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Friday, May 21, 2010

Our Declining Ability to Think

In 1996, I was a sixteen-year old college student taking my first philosophy class. I was introduced to the rules of logic, to Socratic questioning and to Socrates himself. And yet it wasn’t until years later that I learned a saddening truth: we are losing the ability to think.

The declining role of thought in today’s society is illustrated by the following Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

“I’ve been thinking Hobbes—“

“On a weekend?”

“Well, it wasn’t on purpose…”

What does it mean to think? I am referring not to the mere electrical impulses of our brains which create near-automatic thoughts, but our conscious decisions to meditate, to ponder, to think deeply. The philosopher Rene Descartes built upon the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine by deducing, “I think, therefore I am.” One inference of this statement is that to not think is to not exist. The ancient Egyptians literally believed this. They believed that chaos was held at bay by concentrated thought. Some scholars believe that their endless rituals were actually designed in part because they feared that the end of thought would signify the end of the universe. In the past, thinking has been held in much higher esteem than it is today.

There are comparatively few thinkers today. We’ve all experience “foot-in-mouth” syndrome at one time or another by speaking before we think, but again, this isn’t the type of thought I am referring to. I remember the first time I took philosophy seriously. I would spend hours walking by the river trying to take in page-long sentences by John Stuart Mill or reflect on the teachings of Marx, Rousseau, and Locke. It took an amazing amount of concentration. And the more I thought, the more I realized how little we emphasize thinking in society today.

Of all the variables which have contributed to the decay of conscious thinking, two causes in particular stand out: the Industrial Revolution and resulting technology. The Industrial Revolution created situations where people focused repeatedly on one task, limiting their ability to think about other things. Resulting technology has created the radio, the television, and the internet. Ironically, while these innovations can enable us to think deeper about life, we often use them to the contrary. It is not an infrequent occurrence for someone to go to work or school, focusing alone on one or two subjects, only to come home and immerse themselves in a world of media that rarely requires applied thought.

What does it all mean? Emerson is known to have said that “the ancestor of every action is a thought.” The Buddha affirms this principle when he purports, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” The declining role of thought in our society likely will not result in the end of the existence as the Egyptians believed. However, it will likely affect the level to which we enrich and are enriched by life. In one sense, as we lessen in our ability to think, the world around us becomes smaller. We are aware of less and capable of less. The world as a whole progresses as the quality of life is enhanced by specialized technologies, but individuals digress as they are able to comprehend less and less of what surrounds them.

Our society is in need of a return to concentrated thought. In the past, cultures have recognized the importance of thought. An ironic byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and resulting technology is that we think less. While the Egyptians believed that chaos would ensue if thought ceased, today we face a real danger of losing our ability to enrich and be enriched by life because of our increasing inability to think.

On the other hand, imagine the possibilities if we were to not only enjoy the amenities of modern society, but to meditate upon them as well.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bullying: A Growing Problem

Phoebe Prince committed suicide on January 14, 2010. She was 15 years old. An investigation into her death revealed that Phoebe had been the victim of bullying for nearly three months, both at school and online. The last straw was broken on the day of her death when the verbal harassment and threats of physical abuse became too much too handle. Nearly two months later, Northwest District Attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel, charged nine teenagers in connection with her death.

As tragic as it is, this story is by no means an anomaly. Bullying is a real problem which deserves our sincere attention. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional, repeated over time, and involves an imbalance of power or strength.” Bullying affects numerous groups and individuals, takes various forms, and is associated with horrendous consequences. While many efforts are being made on a public-policy level to alleviate bullying, there are additional components which must be a part of any legitimate solution.

Although bullying is a term which could be used to describe antagonistic relationships in any age demographic, research studies tend to focus on those who are most vulnerable: students. Bullying can affect everyone: boys and girls, kindergarteners and high school seniors, those struggling with obesity and anorexia. Although every instance of bullying is unique, there are certain characteristics which make some more vulnerable to bullying than others.

Victims of bullying are assaulted in many different ways and by many different people. In general, there are three types of bullying. First, bullying presents an immediate threat in the form of actual physical violence. Second, bullying can also take the shape of verbal assault. Lastly, certain types of non-verbal interactions such as emotional abuse also qualify as bullying. These many variations of inappropriate aggressive behavior are embraced by boys and girls alike. Sadly, even adults engage in the bullying of children. The problems associated with bullying are becoming more widespread as time goes on and have even entered the realm of cyberspace.

The consequences of bullying can be fatal, as evidenced by the suicide of Phoebe Prince and many others. Unfortunately, the lesser consequences of bullying are also serious. Students often cite bullying as among their top school-related concerns. One study actually revealed than 1 in 5 high school students would not use the bathroom at school because they were afraid of being bullied. The reality is that bullying is far more than a mere perceived fear. Bullying can affect the physical health, academic performance, and mental health of its victims. The consequences of bullying are so far-reaching that even those who are not directly targeted can suffer negative repercussions.

The tragic consequences of bullying are now being addressed on a public policy level in most states. Currently, 41 states have instituted laws that address bullying in schools. It is anticipated that the remaining 9 states and the District of Columbia will follow suit in the coming years. These legislative efforts demonstrate that bullying is a serious issue with serious consequences which demands serious solutions.

A necessary component of any bullying policy is proper education. Whether instituted on a school-wide or state-wide level, merely having a guideline in a place is not enough to stop the tragic consequences which are associated with bullying. The ideal solution to the problem of bullying comprises legislation, district policy, public education, and personal responsibility. The absence of any of these variables lessens the degree to which bullying policies can be effective.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to Alienate Voters

Elections are becoming a big business. As voting demographics change because of dissatisfaction with the status quo, it becomes more difficult to know how to successfully alienate voters. As a concerned citizen, I offer political candidates three solutions guaranteed to alienate even the most loyal voters.

The first essential strategy to alienate voters is to begin throwing mud in the primaries. It stands to reason that if you can’t win your primary you can’t win the election. While mud-slinging was taboo a few generations ago, it is now a standard business practice of many politicians. A half-hearted politician cannot be respected. As such, mud-slinging should not be reserved merely for the general election. In order to alienate voters early on, it is essential to dirty the name of your opponents in the primary elections. Once voters know that you are committed to doing whatever it takes from the beginning, your chances of alienating voters will increase exponentially.

The second step to alienating voters is to tell everyone what they want to hear. If you take a stand on any issue, especially in front of a hostile crowd, you run the risk of developing a reputation as someone of character. To alienate voters, this simply will not do. You must be equally attractive to pundits on Fox News as you are on MSNBC. You must be for gay-rights when addressing LGBT groups, and staunchly opposed when speaking to evangelical Christians. You must be tough on immigration when speaking to Border States and lax on border policy when speaking to the Hispanic demographic. In short, you must tell every group precisely what they want to hear in order to alienate voters. The more you stand up for what you believe in, the less chance you have of alienating those who are still undecided.

The final key to alienating voters is to ramp up the hateful rhetoric. Respectful dialogue in political debate is a sign that you trust the voters to make decisions based upon the facts of an issue. To alienate voters, you cannot do this. You must show voters that you believe it is more important to vilify an opponent than to laud the virtues of your own platform. Furthermore, you must be able to effectively spin the position of your opponent in every situation. Just as you must be able to present yourself in a positive light to each audience, you must also be able to present your opponent in a negative light. To fail to do this is to run the risk of gaining votes because of your civil approach to the campaign. If you truly want to alienate voters, you must engage in rhetoric that is not only loud, but hateful.

Although voters can be alienated for a wide variety of reasons, these three strategies will greatly increase your chances of losing votes. Remember, it is not enough to start throwing mud in the general election – you must begin in the primaries. Furthermore, you must tell everyone what they want to hear and be certain you do not take a stand on any issue, especially ones about which you feel strongly. Lastly, throwing mud and telling people what they want to hear will only take you so far. To truly alienate voters, you must ramp up the hateful rhetoric and make the election not a contest of ideas, but of uncivil verbal sparring.

The candidate who will hold fast to these three principles is the candidate most likely to alienate voters.