Rules for Social Media

When I first started blogging and reading social media. I was shocked by much of what I saw. I originally wrote this post at that time, but then I shelved it, sensing that maybe my experience was not widely shared. Since that time, things have gotten worse, and I have ample evidence from friends and acquaintances that many feel the same way.  Here is what I wrote:

There is a meme with a long pedigree, going back to at least 1835, that cites the three questions, or three gates, or the rule of three.  Sometimes it is attributed to Socrates, sometimes Buddha or a Sufi mystic, the Quakers or a nineteenth century poet named Beth Day.

Three things to consider before spreading gossip, exchanging info, or even speaking:

  1. Is what you are going to say true, to the best of your ability?
  2. Is what you are going to say good, either good news or something good about another?
  3. Is what you are about to say essential to those who will hear it, and if not essential, at least useful?

A post which fails the first test is a lie or propaganda. One which passes the first and fails the second test is just an unwelcome, inconvenient truth; something which passes the first two but not the third is simply information, if irrelevant. One can see how any post which failed all three tests is malicious gossip, and therefore should not be shared. There is wisdom in applying these rules, especially with respect to information about other people.

I’d like to propose an adaptation of these rules for social media:

  1. Have you verified what you want to post is true? This is a subtle change, but it removes the passive nature of the original with an active requirement. Just because you like it, or saw it in the Times or on a website is NOT good enough.  Newspapers print retractions everyday, and first reports are often proven wrong.  If you cite a media source, have you checked competitors? Did you check Snopes? If your source is partisan, have you sought an opposing view? If you quote someone famous, did you Google it? If it refers to a court decision, did you read the actual finding? Think this is overdoing it? How do YOU like to be on the receiving end of an endless stream of partisan screeds, troll-tweets and fake news? Don’t add to it; be value-added by checking the truth!
  2. If it is true, have you questioned your motives? Ask “why am I posting this?” To antagonize someone? To score a point on the internet scoreboard? Will this cause someone to think, or just react? If the only response you seek is “Wow, you’re right!”, you may be virtue-signalling. If you are, you are also contributing to the social media echo chamber. Just don’t.
  3. It was true, and your intentions are as pure as the driven snow.  Great, now ask yourself “what good will come to those who read this?” Not good for you, mind you. Will they be better educated about an issue? Will they understand some little known aspect or nuance? Will they encounter an unexpected argument or a compelling case? Or it this a tired rehash or a polemic?

That’s it. The internet did not suspend the rules of civilized discourse–it just seems so. Simply because someone (even the President) violates them, that does not mean we abandon them altogether. If you think otherwise, where does it stop? By all means argue for your cause, and oppose hatred and bigotry where you find it, but do so with love and wisdom. The worst abuses have come from those who were certain they were on the right side of history.

Social media needs some rules. It is great for cat & dog pics, news on family, and finding old friends. It is not so good for informed discussion and adult discourse. Let’s make it better.

PS. This post was not directed at any of my good friends or their recent posts. Given the state of social media in general, I could post this ANY time.

Un próspero año nuevo

If you stop and think about it, New Year and its eve are odd things to celebrate. We know time is an abstract, human concept.  We know it is relative: the world uses the Gregorian calendar and tomorrow is 2018, but it is 4713 in the Chinese calendar, 5778 in the Jewish calendar, and 2561 in the Buddhist calendar. So what difference does it make?

Even the precise time of the calendar change is relative. North America is the last continent to experience it, and New York City is the focus. I recall as a child celebrating the New Year as it was broadcast live from NYC, even though we lived in the central time zone in Indiana. Now we can watch as cities in every time zone cross the New Year and celebrate, all in realtime. But why celebrate it at all?

That such celebrations are universal is undeniable. All those calendars I mentioned have a New Year’s Day, with its accompanying celebration. Even long-dead cultures left behind stories of celebration of a change in the annual cycle. It all points to one thing: the fundamental optimism of the human race. It seems that people everywhere and in all times hope for better times with the change of that calendar page.

Optimism is a double-edge sword. I know people who invest great time and energy trying to ensure the very best New Year’s eve date, party, or event, only to feel disappointment creeping into their midnight countdown. Now we all know the fate of our year is not determined by New Year’s eve, but what accounts for all that optimism in the first place?

Certainly human history holds no cause for such optimism: last century was the bloodiest yet, and one in which we eventually developed multiple means to destroy humanity or the planet itself, belying the notion of “the right side of history.” Why would history have an arc that bends toward morality, or liberty, or love for that matter? Of course, some (including me) believe history is unfolding according to a plan, although this guarantees nothing positive in the meantime, just a positive finale.

Perhaps that optimism we all feel is a tiny residue of a deeper longing that one day everything will be better. This is rightly called Hope, and it is not the same as optimism. We often use the word hope casually to indicate something we wish would happen. Hope is actually a form of trust: we hope things will end well because we have been assured, or promised, they will. So while history and our own experiences will often provide an overwhelming rebuttal to our optimism, hold on to the hope. Hope is a good thing.

Of course, one quiet day sometime after the New Year, ask yourself this: Not only what do you hope for, but why do you hope?

Feliz Navidad

Here on Christmas day, just a quick post to send you a simple thought on this holy day.

Perhaps you’re having a spectacular Christmas, full of good cheer and Good News: seeing old friends, gathering with family, enjoying quiet time and parties and thoughtful presents and weather which completes the Christmas tableau for you. I certainly hope this is the case. If so, know that all this is the result of the love of an all-knowing and almighty Creator who only wills all the best for you, and wishes simply to share in your joy.

Maybe this year has been hard for you: rancorous politics, a difficult job or boss, time spent away from family and friends or just alone, even the serious illness or death of a loved one. I pray this was not the case, but all of us have had–or will have–such an experience. If such was the case for you, know that even in your darkest times, you live in the palm of a God-Who-Is-Love, who is all-compassionate in that He suffers alongside you.

Most of us had a year somewhere in between. In that case, know that whether we believe in Him or not, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. If we run to meet Him, He welcomes us even with all our frailties and imperfections. If we stand and wait, skeptical or suspicious of Him, He coaxes us constantly with signs and wonders. If we run from Him, he pursues us with haste, as a father pursues a child headed for a busy intersection.

Such a God is hard to fathom, but then, what else explains a King of Kings born in a manger?

Merry Christmas!

Everything you know is wrong (I)

I thought about entitling this post “Everything I know is wrong” but that seemed to invite your disinterest in reading further. Every once in a while, you learn something new about a topic you thought you knew all about. I will occasionally post about my experiences of “being totally wrong” (I have had many!). This first post involves a famous historical figure: Galileo Galilei.

Some years back at work, I received a professional recognition called “the Galileo Award for Innovation.” In preparing to accept the award, I decided to do a little extra research on Galileo, to use in a short acceptance speech. I thought I knew the story well; we all do, right? Galileo was a brilliant 17th century scientist who proved that the sun did not revolve around the earth. This upset the Catholic Church, which tried him for heresy, tortured and imprisoned him, forcing him to recant his beliefs. Science eventually proved him right, and Galileo is remembered as a martyr for truth and reason against religious dogma.

There are excellent historical records on the entire affair, and they tell a more nuanced story. Galileo was both brilliant and irascible, with a unique ability to anger both friends and enemies with his sharp tongue. Ever notice how exceptional genius is oftentimes accompanied by an exceptional lack of tact? That was Galileo.

Copernicus proposed the theory of heliocentrism in 1543 in a book dedicated to the then-Pope Paul III. Kepler expanded on Copernicus’ work in 1606, ten years before Galileo published his first work arguing for it. Much of this work was financed by the Church, and the Church expressed no objection to it, as long as heliocentrism was posited as a scientific theory. However, the scientific establishment was vehemently opposed to it; to borrow a phrase, geocentrism was settled science. Scientists who had spent entire careers explaining geocentrism were not going to throw away a life’s work, even if heliocentrism did a simpler job explaining observed planetary motion. Furthermore, some of Galileo’s theory required space to be almost infinitely large (it was, but no one at the time could prove it), and that our sun was the center of the entire universe (it wasn’t, but no one could determine this with the instruments available at the time).

In 1616, some of Galileo’s scientific opponents reported him to the Church for heresy, since (in the scientists’ opinion) his views contradicted language in the Bible. Galileo responded that since he was correct, the Church needed to interpret the Bible to conform with his views. This all happened in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, where the question of who gets to authoritatively interpret Scripture was a cause of actual war. The Holy Office (the “Inquisition”) forbid any attempt to interpret Scripture to support heliocentrism. At the Pope’s request, Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo and made this agreement: Galileo was to stop making claims about how the Bible should be interpreted; he was free to write about heliocentrism as long as he described it as a scientific theory and gave other theories their due. For the next seven years, Galileo complied with this agreement.

In 1623, Galileo caught a huge break: his old friend and patron Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VII, who now asked him to write a work explaining the case for and against heliocentrism. The Pope cautioned Galileo to be fair to all sides. Galileo sensed his opportunity to win the argument once and for all, but also to settle old scores. His resulting work Dialogue on the Two World Systems was a masterful repudiation of geocentrism and argument for heliocentrism, employing a series of discussions between a brilliant scientist, an impartial scholar, and a foolish philosopher named Simplicio. While he presented both theories, Dialogues clearly favored heliocentrism, and Galileo voiced the Pope’s views in the character of Simplicio, mocking him in the process.

Having antagonized his chief benefactor, Galileo was now referred for trial by the Inquisition for having broken his vow not to publicly espouse heliocentrism. In a one day trial (without any torture) Galileo confessed that he had broken his vow, although he continued to contend that he did not hold to heliocentrism (which was not the charge against him). He was sentenced to a day in jail and afterward house arrest, daily penance, and to observe his previous agreement. The Holy Office forbid arguments supporting heliocentrism for over a century. Three-hundred and fifty years later, then-Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s treatment of Galileo.

The real Galileo story is a cautionary tale on many levels. The Church let itself get needlessly dragged into a scientific controversy, and then let pride play a role in how it meted out justice. Galileo was brilliant but could not overcome his own ego. He never proved heliocentrism; that would take until the 18th century, and his views on our sun as the center of the universe ultimately were wrong. Scientists are people, and the pursuit of truth in science is just as petty and messy as anywhere else. This last thought led me to a very influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which details just how hard it is to change mindsets, especially scientific ones.

Sorry for the length of this post; getting to the bottom of things sometimes takes space and time (perhaps not 350 years!).