I called the Netflix Help Center (866-579-7172), and the customer service representative I spoke with told me they were eager to receive feedback on this topic, especially feedback that specifies why users are in favor or not in favor of the proposed change. I shared several reasons why I thought it was a bad idea and I want to share those reasons here, in the hope it may encourage other Netflix users - especially those who share my view that it's a bad idea - to contact Netflix and provide feedback.
Granularity is Good
The main objection I have to the proposed change is that I make careful distinctions in both the ratings I give to movies I have seen and on the personalized predicted ratings Netflix offers for movies I have not yet seen. I probably watch, on average, 2 hours of TV a week, 1 DVD every month, 1 movie in a theater every 3 months. I hardly ever watch video content on Netflix, YouTube or other streaming sources. So I'm probably an outlier on several dimensions.
That said, on the rare occasions when I do want to watch a movie - at home or in a theater - I will only watch a movie for which the personalized predicted Netflix rating is at least 4.0. Since I know the personalized prediction accuracy is dependent (in part) on my own ratings, I am very careful in how I rate movies. I use the following interpretations for the 5-star scale:
5 stars: a movie I liked so much I've seen it several times and/or would enjoy seeing again
4 stars: a movie I liked a lot, but am not interested in seeing again
3 stars: a movie I liked, but would probably have preferred to spend my time watching something else
2 stars: a movie I didn't like, and probably didn't watch much of
1 star: I don't know if I've ever seen a 1-star movie, and certainly don't want to ever see one
While some people may find it easier to give a thumbs up or thumbs down rating (which I will refer to hereafter as a thumbs-based rating), I would find it more difficult. I envision the following mapping from my 5-star schema to thumbs-based ratings:
Thumbs up for a 4-star or 5-star movie
No rating for a 3-star movie
Thumbs down for a 1-star or 2-star movie
Given that I rarely see a 2-star movie, I would probably only be giving thumbs up ratings in the proposed new scheme, and predict that the lower volume of ratings combined with the lower granularity of ratings would result in less accurate Netflix rating predictions.
Quality vs. Quantity
Speaking of quantity, the Verge article reported that Netflix saw a 200% increase in the number of ratings among the test group who used thumbs up or thumbs down, compared to the number of ratings using the 5-star rating group.
The article doesn't report on the change in the number of users who submit ratings using thumbs up or thumbs down, nor is it clear whether a specific control group was used in the experiment. Based on their marvelously detailed posts in the Netflix tech blog, especially the posts on their recommender systems, I suspect they were very careful in the way the designed the experiment. Perhaps more details will eventually be reported there.
The article also doesn't report on the quality of the recommendations under the thumbs-based rating system. More is not necessarily better, and it is not clear what kind of impact the increased quantity had on the perceived quality of predictions based on the new system.
Given that the average U.S. adult consumes 5.5 hours of TV, movies, games, and other video content per day, I suspect most users are less discriminating than I am with respect to what they will watch. It may be that the quality of recommendations using the new system serves high-volume - or even average-volume - video consumers as well or better than it would serve low-volume video consumers. But if my supposition that higher volume video consumers are less discriminating is correct, then the increase in quality may not have much impact on the amount consumed. And since Netflix charges flat monthly rates, those of us who consumer relatively little video content are paying just as much as those who consume large amounts of video content .. and if the recommendation quality declines for someone like me, who consumes little content, and the quantity of video I consume similarly declines, I am more likely to discontinue the service than a high-volume consumer who might consume less if the quality of recommendations is not as good (due to fewer ratings). But if they are already consuming a large quantity of video, I don't understand what problem is Netflix trying to address.
Returns on Investments
The article draws an analogy between Netflix ratings and Spotify thumbs-based ratings, which I think is an inappropriate comparison point. I use both the Spotify and Pandora streaming music services (in fact, I'm a paid subscriber for both (I hate commercials in any medium)), but rating a song that lasts a few minutes is very different - in my view - from rating a movie that lasts a few hours. I'm much more willing to provide a finer granularity rating (e.g., on a 5-star scale) for an experience that will last hours vs. minutes.
I think a better comparison point would be Yelp, which uses 5-star ratings for restaurants and other service providers. I'm willing to provide ratings on a 5-star scale for restaurants, because it represents a more significant investment of time (and money). I would even consider TripAdvisor, an online service for reviews and ratings of hotels and other destinations and activities associated with traveling, a better comparison point than Spotify, as pl
Personalized Ratings for All
In fact, I think both Yelp and TripAdvisor could benefit from adopting the potentially-soon-to-be-former Netflix personalized rating scheme. I am growing weary of wading through reviews of restaurants on Yelp from people who rant about the bartender not paying attention to them, or a special event dinner that went awry, or from anyone who doesn't share similar tastes in restaurants to me. I would love it if Yelp would offer a personalized rating, or at least let me read reviews from people like me.
TripAdvisor ratings have become almost useless to me. It appears that many hotels are carpet-bombing guests with email invitations to review their stay, and the result seems to be that many places now have an overwhelming abundance of reviews from people who have only posted one review. I consider most newbie reviews nearly useless, both because they tend to be short and uninformative, and because there is no way to know what kind of other places the person has reviewed, so I can't tell how much the reviewer is like me.
I could rant further on the decline of both of these services - which I once found far more useful - but I will let it go (for now). I wanted to compose this post because throughout all the years I've been a Netflix user, the service has only gotten better (as I gave it more ratings upon which to make recommendations), and I'd hate to see yet another beloved rating, review and recommender service decline.
If you feel similarly, I urge you to call Netflix soon, as they are reportedly planning to roll out the new thumbs-based rating system in April.
The poster above reflects hard-won wisdom acquired and shared by Ira Glass, host of PRI's This American Life, emphasizing the importance of perseverance in developing mastery of creative production. While Glass focuses on storytelling for radio and television, his insights and experiences about the gaps between ambitions and realizations - and the connections between quantity and quality - relate to wisdom I've encountered from masters of the crafts of filmmaking and maintaining motorcycles. I believe this wisdom applies to any creative endeavor, and I would argue that storytelling is an essential ingredient in every creative enterprise, as the creative things we produce and consume comprise an integral part of the stories we make up about ourselves.
The poster is derived from a video interview posted in August 2009 (Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 3 of 4) in which he describes both the frustration and importance of making stuff that is still "kind of crappy" as an unavoidable part of the apprenticeship required for the journey to master craftspersonship ... and, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap anyway.
One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.
In a recent American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, the prolific writer, actor and director shared a similar perspective on the need to produce lots of stuff. Although the documentary is no longer viewable online, an interview with Robert B. Weide, the documentary filmmaker - a filmmaker filming a filmmaker - is available, in which Weide shares Allen's Quantity Theory:
You ask him [Woody Allen] about his endurance and his longevity over 40 years, and how prolific he is, doing a film a year for 40 years, as a writer and a director, and in many of them, an actor. And he says, "You know, longevity and endurance have their place, those are accomplishments of a sort, but those aren't the accomplishments I care about, which is to make a really great film." He says that he's working on the quantity theory, which is that if you just keep knocking them out, one picture after another, just keep making them and making them, some of them won't be that great, but every now and then, one will come out good.
Allen's Quantity Theory brings to mind the Metaphysics of Quality, and the idea of a gumption trap that Robert Pirsig described in his classic 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps - externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience - and ways of addressing and overcoming them. I won't include the full text of Pirsig's hypothetical course in Gumptionology 101 here, but the following passage gives a sense of his perspective, and its relevance to the views shared more recently by Ira Glass and Woody Allen:
Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined "irreplaceable" assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."
There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.
Pirsig's ideas about gumption were part of the inspiration for this blog, and I have consciously and unconsciously encountered some of these traps when writing - and not writing - posts here. When I look back on my early posts, many of them now seem like crap ... and I don't think any of the posts I've written - or anything I've produced in any other realm - have ever quite closed the gap between my ambitions and my realizations. I suppose blogging gives me a channel through which to work out - or at least work with - the ongoing tension between striving and acceptance.
Finally, speaking of blogging, I first encountered the poster at the top of this post a few weeks ago at the top of a post at Tim Kastelle's blog (which I always enjoy) on How to Make Things Look Simple. Tim found it amid one of the longest chains of Tumblr reblogs I've ever encountered, but further searching suggests that it was originally created by Sawyer Hollenshead. In digging around for the source, I also found a plain text version of the Ira Glass quote on a blog maintained by NPR's Fresh Air associate producer Melody Kramer, which I'll include - and conclude with - here, as I find it more readable (though less striking) than the poster:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
The film, which opened at the Varsity Theatre on Friday night (and is only slated for one week), starts out with an inspiring quote by John Muir, a naturalist with a clear vision of interconnectedness:
When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it's attached to everything else.
Shlain goes on to tug at a number of interrelated themes throughout the film, including personal experiences with life-changing events involving cancer, pregnancy, birth and death, as well as more general topics such as brains, alphabets, honeybees and evolution. Many of these topics were inspired by the life and work of her father, a surgeon who authored three books about interconnectedness that are now on my Amazon Wish List: Art & Physics, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess and Sex, Time and Power.
Two of the most interesting intellectual insights I gleaned from the film are the connections between brain hemisphere dominance and sexual dominance, and a broader view of technology as an evolutionary process. Shlain - and I'm being intentionally ambiguous here, because the film reflects the views of both father and daughter - suggests that the creation of an alphabet for communication enhanced the relative value of the brain's left hemisphere (responsible for logic and reason) over the right hemisphere (concerned with aesthetics and relationships) in human affairs. Since men tend to be left brain dominant and women tend to be right brain dominant, the growing prominence of left brain processing led to a growing dominance of men over women. Recent technological developments such as the Internet and social networking services increasingly enhance the prominence of relationships, and thereby help promote a resurgence of right brain processing and the consequent elevation of the role of women.
In a separate but related thread, Shlain describes technology as any tool that extends our capability and influence. The film includes a quote on technology by Albert Einstein:
It has become obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
The film expresses a technological optimism, espousing a perspective in which technology, by definition, extends our humanity. During earlier stages in human evolution, growing brains gave hominids a growing evolutionary advantage. Eventually, the brains of homo sapiens reached a maximum size, beyond which the birthing of big brained babies would risk the sacrificing of their mothers. To maintain dominance, homo sapiens has increasingly found innovative ways of utilizing external resources to complement our fixed-sized brains, and so the relentless march of technological developments can be seen as a natural and unavoidable byproduct of human evolution.
That is not to say that all technological developments are good. We have developed technologies that can destroy humanity, and the world as we know it. But developing new technologies is simply part of being human, so the question is not whether or not we will continue to develop new technologies, but rather what capabilities do we want to enhance, and what kind of influence do we want to exert on the world.
While the film was intellectually stimulating on many levels, I found the emotional impact to be even stronger. At the outset of the Q&A session immediately following the film, Shlain seemed almost apologetic about the personal nature of the story she shared about her father, and the insights he developed and shared about various dimensions of interconnectedness. I believe the personal intensity she brought to the endeavor is what gives the story its incredible power, demonstrating the timeless wisdom of another visionary who understood interconnectedness, psychologist Carl Rogers:
Based on his portrayal in the film, Leonard Shlain appears to have had a profound impact on his family, and his battles with cancer motivated him to consciously renew his devotion to his family.
I recently received a handmade birthday card from my daughter that suggests that my influence on her life may be more significant than I'd imagined (and thankfully, mostly positive). I don't expect that my life and work will have the level of influence that Leonard Shlain achieved in his lifetime, but the card was a reminder of the influence I have had ... and the film offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on the kind of connections I want to cultivate with my family, as well as with my friends, colleagues, students and others I encounter, offline and online.
If necessity is the mother of invention, irritation is the father.
People can be motivated to make changes based on so-called positive emotions, but I would argue that anger is more often the spark for fueling innovation. Some people live by the credo
Don't get mad, get even.
But as Mohandas Gandhi so adroitly observed,
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
Aristotle offers additional insight into the challenges of channeling irritation:
Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.
When the wronged can transform their anger in constructive ways, they produce benefits that often outweigh and outlast the instigating incidents.
I've been thinking about the inspirational power of irritation for a while now. The numerous clips I've seen and heard over the past several days from the late director Sidney Lumet's 1976 film, Network, have inspired me to compile some examples of irritation being a factor in empowering people to take action. The famous line repeated by the late actor Peter Finch as newscaster Howard Beale - and many of his viewers - is particularly on-point:
I have often described my own work as irritation-based research: don't [just] get mad about something, create a research project and/or prototype to solve it! MusicFX was born out of irritation with music playing in a fitness center; ActiveMap grew out of frustration with colleagues being chronically late to meetings; Ticket2Talk was a response to a newcomer's awkwardness of meeting people and initiating conversations at a conference
I believe we are all productive - or potentially productive - but differences in our personalities, training and experiences lead us to contribute in different ways in different realms. When irritation strikes, we naturally gravitate toward the channels through which we are best able to express or transform our frustration. Research happens to be a channel that has proven useful for me, but over the years, I've encountered numerous variations on this theme, applied to a broad range of domains. For the purposes of this post, I'll focus on a subset, exploring examples of people demonstrating how to constructively channel irritation to
write a book
write a program
create a company
Write a book
One of the most inspiring convocation keynotes I've ever seen was Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, delivered at Willamette University last fall. After presenting a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college, the 27 year-old author of How We Decide entertained questions from the audience. My favorite question was asked by a student who wanted to know how Lehrer decides which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations. [Update, 2012-Apr-01: A Brain Pickings review of Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, includes his observation that "the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process."]
One of the earliest articulations of irritation-based software development I encountered as by Eric Raymond, author of the 2001 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he states the first rule of open source software:
Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.
It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:
To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.
More recently, in a March 2008 blog post articulating 37signals' response to a critique by Don Norman, Jason Fried invoked a principle and rationale to support designing for ourselves (a fabulous post which also includes related insights about editing, software feature curation and not trying to please everyone):
Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that. ...
We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them. ...
Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too [emphasis mine]. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.
Interestingly, Don Norman's perspective on design innovation appears to have evolved since that exchange: a view articulated in a controversial essay on Technology First, Needs Last: the research-product gulf, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of ACM Interactions. Although he does not cite irritation as a prime mover, Norman does call into question the influence of necessity on innovative breakthroughs:
I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. ... Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. ... grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.
The one common thread throughout Tobias' entrepreneurial journey: a healthy dose of anger. With Imperium Renewables, Tobias was "personally pissed at the climate damage that oil companies were doing,” he says. “When I started Kashless, I was personally pissed that my friends in the local bar and restaurant business didn’t have effective ways to use the Internet to get people to walk in the door to their businesses. I’m saving small businesses that are run by my friends. That’s an incredibly personal thing.”
That kind of righteous fury, according to Tobias, is the secret to any startup. “Find a problem that personally pisses you off and solve it, and you’ll be a good entrepreneur," he says. "The day that I wake up and I don’t have a hard problem to solve, I will stop being an entrepreneur."
The personal problem that motivated Jamie Heywood, Benjamin Heywood and their friend Jeff Cole to create PatientsLikeMe was the the struggle of their brother, Stephen Heywood, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. They developed a company and web platform to enable patients to share and learn from each others' experiences, and track the course of their condition and treatment(s), enabling them to tell their stories in data and words. The company recently expanded from its initial focus on 22 chronic conditions (including ALS, Parkinson's disease, HIV, depression, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and organ transplants) to support patients suffering from any condition(s).
The story of the family's frustration - and response - also provided the inspiration for a movie, So Much, So Fast:
Made over 5 years, So Much So Fast tracks one family's ferocious response to an orphan disease: the kind of disease drug companies ignore because not there's not enough profit in curing it. In reaction, and with no medical background, Stephen's brother Jamie creates a research group and in two years builds it from three people in a basement to a multi-million dollar ALS mouse facility. Finding a drug in time becomes Jamie's all-consuming obsession.
There are, of course, many other ways that people channel their personal frustrations in innovative ways that benefit a more general population, and I would welcome the contribution of other inspiring examples in the comments below.
I will finish off with a video clip of the scene from the movie, Network, that I mentioned at the outset. It's interesting to note how many of the problems that contributed to Howard Beale's madness in 1976 are still - or again - prominent in today's world ... providing plenty of fodder for future innovation.
Last night, I watched a disturbing show on PBS, Worse than War, "the first major documentary to explore the phenomenon of genocide and how we can stop it". Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, narrator of the film and author of the book upon which it is based, argues that contrary to common conceptions of irrational and spontaneous combustion as the cause of genocide, it actually involves careful planning by rational actors, beginning with the identification of a political objective - typically the removal or elimination of an ethnic group - followed by the persistent demonization and vilification of members of that group through violent and virulent communication and other acts.
Goldhagen proposes that genocide could be more properly characterized as eliminationism:
the belief that one's political opponents are "a cancer on the body politic that must be excised — either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination - in order to protect the purity of the nation"
In nearly every case, the international community did little to stop the atrocities, and many actions - and inaction - of members of the local and global community reminded me of the social roles involved in the circle of bullying I wrote about in my last post (Be Impeccable with Your Word: Confrontation vs. Condescension and Intimidation): bullies, followers or henchmen, supporters or passive bullies, passive supporters or possible bullies, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders and defenders.
One of the most disturbing segments of the film (starting around the 1:03 mark) showed U.N. Peacekeepers in Rwanda abruptly abandoning the Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali, in which they had been protecting thousands of Tutsi from homicidal Hutus, who immediately moved in and massacred the unprotected and unarmed Tutsi. Goldhagen claims that the one post-WWII example of significant and effective intervention, the 1999 NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia, resulted in Slobodan Milošević, leader of the Serbian eliminationists, quickly ceasing atrocities and coming to the negotiation table. He argues that the biggest obstacle to preventing genocide is the lack of the will on the part of world leaders.
Throughout the film, I was reminded of the concept of epidemic hysteria or Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) that I recently read about in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. The authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, describe several instances of large-scale emotional contagion in which groups of people "catch" emotions from others through direct contact or observation over varying lengths of time. For example, in what has become known as the Tanganyika laughing epidemic, uncontrollable bouts of laughter lasting a few minutes to a few hours spread across a population of several hundred people during the first several months of 1962. Another, more recent, example was several waves of MPI at a high school in McMinville, TN, during 1998, in which gasoline was purportedly smelled and dozens of people suffered from symptoms of nausea and dizziness; no objective evidence of gasoline or any other physical agent that may have caused the symptoms was ever found. Several other examples are provided, but the important thing I want to note here is that the characteristics that tend to mark episodes of MPI include a highly connected community that tends to be isolated and/or stressed ... characteristics that appear to apply to most, if not all, of the groups of genocide perpetrators depicted in Goldhagen's film.
Toward the end of their book, Christakis and Fowler discuss the "interpersonal spread of criminal behavior as an example of a bad network outcome". As with other viral effects, people observing the commission of a crime - or perhaps its after-effects (e.g., the broken window theory) - may be more likely to commit crimes themselves. They note that "the riskier or more serious the crime, the less likely others are to follow suit (though there can be frenzies of murder too, as in the Rwandan genocide)." Unfortunately, in this context, they do not explore these more serious types of criminal frenzies further.
Another book that came to mind was The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo, which reports on - among other things - his [in]famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of college students were randomly partitioned into groups of prison guards and prisoners and placed within a simulated prison. The experiment, which was intended to last 2 weeks, was stopped after just 6 days due to the unanticipated ferocity and sadism with which the "prison guards" adopted and performed their roles, and the depression and other signs of stress exhibited by those playing the "prisoners". I haven't actually read the book, but based on the broader coverage described in its synopsis, I believe that it provides many insights relevant to the types of genocide - or eliminationism - described in Goldhagen's film, e.g., the strength of "situational power" and the effects of "conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement".
I wish I could say that Goldhagen's film depicts atrocities beyond anything I could ever imagine happening in this country ... at least in modern times (slavery, the civil war, and other epochs in our history may represent approximations of eliminationism). However, the roots of all of the examples of eliminationism he examines are all preceded by periods of persistent demonization and vilification of classes of people ... practices that seem to be on the increase in some media pundits and channels. In researching this blog post, I was simultaneously heartened and disheartened to discover that I am not alone in this concern.
This Article proceeds from the assumption that—from a less lofty, more grassroots perspective—modern, organized, formal, one-time venues for extremist political speech do not present the most potent threat to physical safety and a stable democracy. The greater danger emanates from pervasive right-wing extremist themes on radio, television, and some online news sources (often as a modern-day replacement for hard-copy newspapers and newsletters). These media support an increasingly passionate and virulent message in public discourse. This message encourages persons who feel uneasy or displaced in society to expiate their grievances not through the political process, but through murder.
This Article addresses pervasive, long-term, mixed messages that blend ostensible news with entertainment, politics, religion, and appeals to ethnic identity and general fear-mongering. Although such discourse receives the greatest coverage in the mass media, the better forum to mitigate and neutralize the incitement to action may be on a person-to-person level. This Article will explore interventions in Rwanda and Nigeria that adapted American dispute prevention and resolution methods to African media and dispute resolution traditions. The African collaborations offer a different view of justice, based on relationships, which may provide a better fit and forum for America to address extremist media messages and their impact on society.
I hope, for the sake of all Americans, that we can learn the lessons from other conflicts, find common ground, foster more civil and respectful relationships, and avoid the kinds of catastrophes we have witnessed in countries that may be, in some key respects, not so different from our own. And I also hope that we can find and employ the will to use our considerable power to stand up to bullies in other parts of the world.
Twitter has become the ultimate (or at least current favorite) tool for addressing the fundamental human need to matter, to have a witness. The increasingly popular web service "for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of
quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" is, more than any tool before it, providing a platform through which we can all bear [and bare] witness to - or follow, in Twitter parlance - others, and others can bear witness to us. And the ability to project our witnesses and witnessees (or followers and followees) into a public sphere - the Twitterverse - adds interesting new dimensions to the satisfaction of this primal need to matter.
Naomi Pollack recently wrote a great Biznik article on Understanding Twitter: Why Twitter is Less Like Facebook and More Like Email
that generated more comments - 118, last time I checked - than any
other article I've seen on the Biznik site (I'm not sure how many
tweets it has generated). A few of those comments were mine, including one long one connecting Twittering and witnessing that prompted me to take the topic offline - or at least migrate it over to my "home" soapbox, this blog.
The comment centered on my favorite quote from the movie Shall We Dance [I just noticed the subtitle: "A new comedy about following your own lead"], uttered by the character Beverly Clark (played by Susan Sarandon):
We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the
planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a
marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things,
the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it,
all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go
unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed
because I will be your witness'."
Although the quote is referring to marriage, I think the general human need to be noticed, to be witnessed, to matter, is behind much of the popularity in all social media, and is captured - or projected - most acutely in Twitter. I don't mean to equate the Twitter follower / followee relationship with marriage - indeed, with most Twitter users having multiple followers and/or followees, this would be akin to an extreme case of polygamy - but I do believe that this quote captures the spirit of the ambient intimacy afforded by Twitter (and intended by its designers).
T.S. Eliot, sums this up in a quote that is short enough to fit in a Twitter post (or "tweet"):
To be of importance to others is to be alive.
Of course, any medium that becomes sufficiently popular will have some who take it to the extreme; online social media just makes the pool of potential extremists much larger. Ashton Kutcher's recent "achievement" of gaming gaining over 1 million followers on Twitter is a noteworthy example. At first, I thought this was another example of someone becoming Internet famous (a la Julia Allison, an online[-only] variation of what I might call vacuous celebutantism - being famous for being famous - perhaps best represented by Paris Hilton). I had never heard of before - I don't follow him in social media or more traditional media - but in reading some of the reports about the 1 million Twitter follower milestone, I discovered he already enjoyed some measure of celebrity before this stunt. All the same, it strikes me as much ado about nothing.
I don't know what it means to be ambiently intimate with over a million people. In a quick perusal of Ashton Kutcher's tweetstream, I see that he discusses Paula Abdul, going trap shooting, going to dinner, riding horses drunk and forgetting things when he leaves the house ... nothing particularly remarkable (or retweetable) ... with the possible exception of this, somewhat ironic, tweet:
“Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.” -unknown
I'm reminded of the million dollar homepage, created by an enterprising 21-year-old college student (purportedly to help pay for his education), on which people could purchase any number of its 1 million pixels for $1 each. It was an interesting idea, and the million pixels were all sold, but I don't know how the money was actually used ... or how anyone else benefited from this achievement. I'm also reminded of Stephen Colbert's Wikipedia stunt, in which
he urged his viewers [/ witnesses / followers?] to edit the Wikipedia
entry to say that the population of elephants had tripled in the last 6
months. Of course, Stephen Colbert also engages his followers in many, more positive - or at least more benign (and definitely more amusing) - ways, e.g., offering his perspective on the "912 project" initiated by Glenn Beck of Fox News (what I would call a fear projection program ... and network), and urging his followers to join with him on his own "scare and balanced" 10.31 project. I wonder what great ideas Ashton Kutcher will rally his followers around.
My point? Just that the utopian rhetoric of social-networking aside,
the lesson of media history is that, regardless of the rise and fall of
media conglomerates, media is almost always about The Few profiting at
the expense of The Many's attention. To put that another way, The Many
are actually investing their mind share -- their currency in the
Attention Economy -- in a way that leads, for the most part, to the
enrichment of The Few. To put it rather cynically, a certain portion of
The Many are getting ripped off -- deprived of more and more of their
mind share for little or no gain (or possibly a big loss).
There's a parallel, of course, to the housing bubble. At some point it
suddenly dawns on millions of people that they've paid way too much for
way too little actual value. (If you're one of the people who has read
every one of Mr. Kutcher's more than 1,400 Twitter updates ... well,
just realize that you'll never, ever get that time back.)
The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on
the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines,
when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of
Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. “Don’t make a fool of yourself,”
I thought. “Just watch.”
Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down
beside me, and said, “If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish.
If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?”
And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, “If you do not
dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think
well of you for trying.”
We have a real need now, in these times, to be listened to. And I think when people identify with these characters, or reject them, they feel connected in a way that sometimes they don't in these fractured communities that we live in. ... Listening is one of the most profound compliments you can pay to another person - to truly listen - and to feel that you're heard is deeply fulfilling in a deep human way. ... Really, truly, profoundly listening is to be unaware of your self at a deep level.
I don't think anyone would accuse a Twitter user - especially one with an unnaturally large number of followers - as being "unaware of your self at a deep level" ... at least not in the context of posting a tweet (although another recent NPR story, Your Brain on Twitter, reported on a brain-computer interface that may eventually allow people to directly post tweets based on neural activity). In fact, I suspect deep listening - or deep thinking, reading or writing ... or depth of any kind - is the antithesis of the ambient intimacy promoted by Twitter.
I suspect that's what bothers me the most about Twitter and other manifestations of snack culture - the embrace and celebration of shallowness. I recognize that there as many uses
of Twitter as there are users, and that it really does represent a social media
platform for the masses ... unlike blogs. One of the reasons I think there are so many "dead blogs" is that so
few people are willing - or able - to take the time to write in much
depth ... and, as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his great Atlantic Monthly article on "Is Google Making Us Stupid?",
"the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle"
for him, and a growing proportion of other "readers". But, hey, anyone
can write - or read - a 140-character tweet!
In the interest of full disclosure [on this topic], I will note, in closing, that I am a Twitter user (@gumption). I was an early adopter of Twitter, and wrote about it in the context of attention, inattention, appreciation and depreciation at Foo Camp 2007. However, I soon grew weary of reading about what my ambient intimates were wearing, eating or thinking. It's not that I didn't care about the people I was following - in fact, I deeply cared (and still care) for some of them - I just didn't (and don't) care all that much about their activities of daily living. I stopped using Twitter entirely for about a year, but re-engaged with the tool during the closing months of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, when I was obsessed with staying on top of the latest developments in the most exciting political contest of my adult life. During the campaign, I wrote a few politically-oriented blog posts, but given my penchant for depth (or, at least, length) in posting blog entries, I wanted another platform for processing my thoughts, feelings and judgments about some of the actions taken by the candidates and their supporters ... a platform that I could use for shorter, more frequent venting. Twitter was just the ticket. I also started following some newly found (and appreciated) sources for news, such as NPR Politics, The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and Think Progress.
Since the end of the election, I've shifted my use of Twitter to [mostly] posting inspiring quotes that I encounter in my reading and listening (very few of which, I might add, are retweets, i.e., Twitter is not currently a major source of inspiration). I've added a Twitter widget to my blog (in the right column), and my primary motivation in using Twitter is to have the 5 most inspiring quotes I've encountered (interspersed with occasional short rants) appear on my blog. This helps compensate for the depressingly decreasing frequency of new blog entries. I've been surprised to learn that several people have recently begun following me (or, more properly, my tweets). I hope they are not offended by my lack of reciprocity: it's nothing personal, I just generally don't like following people on Twitter (for reasons noted above). In addition to not following people, I hardly ever check for replies (tweets with "@gumption").
Although many people seem to see and/or use Twitter as a platform for conversation, for me it's primarily a soapbox, a broadcasting narrowcasting platform. I prefer in-depth conversations ... like the kind I enjoy through the comments on this blog. In an earlier post, commenting on commenting, I noted that my blog posts and the comments people post on them represent projections of sorts (and, in so doing, I suspect I may have discouraged some comments - and commenters - that I very much enjoy). In a subsequent post, commenting on validation / validating comments, I admitted that "I really do appreciate (and feel validated by) comments from people who are in some way moved by what I write". In a way, those comments represent a public witnessing to what I've written (and my comments responding to others' comments represent a witnessing to what they've written).
So, it's not that I'm against witnessing or even the projection of witnessing ... it's just that I believe in depth and meaning ... and, frankly, I just don't find - or project - much of that on Twitter.
[Update, 11 May 2009: Prompted by Praveen's comment, I finally re-found a blog entry that danah boyd had posted a while back (December 2007) about valuing inefficiencies and unreliability that effectively elucidates my concern about depth in Twitter. It is the very ease with which anyone can post a tweet that diminishes the meaning of the medium.
The more efficient a means of communication is, the less it is valued. ... Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of
action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want
communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value
the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and
attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that
I've found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful
parents is that they'd give up many of the material goods in their
world to actually get some time and attention from their overly
scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern
life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.
Amy (my wife) spent part of her time helping out at the booth for A Sacred Moment, a local company founded by Char Bennett that provides home funeral vigils, green burials and life celebration services. Amy first read about A Sacred Moment in a Wall Street Journal Magazine article (Death Becomes Her). As a cancer survivor, she has given considerably more thought to death - and burial - than I have, and the sustainable, sensitive and sensible approach that Char offers through her services resonates on many levels with her ... and, judging from the number of visitors to the booth, many others as well.
I also spent some time milling around the exhibit area, and I have to admit I was feeling increasingly self-conscious, wondering what other people might be thinking about me, wandering around in my Weatherproof jacket, "Life is Good" (tm) t-shirt, Lee jeans and Merrell hiking shoes (not to mention the MacBook Pro in my backpack and the iPhone in my pocket). Were the things I was wearing / carrying "green" [enough]? (Maybe the t-shirt.) I was reminded of my days at Accenture, where my lack of style-consciousness in a different value system sometimes incurred negative judgments (I remember someone once referring to my "Mickey Mouse" watch, a Timex timepiece which I'd thought of as rather practical). As someone who thinks green but doesn't often act green, I was concerned that perhaps my true colors were showing.
Fortunately, the person who introduced the person who introduced Amy Goodman's talk - whose name I did not catch - was very welcoming and inviting, assuring us that all people were welcome at the Green Festival, whatever stage of sustainability we may find themselves. She then introduced Kevin Danaher, who described the Green Festival as a "party with a purpose", encouraged us to reach beyond the festival with positive messages (noting "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar"), let us know that many of the presentations at this and other Green Festivals can be viewed at Green Festival TV (leading me to wonder whether the green[er] action would have been to watch Green Festival remotely), and introduced Amy Goodman.
Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, took the stage to a standing ovation, and told us some stories about Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times. She started off asserting that a healthy population is a national security issue (not just a health or fairness issue), decrying that health care is not a right in the most powerful country on earth (setting us apart from nearly every other industrialized nation), and reporting on an article "Are the Rich Making Us Sick" written by Stephen Bezruchka (back in 2000 (!)), which shows that inequality leads to poor health (the U.S. is among the world leaders in both dimensions).
Asking "Can President Obama redeeem the White House?", Goodman noted that it's not up to him, it's up to all of us (or, perhaps, all of us's). As she put it, "The door is open a crack - will it be kicked shut, or will it be kicked wide open?" She noted that this month marks the passing of some significant anniversaries: the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 24, 1989), and the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island meltdown (March 28, 1979), "accidents" whose fallouts are still very much with us today.
Emphasizing the need to break the sound barrier, listening not to the pundits, but to people on the ground in the local communities who are affected by corporate and governmental actions (and inactions), Goodman argued that we can't subsist on sound bites, that we have to allocate time for people to explain alternate points of view if we don't want to be simply and mindlessly repeating what others are saying (i.e., being ditto heads). One of her recent interviews with a person on the ground - and/or in the water - was with Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Spill, who said that the "accident" was not just a pollution issue, but represents a fundamental threat to democracy. The success of the Exxon-Mobil Corporation - one legal person - in its legal battle against tens of thousands of U.S. citizens who are seeking redress, amends and compensation from the action of this powerful "person", is leading some to propose that we reconsider and revise or revoke the legal status of corporations (some going so far as to call for a 28th Amendment).
Goodman shared stories about heroes such as Peter Chase, a librarian who fought against the FBI's demand for library records, and James Hansen, a NASA scientist who went public with the Bush Administration's efforts to influence or edit his statements so as to make global warming seem less threatening. Toward the end of her talk - for which she received a standing ovation - she summed up her critique of mainstream media with a pair of pithy soundbites:
We need a media that covers power, not covers for power; a media that is a fourth estate, not for the state.
The next presentation I went to was by Lawrence Lessig, on "Green Culture". The presentation seemed to be a remix of his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, applied to the green movement. But as he demonstrated in his talk, a good remix can be just as engaging and enlightening as the original(s) from which it is created, and I was just as impressed with the content and format of his talk as I was at his closing keynote at CSCW 2004. He started out with a Wikipedia definition of externality: "an impact [positive or negative] on a party that is not directly
involved in the transaction". I'll include the entire first paragraph from the Wikipedia entry below:
In economics, an externality or spillover
of an economic transaction is an impact on a party that is not directly
involved in the transaction. In such a case, prices do not reflect the
full costs or benefits in production or consumption of a product or
service. A positive impact is called an external benefit, while a negative impact is called an external cost. Producers and consumers in a market
may either not bear all of the costs or not reap all of the benefits of
the economic activity. For example, manufacturing that causes air pollution imposes costs on the whole society, while fire-proofing a home improves the fire safety of neighbors.
Lessig went on to claim that the market tends to produce too many negative externalities and too few positive externalities, and argued that we need interventions to force producers of negative externalities to internalize the costs and to allow producers of positive externalities to internalize the benefits.
One of my favorite quotes from Lessig's talk was a quote he shared by one of my heroes, Aldous Huxley, who in 1927 wrote about an atmosphere of passivity:
In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity.
This reminded me of the parable of three storytelling societies -
the Reds, the Blues and the Greens - that I shared in an earlier post
about mutual inspiration, which was inspired by Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks (briefly: Red storytellers are hereditarily determined, Blue storytellers are democratically determined, but everyone is a storyteller among the Greens). I suppose this passivity and delegation (or relegation) is one of the natural consequences of the specialization of labor that was accelerated in the industrial revolution. Lessig suggested that we're seeing a concentration or professionalization not just of labor but of culture itself.
Lessig defined two types of culture: read-write culture, in which people participate in the creation and recreation of their culture, and read-only culture, where creativity is consumed (e.g., in an atmosphere of passivity). Changing technologies often change ecologies, as well as changing what makes sense to regulate. For example, the carbon emissions produced by coal-fired power plants are, essentially, free, and yet media produced by the entertainment industry is heavily regulated. There have been zero U.S. laws regulating carbon emissions passed in the last 20 years, and yet there have been 22 laws regulating the use of copyrighted media. Lessig argued that our culture (and, I would argue, our global civilization) would be better served if those trends were reversed.
He shared a number of examples of fabulously entertaining media that were produced by remixing prior media that was protected by copyright (making all the examples, technically, illegal):
Movies: Tarnation (made for $218, but music rights to the soundtrack [would] cost $400K)
As these examples demonstrate, Web 2.0 offers a platform on which others are inspired to create, and share their creations, in a participatory "call and response" or conversational culture. However, the powers that be are colluding with Congress to stifle this read-write culture, declaring war on copyright infringement and using the rhetoric of war (e.g., weapons to kill piracy). Lessig argued that we need to give up on the obsession with "copy" and make meaningful distinctions between copy and remix, as well as professional and amateur uses:
Professional copies of creative works ought to be protected by copyright, amateur remixes ought not be regulated, and professional remixes or amateur copies are greyer areas.
Noting that there have been 22 laws governing copyright in the past 20 years, but zero laws governing carbon emissions, Lessig proposed a new angle on the Green Revolution: eradicating the corruption of money (greenbacks) in U.S. politics, which has led government to do nothing on the most important policy issue facing us and to do the wrong things on a less important issue.
Lessig highlighted the segments where Gore is emphasizing the importance of - and interactions among - optimism, belief and behavior: "We have to become incredibly active citizens ... In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis". He went on to say that the democracy crisis is that we don't see democracy as a tool to solve problems (another dimension of the "atmosphere of passsivity that Huxley wrote about). We have to act green - be environmentally conscious in our behavior - and also act against green[backs] - fight against corruption, and the addiction to / dependency on money.
Lessig differentiated between evil soul corruption (e.g., former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich) and good soul corruption (living inside a system that is corrupt and not changing it), and noted that most members of Congress exemplify good soul corruption. Comparing political corruption to alcoholism, he said we have to solve the addiction (to greenbacks) problem before we can solve the other problems, and invited those who are interested to learn about - and do - more at ChangeCongress.org. One near-term action he invited us to take was to actively support the Fair Elections Now Act that was introduced this past week by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick
Durbin (D-IL), Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), House Democratic Caucus
Chairman John Larson (D-CT) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC). If anyone reading this is inclined to take such action, here are some links on how to contact your U.S. Representative and how to contact your U.S. Senator.
The final presentation at the Green Festival I saw was - fittingly enough - entitled "What's After Green?", by Gabriel Scheer and Brett Horvath, co-founders of Re-Vision Labs. Motivating their talk, the presenters articulated two fundamental problems with the green movement:
Green has lost its focus (environment, energy, social justice, food?) How do outsiders know what to make of us? At this transformational moment, it's critical that we define ourselves and communicate our values.
The Green movement is unsustainable (fueled by a real crisis and a fake economy). Green Industry piggy-backed on the housing bubble. How many green businesses can survive the economic downturn?
Green consumerism means that our only - or at least our main - weapon has been our wallet. There are only so many donors, customers, foundations, investors, volunteers. The growth of the green movement is not sufficient to keep pace with the growth of the crises we hope to solve, and so we most grow and adapt.
Steering us toward "collaboration, not congregation", the presenters suggested that the goal of the Green Festival next year should not be so [solely] an increase in attendance but an increase in impact in governments and other organizations. For example, they noted that no faith-based groups were represented at this year's festival.
Another example is the T. Boone Pickens Energy Plan, which redefined the energy crisis by reframing it from an environmental issue to an economic and national security issue, and signed up 1 million people in its first 7 months (and is now at 4.5 million), representing the potential for what they called a trans-ideological movement: "enviro-enthusiast meets NASCAR fan". One of the presenters, Brett Horvath, who is Director of Social Media for the PickensPlan, claimed they achieved a faster pace of growth than Al Gore's Repower America organization. This may be true, but I was glad to see that Repower America, which I believe was formed about 4 or 5 months ago, has 2 million members ... and I wonder how many people are members of both organizations.
While I'm in favor of seeking trans-ideological solutions, I'm not sure I can support an ideologue like T. Boone Pickens. I find it ironic that the man who is now championing energy independence helped fund the deceptively named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which torpedoed John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, and helped keep George W. Bush in The White House, where he was able to continue colluding with his anti-environmental advisors, increase his dirty legacy and thwart many of the efforts of the green movement, ultimately leaving us more energy dependent than ever before. I wonder how much more progress the green movement (however it is defined) would have made, and how much more energy independent we would be, if John Kerry (or Al Gore) had been in the White House instead of Bush. President Obama, ever the community organizer and unifier, whose speech on trans-racialism was so inspiring, is willing to seek common ground with Pickens and his plan (and its supporters), and while I continue to distrust Pickens, I'm willing to withhold [further] fire in an effort to form a more perfect union ... and a broader, more inclusive community in the green movement.
Scheer and Horvath invited us to view - and focus - the green movement through the lens of community, noting that what brings us together is the desire to create healthy and powerful communities. Despite their earlier critique of a lack of focus in the current green movement, they proposed a rather broad agenda of 8 core components to growing and expanding the movement in the future: economy, ecology, governance, story, design, networks, commons and food. I found myself wondering whether, given the shifting priorities brought about by the current economic recession, the utilization of Maslow's hierarchy of needs might help add more structure to what might otherwise be a linear list of issues.
Invoking images of the front porch, the water cooler, and the campfire as prototypical examples of community spaces, they defined three dimensions to modern healthy communities: built space, spontaneous physical interactions and online networks (interestingly related to the themes that motivated our design of the Community Collage place-based social networking system). Reframing the Internet as a network of people (vs. a network of computers), they argued that a healthy network builds community, and that even "ungreenies" (online and offline) understand the power and necessity of healthy communities.
Scheer and Horvath made a compelling case that the current power of our movement is no match for the gravity of the crisis, and helped me think - and hopefully act - more broadly. Perhaps next year's Green Festival should be renamed "The Community Festival".
Last week, on Martin Luther King Day, Amy and I watched the film, Milk, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California (back in 1978). When we got to the Egyptian Theatre, Amy asked for two tickets to see "M-I-L-K", spelling out Milk's name. We laughed about this presumed priming effect (from it being MLK day), but it also primed my synchronicity radar as we headed in to see the movie.
Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there's a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes that she or he is gay, knows that if the parents find out they'dl be tossed out of the house, the classmates would taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant's and John Briggs' are doing their bit on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. And then one day that child might open up a paper that says "Homosexual elected in San Francisco" and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight. Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said "Thanks". And you've got to elect gay people, so that that young child and the thousands and thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world, there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, and the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us's ... without hope the us's give up. I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.
I really find this reference to us's positively inspiring, reflecting wisdom I've gleaned from other sources, perhaps most notably Oriah Mountain Dreamer, who suggests that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to
differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view
others as "us" or "them".
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With
this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of
hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our
nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be
able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail
together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one
While Milk makes explicit references to the civil rights of blacks in his speech, as far as I can tell, MLK never made any explicit references to the civil rights of gays (much less lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders/transsexuals). Of course, they were from different eras - Milk was able to figuratively stand on MLK's shoulders in his crusade to win full equality for LGBT people.
Black people do not have the option of hiding their race in the closet, while LGBT people do, but the perpetration of shame or the withholding of rights based on sexual preference is no more justifiable than that based on race. And if "we're only as sick as our secrets", discrimination based on sexual preference may be even more insidious. Milk urged LGBT people to come out of their closet(s):
We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are
coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming
out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of
silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about
it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives
The newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama, is the offspring of an interracial marriage - an institution or practice that was illegal in some states at the time of MLK's speech. The right of states to ban interracial marriages was in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such laws in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967. And yet, despite his interracial marriage ancestry, Obama claims he is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriages (although, according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on "Gays, lesbians hopeful despite inaugural pastor", he supports the extension of full rights to same-sex civil unions, and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages).
Unlike some critics, I was inspired by Obama's inauguration speech - from its inclusive opening of "My fellow citizens" (not restricting his remarks to his fellow Americans), through his highlighting of the crises we face, and the "new era of responsibility" we must embark on in order to address these challenges and remake America. However, having just seen Milk the preceding day, I cringed when he got to this paragraph:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has
come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our
enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that
precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to
generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and
all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
How can he promote this "God-given" promise that "all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness" and yet oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages? Does this opposition not deny LGBT people their "full measure of happiness"? I don't know if opposition to same-sex marriage under the guise of "defending" marriage is childish, but I do believe that as we, as a nation, mature in our perceptions and judgments about homosexuality (and marriage), we will come around to supporting this civil right that has been denied to a persecuted group in our society.
I was - and am - excited and hopeful about the election of Barack Obama. And yet, that same day, voters in California voted to approve Proposition 8, adding an article to the state Constitution stating
Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California
and thereby striking down any municipal laws legalizing same-sex marriages.
Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race,
or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for
Freedom and justice for all ... except, of course, for homosexuals who want to marry.
If Harvey Milk were alive today, and were to give his Give Them Hope speech today, I suspect he would amend it to include Rick Warren along with Anita Bryant and John Briggs - who had actively campaigned in support of Proposition 6 in 1978, the so-called Briggs Initiative, that would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools. Fortunately, that measure failed, and while Milk is no longer with us - assassinated by a fellow (or formerly fellow) city supervisor - anti-gay forces are alive and well, in California and elsewhere.
Although there were many other striking and/or synchronistic aspects to the movie, I'll finish off noting that the person who came to a podium at San Francisco City Hall to announce the assassination of Harvey Milk - and then-mayor George Moscone - was then-city supervisor Dianne Feinstein ... who was also at a podium during Tuesday's inauguration, as the master of ceremonies. I'd earlier written about ignorance, incendiaries, ironies and inspiration in the 2008 presidential campaign, and my concern that the incendiary invectives uttered by McCain supporters might increase the risk of assassination for Obama. I was relieved that there was no replay of the last time I'd seen Feinstein on the big screen (having seen Milk the day before the inauguration).
I have a difficult time believing that a leader who could compose and deliver an inspiring message of moving toward a more perfect union could really
oppose same-sex marriage. However, given the range of risks and challenges faced by Obama (and the rest of us's), it may be a while - perhaps another generation - before any
public leader at that level can come out publicly in full support of full civil
rights for all people.
We don't speak a word. As he moves in front of me, my hands
involuntarily reach out to grasp his. As our hands meet he looks up
into my eyes and my world stops spinning. His eyes reveal a deep
gravity. I see the serious work behind his childlike humor and
spontaneity. The man has suffered much and discipline has made him into
a spiritual warrior. This is serious work, these eyes tell me, this
inner work to discover peace and being.
His attention is riveted. In this moment he is not a busy spiritual
leader but simply a human looking gravely into the eyes of another. In
this moment I see his greatness. It is this:
Humility is not a discipline; it is not a practice with him.
Humility is simply what he is. I see in this moment of eyes meeting
that he is incapable of placing himself above or below me. I am stunned
by the reality of our equality.
And then he is gone, swept out of the room by his handlers. For the
next three hours I am nearly incapable of speaking, stunned as I was
with the presence of this understanding.
[Having just listened again to the passage, I've amended a memory / transcription error in the original post above ... all the more apt because Oriah had actually referred to the Dalai Lama not Ghandi.]
As I have continued to reflect on how highly enlightened people have such a great impact on us, I am reminded of Don Miguel Ruiz' insights into the ways that people act as
mirrors for us - enabling us to better see who we really are
... and/or what we could be. As he notes in the introduction to The Four Agreements, where he relates the enlightenment of a Toltec man:
He had discovered that he was a mirror for the rest of the people, a mirror in which he could see himself. "Everyone is a mirror", he said. He saw himself in everyone, but nobody saw him as themself. And he realized that everyone was dreaming, but without awareness, without knowing what they really are. They couldn't see him as themselves because there was a wall of fog or smoke between the mirrors. And that wall of fog was made by the interpretations of light - the Dream of humans.
I would expand this to claim that highly enlightened people act as highly reflective mirrors for us. When we encounter highly enlightened individuals, there is less fog in the local atmosphere, and so we are thus better able to see the light in ourselves being reflected back more clearly.
"I am in awe of the journey right now," said Serrill. "It really is a
labor of love that's gotten bigger than me. It's really opening its own
doors right now."
Although I have not yet seen the film, Ward's comments suggest that
he is not a stranger to greatness, understanding and humility, himself, and I would not be surprised if his film acts as an agent of reflection and resonance for others.
And I can't help but reflect on my last post - Do YouJustGetMe? Do I Even Get Myself? - and wonder how well highly enlightened individuals might score on guessing or being guessed in a personality test. [And, reflecting on humility, I wonder if the subtitle to that post should have been "Can I Even Get Over Myself?"] Somehow, though, these ideas regarding reflectance and resonance suggests that there may be a deeper level - perhaps deeper than western science can effectively probe - than guessing or being guessed. That the ultimate goal is simply to understand and accept ourselves, exactly as we are ... and to mirror that understanding and acceptance to others.
Amy, who cut out the article for me while I was away, just pointed out her favorite passage, which resonates with all of this, and aligns closely with our own view(s) of religion ... and humanity:
When asked about his [Dalai Lama's] religion of kindness, he replies, "... all these
things: compassion, charity, patience, forgiveness, joy; these do not
belong to religion. One does not need religion to understand or
practice them. They are simply the expressions of what it is to be
[Update: having mistakenly attributed Oriah's remarks as referring to Ghandi rather than the Dalai Lama, I decided to go back for a more attentive listening of the passage in Your Heart's Prayer (Side 2b, about 18 minutes in), during which I saw the further connection that involved another filmmaker. I transcribe the passage as attentively and faithfully as I can, below:
I had a dream a number of years ago, this was after I'd heard a couple of stories about people being deeply affected by being in proximity to the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. One was the story of a man who was a friend of a friend, and he happened to be somewhere where the Dalai Lama was, and he wasn't particularly interested in hearing him speak, but for some reason, encountered him coming out of the lobby of the hotel. And the two of them spoke to each other and the two of them had this moment, and this man just felt this sense of incredible love and well-being in himself.
And another dear friend of mine who's made a film about Mother Teresa, talks about one of the first times she tried to talk to Mother Teresa about making the movie, and my friend, who is Ann Petrie, was on a bus with Mother Teresa, knelt down and had her sunglasses on, and mother Teresa flipped her sunglasses up, and Anne was ready to launch into the business of when can I film you, and Mother Teresa said to her "You're so tired, why don't you just stop for a minute?" And Anne had this experience of this sort of bolt of light going through the center of her body, not from Mother Teresa, but what she felt was really from God. And she had been in her own words a lapsed Catholic for many years.
So I had been hearing these stories, and I had a dream one night, where the grandmothers, who I mentioned earlier, said here is how it works: I saw an image of a glass cylinder filled with coarse salt, and then somebody poured a pink fluid, like colored water, into the container and it started to come up from the bottom up through the salt. And they said, this is what a person is like. The fluid being poured in is like their level of consciousness of who they really are, that what they are is a participant in this sacred life force, and the higher their level of awareness, two things happen: the more the salt dissolves, so the more there is a dissolving of all the structure of the identity that they think they are; and the other thing that happens is that everything becomes colored with this awareness. And when they are in proximity to someone else, because we're all made of the same stuff, it sets up a similar knowing in the other person.
So what people have a flash of when they are near someone who is very conscious of that Chui-ta-ka-ma, that life force energy that they are, is they experience the same thing in themselves. It's a little like bringing a tuning fork next to another tuning fork. So it's not so much they get an awareness of the other person being that divine life force but themselves.
The good news for me about this is that the task, then, is to just try to be with that awareness to the best of my ability, and that will create a ripple effect in ways that I can't even anticipate, because of the nature of our interbeingness. And it means we can have an enormous effect on the world by simply paying attention.]
Amy and I recently saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (or, more properly, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon), during an unexpected extended layover in San Francisco. The movie is about the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of the fashion magazine Elle, who at age 43 suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed except for his left eye, after which he continued to suffer for the next 12 2 years from locked-in syndrome - aware and awake, but unable to communicate. Fortunately (at least for viewers and readers), a dedicated speech therapist (Henriette) was able to open up a new communication channel for him - through repeatedly reciting a frequency-sorted version of the alphabet and watching for him to blink his eye when she reached the desired letter - and a dedicated transcriber (Claude) was able to navigate this channel with him to help him get his story out. And that story is a powerful one, touching on the challenges he faced in dealing with his highly constrained condition, and its effects on his opportunities - past, present and future.
The diving bell in the title is an allusion to the restrictions imposed by his physical condition, while the butterfly refers to the relative freedom of his mental and imaginative capacities that he appreciated - and indulged - all the more after the stroke. What struck me most about the film was that we all suffer some degree of locked-in syndrome - unable (or, perhaps more often, unwilling) to communicate effectively with the people around us. I do not mean to imply for a moment that most of us suffer anything close to the incredible challenges Bauby faced, but the movie did offer me an opportunity to reflect on how often I underutilize communication channels in my own life (this blog notwithstanding).
I remember one time, at the beginning of a surgical procedure, I had been given anesthesia, but it had not yet taken [full] effect before someone started inserting a tube down my throat. I tried to alert the medical staff to the pain I was feeling during this part of the procedure, but was unable to move or talk, and the fear I felt about being so incapable of communicating my predicament was at least as painful as the insertion itself. This was a far more dramatic example of feeling locked-in than most of my experiences, in which I am able to communicate, but unable to effectively convey something I am thinking or feeling to another person ... or situations in which I consciously or unconsciously choose not to communicate at all.
Bauby, of course, could have also chosen not to communicate. It required far more effort for him - and for the people with whom he was communicating - than it typically does for me (and presumably, however ponderous my writing and speaking may be, for the people with whom I communicate), and his willingness to make that effort to not only communicate with the people around him in his activities of daily living but to dictate a book about his experience is inspiring. I was reminded of a Richard Bach quote,
Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they're yours
So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains
and we never even know we have the key.
Another aspect of the film that moved me was Bauby's relationship with his children ... and their mother (Celine, to whom he was not married). After his stroke, his ability to interact with them was extremely limited, illustrated by a picnic on the beach, during which they play the word game hangman. Amy and I were watching the film on the eve of my "homecoming" - after having commuted nearly every week from Seattle to Palo Alto (or other business-related destinations) for 16 months - and so the lost opportunities for enjoying time with his children was especially poignant ... as was his continued underappreciation for Celine.
Bauby's relationship with his father was also very poignant (for me). Early in the movie, while Bauby is shaving his father (Papinou), his father expresses how proud he is of his son, which brought back memories of my own father expressing pride and approval - as best he could - for his son ... as well as more painful memories of him not expressing pride or approval ... for his son or himself. [In writing this, I'm struck by how my father suffered from a form of locked-in syndrome, tightly bottling up his emotions, which eventually started leaking out in various ways, shapes and forms.] In my last conversation with him before he died - in 1996 - I was talking with him about the three job offers I had as I was nearing the completion of my Ph.D. One would have enabled me to continue working text-based information extraction; a second would have enabled me to work in the related area of speech interfaces; the third, which seemed both the most promising and the most challenging - what he called "the big job" - would have enabled me to work on something completely different. His last words to me were "Take the big job. You can do it!" I did take that big job - I felt the fear and did it anyway - but I never saw him [alive] again. Although I have many memories of episodes in which I did not receive much-desired approval (from him ... and other authority figures in my life), I'm glad to have the most recent - and lasting - memory be an example of explicit and enthusiastic approval.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly inter-twines
the need for validation—which is tied to the impulse to create—and the
inevitability of isolation and death. Locked in, Jean-Dominique Bauby
wrote a luminous treatise on life and love, leaving behind a work of
art that says “I was here and I mattered.” [Director Julian] Schnabel honors that impulse
with this mature, resonant portrait of an artist.
I can't honestly say I'm entirely willing to release my attachment to
others' [expressions of] appreciation at this moment -- despite the
opportunities for practicing such detachment currently being offered me
-- but I'm at least
willing to re-open the question of whether and how I matter ... and if
is possible to matter without being [acknowledged as] useful to others.
And so I guess I'm still in the question ... perhaps locked-in to the question ... and in the current context, I'm wondering whether the answer - or the key - lies along the path of the butterflies.