Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

An Analysis of the News, Thoughts On A Gloomy Administration, and A Review of My Book

Three different pieces for you:

The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.

 

*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.

However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?

An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.

Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.

Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.

The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)

You might want to read the whole article.

 

*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…

This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.

 

*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris

**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.

 

 

Snippets of A Gloomy Day: Hoping to Hear He’s Been Impeached

In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real.

 

This is one legacy of all the fake news we’ve been witnessing. And it is truly frightening. If all facts are opinions, mere statements of likes and dislikes, or arbitrary, with no basis in truth, then how can I trust in anything people say? How do I know even what words mean to you? A word’s meaning is a fact of language.

 

While some people can’t stand to watch the news, others fear turning it off. They are afraid of what they might miss. Watching the news has become like guarding your home from attack, or guarding your prized possession, your sanity, so it won’t be stolen.

 

I notice a little of both in me. The President is in the news so frequently that it is difficult to hear about anything else. Part of me likes this, because I’m waiting to hear the latest stupidity, the latest revelation of possibly treasonous acts, of obstruction of justice, of him using his position to make money for the family businesses, etc.—What I am waiting to hear is that he has been kicked out of office.

 

But his possible crimes and misdemeanors blind us to other equally disturbing actions, like on health care for women, the environment, undermining the separation of state and religion, undermining voting rightsfree speech and controls on Wall Street and bankers. Trump might be the first President to use his own impeachment to distract voters from even worse actions he is party too, if there are such.

 

His narcissism is so deep it is contagious. It is like he is subconsciously trying to give all of America the anxiety and disordered thinking that lies at the root of his psyche. What a generous man.

 

One of his biggest gifts is to comedians. He has revived the profession. President Obama was, by comparison, so boringly dependable and literate, so normal. Now, comedians are swamped with material, helping us laugh at what we would otherwise cry about. They have become heroes. They are able to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said on a public stage.

 

Life before Trump felt relatively predictable to many people. No more. He has awakened us to the fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable nature of reality.

 

The Republicans are re-shaping America’s expectations. Before Trump, people wanted health care that was reasonably priced and comprehensive. Now, many will settle for insurance that is cheap but covers almost nothing, or costs less than double their rent or mortgage. Republicans are trying to pit men against women, the young and healthy against the old or those burdened with pre-existing conditions. Make America Great Again seems to mean make health care another vehicle of redistributing wealth—or of making life so expensive that only the wealthy will have the energy or resources to participate meaningfully in politics.

 

Republican politicians and their supporters have been saying for years that they want to reduce the size of government. Is it possible that all along, their strategy was to make government so intractable and toxic, so lacking in compassion that even Democrats would come to hate it and let whatever controls there are left on the wolves of greed be dismantled?

 

And in all of this, FB and other social media have become the place to share information on petitions, letter-writing campaigns, Town Hall meetings and other demonstrations. But it can be shocking to see information on government crimes and lies, on a possible loss of health care coverage for millions, alongside cute cats and our best friend’s latest vacation. The extent of his destruction alone makes it difficult enough to accept; the camouflage of “fake news,” lies, and distractions, of saying one thing one minute and another in the next, makes speech seem meaningless and facts difficult to discern. Hoping for the best and “liking” posts on FB is just a beginning.

 

I think we are re-creating what it means to participate in governing, despite the administration trying to stop us. We are learning not to ignore the difficult, and how to muster in ourselves the strength, compassion and persistence needed to resist Mr. Trump and create a new political reality.

Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Do You Agree “There Are No Such Things As Facts?”

A week ago, on the NPR Diane Rehms Show, I heard a beautiful example of a self-refuting statement spoken live on the radio. I didn’t realize what I was hearing right away, although the quote certainly caught my attention. The show was a panel discussion answering the question, “How are journalists rethinking their role under a Trump presidency?” The guests included 5 professional news editors, columnists, and reporters including James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Scottie Nell Hughes (RightAlerts.com & former D. Trump surrogate).

 

During the program, James Fallows said a lie was when you knew the truth, yet repeated a falsehood for a personal motive. He said there was clear evidence the apparent President-elect lied on several occasions. Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump “booster,” was asked for her response to this. Her reply was “There are no such things as facts.” She used Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election to explain her viewpoint. She says, [I edited the text to make it more comprehensible] “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet [about illegal voters, was taken] … [by] a certain crowd, a large part of the population, …[as the] truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, …his supporters, … believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say [his statements] are lies, and there’s no facts to back …up his claims.”

 

Think about this statement. And ask everyone you know, your students and friends, to think about this statement. Discuss it in your classroom or place of work. What could she possibly mean by this? It is of immense importance. Is she saying that because a large part of the population believes what Mr. Trump says and supports him, therefore his statements are true? And, therefore, there are no lies for him to be called to account for?

 

I think it is true those who believe in Mr. Trump take his words as truth. But is a truth or a fact decided by a popularity contest or vote count? Certainly popularity will influence whether or how well a truth will be perceived, and there is a social dimension to any truth. But how does her way of speaking of ‘facts’ make any sense—and how would a fact differ from an opinion? Or is everything somehow an opinion?

 

Mr. Fallows’ point that a truth is opposite a lie provides one way to answer these questions. If Scottie Hughes thinks there are no facts, she must think there are no truths and no lies. How do you know what’s a lie if there is no truth? A fact is by definition something known to be true, something based on evidence that you could demonstrate repeatedly. Likewise, ‘truth’ is from a root meaning ‘faithfulness’ (treowth), as in faithful to reality. It is real. If there are no truths, there are also no accurate or faithful definitions of words. You would never know if the sound you heard in your mind or uttered by another person is a word, nor what it meant. Nor would you know what you wanted to say. Therefore, you could never speak. When you opened your mouth, just noise would emerge.

 

To say “there are no facts” is equivalent to saying, “it is a fact that there are no facts.” By speaking these words you nullify the “fact” that you spoke. Therefore, can anything you say be other than meaningless gibberish? Or is Scottie Nell Hughes really saying that only what is in opposition to her statements is meaningless gibberish?

 

*P. S. Scottie Hughes’ viewpoint did not arise out of a vacuum and is not entirely new, only new in the blatant way it has been applied to the electoral process. It is part of a battle over the nature of the human mind, or what it means to be human, that has been waged for over a hundred years and maybe forever. A few years ago, students in one of my classes argued, “there is no such thing as truth.” When asked what they meant by truth, they responded with: “A truth is permanent, unchanging, absolute, like ‘God’s truth.’“ And: “Since I can know truth only through my own experience, and we all have different experiences, how can there be one truth?” This and other discussions on the topic showed me how important it is to discuss with students the meanings of words like truth, fact, and opinion, not just to voice diverse viewpoints but to analyze and question them.

 

It is easy for people to think that truth should exist in isolation from the minds of all those who perceive and understand it, like they might think the objects of the world exist in isolation from other objects. But isn’t a truth, like a fact, like a word, interdependent with the situation, context and mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears? To borrow an example from the philosopher Ken Wilber, the word ‘bark’ depends on the the context of the sentence and the ability of the speaker and listener to speak the language. (“The dog barks every morning,” versus “the bark of the tree.”) Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception itself a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we… experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” He thinks the world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two, and never separate. If he is correct, meaning his reasoning is logical, comprehensive, and based on demonstrably accurate information, then each mind influences the way a world is perceived, yet there are still truthful and not truthful statements, and facts.

 

**Terry Gross recorded a Fresh Air episode relevant to this topic on 12/7, interviewing Dean Baquet, executive editor of the NY Times. You might find it interesting.

When the News Feels Too Upsetting, Try Mindful Logic With Your Coffee

When you awake each morning dreading the news, it’s time to add mindful logic to your coffee. And its time for schools to teach how to think more empathically, clearly, and critically, with more understanding of one’s own mental and emotional state. Current events and election coverage classes are not a new idea. But what might be new is to do more than just listening to news media and testing students on superficial knowledge. Students can learn to analyze the news, discern lies, distortions and logical fallacies, as well as become more aware of how they respond to and are emotionally affected by a news item. They need to go beyond the mere memorization often pushed by standardized testing and actually imagine what the real people in a news item might be experiencing. By intellectually taking hold of the world they can feel a sense of power and will be more capable of acting meaningfully in it.

 

Of course, many might think this blasphemy. Supposedly, assigning students the task of analyzing and fact-checking the statements of politicians, for example, can lead to indoctrination. But how is the questioning of real people and events indoctrination? And what is the alternative? A politician running for office who, by most criteria and a simple use of Google, lies or distorts the truth about 90% of the time? To counteract indoctrination, teachers need to understand and reveal their own positions with care and humility, understanding that they might be wrong or missing something. ( I, for example, deplore the lies, misogynist statements and actions, and racist insinuations made by Donald Trump, e. g. about Judge Ganzalo Curiel.) They must teach the necessity of doubting any theory until it is questioned in some detail and shown to be well reasoned and supported, even a teacher’s position.

 

Students need to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions like: “Does the corporate media report more extensively on one candidate for office over another? What is the evidence for this?” And ask what happens to public discourse, what happens to the power of the public, when the truth is made to seem unimportant? What is the cost to the level of public discourse when politicians constantly lie and many Americans believe it?

 

Teachers need to appreciate, understand and explain the necessity for examining a diversity of viewpoints in forming an understanding of an issue. To get out of the way of a car speeding toward you on a street, you need to see it from the perspective of where your body is standing. But you must also understand the car and you must know what it can do. You must know it from its own perspective. To understand, you need this relationship of multiple perspectives. Once you leave behind exclusively taking the perspective with you at the center, you perceive and can think more clearly and with less bias.

 

Students can greatly benefit from learning how to recognize persuasion techniques and formal or informal fallacies, which can enable them to recognize how salespeople and political leaders try to sway their thinking. For example, there is the bandwagon technique in advertising or ad populum fallacy, which creates internal pressure to do something because everyone is doing it—or everyone you identify with. It is a version of peer pressure. Or ad hominem—which means, you attack the person and ignore what she says. Or you appeal to emotion, like fear or jealousy to distort thinking. If a statement is repeated frequently enough in a context you trust, you tend to believe it, even if there is little supportive evidence. There is overgeneralization, which is at the heart of prejudiced statements. The mere semblance of logic can be persuasive, as when someone adds “because” to a request (as in “can I please budge in line ahead of you because I get so nervous waiting on lines”) you are more likely to accede to what is being asked.

 

But you must be able to distinguish the mere semblance of logic from sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is both true, meaning it is based on evidence that is reliably verified. And the argument is valid, which means the position taken by the speaker follows logically or naturally from the statements offered as supportive evidence. Ask: What was actually said? What is your proof? Verify statements offered as supportive evidence through online and other resources, and not just with fact-check sites. You could discuss what is a fact and how it is different from an opinion or theory. Are the supposed facts really facts? You could teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.

 

Teach the following questions:

What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?

  1. Intent: What did she actually say? What did she mean by that? What might he have been feeling or what was his line of reasoning? What is the statement trying to convince you of? Is the statement consistent with other, previous statements? Is there evidence, for example, that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
  2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

Researchers have argued that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates, as well as themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

Students can be taught to mindfully recognize the speeded up heartbeat and breathing, the shakiness and sense of being pressured, as well as other sensations and thoughts which arise when they feel a threat or unconsciously distort what they hear, so they can let it go. When you listen to the news, hear what your mind and body say in response.

 

It is important both for your mental health and for acting as a responsible citizen to analyze the news with an understanding of your own mental-emotional state, your inclinations, desires, theories about the world, and how others influence you. This part of the curriculum needs to be expanded in our schools, or added if it is missing.

 

*For more assistance in teaching about the election, I recommend the article in Teaching Tolerance: Teach 2016. For more assistance in teaching critical thinking, see my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Bias and Distortions in Thinking

During a discussion with friends at a party, I voiced a not very original analysis that Donald Trump’s proposed economic policies posed a threat to the interests of his supporters from lower economic classes. A friend replied that was “just your opinion.” Trump’s supporters held a very different viewpoint. My viewpoint was supposedly biased against Trump and so I couldn’t see him clearly—but, of course, “we are all biased.”

 

If this was a class, I would ask students what exactly was an opinion, a theory, or a fact. Do these words have different, contrasting, meanings? If so, what are those differences? But this was a party and the discussion was interrupted and dissolved. This view, this meme, that we all have bias, can be ambiguous at best, and undermine critical thinking at worst. It could undermine the value of taking a position based on facts instead of opinions.

 

What is bias? What could it mean to say, “Everyone is biased?” Or, “all viewpoints are biased?” ‘Bias’ is sometimes used in a way that is almost synonymous with having a perspective. We always speak and act from a particular perspective and all perspectives have limits. No one is omniscient. So, in this case, yes, everyone has bias. It couldn’t be otherwise. So, why even use the word ‘bias’ instead of ‘perspective’?

 

One student argued in a very insightful manner that ‘bias’ can simply mean a preference. This meaning, however, could run into the same difficulties as ‘perspective.’ ‘Bias’ can also mean, according to my Encarta Dictionary, “an unfair preference for or dislike of something” or “to influence someone or something unfairly.” Bias is not simply any preference but an “unfair” one. In statistics, ‘bias’ means “a distortion of a set of results.” To be biased can also mean to be prejudiced. Why do people use ‘bias’ instead of ‘preference’? Probably because of the emotional charge, which comes not from the meaning of ‘perspective’ or ‘preference’ but from ‘distorted’ or ‘prejudiced.’ You can’t say you want the emotional charge of a word and deny the implications or connotations that come with that charge.

 

And the fact that all perspectives are limited does not mean that all are biased. Limited is not the same as distorted. If it were, then it would imply that everyone acts unfairly or is prejudiced, which would undermine any effort to act against distortion/unfairness/prejudice. You need humility and understanding in the face of the limited nature of your viewpoint. You need clearer observation, more careful analysis, more reliable sources of information, and possibly more self-awareness and empathy in the face of distortion.

 

Saying “everyone is biased” also creates logical problems. It implies an “irrefutable situation” in which non-biased viewpoints are impossible. “A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.” (Karl Popper, Philosopher of Science) Likewise, “If a word’s meaning includes everything, then it means nothing. If a theory can’t possibly be proven wrong, then it is actually useless.” Since meaning is a function of being able to make distinctions, to say “everyone is biased” has no meaning.

 

And we clearly need to make distinctions, including between opinions, distortions of facts, and demonstrable facts. We are constantly forming viewpoints and emotions based both on what we hear and how we listen. When we distort the situation around us, we tightly restrict the information we allow into our awareness. Our emotional health, and maybe our political rights and power, might depend on our learning how to spot logical gaps, check the truthfulness of statements, read our own body responses, and be aware of when we listen openly and when we close our ears and eyes—and are aware of when our thinking is distorted, unfair, biased.

Question Authority! Taking Questions Deeply Enough

A question can be beautiful and exciting. A good question can be a gift. In education, for example, when a teacher asks students a real, honest question, it can fire up a real and honest discussion. Such questions are at the heart of education. To notice such a question you must be at least part way to an answer. The question reveals that, and possibly what, you don’t know.

 

“Question authority” can be a powerful and useful slogan. It can mean you can and should challenge, not automatically believe in, the power and viewpoint of those people in positions of power, whether it be institutional, social, or personal. It means you can question and challenge those who are charismatic and those you put on a pedestal or highly admire.

 

To question does not mean to denigrate but to elucidate the meaning, test the accuracy and applicability, or to do justice to the person or concept and reveal implications. There are different questions you ask when you doubt the truth of a statement, and those you ask when you simply want more understanding.

 

Sometimes, a question is asked facetiously, or to end or divert a discussion, so not all questions are honest, or insightful. I remember students taking “Question Authority” to mean there are no authorities; no one’s viewpoint has any more truth-value than anyone else’s. I think that all questions asked in a classroom should be heard; but the level of understanding of those with little or no experience in an area of life is rarely as deep or broad as those with actual experience, or who have extensively studied a subject.

 

To question that anyone who has experience in an area of life has a viewpoint that deserves a little more weight than someone without that experience, is to deny the value of experience and learning—is to deny there are truths to learn. The value of life itself can be undermined. Authority is not only a person in power but also a source of reliable information or truths, accurate observations and such. “What do you mean by ‘truth’” is one question a teacher must not ignore.

 

Sometimes, a question does not go deeply enough. People often question only up to the point of reinforcing their own, old viewpoint. A person, for example, might question whether the views of a climate scientist are biased by their science and not question how their own views are biased. They might inquire into what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails but not wonder what might be revealed by Mr. Trump’s emails or tax returns. They might question that teachers with experience with a student might be able to objectively describe the student’s learning, but not question the value of a score on a test created by an educational corporation. One of the most important times to question is when you assume your own viewpoint is the one and only truth.

 

‘Authority’ comes from ‘author’ or ‘creator,’ ‘originator.’ So when you assume your own ability to think, question, act, and you learn how to monitor and let go of thoughts and emotions, you are an authority. In Buddhism and mindfulness training, the meditator is taught to doubt any explanation, any conceptual thought, but not lose faith in one’s ability to understand—to doubt the thought until one’s awareness and clarity of mind and heart is sharpened.

 

Empathy is needed to take in, value and learn from other viewpoints. And a little humility regarding your assumptions or naming of what is true can be extremely useful. Such humility does not undermine your ability to think and act but enlivens it. Understanding, as Paulo Freire (and opposed to Professor Gradkind in the novel Hard Times by Dickens) and others have argued, is not like depositing money in the bank, not a thing to posses. It is more of a relationship, a guide, a clarity and a spark. It is not a wall to keep you or anyone else out but a hand to hold. Your understanding of the world and yourself is constantly changing, flowing. You need to make your questions into vehicles to help you navigate and work with the flow, not dam it up.

 

 

Compassion And Empathy Are Crucial For Critical Thinking

What is compassion? Empathy? I have to admit that I used to lump these two together. Some educators have trouble using the word ‘compassion.’ It sounds too “spiritual” to them, or too over-used, whereas ‘empathy’ is something most anyone could support.

 

Psychologist Paul Ekman defines three forms of empathy, the third being close to what many people think of as compassion. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or caring for others. (A sociopath, for example, might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other.) Then “compassionate empathy” or to have a concern for another and the energy to help.

 

I noticed my secondary school students can get very cynical about the possibility of compassion. I think they take a stance against it in order to dare me to prove otherwise. They argue that compassion, like altruism or selflessness, is impossible. People act compassionately only to get some reward or because it feels good. If it feels good, then it isn’t compassion, isn’t selfless. They think they have me or have compassion on the point of a logical dilemma. I am always gladdened by their recognition that compassion feels good. When you act for the good of another, there is a sense of joy. There is even good evidence that there are physical and psychological benefits from acting with compassion.  The problem is that the supposed dilemma masks the essence of it. When you act in order to get the benefits, then you lose the joy of compassion. The joy is embedded within the selfless caring.

 

With compassion, you do not help others in order to feel superior; that is pity. You do not simply feel a sense of sorrow about what they are going through; that is sympathy. Both pity and sympathy are based on an emotional distance with the other being. With empathy, that distance diminishes. The situation becomes more close up and personal. With compassion, you not only “feel with” the other person but want to step in and act in accord with that feeling; you want to act in a kind, caring manner. You value the welfare of another person like you value your own welfare. A sense of closeness compels action.

 

And it is this closeness that the students want. They want to know that other people can act for the good of another person, because they want to know that people can be caring. They want to feel that care themselves, both in the giving and in the receiving.

 

But what does compassion do for us? Clearly, it assists our ability to cooperatively work with others. But what else? V. S. Ramachandran describes how, when you watch someone doing an intentional action, like reaching out for a sandwich, the motor control neurons in areas of your brain fire in a manner as if you were doing the action. You model in your brain what another person is doing and respond physically and mentally to your model. You understand what the other person is doing through reading your own response to your model. The neuron systems that enable this empathy have been called called mirror neuron systems. If you see a person experiencing pain, your pain neurons fire almost as if you were in pain. Did you ever flinch back when you saw a person hit? Or smile when you saw someone smile? In this way you break part of the barrier between yourself and others.

 

These neurons enable you to be a sophisticated imitator, which facilitates imagination, learning and understanding. You learn through imitating the sound of a word, how to hold a hammer, how to solve a formula. You understand a character in a novel by creating a model of the person in your mind and then “reading” your response to the model. You mirror mostly unconsciously. You can be so good at it that you need mechanisms in your brain and in your skin to prevent you from constantly imitating others. There is even a condition where people can’t stop their imitating; it is called echopraxia.

 

Even more, you can’t think without a context, and other people are part of the context in which you are embedded. The depth of your self understanding is proportional to your understanding of others. To understand how to hit a baseball, you need to see it clearly from your perspective, but you also need to know the baseball, what it can do, how it can curve or dive. The more you know about the baseball, the more capable you will be at hitting it. You and the other arise together.

 

But when anxious, jealous, or depressed you might think of yourself only as what distinguishes you from others. You might focus on your skin only as a wall meant to keep others out, enclosing an unchanging, isolated being, and you must constantly defend that wall. You need that wall to keep out germs and create the integrity of your body-mind system. Yet, your skin also breathes, in and out. It excretes—and it senses, touches. When your hand touches mine, we can join together.

 

What do you feel when you think of your skin only as a border and wall? You create the sense of being constantly uncomfortable, anxious, even at war. It is a big burden. But compassion recognizes your borders are also places of contact. It gives you a larger viewpoint. It recognizes that you exist thanks to an entire universe and you are never and can never separate from that universe. Compassion alters your very sense of self and thus can alleviate anxiety, fear, and other painful emotions.

 

Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and compassion strengthen the insula, which is an area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain involved in understanding the emotion of others. The insula is also involved in the arousal of energy and focus. Compassion practices not only make the insula stronger; they ready you to act in a kind or helpful manner. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices will lead to improving the environment in schools. It will improve learning, thinking and understanding. It will ready students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine and destroy relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they feel the pain of being bullied, and they have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.

 

So, when you feel a push to speak or act, especially when you are angry or anxious, use compassion. Think about what you want to say and then how you might feel when hearing it. If you pity the other person, or feel very distant, what happens to understanding? Only by an empathic modeling and understanding of another person’s intent do you understand what they meant to say and what you mean to say to them. This is a skill all schools could benefit from teaching.