Casual Sex and What Makes Sex Wholesome

Over the years I’ve asked questions, and heard numerous others ask questions like: “Can casual sex ever be wholesome?” or “Is casual sex bad?” or similar questions regarding casual relationships or “friends with benefits” situations.  These questions seem rather important ones to ask, but it has proved tricky to answer them because of a lack of a clear definition of what exactly it means for sex or a relationship to be “casual”.

The term casual sex and the more informal term hooking up are often ambiguous and imprecise, as the phrases are used in radically different ways.  Wikipedia’s page on Casual Sex (as of writing this post) expresses this eloquently:

Casual sex or hooking up refers to certain types of sexual activity outside the context of a romantic relationship. The term is not always used consistently: some use it to refer to any extramarital sex, some use it to refer to sex in a casual relationship, whereas others reserve its use for one-time encounters, promiscuity, or to refer to sex in the absence of emotional attachment or love.

The word wholesome is also loaded, especially when it comes to the topic of sex and relationships.  Rather than relying on more subjective notions of wholesomeness which will vary based on a person’s individual beliefs, I think it is possible to reach a slightly more objective notion of wholesomeness by defining wholesome behavior as something that has a positive overall effect on all people involved.  People will still quibble over what constitutes a positive effect, but at least we can be somewhat closer to agreement.  One of the ways to get at the notion of “positive effect” in a slightly more objective fashion is to look at the effects of something on psychological health.

Casual Sex and Psychological Health:

“Casual sex” has been studied to some degree in a scholarly setting, with respect to its effects on psychology; however, the scholarly literature itself is guilty of failing to make the distinctions described above.  As an example, a fairly recent and interesting study was published in an article titled Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having “Friends with Benefits” Emotionally Damaging? This study made only a single distinction, between sex with a close, exclusive partner, and “casual” ones, defined as being a “casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner”.  The study found that young adults who engage in casual sexual activities (as defined in the study) do not have any greater risk of harmful psychological outcomes than those who engage only in exclusive ones with a close partner.

I am not surprised by these results, as, in my opinion, they fail to capture the key aspects of sexual connections that determine whether these connections have a positive or negative impact on a person’s psychological health.  For example, this study would not distinguish between an open relationship or people who practice polyamory, vs. people who have, for lack of better term, a “friends with benefits” sort of relationship, nor would it distinguish these sorts of connections from more anonymous one-time sexual encounters.

I would like to propose a new framework for thinking about sexual relationships, and for classifying sexual activity as wholesome or unwholesome.  The key aspects which I will talk about are consent, caring, communication, and connection.  These four factors are inextricably linked, and not just by the fact that they all begin with the letter C.  I will argue that these four C’s, and not the exclusivity or label on a relationship, determine whether or not the sexual relationship is wholesome.

Icon of man and woman holding hands* This diagram depicts a woman and a man, but the ideas in this post are not wedded to notions of gender, and also apply to female-female and male-male relationships.

Consent:

Most people would agree that consent is important in sexual relationships.  Without consent, sex becomes rape and sexual activity becomes sexual assault.  It goes without saying that these things are highly unwholesome (and psychologically damaging), and that consent is thus a prerequisite (but not a guarantee) for sex or sexual activity to be wholesome.  What exactly constitutes consent?  There is, unfortunately, a lot of grey area here, and questions that are tough to answer, such as when explicit verbal consent is necessary, and what happens when alcohol or other mind-altering drugs are involved.  But the question of what exactly constitutes consent for sexual activity is beyond the scope of this post; I only want to talk about one key point:

Consent has nothing to do with being in an exclusive relationship.  It is an unfortunate fact that a person’s spouse or close romantic partner is among the most likely people to rape them.  It’s not a happy topic, but people interested in reading about it just to get convinced that it’s a real issue can visit Wikipedia’s page on Spousal Rape.  The term “Date rape” is a bit troublesome as it is usually used in a way that encompasses both acquaintances and romantic partners.  But if you type “boyfriend rape” into google and read the posts on forums and other interactive websites, you will quickly see that this is a real problem as well.

Caring:

heartA lot of people talk about and debate about whether or not sex without love can be wholesome.  This debate is clouded by the fact that the word love, in English, has many different uses, ranging from the intense feeling of being in love, to a strong bond of attachment (as with family, romantic partners, and close friends), to an intense liking (“I love that!”), to a more general feeling or state of caring and concern.  I want to isolate the discussion on this last element.

Caring about other people is generally a good thing.  It doesn’t matter who they are, or what relationship you have with them.  Besides the fact that it can sometimes cause you to feel emotional pain when the person you care about is suffering, concern for other people’s well-being on its own rarely has any negative impacts on people, and can have numerous positive impacts.  But is it necessary to care about people in a sexual relationship, in order for that relationship to be wholesome?

I would argue that it is necessary to care about someone in order for any sort of sexual connection with that person to be wholesome.  Why?  If you genuinely do not care about the person, it becomes so easy to harm the person.  For one, lack of caring can completely bowl over consent, especially when the consent exists in that grey area we mentioned above.  A person who truly does not care about the other person’s well-being is more likely to justify to themselves the idea that the sex is consensual, and is more likely to attempt to pressure or seduce the person in the cases where a clear “no” is given.

But even when consent is unambiguously given, a lack of caring can cause other problems.  Depending on a variety of factors, sex can be more or less wholesome in terms of the effect it has on a person’s life.  Sex is an intense and emotionally charged experience and a person’s psychological well-being is not only impacted by the sex itself but by what happens afterwards.  It’s safe to assume that these factors are going to vary hugely from one person to the next, and based on different situations, but the core idea is this: a person who cares is going to ask the questions: “Is this sex going to be good for this person?” and is going to say no to the sex if the answer to that question is no, even if the person has given consent.  A person who cares also is more likely to ask the question: “How can I conduct myself after this sexual activity so as to have the best effect on this person?”  In short, a person who cares is going to change their behavior so as to be beneficial to the other person’s well-being, whereas a person who doesn’t care, simply doesn’t care.

Caring is not the same as an exclusive relationship.  People enter into relationships and even marriages for all sorts of reasons.  Most of us can probably mull over our stories and come up with at least a few examples of a husband or wife that did not seem to care at all about their spouse or about the health of their marriage.  It’s sad, but it’s reality that these situations exist.  Conversely, there are many people in our lives who care about us with whom we are not involved in an exclusive sexual relationship.

Communication:

Communication is tricky; people study it in school, build whole careers out of it, and still don’t understand it.  Communication in human relationships can be hindered by cultural and linguistic differences, strong emotions and biases, and different ways of looking at the world, among other factors.  There is a lot of talk about different communication styles, how to communicate about difficult topics in relationships, and a whole bunch of relevant topics, and as with the grey area of consent, these topics are beyond the scope of this post.  The key idea to think about however is that communication can be better in some relationships and interactions than others, and that poor communication can be highly damaging in sexual relationships.

Two communication towers

Communication is never perfect. Just like the noise in the signals transmitted by these communication towers, when people communicate, the message is rarely received exactly as it was intended to be.

Poor communication can confound the question of consent.  The infamous “no means yes” debate, whether or not you dismiss it as misogynistic, gets at a particularly nasty form of miscommunication: if one person does not hear and accept the message of “no” clearly, consent goes out the window.  But even when consent is unambiguous, poor communication can cause other things to go wrong.  There’s the obvious problem that a lack of communication can lead to some very bad sex.  But, returning to the issue above, of caring, all the caring in the world can’t help you respect another person’s needs and wants if you don’t understand what those needs or wants are.  Communication is one of the necessary ingredients to allow consent to be clearly given, and to allow caring to translate into actual behaviors that help a person.  It is thus necessary for wholesome sex.

As the pattern is obvious by now, you are probably expecting me to argue that good communication is something that can exist with or without an exclusive sexual relationship, and a typical exclusive relationship certainly does not guarantee good communication.

Any relationship or marriage counselor will testify to the second point, but in case you’re not convinced, think about how anyone can dive head first into an exclusive romantic or sexual relationship with someone they have only recently met.  You probably can think of some examples of people close to you who have done this, and you may have done it yourself; I know I have on at least one occasion!  But the less well you know someone, the less well you know how to interpret their verbal and non-verbal communication: learning to communicate with a given person (and even assessing how well you communicate with someone) takes time.  Choosing to have an exclusive relationship does not do anything on its own to improve communication!

Connection:

I think that consent, communication, and caring are not quite enough for sex to be wholesome.  One needs to look also at the role the sex is playing in the relationship between the people having it.  People can care about each other but still make decisions that are not necessarily good for each other or for themselves in the long-run.  I often hear discussion of “sex for the sake of sex”.  I don’t think this is a healthy or wholesome way of approaching sex.  I think that in order for sex to be wholesome, it must be based on the idea of becoming more connected to someone, rather than just being an isolated or compartmentalized experience.

It’s a simple fact that when you share an experience with someone, it changes your relationship with that person.  In general, if you share a positive experience with a person, it brings you together, and strengthens the connection you have with that person.  Sexuality is a particularly intense part of the human experience, and, assuming you actually want to have good sex, sex is going to bring you together with a person, and the effect is likely to be strong and intense.  In order to have sex with someone without having it change or develop or strengthen your connection with a person, you would need to close off a part of yourself.

Human connections are complex and cannot be easily described as an either-or thing or on a continuum.  It is impossible to generalize about exactly what sort of connection is necessary for people to have sex play a healthy role in their relationship with each other, and this connection is likely to vary considerably from one person to the next.  I think it’s easier to grasp, however, the unwholesomeness of sex when there’s a lack of connection.  When a person wants to have sex with someone that they’re not comfortable feeling closer to, it’s often a sign of a lack of self-esteem.  Perhaps they are afraid of intimacy, or perhaps they are so down on themselves that they don’t believe that they’d able to be find a willing partner they feel genuinely comfortable with, or perhaps they’re lacking the self-control or assertiveness necessary to define healthy boundaries in their relationships.  Whatever the issues are, pushing them under the rug and avoiding dealing with them by having sex without any emotional bond is never a healthy or wholesome approach.

Wholesome Sex:

So, what constitutes wholesome sexual activity?  It is consensual, and is accompanied by good communication and caring about each other, and it has the effect of strengthening the connection between people.  If any of these four elements are not present, it’s not wholesome.  And the wholesomeness or lack thereof is not determined by the exclusivity of the relationship.

According to this paradigm, anonymous sex (which describes some, but not all drunken hookups at college parties, as an example) is always unwholesome, whereas casual sex, hookups, “friends with benefits”, and sexual activity in a marriage or in an exclusive relationship may or may not be wholesome, with no guarantee of exclusivity being a sign that a particular sexual connection is more or less wholesome or healthy psychologically.

There is one caveat to this statement: exclusivity definitely interacts with the four C’s that are necessary for wholesome sex.  A lot of people, either universally, or during some times in their life, only want to connect sexually with people while in an exclusive relationship, for emotional reasons, religious or spiritual reasons, or other personal reasons.  People who desire monogamous relationships typically give consent with the implicit understanding that their partner is being faithful to them.  A lack of faithfulness is thus, in some form, a violation of consent, and is always accompanied to some degree by a lack of caring (not necessarily universally, but at least in the moment in which the person chooses to be unfaithful).  Also, when people are not exclusive sexually, safe sex becomes much more difficult and complicated because of the risk of STD’s–but it must be emphasized that what matters more for this purpose is whether or not people have multiple sexual partners, not whether or not they choose to define their relationship as exclusive.

How can you help?

  • Avoid using ambiguous terms like casual sex or hookup unless you clarify or explain what you mean by them.  Using the terms ambiguously facilitates people jumping to conclusions without information about the key factors that influence whether sex is wholesome or unwholesome.
  • If you write about or conduct research on casual sex and psychological well-being, consider looking at the factors of caring, communication, and consent, rather than merely categorizing relationships based on exclusivity.  Consider looking in more depth at the nature of people’s sexual relationships, rather than lumping everything into two categories of monogamous or non-monogamous.
  • Be cautious of your own biases in attaching judgments to sexual situations.  I have found that many people tend to be more likely to wrongfully label sexual activity outside of a committed relationship as unwholesome or unhealthy, whereas they tend to underestimate the amount of psychological damage caused by sexual activity (whether in an exclusive relationship or not) in the absence of clear consent, good communication, and caring.
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Completion of my 1-year Bird Survey of Phillips Park, Newark, DE

Starting last January, I decided to do a systematic survey of the birds in Phillips park, Newark (Delaware).  I followed the protocols of eBird, an online database of bird observations that is a joint effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.  The protocols for a travelling count in eBird are simple: they involve recording the date and time, distance travelled, number of people in the birding party (Thank you to the numerous others who joined me to help out!), and identifying and counting as many birds as possible.  There are general categories for birds identified to group of species but not individual species, and when possible, options for identifying age and sex, and taking other notes.

I entered all data from the survey into eBird, where it is combined with other observations and data, and viewable by the public.  The survey is now complete, with some gaps and limitations, which I discuss below.  In general, there are at least 2 observations for most weeks, and more during the spring and fall migrations.

You can view the results of this survey in eBird’s data for Phillips Park.

Light snow on the ground in a park, with bare trees on the right

Phillips Park, December 2010.

Bird Highlights:

I was astounded by the amount of biodiversity in this small city park, especially given that it has little open water and thus does not attract waterfowl.  I wasn’t quite sure exactly how many species I was going to record, but I was astounded when the count soared into the 90’s, to the current tally of 97.  I had expected something more in the 70’s.  For reference, eBird currently has records of 298 species in New Castle County.  Many of these, however, are one-time rarities and birds (mostly waterfowl) highly unlikely to be seen in the habitat of Phillips park.

I think that the majority of the biodiversity in this park is due to the presence of wild habitat where plants are allowed to grow, largely unmaintained.  There are two separate tracts of forest, and between them, a wetland.  These areas contributed the majority of species observed in the park: the playground area with mowed grass and planted trees, by contrast, contained some birds, but even there, the birds usually kept to the wild, unmaintained areas around the edge.  The pattern that is clear here, and obvious to any ecologist, is that even small wild, unmaintained areas have immense ecological value, whereas carefully controlled areas have much less ecological value.

…wild, unmaintained areas have immense ecological value…

Yellow-rumped warbler in Poison Ivy

A yellow-rumped warbler, feeding on poison ivy berries in Phillips Park, October. This species was common and abundant during October and the second half of April through the first half of May.

Unusual Species:

The most interesting species, to me, were seen in migration, including a rusty blackbird, swainson’s thrush, wilson’s warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, and swamp sparrow.  Not only did broad-winged hawks fly over, but I saw one in the park’s forest during migration.  There were also some interesting out-of-season and out-of-range birds, including a ruby-throated hummingbird that stayed into the first week of october, a few observations of the more northerly black-capped chickadees during the winter, and the biggest highlight, an American redstart in the third week of November, a full month later than this bird is normally observed in Delaware.

Red-bellied woodpecker on the top of a telephone pole

The red-bellied woodpecker is a year-round resident of Phillips park. Normally preferring the forested areas, this woodpecker is comfortable around humans and often ventures into more human-altered habitats.

Flyover-only Species:

A number of species were observed only as flyovers, including mallard, common merganser, osprey, and cattle egretCanada goose and ring-billed gull were very common flyover species; I never saw a goose land in the park, but I once saw a gull perched on a light post.

Mammal Highlights:

In addition to the birds, I also observed a number of mammals in the park, including a fox, seen multiple times, a raccoon, and an opossum.  I once saw a red squirrel, and of course, a near-infinite amount of grey squirrels, and a fair amount of rabbits.  The most exciting mammal was probably a beaver, which I saw swimming under the ice in the stream that runs through the park, just a few weeks ago.

Trends in Bird Observation and Distribution:

There is enough data to see the clear distinction between most year-round resident species, wintering species, summer breeders, and migrant-only species.  Most of these species follow the typical trends for this county of Delaware, but there are a number of species that breed in this county, only a few miles away, but only used this park in migration, such as the Northern Parula, Acadian flycatcher, and Ovenbird.  For these three species, the forest in the park is probably too small and fragmented to be suitable habitat.

Eastern Kingbird perched on barbed wire

Not all birds prefer natural habitats. Eastern Kingbirds, which breed in Phillips park and were present May through August, are most frequently seen around the power station, where the open environment and numerous perches make it easy for them to catch large insects. This kingbird has atypical plumage probably due to missing feathers.

Very evident from the data is a trend in blackbird distribution.  Blackbirds are a family of North American birds, Icteridae.  The main blackbirds observed in the park were red-winged blackbird, common grackle, and brown-headed cowbird.  These birds, especially grackles and red-winged blackbirds, were abundant in the park last winter, possibly because they moved into the city in response to the large snowstorms.  All three species were abundant april through June, but by July, most had departed and there were only sporadic observations subsequently.

Hawk perched in a bare tree

Someone sees their lunch!

Hawks, and to a lesser degree, falcons, used the park extensively.  I have seen six species of raptors hunting in the park.  The most regularly-observed hawk was the red-shouldered hawk; red-tailed hawks were less common.  Interestingly, these two species did not seem to interfere with each other: I once saw two hawks, one of each species, perched in the same tree, very near each other, ignoring each other.  Cooper’s hawks were regular but less common in the park: twice I observed a pair.  I only observed sharp-shinned hawks in the fall but I am very conservative/cautious on my IDing of these two similar and easily-confused birds, and it is likely that some of my generic Accipiter sp. observations are sharp-shinned hawks.

Limitations of the Data:

Like any birder, I’m better at observing and identifying some things than others.  There were a number of birds that I saw over the year but could not clearly ID.

Probably the largest limitation of the data, however, is due to my limited skills at locating birds.  Some apparent patterns in the distribution of certain species are actually reflecting the fact that I got better at locating birds in this park as I became more familiar with it.  For example, if you look at the records of pigeons, you will see they only start appearing from June onwards.  This is because I learned how and where to look for pigeons from the park: I mostly saw them flying overhead towards the eastern end of the park.  I also got much better at spotting hummingbirds, and realized to look for them in the wetland area, which I only learned in September.

Also, some of the apparent gaps in data in the summer are due to my taking of vacations, which makes the data sparser during these times.

However, other gaps are genuine gaps.  With only one year of data, and with myself as the main contributing birder, it’s hard to know for certain which gaps reflect a legitimate absence of species, and which are a function of my limited experience and ability to locate and identify birds.

Environmental Issues in Phillips Park:

Unfortunately, there are a number of serious environmental issues in Phillips park.  The stream running through it is often not particularly clean.  On one day, I saw a fair amount of oil in the stream, pictured below.  On several occasions, the same stream reeked of sewage.

Oil in a stream, with autumn leaves

This photograph shows a sheen of oil in the stream that runs through Phillips park.

Another issue which is less visible and largely odorless is the use of herbicides.  A while back, I wrote in my blog about herbicide use by the city of Newark, in Phillips Park.  In Phillips park and elsewhere, the city uses Roundup, an herbicide that is known to be highly toxic to amphibians.

Lastly, there is a fairly major problem with litter and trash in the park, both along the path and in the wild areas and stream.  I’ve occasionally picked up a few pieces of trash (I could do more, I admit), but I’ve also seen other Newark residents regularly (daily) picking up trash, which suggests that the litter problem is actually much more serious than one might realize just by looking at the amount in the park.

Another problem I’ve seen in this park is the dominance of invasive species in some areas.  The two main invasive species that I see in this park are non-native honeysuckle and multifloral rose, although there are numerous others present as well.  On a good note, however, the native blackberries and black raspberries seem to be holding their own against the non-native Japanese wineberries.

There is also a lack of healthy tree stock in the forest.  Many of the larger oak trees are hybrid oaks, not single-species.  Similarly, some of the trees planted are sterile cultivars, such as a seedless sweetgum.  Some of the planted trees are not native: although some are native to North America, many are not native to this particular region or habitat.  Refraining from planting and allowing native trees to come up wild is probably healthier for the forest than planting trees that will not contribute to a healthy population of native trees, although it would be nice if the city would locate and plant a few suitable native trees from healthy local populations.

This park is by no means the most contaminated or littered park around: it’s just an average city park.  In some sense, the numerous environmental problems in this park highlight problems that exist virtually everywhere in the United States.  Although it was not my primary purpose in conducting this bird survey, I definitely learned a lot about environmental issues in city parks by spending more time in this park over the course of the year-long survey.

Continuing Onward?

There are a lot of open questions and issues, and things I’m hoping to achieve by sharing this post about the survey:

  • I am going to continue to survey this park to see what happens in the coming months.  I will likely be in Newark through May.
  • I would like to encourage people to continue this survey and start other, similar surveys of other local parks.  I would like to dedicate some time to train people how to start using eBird to tally data.  Stay tuned for updates about upcoming events!
  • Hopefully, the city, its residents, and other concerned parties can take action to address some of the environmental issues in the park.  Some of them, such as the refraining of planting sterile or non-native trees, can be implemented immediately, at no cost.  I am also convinced that some of the herbicide use in the park could be immediately halted without any increased costs or adverse effects.
  • I am hoping that this survey can convince others of the ecological value of leaving land to grow wild, even small tracts of land in urban and suburban areas.  This park’s biodiversity is largely a function of its wild areas.  Maintaining property is costly, time-consuming, and destroys the ecological value inherent in land.  If this survey can convince the city and residents to spend less time mowing and trimming and more time just letting plants grow wild, I will have accomplished one of my goals.
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Working Hard vs. Working Intelligently

I once enrolled in a tennis camp, run by a character named Jim Phipps.  The camp came with t-shirts that had a clear message in bold lettering:

There is no substitute for hard work.

This statement, a quote of the famous inventor Thomas Edison, is particularly encouraging to believe in when you are working hard.  In the context of a tennis camp, it’s almost an ideal slogan.  It’s a good motivator when you are starting to get tired or bored and you want to push yourself to do just a little bit more.  And it allows you to give yourself a nice pat on the back at the end of a long, hard day.  Unfortunately, as a general rule it is not true.

Four early incandescent light bulbs

Photo by William J. Hammer, 1904, Published 1910. It is ironic that the light bulb is seen as a symbol of creativity; its inventor, Thomas Edison, had a brute-force approach to work that was in many respects the very opposite of a creative approach.

Nikola Tesla, an inventor who worked with Edison, once criticized Thomas Edison on these very grounds [Source], claiming:

His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labour.

The rejection of Edison’s principle of the necessity of hard work flies in the face of the work ethic in America and in a number of other countries (China included?).  But I have come to realize, time and time again, that the amount one learns in school, the amount of work one accomplishes on the job, and the impact or difference a person makes in the world has a lot less to do with how many hours are put in and a lot more to do with how those hours are used.  I’d like to propose a new mantra:

There is no substitute for intelligent work.

It’s my opinion that the people of the United States of America waste a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and often have little to show for it.  Ask yourself the question: do you want to work hard?  Or do you actually want results?  I don’t know about you, but I care about results, and while I’m willing to work hard when it is necessary, I staunchly refuse to glorify someone’s work ethic if it’s based on hard work for its own sake.

How to Work Intelligently:

Working intelligently has many different components.  I am going to highlight three of them: focus, creativity, and purposefulness.  Each of these points is subtle and multifaceted, and they are all intertwined in complex ways, but I find them to be useful ways to think about how to work intelligently.

Focus: Being Completely Present:

Focus is one of the most important parts of work.  We’ve all had those days when we sit there attempting to do some dreaded task, say for an hour, but getting next to nothing done as our mind wanders.  At the end of the hour, we realize that only about 25% of the time was spent working, and we have little to show for that other 75% of the time.  We often come out just as tired and stressed as if we had been churning away the whole time, and yet we are left unfulfilled and frustrated with ourselves.

Two Arrows in an Archery Target

Adapted From Photo Contributed by Wikipedia Editor Casito, Licensed under GNU FDL 1.2 or later, CC-SA 3.0

Focus, on the other hand, is immensely satisfying.  After the end of the hour, whether or not we’re finished with our task, we know that we’ve done something.

How can you improve your focus?  Taking regular breaks is well-known to have both mental and physical benefits, and often directly enhances concentration and boosts productivity even in the short-term.  If you find yourself zoning out, it’s probably time to take a break.  Being adequately rested is also important.  You may think that you can stay up late to get more work accomplished, but if you lose sleep because of it, you may pay the price in decreased ability to focus later on.  Since focus rather than availability of hours is more often the limiting factor in productivity, losing sleep to “get more done” often backfires.  And below I will give an even more compelling reason why losing sleep is also detrimental to productivity.

Your general physiological state also affects concentration.  Proper nutrition, proper posture, and being physically active can all aid concentration.  It is for this reason that physical exercises can make outstanding breaks, especially from sedentary computer or office work, or when the nature of the exercises complements the type of physical motions you make during your work.  Lastly, being highly motivated helps a great deal with focus.  Below I talk about purpose; purpose can be a great way to boost your motivation, which can have positive effects on focus.

Creativity: Finding Time-Saving and Work-Eliminating Tricks:

The value of creativity is well-understood by those who possess it, but is often under-appreciated by those who are most in need of it.  In the U.S., this phenomenon manifests itself in many ways, such as the sad manner in which funding for the arts in public education is one of the first areas to get cut when there is a budget shortfall.  I have a personal story that illustrates the potential of creativity to boost productivity, even in a seemingly routine job environment.

A small jazz combo practicing on a stage.

Creative activities like playing in this small, improvisation-focused jazz ensemble provide an important way to cultivate creativity.

My first office job was in the Lancaster County Children and Youth Agency’s fiscal office.  It was what some would see as boring, but I enjoyed it very much.  My work was a temporary job, helping the office get caught up on TANF (Welfare) paperwork.  The job often involved long, repetitive tasks such as alphabetizing huge stacks of papers or entering vast quantities of data into a computer.

Even in these seemingly straightforward tasks, I realized that certain key innovations could drastically change the amount of time required to complete a task.  Placing a stack of papers in a slightly different orientation on my desk would often allow me to work as much as 50% faster.  Some tasks I would do while standing.  I remembered a job I had had a few years before, working in Ric’s Bread Bakery.  The then owner, Ric Tribble, was constantly moving things around–often to the frustration of some of the other employees.  He would notice little things: “You can work faster if you hang this implement over here, instead of there.”  I later learned that this mindset, the desire to continually improve, is a key attribute among people who are successful in any type of job, business, or educational context.

On the computer, there was more room for innovation.  I figured out how to write a few VisualBasic Macros to speed up certain spreadsheet tasks.  Soon, I was finishing my work with a free half hour here or hour there; I used this time to teach myself Microsoft Access, which turned out to provide a key life skill, as it was my first exposure to a relational database, something I have used in some form in virtually every job setting after college.  After a few weeks, I had designed an Access Database that had automated many of the tasks I was required to do.  My job went from taking a full 8 hours a day to taking about 2.  What did I do then?  I designed a larger database to run other aspects of the fiscal office, a database they modified and built off of, and continued to use in some form for at least 7 years.

Can Creativity Be Cultivated?

How did I become such an innovator at that first summer job in college?  People often remark that I’m “smart”; while this may be true to a point, it is an overly simplistic label, not a complete answer.  Such labels ignore the ways in which a person has had to work to cultivate creativity.  In my case, I have fidgeted with computers for years (since the age of 5, learning to program at the age of 8), and I’ve also been a serious musician since 4th grade, something that I think was critical in helping me to become more creative as well as helping me to work together with people.  People see my creativity in a job or school setting, but they don’t see how that creativity did not come naturally to me, something my early music teachers will testify to.  Labelling successful people as “smart” is not illuminating or empowering to anyone who wants to develop their skills and achieve similar successes.  As such, I think that such labels represent an error of thinking that is deeply embedded in the culture of our society.  Creativity is something every person can cultivate.

How can you boost your creativity?  Are there any quick and easy ways you can do it, starting right now?  The most straightforward way, backed by solid science, is to make sure you are getting enough sleep.  The Wikipedia Page on Sleep and Creativity cites some interesting scientific studies on this topic.  Another crucial and simple way to boost your creativity is to set aside time for creative thinking.  Before you start a task, take a certain portion of time to think about how you might do it effectively or efficiently.  Then, when you’re halfway through the task, contemplate again, and do so again after completing the task.  For a brief task, your creative reflection could be as short as 15 seconds, whereas for major projects, you might want to dedicate an hour or more.  Sometimes you might even want to experiment with different ways of doing something and test them to see which methods have the best results.

Goldfinch on a Windowsill

Nature, with its endless beauty and constant flux, provides a great way to spark creativity. I never know what's going to land on the windowsill in front of my main work desk.

I have also found from my own personal experience that contact with other people and external stimuli are key factors in creativity.  Some jobs, such as teaching jobs, produce this contact naturally, whereas others (including many office jobs) often require you to seek it out.  As a self-employed person, I often work in coffee shops for this reason: I find my creativity is boosted by the bustling atmosphere, by running into people I know, and by being able to chat with the employees.  Other times, something as simple as looking out the window can provide a source of creativity.  At home, my main work desk faces a window (pictured above) looking out on trees and weedy thickets that are, on many days, full of birds, butterflies, and all sorts of strange and beautiful creatures.  It is sad that many work environments (such as the stereotypical windowless cubicle maze) have the effect of stifling, rather than nurturing creativity.  In many respects, these environments are a product of our culture’s self-destructive mythology that says that windows represents a distraction that will harm productivity, when in reality, the opposite is true, as a wealth of scientific research has shown [Source – PDF].

Lastly, consider taking up some creative hobbies, or just getting more creative with the things you already do in your daily life.  I find that music, dancing, cooking, and gardening are all sources of endless creativity for me, and they’re all things that did not come naturally to me.  Use services like Pandora to discover new music, or try new foods, and then try to cook new foods.  Start new activities and meet new people.  You may find that you start gaining strange and wonderful insights in seemingly unrelated aspects of your life!

Purposefulness: Making Sure Your Work is Accomplishing What it is Supposed To:

Have you ever worked long and hard at some task, only to realize at some point that it was completely unnecessary, or that it needs to be completely re-done?  You might lament: “If only I had known that before I started working.”  In some cases, such minor workplace tragedies are inevitable, but in many cases they are fully preventable.  From my experience, purposefulness is the easiest way to prevent such wasted effort.  When you have a sense of purpose in everything that you do, and when your sense of purpose is in harmony with that of the organization you’re working within, you will find that you often will identify a counter-productive or unnecessary task instantly and effortlessly, the minute it is given to you.  And when acting purposefully, you will also find that the relevant questions of how to do a task properly come naturally to you at the beginning, rather than having to find these questions through trial and error.

Clouds, sky, and a few trees reflecting beautifully in still water

What is the purpose of including this picture taken in Lubbock, Texas, in this post?

How do you achieve this sense of purpose?  It’s really as simple as looking for it and focusing on it.  My advice for becoming more purposeful in your work is to take the following pieces of advice:

  • Set aside time in your workday to contemplate the purpose behind the work that you are doing.
  • Converse with your coworkers about the work that they do.  Also, talk to others you come into contact with who interact somehow with your work or organization (students, customers, clients, vendors, etc.).  This will help you see how your work fits into the big picture of the organization as a whole, and will enhance your sense of purpose.
  • Read job descriptions, mission statements, and other purpose-oriented statements.  Someone took the time to write them; don’t let that time go to waste.
  • Ask questions about where your work comes from and goes to.  If you are assigned work that will be passed off or handed on to someone else (whether office work, a tangible product, or teaching students who will move on to use the class material in later classes), getting a sense of the “before” and “after” will help your work become more purposeful.

Purpose is also intertwined with creativity.  Many types of jobs are open-ended, in that a purpose or goal is specified, but the means of achieving the goal are essentially boundless.  In sales and marketing, the purpose is to connect your business with people who have a need for the products or services that your business can provide.  Discovering a new vehicle for advertising, a new avenue for networking, or finding a new way to relate to people, can often represent a huge breakthrough which yields greater results with less effort.  In education, a new way of looking at a concept may provide a much easier way to teach or learn that concept.  Without considering purpose, you will merely chug away at whatever existing methods have been handed to you.  But when you start thinking about purpose, you set off a creative brainstorming process which often culminates in ways to not just accomplish the tasks at hand, but sometimes, completely eliminates the need to do those tasks in the first place, or helps you discover much more effective ways to do them.

Sustainability and Work Culture in the U.S.:

The culture in the workplace (and also in educational settings) in much of the U.S. often ignores these facts–and I think this results in a major loss of productivity and a massive waste of resources throughout society as a whole.  Since wise use of resources is a fundamental part of sustainability, I think that work culture is an integral part of sustainability.  There are other ways in which work culture and sustainability are related, beyond just the direct question of productivity.  Thinking about purpose often leads one to think more about sustainability, and as sustainability is a purpose, thinking about sustainability also promotes more purposeful work as well.  By tackling issues of workplace culture, individuals, businesses, and organizations will not only become immensely more productive (which has tangible and huge financial benefits) but will also become more sustainable as well.

What Can You Do?

  • Work intelligently yourself, and work at learning how to learn and learning how to work intelligently.  The benefits will be innumerable.
  • When someone labels a person someone as “smart”, point out the way in which the person may have had to work to develop the skills that went into their accomplishments.
  • When someone praises a person as being “hard working”, point out the ways in which the person’s success was a function of their approach and not just the amount of hours they put in, and give examples of how they were working intelligently.
  • If you are in a position of authority, set an example of working intelligently, and work to create incentives for those under your guidance and supervision that promote intelligent work, not just hard work.  Encourage workaholics to take a break or leave work at a reasonable hour, and repeatedly emphasize that you care more about what they get done than how many hours they put in.
  • If you work in an environment with incentives that make it difficult for you to work intelligently, be assertive and work to get better incentives put in place.  Your commitment to being productive will be your largest asset in terms of getting through to people who may at first seem resistant to your ideas.  Do not get discouraged if it seems like an uphill battle.  The U.S. is currently dominated by a culture that glorifies hard work and often ignores intelligent work.  However, the the idea of working intelligently is such a common sense concept that anyone will agree with it if it is presented from the right angle.  Be persistent in your insistence on working intelligently, and those around you will eventually come to see the benefits of this approach.
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Being Assertive With Teachers and Professors

I’ve always been a firm believer that the most valuable things a person learns in school (whether primary, secondary, or higher education) are not the facts and concepts of textbooks and exams, but rather, are the more general lessons of learning how to learn and learning how to navigate the world.  A key part of this growth involves interacting with people who may not be acting in our best interest.

Everyone who has attended school for at least a few years knows that teachers aren’t always fair, nor are their actions always constructive or beneficial to the student, even when their intentions are good.  Even the best teachers are still human, and every teacher will invariably put their students in a difficult position from time to time.  What’s the best course of action in such a situation?  I think assertiveness holds the answer.

Two intimidating-looking math guys.

These two guys might teach your classes...and they're sure as hell going to be assertive with you. Do you have the guts to be assertive with them?

From an early age, students are often taught to follow the rules and respect authority.  Unfortunately, at least in most contexts in American society that I have been exposed to, students are usually not taught to assert themselves with authority figures, nor are they taught the subtle distinction between assertiveness and defiance, or between assertiveness and complaining.  I have come to believe that many people, from children to young adults, are given bad advice when they are faced with unfair or sub-optimal classroom situations–advice which can be summed up concisely as “Suck it up and deal with it.”

But such an attitude often contributes to passive and depressed thinking and actions, because it teaches them that they are powerless to solve problems and that they might as well resign themselves to a situation that is not as helpful or beneficial to them (and to everyone) as it could be.  This attitude does not help people to become good leaders, nor does it teach them to work well with people, as equals, subordinates, or superiors.  It avoids teaching a key lesson, which is that when something is wrong, it is best to stand up for yourself within a context of respect for all people, and work together with peers and authority figures to address the underlying problem.

What are some examples of situations in which students need to be assertive with professors or teachers?

These examples all come from my own experience, or from first-hand accounts of people I know directly:

  • A college professor, without any advance notice, emails an assignment to a class at 8PM, and expects it to be completed by 11AM the next morning.  This unusually short time-frame of 15 hours, 8 of which is generally reserved for sleep, gives no room for effective time management–especially given that by 8PM, most people will already have budgeted their time through the next morning already, and a good number might not even check their email till the morning.
  • A high school course which is required for graduation is moving so slowly that it is boring most of the students in the class, and they are not learning much of anything.
  • A course requires the purchase of books costing in excess of $200, but many of the books end up not being used in the class.  This places an unnecessary financial burden on the students.
  • A graduate course assigns homework with a time frame of 5 days from the assignment to the due date.  Some weeks the assignments are diabolically difficult, whereas other weeks, they are trivial.  The inconsistency, combined with the short time-frame of the assignments results in students not having enough time to spend on the more challenging assignments, even if they may have ample time to spend in other weeks.

What do these situations all have in common?  They all involve wasted resources–usually time, but sometimes money–resources which could be dedicated to learning, but are not.  And they are all situations in which a student could be a model student in the sense of being self-motivated, hard-working, and good at time management, and yet the student would still be placed in this sub-optimal situation.  This is where assertiveness is needed.

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a subtle concept, and is hard to describe.  I like to think of assertiveness as expressing what you want in the framework of respect–which includes both self-respect and respect of the people you are voicing it to.

Assertiveness, Complaining, and Defiance:

If you are being assertive, you will speak up immediately as soon as you realize that you are being placed in a situation or are given rules or constraints that are counterproductive to their intended purpose.  You will voice your concerns directly to the authority figure (here, the teacher or professor).  You will focus on resolving the concern, and you will not question the authority, competence, or intentions of the person who has put you in the difficult situation–rather you will approach the person with the assumption that they are competent and are acting in good faith.  And you will show a willingness to take responsibility.

If you are complaining, on the other hand, you will probably not speak up immediately.  Instead you’ll wait till the authority figure is gone, and then talk about how unfair / bad / wrong it is behind the person’s back.  You may question the person’s intelligence, authority, and good intentions, either in your own head, or openly with your peers.  And yet, in most cases, you won’t take responsibility to rectify the situation in any way.  If you do talk to an authority figure, you will often ask for a freebie, without offering to take on any responsibility yourself.

If you are defiant, you will speak up, and you will question the authority of the person placing you in this situation.  You may deliberately and openly break rules and/or fail to do what you are instructed or expected to do.  Defiance is not always a bad thing, as in the case of well-thought-out civil disobediance, but in the classroom it often not the best course of action.  Sometimes, however, defiance can be constructive in an educational context, such as when you refuse to do an assignment that is genuinely a waste of time–so long as you’re prepared to accept the consequences of your action (such as a zero on an assignment).  I find that defiance is generally constructive when it follows from assertiveness, but is destructive when it follows from complaining.  In a few cases, defiance can flow into assertiveness within formal power structures in an organization–such as recruiting a department chair, dean, or other administrator to resolve a serious problem with a professor, or filing a formal complaint.  In other cases it could evolve into a grass-roots student protest.  But the cases where such actions are necessary are genuinely rare; simple assertiveness can resolve an overwhelming majority of classroom issues.

Does assertiveness harm teachers or professors, or make their lives more difficult?

Absolutely not!  It has the opposite effect! As someone who has taught classes as a full instructor at the college level, I will say that being assertive is probably the #1 thing students can do to make a teacher’s life easier and help the teacher to be as effective as possible.  An assertive student will give immediate feedback if an assignment is grossly too easy or too difficult.  Assertive students will give constructive feedback regarding the scheduling of homeworks, exams, pace of the class, and many other aspects of your teaching.  In short, an assertive student continually guides the teacher by giving feedback about how to help the class learn the most.  And since a teacher’s job is to help the class learn, this is absolutely the most valuable kind of feedback a teacher can receive.

Complaining, however, does make teachers’ lives more difficult, and wastes their time as well.  I made the distinction above between assertiveness and complaining because I want to make eminently clear that I am not advocating complaining to or pestering your teachers or professors.  One of the most annoying and counterproductive things a student can do is to approach a professor complaining that a class is too hard, or that a grade is too low, without taking responsibility for the work and without setting learning as the highest priority.  In general, assertive students rarely focus on grades, except in the rare cases where there is a typo or other straightforward mistake in grading that is easily corrected.  An assertive student may raise concerns about the grading system used, but they will ask questions of a different nature, such as: “How does this grading system set up the best incentive for learning?” instead of: “How can I get as high a grade as possible?”

Assertiveness and responsibility go hand-in-hand:

The first part of being assertive is taking responsibility.  If you’re not doing your work in a class, not doing the assigned reading, or not coming to class and putting out effort to get the most out of it, and you approach a professor wanting something, you’re probably just complaining, and you’ll probably get nowhere–even if the professor’s demands are unfair.  Procrastination can make it hard if not impossible to assert yourself, and causes you to fall into a negative cycle in which the class isn’t working for you and you’re struggling to get by at a marginal level.

Two students paying attention in class

Paying attention in class is a prerequisite to being assertive.

On the other hand, being assertive can actually make it easier for you to be responsible.  The conflicts and situations that I gave as examples above are all ones that demand assertiveness, and that make the student’s life unusually stressful or difficult if the students do not assert themselves.  Just as responsibility is a prerequisite for assertiveness, assertiveness makes it easier to take responsibility.

An assertive student who consistently demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility will often find that professors are more than willing to change due dates on assignments, even change dates of exams, change the pace or format of class, or make other substantial adjustments.  Why?  Because the professor knows that these students care about learning, and aren’t just asking for a handout.  An assertive student tweaks the class to make it as easy as possible to learn as much as possible–which is not the same as trying to make it as easy as possible to get the highest grade.

What can you do?

  • If you’re a student, start by staying on top of your classes and approaching them sincerely.  Go to class, pay attention, do the assigned reading and homework.  When a situation arises that puts you in a difficult or uncomfortable position, assert yourself immediately, by a brief question or comment in class, by email, and/or by talking to the teacher or professor outside of class time.
  • If you’re a teacher or professor, make an effort to teach your students to distinguish between assertiveness and complaining.  Encourage the assertiveness and shut down the complaining.
  • If you have friends or family who are students, help them to understand the distinction between complaining and assertiveness.  Do not allow your friends to ramble on with complaining rants or sweeping negative statements about a teacher or professor; instead snap them out of it and, if they seem to have a legitimate concern that demands assertiveness, encourage them to go to the professor or teacher directly to express their concern.
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A Definition of Extremism: Correctly Identifying and Gracefully Handling Extremist Views

In the United States, the labels extremism and extremist are often thrown around carelessly.  Similarly, various words are used to characterize people along the liberal vs. conservative perspective as extremists.  Conservatives use the labels leftist or socialist to convey the connotation of an extreme liberal view, sometimes levying accusations of being unpatriotic or anti-American, whereas liberals use terms like reactionary, and right-wing, sometimes also including accusations of xenophobia and hate.  Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of using these terms inaccurately to label anyone whose views differ from theirs, but there are times when certain views are correctly identified as extremist or hateful.

Man holding sign reading: Catholic Clergy Pedophile Mafia

Extremism is characterized by universally negative generalizations about groups of people. Often, all that comes through from an extremist message is anger, and it is unclear what, if any, constructive action is being advocated.

Mislabelling and incorrect characterization of views as extremist or not can cause considerable damage:

Some views are genuinely extremist and hateful, and it can be very damaging when people embrace such viewpoints as mainstream.  As I argued in my earlier post about media responsibility, extremist views are best dismissed or ignored–giving them press coverage is empowering to those holding them.

It can also create unnecessary polarization when people falsely label someone as extremist just because a person’s views differ from them.  This hinders the advancement of the political debate.  Such labelling can produce an escalation effect, like an angry shouting match.  Extremism can become self-perpetuating for two reasons: (1) the act of viewing those with differing views as extremists is one of the characteristic features of extremism; thus incorrectly characterizing a person or group as extremist actually makes you more extremist yourself, and (2) viewing and approaching people as extremists draws out extremist tendencies in others.  Viewing someone as unwilling to listen will also make you more likely to approach them in such a way that they actually will not listen to you.  The end result of such labelling is that people end up fighting back and forth, sometimes even escalating to violence, rather than working together to solve problems.  Extremism is like a plague or disease that spreads through the minds and rhetoric of people and groups on “both sides” of a political debate.

American Flag Behind Barbed Wire Fence

Extremism is an impediment to democracy; it shuts down the debate that is the fabric of democracy, and threatens the very foundation of democracy, the idea that all human beings have equal inherent worth.

For these reasons it is crucial that we clearly and correctly identify extremism; I propose the following simple definition.

A Definition of Extremism: What is Extremism?

The concept of extremism can be tricky to define, because it is a pejorative term, and few people would identify themselves as extremist.  However, I do think that there is a strong objective foundation for the following definition of extremism:

Extremism is a perspective or viewpoint that demonizes those with opposing viewpoints, using all-or-none thinking to characterize people as either “fully for” or “fully against” the group’s views, and identifying certain people outside the group as having less innate value on a basic human level.

The foundation underlying this definition lies in some relatively recent advances in clinical and cognitive psychology.  Dr. Aaron T. Beck, best known as one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, outlines a compelling theory in his 2000 book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  Beck, a clinical psychiatrist, observed in his treatment of patients that people suffering from anger problems showed a regular pattern of errors in their thinking, which he calls cognitive distortions.  These distortions include dichotomous thinking (thinking about things in black-and-white terms which actually exist in shades of gray) and several other predictable errors.  In the case of violent criminals, domestic abusers, and militant extremists, these cognitive distortions flow into identifying one group as the “enemy”, activating a primal rage which often leads to violent acts.  It is interesting to note that a similar pattern of cognitive distortions have also been implicated in depression; this topic is explored by another psychiatrist, Dr. David M. Burns, in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which is primarily a self-help text but delves into considerable depth on an academic level as well.  Although neither of these books are about politics, I think they both offer fascinating insight into the relationship between psychology and political viewpoints.

The picture painted by this recent psychological research is that extremism is not the same as a deviant or “far out” view.  In fact, extremism can even become a mainstream viewpoint, as in Nazi Germany.  Rather than being characterized by being “out there”, extremism is characterized by being an irrational viewpoint that devalues human life.  It’s irrational because no human being is wholly good or wholly evil–a viewpoint which is supported both by common sense and by all the major world religions.  Extremism devalues human life by suggesting that certain people have less value as human beings just because they have differing views or belong to a certain group.  This sort of perspective naturally lends itself to and encourages violence: although not all extremists advocate for violence, the demonization of whole groups of people encourages and facilitates violence.

How to Handle / Respond to Extremism:

The best way to handle extremist views, speech, and writing differs depending on the context and nature of the viewpoints.  In many cases, extremist viewpoints are best ignored.  In online forums, if the comments are in violation of terms of use (such as expressing hate towards groups of people, or making personal attacks directed at individuals), they can be deleted.  From a journalistic standpoint, I have argued before that extremist views are best ignored, and that when they are covered, their proponents are best not identified by name.

A local government meeting in an auditorium.

People with dissenting views can be afraid to speak up when no one has yet voiced their viewpoint, but once one person speaks up, many others will follow naturally. This is also true of respectful voices in an atmosphere of extremism.

Handling extremist comments in a debate or discussion in which you are involved as a normal participant, however, can be challenging and requires insight, compassion, and social grace.  However, it can be done effectively.  You will be in the best position to put a damper on extremism originating from people whose views are most similar to yours.  For example, a very liberal person will have the easiest time reaching out to a leftist extremist, and a very conservative person will have the easiest time reaching out to a right-wing extremist.  You also will find it easiest to reach out to people who trust you or whom you are close to or who are similar to you in some way or another.  But there are a few tips that can help you to diffuse extremism no matter where you are coming from.

  • Start by finding as much truth as you can in the person’s comments, and agreeing with them.  For example, if someone is making hateful statements about Barack Obama or George W. Bush, and hateful generalizations about all Democrats or all Republicans, you might say: “I agree with you that so-and-so did not handle such-and-such situation well.” or “You’re right that the such-and-such party has deep problems with corruption.”  This demonstrates that you’re listening to the person and connecting with what they’re saying.  Extremists are angry because they don’t feel heard–by making them feel listened to, you diffuse the anger.
  • Consider complimenting the person offering the extremist views, about something associated with their viewpoints or what they are saying. Make sure to be 100% sincere in doing so. There’s almost always a fairly straightforward way to do while remaining sincere.  “I’m glad that you feel so passionately about advancing the interests of the American People.” or whatever the key idea is that they care about…the environment, national security, strong families, economic issues, etc.  This takes the connection farther by demonstrating that you share a commitment with the person to whatever core goal or ideal the person cares about.  This further diffuses anger and goes a long way towards building solidarity–it makes the person more likely to listen to you.
  • Proceed by voicing a more nuanced, balanced opinion or perspective, in which acknowledgement of the complexity of the situation and respect for all people favors prominently.  The key is to present a statement that completely undercuts the fallacy (usually dichotomous thinking and labelling) in the extremist’s thinking…but to do so while staying as far away as possible from making any statement that could be construed as a personal attack.  To this end, it is often helpful to make a more general statement, as this takes the edge off and makes it easier to stomach.  For example, if someone is bashing Muslims or Christians, you don’t even need to identify these groups by name,  just say: “I think religion is complex and it’s impossible to characterize all members of any one faith as wholly good or wholly evil.” or if someone is bashing a politician, say: “Every politician, no matter how much I dislike them, has done at least a few things that I support or agree with.”  These gentle statements don’t require much of a concession, but they help nudge people out of the black-and-white characterizations and get back into a more reasonable mindset.  It’s also helpful if you make general statements that affirm the inherent self-worth of all human beings, the inherent value of human life, and voice a viewpoint of respecting people with differing views.  These are also common-sense statements most people will easily agree with, and they will push the general discussion away from extremism and into a more constructive, realistic, and respectful realm.

It’s also important to note that your responses to an extremist can reach far more than just the person you’re attempting to reason with.  In fact, in most cases, you may not get through very much to the person you’re directly responding to, but you may reach large number of people listening or watching the conversation.  This is true both of discussions on internet forums and other written contexts, and of in-person discussions.

Sometimes it can be hard to be the one person voicing a dissenting viewpoint.  When a discussion is dominated by two sides spewing hateful rhetoric at each other, moderate (or even strong viewpoints of one side that are respectful and not hateful) views can come across as a dissenting view.  But deep down, people know how the world works, they know that most things in life are not totally black or white.  When you voice your common-sense, respectful viewpoint, you may just find that a whole bunch of people come out of the woodwork and agree with you.

Just one final word: extremists are people too, and although it’s not constructive to listen to their message of hate, it’s also not constructive to ignore them as people: they ultimately need to be reached out to as human beings.  Underlying their hateful twisted thinking is a psychological disorder, which often is rooted in very low self-confidence and a lack of close bonds to people who provide better role models of clear, respectful thinking.  Such people ultimately will be more helped by love, understanding, and support, than they will be by being marginalized in society.

What can you do?

  • Learn to correctly identify extremist thinking – starting in your own head – and then exploring people and groups with views similar to yours, and lastly, in those with opposing viewpoints.
  • Refrain from labelling people and groups as extremist; be especially sensitive about this issue when approaching people whose viewpoints differ from yours.
  • When you learn about a person or group voicing extremist views, be cautious about talking or writing about their views, so that you do not lend them legitimacy.  If you do talk or write about them for whatever reason, make sure not to identify the person or group by name.
  • When confronted with extremist views in a debate or discussion, work to diffuse the underlying anger and building solidarity with the person(s) voicing the views.  Then, voice a viewpoint that undercuts the fundamental fallacy of the extremist thinking, such as by promoting respect of people with differing viewpoints, highlighting the value of all human life, or by looking for the good in people or institutions you view as mostly opposed to your views.
  • Approach extremists with compassion and understanding, connecting with them on a human level.  Make an effort to include them in society and encourage and draw out qualities in them that help move them in a healthier direction.
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Announcing the Newark, Delaware Sustainability Initiative

This post announces the launch of the Newark, Delaware Sustainability Initiative.  Living out the “Think Globally, Act Locally” motto, I’ve gotten together with some people locally to start doing things to make our community more sustainable.  We had our first interest meeting this July, and already 30+ people have signed up for our facebook group–and I haven’t even put much effort into promoting the group.  (Facebook can be a remarkably simple and easy way to organize people and events!)

Why Newark, Delaware?

The short answer, because I live here…but since I work from home and much of the work I do, I could do from anywhere, it’s important to note that I chose to live here for specific reasons.  One of them was sustainability.  Newark, DE is a community where it is relatively easy to live without using a car in daily life.  From where I live, I can walk to everything I need in my daily life.  I also have space to garden in, and access to a number of natural areas, including forests and wetlands, within walking and biking distance.  The city government in Newark has also been working to promote sustainability in a number of ways, not the least of which is encouraging new development to be built in a compact, pedestrian-friendly fashion.

Storefronts on a Street

Main street in Newark is very pedestrian friendly and has numerous small, independent businesses. However, surrounding suburban areas are not as friendly to walking, bicycling, and a sustainable lifestyle.

At the same time, Newark has a lot of room for growth and improvement.  In spite of its location right on the east-coast rail corridor, Newark’s passenger rail service is minimal.  Support for bicycling is spotty, with a few good, safe bicycle paths, but many areas that are still unsafe for bicycling, and many businesses without bike racks.  Both the city and the University of Delaware use unnecessary and environmentally-damaging chemicals to maintain their landscaping.  And while the development of the Chrysler plant by UD shows great promise to strengthen the economic base of the city and promote sustainability in a number of ways, it is crucial that this development happens in the most sustainable way possible–both economically and ecologically.

There are also cultural tensions in Newark that act as a barrier to sustainability.  The University of Delaware, like many medium to large universities, has a significant party culture; associated with the “party neighborhoods” are poorly maintained properties, noise, and vandalism, which drive more responsible tenants out of some of the more walkable neighborhoods close to the downtown.  Because single professionals, graduate students, and families typically want to live farther from the “party” areas, much of the development of new housing has happened farther from the downtown, which has resulted in a large portion of housing that is far from the downtown and not friendly to pedestrians or bicycles.  This in turn perpetuates the party culture by removing the more responsible and mature people from the community: the farther these people live from campus, the less likely they are to participate actively in campus life and downtown life.  It also takes its toll on the businesses located in the downtown, as the people living farther away shop, eat, and socialize in suburban shopping plazas.

Part of the goal of the initiative is to start getting people to think about sustainability holistically–it’s not just a question of environmental issues, but also a question of cultural and community issues as well.  The party culture in Newark is unsustainable, and one of the goals of the initiative will be to reshape and guide this culture in such a way that promotes, rather than works against sustainability.  There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, but there’s something wrong when people’s idea of a “good time” drives the creation of unsustainable housing and neighborhoods that force people to rely on cars and weakens the sense of community and economic base in the city.

What is the idea of this organization?  Why start something new when there are already dozens of green organizations and other institutions working towards sustainability?

There are a lot of organizations in and around Delaware that are working to promote sustainability in their own ways.  What is new about this one?  This organization is based on a single, simple premise: people are more willing to work towards something in their daily actions after they have made a statement agreeing that they support it.  The idea is to build a consensus in support of sustainability in Newark–a consensus that includes people of all backgrounds and all political persuasions.  In a previous post, I explained why I believe that sustainability is no less allied to conservatism than liberalism.  There is no dearth of “liberal” environmentalist groups.  I want to create a group that is apolitical and inclusive.  Ideally, I would like Democratic, Republican, and third-parties to all publicly endorse the commitment to sustainability–and then hash out the question of “how” in the context of political debate.

One key aspect of the group is that one does not even need to support all the initiatives in order to join it.  The question of membership in a group can become problematic when the group starts advocating for a cause that a person does not believe in (as is the case when AAA lobbies against support for public transit, bicycles, and environmental legislation).  Thus, the Newark, DE Sustainability Initiative will ask members to support individual initiatives, and will clearly identify numbers and portion of support so that members wishes are never misrepresented.  Signing up constitutes a single commitment: making a commitment to sustainability in the city of Newark.  This is a commitment that 100% of Newark residents (and others who work, attend school, or have some other interest in the city of Newark) can make.

One other thing I want to move away from is the way most non-profit organizations operate.  Most non-profits count people as members only if they donate money on a regular basis.  This inherently excludes a large portion of people, as there are many who are unable or unwilling to donate money.  The focus on fund-raising also eats up a significant portion of the time of non-profits.  It’s also depressing when I give $15 to a non-profit, once, only to receive so many mailings from that organization that the postage alone would exceed the amount I donated.  One thing I want to do with the initiative is to keep it simple and efficient: no mailing, no postage, all volunteers.  It’s the information age–since it’s possible to operate without these things, we might as well start doing it now!  The website was easy for me to design, recycling code from my other websites like RateTea.

Forest with Paths and Wooden Bridge

Phillips Park, Newark, Delaware: Newark has a lot of beautiful wild areas within the city limits, but even this park has a number of ways that it could be made to contribute more to sustainability.

I also think that no local organization has explicitly made the connection between the party culture at UD and the issue of sustainability in Newark.  When people think about sustainability, they often think about environmentalism, or technology (like solar, fuel cells, etc.).  But sustainability encompasses much more than these topics, and I think there is a degree to which the cultural issues are too often overlooked in the public sphere.  When I talk to local residents about the party culture, they invariable agree with me about the barrier that this culture sets up to achieving sustainability in the city of Newark.  It seems that there’s motivation and energy to act, and the people I talk to are full of ideas and enthusiasm.

And as a last reason for starting this group?  There’s still a lot of work to be done, and there are a lot of people who care.  Every day I see numerous unsustainable phenomena in and around Newark, and every day I talk to people who are concerned and want to dedicate time and energy to solving these problems.  Why not connect these people with the work that needs to be done, and make solutions start happening?

How can you help?

  • Visit the initiative’s website and check out what’s up there already.
  • If you live, work, or attend school in Newark, DE, or even if you don’t but if you have some other interest in Newark, please sign up for the initiative.
  • Let others know about the initiative–especially people who live, work, or attend school in Newark, and businesses and organizations interested in or connected to sustainability and to the city of Newark.
  • Contact the initiative if you have ideas for issues you’d like us to tackle, resources that would be valuable for us to discuss or link to, or ways our website could be improved.
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Media Irresponsibility Surrounding Coverage of “Koran Burnings”

Control of information is power, and with power comes responsibility.  The mainstream media wields a huge amount of power worldwide.  This power is a matter of life and death–it can be used both to preserve life and to take it away.

Examples of mis-use, often un-intentional, of power by the media, resulting in the loss of human life:

The media can have profound implications on people’s behavior, including matters of life and death.  One example is the way media coverage of suicides can drive people to commit suicide after they are exposed to the news coverage.  Psychological explanations include a straightforward social imitation (monkey see monkey do) effect, validation of people’s beliefs that suicide is acceptable, and giving people concrete methods or ideas of how to commit suicide.  Systematic reviews have found overwhelming evidence verifying that this effect is real and results in a loss of human life. [Source 1, 2, 3]  In cases like this, an action that may seem neutral, such as covering an event, can have a measurable effect, in terms of loss of human life.

Another issue, also a matter of life and death, is media coverage of gang violence in inner cities.  One of the primary motivations behind gang violence is to gain a reputation–which is central in gang recruitment.  The simple preventive measure of refraining from naming gangs in news coverage can be effective at limiting the influence of gangs.  When combined with other techniques, it has been effective at greatly reducing gang violence. [Source]

In cases like these, there is only one valid conclusion: that great caution must be taken by the media to ensure that their coverage of events does not result in a loss of human life.  The drive to cover breaking news must necessarily be tempered and balanced with a cautious, self-imposed restraint, driven by a commitment to protect human life.

How is this related  to the “Koran Burnings”?

In keeping with the spirit of this post, I will not name the group nor the leader who is behind the recent controversy of “Koran Burnings”.  Suffice it to say, news has plastered the media in recent days about a group of people planning to burn Korans, and you can research it yourself to check facts if you so desire.  The group involved has a membership of no more than 50 people.  The group and event have received massive amounts of media attention, and, predictably, this has been followed by a surge in anti-American sentiment among Muslim extremists.

General Petraeus has condemned the “Koran Burnings” because he argues that it could endanger American troops under his command.  This is an issue, like the examples of suicide and gang violence given above, that could result in a loss of human life.

The group in question is tiny; I could easily motivate far more than 50 people to attend an event here in my small town of under 30,000 people.  The degree of media attention that this group has received seems hugely out of proportion.  Giving this fringe group media coverage empowers them.  It thus is an example of irresponsible behavior.

In today’s world, many people with a legitimate, constructive message struggle for media attention.  Businesses, religious organizations, social movements, and other entities and initiatives all vie for attention, and many of them fail to influence the world in major ways–in many cases, good ideas are lost in the shuffle of life, mainly because they never reached a critical mass and could not rise above the countless other voices.  Rather than picking up a negative, hateful message and pushing it into the mainstream through giving it widespread coverage, the media could be picking up on any number of positive, constructive messages and giving them coverage instead.

In situations like this, loss of human life could be prevented if the media would exercise restraint:

America is a large country, and, thankfully, enjoys the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech.  But the media has a choice of what events to cover, whom to listen to, and whom to write about.  Why did anyone listen to this man and his tiny, hateful group?  Why did anyone publish an article about it?  Why did high profile people begin discussing him?

The proper response of society to a group like this is to ignore them, and to give them as little of a voice as possible.  Why?  These people’s belief system is entirely irrational; it’s likely that the people in the congregation have psychological troubles that have nothing to do with Islam, and are falling into hate as a way to avoid dealing with whatever true issues they need to sort out.  Or, to put it in other words, they’re crazy–possibly suffering from diagnosable mental disorders.  In our society, we ignore crazy, ranting people on the street, because we know that their thought processes are entirely irrational and that what comes out of their mouth has little meaning.  If the mainstream media and average American citizens had approached this group with the same attitude–that they were simply crazy and not worth listening to, there would be no new controversy and no additional risk to American troops.

How can you help?

  • If you work for the media in any capacity, make a conscious commitment to ignore, rather than draw attention to hateful and extremist views, individuals, and organizations.  When you do mention an extremist, do not identify them by name, but rather, identify them only as “an extremist” or a (nameless) fringe group.  Make sure to cover extremism in a way that is minimally empowering to the extremists.  Also, make sure to cover extremism in a way that emphasizes the flaws in extremists thinking (usually black-and-white thinking, and crass generalizations about groups of people).  Covering extremists in what looks like a “neutral” way is passing a value judgement because it gives a tacit endorsement that their views are legitimate.
  • (For anyone) Let news media outlets know about your feelings on this issue, through letters to the editor, and through contacting editors.
  • (For anyone) Refrain from passing on and talking about sensationalistic media articles that show irresponsibility by being too empowering of extremists.  Turn off television or radio shows if they are giving coverage to extremists in an empowering way.  If people frowned on such news stories, the media would be forced to abandon such practices due to practical and economic concerns.
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