stuff, the people doing the good stuff are going to have to create and do things that are themselves *shockingly* good and moral and beautiful.

Our morality (if it survives) is going to pack on some serious muscle. And it’s going to emerge on the other end of this dark media/negativity monsoon as a stronger force in the world – if all of us do our part.

And what’s more, extraordinary courage, kindness, decency, honesty, and fairness are going to be rewarded with our attention like never before. There’s no clickbait like the clickbait of shocking, transcendent human goodness.

(P.S. I’m a big fan of small goodnesses, too. But I think we’re going to have to up our game in a few ways).

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Lead a Life That Confuses the Archaeologists

If you want to lead a good life, a good rule of thumb is to live a life that is not merely the product of your age. Your life shouldn’t be reducible to the dominant forces and trends of your surrounding culture.

In other words, your life’s footprint shouldn’t be easy for the archaeologists and anthropologists of the future to understand.

Nonconformity is a lifelong task. But there are simple ways to bootstrap uniqueness, break out of your culture’s “zeitgeist”, and make some future historian’s job exceptionally hard.

Listen to music, watch movies, and read books from different ages and people and perspectives. If you have a cultural palate (say for music) that ranges from swing and bossa nova to bluegrass from several different decades, you’re going to be harder to stereotype (when you’re dead) and harder to manipulate (when you’re alive).

Integrate into your life the best customs and manners of the centuries and the cultures of the world. If you’re hosting dinner parties and corresponding via letter in 2019, it’s going to be much harder to place you. You’re also going to have much more interesting interactions and relationships with people.

Live with the best values of the many ages and places of humankind. Embody the heroism of the Norsemen, the hospitality of the Arabs, and the independence of the Americans. Live with the social liberalism of the 21st century and the devoutness of the 11th.

In short, use your mind to follow the best that all of time and human culture has to give you. Find the things that give life.

By absorbing and remixing all of these different influences, you’re going to find yourself making original connections and having more original thoughts. And while this may confuse the historians of the future, it certainly will interest them.

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Don’t Underestimate the Resilience and Resourcefulness of the Homeless

You can say (people do say) many things about homeless people. But a fact that is under-appreciated is just how resilient and resourceful they often are.

There’s a woman who lives on an overpass near Atlantic Station. For some time, I assumed the poor woman needed help or aid of some kind, so I brought her things on a couple of occasions. And often when driving home or driving to the grocery store, I’d see her camped out next to the solitary tree on that overpass.

She has lived on that bridge for at least over a year now. She’s acquired a tent, goes around the area scavenging with a shopper’s cart, and otherwise can be seen sitting in a chair watching the traffic. Rather than being in an emergency state, she (almost) seems to be OK with it.

It does seem to me that of her available options, this is what she considers the best. Without what I’ve learned about her own resilience and resourcefulness, I might assume I need to “help” her find a shelter or something. I’m sure she’s already made her decision to go it alone.

There’s a lesson in here.

Be compassionate to a difficult challenge. But never patronize by assuming that homeless people are helpless and in need (or want) of full rescue. Leave some room (if merited) for admiration: some of the world’s homeless people are also some of the world’s hardiest and most resourceful.

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The Problem with “Here I Stand, I Can Do No Other”

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

According to some tellings, this is how Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther responded to demands that he recant positions which the established Church of his time considered heretical.

This is a badass speech, and it’s archetypal in our society. It’s the speech of many martyrs throughout history – people who have chose to accept terrible consequences for their decision to do what’s right.

But it’s technically wrong.

Technically, Martin Luther could very well have done something “other.” He could have recanted. He could have partially recanted. He could have pretended to recant.

And when you pull a page from ML’s book and tell your boss, your parents, your friends, or the Nazi camp guard that you *can’t* do something because it’s against your values/convictions, you’re not being entirely honest either.

“I *can* do no other” is a cop out. You have agency, and you have a choice at all times. If you are going to make a stand for something you believe in, acknowledge that fact.

It may soften the blow for your hearers if you tell them that you *can’t* do what they’re asking you to do. But it almost implies that you *would* if you *could.* If you are making a refusal based on your values, though, there is only one right way to say it:

“Here I stand. I *will* do no other”.

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Three Generations of Manhood in Homer’s “The Odyssey”

Today I finished reading The Odyssey, that complex, brilliant, violent, old, relevant epic poem about the journey home of Greek hero Odysseus.

I have many thoughts about this book (“why is the ending so abrupt?” “Wow, Odysseus is wily and violent.” “These feast descriptions make me hungry.” “Athena is one super-cool lady.”) here at the ending, but one scene in particular stands out.

(READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HAVE THE STORY SPOILED.)

Odysseus and his son Telemachus, having slain the abusive suitors of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, flee Odysseus’s home in Ithaca and come to the home of his father, Laertes. Laertes has missed and then mourned his son for 20 years, so the reunion is one of the most touching of this book of reunions.

Later, when some men of Ithaca come in pursuit of Odysseus (wanting to avenge their fallen sons and brothers), all three generations of Greek heroes suit up for battle: Odysseus, Telemachus, even old Laertes. A friendly banter of bravado strikes up as Telemachus and Odysseus prepare for battle, prompting Laertes to celebrate:

“What a day for me, dear gods! What joy-

My son and my grandson vying over courage!”

Then the goddess Athena grants Laertes strength and skill beyond his age and he:

“. . . Lifted a mighty prayer to mighty Zeus’s daughter

brandished his spear a moment, winged it fast

and hit Eupithes. . .”

Laertes, after 20 years of waiting and many years of decrepitude and aging, comes back into his own (even if briefly) and fights alongside his son and grandson in the final battle of the story.

It is a beautiful thing when three generations of men can experience their manhood together. We see in this scene something that must have been especially valued and especially rare in the ancient world. Even if the violence is not so attractive now, the cooperation of three generations is still a magnificent thing.

Laertes of course makes me think of my own grandfather, who would have turned 92 yesterday. I did have the chance to let him see me come into manhood, but I do wish that we could have been men together: him, my father, and me. We would have been a formidable team, not fighting vengeful Greeks but certainly in making things grow, keeping up our farm, and taking care of others in our lives with our full energies and powers.

I hope that my father lives well enough to work alongside me and his grandson(s) one day. This was a fitting ending to The Odyssey and a fitting plot point to any good life of men.

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