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Jan24

Discovering Feminist Students in the Middle East

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By Deborah Williams

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — “My grandmother told me that the man is the head and the woman is the neck,” said an East European student in my class. “It makes me so mad. I don’t want to be the neck.”

The other students in the class, all women, and none of them from the same country (and none from the United States), nodded in agreement. They knew the sentiment, if not the specific grandmotherly aphorism. A young woman from South Asia said her parents told her it was all right to have a career, but “of course” she would stop working when she got married. Another student, from Hong Kong, said her family supported her desire to go to college but made it clear that a graduate degree would probably make it difficult to find a husband.

These students were all enrolled in my literature class on women writers at New York University Abu Dhabi. Twenty percent of the nearly 1,000 students here come from the United States, another 20 percent from the United Arab Emirates and the remaining 60 percent from everywhere else. The globalism of the student body forces us all to examine our assumptions, examples and interpretations, an examination that goes well beyond just diversifying the syllabus. In my first semester of teaching here, for example, I made a glancing reference to Oprah’s Book Club, and a student raised her hand to ask what an “oprah” was.

Given the wide range of student experiences, I wasn’t sure how the students would receive a course on women writers. In the United States, when I’ve taught similar courses, discussions often veered into the territory of “I’m not a feminist, but …” Students were sure that there should be equity between the sexes but “feminists,” in their minds, were angry man-haters who did nothing but complain.

So pervasive was this dismissal that I’d chalked it up to a generational divide, and I assumed that my students in Abu Dhabi would also see feminism as old-fashioned and irrelevant. But I have come to reconsider that assumption. “I need to be a feminist so I can do general world-saving,” said one student, slightly joking about the world-saving but dead serious about the feminism.

Over and over during the semester, I heard “you, too?” as students discovered points of connection that bridged their distinct cultural experiences. We all found common cause with Sor Juana, a 17th-century nun from what is now Mexico, who avoided marriage and motherhood by taking religious vows, thus freeing her to write and study. A student from Pakistan remarked wryly that Sor Juana had the right idea because once she became a nun, people probably stopped introducing her to eligible bachelors.

“If you don’t get married,” asked a student from the Philippines, “won’t you have to move home and take care of your parents?” That comment elicited murmurs of recognition and a discussion about the difficulties of resisting something we’re told is “natural,” such as the assumption that women are always caregivers. None of these students come from a country known for progressive gender politics, which may be precisely why they see the value in a feminist perspective: It helps them think about what needs to be changed — and how. Without ignoring the specifics of their experiences, they found the commonalities in being told to “be the neck,” or to find a boyfriend, or to forgo graduate school.

Occasionally during class, I would comment that it took courage to have conversations about, for instance, the role that religion played in shaping expectations for “appropriate” female behavior. The students didn’t think of themselves as brave, however; they just enjoyed the conversations. Maybe they didn’t think of conversations as brave because for each of them, the decision to study at New York University Abu Dhabi was itself an individually brave, even radical, break with convention.

For some, it was radical to study at a coed school; for others it was coming to live in a Muslim country, or leaving home, or even the simple act of enrolling in a class that studied novels. Each student took a risk — stuck her neck out, we might say — in an effort to become the head of her own life. And in their conversations about the risks and challenges that confront them as young women, they came to see that difference is not a threat but is instead an opportunity for engagement and a source of strength.

 

Jan18

Don’t think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump

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BY PAUL ROSENBERG

This article was originally published on Salon.com.

George Lakoff didn’t start off in the world of politics. He was a founding father of cognitive linguistics, starting with his 1980 book, “Metaphors We Live By (co-authored with philosopher Mark Johnson). The book showed how immediate, concrete experience — bodily orientation, physical movement, and so on — structures our understanding of more complex and abstract experiences via “conceptual metaphors” such as “Consciousness Is Up,” “Love Is a Journey,” etc.

Facing the rise of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and bewildered by how he and other liberals could not make logical sense of conservative ideology (what do gun rights, low taxes and banning abortion have in common?), Lakoff found an answer in conceptual metaphors derived form two contrasting family models explicated by Diana Baumrind as authoritarian (“strict father” in Lakoff’s terms) and authoritative (“nurturant parent”), as described in his 1996 book, “Moral Politics.” His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” drew on a wider range of cognitive science and gained a mass audience, but failed to fundamentally change how liberals and Democrats approach politics, as was richly illustrated by the recent election of Donald Trump.

But Lakoff is nothing if not persistent, and has penned an election postmortem like no other, “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, and What the Majority Can Do.” It rearticulates the arguments of his earlier books — including others like “The Political Mind,” Whose Freedom?“ and Philosophy in the Flesh — along with fresh analysis and new insights that push hard for opening up a new realm of possibilities, instead of retrenching, retreating or repeating strategies and tactics that have failed in the past. In it, Lakoff displays both an intimate familiarity with detailed examples and a broad-based visionary outlook.

Salon spoke with him to explore both, with an eye toward expanding the horizon of the possible on one hand, and avoiding potholes on the other. He’s talking with Chelsea Green about expanding the essay into a book, but the ideas in it really can’t wait. The Democratic establishment needs to be shaken up, and the rest of us need to be stirred.

You’ve been writing about politics from a cognitive science perspective for more than 20 years. A lot of people have listened to you, but the Democratic political establishment as a whole has not, and that was reflected in the election of Donald Trump. As you note in your article, “The polls, the media, and the Democratic Party all failed to understand conservative values and their importance. They failed to understand unconscious thought and moral worldviews. While hailing science in the case of climate change, they ignored science when it came to their own minds.” So let’s start there. What do you mean by that, and how did it happen?

If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising. So they know people think using frames and metaphors and narratives and images and emotions and so on. That’s second nature to anybody who’s taken a marketing course. Many of the people who have gone into conservative communications have done that, and know very well how to market their ideas.

Now, if instead you are a progressive, and you go to college and you’re interested in politics, what are you going to study? Well, you’ll study political science, law, public policy, economic theory and so on, but you’re not going to wind up studying marketing, most likely, and you’re not going to study either cognitive science or neuroscience.

What you’ll learn in those courses is what is called Enlightenment reason, from 1650, from Descartes. And here’s what that reasoning says: What makes us human beings is that we are rational animals and rationality is defined in terms of logic. Recall that Descartes was a mathematician and logician. He argued that reasoning is like seeing a logical proof. Secondly, he argued that our ideas can fit the world because, as he said, “God would not lie to us.” The assumption is that ideas directly fit the world.

They’re also, Descartes argued, disembodied. He said that if ideas were embodied, were part of the body, then physical laws would apply to them, and we would not have free will. And in fact, they are embodied, physical laws do apply to them, and we do not have absolute free will. We’re trapped by what the neural systems of our brains  have accumulated. We can only see what our brains allow us to understand, and that’s an important thing.

So what he said, basically, was that there are no frames, no embodiment, no metaphor — none of the things people really use to reason. Moreover if we think logically and we all have the same reasoning, if you just tell people the facts, they should reason to the same correct conclusion. And that just isn’t true. And that keeps not being true, and liberals keep making the same mistake year after year after year. So that’s a very important thing.

After “Don’t Think of an Elephant” was published, you got a lot of attention but your message really didn’t sink in. I think it was largely because of what you said above — what you were saying simply didn’t fit into the Enlightenment worldview that Democratic elites took for granted from their education.  

When I started teaching framing the first thing I would tell the class is “Don’t think of an elephant,” and of course, they think of an elephant. I wrote a book on it because the point is, if you negate a frame, you have to activate the frame, because you have to know what you’re negating. If you use logic against something, you’re strengthening it. And that lesson was not understood. So if people think in terms of logic — it’s a mistake that’s made every day on MSNBC — you go on there and you’ll get people saying, “Well, you know, Trump said this, and some Republicans said that and Jeff Sessions said this and here are the facts that show they’re wrong.” You just keep repeating the things that you’re negating. And that just strengthens them.

Did that happen in Hillary Clinton’s campaign?

That showed up there. The Clinton campaign decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters.

I tried to convince people in the Clinton campaign — early on, I wrote a piece called “Understanding Trump,” in March 2016, and it was sent to everybody in the Clinton campaign. Everybody at the PAC, for example, got a copy of it. It didn’t matter; they were doing what they were told to do.

Another problem was the assumption that all you have to do is look at issues, and give the facts about issues, and the facts about the issues supposedly show up in polls, and then they apply demographics. So there was this assumption, for example, that educated women in the Philadelphia suburbs were naturally going to vote for Hillary, because they were highly educated. They turned out also to be Republican, and what made them Republican was Republican views, like Republican views about the Supreme Court, abortion, things like that. So they didn’t all go out and vote for Hillary.

Or the campaign assumed that since Trump attacked Latinos, and Latino leaders didn’t like Trump, that the Latinos would all vote for Hillary, and many Latinos voted for Trump. Why? Because “strict father” morality is big in Latino culture. The campaign was not looking at values. They were looking at demographics, and they missed the role of values.

Which you’ve been pounding on for a long time now.

Well over a decade. During the Bush administration, I talked to the Democratic caucus. I was invited by Nancy Pelosi, and I talked to them about “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” and the strict father/nurturant parent distinction, and I pointed out that one thing strict fathers can’t do is betray trust. It turned out that the Southerners in the caucus agreed strongly, and they wanted to have me work with them on talking about Bush betraying trust. But Nancy said, “Well, we should check with the polls first,” and she checked with one of the major pollsters who said, “Oh no, my polls show that people trust Bush, therefore we can’t use it.” And the idea is to follow the polls, rather than change them. And this is a big difference between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans try to change the polls, whereas Democrats try to follow the polls.

There are other problems with polling you point out as well.

Yes. The next problem has to do with going issue by issue. This is happening right now. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer went onto the Rachel Maddow show on the same day, and they said, “The American people agree with us, issue by issue, each case and we’re going to press Trump issue by issue, and we’re going to start with health care and go on to other things.” What they’re missing is values.

They’re missing the idea that many Americans who depend on health care, affordable health care, for example, have strict-father positions and voted for Trump against their interests. And this is something has been known for ages, that a lot of poor conservatives vote against their material interests, because they’re voting for their worldview. And the reason for it is that their moral worldview defines who they are. They are not going to vote against their own definition of who they are. 

This is missed by the unions as well. Unions don’t really understand their function. Unions are instruments of freedom. Unions free people from corporate servitude. From corporations saying what hours they can work, what wages are possible, and so on. The argument against unions that has come in so-called “right-to-work” laws misses the fact that unions are instruments of freedom, and instead suggests that unions go against freedom. They go against your rights. And the unions don’t know how to argue against right-to-work laws. So that’s a problem with liberals working in unions.

There’s something more basic underlying all this, isn’t there? From “Moral Politics” on you’ve been hammering on liberals’ failure to claim and proclaim their own values.

All progressives and liberals have a moral worldview, what I described as the nurturant-parent worldview. When applied to politics it goes like this: Citizens care about other citizens, they have empathy for other citizens, and the work of the government is to provide public resources for everybody. Public resources, from the very beginning of our country, not only apply to each private citizen, but they also apply to business. From the very beginning we had public roads and bridges and public education, we had a national bank, and the patent office for businesses, and interstate commerce laws for business, and so on. And a judicial system that’s mostly used for business.

Since then the government has supported business even more, especially through the promotion of scientific research, the development of pharmaceuticals, computer science, support of public research and public universities. The Internet began as ARPANET, is in the Defense Department. Think about satellite communication — that was made possible by NASA and NOAA. Very important things we did. What about things like GPS systems and cell phones? Our government is maintaining not just our cell phones, but the world economic system which all uses GPS systems and cell phones.

People don’t see the role of public resources, which are there to run the world economy, to help you in your everyday life, to give you communications, like this interview right now. This is just something that’s never said. When I say this to progressives, they say, “Well, of course that’s true, isn’t that obvious?” The answer is no. It is not obvious, because the next question I ask is, “Have you ever said it?” And the answer is no. The question after that is, “Will you go out from now on and say it?” And I don’t get enthusiastic “Yes!” answers.

People need to know this and it needs to be said all the time. It needs to be said about every single business. The person who has done best at it has been Elizabeth Warren. When Obama tried to use the same message he got it wrong, he said if you have a business you didn’t build that, and then he got attacked and he dropped it. But in fact this is something that does need to be out there.

There are other things that need to be said that progressives don’t say because they don’t really understand how framing works. Framing is not obvious. People read “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” they got some of the ideas, but when they tried to apply it, it turned out it’s not so easy to apply. You need some training to do it, and you need some ideas. 

For example. Trump said we’re going to get rid of regulation, when there’s a new regulation we’re going to get rid of two for every new one that comes in. But what are regulations? Why do people have them? They’re there for protection of the public in every place. Why do you have environmental regulations? To protect against pollution and global warming and so on. Things that are harmful. Why do you have an SEC regulation? To protect investors, and protect people who have mortgages. Why do you have food and drug regulations? To protect against poisons. This is important. You’re protecting against corporate malfeasance. Corporate harm to the public. When they say, “We’re getting rid of these regulations, no one reports in the media, “They have gotten rid of protections, and they’re going to get rid of more protections!”

You’ve pointed out how Trump has actually been clever in ways that liberals, Democrats and the media didn’t understand. You laid out a number of mechanisms. So can we go through a few of those?

First, let’s talk about how Trump’s tweets work. Trump’s tweets have at least three functions. The first function is what I call preemptive framing. Getting framing out there before reporters can frame it differently. So for example, on the Russian hacking, he tweeted that the evidence showed that it had no effect on the election. Which is a lie, it didn’t say that at all. But the idea was to get it out there to 31 million people looking at his tweets, legitimizing the elections: The Russian hacks didn’t mean anything. He does that a lot, constantly preempting. 

The second use of tweets is diversion. When something important is coming up, like the question of whether he is going to use a blind trust, the conflicts of interest. So what does he do instead? He attacks Meryl Streep. And then they talk about Meryl Streep for a couple of days. That’s a diversion.

The third one is that he sends out trial balloons. For example, the stuff about nuclear weapons, he said we need to pay more attention to nukes. If there’s no big outcry and reaction, then he can go on and do the rest. These are ways of disrupting the news cycle, getting the real issues out of the news cycle and turning it to his advantage.

Trump is very, very smart. Trump for 50 years has learned how to use people’s brains against them. That’s what master salesmen do. There’s a certain set of things they do. The first is repeat. Advertisers know this. You turn on your TV, and the same ad comes on over and over and over. The effect on the brain of repetition is that when you hear something it’s understood through the neural circuitry in your brain; it has to become activated. The more it’s repeated, the more that circuitry is activated, and every time it’s activated the synaptic connections become stronger. What that means when they become stronger is two things happen. One, they’re more likely to fire — it’s easier to get those ideas out there if they’re firing — and two, if you hear them often enough they become part of what’s fixed in your brain. They become part of what you naturally understand, and you can only understand what your brain allows you to understand.

Repetition is a way of changing people’s brains. What Trump was doing all through the nomination campaign was that every day he managed to get on TV, and he would repeat different things that activated the same moral framework, and it really worked. In addition you have particular frames that were repeated: “Crooked Hillary,” “crooked Hillary,” “crooked Hillary,”  over and over. There wasn’t anything Hillary did that was crooked. But he kept saying it until people believed it. And they believed it because it was heard enough times to strengthen the neural circuitry in their brains. It wasn’t just stupidity. It’s simply the way brains work.

Another thing he used was grammar, as in “radical Islamic terrorism.” What does “radical” mean? Radical means not part of what is normal and healthy and so on, but something on the fringe, number one. Two, terrorists – people who are out to get you, right? If you modify terrorists, there are two ways in which you can do it. There are two forms of applying adjectives to nouns, and the classic example is “the industrious Japanese,” which assumes either that all Japanese are industrious, or that there are some and I’m picking out those. But the idea that they’re all industrious is activated.

In this case, the idea that all people who are Islamic are terrorists is activated. And they’re radical. If you say that, it’s not like you’re picking out the tiny proportion who happened to be terrorists and radical. You’re saying it about everybody. That’s part of grammar. He is using grammar to get his point across, to get his worldview across, and then criticizing Clinton and Obama for not doing it, as if not saying it is not recognizing the threat.

What about metaphor, which is something you’ve written and talked about for years?

“Brexit” was an excellent example of that. It had to do with exiting, which is a general metaphor. Throughout the world, states of mind are understood in terms of locations. You go into your café, you get a cup of coffee, you go out of the café — you’re in the same location you were in before. Now apply that to states: You go into a state, and when you go out of it you should be in the same state you were in before. But that doesn’t work. It’s not true. With Brexit, the metaphor was that if you entered the EU at a certain point in time — with a certain state being true of England at that time — and then you exit, you should be in the same state you were in before. Absolutely false. Brexit was based on the false assumption that England could go back to some ideal state it was in before.

The same thing is true with “Make America great again.” The assumption is: This has been a great country before, and now we can go back to what it was before, as if electing Trump would not change it in the worst way, and as if you could go back to some idealized past. Which you can’t, for many reasons, like a technological revolution that’s gotten rid of lots of jobs, and international trade, and so on. The world is not the same as it was before. So you’re using that universal metaphor to convince people. And that’s important.

Together, all you’ve just said makes a strong case that Trump’s success stems from approaching politics like a salesman, which ties back to your original point about how Republicans approach politics versus Democrats. In that sense, Trump is very much a realization of what Republicans have been moving towards for a long time. But there’s another sense in which he represents a culmination: his authoritarianism, rooted in strict-father morality.

Exactly. Except for gay marriage — he has friends who are gay — he has the whole strict-father thing, moral hierarchy. If you have strict-father morality what that says is it’s your concern alone that matters, reteaching individual responsibility. That means responsibility for yourself, not social responsibility. Not caring about other citizens; that’s weak. You should care about yourself; that’s strong. That is how he sees that the world naturally works. There is a hierarchy of morality because the strict father in a family gets his position of strength because he supposedly knows right from wrong, and in that there is an assumption that those who are most moral should rule.

So how do you tell who’s most moral? You look at who has come out on top. You have God above man, man above nature, conquering nature, so nature is there for us to use. Then you would have the rich above the poor — they deserve it, because they are disciplined. And the powerful above the non-powerful — they deserve it, they’ve become powerful. And you have adults above children. So in 21 states children in classes and on teams can be beaten by the teachers and coaches if  they don’t show proper respect and obedience.

Western culture above non-Western culture, and so you get all the stuff on Breitbart about white Western culture. Of course Islamists are not in Western culture, Mexicans are not in Western culture, Asians are not in Western culture, etc. America above other nations: We should be great again, we should rule everybody, we should be able to intimidate everybody. And then other ones follow. You have men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, and straights above gays.

So you have this moral hierarchy in Republican thought for a long time; it’s not like this is new. Here it is bold, right out there, as strong as you can get, and you have the ultimate “strict father,” who wants to be the dictator of the country, if not the world.

At the very end of the article you get into what people can do in response, how people can fight back, and I wanted to give you some time to talk about that. There is a very real potential there that you talk about: It can be harder to break through to elites, but easier to reach ordinary people whose lives are directly affected. You have talked about the importance of reaching out to people you call “bi-conceptuals,” including conservatives.

There is within conservatism this idea of in-group nurturance, taking care of your own. This happens in churches; you go to a bigger evangelical church and they have the free babysitting and investment advice and will help you if you’re down on your luck and so on. If you go to the military, which is a strict -father thing, but also in a military base you’re going to get free schooling for your kids, a place to live, cheap goods at the PX, etc. In the military you never leave a wounded brother behind; they’re a band of brothers. See, you have in-group nurturance there. You also have it in conservatism as an institution. One, of the major think tanks in Washington built a large state-of-the-art media center, but also put in a hundred apartments for interns who couldn’t afford Washington prices. So they live together, get to know each other, become friends and they’re taken care of.

A lot of conservatives see their in-group as their local community or their neighbors, and then they will do all sorts of things. If there’s a flood they’ll be out there swinging the sandbags, if there’s a fire they’ll be out there on the lines with the hoses to protect their neighbors’ homes. That is the powerful community version of in-group nurturance, and that is real nurturance, it’s real care.

That can be appealed to, and we need to find ways of talking about that in terms of regulation and protection. What protections are being taken away from the people in your community? That needs to be said over and over again. Are we going to get bad drinking water? Are you going to get poisoned foods? Are you going to get drugs that haven’t been adequately tested that could make you terribly ill?

And many other things: Are you going to lose your health care, but not have something else to replace it? Are you going to lose your Medicare? If you look at those red states and ask, “What about those small towns in those red states?”, a lot of them are like that.

What else needs to be done?

Well two things. First, a citizens’ communication network. We have social media networks now, but people need to have feeds on their Facebook and Twitter pages, of things to say on particular days, and let’s do it from the point of view of the American majority. We’re the majority; here are our values. Let’s make our values clear, let’s have a little handbook about what our values are, and why those things are recommended, and the rationale for putting it out there. We need a website that can be used as a basis for a citizens’ communication network, and I’m going to be involved in starting something to do that.

The other thing is serious training of the NGOs — the foundations and other groups that are there for the public good — in how to talk about these things, how to frame their message and not make mistakes and not help the other side, and to do it always from the point of view of what’s positive. Not attacking Trump implicitly, but by saying what’s good for the public and why it’s good and then, by the way, this goes against everything that Trump is doing. But the main thing is to frame it in terms of public good.

Jan17

These scientists can prove it's possible to reduce prejudice

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By Brian Resnick

This article was originally published on Vox.com.

Remember the same-sex marriage study that was faked? The theory's been retested, and the results are very promising.

It was the most optimistic, feel-good conclusion social science had produced in years. In 2014, political scientists, writing in the journal Science, reported that humans — stubborn and cliquish as we are — are capable of a profound change of mind.

The researchers had demonstrated that a 20-minute conversation with a gay canvasser could make a lasting impression on a voter's willingness to support same-sex marriage legislation. That may sound small, but it was amazing: The vast majority of social science research finds that persuading people to change their attitude is hard, if not impossible. Years of research into sensitive topics like politics and vaccinations had found that advocacy usually blows up in the advocate's face. Targets of persuasion tend to double down on their previously held position or forget the intervention almost immediately.

The Science paper was "almost like an existence proof that attitude change is possible," Don Green, a professor at Columbia University and the senior author on the study, told me last April. And it suggested something breathtaking: that it was possible to reduce prejudice over time. In the past, marriage equality activists, anti-abortion advocates, and others had failed to sway minds with costly advertising campaigns. Here was a compelling case that human-to-human interactions are what really matter.

Which is why what happened next was so disheartening.

In May 2015, it emerged that Michael J. LaCour, a grad student at the University of California Los Angeles who'd done the bulk of the work on the paper, had faked all the data and liedabout his funding sources. When Green found out, he asked Science for a retraction and got one.

Shortly after the scandal broke, I called David Broockman, who was then finishing up his PhD studies at the University of California Berkeley. He, along with fellow grad student Josh Kalla and Yale political science professor Peter Aronow, had uncovered the fraud.

Broockman and Kalla were in the midst of setting up their own experiment to replicate the findings with transgender phobia in Miami. In trying to figure out how LaCour pulled it off, Kalla and Broockman found many strange inconsistencies in his data. When they probed, the data fell apart. (LaCour had adapted a preexisting dataset and manipulated it to show positive results for his study.)

But Kalla and Broockman were resolved to go forward with their own experiment. Broockman told me he didn't know what to expect, other than that this idea — that humans are capable of change — was one worthy of a retest.

Well, the results are in. Today, Broockman — now a professor at Stanford — and Kalla, still a graduate student at Berkeley, have published their findings in Science. And they're filled with even more optimism than the faked study two years ago.

The study is titled "Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing," and it is the first large-scale, real-world experimental effort that shows lasting opinion change is possible. Broockman and Kalla showed that a 10-minute conversation with a pro-transgender canvasser can influence opinions for at least three months.

It's a rare story in science, a rare story anywhere: where young idealists not only uncover one of the greatest frauds in recent scientific history but then manage to validate the very idea that the fraudulent study asserted.

Putting an unconventional canvassing technique to the test 

In a typical canvassing conversation, a person knocks on the door and spews statistics and facts to convince you to vote for a ballot measure. Those interactions are at best instantly forgettable and at worst incredibly annoying.

Broockman and Kalla were studying a different type of conversation, one developed in the Leadership LAB, a program of the Los Angeles LGBT Center in the wake of California's Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage. Frustrated by the loss on Prop 8, the LGBT Center's Dave Fleischer set out to talk to voters about why they decided against marriage equality. The conversations became the basis for a new technique.

The key difference between Fleischer's technique, sometimes called "deep canvassing," and the standard model is that Fleischer has voters do most of the talking.

"The key part of this is having people think back on their real, lived experience in an honest way," Fleischer tells me. "Everything we do is driven by that."

In talking about their own lives, the voters engage in what psychologists call "active processing." The idea is that people learn lessons more durably when they come to the conclusion themselves, not when someone "bitch-slaps you with a statistic," says Fleischer. Overall, it's a task designed to point out our common humanity, which then opens the door to reducing prejudice.

Fleischer has showed me several videos the LAB has shot of real encounters his canvassers have had with voters, and it's hard not to think he's onto something.

In one video shot in Miami, a young canvasser named Virginia approaches an older South American man named Gustavo. Virginia is tattooed up to the neck, and Gustavo is wearing a sleeveless undershirt tucked into khaki pants. Virginia is a gender nonconforming person who identifies as neither male nor female.

In the beginning of their conversation, Virginia asks Gustavo how likely he'd be to support transgender rights legislation. Gustavo says he wouldn't support it because he's worried about predatory men using the law as an opportunity to enter women's bathrooms.

Virginia asks why he feels that way.

"I'm from South America, and in South America we don't like fags," he tells her.

This next moment is crucial: Virginia doesn't jump on Gustavo for the slur, and instead says, "I'm gay," in a friendly manner. Gustavo doesn't recoil. Actually, he becomes more interested.

Gustavo and Virginia go on to discuss how much they love their partners, and how that love helps them overcome adversity. Gustavo tells Virginia that his wife is a disabled person. "God gave me the ability to love a disabled person," he says, and that taking care of one another is why love matters.

"That resonate a lots with me," Virginia responds. "For me, these laws, and including transgender people are about that. They're about how we treat one another."

Now that Gustavo is in a place where he's more open, Virginia asks him to imagine what the worst thing could happen if he used a bathroom with a transgender person. He admits he wouldn't be scared. Then comes the breakthrough.

"Listen, probably I was mistaken," he says of his original position on trans rights.

Virginia ask him again if he'd vote in favor of banning transgender discrimination. "In favor," he says.

"Deep canvassing" can inoculate people against prejudice

For their new paper in Science, Broockman and Kalla studied hundreds of conversations like the one between Gustavo and Virginia. It's the same basic technique LaCour and Green purported to study, but adapted slightly for transgender issues.

In Broockman and Kalla's study, the canvassers showed participants both sides of the transgender rights argument through videos. Then the canvassers asked them to recall a personal experience with judgment or prejudice. After participants spilled their guts, they were encouraged to think about how their personal experiences related to the experiences of transgender people.

Broockman and Kalla's paper finds these conversations not only move people to be supportive of trans people and trans-inclusive legislation — but that effect also persists three months out.

But what gives their results so much weight is the strength of the study design. It's similar to the "gold standard" randomized, placebo-control design that drug companies use to detect the effect of their medications.

Broockman and Kalla originally sent letters to 35,550 houses in the Miami area, asking individuals to participate in an online survey and several follow-ups for a small reward. That effort yielded 1,825 individual responses for a baseline opinion data.

Then they randomly assigned those respondents to one of two groups. One was an intervention group, where canvassers would engage in discussions like the one Virginia had with Gustavo involving a question around support of trans-inclusive legislation. The others were assigned to the control group, where canvassers would talk to respondents about recycling. All of the participants were then sent surveys at three days, three weeks, six weeks, and three months after their meeting with a canvasser.

But Broockman and Kalla had also added a twist to the experiment. In the survey sent after six weeks, the researchers attempted to destroy any goodwill the canvassers might have sown for trans rights with an anti-trans attack ad. (Ads like these highlight the claim that transgender rights laws will allow predatory males to enter women's bathrooms.)

The results of the six-week survey suggested that the immediate effect of the ad was that it diminished support for a trans-supportive law in both groups. But then at three months, that effect of the ad disappeared for the intervention group — as if they had been vaccinated against prejudice.

In the paper, Broockman and Kalla describe the lasting opinion change between the experimental and control group as comparable to the public's changing attitude toward gay and lesbian people that occurred between 1998 and 2012. "That two decades of opinion change took place during a 10-minute conversation, and it persisted for at least three months — that's a big effect," Kalla tells me.

These results have scientists excited

A few political scientists not affiliated with the project agreed: This work is groundbreaking.

"I think this paper is monumentally important," Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychology professor at Princeton, tells me.

What's most impressive is the design, she says, since most research on political opinions takes place in university labs, not in the real world.

According to Levy Paluck, just 11 percent of all the political science literature on prejudice reduction tests theories out in the real world. "And a lot of those are done in schools — with kids," she says. "We're talking about minuscule proportions that are looking at adults. This [current study] is gold-plated, transparent, big sample —something that we can put some trust in."

Patrick Egan, who studies political attitudes and LGBTQ politics at New York University, is also "tremendously impressed." That an experimenter could produce an opinion change that lasts three months, he says, is "something that has not yet been shown — as far as I’m aware — in psychology or sociology or political science."

I know what you may be thinking: Isn't this all a little too good to be true, again?

Broockman and Kalla are aware their work will be scrutinized. And they want others to check the data, so they've made it and the computer code freely available online. "We fully expect people to start downloading our data and hopefully confirm our results," Kalla says.

And Broockman notes these results are just a "prologue" to a new field of research on prejudice reduction — and not the final say. He hopes other experimenters will attempt to replicate and expand on the study in the coming years.

Deep canvassing is very difficult and very promising

These results come at a crucial time for the transgender rights movement, which is growing in visibility but still facing setbacks in communities across the United States.

Just weeks ago, North Carolina passed a law which, among many things, bans transgender people from using bathrooms that don't match the gender on their birth certificates. Elsewhere in the country, transgender rights are threatened too. As Vox's German Lopez reports, Tennessee may soon pass a transgender bathroom-ban measure.

Activists — and not just those in the LGBTQ community — will likely want to know how to leverage the insight from this study for their own fights. But they should take heed: The "deep canvassing" method Broockman and Kalla tested may now be scientifically supported, but it doesn't mean it's easy or necessarily scalable.

"It's definitely incredibly difficult," says Justin Klecha of SAVE, the LGBT advocacy group in Miami that provided the canvassers for Broockman and Kalla's study. "One is just having the field staff prioritize this work above all else. … You need to build up leaders, and training, and support, which takes time."

Advocates need months to mobilize enough canvassers to meaningfully change votes on a ballot measure. And even then, the intervention may not work on everyone.

But there is more good news to glean from the new Science paper. LaCour and Green's original paper purported to find that only gay and lesbian canvassers could increase support for same-sex marriage. Broockman and Kalla have found that it doesn't matter if the canvassers are transgender or not. "Whether you're trans or not trans, gay or not gay, you're still able to develop empathy with a voter and help them connect the prejudice they've felt in their lives with the prejudice transgender people face," Kalla says.

What's still in question is whether the canvassing technique could be adapted to political topics less rooted in prejudice. "I'm a gay man; for me there were a lot of ways this project felt meaningful for me," Broockman says. But he's also interested in testing it out on climate change, focusing on getting people to think through the problem as it relates to their own lives. Maybe "get people to think about times when they protected their kids," he says, as an example of how to break through to them.

The case for optimism in social science has been strained lately — from outright frauds like the LaCour paper to the ongoing crisis in which psychology papers do not replicate.

But this paper is a certain win: At least in one small, scientifically verifiable way, humans can learn to better understand one another.

Jan11

Obama, Saying Goodbye, Warns of Threats to National Unity

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By MARK LANDLER and JULIE BOSMAN

CHICAGO — President Obama, delivering a farewell address in the city that launched his political career, declared on Tuesday his continued confidence in the American experiment. But he warned, in the wake of a toxic presidential election, that economic inequity, racism and closed-mindedness threatened to shred the nation’s democratic fabric.

“We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others,” Mr. Obama said, “when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”

Speaking to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama said he believed even the deepest ideological divides could be bridged. His words were nevertheless etched with frustration — a blunt coda to a remarkable day that laid bare many of the racial crosscurrents in the country.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama presented himself as a moderate in his confirmation hearing for attorney general, while his critics denounced him as a racist. In Charleston, S.C., Dylann S. Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine black churchgoers, was sentenced to death.

And here, in the cavernous convention hall where Mr. Obama celebrated his re-election in 2012, the nation’s first black president — still popular, still optimistic — bade America goodbye 10 days before turning over his office to President-elect Donald J. Trump, who ran what his critics labeled a racist campaign.

Mr. Obama pledged again to support his successor. But his speech was a thinly veiled rebuke of several of the positions Mr. Trump staked out during the campaign, from climate change and barring Muslims from entering the country to repealing his landmark health care law.

“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities,” Mr. Obama said, “then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclave.”

“If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s work force,” he added.

In giving a farewell address, Mr. Obama invoked a privilege of presidents going back to George Washington. He staked his claim as the leader who steered the nation through the storms of the Great Recession to a growing economy and job market. He claimed credit for reducing the rate of uninsured Americans to record lows, while keeping a cap on health care costs.

In a pointed reference to Republicans determined to repeal the health care bill that was one of the signature accomplishments of his presidency, Mr. Obama said, “If anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system — that covers as many people at less cost — I will publicly support it.”

There were also nostalgic moments, as well. He recalled the 2008 campaign that started him on his improbable journey to the White House. He thanked the army of volunteers and staff members who swept him into the Oval Office, ending with the iconic chant, “Yes, we can.” And reflecting on all they had accomplished, he added, “Yes, we did.”

“It has been the honor of my life to serve you,” Mr. Obama said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”

He drew some of the most thunderous applause of the night when he paid tribute to his wife, Michelle — “my best friend” — and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — “a brother.” As the crowd of 18,000 clapped and stamped their feet, Mr. Obama dabbed his eyes.

Afterward, Mrs. Obama and her elder daughter, Malia, appeared onstage with the president, along with Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill. The Obamas’ younger daughter, Sasha, stayed in Washington because she has an exam in school on Wednesday morning, the White House said.

But Mr. Obama clearly wanted to use his last major turn on the national stage to send a message. Americans, he said, should not take their democracy for granted. Lamenting the perennially low voter turnout rates, Mr. Obama urged people to become involved. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet,” he said, “try to talk with one in real life.”

“America is not a fragile thing,” the president said. “But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

The White House had meticulously planned this event, from the location to the tone and cadence of the speech, which clearly reached for the oratorical heights of his best-remembered addresses.

The president was still rewriting his remarks on Tuesday afternoon, one of his aides said, after being up very late Monday night scrawling edits on what was then already the fourth draft.

Mr. Obama’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, pored over previous farewell addresses for inspiration. George Washington used the occasion to disclose he would not run for a third term and warned Americans to steer clear of foreign entanglements in Europe, while Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the influence of the “military-industrial complex.”

Mr. Obama’s message recalled his final State of the Union address last year, as well as speeches he gave in Springfield, Ill.; at the commencement ceremonies at Howard University and Rutgers University; and during the Democratic National Convention.

Dozens of alumni from the White House and Mr. Obama’s political operation converged on Chicago to cheer their boss. With parties all over town, the atmosphere felt like a wistful version of 2012, or even more so, of 2008, when Mr. Obama’s election drew a quarter-million people to a jubilant victory celebration in nearby Grant Park.

There was, however, an undeniable tinge of sadness to Mr. Obama’s leave-taking — the dread among many in this crowd that his legacy will be undone by Mr. Trump, and the disappointment that, for all his political gifts, he was unable to hand over his office to his chosen successor, Hillary Clinton.

“Beers and tears,” said Ben LaBolt, who served as the national press secretary for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.

Many said they had waited hours in the cold to get tickets, like Ja-mese McGee, an elementary school teacher from the Chicago suburb Country Club Hills.

Those hours had a purpose. She wanted to demonstrate to her students that seeing Mr. Obama was worth the wait. “Better than waiting to shop on Black Friday. Better than waiting in line for gym shoes,” she said.

But Ms. McGee was troubled by Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and the damage it could do to Mr. Obama’s legacy. “There’s so much to say about him,” she said. “He maintained class, he maintained dignity. Honestly, I don’t want him to leave, but I’m sure it will be a load off his shoulders.”

Alvin Love, a Baptist minister, walked through the crowd holding the hand of his 6-year-old granddaughter, Bayleigh Love, who wore a red sequined party dress.

He and Mr. Obama go back 30 years, when the president was a young community organizer on the South Side. “It’s mixed emotions for me,” he said. “I’m sad to see it come to an end, but proud and happy to see the work that he’s done.”

Mr. Love said he believed Mr. Obama’s work could be sustained, even with the advent of a Trump presidency. “Any time right is done, it will sooner or later stand up again.”

 

Jan09

In Their Words: How Children Are Affected by Gender Issues

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By Eve Conant

In Their Words: How Children Are Affected by Gender Issues

If you want candid answers about how gender shapes destiny, ask the world’s nine-year-olds.

At nine, a girl in Kenya already knows that her parents will marry her off for a dowry, to a man who may beat her. At nine, a boy in India already knows he’ll be pressured by male pals to sexually harass women in the street.

At nine, youngsters from China to Canada and Kenya to Brazil describe big dreams for future careers—but the boys don’t see their gender as an impediment, while the girls, all too frequently, do.

On the cusp of change, in that last anteroom of childhood before adolescence, nine-year-olds don’t think in terms of demographic statistics or global averages. But when they talk about their lives, it’s clear: Children at this age are unquestionably taking account of their own possibilities—and the limits gender places on them.

To get kids’ perspectives, National Geographic fanned out into 80 homes over four continents. From the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the high-rises of Beijing, we posed the same questions to a diverse cast of nine-year-olds. Being nine, they didn’t mince their words.

Many readily admitted that it can be hard—frustrating, confusing, lonely—to fit into the communities they call home and the roles they’re expected to play. Others are thriving as they break down gender barriers.

What’s the best thing about being a girl?

Avery Jackson swipes a rainbow-streaked wisp of hair from her eyes and considers the question. “Everything about being a girl is good!”

What’s the worst thing about being a girl?

“How boys always say, ‘That stuff isn’t girl stuff—it’s boy stuff.’ Like when I first did parkour,” an obstacle-course sport.

Avery spent the first four years of her life as a boy, and was miserable; she still smarts recalling how she lost her preschool friends because “their moms did not like me.” Living since 2012 as an openly transgender girl, the Kansas City native is now at ground zero in the evolving conversation about gender roles and rights.

The grown-ups talk about it—but kids like Avery want to have their say too. “Nine-year-olds can be impressively articulate and wise,” says Theresa Betancourt, associate professor of child health and human rights at Harvard University. They face increased peer pressure and responsibility, she says, but not the conformity and self-censorship that come with adolescence.

When asked the best-and-worst-things questions, Sunny Bhope—who speaks as his mother cooks rice over a charcoal fire, sending smoke through his small home near Mumbai, India—says the worst thing about being a boy is that he’s expected to join in “Eve-teasing,” his society’s euphemism for sexually harassing women in public.

For Yiqi Wang in Beijing, the best thing about being a girl is “we’re more calm and reliable than boys.” And for Juliana Meirelles Fleury in Rio, it’s that “we can go in the elevator first.”

How might your life be different if you were a girl instead of a boy (or a boy instead of a girl)?

Jerusalem’s Lev Hershberg says that if he were a girl, he “wouldn’t like computers.” Fellow Israeli Shimon Perel says if he were a girl, he could play with a jump rope.

If they were boys, Pooja Pawara from outside Mumbai would ride a scooter, while Yan Zhu from China’s Yaqueshui village would swim in a river that her grandmother insists is too cold for girls. Because she’s not a boy, Luandra Montovani isn’t allowed to play in her Rio favela’s streets, where she says the dangers include “violence and stray bullets.”

Eriah Big Crow, an Oglala Lakota who lives on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, says in a near whisper that there’s nothing that she can’t do, because boys and girls are “exactly the same.”

Eriah’s claim might sound too optimistic to Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s principal adviser on gender and development. With respect to gender inequality, she says, “we’re not seeing an expiration date for it yet”—but there is progress.

For global citizens under age 10, recent decades have seen more gender equity in areas such as primary school education access, says UNICEF’s Claudia Cappa. But statisticians can count only “those who were able to survive,” she notes, and “sex-selective abortions of female fetuses” persist in some countries.

Past the age-10 mark, however, the closing gap is replaced by a wide gulf. “Things change completely in adolescence,” Cappa says, with “striking” gender gaps in access to secondary schools, for example, or exposure to early marriage and violence. “This is when you stop being a child,” she says. “You become a female or a male.”

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Lokamu Lopulmoe, a Turkana girl living in rural Kenya, says that when she grows up, her parents will “be given my dowry, and even if the man goes and beats me up eventually, my parents will have the dowry to console them.” Some 300 miles away, in a gated community in Nairobi, Chanelle Wangari Mwangi sits in her trophy-filled room and imagines a much different future: She wants to be a pro golfer and “help the needy.”

In Ottawa, Canada, William Kay confidently plans a future as “a banker or a computer, like, genius guy.” Beijing’s Yunshu Sang wants to be a police officer, “but most police are men,” she says, “so I can’t.” In Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, budding journalist Hilde Lysiak rides around her neighborhood on a silver and pink bike, hunting for news—all the while suspecting that a boy reporter might “get more information from the police.”

What is something that makes you sad?

For Tomee War Bonnet, an Oglala Lakota, it’s “seeing people kill themselves.” What plants such thoughts in a nine-year-old’s head? Her reservation’s history of suicides, by kids as young as 12.

Mumbai’s Rania Singla feels sad when her little brother hits her. Lamia al Najjar, who lives in a makeshift home in the Gaza Strip, says, “I feel sadness when I see [how] our home is destroyed”—a result of fighting in the area in 2014.

What makes you most happy?

High on this list: family, God, food, and soccer. And friends. Other answers give a flavor of kids’ individual lives. One youngster loves powwows, another Easter eggs. For Amber Dubue in Ottawa, happiness is “room to run.” For Maria Eduarda Cardoso Raimundo in Rio, whose parents are separated, happiness is “Mom and Dad by my side, hugging me and giving me advice.”

Around age nine, Bede Sheppard says, children are “developing important feelings of empathy, fairness, and right from wrong.” As deputy director in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, Sheppard has worked with child laborers, refugees, and other youngsters in dire circumstances. He says the most oppressed and disadvantaged can also be the most empathetic and selfless. Turkana herder Lopeyok Kagete dreams of giving away money and “slaughtering [livestock] for people to eat.” Though Sunny Bhope and his family live in a single concrete room, the Indian boy aspires to “provide rooms to the homeless.”

When nine-year-old girls and boys discuss themselves and each other, points of consensus emerge. Boys get in trouble more often than girls, both sides agree, and girls have to spend a lot of time on their hair. Such things are part of their reality—but much weightier matters are too.

If you could change something in your life or in the world, what would it be?

Rio’s Clara Fraga would make thieves “good, so that they wouldn’t steal.” Abby Haas would free her South Dakota reservation of the “bad guys.” Kieran Manuel Rosselli, of Ottawa, says he would “destroy terrorists.” The grim content of some answers, and the grave tones in which they’re delivered, give the impression of a miniature adult speaking, not a child. If she could, says China’s Fang Wang, the thing she would change is “what it’s like when I’m lonely.”

The aspiration mentioned most often, across lines of geography and gender, was summed up by Avery Jackson. If the world were hers to change, she said, there would be “no bullying. Because that’s just bad.”

Jan03

Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart

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By George Monbiot

What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world. The latest, catastrophic figures for children’s mental health in England reflect a global crisis.

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.

Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress? A recent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It is not hard to see what the evolutionary reasons for social pain might be. Survival among social mammals is greatly enhanced when they are strongly bonded with the rest of the pack. It is the isolated and marginalised animals that are most likely to be picked off by predators, or to starve. Just as physical pain protects us from physical injury, emotional pain protects us from social injury. It drives us to reconnect. But many people find this almost impossible.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

Jul27

A Week From Hell

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By Charles M. Blow

Last week was yet another week that tore at the very fiber of our nation.
 
After two videos emerged showing the gruesome killings of two black men by police officers, one in Baton Rouge, La., and the other in Falcon Heights, Minn., a black man shot and killed five officers in a cowardly ambush at an otherwise peaceful protest and wounded nine more people. The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said, “He was upset about Black Lives Matter” and “about the recent police shootings” and “was upset at white people” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
 
We seem caught in a cycle of escalating atrocities without an easy way out, without enough clear voices of calm, without tools for reduction, without resolutions that will satisfy.
 
There is so much loss and pain. There are so many families whose hearts hurt for a loved one needlessly taken, never to be embraced again.
 
There is so much disintegrating trust, so much animosity stirring.
 
So many — too many — Americans now seem to be living with an ambient terror that someone is somehow targeting them.
 
Friday morning, after the Dallas shootings, my college student daughter entered my room before heading out to her summer job. She hugged me and said: “Dad, I’m scared. Are you scared?” We talked about what had happened in the preceding days, and I tried to allay her fears and soothe her anxiety.
 
How does a father answer such a question? I’m still not sure I got it precisely right.
 
Truth is, I am afraid. Not so much for my own safety, which is what my daughter was fretting about, but more for the country I love.
 
This is not a level of stress and strain that a civil society can long endure.
 
I feel numb, and anguished and heartbroken, and I fear that I am far from alone.
 
And yet, I also fear that time is a requirement for remedy. We didn’t arrive at this place overnight and we won’t move on from it overnight.
 
Centuries of American policy, culture and tribalism are simply being revealed as the frothy tide of hagiographic history recedes.
 
Our American “ghettos” were created by policy and design. These areas of concentrated poverty became fertile ground for crime and violence. Municipalities used heavy police forces to try to cap that violence. Too often, aggressive policing began to feel like oppressive policing. Relationships between communities and cops became strained. A small number of criminals poisoned police beliefs about whole communities, and a small number of dishonorable officers poisoned communities’ beliefs about entire police forces. And then, too often the unimaginable happened and someone ended up dead at the hands of the police.
 
Since people have camera phones, we are actually seeing these deaths, live and in living color. Now a terrorist with a racist worldview has taken it upon himself to co-opt a cause and mow down innocent officers.
 
This is a time when communities, institutions, movements and even nations are tested. Will the people of moral clarity, good character and righteous cause be able to drown out the chorus of voices that seek to use each dead body as a societal wedge?
 
Will the people who can see clearly that there is no such thing as selective, discriminatory, exclusionary outrage and grieving when lives are taken, be heard above those who see every tragedy as a plus or minus for a cumulative argument?
 
Will the people who see both the protests over police killings and the killings of police officers as fundamentally about the value of life rise above those who see political opportunity in this arms race of atrocities?
 
These are very serious questions — soul-of-a-nation questions — that we dare not ignore.
 
We must see all unwarranted violence for what it is: A corrosion of culture.
 
I know well that when people speak of love and empathy and honor in the face of violence, it can feel like meeting hard power with soft, like there is inherent weakness in an approach that leans so heavily on things so ephemeral and even clichéd.
 
But that is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith.
 
Anger and vengeance and violence are exceedingly easy to access and almost effortlessly unleashed.
 
The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong.
 
This requires an almost religious faith in fate, and that can be hard for some to accept, but accept it we must.
 
The moment any person comes to accept as justifiable an act of violence upon another — whether physical, spiritual or otherwise — that person has already lost the moral battle, even if he is currently winning the somatic one.
 
When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward. But we all need to start here and now, by doing this simple thing: Seeing every person as fully human, deserving every day to make it home to the people he loves.
Jul27

Martin Luther King - Where Do We Go From Here?

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Martin Luther King - Where Do We Go From Here? (Conclusion) from MLK Speeches on Vimeo.

The concluding 16 minutes of King's speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, August 16th, 1967.

Apr04

Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest

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By ANDREW REINER

Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest
By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seeded gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl.
Feb11

This Touching Photo Of Two Strangers On A Train Is Going Viral

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By Jessica Chou

This Touching Photo Of Two Strangers On A Train Is Going Viral

When faced with a stranger acting out in a public space, most people tend to avert their eyes, keep walking, and avoid any sort of confrontation. But one Vancouver woman completely broke those rules, and there's a viral Facebook photo to prove it.

According to Ehab Tana, a man in British Columbia, who posted the moment to the social network, there was a "6-foot-5 man suffering from drug abuse and\or mental health issues [who] was being very aggressive on the bus with erratic movements, cursing, shouting, etc." on a Vancouver SkyTrain. And while the rest of the bus riders backed away from the man, one woman stood up and decided to show him some compassion.

"While everyone was scared, this one 70-year-old woman reached out her hand, tightly gripping his hand until he calmed down, sat down silently, with eventual tears in his eyes," Ehab Taha wrote Tuesday.

"I spoke to the woman after this incident and she simply said, 'I'm a mother and he needed someone to touch.' And she started to cry," Taha continued.

His post has since been shared more than 15,000 times.

The simple act of human touch can be powerful. Past studies suggest that hugs can keep you from catching a cold. In one study from the University of Virginia, holding hands with strangers (or in this case, the experimenters) was found to reduce stress responses in the brain. The stress response decreased even more when women were holding hands with their loved ones.

Moral of the story: The simple human act of holding hands can do wonders, even with strangers on public transit. As Taha wrote: "Don't fear or judge the stranger on the bus: Life does not provide equal welfare for all its residents." 

This article was originally published by Refinery 29. 

Feb11

Loneliness Grows from Individual Ache to Public Health Hazard

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By Amy Ellis Nutt

Loneliness Grows from Individual Ache to Public Health Hazard

It torments the young and terrorizes the old. It carved “caverns” in Emily Dickinson’s soul and left William Blake “bereaved of light.”

Loneliness, long a bane of humanity, is increasingly seen today as a serious public health hazard. Scientists who have identified significant links between loneliness and illness are pursuing the precise biological mechanisms that make it such a menace, digging down to the molecular level and finding that social isolation changes the human genome in profound, long-lasting ways.

Not only that, but the potential for damage caused by these genetic changes appears comparable to the injuries to health from smoking and, even worse, from diabetes and obesity. The scientists’ conclusion: Loneliness can be a lethal risk. And the United States — which so prizes individuality — is doing far too little to alleviate it.

“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”

Psychologist Steve Cole, who studies how social environments affect gene expression, says researchers have known for years that lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ills. “But we haven’t understood why,” he said.

Then last year, Cole and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine, along with collaborators at the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago, uncovered complex immune system responses at work in lonely people. They found that social isolation turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.

The abnormalities were discovered in monocytes, a type of white blood cell, produced in the bone marrow, that is dramatically changed in people who are socially isolated. Monocytes play a special immunological role and are one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection. However, immature monocytes cause inflammation and reduce antibody protection. And they are what proliferates in the blood of lonely people.

Such cellular changes, says University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, are a byproduct of human evolution.

Early on, when survival depended crucially on cooperation and communication, social isolation was a huge risk. So evolution shaped the primitive human brain to desire and need social interaction in the same way it shaped the brain to desire and need food.

The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.

“When you get hungry you may not be aware your blood sugar level is dropping, but if you’re driving and you see the golden arches [of McDonald’s],” you’ll pull in for food, Cacioppo said.

Today, social isolation is often an unavoidable lifestyle. But it puts the body, on the cellular level, on constant alert for a threat. That helps explain why lonely people are more likely to act negatively toward others, which makes it that much harder for them to forge relationships.

“I do see these patients all the time,” said psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, who has a private practice in Cambridge, Mass., and has co-written two books on the subject. “Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety. . . . Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t.”

The most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships. Loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. Many people live solitary lives but are not lonely. Conversely, being surrounded by others is no guarantee against loneliness.

Loneliness is also not the same as depression, though the two often go hand in hand. The first, related to the drive to belong, is motivational. The other, a more general feeling of sadness or hopelessness, is not.

At the University of Georgia, Gerst and health economist Jayani Jayawardhana wanted to see how widespread the distress from loneliness actually is. They analyzed longitudinal data from two national health and retirement studies conducted in 2008 and 2012. Through the answers provided by 7,060 individuals 60 and older, the researchers concluded that chronic loneliness was “a significant public health issue,” one that “contributes to a cycle of illness and health-care utilization.”

Among their more unusual findings: Even when controlling for an increase in physician visits because of illness, loneliness appeared to be an important predictor of those visits. The doctor-patient relationship, it seemed, provided one of the few social outlets for isolated people.

Psychotherapist Matt Lund­quist, director of TriBeCa Therapy in New York City, has become something of an expert on loneliness. Hardly a week goes by, he says, without one of his patients expressing “agony” over something seen on Facebook. “It’s a reinforcement that everybody has these connections and [they] don’t,” he said Friday.

Lundquist is “shocked that there isn’t more conversation” about social isolation within public-health circles. “Loneliness is a brutal issue.”

A study published online last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests there is also a parallel effect with health and loneliness. With every positive increase in social relationships, researchers in North Carolina and China saw improvement in specific physiological biomarkers such as blood pressure and body mass index.

The largest positive effect was associated with those who had a variety of relationships, such as with friends, romantic partners and co-workers.

“Each one of these may provide different pathways . . . [that] can potentially impact health,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University who recently analyzed 70 different loneliness studies from around the world. They covered more than 3.4 million participants over a period of 35 years.

Many researchers believe the United States is not doing enough to address loneliness as a public health issue. For inspiration, they point to the United Kingdom. Begun in 2011, its national Campaign to End Loneliness involves five social-service agencies and about 2,500 smaller organizations, all working to raise people’s awareness of loneliness.

“Much of our time is spent campaigning: communicating with, convincing and persuading those who make choices about health and health-care spending to tackle and prevent loneliness,” Kellie Payne, the campaign’s learning and research manager, wrote in an email.

German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann could have predicted the science more than a half-century ago. One of the first to examine social isolation from an empirical perspective, she wrote that the “naked horror” of loneliness shadows our lives because the longing for intimacy is always with us.

“There is no human being who is not threatened by its loss.”

This article was originally published by the Washington Post.

Dec29

What Does the Internet Do to Our Memories?

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What Does the Internet Do to Our Memories?

When I wake up and check my phone in the morning, it often has a few reminders for me. Facebook tells me that I have new “memories” with friends through its “On This Day” feature — an anniversary of when I first met some rando, or an update from a long-past party. A few hours later, Google notes that it’s my mom’s birthday and it auto-tagged some photos I’m in with friends from last night. Then I get another pop-up Facebook alert for an event I’m going to that night. I can’t tell if technology is making me lose my memory, or if I now have too much of it.

Prosthetic knowledge, as the title of a popular tech Tumblr has it, means “information that a person does not know, but can access as needed using technology.” The internet, particularly social media, has given us a place to store our memories in a way that was previously unimaginable — not only can we Google the population of a country or the location of a restaurant rather than recall it ourselves, we can also use Facebook and Twitter to chart out our social circles, not to mention our entire adult lives.

This prosthetic knowledge can be kind of scary, since we don’t actually control it. Sometimes it feels like social media has taken over our brains, orchestrating our social calendars with reminders and prodding us to recall events we might sometimes rather forget — bad breakups, or evendeaths in the family. So our memories are in the clutches of a bunch of uncaring algorithms, secretly shaping our lives. Thankfully, the internet’s impact on our brains isn’t quite that terrifying.

It’s true that we have to remember less random information than generations past, but we’re more focused on remembering something else — how to retrieve the information. “When faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers … when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it,” aColumbia-led study found in 2011.

In other words, while it’s not important that you memorize the population of the U.S., it is important that you know how to find it (same with your significant other’s birthday). In one study with information stored in folder systems on a computer, participants “who were told they could look back on the information didn’t remember facts, but remembered the color of the folder,” says Tracy Packiam Alloway, an independent psychologist and former director of the U.K. Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan.

There’s a criticism that relying on social media means “losing our ability to keep everything in mind,” Alloway says. But it’s actually the opposite — the internet “frees up brain resources” so that rather than trying to memorize information, we’re actively engaging with it. Social media strengthens our ability to filter for data that’s relevant to us, the way we’re all used to picking out the one funny or important tweet out of an endless feed.  

In another study, Alloway gave a standardized test to high-school students, some whom had used Facebook for less than six months and others who had used it for years. “Teens who had been on for longer had higher working memory, better verbal skills, better vocabulary, and language as well,” she says. Rather than destroying their minds, Facebook helped them practice deciding what to pay attention to and what to forget, as we have to do even with Facebook’s curated feed. Using YouTube, however, doesn’t help kids, according to tests, because it’s too passive. “It’s not the same kind of incoming information,” Alloway says.

It’s also easy to feel like social media is just an ephemeral avalanche of information. We can’t engage with it in the same way we can, say, a printed book, or a conversation with other living humans at a café. “You no longer have those vivid memories of interaction, your memories are located within the internet,” says NYU developmental psychologist Niobe Way. “It’s a much more passive experience. What we know about memory is, the more passive it is the less likely it’s going to stick.” Yet it turns out that social media is actually strikingly easy to remember.

A 2013 experiment found that participants could remember Facebook posts from friends faster and longer than sentences from books, even without the quirks of internet language: “The difference was not due to posts containing emoticons, unique characters, or many or few words; the advantage persisted when all such posts were removed,” the report stated. What’s more, Facebook posts performed even better against the memorability of human faces. “The posts may naturally elicit social thinking and lead to stronger encoding of the posts … The relatively unfiltered and spontaneous production of one person’s mind is just the sort of thing that is readily stored in another’s mind.”

The stickiness of social-media memories can actually distort the truth, however. Social media has the power to “undermine the coherence between our real, lived lives and memories,” Dr. Richard Sherry, a founding member of the Society for Neuropsychoanalysis, told theTelegraph. Precisely because it’s easier to recall, the information we choose to store on the internet and social media has a tendency to warp our memories rather than clarify them. Even after just a few repetitions, memories can become massively distorted, another study found.

This means that all the stuff that Google or Facebook constantly reminds you of is what you’re going to actually remember, which might be the scariest part of all. Keep selectively editing those social media profiles! It’ll make you a lot happier in the future.

Jun22

Braving Ebola

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Braving Ebola

“I have dreams in the middle of the night, waking up in the ebola ward as a patient. I’ve had dreams where I’m in the ward without any gear, just standing there in my pants and shirt. But I like getting up in the morning, and I like coming here. I think we’re actually making a difference for these people.”

Jun22

How Talking To Strangers Can Transform Your Life

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How Talking To Strangers Can Transform Your Life

“I’m asking that you be more present and you be more aware,” he said. “I’m asking that you think about who the extras are in the movie of your life. I’m asking that you introduce yourself to your neighbors. I’m asking that instead of saying ‘What do you do?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ you ask people meaningful questions and you pay attention to the answers.”

Jun20

10 pictures you may need to show your kids. But I really hope you don't have to.

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10 pictures you may need to show your kids. But I really hope you don't have to.

“To my unborn son, you are more than statistics, gold chains, and sexual conquest. Embrace your humanity.”

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