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Stop Squabbling, Start Succeeding

In 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the Supreme Court. The president was a conservative Republican. Justice Cardozo was seen as a liberal Democrat — but he was also recognized as the greatest legal mind in the country.

President Hoover certainly would have preferred a conservative, but he knew the country wouldn’t stand for him to choose a supreme court nominee based on politics.  He nominated Benjamin Cardozo, who was approved by the Senate — unanimously .

As recently as 1986, the Senate confirmed Antonin Scalia without a single opposing vote, and in 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg sailed through confirmation with only 3 dissensions.  It wasn’t so long ago that our politicians’ top priority was to keep the system working.

But times have changed.

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We are all mad

The Aftermath of Abuse

Feeding frenzy might be the best caption for our scandal-ridden headlines.  Paradoxically, the designation fasting frenzy would be equally suitable.

Let me explain.

In recent weeks and months, reports of sexual misconduct have propagated faster than entries on a nine-year-old’s birthday wish list. Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Steven Seagal and, of course, Harvey Weinstein are just a few of the 33 alleged predators listed in a recent L.A. Times article.  Since then, accusations have been leveled Roy Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, George Takei, and Louis CK.

Perhaps the brightest silver lining is the extraordinary speed with which Kevin Spacey succeeded in destroying his own career.  It’s reassuring to know that there are still forms of behavior sufficiently deviant to evoke universal condemnation.

In most cases, the alleged perpetrators have either fired back with furious rebuttals or dissembled with transparent evasions.  Sadly but unsurprisingly, they remain unrepentant despite multitudinous plaintiffs or even their own court settlements.

Given the venal culture of both Washington and Hollywood, many of us are eager to believe every indictment and highly skeptical of the denials.  But not all of us.

THE DARKER SIDE OF THE DARK SIDE

What effect do these scandals have on our culture?  As with so many things, there’s good and there’s bad.  The real question is:  which outweighs the other?

On the positive side, when predators see that society will expose them and hold them accountable for their actions, the safer all potential victims become.  On the other hand, the more such incidents are reported, the more degenerate behavior appears to become the norm.  The result, perversely, could be to destigmatize and even enable similar behavior.

Then there is the sheer number of accusers.  With so many plaintiffs, it’s hard not to wonder if some might be opportunists, simply piling on to genuine claims in hope of cashing in on the misfortunes of others.  The frequency of such claims also increases the likelihood of defamation becoming a popular form of harassment itself, with baseless accusation converted into a weapon for character assassination.

Moreover, there’s the problem of exaggeration, of innocuous episodes unreasonably magnified.  To wit, when former President George H. W. Bush – 93 years old and no longer fully in command of his faculties – pats a woman on her backside, this does not rise to level of abuses currently dominating the news cycles.  We do real victims a disservice when lurid headlines paint every indiscretion with the same brush.

LESS THAN CHARMING

Depravity is bad enough.  But the preponderance of charges, the kneejerk denials, and the moral equivalence of the petty and the abhorrent – these form a caustic trifecta of venality that sows cynicism all across the social landscape.  With tragic irony, we can become so disgusted that we no longer care.

King Solomon says, If the snake bites because it was not charmed, there is no benefit to the charmer’s art.

How easily we convince ourselves that whatever we want is ours for the taking, that with craft and persuasion we can win anything we desire with no concern for risks and consequences.  And when we overreach and fall victim to our own devices, the venomous destruction we let loose not only endangers us but all around us as well.  In our arrogance we free the viper from its pit, and no one knows where it will strike.

Most of us will never come close to committing acts as horrific as those that fill the headlines.  But without positive action, the persistence of such stories can erode our own commitment to ethics and set our own moral compass spinning in all directions.

So how do we protect ourselves?  First, by taking responsibility for even the smallest of our own actions.  Second, by refusing to excuse the misdeeds of others – regardless of station or alliance – and, simultaneously, refusing to accept unsubstantiated accusations until all the evidence is in.

To see that all people are treated with the respect they deserve, to always rise to the defense of the defenseless, to hold ourselves and all others to a higher standard of personal conduct – this is the formula for a healthy, respectful, and civil society.

Published in Jewish World Review

 

Flying in the Dark

In 1954, Jim Lovell, who would later lead the Apollo 13 space mission, was flying his Banshee night fighter when his plane experienced a total electrical failure.

There he was, the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, with no instrumentation and no way to find his ship.  But as he looked out into the darkness, he noticed a glimmer of photo luminescent algae that had been stirred up in the wake of his aircraft carrier. He followed the trail back to his ship and landed safely.

If the lights hadn’t gone out, he never would have found his way home.

It’s fascinating to consider how our eyes are designed.

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Too Busy Doing Good

Confronting the Credibility Crisis

Hillary Clinton has been called a lot of things.  But branding her the “cancer” of the Democratic Party ratchets the vitriol up to a new level.

More significant is who’s doing the name-calling.  When Donna Brazile, Former Democratic National Committee Chair and longtime party stalwart, launches an internecine assault worthy of Donald Trump, it’s hard not to take notice.

Robby Mook certainly noticed. “Her claims are laughable,” the former Clinton campaign manager told Anderson Cooper.  But Elizabeth Warren wasn’t laughing.  Instead, the Massachusetts Senator invoked Ms. Brazile’s account of Clintonian malfeasance as evidence that the Democratic primary had been “rigged.”

So what are we to believe?  Mrs. Clinton has been getting away with moral murder for years.  Are the party faithful finally drawing a line?  Or is Ms. Brazile merely trying to sell books while Senator Warren postures for the 2020 election?

Time may tell.  But in the meantime, the undeniable victim is credibility.

TOO MANY CROOKS

There was a time when hustlers and lawbreakers would abandon their denials once evidence of wrongdoing grew overwhelming and indisputable.  But today’s culture of fake news and fake outrage has spawned a limitless capacity for brazenness.

I am not a crook.  I did not have sex with that woman.  If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.  I remember landing under sniper fire.  The Art of the Deal is the number one selling business book of all time.

Even the investigators of corruption fall under suspicion.  Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russian election tampering, has himself been implicated in the scandal he is charged with investigating.  Mr. Mueller arrived on the scene with bipartisan plaudits for his character and integrity.  Now we aren’t sure if we can believe that, either.

You would think in an age like ours, when every word and deed appears instantaneously as part of the public record, that public figures would be exercise more caution in what they do and say.  Instead, they seem to care less than ever.

It’s not hard to understand why.  Mainstream news outlets largely ignore stories inconsistent with their political ideologies.  News consumers visit only those outlets that provide stories confirming their political biases.  And the epidemic of inaccuracy leaves us so jaded that we feel justified believing whatever we want about anyone we choose.

The crisis of confidence in our political system is reason enough for dismay.  But there’s an even more profound cause for alarm – the corrosive effect of cynicism on our collective conscience and moral clarity.

LEMMING MENTALITY SYNDROME

There may be no more malignant phrase in the English language than everyone does it.  Our parents didn’t tolerate hearing it from us, and as responsible parents we refuse to tolerate it from our children.  But anything that is repeated enough plants itself in our consciousness, where it insidiously takes root and refuses to let go.

All the more so when the media bombard us with evidence that we can’t trust our leaders, can’t trust our icons, can’t trust the spokesmen for moral values to uphold the values they espouse.  And if the people I’m supposed to look up to act without scruples, why should I worry about how I look in the eyes of others?

The solution, therefore, is relatively straightforward:  start looking in a different direction.

In the first verse of his first psalm, King David writes:  Fortunate is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, does not stand in the path of misguided people, and does not sit in the company of cynics.

The more we associate with those who reject ethical values, the more automatically we adopt their ways.  The more we expose ourselves to the influence of those who embrace moral relativism, the more we disable our own moral compass.  The more we keep company with those who view everything and everyone in a negative light, the more we grow convinced that there is no reason to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

But if we remove ourselves from corrupting influences by seeking out company and counsel from people of integrity, and by searching out the good instead of fixating on the bad – then we will find ourselves drawn steadily upward, and we will begin to draw those around us upward as well.

Published by Jewish World Review

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Are you telling the truth?

As fake news becomes the new normal, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2010.

12d8aa967e8ef907e5f1f4932db629feAfter circling the globe one and a half times, living for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, and teaching adolescents for over two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. So it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:

“Did that really happen?”

Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal by elephant, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely plucked useful insights from slightly quirky encounters in an attempt to uncover the wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.

And so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Jewish custom; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.

“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.

Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people.  Mr. Leno explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.

As in so many cases, the biblical injunction against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. The verse MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.”  Jewish philosophy teaches that words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.

When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Jewish values, if not Jewish law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to the narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred in a society descending ever deeper into moral confusion.

the-truth-shall-set-you-freeThe Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.

Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.

The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?

At first glance, Jewish tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two parties resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.

But is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and mourn their lost friendship? Is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?

Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.

Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?

Baby for Sale

“Are you my brother’s keeper?”

That’s what Baby Liu might have asked his parents, had he been old enough to talk.  To be sure, the imbroglio surrounding the brother who was not his brother provided ample cause for ethical outrage.

In April of last year, Jessica Allen became pregnant with the baby of another couple, known only to her by the pseudonym Mr. and Mrs. Liu.  The $30,000 surrogate fee Ms. Allen received would allow her to be a stay-at-home mother for her own two children.  She also liked the idea of helping another couple realize the dream of having a child themselves.

The following December, she gave birth to twins.  According to her contract, she was not allowed to hold or even see the babies.  But a cell phone picture showed the infants to be as different from one another as east and west.

For good reason.  Six weeks after becoming pregnant with the Liu’s baby, Ms. Allen became pregnant with a baby of her own.

SADDER THAN FICTION

The phenomenon called superfetation is so rare that only about ten cases appear in all of medical literature.  So rare, in fact, that reports of it are often dismissed by doctors out-of-hand.  But in this case, the evidence of the two babies’ differing appearance was incontestable.

What might have been a fascinating human interest story soon turned into something much darker.  The Lius relinquished Jessica Allen’s biological baby to Omega Family Global, the agency that brokered the deal.  That should have been that.

But it wasn’t.  According to the Washington Post, Omega informed Ms. Allen that the Lius were demanding $22,000 in “compensation.”  When Jessica Allen refused, the agency threatened to put the baby up for adoption.

Omega Family Global denies Jessica Allen’s account, but declined to provide the Post with details.  It’s almost incomprehensible that any person or company would demand money to reunite biological parents with their own child.  However, given the preponderance of horrific headlines, this story rings sad but true.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Advances in technology and medicine have produced true miracles for parents who might have remained forever childless but can now enjoy the blessing of family.  My own granddaughter is one such miracle, so I am hardly anti-science.

But every advance comes at some cost, especially when there’s profit to be made.  The debate over ownership, rights, and entitlements when applied to humanity itself debases the sanctity of life by reducing it to just another commodity.  By playing G-d, we risk depriving the world of G-dliness.

The words of King Solomon echo like a haunting prophecy: “Do not remove the boundaries of eternity, and do not trespass into the fields of the fatherless.”

Electric lighting enables us to eliminate the natural boundaries of day and night.  Air travel and communication shrink global distances to nothing.  Recording devices suspend the limits of time.  Genetics and medicine have redefined and reimagined life itself.

It’s no surprise that moral and ethical boundaries have become profoundly blurred, and that the erosion of our fathers’ values has left us ethical orphans.  If the laws of the physical universe are flexible, why not the laws of right and wrong as well?  Albert Einstein himself agonized that his theory of relativity would give rise to moral relativism.  In that he was as prophetic as Solomon.

The answer is not to turn back the clock and return to simpler times.  The genie is out of the bottle, and all we can do is exercise greater caution in what we wish for.

It’s a daunting challenge, to balance traditional values and social evolution.  The most reliable course is to first consider the cost of any action to others before we calculate the potential profit to ourselves.  This is true in our personal lives, our professional lives, and throughout our communities.

After all, aren’t we all our brothers’ keepers?

In this case, the story ended well for Jessica Allen’s baby who, after a bout of tense legal wrangling, returned to his parents loving arms.

Isn’t that where every baby belongs?

Published in Jewish World Review

The Rights of Women and Robots

Have you heard what the Saudis are up to lately?

If you haven’t heard the story, you may not believe it.  But there’s a lesson in it for all of us.

Click to watch my short video.

The Anesthesia of Ego