Is It Possible to Cross the Divide? Protecting Ourselves from the Malware of Hate

Is it possible to reach across the enormous political divide that we now experience in this country? And if so, how?

 

The holidays are a perfect time to ask this question. People want and need hope, that people of different viewpoints can at least listen to each other and a divided nation can be healed.

 

One reason for the divide is the divider-in-chief, Mr. T. A president carries enormous political and archetypal power. I wrote a piece a few months ago about how he infects all of us in ways that mirror an attack of malware on a computer. Except malware bytes do not protect us from him. Both those who agree and those who disagree with him are infected. We might feel a wrongness at the center, and wary, that our level of trust has been assaulted. Many of us feel tremendous anger; many are anxious and worried. And, of course, there are good, rational reasons to be worried.

 

Programs to reach across the divide have been created and shown results. When people become familiar, on a basic, human level, with those they are supposed to hate, the walls come tumbling down.

 

Two friends enlightened me about an NPR Here & Now program. It told the story of how a group of people in Massachusetts reached out across the political divide to a coal-country town in Kentucky, and a meeting was planned. Much preparation preceded the meeting, skype, emails and phone calls. The people in Kentucky had to find out that they would be heard and accepted. They feared the people from the northeast would be angry at them for voting for T. Both groups thought they would be stereotyped by the other group….

**To read the entire post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

An Inhumane and Abusive Policy: Please Speak Up Now

According to the New York Times and several other news sources, since April 19 the U. S. government has separated 1995 children from the parents of asylum seekers, migrants, as well as immigrants illegally trying to cross our southern border. These children, as young as toddlers, have been placed in hastily established shelters, in prison-like conditions.  Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said many of the children are being held in what amounts to dog cages. The facilities already in use are getting too full, so the administration is planning to erect a tent city in Tornillo, Texas to hold newly seized children —young children kept in tents in the hot Texas summer sun.

 

Imagine a one year old kept in a cage. Imagine a child being taken from her breast-feeding Mom. Imagine the irreparable harm being done to children. If it continues, imagine a generation traumatized by our government, hating our nation, and what might happen in the future. Hate sows hate.

 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to defend the policy by saying the bible tells us to obey the law. He did not speak about the verses telling people to be kind, compassionate, or loving to one another. Earlier, he said the policy was part of a “zero tolerance policy” with lawbreakers. John Kelly said the policy is meant as a deterrent to keep immigrants away from our borders. Mr. T tried to somehow blame Democrats: “Separating families at the border is the fault of bad legislation passed by Democrats.”  T is upset that Dems have not passed laws giving him what he wants, like a border wall.

 

The Washington Post fact checked T’s claim: there is no “Democrats’ law” necessitating that children be separated from their parents at the border. This was a policy created by this administration.

 

Meanwhile, the UN has condemned the policy, calling it illegal, and urged the US to end the policy. According to an article in the NYT, the UN said the practice “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.”

 

The GOP claim their legislation proposed recently would stop the inhumane separation of child from parent but, according an article in VOX, this is not true.

 

We need to do what we can to stop this inhumanity. If they get away with this, what’s next? We can call Congresspeople, especially Republicans, every day. Twice, three times a day if possible. Demand that they speak up and pass emergency legislation to stop it. Call your state and local representatives so that all levels of government act to stop it. Speak up in what ways you think appropriate. Share this post, copy it or write your own. This has to stop.

 

Here is a link from the NYT that I just saw, shared by Elaine Mansfield, of other things to do to oppose the policy.

 

 

HERE ARE A FEW NUMBERS:

GOP SENATORS:

Collins (R-ME) (202) 224-2523

Capito (R-WV) (202) 224-6472
Cassidy (R-LA) (202) 224-5824

Corker: 202 224 3344 [901683 1910] Flake (R-AZ) (202) 224-4521
Gardner (R-CO) (202) 224-5941
Portman (R-OH) (202) 224-3353

 

NY DEMOCRATIC SENATORS:

Gillibrand: 202 224 4451    [NYC office: 212 688 6262

Schumer: 202 224 6542     [NYC office: 212 486 4430]

 

GOP HOUSE:

Tom Reed: 202 225 3161

Paul Ryan: 202 225 0600

The Theories We Hold About Who We Are Influence How We Act: The Milgram Experiments

My high school students often asked: If it’s true that humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?

 

One scientific experiment greatly influenced, for decades, how many people thought about this question. This is the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was asked to play a teacher to help educate another person, the “student,” learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” would give him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer.

 

The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white-coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later drop over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections at times; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was, in fact, an actor; the shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.

 

It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But, according to author and researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority. If she is correct, this drastically changes how we might understand the experiment.

 

The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over, the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed, and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings let alone allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.

 

A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. They were then given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects felt such compassion for the other person they volunteered to take on their pain.

 

What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act.

 

I would question or refine that interpretation. The psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of the environment or context. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation.

 

Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly and not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail, one thought about the subjective experience of another person, can allow us to identify with them and act compassionately toward them.

 

Maybe one conclusion from these experiments, as well as one answer to the student’s original question, is that we are such social beings that how we feel about ourselves is tied to how we feel about others. Our very sense of self is inextricably tied to how others relate to us. What we think is right is tied to the situation we are in. Thus, compassion is natural to us and can be developed and strengthened—or undermined—by the way our social situation (including school community) is structured. What we define as humane or appropriate behavior differs greatly by how we define what is human.

 

And whatever propensity for evil we experience is related to our theories of who we are and who others are. For example, when we are taught to believe we are a totally distinct self, independent and isolated from others and our world, with a personality that persists from situation to situation, we perpetuate a distorted view of who we are. We make possible a distorted and hurtful way of acting in the world, a way that makes all sorts of horrors possible.

 

**Also, you might be interested in a recent NPR, Invisibilia, program called “The Personality Myth,” which added another and very interesting perspective to the questions raised in this post.

Sitting In Silence

Can you sit still for 15 minutes and just think, without getting up or turning to a distraction, a phone, a book, a pen, music—or something shocking? A study recently reported by NPR says that most of us can’t. Besides asking people to just sit, alone, the study included a little twist. It allowed people who felt bored or incapable of just sitting to deliver a physical shock to themselves. The result: 70% of men and 20% of women could not sit for 15 minutes without shocking themselves, some repeatedly, despite the pain of the shocks. With the women subjects who didn’t shock themselves, researchers were not clear if the women were better at sitting still or better at not shocking themselves (or both? something else?).

 

Why is this? The study could only make conjectures about that. How do we want to understand this information? Does it mean that we are so dependent on media or on distractions that when we try to be without them, we can’t take it? Are we habituated to our media? Or is this evidence that most of us are not comfortable with ourselves? Maybe there are too many shadows lying in wait in the mind that people feel they can’t or don’t want to face? Or are we just uneducated about how to live in our own heads, or of the role of the mind in creating our sense of the world?

 

In our world today, not only are we bombarded with messages and pressures to keep up with the latest technology, we feel that doing so makes us appear more important. The busier we look, the more important we feel. Being constantly connected means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected can mean being less valuable.

 

I think this experiment, as the authors themselves indicate, invites us to study our own thinking and experiencing. Other people’s answers won’t really help us. And we don’t need only ideas of why this might be true but a truth tested in our lives and feelings. If we can’t be with ourselves, who can we be with? Schools need to join in this self-study. Do we want to raise a generation of people who need an Ap or GPS to find themselves? With increased awareness, we feel less driven. Media becomes the car, not the driver.

 

Think of a time that you could do nothing but wait. Waiting is not the same as just sitting by yourself for 15 minutes, but in both you might start counting moments. When you wait in line to buy something, for example, you have this idea: “I have to buy this new ipod. When I get it, I will be thrilled, happy.“ Or: “I just want the movie tickets already. I just want to get her in the theatre, so we can sit and…” Or you’re waiting for news or for the next text. In any of these situations, you feel suspended in time. You have an image or idea of a future you, when you have whatever it is you are waiting for. And there is this other you, defined by what you’re not, by what you don’t have or what you lack. In fact, you are suspended not in time but between two ideas. You are taken out of time into a mere idea of time. Or maybe not suspended but enclosed in a box constructed of ideas taped shut with emotion. This is suffering.

 

So study or deconstruct what you think and feel when your cell phone pings or calls to you. You might think that these feelings come with the phone, but they come with you. You are the being who feels and thinks. And notice how your culture speaks of the value of media. Notice each ad on television, each time a phone appears in a movie. Notice if there are messages about being alone. And then notice the indifference of a tree or the breeze. Does the tree need to send a text to be noticed? When you focus on the feel of a gentle breeze on your face, do you still think about your phone? What is deepest about your phone is your collection of ideas and feelings about it.

 

Or you might think, ah, a 15 minute respite. I have nothing I have to do. Great. And if you interpret the situation as a moment of freedom from work or whatever, a moment to just relax, then yes, that’s wonderful. But is that what actually occurs when you put away your phone?

 

So, just sit. Pick someplace where it is easy to sit without slouching and you can be mentally awake. Maybe close your eyes so you can better notice your thoughts, emotions, sensations, and images. What comes up for you as you just sit? All you have to do is notice. You don’t need to add anything to the noticing. There’s no need to judge the quality or value of any of the thoughts or feelings, or judge yourself for letting them pass through your mind. Just witness what’s there for you and be open to yourself, kind. If you are open, the thoughts and feelings will arise and pass more clearly. Witness even the judgments as you watch clouds passing by. And notice, also, the sun when the clouds are gone, when there are no thoughts. By notice, I don’t mean note, like write a note with your mind, or bother to remember. Just be aware. Notice the stillness when the sky is vast, blue and cloudless. Patiently, calmly, notice whatever arises, as if your mind was that vast blue space. What is important is your patient interest, your awareness of your life unfolding. Now, just sit with that calm, still awareness

 

When you sit alone, just notice the thoughts or sensations. Let them be just the clouds in the vast sky, or the universe noticing what is arising in itself. The thoughts will then wink out, and what will be left is a universe of awareness silently enjoying itself.

WIll Common Core Standards Lead to a Standardized National Curriculum?

ira-home-studyIn November, on NPR, there was a program on how an educational corporation was trying to provide low cost education for areas in Kenya where there was little money to pay for it. The educational approach worked by having all the teachers in each grade read the same lesson, from an E-Reader, as every other teacher. At one point in the radio program an American educator said, “If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model in this country, they would be laughed out of the educational community.” I gulped. I wondered if this is a lower cost model of exactly what is being pushed by educational corporations in the U. S..

In my local and other Gannett Company newspapers there was an article stating a goal heard in several school districts: “One Common Core goal is standardizing the sequence of the curriculum so students will be able to switch schools, districts, even states and not be out of sync in a new classroom.” Anthony Cody, in his blog on the Common Core quotes Bill Gates, “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well.”

Some officials and educators disagree and say the standards just set the goal, not how to reach it. The goal of having schools use the same materials at the same time is not an agenda necessitated by the Common Core. Yet, if there are grade level expectations for each child and these expectations are specific and comprehensive enough to be tested, don’t we wind up with a standardized curriculum? If teachers have to coordinate their instruction so students from one classroom could easily jump into another, isn’t this a push for a national curriculum? In order for the standards not to prescribe a curriculum, they would have to be greatly simplified. This hasn’t happened as yet.

Even if the standards do not necessitate the implementation of a prescribed curriculum, there might be other pressures for this to occur. Two different teachers I know from New York State, one from an elementary and the other from a middle school, said their administrators gave them teaching modules to use. These modules included standardized lesson plans produced by an educational corporation with a script to read to each class. I quickly scanned a module for Middle School English. It was complex and offered some diversity in teaching methodology. It certainly did not fit my style of teaching. If teachers are pressured into using mass produced and prescribed modules, isn’t this an example of standards being used to create mechanization of instruction? Where is the support for teacher creativity? Besides helping kids, the creativity is one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching.

I think the emphasis in the standards on critical thinking is a positive step. To develop critical thinking, however, takes time, energy, and creativity. Teachers need to be able to adapt instruction to individual needs and pacing. If the Common Core is used to push an agenda of schools marching in lockstep, it will undermine such instruction and teacher satisfaction. Since when do all teachers teach or students learn at the same pace or need the same approach?