The dangers of distracted parenting

Erika Christakis writes:

Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes—car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems, failure to notice a clown on a unicycle—that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Our society may be reaching peak criticism of digital devices.

Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. To be clear, I’m not unsympathetic to parents in this predicament. My own adult children like to joke that they wouldn’t have survived infancy if I’d had a smartphone in my clutches 25 years ago.

To argue that parents’ use of screens is an underappreciated problem isn’t to discount the direct risks screens pose to children: Substantial evidence suggests that many types of screen time (especially those involving fast-paced or violent imagery) are damaging to young brains. Today’s preschoolers spend more than four hours a day facing a screen. And, since 1970, the average age of onset of “regular” screen use has gone from 4 years to just four months.

Some of the newer interactive games kids play on phones or tablets may be more benign than watching TV (or YouTube), in that they better mimic children’s natural play behaviors. And, of course, many well-functioning adults survived a mind-numbing childhood spent watching a lot of cognitive garbage. (My mother—unusually for her time—prohibited Speed Racer and Gilligan’s Island on the grounds of insipidness. That I somehow managed to watch every single episode of each show scores of times has never been explained.) Still, no one really disputes the tremendous opportunity costs to young children who are plugged in to a screen: Time spent on devices is time not spent actively exploring the world and relating to other human beings.

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory. [Continue reading…]

Mainstream politicians have long helped promote fear of ‘the other’

Kenan Malik writes:

In October 2013, a ship carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 300 people drowned.

It was not the first time that migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean. In fact, at that time it was estimated that in the previous 25 years at least 20,000 people had died trying to reach the shores of Europe. The real figure was most likely much higher. But that sinking in October 2013 was the first time that such a tragedy had truly impressed itself upon the conscience of Europe.

European leaders expressed anger and outrage. The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. “I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. The disaster would be “a spur to action”, promised the UN secretary general at the time, Ban Ki-moon.

After the tragedy, I wrote that such leaders may well be “sincere in their expressions of anger and grief”. And yet, I observed, “one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.”

I concluded: “The next time there is another tragedy as at Lampedusa – and there will be a next time and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.” And there has been a next time and a next time after that. In fact, it has happened so many times since that such tragedies barely make the news any more.

That mass drowning off Lampedusa in 2013 is an apposite place from which to start a discussion on the dehumanising of the Other. Too often when we discuss hateful portrayals of migrants or Muslims or other minorities, we focus on the far right, or on groups such as Pegida, or on countries such as Hungary and politicians such as Viktor Orbán. It is certainly important that we call out such organisations and politicians and eviscerate their arguments.

But we need also to recognise that the truth about dehumanisation is far more uncomfortable and far closer to home. The ideas and policies promoted by the far right and by populist anti-immigration figures have not come out of nowhere. They have become acceptable because the groundwork has already been laid, and continues to be maintained, by mainstream politicians and commentators. [Continue reading…]

Aristotle’s lessons on happiness

Edith Hall writes:

In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy. But the ancient Greeks and Romans elaborated robust philosophical schools of ethical thought for more than a millennium, from the first professed agnostics such as Protagoras (fifth century BCE) to the last pagan thinkers. The Platonists’ Academy at Athens was not finally closed down until 529 CE, by the Emperor Justinian.

That longstanding tradition of moral philosophy is an invaluable legacy of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. It has prompted several contemporary secular thinkers, faced with the moral vacuum left by the decline of Christianity since the late 1960s, to revive ancient schools of thought. Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blogposts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.

Less familiar is the recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) advocated by Aristotle, yet it has much to be said for it. Outside of philosophy departments, where neo-Aristotelian thinkers such as Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have championed his virtue ethics as an alternative to utilitarianism and Kantian approaches, it is not as well known as it should be. At his Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle developed a model for the maximisation of happiness that could be implemented by individuals and whole societies, and is still relevant today. It became known as ‘peripatetic philosophy’ because Aristotle conducted philosophical debates while strolling in company with his interlocutors.

The fundamental tenet of peripatetic philosophy is this: the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Humans are animals, and therefore pleasure in responsible fulfilment of physical needs (eating, sex) is a guide to living well. But since humans are advanced animals, naturally inclining to live together in settled communities (poleis), we are ‘political animals’ (zoa politika). Humans must take responsibility for their own happiness since ‘god’ is a remote entity, the ‘unmoved mover’ who might maintain the universe’s motion but has neither any interest in human welfare, nor any providential function in rewarding virtue or punishing immorality. Yet purposively imagining a better, happier life is feasible since humans have inborn abilities that allow them to promote individual and collective flourishing. These include the inclinations to ask questions about the world, to deliberate about action, and to activate conscious recollection. [Continue reading…]

How the resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. sparked a war over free speech

Alex Blasdel writes:

Late last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union faced a mounting crisis over its most celebrated cause, which many consider the lifeblood of democracy: freedom of speech. For nearly a century, the ACLU has been the standard-bearer of civil liberties in the US, second only to the government in shaping Americans’ basic rights. Although the organisation has been at the vanguard of many of the country’s most hard-fought legal battles – desegregation, reproductive rights, gay marriage – the argument among its staff last summer, over whether to continue representing white supremacists in free-speech cases, was more intense than anything the organisation had seen before.

After Donald Trump was elected, the ACLU had positioned itself as a leader of what it calls “the resistance”, suing the administration over voting restrictions, illegal detentions, and the Muslim travel ban. It recruited celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Mahershala Ali and Tina Fey to raise money and reassure worried Americans. “The ACLU has had your back for almost a hundred years,” one ad declared. “We got this.” In the nine months after the election, the organisation’s paying membership quadrupled to more than 1.5 million people, and it received more than $80m in donations.

Then, on 10 August, the organisation’s Virginia chapter sued to prevent the city of Charlottesville from relocating a white-nationalist rally to a safer location outside the city centre. The ACLU claimed the move would violate the organiser’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and public assembly. Two days later, when a white supremacist injured 19 people and killed the anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in a car attack during the rally, many people, including Virginia’s governor, blamed the ACLU. One response in particular became a symbol of the larger backlash: “I can’t facilitate Nazis murdering people,” an ACLU of Virginia board member declared, in a series of viral tweets announcing his resignation.

Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has helped make the US home to arguably the most freewheeling, unregulated public discourse in the world. And it has done this partly by defending, in the courts of law and public opinion, the speech rights of racists and fascists. The ACLU asserts that laws guaranteeing freedom of speech must embrace everybody (think the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis) if they’re going to protect anybody (think organised labour, anti-war protesters and Black Lives Matter). “The same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you,” its website explains. [Continue reading…]

The total information awareness we feared the government acquiring, we have freely given to the tech giants

Renee DiResta writes:

“Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into … a virtual, centralized grand database,” the New York Times columnist warns.

On the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s numerous government testimonies and sustained criticism over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the author of this Times column must be talking about Facebook—right? Or perhaps the web’s broader, ad-based business model?

Not so: The William Safire column, “You Are a Suspect,” was published in the Times in 2002—two years before Facebook was created. And Safire isn’t talking about social networks or digital advertising—he’s discussing Total Information Awareness, a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) program that proposed mining vast amounts of Americans’ data to identify potential national security threats. The virtual grand database was to belong to the Department of Defense, which would use it to identify behavior patterns that would help to predict emerging terrorist threats.

Today, we’re voluntarily participating in the dystopian scenario Safire envisioned 16 years ago, with each bit of data handed to companies like Facebook and Google. But in this system, private companies are our information repositories—leaving us to reckon with the consequences of a world that endows corporations with the kind of data once deemed too outrageous for the government. [Continue reading…]

ABC only did the right thing when it could no longer get away with ignoring Roseanne’s racism

Roxane Gay writes:

On Twitter on Tuesday, Roseanne Barr wrote that if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby =vj.” The message referred to President Barack Obama’s former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and in it Ms. Barr traded on age-old racist ideas about black people and primates. Then she shared some incorrect nonsense about Chelsea Clinton marrying into the Soros family.

It was the kind of thing Roseanne Barr has been doing online for years. This time, however, the backlash was immediate and vigorous. Ms. Barr apologized for her “joke” that wasn’t really a joke and said she was leaving Twitter as if Twitter were responsible for her racist behavior. That apology was not enough. ICM Partners, her agents, stopped representing her. The comedian Wanda Sykes, who was a consulting producer on the reboot of “Roseanne,” announced that she was quitting the show. Within a matter of hours, ABC canceled the new “Roseanne” and the original show’s reruns were pulled from TV Land, CMT and the Paramount Network.

For once, a major network did the right thing. But before it did the right thing, it did the wrong thing. It is not new information that Roseanne Barr makes racist, Islamophobic and misogynistic statements and is happy to peddle all manner of dangerous conspiracy theories. ABC knew this when it greenlighted the “Roseanne” reboot. ABC knew this when it quickly renewed the reboot for a second season, buoyed, no doubt, by the show’s strong ratings.

The cast, the writers and the producers knew what Ms. Barr stood for when they agreed to work on the show. Everyone involved made a decision to support the show despite its co-creator’s racism. They decided that their career ambitions, or desire to return to network television, or financial interests would best be served by looking the other way. It was only when Ms. Barr became an immediate liability that everyone involved finally looked at her racism and dealt with it directly. [Continue reading…]

The Trump effect: New study connects white American intolerance and support for authoritarianism

Noah Berlatsky writes:

Since the founding of the United States, politicians and pundits have warned that partisanship is a danger to democracy. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, worried that political parties, or factions, could “allow cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” to rise to power and subvert democracy. More recently, many political observers are concerned that increasing political polarization on left and right makes compromise impossible, and leads to the destruction of democratic norms and institutions.

A new study, however, suggests that the main threat to our democracy may not be the hardening of political ideology, but rather the hardening of one particular political ideology. Political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M have released a working paper titled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.” Their study finds a correlation between white American’s intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.

Miller and Davis used information from the World Values Survey, a research project organized by a worldwide network of social scientists which polls individuals in numerous countries on a wide range of beliefs and values. Based on surveys from the United States, the authors found that white people who did not want to have immigrants or people of different races living next door to them were more likely to be supportive of authoritarianism. For instance, people who said they did not want to live next door to immigrants or to people of another race were more supportive of the idea of military rule, or of a strongman-type leader who could ignore legislatures and election results. [Continue reading…]

A triumph for women and for Ireland

Barbara Wesel writes:

It is such a resounding victory that campaigners in Ireland are weeping with joy. After a tense last few days when the referendum seemed too close to call, it turned out to be a landslide result. Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of abolishing the total abortion ban in the constitution. And with this amendment, the last part of an oppressive system that subjugated women in Ireland for centuries has gone. They have achieved what has long been the norm in other European countries: giving women the right to decide for themselves whether they feel capable of having a child or not. And, a woman’s right to get medical help in her own country, without having to travel to Britain as hundreds of thousands of Irish women have done over time.

With this referendum, the Catholic Church has lost its last battle in Ireland. Throughout the last 20 years, as the wrongdoings of clerics and bishops were uncovered, the nation increasingly turned away from its teachings and from the whole intertwined system of state and church. Scandal after scandal of child abuse involving priests was uncovered. The horror of children’s homes where small boys and girls were mistreated and broken was made public. And finally, there was the investigation of the unspeakable Magdalene laundries, where unmarried girls were incarcerated when they became pregnant, were beaten and enslaved, their babies taken from them by force.

This whole system of abuse, this vicious cycle of oppression, was run by the Catholic Church. And it was largely, if not exclusively, directed against women. Ireland has throughout the last 20 years uncovered this dark past and publicized these horrors. The Church subsequently has lost its status in the Irish state and in society. The constitutional amendment completely banning abortion, even risking the life of the mother, was their last bastion. In the end, the Church hardly dared to defend it. The clergy understand that it would have riled people even further and that they have lost their hold over morality and law in Ireland. [Continue reading…]

 

Americans least likely to think we have a responsibility to accept refugees? So-called ‘Christian’ evangelicals

The Washington Post reports:

In February 2017, as debate raged nationally over President Trump’s decision to curtail immigration to the United States, the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network dipped into the Bible to share what that sacred text said about refugees.

“Treat refugees the way you want to be treated,” it said, quoting Leviticus. “Invite the stranger in” (Matthew) and “Open your door to the traveler” (Job).

The first comment in reply to the article captures the tone of the rest of the feedback the site received: “Shame on CBN for this very poorly written article full of political rhetoric. This is not a Biblical issue.”

At the time, polling from Pew Research Center showed that about 56 percent of Americans believed that the United States had a responsibility to welcome refugees into the country. In the year since, that figure has dropped and is now at a bare majority, 51 percent.

But Pew’s new research includes a fascinating detail: No group agrees less with the idea that the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees than white evangelical Protestants. [Continue reading…]

Human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence

Henry Kissinger writes:

The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

The impact of internet technology on politics is particularly pronounced. The ability to target micro-groups has broken up the previous consensus on priorities by permitting a focus on specialized purposes or grievances. Political leaders, overwhelmed by niche pressures, are deprived of time to think or reflect on context, contracting the space available for them to develop vision.

The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection. For all its achievements, it runs the risk of turning on itself as its impositions overwhelm its conveniences. [Continue reading…]