Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: IQ2 Debate – Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?

Office for Emergency Management War Production Board Free speech doesn't mean careless talk circa 1942 1943 Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsWhen I first read the title of this debate, my immediate reaction was ‘Yup!’

I consider myself more of a liberal than otherwise, yet I found myself generally in agreement with the proposition ‘Liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus’.

Many of the examples of effective censorship were already familiar to me: the students who called for UC Berkeley to dis-invite Bill Maher to deliver a commencement speech; constant overzealous insistence on ‘politically correct’ terminology; the perceived need to prefix nearly every class lecture or statement with ‘trigger warnings’ so that students’ feelings, apparently of the delicacy of fine china within their tender little minds, wouldn’t suffer in the slightest.

If I sound sarcastic in the latter remarks, it’s intentional: all this hyper-sensitivity, I fear, is helping to dumb down public discourse, which is especially worrisome in the very institutions whose mission it is to enlighten. It’s important to understand the difference between respect for others, which I think includes the respect for their intellect which informs open and honest discourse, and the squeamish fear of arousing any emotional response beyond placid approval.

To be fair, there’s plenty of non-liberal censorship going on too, as the debaters against the motion pointed out, and were some examples of purported liberal censorship that I don’t think are valid. For example, Kirstin Powers, in favor of the motion, referred to universities refusing to approve student club constitutions that require their members or leaders to hold certain beliefs, such as at Vanderbilt University. I don’t think this is an example of censorship at all. The reasons students are not allowed to command belief in their members are derived from generally applicable laws and principles that prioritize full participation in the public square. An institution that accepts money and resources from the public, such as a university, is well within its rights to say that a club can’t accept those resources and then turn around and allocate them in a discriminatory way. Likewise, the university, and in turn its approved clubs, can’t command their members not to believe certain things either. The students who decide to join these clubs will thus freely self-select their own membership, and those who join who hold dissenting beliefs will bring in a little healthy debate and strengthen the club’s own grasp of the ideas they promote. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works.

Likewise, the students who call for dis-invitations of speakers they don’t agree with would show themselves much more faithful to true liberal values if they support the right of people with opposing views to speak at their campus. If they disagree with the views and actions of the speaker, they should show up to the speech and challenge the views of the speaker in person, in the question and answer session, or with signs for the speaker and audience to read, or if no other means of expression is available to them, plainly express their dissent by getting up en masse and walking out.

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Sources and Inspiration
‘Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus’, Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, Feb 24, 2015.
http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1310-liberals-are-stifling-intellectual….

‘Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs’, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) website, 2012.
http://www.thefire.org/cases/vanderbilt-university-refusal-to-approve-constitutions-of-student

How the Brain Works (and Doesn’t) vs Our Justice System

We’re learning new and surprising things about our brains all the time. Psychologists, behavioral economists, and other scientists have sophisticated new tricks to reveal what’s going on inside our skulls, and their findings are publicized more widely than ever before. We reveal what we think we’re thinking through polls and quizzes, we’re ‘tricked’ into revealing what we’re really thinking through rigged puzzles and tests (exposing our biases, misconceptions, etc), we have easy access to massive databases of recorded human thought, and most amazingly, neuroscientists can now peer inside our brains while we’re thinking. And some of what we’re learning shows us that we’ve been wrong about ourselves in some really important ways.

So: do changes in our understanding of how the brain works mean we have to change, even to overhaul, how our justice system works too?

Our justice system! WHAT?!? Why would we want to change something so equitable, so honorable, it’s defined by the word ‘justice’?

Seriously, though: to many, this question is almost too scary to ask. 

Won’t we send the signal that we’re no longer tough on crime by even proposing such a project? Isn’t our justice system pretty good as it is? Occasional ‘bad apple’ cops, perjuring witnesses, and corrupt prosecutors aside, our justice system is founded on the wholesome principle of personal responsibility: if we do wrong, we pay the price. A central feature of our justice system, after all, is the right to a fair trial by a jury of our peers. And as a society, we’ve taken great pains to ensure that everyone charged with a crime can get a fair trial. Our standards of evidence are pretty high: there must be eyewitness testimony and plenty of it. Forensic evidence is carefully collected and thoroughly analyzed, from blood to fingerprints to DNA to the tiniest of hairs and fibers. Everyone is entitled to legal counsel, even if the taxpayers have to foot the bill. Children and the mentally disabled are, properly, not tried as if they have the same level of responsibility as fully capable adults. The convicted have a right to appeal if they present evidence that their trial was unfair or if they can demonstrate innocence. And so on.
Even granting all of these and setting them aside for now, a common objection to the current justice system in general is that the underlying concept of personal responsibility is a myth. We’re not responsible since everything we think and do is determined by laws of cause and effect. So, we have no free will, and if we have no free will, the whole concept of moral accountability, of responsibility for our actions, doesn’t make sense. The justice system ends up, then, having nothing to rightfully judge or punish. Let’s explore this for a moment.

What do we mean by personal responsibility? We mean that it’s we that did the thing, it’s we who understand that there are alternatives available to us, and it’s we that could, at least conceivably, have done otherwise. This is true even if our personalities, past experiences, and current circumstances make it unlikely we would have chosen otherwise. It’s reasonable to assign responsibility for actions, since it deters us from making bad choices, and motivates us to inculcate better habits in ourselves. Assigning responsibility does not mean we must ruthlessly punish all who do wrong; it means that we can make reasonable demands of one another as the circumstances warrant, be it punishment, recompense, an apology, or an acknowledgement of responsibility.


Who’s responsible for our actions, then? We all are, so long as we are capable of understanding what we should do and why (whether or not we understood at the time), and so long as we could have chosen to do otherwise. Unless immaturity, injury, or illness makes it impossible, or nearly impossible, to control our actions, all persons who are free to make their own choices can and should be held responsible for those choices. (I argue for this more fully in ‘But My Brain Made Me Do It!’)

By the way, that’s why I disagree with many who think that psychopaths shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Although it may be more difficult for the psychopath to do the right thing, to respect the rights of others, it’s still in their power to do so, so long as they are capable of reason. We don’t let other people off the hook just because they don’t feel like doing the right thing; and all people, psychopaths or not, often find the wrong thing to do irresistibly attractive, and the right thing difficult. As long as anyone demonstrates sufficient intelligence to understand that the rules apply to them, it doesn’t matter that they wish it didn’t, or feel like it shouldn’t. After all, psychopathy is characterized by lack of empathy, not intelligence. The impartiality that underlies all morality, as in A owes a moral or legal duty to B, so B owes an equal moral or legal duty to A, is a simple and logical equation that any minimally intelligent adult person can grasp, psychopath or not.

So if the concept of personal responsibility, or moral accountability, is generally a good one, and our society is so committed to creating a fair justice system, what’s the problem with it?Here’s one of the main problems: many of our laws and practices are based on a poor understanding of how memory works, and an underestimation of how often it doesn’t work. For example, many of our law enforcement tactics are virtually guaranteed to result in unacceptably high rates of false convictions through their tendency to influence or convince suspects and eyewitnesses to remember details and events that never happened. Police interrogators can and do legally lie to their subjects in the attempt to ‘get them to talk’, under the assumption that false information has little to no effect on the person being interrogated other than to coax or scare the truth out of them. Until very recently, we didn’t understand how malleable memory really is, how easy it is in many circumstances to get others to form false memories by feeding them information. Courts all over the United States, even the Supreme Court, have upheld such deceptive techniques as lawful, yet we have mounting evidence to show these techniques have the opposite of their intended effect – unless, of course, the intended effect is any conviction for crime, not just the true one.

The fact that human memory is as undependable as it it seems counterintuitive, to say the least. It’s true that we can be forgetful, that we trip up on unimportant details such as the color of a thing, or the make of a car, or someone’s height. But surely, we can’t forget the really important things, like what the person who robbed or raped us looks like, or whether a crime happened at all, especially if we’ve committed it ourselves. Yet sometimes it’s the accumulation of small, relatively ‘unimportant’ misremembered details that leads us to ultimately convict the wrong people, and the evidence piling up also reveals that we do, in fact, misremember important things all the time. And people are losing their reputations, their liberty, their homes and money, even their lives, because of it.
 
Before we look at this evidence, let’s explore, briefly, how we think about memory, and what we are learning about it.

Not so long ago, working theories of human memory rather resembled descriptions of filing systems or of modern computers; many still think of it that way. We thought of the brain as something like a fairly efficient librarian or personal secretary neatly and efficiently storing important bits of information, such as memories of things that

happened to us, images of the people and places we know or encounter in significant moments in our lives, and so on, in a systematic way that would facilitate later retrieval, and most importantly, retrieval of reliable information. ‘Unimportant’ memories, or the less significant details of memorable events, were thrown away by forgetting, so that brain power wouldn’t be wasted on useless information. Sometimes we’d find old memories stuffed away in the back of the file or pushed off to a corner somewhere, a little difficult to retrieve after much time had passed, but still accessible with some effort. But important memories were stored more or less intact and discrete from one another, so if we remembered something at all, we’d remember it fairly correctly, or at least, the most important details of it. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for our internal secretary to rip up the memory file into little pieces and stash it all over the place helter-skelter, or to cross out random bits or even doctor the files from time to time, would it? And we certainly couldn’t remember things as if they actually happened to us if they didn’t. It seems all wrong, that evolution (or an intelligent designer, if that’s your thing) would give us an inefficient, inaccurate, dishonest, or mischievous keeper of that most cherished, most self-defining component of ourselves, our life’s memories.

But now we know that memory works differently in many ways than we thought. How do we know this? For one, we’re now looking inside the brain as we think, and brain scans show that the process of recalling looks different in practice than we might have expected if some of our old theories were true. But more revealingly, we’re taking a closer look at our cognitive blunders. Like many other discoveries in science, we find out more and more about how something works, honing in on it so to speak, by examining instances where it doesn’t work as it should if our theories, or common sense, were correct.

As we’re finding out that memory doesn’t work as we thought, we’re also realizing how heavily our justice system relies on memory and on first-person accounts of what happened. We place a very high value on eyewitness testimony and confessions in pursuing criminal convictions, again, based on faulty old assumptions about how memory works, and how accurately people interpret the evidence of their senses. Yet as we’ll see, people have been falsely convicted because of these, even when other evidence available at the time contradicted these personal accounts of what happened. As our justice system places undue faith in memory and perception, despite their flaws, in what other ways is it built on wrong ideas about how the mind works?

Neuroscience, the quest to understand the brain and how it works, was founded on case studies of how the mind to appeared to change when the brain was injured. Traditionally, the mind was thought of as a unified thing that inhabits or suffuses our brain somewhat as a ghost haunts an old house. If part of the house burns down, the ghost is the same: it can just move to another rooms. But careful observers, early scientists, noticed that an injury to a part of the brain affects the mind itself. When particular parts of the brain were injured, patients lost specific capabilities (to form new memories, for example, or to recognize faces, or to keep their temper). Sometimes, the personality itself would change, like from friendly to unfriendly or vice-versa. Or in the case of split-brain patients, they would simultaneously like and dislike, believe and not believe, or be able and not able to do certain things, depending on how you ask, or sometimes just depending on what side of the body you address them from! Gradually, we came to understand that the mind is something that emerges from a physical brain, from the way the brain’s parts work together, and is entirely dependent on the brain itself for its qualities and for its very existence. 


And as we discussed, it’s not only neuroscientists with their fMRIs that are revealing how the brain works. The criminal justice system has amassed mountains of evidence that shows us how often the human brain does its job and helps us ‘get the right guy’, and how often it fails. With advances in technology, such as DNA testing, more sophisticated firearms testing, expanded access to files and records, and many other newly available forensic tools, we’re discovering an alarming number of false convictions, not only of people currently imprisoned, but sadly, of those we’re too late to help. Most of these are the direct result of basic errors of our own faulty brains. 

(I’ve more briefly discussed the issue of false convictions for crime in an earlier piece, stressing the importance of knowing the ways our criminal justice system fails, and one of the most effective ways society can keep itself informed.)

Two of the main culprits in false convictions are false memory and misperception, the one resulting from errors in recall, the other resulting from bias or the misinterpretation of sense evidence.

For example, let’s consider the case of a rape victim and the man she falsely accused, who went on to work together for reform in certain law enforcement practices. For years, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was absolutely sure that Ronald Cotton had raped her, and her identification of him led to his conviction for the crime. After all, as she said, and as the court agreed, one couldn’t forget the face of someone who had done this to you, committed such an intimate crime inches away from one’s own eyes, could they? Eleven years later, the real rapist was identified when the original rape kit sample was re-tested to confirm a DNA match. Over time, Thompson-Cannino had convinced herself, honestly by all accounts, that Cotton’s face was the one she originally saw, and each time she looked at it, the more she ‘recognized’ it as that of her rapist, and the more strongly she associated this recognition with the rest of her memories of the crime. Fortunately, she’s one of those rare people who are able to fully admit such an egregious mistake, and she has joined with Cotton to call on police jurisdictions to change the way suspect lineup identifications are conducted. Thompson-Cannino and Cotton learned a hard lesson about the fallibility of memory, and how preconceived notions (in this case, that the police must be right) can withstand the rigors of the courtroom and still lead to very wrong conclusions.

But we can imagine that such a mistake must happen from time to time, as in Cotton’s case, when the supposed criminal looks quite a bit like the real one, and the array of circumstances that led to the whole mix-up were so unusually convoluted. But, surely, a lot of people couldn’t all remember the same crime, or series of crimes, wrongly, and describe it mostly the same way when questioned separately? Well, that happens too
. The McMartin case of the early 1980’s was just the first of a string of cases which resulted in hundreds of people being convicted for the rape and torture of small children, usually entirely based on the purported evidence of the ‘victims’ ‘ own memories, or those of their family members. The ‘victims’, mostly young children, told detailed, lurid, horrific stories of events that most people would consider beyond the imaginative scope of innocent children. Over time, as those convicted of the crimes were pardoned, exonerated, or usually just had the charges dropped without apology (some still languish in prison, or are confined to house arrest, or are barred from being with children, including those of their own family), videos and transcripts of ‘expert’ interviews with these children found them leading their interviewees on. Professional psychologists and interrogators were found to be influencing children to form their own false memories, even planting them whole-cloth, rather than drawing them out as most people thought they were doing. This includes the professionals themselves! Some of these children, now grown, still ‘remember’ these events to this day, even those who now know they never happened.

Okay, now we’re talking about children, and we all know children are impressionable. But usually it’s adults who give evidence in such important cases, and though they might be fuzzy on the details when it comes to what other people did, they know what they themselves did, right? Well, here again, no, not necessarily. In Norfolk, Virginia, eight people were convicted of crimes relating to the rape and murder of one woman, based on the first-person confessions and testimony of four military men. These men, who had tested sound enough of mind and body to join the Navy, were convinced by police interrogators, one by one, to ‘reveal’ that they and several others had, by a series of coincidences, formed an impromptu gang-rape party that managed to conduct a violent crime that lasted for hours, while leaving little destruction or evidence behind. Although these confessions didn’t match the evidence found in the crime scene, didn’t match the other confessions, or were contradicted by alibis, all were found guilty on the common-sense and legal assumptions that sane, capable people don’t falsely accuse themselves.Yet as in the Norfolk case, the case history of our criminal justice system reveals that with the right combination of pressure, threats, assertion of authority, and personality type, just about anyone can be pushed to confess to committing even a terrible crime, and worse yet, become convinced that they did it (as one of the men did in the Norfolk case). The Central Park Five, as they are often called, were five teenage boys, aged 14 to 16, who were convicted of the rape, torture, and attempted murder of a woman in Central Park in New York City. The justifiably horrified public outrage at this crime, combined with frustration over a rash of other crimes throughout the city, put a lot of pressure on law enforcement to solve the crime in a hurry. These five boys had already been picked up by police officers in suspicion of committing other crimes that night, of robbery and assault, among other things, and when the unconscious, severely beaten woman was found, the police hoped they had her attackers in custody already. After hours of intensive untaped interrogation, all five eventually confessed, implicating themselves and each other. They were convicted, despite the fact that the blood evidence matched none of them, and their confessions contradicted each other in important details. 

False memories and false confessions are only two of the ways our fallible brains can lead us astray in the search for truth. Human psychology, so effective at so many things, is also short-sighted, self-serving, and wedded to satisfying and convenient narratives, to a fault. Law enforcement officials in all of these cases were convinced that their theories of effective interrogation were right, and that their perceptions of the suspects were right. The prosecutors were convinced that the police officers had delivered the right suspects for trial. The legislators that made the laws, and the courts that upheld them, were convinced they were acting in the best interest of justice. And as we’ve seen, all of these were wrong.

As just about everyone was who were involved in bringing Todd Willingham to court, and in condemning him to die for the murder of his own children by arson. By all accounts, Willingham didn’t act as people would expect a grieving father to act, especially one who had escaped the same burning house his children had died in. Yet it was one faulty theory after anotherfrom pop psychology and preconceived notions about that ‘real’ grief looks like, from bad forensics to a poor understanding of how an exceedingly immature and awkward man might only appear guilty of an otherwise unbelievable crime, that led to his conviction and execution by lethal injection.

But the problem of false conviction for crime is much, much larger than we might suppose from the cases we’ve considered here: these were all capital crimes, and as such were subject to much more rigorous scrutiny than in other cases. If wrongful convictions are known to happen so often in the case of major crimes, we can reasonably extrapolate a very high number of false arrests, undeserved fines, and especially, false plea deals, in which people innocent of the relatively minor crimes they’re accused of are rounded up, charged, and sentenced. Plea bargaining presents a special problem: suspects are persuaded to plead guilty and accept a lesser sentence than the frighteningly harsh one they’re originally threatened with, and in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, we’re finding that huge numbers of innocent people are sent to prison every year through this method. All of this results from a blind zeal to promote justice, or at least, the appearance of justice in the interest of feeling secure, of more firmly establishing authority, or of fulfilling the emotional need to adhere to comforting social traditions.

So how do we need to change our attitude towards our criminal justice system, in the pursuit of actual justice? A proper spirit of epistemic humility, a greater concern for those who may have been wrongfully convicted, and a real love of justice itself (rather than the mere show of caring about justice that the ‘tough on crime’ too often consists of).

But we still are left with the practical task of protecting ourselves and one another. Positive action must be taken, or crime will run rampant, being unopposed. But that doesn’t mean hold on to old ideas and practices because we like them, because they are familiar and ‘time-tested’, and make us feel safe. This includes the death penalty, which shuts out all possibility that we can remedy our mistakes.

Here’s one general solution: approach criminal justice as we do science itself, where we accept conclusions based on the best evidence at the time, but founded on the idea that all conclusions are contingent, are revisable if better, compelling, well-tested evidence comes along. We need a justice system that assumes the fallibility of memory and perception, and builds in systematic corrections for them.

And we need a system that doesn’t just pay homage to this idea: we need to build one that allows for corrections, and not in such a way that it takes years, if ever, to release someone from prison or clear someone’s name if the evidence calls for it. Many would say that the system already works this way: look at how many appeals are available to the convicted, and how many hundreds of people have already been exonerated of serious crimes. But it doesn’t work that way in almost all circumstances. It takes anywhere from months to several years after actual innocence is established to actually release a wrongfully convicted person from prison. For all those not so lucky as to have their innocence proved: most cases don’t have DNA evidence available to test to begin with, at least that would definitively prove guilt or innocence. And even in the rare cases such evidence is available, most is never re-tested to begin with, since the bar for re-evaluation of evidence is so high. Or, the evidence that was available is destroyed after the original conviction and is unavailable for re-examination. Or, legal jurisdictions are so determined that their authority remain unchallenged that they make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors and law enforcement officers to be held accountable in any way if they make a mistake, and bend over backwards to make sure such mistakes are never revealed. And so on.

In short: we don’t just need a justice system that brings in science to help out; we need a justice system whose laws and practices emulate the self-correcting discipline of science, which, in turn, is derived from the honest acknowledgement of the limitations of our own minds.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at Darrow, a forum for thoughts on the cultural and political debates of today

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Sources and Inspiration

‘About the Central Park Five’ [film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns], PBS.org.
http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/about-central-park-five/Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/magazine/19Norfolk-t.html

‘The Causes of Wrongful Convictions’. The Innocence Project.
http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction

Celizic, Mike. ‘She Sent Him to Jail for Rape; Now They’re Friends’ Today News, Mar 3, 2009.
http://www.today.com/id/29613178/ns/today-today_news/t/she-sent-him-jail-rape-now-th

Eagleman, David. ‘Morality and the Brain’, Philosophy Bites podcast, May 22 2011.
http://philosophybites.com/2011/05/david-eagleman-on-morality-and-the-brain.html

‘The Fallibility of Memory’, Skeptoid podcast #446. Dec 23, 2014.
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4446

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012
http://www.ted.com/talks/scott_fraser_the_problem_with_eyewitness_testimony

Grann, David. ‘Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?’ The New Yorker, Sep 7, 2009
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/trial-by-fire

Hughes, Virginia. ‘How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math’. National Geographic: Only Human, Apr 28, 2014.
http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/28/how-many-people-are-wrongly-

Jensen, Frances. ‘Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains’. Fresh Air interview, Jan 28th, 2015.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/01/28/381622350/why-teens-are-impulsive-...

Kean, Sam. ‘These Brains Changed Neuroscience Forever’. Interview on Inquiring Minds, 

Lilienfeld, Scott O. and Hal Arkowitz. ‘What “Psychopath” Means’. Scientific American,
Nov 28, 2007. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-psychopath-means/

Loftus, Elizabeth. Creating False Memories.’ Scientific American, Sept 1,1997. http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
and ‘The Fiction of Memory’ TED talk. June 2013.
http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory?

 
Nelkin, Dana K., ‘Moral Luck’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-luck/
 
Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of the American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.
https://www.how2ask.nl/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/10/Perillo-Kassin-The-Lie

Possley, Maurice. ‘Fresh Doubts Over a Texas Execution’. The Washington PostAug 3, 2014.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/08/03/fresh-doubts-over-a-texas-execution/

Robertson, Campbell. ‘South Carolina Judge Vacates Conviction of George Stinney in 1944 Execution’, The New York TimesDec. 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/us/judge-vacates-convict

Shaw, Julia. ‘False Memories Creating False Criminals’. Interview, Point of Inquiry podcast.
March 2nd, 2015. http://www.pointofinquiry.org/false_memories_creating_false_criminals_with_dr..

‘The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse.’ New York Times, Mar 9th, 2014.
and video ‘McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic | Retro Report’

Book Review / Summary: The Birth of the Pill

In The Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig tells the fascinating story of the four people whose combined efforts, arguably more than any others, made birth control effective, affordable, widely available, and perhaps most importantly (since it makes all the others possible), socially acceptable: Margaret Sanger, Dr. Gregory Pincus, Dr. John Rock, and Katherine McCormick.

At the time the contraceptive pill was being developed, human reproduction was still very poorly understood. Prudish attitudes and obscenity laws hampered scientific research, discouraged and in many cases prevented doctors from educating their patients, and kept women from having any significant degree of control over their own bodies or the decision to become pregnant. It took a few independent-minded, morally driven people of unusual character to achieve change in the arena of reproductive rights.

Two of these four had spent years caring for people whose unchecked fertility threatened their own life and health, and the well-being of their families. Women, especially poor women, found themselves pregnant again and again before their bodies had recovered from earlier pregnancies, had medical conditions caused or exacerbated by pregnancy and childbirth, or could not afford adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health care for their rapidly growing families. Many women also found too many pregnancies burdensome, as they were prevented from pursuing an education or a career, or suffered from exhaustion, depression, and feelings of hopelessness as they found themselves caring for more children than they could cope with.

Margaret Sanger and Dr. John Rock encountered all of these problems up close and personal; their birth control activism was the direct result of their experiences as reproductive health care providers. Sanger worked for many years as a nurse caring for the poorest people in the slums and tenements of New York City. She was so moved by the plight of these women that she risked fines and imprisonment to open the first ‘birth control’ clinic (as she coined the term). Countless poor women, who had often already fled starvation, poverty, and disease in their home countries, found themselves unable to escape the cycle of repeated pregnancies and deepening poverty as their own bodies weakened and their meager resources were stretched ever thinner in the face of anti-immigrant bias, pittance wages, and filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous living and working conditions. This was also an era when women had no right of refusal of sex to their husbands. They faced the awful choice of risking another pregnancy, injury or death by self-performed abortion, or being abandoned when few jobs were available to women, and few jobs paid women enough to live on themselves, let alone support a family. And charity organizations, try as they might, could not keep up with even a fraction of the demand for assistance. Despite repeated arrests and fines, Sanger continued to provide birth control devices and information to the who women flocked to her clinic, pouring out their life stories in person and in letters like this one (original spelling):

‘… I am thirty years old have been married 14 years and have 11 children… I have kidney and heart disease, and every one of my children is defictived and we are very poor. Now Miss Sanger can you please help me… I am so worred and and I have cryed my self sick …I know I will go like my poor sister she went insane and died. …the doctor won’t do anything for me … if I could tell you all the terrible things that I have been through with my babys and children you would know why I would rather die than have another one. Please no one will ever know and I will be so happy and I will do anything in this world for you and your good work …Doctors are men and have not had a baby so they have no pitty for a poor sick Mother. You are a Mother and you know so please pitty me and help me. Please Please.’

I can only imagine what Sanger felt as she read this letter as she worked with so many women struggling under these same burdens, while social mores and the law opposed her efforts to help them.

Dr. John Rock was an obstetrician and fertility specialist. While one of his main focuses was on helping women with fertility problems become pregnant, he also worked with many other women for whom pregnancy, childbirth, and child care was detrimental to their physical and mental health, for various reasons. He became a staunch activist for birth control, and worked to convince the public and the Catholic church, of which he was a committed member, that effectively planning families and regulating childbirth is not only practical, but of the highest moral worth, since it promotes bodily and spiritual health, and a loving family life in which all children can be well cared for. He thought he could convince the church hierarchy that the hormonal method of birth control is consistent with Catholic teaching, since it’s simply an extension of the natural cycle that occurs in a woman’s body, rather than a barrier method with was doctrinally forbidden; his rhythm-method clinic taught the only form of birth control other than abstinence that was sanctioned by his religion, but as he observed, neither worked very well. His efforts to help women control their rates of pregnancy would eventually prove effective, but his efforts to convince the Church, until this day, have been in vain.

Yet birth control was not only linked to beliefs in reproductive rights and health: it was linked to a change in sexual mores. Sanger, Pincus, Rock, and McCormick all held what we’d now call ‘sex-positive’ beliefs: they thought sex could and should be a wonderful thing, among the most joyous, intimate, and healthy means by which humans connect with one another. In a time when sex was often regarded as shameful, depraved, and for the sake of men (I would argue that while it’s re-branded, it still is, as ‘liberated’, ‘powerful’ women painfully squeeze themselves into bustiers and stilettos and straighten, curl, bleach, and cut their hair and bodies to fit into a few stereotypical male fantasy body types as possible, in our crudely sex-obsessed, tabloid, misogynistic culture — yes, I’m talking about you too, Beyonce), they thought it could and should be a loving, freeing, and transcendent experience for both partners.

Dr. Gregory Pincus, the scientist who would ultimately formulate the first effective, FDA-approved birth control pill, was an unusually independent-minded, freethinking, colorful personality from an early age. As a young researcher at Harvard, he was widely publicized for his frank and unapologetic views on the benefits of revolutionizing human reproduction through scientific intervention. The sensationalist, brave-new-world ‘news’ stories led to Harvard’s kicking him out of their faculty and their labs, as a reputation-defense measure. Pincus went on to found his own research institute,. where he continued his research into hormones and their effects in reproduction. Arguably, it was this very political and financial independence from any large mainstream establishment that enabled him to succeed in his goal to produce the first birth control pill.

It also took money, and lots of it, as it does with any new pharmaceutical. Planned Parenthood could only provide limited funding for Pincus’s work, so it dragged on slowly, until Katherine McCormick, wealthy heiress, came along. She had discovered, shortly after she married, that her new husband suffered from severe mental illness. McCormick was well-educated, an MIT graduate at the time of her marriage, and was fascinated by all things science. When she learned of her husband’s mental illness, she poured time, money, and research into finding a cure, especially in the fields of hormonal research and heritability. She was also dedicated to women’s rights causes, and by the time of her husband’s death, her interests and fields of study and activism led to her single-minded determination to aid in the cause of making birth control effective and widely accessible. It was she, more than any other, who provided Pincus the funds to pursue more lab research, and for he and Rock to conduct more clinical trials.

Eig’s book is not a simple hero story: he reveals the history and personalities of each with their complex set of motivations, warts and all. Sanger was a eugenicist, for example. It was not uncommon for progressives, scientists, and those in the medical field to subscribe to the principles of eugenics at that time; many thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that it was the only way science could really ‘cure’ disability and disease once and for all. Medical science, humanitarian groups, and governments had not yet offered systematic or effective solutions to the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, diseases caused by overcrowding and malnourishment, and mental health issues, and were simply unable to keep up with the demands of the humanitarian crisis in affected communities. Eugenics, on the other had, seemed to offer the only sure and straightforward solution, until the application of its principles by fascist governments revealed how faulty a ‘science’ (really a pseudoscience) it was. Sanger was also a neglectful mother, unsuited by personality to the stay-at-home role mothers were restricted to in her time. Pincus was a media hound, and conducted some of his trials in what today would be considered an unethical manner. Rock was willing to mislead some of his patients when he found that public attitudes made most women unwilling to participate in contraceptive studies, if presented as such. And McCormick, like Sanger, had a marked tendency to elitism.

Yet the contributions of these four unusual, passionate, driven crusaders towards improving women’s health and social and legal emancipation can hardly be stressed enough. Women can now have as many children as they choose when they choose, and are not subject to the whims of men when it comes reproductive issues (still mostly true despite discouraging recent regrettable, retrograde legal decisions, for example, regarding the mandate that insurance companies pay for full reproductive health care). Sanger’s, Pincus’s, Rock’s, and McCormick’s belief that birth control would ultimately improve and save the lives of women, and improve the standard of living for families, have been vindicated over the years. For example, women on the pill live longer, on average, than other women, and the results of decades of study leads the World Health Organization to promote birth control as an important means of improving health and relieving poverty around the world.

With his excellent book, Eig not only compellingly tells the story of how the pill came to be, but also of the human dramas behind its invention. The history of the pill, the circumstances which gave rise to its invention, and the ideas of its creators show us how and why ready access to effective birth control is as important today as it ever was.

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Sources and inspiration: 
Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. http://books.wwnorton.com/books/The-Birth-of-the-Pill/

Kelland, Kate, Ed Jon Hemming ‘Women On the Pill Live Longer: Study’. Reuters, Mar 12 2010
http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/12/us-contraceptive-pill-risk-idUSTRE62B01R20100312

World Health Organization website, ‘Reproductive Health’.
http://www.who.int/topics/reproductive_health/en/

A Hike From Serpentine Prairie / Dream On, But Remember to Enjoy Today

Serpentine Prairie is a wonderful place to be in spring, and I started my hike there today.

It’s an open, hilly field adjacent to Redwood, a regional park in the Oakland hills, among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I am so glad to live nearby.

We’re in a drought here in California, but you would never know it from what I saw. The native California grasses are abundant, green and thick (and rare, having been choked out by imported Mediterranean species, but not here: the poor soil, made from the crumbled bedrock serpentine, is inhospitable to all but the native species which evolved to thrive on it), bright green new growth is bursting from branches left and right against the darker trees, and vines crawl, twist, and fling themselves across it all, reaching for the sun. The wildflowers are in full bloom, in shades of golden orange (poppies, of course!), yellow, purple, and white, except for the mottled purple-and-green ones, a little like umbrellas and a little like bells, leaning down to shade and guard their tender inner flowers. The variety of wildflowers is surprising when you look a little closer: just the white ones all look like so many sparky little stars, but are so different in the shade of green, leaf shape, and size of the plant they grow from.

There’s a little plant here and there, a fern I think, with bright lightly ruffled leaves shaped like those of the ginkgo tree in autumn. They hang on superthin stems, almost gossamer, of purplish-bluish-black, and they fluttered and shuddered when I blew on them. Watch out for poison oak! you who suffer from it, because it’s all over the place. I think I’ve grown immune from the time I’ve spent among it all, but it’s best to be careful. It’s all tangled up underfoot, lobed and shiny, among the wild strawberry and miner’s lettuce, waiting to grab at an unwary ankle.

So many kinds of trees grow here: the twisty madrones with their sexy ultra-smooth skin, peeling bark, and little white bells on for spring; the gnarled, ancient-looking oaks with their moss, the exotic eucalyptus keeping the earth in place, and the redwoods, soooooo tall, and so aloof from all the seasonal frenzy going on underfoot.

Daylight savings time has just started, and I’ve been chomping at the bit for it: on my shorter days at work, now that the evenings are long, I made a beeline for the hills as soon as I got off, so I can finish my hike before dark, as I will do every week now that the long evenings of daylight are here. I’m selfish: I hope the farmers lose the argument, and daylight savings time remains our national habit.

Earlier today, I had just realized, once again, that I had lately fallen into one of my bad old habits, born of my impatient and restless nature. I’ve been so irritated at not being able to do all that I want to do right now, that I’ve been forgetting to fully enjoy the things I love to do that I am doing.

My day has job gotten busier and more demanding in the past year, my workload and the hours required to do the job well increased, and I’ve been fretting because the essays I want to write, the things I want to to sew, the books I want to read, the places I want to visit, are piling up, as I have less and less time to give them and still get my rest.

But when isn’t this true, and for whom? Nearly all lives become ever busier, and the days seem to grow shorter, the father away you are from childhood. That’s just the way it is.

We can only control how busy we are so much, when we must work for a living, have families to take care of, and so on. But we have a little more control over how we approach it all, as we struggle to keep up with what we need to do and what we want to do.

I am restless, and impatient, and prone to daydream. This can be good, and for the most part, I think it is. I like it, anyway: these have pushed me to do things I look back on with satisfaction. But when I realized earlier today that I had fallen out of the habit of fully enjoying the good things I could be enjoying now, I remembered to engage in my with so much more of my attention, so as I was closely observing the little flowers, the leaves, and the vines, I was looking closely enough to see the little snake dart across the path and ‘hide’ in plain sight, camouflaged against the stems, just as I was stepping out of Serpentine Prairie and onto Golden Spike Trail. What perfect timing!

I’ll go to bed now, thankful to have my love to cuddle with, and a world to wake to, that I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to enjoy, as long as I remember to do so.

Book Review / Reflections On: Assholes, a Theory

The title might make you think it’s not a serious work, that it’s tongue-in-cheek, even a parody of a philosophy book.

But it’s really a very good, intelligently written, well-thought-out exploration of a sadly widespread phenomenon. And yes, it’s so satisfying to finally see that age-old question ‘Why are you being such an asshole?’ addressed and explained so thoroughly.

Author Aaron James is not being merely provocative in using the term ‘asshole’ to designate the particular kind of person he’s talking about. He uses this colloquialism because we really have no other word that’s so specific and so widely understood, to refer to a person who displays a certain attitude and systematically engages in certain types of bad behavior. Here’s James’ three-part definition: the asshole 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically: 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p 5).

When we say of someone: ‘what an asshole!’, or observe ‘that was such an asshole thing to do!’ pretty much everyone recognizes this just the sort of person or behavior we’re talking about. If we were to use a more formal or non-slang term instead, as in ‘what a bad person!’ or ‘that was a depraved thing to do!’, the full richness and specificity of meaning that the colloquial, richly nuanced term asshole possesses wouldn’t be fully expressed. Look at how many words it took James to define what we mean by ‘asshole’ (and I would say, not quite fully: none of the definition’s three parts describe the little shudder of outraged disgust we feel when we see assholes doing what they do.)

That’s why, like James and fellow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose 2005 paper ‘On Bullshit’ caused quite a stir, I disagree with linguistic purists and prudes who wholly reject the use of colloquialisms in serious or academic work (though I speak only for myself as to how far this should go ). Out of self-righteously willful obtuseness, I insist, these purists just don’t ‘get it’. Everyday spoken language is much more fluid and adaptable than formal language, because there’s no arbiter of proper usage ‘breathing down your neck’ other than your partner in conversation. In the virtual experimentation lab that is daily conversation, we search for words that express exactly what we mean as efficiently if possible, and if there’s no ready word available, we adapt one that already exists, or make one up on the spot. As long as the person you’re talking to right then understands you, ‘it’s all good’. Formal language, on the other hand, evolves much more slowly, and must adhere more rigidly to existing standards of usage. Only over long periods of time do newer terms, having entered into common usage, filter up through the levels of linguistic formalization, and become accepted by editors of dictionaries, publishing houses, and news media. Yet the formalization of language doesn’t always result in a more expressive, precise one. As you can see, I used several idioms and colloquialisms in this paragraph, in quotes, to express my thoughts, and if you haven’t ‘been living under a rock’ you probably understood exactly what I meant. You can also see that colloquialisms can not only be a more colorful or amusing way, but more efficient way, of expressing yourself. You can test this by trying to define the full meaning of these colloquialisms, with all their nuance, using a lesser number of terms in formal language. I’d ‘bet your ass’ you can’t!

(In one of my student papers written a few years ago, I explore the linguistic origins and evolution of colloquialisms in the light of Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Dumas and Lighter’s paper on slang, and Steven Anderson’s hilarious and thoughtful documentary F**k. )

But I digress. To return to James’ book: it has a lot going on. So much so that it lead me to think, for example, more about the nature of language itself, just from the parts where he discusses what ‘asshole’ means, the various subtypes of assholes, and compares and contrasts asshole to related terms bitch, schmuck, assclown, douchebag, dickhead, dick move, and so on. (He forgot one of my favorites, asshat, which refers to having one’s head up one’s own ass, thereby wearing it like a hat.) It’s a testament to the richness of ideas in this book that thinking it over, every time, engendered so many other interesting lines of thought. Exploring the concepts contained in the term ‘asshole’ raises important questions about respect for one’s self and others, of human dignity, of exploitation, of how you should act and not act in a cooperative society, what we can rightfully expect of others and why their failure to live up to this is so objectionable, and much more; in short, this term is thick with moral and political implications.

There’s one point on which I disagree: his suggestion that, while assholes are far more likely to be men (which I agree is the case), they are almost entirely a product of culture (chapter 4). While I agree there may be cultural factors that help instill asshole qualities in men, and that some cultures are more likely to instill these qualities than others, it seems that nature plays a larger role than James allows. I think it likely that testosterone, the hormone which we know increases the tendency to aggression, contributes a lot to the phenomenon of assholery. After all, the traits James ascribes to the asshole are aggressive in nature: systematically granting oneself special privileges over others, of feeling entitled to things whatever the circumstances, and rejecting or ignoring others’ just complaints. It’s not that all men are assholes, far from it. It’s just that the biological factor of hormonal makeup increases the likelihood that males will be more susceptible to asshole influences, or more likely to possess aggressive traits that readily fall into asshole patterns of thought and behavior, than women. To my mind, assholery is a product of combined nature and nurture: asshole seeds take root in ground made more fertile by testosterone.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on asshole capitalism. James is not claiming here that capitalism is necessarily an asshole system. What he’s claiming is that capitalism is essentially a cooperative system ripe for exploitation by assholes, which, in turn, puts it in ever-present danger of collapse, of being destroyed from within. That’s because capitalism is a system of exchange and of reward: people exchange goods and services cooperatively and fairly, which generates trust and more trade, and people reward those who devise and provide the best goods and services with admiration and customer loyalty. And assholery, systematically behaving as if one is entitled to things regardless of the actual value of their contributions to the world, threatens the stability of the cooperative environment necessary for capitalism.

Since assholes systematically regard themselves as the rightful recipients of the best of everything, out of a sense that they are entitled to it per se, assholes exploit other people’s willingness to be fair and to reward others. Asshole drivers feel that owning bimmers entitle them to run red lights and rev their motors inches from people in crosswalks; asshole CEOs and managers think nothing of the fact that their wealth is built on the backs of sweatshop laborers or from industries that generate mass pollution; asshole bankers think they should earn millions or billions a year because they ‘have the balls’ to gamble other people’s money in financial markets, even at the risk of bringing down entire economies (to be fair, they are often so obsessed with their own rewards they may have a hard time even conceiving of larger, potentially dire consequences, because that would mean seriously considering interests other than their own).

Capitalism can and does thrive when people act somewhat selfishly within a larger context of cooperativeness. But never to the extent that the system would hold up under too much lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and neglect of employees, etc. That’s because money, and markets, can’t operate without trust. If most people can be trusted and it’s just a relatively few bad apples gaming the system, well, human nature being what it is, that’s to be expected. But if entitled, self-obsessed, rapacious assholes proliferate beyond a certain proportion, all bets are off. James explains why the modern Russian oligarchic system is rightly considered a full asshole capitalist system and the Japanese system is very much not. Worryingly, and not the least bit to my surprise, James presents evidence for what I’ve already been convinced of: the United States brand of capitalism is edging far too close to Russia’s end of the spectrum, and much farther away from Japan’s. That’s because our modern American capitalist culture has become one of entitlement (as much as certain pundits like to use this word exclusively to refer to aid to the poor, not handouts and special privileges to the rich), in which far too many of use we feel justified in grabbing whatever we want because we somehow, innately, ‘deserve’ it, everyone else be damned.

In sum: this book is a very useful book, on how to understand the origins and nature of assholes; on how to recognize and deal with assholes in the media and in daily life (James’ theory helps explain why certain assholes in the media remain entrenched in their self-serving dishonesty); and as a cautionary tale of when societies allow and encourage assholery to run amok.

– This book review is dedicated to my father-in-law, a man given to succinctness. His fatherly wisdom, which so resonated with my husband he has retold it many times over the years: ‘Son, don’t be an asshole. The world has enough of them already’.

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014.  www.onassholes.com

Nicholson, Christie. ‘Testosterone Promotes Aggression Automatically’, Scientific American, June 9, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/testosterone-promotes-agression-aut

Thanks also to www.urbandictionary.com, which helped me make sure I had all my colloquialisms right, and avoided spelling bimmer ‘beamer’ like a moron

Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: David Morris on the ‘Volunteer’ Army and the History and Science of PTSD

In this fascinating podcast, former Marine infantry officer David Morris explains to host Indre Viskontas what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) really is: a little bit medical diagnosis, and a whole lot moral/political argument. To understand PTSD, we need to consider not only why some suffer from PTSD and why others don’t, but what war means to us as a society.

Besides being fascinated by what I learned about the science and history of PTSD specifically (as I hope you will by listening to the podcast!) I was particularly struck by what Morris’s remarks on the institution of our modern ‘volunteer’ army (starting at about 19.17). He points out how our nations’s leaders, along with most Americans, are almost entirely removed from the consequences of the wars we start since the de facto end of conscription in the 1970’s.

It seems that allowing all soldiers the choice to enlist, rather than forcing them to do so, is the only fair and just way to go about fighting a war, right? Seems shameful, undemocratic, even downright un-American, to force people to kill who don’t believe in killing.

Yet Morris makes this excellent point: rather than allowing us to ‘choose for ourselves’, which sounds democratic, the volunteer army system allows us to vote in favor of war, or stay at home and do little or nothing to stop it, while avoiding most of the burden and all of the danger.

So we start wars, or allow them to be started in our name, at little or no cost to most of us. As a nation, we all too often rush into war with too little consideration of the long-term consequences, or little understanding of the underlying cultural and historical causes of the turmoil in the first place (hmm, can we think of any modern wars that belong in that category?). Meanwhile, the President who calls for declaring war, the Congress who votes in its favor, we who vote these leaders to office, and the rest of us who do little or nothing about any of it, can rest easy knowing we don’t have to pay the costs. We don’t have to be soldiers, or to send our friends and loved ones off to do the fighting, unless we want to. We can shout our opinions to the heavens, take a righteous stand on one side or another, and forget about it the next day.

So the ‘volunteer’ army of paid soldiers bear the burden, face the danger, take the bullets and suffer the pain, while the most of the rest of us go about our relatively wealthy, secure, and comfortable lives, forgetting there’s a war on at all. How is this democratic? How is it any more fair or just to let the entire burden and danger of our war fall on the tiny percentage of Americans who enlist, and on their loved ones?

Morris offers what I think is a very good solution: if we do go to war, every able adult must be eligible for drafting into public service: we can choose to join the armed forces, or we can choose to dedicate hours working for the public good, at a non-profit, or with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or other public works project. That way, we can require each other to become full participatory citizens once again, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. If we truly believe that all killing is wrong, or that this particular war we’re engaged in is unjust, we won’t be forced to betray our principles, but neither will we be able to escape our civic duty to involve ourselves in the all-important matter of war and peace. And our leaders will be encouraged to make more responsible decisions about the wars they vote for, knowing once again that whatever they decide, they and their own families and friends will have to bear the burden too.

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Sources and Inspiration: 

Morris, David J. ‘The History and Science of PTSD’. Inquiring Minds podcast #73, Feb … 2015
https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/73-david-j-morris-the-history-and-science-of-ptsd

Wikipedia contributors. “Conscription in the United States.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_the_United_States

Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

You’re likely aware of the backstory to this piece: well-known news anchorman Brian Williams was caught telling stories. A generous interpretation would portray them as exaggerations; a harsher one a series of self-aggrandizing lies. Williams placed himself in the thick of the action while covering certain news stories, like the shooting down of a military helicopter and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was actually at a safe distance. Since his stories were recently debunked, in whole or in part, by others there at the time, he has been widely criticized, shamed, and mocked, and the public debate over the nature and reliability of modern news rages ever more fiercely.

He’s not the only public figure in hot water right now for playing fast and loose with the truth. Bill O’Reilly is also being called out for his history of adding, ahem, some ‘color’ (my term, not his) to his news stories. He’s repeatedly talked (bragged?) about ‘covering four wars with his pen’ (his words), including the war in the Falklands, when he was actually over a thousand miles away from the ‘active war zone’ (his words, which he was said he was in) covering a demonstration in Buenos Aires.
Bill O'Reilly dining with troops, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut the O’Reilly case is different! many say. Brian Williams is a trusted news anchor, from whom people
expect to get unvarnished facts, and they expect to get them because that’s what he promises to deliver. O’Reilly is a commentator, albeit on a popular news station. Yet he presents himself as a truth-teller, speaking from the ‘No Spin Zone’, constantly referring to his bona fides as a lifelong journalist. So his viewers do expect the same level of honesty from him as from Williams, be it the facts or his true political and moral opinions.

Instead of taking the snarky, self-righteous tone he’s adopted, using tactics of straw-manning and name-calling his critics, and trying to obscure his tall tales with lame excuses, he could just honestly admit (if this is what he’s actually done) that he used colorful and exaggerated language to add a sense of immediacy, urgency, or drama to his stories, and given his self-proclaimed role as a truth teller and ‘non-spinner’, admit that this might have been misguided.

Rush Limbaugh, another famous commentator who’s often accused of lying and slander, likes to use the same excuse that his fans do when he gets caught: that he’s ‘just an entertainer’. Presumably, then, when he purposefully misrepresents the words, actions, and characters of his ideological opponents, he doesn’t really mean what he says. Or does he?

One such case was that of Sandra Fluke, a law student and activist who testified before Congress regarding a proposed religious exemption to the government mandate that all health insurance policies must cover contraception. Fluke presented arguments, based on medical evidence and anecdotes of friends with gynecological and hormonal conditions, that birth control is essential preventative and therapeutic health care, especially for women, and as such, should be covered under all plans, public or private.

Limbaugh exploded. He called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, and represented her as saying that ‘she must be paid to have sex’, and if so, she should provide sex tapes as public repayment for taxpayer money. Yet if you read Fluke’s own testimony, and read or listen to any of Fluke’s own discussion of birth control, it’s clear that she doesn’t mean any such thing, or says anything that can reasonably be construed as saying that paying for birth control is equal in any way to ‘paying for sex’. This would be as nonsensical as saying that to pay for an emergency room visit for a car crash victim amounts to ‘paying them to drive’ (and therefore they are obligated to be your chauffer?), or to pay for insulin for a diabetes sufferer is to ‘pay them to eat sweets’, or to pay the medical bills for the delivery of baby is to ‘pay for her to have sex’ (after all, that’s how she got pregnant) or ‘pay for her to have children’ (and therefore you have the right to put spycams in the nursery? Or make her child come over to do your chores?). After a storm of protest over his nasty (and pervy) rhetoric, Limbaugh apologized for calling her names and for ‘exaggerations to describe’ her personally. Yet he’s never, so far as I could discover, apologized for distorting and misrepresenting (two commonly used, slightly polite ways of saying ‘lying about’) her views on preventative healthcare on his radio show. Of the two, I argue that the name-calling is by far the lesser of the two: the slurs are unbelievable, and therefore perhaps possibly construed as satire. But the misrepresentation of her views is a lie that harms both her and the public, by slandering her and keeping important information from his audience, replacing it with falsities.

Limbaugh tells his viewers that he’s one of the most ‘honest‘ commentators out there, ‘huge on personal responsibility’ as he said in the same apology broadcast. He also says that he’s a satirist, that he uses ‘absurdity to illustrate the absurd’. It doesn’t appear to me as if he presentsd his take on Fluke’s testimony as satire: he seems to present it as a corollary of her arguments. The trouble with Limbaugh is that he slides back and forth from what he tries to call ‘satire’ to what he would call ‘the truth’ without any sort of clarification, any sort of signal to his audience so they can tell when he’s being factual, and when he’s uttering an absurdity to make a point. In researching this piece, I read quote after quote, transcript after transcript, of supposed satirical absurdities, facts, and half-truths all scrambled together will-nilly in each sentence, each paragraph, each entire show, generally with no discernible way to tell which was which. This gives him a general ‘out’ when it comes to saying whatever he wants without being called out for lying, which, in turns, makes every statement as credible as any other, which is not at all. Sorry, Rush. You can’t have it both ways.

(When I was doing research to refresh my memory on the case, I found that he had scrubbed his website of all transcripts and recordings of his actual remarks. It may be he was forced to do so as a result of his advertisers fleeing, or it may have been his own ass-covering move. Either way, this scrubbing does not represent evidence of his honesty or belief in ‘personal responsibility and accountability’, to say the least.)

So why bring up this old case again?

It’s to illustrate how and why so many of us are feeling so distrustful, so tired, so saddened, or (I think mostly) so jaded about honesty, and the lack thereof, in our public discourse. These three men, three widely admired, influential public figures present themselves as advocates for and providers of ‘the truth’: the straight newsman, the newsman-turned-commentator-on-a-news-network, and the straight commentator. All of them have been caught lying, some more than others, some more seriously, perhaps, than others. The way these three men have responded to being caught in lies and exaggerations reveal a lot about what they expect of themselves, and what they think we expect of them.

Brian Williams, of the three, has responded the best. He publicly apologized and admitted he made a mistake, admittedly in a rather defensive, self-excusing way. His lies may have been half-honest, in a sense, as he exaggerated his stories little by little over time with each re-telling, as human beings commonly do, just as Bill O’Reilly may have done. (I have been researching how memory works for another piece I’m working on, and how easy it is for certain people to create false memories, and to change certain aspects of a memory, especially when recalled and discussed repeatedly over a period of time. Stay tuned for more on that.) But he, like O’Reilly, should also have been fact-checking himself all along when re-telling such an important story after so many years, because that’s his self-imposed job: to stay faithful to the facts in a way the ordinary citizen doesn’t necessarily need to. As his friends and colleagues have stated, however, he alone, of these three, appears appropriately contrite, even ‘shattered’.

It seems clear that he’s aware of the wrong he’s done, and why it was wrong.

O’Reilly and Limbaugh, on other hand, have been reacting very badly, as we have seen. They simply seem to have a different conception of what truth is, and what their relation to it should be. Is it because they consider themselves commentators first, and reporters of factual information second? Perhaps. But this makes no difference.

If you promise your audience that you will tell the truth, that you should be trusted, then you have made it your duty to be truthful and trustworthy. I believe, further, that it becomes your duty in these circumstances to be a living example of truthfulness and trustworthiness: conduct discourse in an honest fashion, present your opponent’s views fairly and give them the benefit of the doubt, and debate and discuss their arguments on their own merits. If you want to tell the truth indirectly in satire, make clear what’s satire, and what’s not.

And if you get caught in a lie or an exaggeration, admit it. Your audience will thank you for your honesty, even as you make a mistake, since admitting it without excuses it proves your honesty all the more.

The discussion continues: On Jonathan Webber’s Discussion on Deception With Words: Honesty in Public Discourse Part II

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow http://darrow.org.uk/2015/04/12/brian-williams-bill-oreilly-rush

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Sources and Inspiration:

Corn, David. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds. We Annotate’. Mother Jones, Feb 20th 2015
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/david-corn-response-oreilly-falklandsFluke, Sandra. Sandra Fluke Yestimony to US Congress, Feb 23, 2012
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Sandra_Fluke_testimony_to_US_Congress_%282012_Feb….

Freed, Benjamin. ‘7 Questions for Travis Tritten, Reporter Who Debunked Brian Williams’s Helicopter Story’, Washingtonian, Feb 5th 2015. 
http://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/capitalcomment/media/7-questions-for-travis-tritt

Limbaugh, Rush. ‘Why I Apologized to Sandra Fluke’. The Rush Limbaugh Show, Mar 05 2012
http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2012/03/05/why_i_apologized_to_sandra_fluke

Limbaugh, Rush. Quote: ‘You know I have always tried to be honest with you…’ Wikiquote, from
The Rush Limbaugh Show, Oct 10th 2003 http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Rush_Limbaugh

McCoy, Terrance. ‘Brian Williams Perhaps Misremembered Floating Dead Body and Gangs During Katrina Hotel…’ Washington Post Feb 10, 2015

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/10/brian-williams-perhaps

Mahler, Jonathan, Ravi Somaiyia, and Emily Steele. ‘With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale’. New York Times, Feb 5, 2015
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/business/brian-williamss-apology-over-iraq-account-is-

Reeve, Elspeth. ‘Rush Scrubs ‘Slut’ Comment, Demand for Fluke Sex Tapes’. The Wire, Mar 8 2012 http://www.thewire.com/politics/2012/03/rush-scrubs-demand-for-fluke-sex-tapes/49643/

Steel, Emily and Ravi Somaiyia. ‘Brian Willaims Suspended From NBC for Six Months Without Pay’, New York Times, Feb 10, 2015

Uygur, Cenk. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds To Attacks Over Falkland Islands War Coverage Lies’.
The Young Turks, Feb 23rd, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiTbq8OAqbM