A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Unintended Lyrical Inspiration: Lenny Kravitz

This post is one in a sporadic series in which I analyze pop song lyrics from a my own unique perspective, and discover inspiration where the musician never intended any. Today I’m going to examine a song by Lenny Kravitz called Always On The Run.

This song – a collaboration between Lenny Kravitz and Saul Hudson (who wrote the music) – opens with a guitar riff that’s reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, followed by lyrics that that consist of well-intentioned maternal advice. Here is a line from the first verse (at 0:52 in the video) that in my opinion, rises above the rest: 

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If your reaction to this line is indifference, then I agree that it may not sound particularly meaningful or even important. The first few times that I heard this song, this admonition didn’t do anything for me either. 

So what are we supposed to get out of it? On the surface, this line, when spoken by a parent to a child or teenager, probably means “You can achieve whatever you like in life. You are limited only by your talent and ambition. However, you can also decide to do as little as possible and coast your entire life, without striving to develop your character or a solid work ethic. The choice is yours.”

I’d like to add an additional interpretation: “Once you decide to leave the nest, you are essentially on your own. If you lack ambition and decide to coast though life, no one (other than your immediate family) is going to care if you don’t accomplish anything.”

You’re probably thinking “Come on, that’s just common sense. Everyone knows that they have to make their own mark on the world, and no one is going to care if they are not reaching your potential.” That’s what I thought too, until a decade ago, when society started to change. This change was the emergence of the helicopter parent, and the deleterious effects that their over-nurturing was having on their children.

Garden Hose

When I was a child, we didn’t have helicopter parents, and in hindsight, my friends and I had a fair amount of freedom:

  • There were no cell phones, so we could be playing with the neighbour’s kids all day long, and our parents weren’t the least bit worried.

  • I rode my bicycle up and down my street, and on the road, since our street didn’t have any sidewalks.

  • Starting in Grade 5, I walked to school and back, by myself. This was a 20-25-minute walk, each way.

  • We played road hockey, and if a car was coming someone would simply yell “Car!” and we all stepped aside. I didn’t see this as inherently dangerous.

  • I remember a field trip in Grade 6 that involved orienteering. After a lesson on how to use a compass and read a map, we were sent into the woods (in small groups) to find various markers on trees, and then make our way back to the starting point.

Parents At Job Interviews

Today, many parents not only drive their teenagers to high school, they rarely let their kids out of their sight. While you could argue that this is merely an enhanced form of parental nurturing, I call it coddling, and it doesn’t end when the children grow up and become adults. Some parents are even accompanying their adult children to job interviews, which I think is just bizarre.

What emerges from this overbearing style of parenting, is a set of unrealistic expectations from others and from society. Witness bridezillas and promposals

Helicopter Parents, Pool

If the constant, smothering attention weren’t annoying enough, some helicopter parents believe that their child can do no wrong and often blame or even harass teachers because their child is performing poorly in class.

Imagine growing up surrounded by people who give you participation trophies so that you will never experience disappointment, and who bend over backwards to ensure that you never have to exert yourself. This, to me, is similar to growing up with Secret Service protection. You will eventually feel invincible and believe that no harm will come to you, no matter what decisions you make.

That’s why I believe that many of these kids will enter the workforce with a skewed sense of entitlement. Not all, obviously, but a greater percentage than the previous generation.

That’s why Lenny Kravitz’s song lyrics have acquired a renewed relevance. Once you strike out on your own, it will be up to you to make a name for yourself, which requires paying your dues and working harder than everyone you know. If you don’t succeed, no one will care.

While society owes you nothing, this doesn’t mean that people will be mean to you. In fact, people will likely be kind and sympathetic. For example, if you are at a fast food restaurant and the cashier is a man in his mid-30s or mid-40s, you obviously aren’t going to make fun of him. On the contrary, you may think:

  • He enjoys what he does for a living – so who are we to judge?
  • Maybe this is all he’s capable of doing. We mustn’t criticize.
  • Maybe he needs to work two jobs to support his family or for an unexpected expense.

However, you’re not going to wonder whether this middle-aged McDonald’s cashier is achieving his version of fulfillment or self-actualization in his life. That’s his problem.

Lenny Kravitz GH

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If you’re a young adult about to enter the workforce, memorize this line. Better yet, make it your mantra. I hope that you will become an ambitious and accomplished person, and that you’ll make your own positive mark on the world. On the other hand, if you decide to take the path of least resistance in life, no one will care. Your well-meaning helicopter parents created an artificial environment for you, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to the real world that you are about to enter. Lenny Kravitz may not have thought about it in this way, but he has just given you a valuable life lesson.

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The Most Hurtful Interpretation

Human interactions can be challenging. Even though I don’t know you, I’ll bet that you often feel misunderstood, especially by people who know you very well.

You’re not imagining things. You were born with a social disability, and I’m going to explain exactly what it is, and how you can adapt to it. Once you succeed in doing this, it will feel like someone has bestowed upon you, a remarkable sixth sense. You will be able to detect what others around you cannot, and in time, all of your relationships will become more harmonious.

If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. If you’re a fan of the television series The Big Bang Theory, you probably know that Sheldon is not the most socially-adept creature, in part because of his difficulty in interpreting facial expressions, and therefore, the emotions of others. We were all saddled with a similar interpretive disability – one that makes it challenging for us to accurately interpret the true feelings and intentions of other people.

A few years ago, I was perusing a book co-authored by Jack Canfield, one of the authors of the Chicken Soup For The Soul series of books. Unfortunately, the title of this book escapes me right now, but it contained one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read. Canfield wrote – merely as an aside – something that I thought was absolutely profound. He said “If people hear something that has multiple interpretations, then they will assume that the most hurtful interpretation is the correct one“.

Teary Eye

At first I thought this was just silly. Perhaps young children (who are continually seeking parental approval) may assume this, but we’re all educated and mature adults with superior reasoning abilities. In any conversation, all interpretations will be considered, and then evaluated properly and sensibly.

Then something unexpected happened. As the weeks and months went by, I realized that Canfield’s pronouncement was true. I heard example after example, with stunning (and frankly, troubling) regularity – more instances than I could count. My otherwise wise and educated family, relatives, friends and colleagues were all affected equally by Canfield’s unsettling statement. My surprise morphed slowly into intrigue. I thought to myself “The divorce rate in this country is about 45%. How could the percentage be this high when there is presumably a year or more of character vetting and compatibility analysis during the courtship and engagement periods? Could this behavioural quirk be a contributor? If we were all keenly aware of The Most Hurtful Interpretation, would our marriages and relationships last longer?“. I realize that this is merely speculation, but like Carrie Bradshaw hunched over her MacBook “I couldn’t help but wonder…“.

Here are just a few examples I encountered:

  • One of my relatives told me that it had been several days since she had read any Facebook posts from a particular member her extended family, and wondered why she had been de-friended. I explained that Facebook doesn’t display every post from each of your friends – otherwise we’d never get through our news feeds. Only selected posts are displayed, and I had no idea what Facebook’s selection algorithm was.
  • A friend and I were e-mailing each other semi-regularly a few years ago. In one message, she asked me something, and I intended to reply the next day, but then forgot all about it. Two weeks later, she e-mailed me again and wanted to apologize if she had said anything to offend me, since I hadn’t contacted her in a while.
  • I was worried sick about you!“. How many times have you, as a teenager, heard these words from your parents after staying out later than you had intended? Statistically, there is a very small chance that anything serious would have happened to you, but that’s not how parents think. They are going to assume the worst.

WebMD Everything Causes Cancer

  • A generation ago, if you weren’t feeling well, you went to see your doctor. Today, the Internet gives us the ability to self-diagnose our symptoms by visiting a number of medical web sites. One of the most popular is WebMD. Just type in your symptoms, and WebMD will display a plethora of diseases and conditions that are associated with them. While poring over this list of possible afflictions, which ones are we drawn to? Which do we think we might have? I think you already know the answer…
  • A few weeks ago, I was watching the Steve Jobs DVD. If you’ve seen this movie, then you’ll remember that Jobs initially denied the paternity of his daughter Lisa. Back in the late 1970s, DNA testing wasn’t nearly as accurate as it is now, and while Jobs did take a paternity test, he said to a TIME magazine reporter that his DNA test results could apply to 28% of the men in the United States. Therefore, he felt no need to admit anything. Lisa’s mother, Chrisann, read the article and thought that Jobs had accused her of sleeping with 28% of the men in the United States. To be fair, this movie is a partially fictionalized account of Jobs’ life, so I have no idea how accurate the recounting of this event is. However, it is a perfect example of The Most Hurtful Interpretation.

Lorne Grabher

  • Finally, there’s Lorne Grabher’s license plate. Mr. Grabher was proud of his fine German surname, and decided to place it on a vanity license plate. For a while, everything was uneventful, but then one person noticed his license plate, and read it as “Grab Her”. This unnamed person felt that Lorne was “misogynistic and promoting violence against women“. So s/he filed a complaint with the Ministry of Transportation and they revoked his vanity plate.

I’m Also Not Immune

After perusing Canfield’s book, I naturally assumed that I would be granted an instant and lifelong immunity to this phenomenon. How could I possibly be affected, since I was now in possession of this incredible insight? Since I was familiar with the underlying behavioural machinations, I could note this behaviour in others from a distance, as a detached observer. Obviously, I was wrong. I was affected as much as everyone else, and this example illustrates that The Most Hurtful Interpretation is not limited to human interaction.

Door Access Card v1a

Last year, as I was returning to the office from my lunch break, I held my access card against the card reader beside the reception area door. The card reader always beeps, and then its light changes from red to green, followed by the audible click of the door unlocking. This time, nothing happened. I tried again – still nothing. It took about 4-5 attempts before the reader recognized my card. I found out later from someone in the IT department that the door reader was a little quirky and had been giving everyone trouble. That should have been my first assumption, since it was not only logical but was also the most likely scenario. However, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at opening the door, my actual thoughts were “Oh no – I’ve been fired! They always deactivate your security cards and computer accounts first. How could this happen? I’m a good worker. What have I done (or not done)?“. Yes, in hindsight this sounds silly, but at the time it was a genuine concern for me.

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Now That You Know…

The first thing you’ll want to do is look for evidence. Keep your ears open and listen carefully to the conversations you have with your family, friends and co-workers. Then listen to the conversations around you. Within a few days, you will probably start hearing numerous examples of The Most Hurtful Interpretation. I was astonished by how many examples I heard.

Fast forward several weeks… since you’ve heard a variety of examples, and are adept at identifying this behavioural quirk, you now possess your special sixth sense! As you listen to the interactions around you, you now have the ability to predict how a statement will be interpreted by the recipient, even when the speaker does not.

At this point, you may want to take steps to ensure that your sentiments are not misinterpreted in a hurtful way. Unfortunately, this is not going to be easy. In Toastmasters, I learned that communication consists of two components: the message we deliver, and the message that the audience actually hears (and interprets). Unfortunately, we can control only the first component. Since the listener is always free to interpret your words in any way, what can you do? Before speaking, think about all of the different ways that your message can be misinterpreted (in a hurtful way) and then consider how to modify your message to reduce the chances of this happening. Here are a few ways to limit the breadth of the interpretations.

  • Speak clearly
  • Choose your words carefully
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Provide plenty of details
  • Surround your message with as much context as possible

Finally, build up a mental case file (or write down the examples you hear). Analyze each conversation, and consider the following:

  • What was the original intent of the speaker’s message?
  • What was the listener’s interpretation of that message?
  • How did the listener arrive at their conclusion?
  • If I were the speaker, how could I rephrase my message to prevent this particular interpretation?

In the arena of human interaction, if it seems that the odds are stacked against you, they’re not – they are stacked against all of us, which levels the playing field. However, you now stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Now that you know about The Most Hurtful Interpretation, you possess a special sixth sense – an acute social awareness that almost no one else on the planet shares with you. It will take a bit of time to develop and hone this ability to predict the reactions of others, but once you do, I predict that you will be heralded by those around you as a talented and empathetic communicator.

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We Can Repair Police Relations, If We All Work Together

So far, July 2016 has been a very difficult month in the United States for police forces and their perception by the general public. There is an ebb and flow in this relationship, but there is also a continual underlying tension. This month, unfortunately, things have really deteriorated:

  • On July 5th, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Stirling was shot and killed by police as he sold CDs outside a store.
  • On July 6th, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer after a being pulled over for a broken tail light. His girlfriend live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on social media.
  • On July 7th, in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were killed by a sniper, as a form of retaliation for the police shootings during the previous two days.
  • The following day, in Ballwin, Missouri, a police office was shot in the neck while walking back to his cruiser after a routine traffic stop, leaving the police officer in critical condition.
  • July 17th: In this still-developing story in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, multiple police officers have been shot, and three are believed to have died.

Right now there are probably hundreds of other bloggers thinking and writing the same thing I am right now: these events are horrifying, and the violence needs to stop immediately. To most of us, this problem does seem insurmountable, and you may feel, as an individual, that there is nothing you can do about it. However, when I examine things from The Bob Angle, I see a solution. Yes, it is more than one person can accomplish, which is why we need to work together. If we can coordinate our efforts in this area, then restoring a healthy relationship with our police forces can be an attainable goal.

The way I see it, the media’s predominantly negative reporting of police work makes it difficult for us to see the big picture. Here is a breakdown of what’s typically happens following a police shooting:

  • The story gets local, and often nationwide media coverage. Millions of people now know what happened, and understandably, become outraged.
  • Many of these people will be affected by stimulus generalization: they not only become angry with the officer responsible for the shooting, but also with the entire police force and the police forces of other cities. Police officers everywhere are now viewed derisively and may even be the targets of scorn, anger and hate.
  • Some people may even feel compelled to retaliate against individuals who have nothing to do with the original incident.

In Dallas, Texas, five police officers who had absolutely nothing to do with the Baton Rouge or Minneapolis shootings were killed, because the shooter was seeking revenge for the incidents in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. This is the devastating power of stimulus generalization; the fact that these five police officers were completely innocent didn’t deter, faze or perhaps even occur to the Dallas shooter.

Stimulus generation is a formidable force, but with a coordinated and focused effort, we can control it, and perhaps even make it work to our advantage. In my opinion, police relations are perpetually tense due largely to a prevalence of negative media coverage. The media reports unpleasant events for more often than uplifting stories. Incidents that keep us in perpetual fear seem to be the ones that are broadcast most widely. The “feel good” stories are usually left to the end of the newscast (if there’s time). As a result, we are getting a statistically skewed view of what’s happening in the world, and an especially distorted view of what our country’s police forces do every day.

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Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

To be fair, the media does report, from time to time, on the more positive examples of police work. Here are a few of those stories:

  • During the July 7th Dallas protest in which the five police officers were killed, a mother of four was shot in the leg. As she was attempting to shield one of her sons, she looked up and saw a police officer running over to shield both of them from the gunfire.
  • On January 15th, 2016, a Florida police officer was called for a noise complaint. Some kids were playing basketball too loudly in the street. However, instead of admonishing them, he decided to join them in a game. Afterwards, he promised to return and bring a special guest with him. That special guest turned out to be Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq

  • After responding to a trespassing call, two Barnesville, Georgia police officers discovered a homeless teenager who told them that he had ridden his brother’s bicycle for six hours in order to register for classes at Gordon State College. These two officers put him up in a hotel room (and paid for it themselves), and then set up a GoFundMe page in his name to help him get back on his feet again. In an example of how kindness feeds on itself; the owner of a local pizzeria hired the teenager and said that he would schedule the shifts around his college classes.
  • In Charlotte, North Carolina, officer Tim Purdy responded to a call about a suicidal teen with autism. He sat down with him, talked things out, and likely saved this young man’s life. Purdy later told a reporter “This is something that tens of thousands of law enforcement officers that are out there do every single day,” Purdy said in a video. “You just don’t hear about it.

Police Officer Consoling Teen

  • In La Plata, Maryland, an 81-year-old woman who has dementia was reported missing by her daughters. After a brief search, officer Morrison found her, and held her hand as he walked her back home, chatting with her on the way.

Police And Dementia

  • Each year, police forces in Toronto and the surrounding suburbs hold a “Cram a Cruiser” food drive to support local food banks. They set up a patrol car up just outside the entrance of participating supermarkets, and encourage shoppers to donate food, which is then placed inside the car. A couple of years ago, they were able to fill 50 cruisers full of food. This event is publicized, but only in the local community newspapers.

Cram A Cruiser 5

I agree completely with officer Tim Purdy’s comments; in fact, they reflect the central theme of this blog post. The good deeds performed daily by police officers all over the country vastly outnumber the bad things. Unfortunately, we don’t recognize this because media reporting is weighed heavily on the stories that sell the most newspapers or that generate the most page views – that is, the decidedly unpleasant ones. That’s why our perception of police forces is distorted.

After reading my brief descriptions of these good deeds, how do you feel about police officers right now? I’ll bet that your faith is being restored, and that you now have renewed hope for a brighter, more harmonious future. Listing just a few examples of officers who go above and beyond the call of duty to help others was my modest attempt to create a more statistically balanced reporting, but it still isn’t even close to representing all of the helpful things that police officers do for us every day.

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What We Can Do

Individually, we aren’t as powerful as media outlets, which is why we need to work together to create and promulgate a more accurate view of law enforcement across the country. First of all, we need to consider all of the little things that police officers do for the general public every day, and recognize that the vast majority of these acts receive no publicity at all. Secondly, if you’ve had a positive experience with a police officer, then tell your family, friends and colleagues about it. Tell the story repeatedly, and spread the positive message. This is how we can help give the rest of society a more statistically accurate view of police officers, and the good deeds they perform each day.

I’d like to get the ball rolling, by sharing a couple of stories of my own:

  • A number of years ago, one of my father’s friends was in Chicago, attending an educational conference. This was his first time visiting Chicago. After the conference, he had a bit of free time, so he decided that he would drive around and just explore the city, with no particular destination in mind. As he was driving along, he noticed the flashing lights of a police car behind him. He immediately pulled over, and was baffled because he wasn’t speeding or breaking any other laws (that he was aware of). The officer walked up to his car and demanded “What are doing here?”. This man told him about the conference, and mentioned that he was visiting from Canada. The police officer told him that he had wandered into a very bad neighbourhood and that he shouldn’t be here. He then said “I’m going to drive ahead of you. Follow right behind me, and I’ll take you out of here and to someplace safer“. And that’s just what he did.

My father told me that he’s heard similar stories from some of his friends in other cities – Atlanta and Miami – and added that helping people in this way appears to be quite common. This is the type of police story that is never reported by the media, but should be.

  • Back in the early 2000s, I visited a bar in Fort Lauderdale called The Elbo Room. At the time it stood out from other bars because it had three streaming webcams: one inside, one pointed toward their outdoor patio, and one on the roof aimed at the beach. At any time, I could go to their web site and see what was happening there at that exact moment (which was really cool during the early 2000s). About 3-4 years later, a major hurricane was approaching the south-east coast of Florida.

All businesses were closed and people were urged to stay indoors or even leave the area. I visited the Elbo Room’s web page to see if their roof-mounted web cam was still functioning, and perhaps get a glimpse of the weather and the waves. Surprisingly, the web cam was still functioning in the torrential rain, and although the image was distorted by creeping rivulets of water, I could still get a fairly decent view of the surroundings. This hurricane was a sight to behold. As George Costanza would say “The sea was angry that day, my friends“. The waves were crashing onto the beach, almost reaching the road, and the palm trees were bending in the gale-force winds. Despite the less-than-ideal view though the webcam lens, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser, right at the intersection of Los Olas and A1A. It was the only sign of humanity in this decidedly inhospitable environment.

As I watched this scene for the next 10-15 minutes, it occurred to me that this police officer was likely stationed there to keep an eye out for anyone who still hadn’t found shelter, or to make sure that no one got too close to the beach. I was impressed by his/her dedication. While just about everyone else in Fort Lauderdale was safe and sequestered inside their hurricane-shuttered homes, this police officer was watching out for others. This is another story that you won’t find in your local newspaper.

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Closing Thoughts

When we read and watch the daily news, we assume that we have an accurate and balanced view of things. However, our view of the world depends on what is reported to us. Fortunately, our skewed perception of police work can be corrected if we all work together, recognize all of the good work done each day by law enforcement officials everywhere, and share those stories. Only then will be have a more statistically accurate view of what’s really happening, and how much assistance we’re actually receiving from our men and women in blue.

Finally, I’d like to propose the following: the next time you see a police officer, say “Thank you for your service” (or something along those lines). We say this to our veterans who protected us during wartime, so why not express the same sentiment for the men and women who continue to protect us every day?

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The Royal Leadership Lesson

Last year, I decided to start watching a TV series called The Royals – a fictional drama, starring Elizabeth Hurley as the Queen, that re-imagines the British Royal family as a modern, edgy and dysfunctional bunch of characters, whose lives seem to be perpetually rife with scandal.

The series begins with the King mired in a deep and troubled contemplation. He was seriously considering abolishing the British monarchy, because the the rising discontent among the people. Many citizens (who were quite vocal in their protestations) felt that the institution was now completely irrelevant and was a financial drain on the taxpayer. In the second episode, the royal family is preparing to host a garden party at the palace, to which many heads of stare have been invited. Despite the festive surroundings, the King is not enjoying himself; this issue still weighs heavily on his mind.

Staff Kitchen

The camera then turns to the kitchen, where the King and a member of his staff, Prudence (whom he knows by name), are both placing tiny Union Jack flags on a tray of desserts which will be served to the garden party guests. As they decorate the food, he makes small talk by asking her about her life outside the palace walls, and trying to get to know a bit about her as a person. He also asked her what she thought of the monarchy itself, presumably a prelude to the question: does she think that should the monarchy be abolished? Although he requested a completely honest answer, Prudence replied (most prudently) “I am happy to be employed in your Majesty’s home”. While her response may not have been a “big picture” view that the King was hoping for, I can understand that job security and the continuation of her livelihood would be Prudence’s primary and immediate concern.

When I first saw this scene, my initial reaction was “Who wrote this script? This is the King of England, who has hundreds of full-time staff members all ready to do his bidding. Why would be spend his time in the staff kitchen, doing the work of a servant, when he surely has more important things to attend to?”.

A couple of weeks later, I thought about this scene again and realized that I was completely wrong. This was actually an teachable moment moment and a stellar example of leadership. Here’s why:

I’m a member of Toastmasters, and this organization promotes what’s known as a “servant leader philosophy”. That is, the higher one rises in an organization, the more s/he is required to serve others. As members become more experienced and gain new skills, they will be called upon to mentor newer members, assist in club contests, be guest speakers at other clubs, as well as serve as an executive at the Area, District or Division level. It’s a good philosophy that not only keeps us grounded, but ensures that our new skills are used for the benefit of all, and not just ourselves.

Years ago, when I worked in the financial district, there was a story going around the street that Matthew Barrett, who had recently been named as Chairman of the Bank of Montreal, called a meeting of the head office employees. After he introduced himself, he told the audience that everyone naturally assumes that the Chairman is the top job at the bank, but he disagrees. He then displayed a large image of an inverted corporate pyramid and explained that this is how he views himself in the corporate hierarchy – right at the bottom. His job is to serve the bank, its customers and its employees.

Inverted Corporate Pyramid

I also saw something on my Facebook wall that encapsulated everything. This diagram:

Boss vs Leader v2

I now realized that the King was actually displaying outstanding leadership skills:

  • He did not feel that any work was beneath him, and gladly volunteered to help out in the kitchen alongside his staff, performing what is certainly a menial task.
  • He set a good example through his actions, rather than just his words.
  • He made an effort to know his staff members by name.
  • He asked his staff about their personal lives and got to know them as people, rather than just servants.
  • He even appeared to be soliciting their advice on matters for which only the heads of state might be consulted – the abolition of the monarchy. I would imagine that such an inquiry from the King must be immensely flattering to someone working in the palace kitchen.

Above all, the King remained humble. He internalized the advice of Saint Augustine, who said “Do you wish to be great? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation“.

Although his character is fictionalized, he offers a real leadership lesson for all of us.

The Return Of The Scarlet Letter

When I was in university, one of the books in my American Literature course was The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I enjoyed it, but until recently, I didn’t recognize the brilliance of the novel or see just how prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne was.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter, since it’s on just about every English teacher’s reading list, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, allow me to refresh your memory.


Scarlet Letter Book CoverThe story takes place in Boston, in 1642. At the time, the city’s citizens were known as Puritans. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from the Church of Rome, and hence wanted to purify the Church of England by ridding it of all traces of Roman Catholicism. They demanded a very strict code of conduct, and by today’s standards they would be considered fundamentalists, or even extremists.

The book’s main character, Hester Prynne, has been charged with committing adultery. After being found guilty, her punishment is prison time, and afterwards, being required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently on her dress. This sentence was considered especially light, since adulterers under Puritan law are usually branded or put to death. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the book, the “A” stands for adulteress, and wearing it in public is meant to shame Hester in front of the townspeople. Since Hester has refused to name the man involved, she must bear this shame alone.

During this course, we discussed the meaning of the letter “A”. The obvious interpretation was that it stood for adulteress, but our professor encouraged us to dig deeper and come up with additional meanings. We reasoned that it could also stand for angel, since Prynne always maintained a regal bearing, and able because Prynne demonstrated that was able to live life on her own terms, without the assistance of a man. Our professor then added his own personal interpretation: America. The letter, or at least the laws that led to its display on Hester Prynne’s dress, symbolized American culture at the time.

As I was making my way through the book, I thought that this tale was just a quaint glimpse into a long-forgotten Puritanical existence. I was glad that our modern, progressive society, now largely free of its ecclesiastical manacles, no longer behaves so sanctimoniously, and that we were now well beyond such pettiness and overt derision.

As it turns out, I spoke too soon… during the past generation, I’ve noticed a resurgence of these Puritanical practices in our society. I am now witnessing what I am going to call “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”. Much like a neighbourhood of anti-vaxxers, suddenly faced with a new outbreak of a long-vanquished disease, many people are now behaving in a manner from which I assumed we had all evolved. This unabashed schadenfreude – something I thought was beneath us as a society – is returning with a vengeance, thanks to social media.

With each passing year, it appears that we are becoming more like our judgmental 17th century predecessors. Allow me to share some of my observations:

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A Sign Of The Crimes

The first “signs” of a behavioural shift began before the advent of social media. From time to time, I would read an article about a judge who meted out an unconventional punishment to a petty thief or a misbehaving teenager. In lieu of a criminal record or jail time, the guilty party would have to stand in public beside a large sign that described their transgression.

Shaming Sign 2

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Before long, parents started mimicking these judges and delivering a similar punishment to their errant teenagers.

Shaming Sign 3

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Shaming via E-Mail Forwarding

I then noticed that e-mail was no longer being used solely as a business and communication tool. It was now wielded as a weapon and used to ridicule others. Some infamous early examples were Claire Swire, Peter Chung, Lucy Gao and Aleksey Vayner.

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Social Media As A Catalyst

The increase in the prevalence of online shaming coincided with the rise in popularity of social media. While social media has certainly altered – for better or for worse – the way we communicate, I believe that the anonymity of online communication allows us to revert to the holier-than-thou mindsets of those 17th century Puritans. We can become openly disapproving of others because no one can trace our comments back to us. Unlike the targets of our derision, our reputations won’t be damaged by our disparaging comments.

Soon, web sites dedicated solely to embarrassing others began to appear.

People Of Wal-Mart: There is a web site called People Of Wal-Mart that displays photos of Wal-Mart shoppers. Visitors are free to upload photos themselves and add them to the collection. I will admit that some of these photos are humourous – like the above photo of the suspicious loose candy, entitled Looks Legit”. However, as I’m sure you know, these are generally photos of people who are inappropriately dressed, who are behaving poorly, or who have substandard parenting skills. Essentially, these socially-challenged souls are put on display so that we can mock them. If that isn’t gratifying enough for us, there is now a rating system (1-10 stars) and a user comments section, so that visitors – under the identity cloak of online user names – can ridicule them even further.

Airline Passenger Shaming: If you behave poorly or selfishly on airplane, don’t be surprised if your photograph appears on the Passenger Shaming Facebook group or Instagram album. If your behaviour is particularly egregious, it may even be described in detail in newspaper articles.

Airline Passenger Shaming 1

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Ashley Madison Web Site Hack

Ashley Madison CoverThese days, web sites get hacked all the time, but the Ashley Madison data breach in July 2015 was different. There were no ransom requests or any attempts at monetary gain. Its user data was made public because the hacker(s) objected to its line of business, and wanted to “out” all of Ashley Madison’s customers as part of a moral crusade against the company. Over 60 gigabytes of customer information were made public, including names, address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

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The Police Are Now Participating

More recently (as of October 2015), the practice of public shaming is being adopted by a police department in West Virginia. Anyone caught soliciting a prostitute in the city of Huntington will have his photograph displayed on a billboard, visible from one of the city’s busiest streets.

Police Shaming 1a

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Fat Shaming

In November 2015, someone from an organization called Overweight Haters Ltd. began handing out insulting cards to overweight passengers on the London subway. The cards read, in part, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony. Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves.“.

In January 2016, after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher became the target of body shaming because she no longer looked like she did in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.

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What Is The New Scarlet Letter?

Scarlet Letter 1aIn my American Literature class, we suggested that Hester Prynne’s letter “A” – in addition to adulteress – might also mean angel, able and America. I think that the letter “A” is still apt when in today’s age of social media shaming. It continues to stand for adultery (as evidenced by the Ashley Madison data breach and the police billboard displaying the names of “johns”), and I would now like to propose some additional meanings:

  • Amoral: Behaviour publicized by the West Virginia police billboard, and the miscreants forced to hold signs in public describing their transgressions.
  • Airplane: An obvious one, abundantly illustrated in the Passenger Shaming Facebook group.
  • Anonymous: The anonymity of the Internet means that it is far easier for us to shame someone in cyberspace than to confront that person face-to-face.
  • Ashley: Given their motive, I’m sure that the Ashley Madison hackers would love to see every Ashley Madison customer forced to wear a large, embroidered letter “A” on their clothes, just like Hester Prynne.

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Conclusion

The Puritans did have a harsh and antiquated form of punishment for moral crimes, but I will say this in their defense: at least Hester Prynne was limited to the scorn of her town’s inhabitants, and only of those whom she encountered in person. Today’s shaming targets are not as fortunate. Jessie Jackson is quoted as saying “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up”, and I agree with him. Not only have we lowered ourselves to the disdainful, judgmental behaviour of the Puritans, but now thanks to the Internet, our shaming no longer has any geographical boundaries. Those who have been targeted now have to face coast-to-coast, or even global, consternation.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, then I urge you to re-read it. As you do, think about how you use social media and ask yourself how much our attitudes and behaviour have really evolved. Surely, we’re more enlightened and more sophisticated than the Puritans; let’s not allow these new forms of communication drag us back into the 17th century.

The Utility Of Humility

I remember reading a comic strip a number of years ago. Two people were waiting patiently at the gates of heaven, while St. Peter was leafing through his large book. Finally, St. Peter looked up and said “I’m afraid that we have space for only one more person, so to help me decide who gets in, I would like you to answer this question: Which of you two is the most humble?”.

This Catch-22 scenario reminded me of the utter confusion I had often experienced during my Catholic elementary school religion classes. In my blog post The Generosity Coefficient, I lamented that my while my religion teachers used to recite a plethora of Bible verses, they didn’t do a particularly good job of explaining what they meant or how they might apply to us. This comic strip reminded me of another one of their pronouncements – Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” As a child, this one also didn’t make much sense to me. It was actually counter-intuitive because this was the 1970s – a time when schoolyard bullying meant more than mere verbal taunting or name-calling – there were also threats of physical violence. Being meek was not a wise strategy for me or for any of my classmates, and it certainly wouldn’t get one very far in my world.

Another related verse that I heard in church quite regularly was “He who is humbled shall be exalted”. Our priest never elaborated on this one, which frustrated me. In hindsight, I should have approached him afterwards and asked him to clarify what it meant. Everyone else in the congregation seemed quite content, as if they understood all of its nuances.

Exalted

I decided that it was time to revisit this verse and find out exactly what was being promised to us. After Googling some online Bibles and doing a few text searches, I discovered that this verse appears many times, in slightly different ways. Here are some examples:

Matthew 23:12: And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
James 4:10: Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Peter 5:6: Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation.

To me, these verses all seem to be counter-intuitive. First of all, if you are a genuinely humble person, then why would you want to be exalted? This advice appeals only to those who are narcissistic or otherwise ego-driven in their behaviour. In another one of the many ironies I’ve discovered in the Bible, the above verses seem to be directed toward those who suffer from hubris. Hubris is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and according to Wikipedia, it’s the the original and most serious of them all. In my opinion, genuine humility requires no ulterior motive; people should be humble because it’s simply a good way to conduct oneself.

Secondly, as we age, we become wiser and more mature (well, most of us, anyway). In general, we become less inward-looking and more outward-looking. We focus less on ourselves, our social position, the accumulation of material goods or what other people think of us, and we concentrate more on helping others and giving back to society. I think it’s safe to say that those nearing the end of their lives probably don’t care much about being exalted.

When can we expect to be exalted? The first two quotes don’t give a timeline, but the last one says “in the time of visitation”. What could that mean? I decided to look up Peter 5:6 on the Bible Study Tools web site, which provides dozens of interpretations and translations of this verse, and it was very vague. That phrase was interpreted as “at the right time”, “in due time”, “at the proper time” or “in His own good time”. Not particularly helpful…

Personally, I envision two possibilities: God will either exalt you while you’re here on Earth, or after you get to heaven (I assume that those who are on their way to hell are on their own). As far as I know, no human (other than Jesus) has ever been exalted by God – if so, then the media would have been all over this story. Therefore, it’s unlikely that we will receive our reward while we’re still here on Earth. I also asked a few of my friends what they thought these verses meant to them, and their answers were fairly uniform: “Be humble now, and God will exalt you when you get to heaven”. Given the lack of any exalted people here on Earth, this seems like a reasonable interpretation.

It sounds like someone wants to ensure that we remain humble during our entire lives, by promising us a reward – at an unspecified time, but more than likely after we die – that appeals to our ego. Yet another intangible dangling carrot…

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And now, The Bob Angle… these verses do not deliver the right message. Yes, humility is a noble character trait, but one mustn’t say “be humble and you’ll be exalted after you die”. Not all of us are able to embrace the concept of delayed gratification. If you want proof, then just look at the popularity of scratch-off lottery tickets – there is a segment of the population that can’t even wait until Saturday night’s lottery draw for their reward. What Matthew, James and Peter should have said instead was “be humble, and you’ll be rewarded immediately and often”. Not only will more people respond to it, that’s also how society actually works, and I can prove it with these examples:

It’s no secret why Pope Francis is the most popular and beloved popes in recent memory. Despite his ascribed status, he is a genuinely humble man who remains unaffected by his new station in life. Immediately after the papal conclave, he went back to his hotel to pay his bill. Afterwards, Francis declined to live in the papal apartments, and chose to live at a residence for visiting clergy, the decidedly more modest Casa Santa Marta, and eat in the communal dining room.

Pope Washing Feet

One the the things I admire most about Popes is the ceremony in which they wash their parishoners’ feet. They may lead a rarefied existence, but this act of humility brings them back down to earth, and raises their profile immensely for me.

Prince William Cleaning Toilet

Prince William seems to be one of the most popular members of the royal family. While it may be his good looks, I think it’s because he doesn’t exist in a proverbial ivory tower. He seems to be more in touch with ordinary people. In 2009, William spent a night on the streets, living as a homeless person would, in order to experience first-hand, how indigent people live. In 2000 during a charity expedition to Chile, the prince was treated like everyone else in his group, which meant physical labour and even cleaning toilets.

Root Beer MugTom Hanks was a guest on The Tonight Show a few years ago, and told Jay Leno about a particularly enjoyable Friday night – he and his wife stayed in and watched movies. This A-list celebrity explained this very ordinary evening in great detail. He and his wife love to drink root beer while watching movies; they like to drink it out of large glass mugs (like the ones used at A&W) and they always put the mugs in the freezer first so that they are frosted. While many celebrities enjoy showing off their ostentation lifestyle, Tom Hanks brings himself down to the lifestyle of his audience by describing something completely ordinary and easily attainable.

Add Friend ButtonFacebook has two classes of user accounts: Standard and Public Figure. You can follow a public figure and see their posts on your news feed, but you can’t send them a friend request or (in most cases) send them a private message or post anything on their wall. Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae are two people who impress me with their humility. Both are very well-known in their field, have illustrious careers and are most certainly public figures, yet they each have standard Facebook accounts. If you look at their Facebook home pages, you’ll see a green “Add Friend” button. I like this, because it demonstrates that they don’t feel above anyone else, despite their fame and success. Of course, this might also be because people called Robert (or Bob) are just naturally humble, decent and down-to-earth… :o)

Twitter - Dalai Lama

A few years ago, I decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s Twitter account. A few minutes after I did, the following e-mail appeared in my Inbox “The Dalai Lama is now following you on Twitter!”. This is one of my favourite e-mail messages, and I still can’t bring myself to delete it. Yes, I know that it was probably sent by an automated script, and I doubt that his Holiness is actually reading my tweets, but the sentiment is significant: if I am interested in what the Dalai Lama has to say, then he is willing to return the favour and listen to me. Years later, I still remember this humble gesture.

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You’re probably thinking “These examples are fine if you’re a famous person, but I’m just an ordinary guy (or gal). What could I possibly do to demonstrate humility?”

Be respectful toward others. Politeness and common courtesy are really acts of humility. I’m sure that you, while driving, have often encountered kids and teenagers on skateboards who simply roll through intersections without any consideration for the other vehicles. This also applies to cyclists who seem to think that stop signs don’t apply to them; there are even pedestrians who simply walk right across a busy four-way intersection without breaking their stride. As a pedestrian, I watch the other cars carefully and always wait my turn before crossing the road. However, what I’ve often noticed is that drivers will often wave me through, even if I’ve arrived at the intersection a couple of seconds before they did. Even if I’m not waved through, the other drivers often give me “the wave” as they make their turn or drive across the intersection. When I show respect for the driver by waiting to cross, I am often rewarded by that driver who either gives a wave of appreciation, or often allows me to cross first.

In my blog post Keep Looking Up, I suggested that we should all start associating with people who are smarter than we are. We will initially feel a sense of humility or even inadequacy, but we will eventually be rewarded with an abundance of new ideas, points of view, information, knowledge and wisdom that we wouldn’t otherwise have acquired from our current circle of friends.

Chores 1

Chores 2

Men – help out around the house. Offer to do less-than-glamourous chores, such as cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, vacuuming, or the laundry. You may think that these are thankless tasks, but on more than one occasion, I’ve read Facebook posts by several women who said that the sexiest thing their husband or boyfriend can do is wash the dishes.

HTML CodeIf you’re a programmer, then embrace your bugs and compiler errors. Yes, they are frustrating, time-consuming and often confounding, but they force us to dig deeper into the code and do additional research. Personally, I learn a great deal when I am faced with an error or some unexpected behaviour in my programs. At first I’m a little disappointed that my programming skills weren’t what I thought, but as I work through the code, I learn much more about the language, and the idiosyncrasies of the operating system and the computer than I did before. My humility makes me a (slightly) better programmer.

There you have it – be modest and unassuming now, and enjoy the adulation immediately. If you don’t expect to be exalted until “the time of visitation”, then it is more likely that you won’t notice or appreciate the way people are treating you right now, in their reactions to your humble behaviour.

Should Facebook Add A Dislike Button?

For several years now, there have been rumours that Facebook has been planning to add a Dislike button to its news feed. It still hasn’t happened, and there are numerous articles dismissing it, and I remain skeptical. However, there are still a few stories keeping this rumour alive by raising this possibility once again.

Facebook Dislike Button

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Pro Arguments

● At first, I welcomed the idea because it would restore symmetry to blog posts. Why must we assume that people will like whatever we post? All opinions are important, and those who agree or disagree with our posts should be given equal treatment.

This feedback symmetry reminded me of a computer game I played on my Commodore-64 as a teenager during the 1980s. It was a driving games called Speed Racer, and there was some controversy when it was released because it was morally neutral. Just as in real life, a player could drive well or poorly. If you avoided the people who were crossing the road (and other obstacles), then you received “halo” points. You could also deliberately run over people, and receive “horn” points instead. It was entirely up to you. I thought it was a brilliant idea because it revealed so much about the character of the person playing it. If a game doesn’t guide your behaviour and allows you to be either good or bad, what choices will you make?

Speed Racer TitleSpeed Racer Road

Similarly, a Dislike button will reveal to us, the character (or lack thereof) of our Facebook friends. Are they individuals who recognize the good in others, or will they strive to elevate their online profiles by stepping on the heads of others? The results could be very illuminating.

● A Dislike button is an appropriate response to bad news. If someone posts that a family member or a beloved pet had died, then liking that post will appear cold-hearted or cruel, and it certainly won’t reflect the sentiment that you intended to convey: sympathy or empathy.

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Con Arguments

● Growing up, my mom used to tell me “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”. I didn’t appreciate this advice at the time, because I felt that positive and negative comments should both be expressed freely. As an adult, I now see the wisdom of her words. This, in a sense, is what Facebook has implemented with the absence of a Dislike button.

A Day Without Criticism

● From time to time, one of my friends will share a poster encouraging everyone to go an entire day (or longer) without criticizing others. This is a good habit to develop, and the absence of a Dislike button makes it easier to accomplish this.

● The current arrangement makes it easy to praise but more difficult to criticize. If you like someone’s post, then it takes just a second to click on the Like button. If you don’t like or agree with a post, then you can still register your disapproval, but only via a comment. You have to compose your thoughts and type them out. This takes time and effort, which may discourage people who are merely reacting to something. Only those who feel strongly about an issue will take the time to write a reply.

● A Dislike button generates feedback that it devoid of context and justification. As mentioned above, if you want to criticize a post, then you should at least explain, in detail, exactly what bothers you about it, by (ideally) crafting a reasoned, structured and logical argument. Otherwise, having a Dislike button is the social equivalent of walking up to people and yelling “You suck!” and then walking away. They will have no idea why you are so incensed, and you will have lost an opportunity to explain exactly what their perceived shortcoming is.

● You may be doing more harm than you realize. The first thirty seconds of a recent PBS documentary called Generation Like  illustrates how important it is for today’s young people to be liked by their friends, and that their self-esteem is often determined by how much positive feedback they receive from their social media posts. The absence of positive feedback is viewed by them as a negative thing, rather than something neutral. In fact, receiving fewer Likes than they expected is also viewed negatively, even though it is still positive feedback. This, to me, illustrates the fragility of the teenage ego and their longing for appreciation and acceptance. Imagine how hurt and sorrowful these young people would feel if their Facebook posts started receiving an abundance of Dislikes?

● A Dislike button will promote a binary view of issues, rather than encouraging a lively debate or a nuanced argument. People will generally travel the path of least resistance, and when faced with a Like and Dislike button, I predict that the majority will choose one or the other, rather than reply with a thoughtful opinion in the comments box. There could be a middle ground to an issue or perhaps another illuminating angle that would be stifled by the Like and Dislike buttons.

● Finally, I predict that a Dislike button will lead to an increase in online bullying and harassment. Nefarious and mean-spirited individuals could navigate to a person’s Facebook profile and systematically Dislike every single post.

Facebook Notification IconThis harassment could also be amplified quite easily, under Facebook’s current feedback system. As you know, after you click on Like, the text changes immediately to Unlike. I’ve never had a reason to click on it, but it’s a useful feature if you ever change your mind or if you clicked on Like by mistake. Now, imagine that a bully has clicked on the Dislike hyperlink under someone’s post. A notification is generated automatically, and that person will see a red numeral 1 in the status bar. Clicking on it will indicate that someone dislikes his or her message. The bully can then un-dislike the comment, and a few seconds later, click on the Dislike icon again, which will presumably send another notification to the poster. This can go on continually, and repeatedly for each post. For those who have that much hated in their soul and who also have the time and energy to do this, their repeated disliking and un-disliking will generate a non-stop barrage of negative notifications. I’m already cringing at the thought.

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Until we mature into more benevolent creatures who (to quote Henry Higgins, who was paraphrasing Shakespeare) possess “the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein”, I think that the current Facebook feedback configuration is the best one: make it easy to praise others and difficult to disparage them.