Fake News: Cancer

IMG_0754 (2)

Fake news is a primary food source for societal cancer. Cancer is not like an injury or a nasty bacterial invasion. Cancer cells are our own cells, gone rogue. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Cancer cells engage in two eerily familiar and maladaptive behaviors:

1) They replicate themselves over and over, failing to diversify.

2) They’re “immortal.”  They don’t a natural lifecycle and die when they should.

This is quite reminiscent of humankind—not at its finest, but at its most common, fearful, lazy, and arrogant. First, let’s consider diversity. Failure to appreciate and welcome diversity is deadly. If we could interview cancer cells and ask why they clone themselves rather than allowing the natural variations of creation to define the body, their noses would elevate and they would assure us they are superior.

When diversity is obviously nature’s way to a healthy, robust planet, why are humans so resistant?

Some argue it’s in our genes to prefer and protect those we’re related to, or those who look (and think) like us. Maybe, but ultimately, at the global level, this is not adaptive. Too much inbreeding isn’t good. Nonetheless, humans tend to divide into groups of us and them. The inner circle, the outer darkness, the ones who get it and the ones who don’t. The familiar and the foreign. The Self and the Other. It’s a pain to tolerate difference, and it’s comforting to have someone or something to blame for almost everything. Fake news helps us latch onto “the other” and have someone to hate.

And why are humans hateful, greedy, and aggressive? For most of us, way down deep, it is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of being cheated, fear of humiliation, fear of being alone. Many things in life frighten us, but ultimately, most fears can be traced to fear of death, the final unknown. Humans are notoriously unwilling to welcome aging and death thoughtfully and graciously.

Here’s where cancer’s other maladaptive attribute comes into play. Cancer cells don’t die a natural death. Of course, things come to an end when they’ve killed their host.

How is this related to Fake News? Denial of our ultimate fate (the decline and death of our bodies) makes us nervous and gullible. We want to distract ourselves, find a phony savior, and project our difficult emotions out on trumped up “enemies.” When we are busy fervently hating someone, we don’t have time to face or deal with life’s ultimate truths. Fake News is hateful, cathartic, simplistic, and seductive. The same hateful falsehoods stay alive indefinitely because we won’t examine them and let them go.

Humans would be far less susceptible to the cancer of fake news if we welcomed diversity and recognized that our hatred and greed is driven by fear. We’d be less willing to lie, or be lied to, if we nurtured our natural curiosity and life-affirming compassion instead of hunkering down over whatever possessions or hollow self-worth we’ve managed to hoard in this short but wonderful life.

Here’s Dr. Bossypants’s gentle advice.  Let go, you tight-fisted, gullible, lying scaredy-cats. Love a stranger. Hell, love an enemy. Go for broke. Be fantastically mortal… Or stay hateful, small, and frightened. Your choice.

Advertisements

Ego and other possibilities

P1040408

The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

Ethical Commandments

IMG_0573

Fans of Dr. Bossypants may remember that she blogged about ethics for a while before turning to trauma. Clever of her, because she firmly believes the infliction of trauma on others is unethical, so all her blogs are still relevant! And faithful readers also know she believes that trauma damages babies, children, and all people severely. Such damage may result in these same people then inflicting trauma on others later in life, perhaps not even realizing it as such. It is a vicious, potentially deadly cycle.

Philosopher Bernard Gert (1934-2011) created a list of ten moral commandments. Here they are:

  1. Do not kill other human beings.
  2. Do not cause unnecessary pain (this lets surgeons and dentists off the ethical hook).
  3. Do not disable another human being.
  4. Do not deprive another human being of freedom.
  5. Do not deprive another human being of pleasure.
  6. Do not deceive others.
  7. Keep your promises to others.
  8. Do not cheat.
  9. Obey the law.
  10. Do your duties—those required by social relationships, your job, your commitments, and so on.

Gert realized that there may be times when you are certain the deeply moral thing to do is to break one of the commandments. If so, he believed that you should only break it if you’d be willing to allow everyone else, in all times and in all places, to break the same commandment in the same situation.

It seems obvious that killing, hurting, disabling, or depriving people of freedom or pleasure causes some level of trauma in the hurt, disabled or deprived one. Being lied to and cheated isn’t much fun, and in some situations, can also be traumatic. And of course, at the social level, our culture would fall apart if everyone broke the law all the time, and/or failed to do their personal and civic duties. We’d have a broken culture.

But beyond this set of rather obvious conclusions, Dr. B would like readers to ponder another set of costs. We can easily see the cost of such actions on those acted against, or on society at large. But what are the costs of crossing those lines to the actor? The cost of breaking those profoundly basic moral edicts? The killer, the torturer, the liar, the cheat, the dictator–why are they willing or able to cross those lines, and what does it do to their psychological condition?

Dr. B believes in the long run, the actor is diminished in the process of acting unethically. But it is, perhaps, a habit-forming brutal cycle with enough shallow rewards to keep the unethical actor repeating the harmful actions.

Is there a way for society to help cheaters, liars, law-breakers, or brutal people to see the costs to themselves? Is there a way to peel back the “rewards” and help humans see that ill-gotten gains are ultimately malignant? Or could we at least stop tolerating or admiring such actions? Probably not, but Dr. Bossypants is going on record, with the wise Bernard Gert, as saying that killing, hurting, disabling, depriving, lying, cheating, breaking the law, and failing to do your basic duties—these are all unethical, psychological corrosive actions harming the victims, our community, and most likely harming the perpetrators as well.

Thank you for any thoughts you may wish to post. Also, someday soon, Dr. Bossypants promises to write something upbeat. And because of Number 7 above, you can bank on it.

It’s All About Duty

20141213_131726-2

Why, oh why is Dr. Bossypants yammering on about morality…?? Three posts already, and more to come. Ugh. It can be SO boring. Yes. True. Boring. And vital. Do you want to survive as a species or not? Well. Then…

Onward in our journey through the land of morality. Someday, maybe soon, you’ll use this blog to scold or defend yourself. It will all be worth it. Today, we’re looking at morality through a lens called Deontological Ethics, a lens provided by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Kant was the original “just do it” moral philosopher.  Regardless of how one feels about it, and regardless of outcome, there are moral duties that are applicable at all times and in all places. Some actions are morally wrong, no matter where or when they are enacted, and some are right. No weasel clauses allowed.

Kant also understood that we are mere mortals, incapable of always doing the right thing. He insisted that we at least be aware of when we are failing. For example, Kant argues that lying always causes some damage, even if that damage is no more than the liar knowing that he is choosing to do something wrong. But Kant also knew that people lie. He did not expect humans to completely stop lying, but he did urge people to consciously admit that they weren’t making a moral choice.  For Kant, lying was never, under any circumstances, morally correct.

Of course, the big question is this:  How do we know which actions qualify as always morally correct?  Kant came up with a guide for judging moral actions. He called it the Categorical Imperative–the ultimate yardstick for checking the morality of the action.  One of his formulations of the categorical imperative is this:

So act that you could will your action to be a universal law for all humankind. This is very similar to Jesus’s instruction: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or remember when your parents said, “Now how would you like it if everybody acted like you’re acting?”

Another take on this imperative is this: So act as to treat humanity, whether yourself or another person, as an end-in-itself, never as a means only

Kant argued that even though there will be compelling practical or emotional factors in a given situation, it is our duty to consider the action through the lens of “always, everywhere, for everyone.”  Regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of the outcome, there are moral actions that are always right or always wrong.

Kant also believed that ethical principles apply to anyone capable of deliberation and reason. He believed there were three ways rational beings could interact with their duty, but only one would yield moral behavior.

  • They could act in ways that are clearly bad: actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, or torturing people.
  • They could act dutifully, but only for the show of it. Not because it is simply the right thing to do.
  • They could act from, or because of their duty–doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Only the third is a genuinely moral action. If you do the right thing for the right motives, then you have acted morally.  In fact, the less benefit you derive from doing your duty, and the less you actually want to do it, the more you can be sure your action is truly moral.

So, to sum up this stern Kantian input: You cannot use other people as a means to your own end. You must always evaluate your actions and act in ways that you would want everyone to act, in all times and in all places. An you simply cannot make yourself an exception to the rule.

Ethics 101

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”          Franklin D. Roosevelt

p1040765-2

My favorite course as a professor was my Professional Ethics course—not necessarily an opinion shared by my students, at least initially. But many warmed up to it as the weeks went by. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand right, wrong, and shades of gray. So, I’ve decided to blog about morals and ethics for a while because our current social order seems perilously bereft of basic moral or ethical understandings. I’ll be drawing from my ethics text, and though I doubt our publisher (Wiley) actually minds, I mention this so I won’t be accused of plagiarizing myself or John, my humble, handsome co-author.

The struggle to define the rightly lived life and the best ways to live together as a human community is an ancient one. The Rig Veda, the Torah, the Greeks and Romans, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius—some of these dating many centuries B.C.—are examples of thoughtful people wrestling with how to be good, fulfilled human beings, functioning within a healthy community. As Robert Wright notes in his book, The Moral Animal, we are social beings. Psychologically, spiritually, and physically, our survival depends on getting along with other humans to some extent. Customs or rules for how to best treat each other are evident in even the most loosely defined communities.

In case you were wondering, the terms morals and ethics have similar origins; the word “morals” is derived from the Latin word, mores, which means manners, morals, or character.  The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, or custom.

Although there is overlap in meaning, in general, morals and morality have become more closely associated with values and matters of conscience, while ethics has come to be more linked to the professional world. For example, professions have codes of ethics, but not codes of morals. Also, academically, ethics is the study of morality, much like political science is the study of politics, or theology is the study of religion. Thus, college courses in ethics are common, but you might do a double-take if you were required to take Morals 101—or even worse, Morals for Dummies. Then again, this might not be a bad idea.

Morality is the story of what it means to be fully human, realizing all that is good and true in human potential. Moral knowledge is essential for the healthy functioning of any community.

When you study to become a professional, you learn the skills of the trade. Dentists study medicine and then learn all about teeth. Teachers study their subject area and specific skills for teaching others. (Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders were required to learn all about effective governance?) But beyond the skills, professionals also learn the ethics of their profession. That is, what is the best, highest, most effective way to use the knowledge that defines the profession? Usually, these ethical rules are determined by the professionals themselves, and express the heart of the professional endeavor and identity. There are codes of ethics for attorneys, architects, chemists, counselors, dentists, nurses, scientists, zoologists, engineers, and many more. Some argue that without a code of ethics, a profession has not yet fully come into being.

If professionals decide to ignore or violate their particular ethics code, they run the risk of being shunned, sanctioned, or removed from their profession. And I would argue that when basic morality is ignored or violated, a human has lost an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Ah, but here’s the rub: How do we define what’s moral? What rules, guidelines, codes, or ways of being do we collectively endorse for the good of the community, and for the good of each individual?

Well, tune in next time. I’ll offer my own Bossypants-style summaries of how some very smart people have approached those questions. And in the meantime, feel free to consider how you, your very own self, might have come to believe whatever it is YOU believe about right, wrong, fulfillment, happiness, and the best ways to get along with each other.

p1040577-2

“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity. “        Michelle Obama