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One trifling exception

Why Ethics Matter, Part 6: Change Reality by Accepting Reality

What are Ethics?  2 minute video

“It’s impossible.”

How many times have you heard that — or said it yourself — when it clearly wasn’t true? When we don’t want to face reality, to accept responsibility, or to face accountability, we assert that reality must be what we want it to be and can’t be anything else.

If we aren’t prepared to face reality, we can’t be ethical, and we certainly can’t solve our problems or anyone else’s.  So what do we do about it? The answer is here:

The Quagmire of Manipulation

America Donald Trump Election Donald Politician

Love him or hate him, you have to admire Donald Trump’s genius for manipulating the media.  What’s even more impressive is the way he’s been beating them at their own game.

In his recent book, Win Bigly, Scott Adams deconstructs the president’s odyssey of extremist declarations, puerile outbursts, and over-the-top promises.  The renowned cartoonist of Dilbert fame convincingly reframes the Trump campaign and presidency, not as the random escapades of a cartoonish narcissist but as the calculated strategy of a smooth and savvy operator.

According to this thesis, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric calling for building a wall, mass deportations of immigrants, and banning Muslims – together with his warning of ISIS in the Vatican and his torrent of adolescent tweets – have all been pieces of a prearranged puzzle.  One can argue the extent to which he advocated these positions or intended to implement them.  What seems clear is that Mr. Trump anticipated exactly how incendiary they would sound, how violently his detractors would react to them, and how staking out extreme starting positions would give him room to negotiate later on.

How could he not have sucked all the air out of the country by sparking dual conflagrations of nationalist celebration and liberal outrage?

So why exactly did this help Donald Trump?  Because the constant repetition of his ideas gradually drained them of their shock value while systematically embedding them in the country’s collective consciousness.

The more we hear something – anything – the more familiar it becomes and, proportionately, the less frightening.  At the same time, the very outrageousness of his early proposals allowed him to walk them back and thereby appear more reasonable by moderating his positions.

He even colored his hair more blond and tinted his skin less orange.

In short, Mr. Trump played the media like a virtuoso, conscripting their irreflective aid as they blasted his name and image across the country.  With their cooperation, the electorate gradually got used to the idea of an otherwise unthinkable candidate and voted him into office.

But the media should have known better.  Because they have been doing the same thing themselves for decades.

Since the 1970s, the news media and the entertainment industry have been allies in the transformation of American culture.  The family-based values of the post-World War II generation did not suit the progressives who envisioned a country free from traditional conventions and unfettered by social stigma.

And so filmmakers brought us movies like Brokeback Mountain, the gay-cowboy saga that, predictably, garnered a slew of Oscar nominations.  The television studios showed us clever children running circles around their clueless parents in The Simpsons, and brought a gay couple front and center in American homes with Will and Grace.

During those years, Americans grew increasingly accustomed to the withering of traditional roles, as young people were indoctrinated into the new normal and their conservative elders were worn down by the relentless force of cultural inertia.

None of this was accidental.  And whether you think it has been good or bad for the country, it succeeded with ruthless effectiveness.

But what took the media decades to achieve, Donald Trump accomplished in 18 months.

But here’s the real problem.  As power players become more sophisticated at manipulating the public, we slip further and further into an Orwellian future where truth becomes expendable, morality becomes relative, and civility becomes an anachronism.

As a culture, we have never believed in victory at any cost.  That’s why there’s a Geneva Convention for warfare, compliance standards for business, and sportsmanship recognition on the athletic field.  But nowhere is moral conduct more critical than among our leaders.

Be a tail among lions rather than a head among foxes, teaches the Talmud.  Good leaders benefit all who follow them by raising the standard of personal conduct.  But one who attracts followers with fox-like craftiness by appealing to the darker side of human nature will inevitably leave chaos in his wake.

Every community rests on a foundation of civility and ethics, a foundation that needs constant reinforcement to remain steadfast.  But when a society is overtaken by the politics of personal ideology and personal power, the most solid foundation can be eroded in no time at all.

The art of dealing is a given in the jungle of the boardroom.  In the halls of government and the chambers of civic discourse, the diplomacy of character, discipline, and nobility is the only formula for lasting success.

Published in Jewish World Review

Photo Credit:  Max Pixel

The Ethics of Ransomware

It was Joseph Tainter who warned that the more complex our society becomes, the more vulnerable we are. This became painfully obvious when hundreds of thousands of ransomware victims around the world faced the prospect of having to pay extortion money to get back the use of their own computers.

Some of the victims were corporations. But others were hospitals, whose patients lives were endangered by the virus that crippled emergency and diagnostic equipment.

This raises all kinds of ethical questions:

Click to read the whole article.

Why Ethics Matter, Part 5: The Paradox of Average Beauty

According to psychology, beauty is something very different from what we think it is. Similarly, the excitement we associate with the exotic and unusual is more in our minds than in reality.

If we don’t recognize the subconscious forces at play upon us, we can slip into unethical behavior without even realizing it. How do we acquire the mindset for successful coping?

Watch this 2-minute video to find the answers.

Chanukah — Open Your Eyes

There’s nothing like becoming a grandfather.  Normally pulled in all directions by the endless jobs on my to-do list, I forget all about them every time I hold my three-month-old granddaughter and stare into her eyes.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I ask her silently.

The answer is: yes.

According to a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, making eye contact with an infant causes the brain patterns of both you and the baby to fall into sync with one another.

A similar phenomenon has been observed among high school students working collaboratively in the classroom and among adults who reach agreement in discussion.  Of course, it’s fairly predictable that by thinking alike people cause their brain waves become synchronized.  What the new research shows is that the same thing happens independent of any exchange of ideas or information.

This kind of sympathetic connection can be wonderful when it brings people together by forming a common bond.  But it can also be enormously dangerous.

And it provides a profound insight into the historical backdrop behind the Festival of Chanukah.

The battle against Greek domination was only one of many struggles against oppression in Jewish history.  The Babylonians tried to cut off the Jews from their spiritual identity by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and exiling the nation from its land.  Under Persian rule, the wicked Haman hatched his plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child.  The Romans combined the tactics of all the oppressors who came before them in a relentless campaign that lasted for centuries.

But it was the Syrian-Greeks who employed the most insidious stratagem:  cultural assimilation.  In the language of the sages, their objective was to darken the eyes of the Jewish people.

The culture of Greece dazzled the world with its entrancing beauty and magnetic sophistication.  But it was essentially a culture of form over substance.  The Olympic games celebrated physical prowess over inner character.  The art of sophistry revered oratorical elegance over soundness of argument.  Greek society idealized both the human form and the human mind, elevating humanity to the level of deification.

In contrast, Jewish thought asserts that Man is a perpetual work in progress, always incomplete by design, always striving toward self-improvement, always with a mission defined by an Authority greater than himself.  As such, every tenet of the Jews and their philosophy was anathema to the thinking of their Greek overlords.

But the glittery aestheticism of Greek culture was irresistible to some.  The Jewish Hellenists looked into the eyes of their masters and imagined a meeting of minds, a new syncretism whereby the most attractive aspects of Judaism and Grecianism might be blended into harmonious unification.

This was their undoing.  A culture that values inner truth and substance can never merge with a culture that places the highest premium on external form.  And a society that worships itself will never suffer a people who affirm loyalty to a Higher Power.

It was inevitable, therefore, that some Jews would give themselves over entirely to the ways of Greece and abandon their heritage, and that others would open their eyes and recognize that they could only survive by turning away from the seductive sparkle of Greek secularism.

Herein lies the compelling symbolism of the Chanukah candles.  There is nothing more blinding than brightly flashing lights before our eyes that overwhelm our senses and bewitch us with their intensity.  Ultimately, we descend into the most dangerous kind of darkness, the kind in which we lose all awareness that we cannot see.

The antidote is to turn away from the enticing light, to look into the darkness, to search for the source of faithful illumination that can guide us along the path of spiritual integrity.  Like the canopy of heaven whose glory only reveals itself far from the city lights, the flames of the Chanukah menorah shine bright out of the deepest darkness, when the days are shortest and the cold of winter has descended.

In a world ablaze with the deceptive light of moral anarchy and empty icons, the Chanukah candles remind us that the light of enduring truth can still be found by turning away from the glitter and by gazing into the hidden sources of timeless wisdom.

Published in Jewish World Review

Why Ethics Matter, Part 4: The Insignificant Seven

We can learn a lot from movies if we pay attention. Good and evil, right and wrong, selfishness and altruism — all these populate the stories on the screen.

That’s why filmmakers have such a profound impact on society, for better and for worse. And because sometimes it’s for the worse, we as consumers have to chose carefully what images we allow to enter our brains.

Click and enjoy the good, the bad, and the insignificant.

Ten tips for a safer, healthier workplace

Here we are again, shaking our collective heads the latest harassment headlines. How did this happen? How did we get here? How long are these stories going to continue to surface?

But the question we should be asking is: what can we do about it? Here are a few common sense curatives for the pandemic of predators in the workplace.

Don’t go it alone. Vice President Mike Pence was widely mocked and ridiculed after disclosing that he doesn’t dine alone with other women. But there is safety in numbers, and the mere presence of others reminds us to behave better. Keep private interactions semi-public, and you’re far less likely to end up in compromising positions.

No flirting. Sure, it’s fun. Like a little kid whisking his finger through a flame, we love to skirt the edges of propriety with winks, raised eyebrows and ambiguously provocative remarks. But it’s a short step onto a very slippery slope, and a little sensual sparring can quickly spiral from cute and clever to distasteful and dangerous.

Watch your tongue. HBO and Showtime have made the worst kind of language positively pedestrian. But there used to be seven words you couldn’t hear on television for good reason. Refinement of language reinforces refined behavior, and the more acceptable foul vocabulary becomes, the more likely we are to cross the boundaries of suggestive, harassing and bullying speech as well.

Look professional. The way we dress sends a signal about how we expect to be treated. The more casual the attire, the looser the standards. This applies to both productivity and personal interaction. A professional-looking workplace promotes professional behavior in every area.

Keep your hands to yourself. Aside from a formal handshake, touching has little place in any professional setting. Some people don’t like being touched but are reluctant to say so. And unwanted or inappropriate contact is just another way of violating boundaries. Do you want people to think of you as “creepy”? Did you just find yourself thinking about Joe Biden?

Don’t turn a blind eye. It’s easy to convince ourselves that a remark or action really meant nothing. We don’t want to look petty, and we don’t want to make something big out of something small. But if a colleague acts in a way that offends you, take that person to one side and politely say you didn’t appreciate it and please not to act that way again.

Have each other’s backs. It’s no different when we witness or learn of misbehavior toward others. It’s hard to stand up for ourselves, especially when we aren’t sure if we can count on those around us to come to our defense. Letting others know that you’re there for them when they need you empowers everyone and creates a bulwark against predatory behavior.

Document. You can let a single, minor incident roll off your shoulders. But if it’s egregious, or if a pattern of behavior begins to emerge, make sure to keep a detailed record in real time, in the form of personal emails, a personal diary and, if necessary, complaints to superiors.

Don’t over-react. As diligent as we have to be, we also have to be careful not to go overboard. In our politically correct society, too many people are eager to find misconduct everywhere, whether it’s racial, sexual, or ideological. Occasionally, we all have poor judgment, and putting an offender on alert quietly and privately is probably enough for most first-offenses. Hitting the nuclear button at the slightest whiff of innuendo may end up being more harmful then helpful to a collaborative culture. If we’re all walking on eggshells, none of us is going to get very far.

Don’t believe it can’t happen to you. The headlines and history are littered with stories of people who never thought they could become victims or never imagined they would become oppressors – not to mention never believing they could be called out or brought down. When we think it can’t happen to us, the chances rocket upward that it will happen to us.

King Solomon teaches that wisdom walks in the ways of integrity and follows the paths of justice.  We can save ourselves from much folly by acknowledging the pitfalls that lie before us and disciplining ourselves to avoid them.

The first step is to recognize that all of us are capable of committing acts of gross impropriety, and that any of us can be tripped by the temptations of ego and opportunism if we let down our guard.  Only when we hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct do we have the right to expect as much from others.

Published by Jewish World Review

My Son, the Lone Soldier

Parents worry about children.  It’s what we do.

When they’re infants, we worry about every sniffle and cough.  When they’re in grade school, we worry about bumps and bruises.  When they enter adolescence, we worry about their hormones and teenage angst.  As they become young adults, we worry about them finding their way in life.

So I understand it when people ask if I’m worried about my son in the Israeli army.  But many of them don’t understand my answer.

All in all, I think he’s safer than he’s ever been.

It wasn’t part of the plan.  After college, with a good job waiting for him in New York, he went to Israel for a few months of spiritual R & R in the Jewish homeland.  But almost from the moment he arrived, he knew that he wanted to stay.  And if he was going to live as an Israeli, he wanted to do his part to defend his country and his fellow Jews.

With barely a second thought, he became a Lone Soldier.

He found the unit he wanted – the Gadsar Reconnaissance Division of the Nahal Brigade.  He was attracted by the division’s reputation for quiet determination, and he eagerly awaited the challenge of proving himself fit for an elite combat unit.

His first goal was to complete the gibush – a 3 ½ day selection trial of relentless physical rigor.  Of the 15 prospective soldiers in his group, four dropped out after three hours.  The rest made it all the way to the end.  And in the end, he made the cut.

My son was five years older than most of the other guys – a huge difference at that age – and had to obey and respect commanders much younger than himself.  But he also found that his age elicited among his peers an expectation of maturity.  With that perception came a sense of responsibility to live up to what others expected.

The 14-month training proved always demanding, frequently tedious, sometimes painful and – on occasion – seemingly pointless.  But he soon recognized the advantages of discipline and learned to trust the wisdom of his commanders.  As his taskmasters drove him to do things he would never have done on his own and develop skills he never imagined he would want or need, he began to discover his own extraordinary potential.

He mastered weaponry, marksmanship, navigation, camouflage, demolition, and hand-to-hand combat.  Above all, he acquired the self-confidence that comes from having been trained and tested – and, with it, the mindset for success in every aspect of life.

He came to value the camaraderie that comes from a shared sense of purpose.  His world view grew broader and deeper.  He learned to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people and to simultaneously loathe the corruption of Palestinian leaders who exploit their own people by perpetuating a culture of terror for political advantage.

As a Lone Soldier, having left his own parents and siblings halfway around the world, he found himself in a strange twilight zone of independence without isolation.  He enjoyed the warm affection of an Israeli family that adopted him as a son, and the security of knowing that his superiors were always looking out for his welfare.  And from the comments of his fellows, he gained new insights about himself:

“You chose to come over and do this – that’s absolutely crazy.”
“What is it with you? You act like you enjoy being here.”
“Dude, you have really good table manners.”

In a world of distracted, spoiled, and self-absorbed adult-children who don’t know who they are and don’t care where they’re going, my son has been trained to look for opportunities, respond to the unexpected, and navigate his way through any challenges and around any obstacles that life may throw at him.

More important, he has cultivated a sense of personal and national identity, an awareness that he is not just an individual but part of something far greater than himself – which makes him greater than anything he could become on his own.  He has learned to take responsibility for himself and has developed a desire to engage the future rather than merely wait for it to arrive.  He wants to make the world a better place, and he understands that the best way to do that is by making himself a better person.

In many ways I envy him and his comrades the opportunity they have, and it saddens me that more young people don’t choose to similarly challenge themselves.  Most of us don’t begin life well-prepared for life, irrespective of our schooling or our vocational training.  We squander so much thought and effort trying to figure things out on the fly, trying to play catch-up as we struggle with our careers and in our relationships.

We are all soldiers in the army of Mankind, all warriors on the battlefield of life.  I’m grateful that my son has what so few of us have – the training and experience to meet those battles, to step forward into life with skill and self-assurance.  And I’m proud that he has discovered that true joy comes from commitment to a higher purpose and higher values.

So to those who wonder why I’m not more worried about my son, all I can say is this:  what on earth do I have to worry about?

Published in the Jewish Press

Why we think so