Generosity is More Than Action

Following on from my musings on why empathy is not enough, I wanted to spend some time addressing why generosity is not enough — at least in the common understanding of the word that refers to the act of giving stuff like money, goods, physical assistance, etc.

To be generous means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. The something that I want to talk about is generosity of thought.

What is it?

To me there are (at least) two aspects of being generous with our thinking:

  1. Giving the benefit of the doubt to someone, even when we think they don’t deserve it.
  2. Giving the best interpretation of someone’s argument, even though to us it seems there are obvious flaws with it.

With respect to (1), the thing that pops into my mind is the fundamental attribution error. It is a term in social psychology that refers to our tendency to place greater weight on a person’s internal characteristics, rather than the external circumstances, to explain that person’s behaviour. We don’t apply this weighting to ourselves since we are more cognisant of our own situation.

For example, when someone doesn’t return our message, it’s easy to feel frustrated and conclude that they’re unreliable or trying to screw you over in some way. But maybe they’re having a busy day? Maybe they left their phone in their bag and didn’t hear the notification? There are many ways we can justify to ourselves and others why we did (or did not do) something that had nothing to do with our own incompetence or malice. I think we should extend that courtesy to others.

It doesn’t mean being naive or unduly trusting of others. It means making that courtesy the starting rebuttable proposition, rather than taking things personally or rushing to pass judgment/condemnation.

With respect to (2), I think the guiding principle for any debate — political, scientific, religious, personal taste, whatever — is how do we make it constructive. In an age of short attention spans, plentiful distractions and easy outlets for manufactured outrage, having a constructive debate is hard. Don’t contribute to the madness. Whether you agree or disagree with what you’re presented with, stop and think:

  • Where is this person coming from?
  • Why do they think this way?
  • What evidence have they put forth?
  • Is it convincing? Why or why not?
  • What assumptions are they operating under?
  • If I grant those assumptions and understand where they are coming from, does their argument now make more sense or less?

Get to know your logical fallacies. Consider the argument as a whole, rather than focusing on the person or nitpicking the individual elements. Again, this isn’t a call for being naive. It’s not a call for false balance. If we are fairly sure — after attempting to engage in honest and constructive debate — that someone is not arguing in good faith, then it is legitimate to stop taking them seriously and stop giving them attention.

Why is it hard?

The glib answer is that going with the flow is easy. Our natural tendency is to judge, to jump to conclusions and to dismiss people we don’t agree with.

At a higher level, I think generosity of thought is hard because of two fundamental human traits that complicate and undermine our interactions with one another: fear and pride.

Fear — We don’t want to face up to things that might disturb our identity and beliefs. We don’t want to get offside with our in-group by entertaining (or, heaven forbid, accepting) ideas and arguments that are proposed by an out-group.

Pride — We don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to admit mistakes, we don’t want to get “tricked”. It feels good to think that we are on the right side, the better side. It feels good and empowering to kick others when they are down.

However, as the saying goes, nothing easy is ever worth doing. I’m writing this for myself as much as for you. Let’s not coast through life. We can make the world a better place in more ways than simply giving our resources and time.

How do we get it?

1. Generosity of thought requires humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are not as good as you think, and other people are not as bad as you think. You are not proud or pompous.

2. It requires being comfortable with admitting that. You are not fearful or insecure.

3. It requires empathy — the ability and willingness to step into another person’s shoes.

4. It requires an understanding that we are more alike than we are different. We all have similar dreams, hopes and fears. We have the same cognitive biases. We have the same need for belonging and approval.

Know that you are swimming against the tide. Our modern society doesn’t reward humility. It creates insecurities and then offers shallow solutions for them. It venerates competition and self-interest. It doesn’t want you to think too hard. Just go with the flow.

But let’s not do that. Let’s be generous with our thoughts. It is not strictly necessary or expected, but that’s kinda the point.

Manned Obsolesence

Busy month, so unfortunately no time for a fully fleshed out post. Here is a very thought provoking video on automation and unemployment which is the subject of my bad, punny title.

Is our faith in the ability of technology to continuously improve our lives misplaced or misguided? What will happen if and when large numbers of the population cannot contribute in any meaningful way to work? Will we be able to find new things for people to do?

Empathy Is Not Enough

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas this weekend I listened to an interesting talk on the Narcissism Epidemic by writer and social commentator Anne Manne. The idea of narcissism traces back at least to Greek mythology. Today, the term refers to a spectrum of personality characteristics that can be summarised as an imbalance between self and others. Narcissism is characterised by, among other things:

  • Grandiosity
  • Entitlement
  • Willingness to use others, and above all,
  • Lack of empathy.

There has been a sharp rise in measures of narcissism in college students over the past 30 years. While social media has increased the prominence of self-centered, attention-seeking and trollish behaviour, I agree with Manne in that technology is more of an enabler of narcissism, rather than an underlying cause.

The more plausible explanation for the “narcissism epidemic” is that it is a natural product our time, namely, a social-political-economic system that is individualistic, materialistic and achievement-oriented. Psychologists nailed it with the term self-actualisation. Be the best person that you can be. Who can argue with that?

Self-sufficiency. Self-efficacy. Self-determination. Self-improvement. Self-worth. Self-dignity. Self-respect. Self-love. Self-worth. Self-esteem. Self-understanding. Self-concept. It’s all positively self-evident.

The exaltation of self occurs across the political spectrum. Manne brought up the ideology of Ayn Rand (who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness), which has been taken up enthusiastically by the political right in the United States. We can also see this with the current Australian government, most notably in its disturbingly inequitable budget and its rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”.*

Is the political left any better? I find that it is a mixed bag. The inherent dignity of human beings is a worthy cause to rally around. It has done so much in the past century to make society a more inclusive place. And yet I wonder how many have critically examined the notion of “I should be able to do whatever I want, and if it doesn’t affect you, then butt out” — as if we live in neat little bubbles and always know what’s best for ourselves. There is also an increasing self-righteousness that goes against the spirit of tolerance and respect that is needed for a civil, pluralistic society.

Several people asked at the end of the talk how do we address the narcissism epidemic. Manne said that the antidote to narcissism is empathy. We need to foster it — in the home, in schools, in workplaces, in the public arena. To me the answer is nice but so woefully insufficient, in the face of our self-actualisation-driven society. “Emotional literacy” is all well and good, but where does the motivation come from to empathise — not just in isolated spurts, but in a sustained manner?

This is one of the reasons I am attracted to the Christian gospel. Its message of grace means that we no longer have to live for ourselves. We are free to practice self-forgetfulness.


* I noticed that the audience gave enthusiastic rounds of applause when Manne repudiated the rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”, and murmured approvingly about the need for political leadership. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of these well-off, middle-to-upper class people voted for the LNP. At the end of the day, we get the government we deserve.

Quote(s) of the Day VIII

I’m gonna try and change topics after this. Here is Professor Michael Lynch on the relationship between data and power (and the problems this bodes for our privacy):

The pool of data is a pool of knowledge. Knowledge is power; and power corrupts. As a consequence it is difficult to avoid drawing the inference that absolute knowledge might corrupt absolutely.

The Internet is a Psychology Experiment

Busy month, but the world doesn’t stop of course. My last post was about big data and privacy. This one is about big data and ethics. As data collection and analysis becomes increasingly powerful, those who control the algorithms can literally control the population in various ways and by various degrees. Below are some smart takes on the subject.

Scott Adam, creator of Dilbert, writes about startups in Silicon Valley:

Every entrepreneur is now a psychologist by trade. The ONLY thing that matters to success in our anything-is-buildable Internet world is psychology. How does the customer perceive this product? What causes someone to share? What makes virality happen? What makes something sticky?

Experience and history give start-ups their ideas on what to test first. But the thing that worked for the last business often doesn’t work for the next because no two situations are identical. So psychology on the Internet is an endless series of educated guesses and quantitative testing. Every entrepreneur is a behavioral psychologist with the tools to pull it off.

Christian Sandvig writing for the Social Media Collective Research Blog has an excellent piece about why algorithms are dangerous (it’s a must-read). Here are some of his key takeaways:

  • When I express my opinion about something to my friends and family, I do not want that opinion re-sold without my knowledge or consent.
  • When I explicitly endorse something, I don’t want that endorsement applied to other things that I did not endorse.
  • If I want to read a list of personalized status updates about my friends and family, I do not want my friends and family sorted by how often they mention advertisers.
  • If a list of things is chosen for me, I want the results organized by some measure of goodness for me,not by how much money someone has paid.
  • I want paid content to be clearly identified.
  • I do not want my information technology to sort my life into commercial and non-commercial content and systematically de-emphasize the noncommercial things that I do, or turn these things toward commercial purposes.

Facebook recently revealed that in 2012 it allowed researchers to conduct a psychological experiment on how emotions spread through social media. They manipulated the Newsfeed of over half a million randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw. They found that emotions are indeed contagious.

The research is notable not for the results, but rather, for what it says about the notions of consent and ethics in social media engineering and for algorithms in general. James Grimmelmann, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, put it this way:

The real scandal, then, is what’s considered “ethical.” The argument that Facebook already advertises, personalizes, and manipulates is at heart a claim that our moral expectations for Facebook are already so debased that they can sink no lower. I beg to differ. This study is a scandal because it brought Facebook’s troubling practices into a realm—academia—where we still have standards of treating people with dignity and serving the common good. The sunlight of academic practices throws into sharper relief Facebook’s utter unconcern for its users and for society. The study itself is not the problem; the problem is our astonishingly low standards for Facebook and other digital manipulators.

In the coming months and years, I think that ethics will be an increasingly pertinent issue. It’s about time we do a deep dive on this.

Thinking About Big Data

At work I am immersed in matters of privacy — thorny issues that arise out of the confluence of developments in technology, business, politics and culture. By now most of us have probably heard of the term ‘big data‘. It’ll be a few years yet before we reap the fruits (both good and ill) of big data in really meaningful and society-changing ways. But that day is coming, and there are smart people out there already thinking about the implications of this.

Big data is a perfect poster child for the double-edged sword that is technology. Just as big data promises to save babies and make the world a better place, it has enormous potential to usher in an unprecedented age of surveillance and control beyond the wildest dreams of past authoritarian regimes (I would wager that present ones are working hard right now to realise this).

With that in mind recently there has been two great pieces on this topic, go check them out:

I want to quote from the conclusion to Crawford’s thoughtful piece:

… As historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison once wrote, all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.

If the big-data fundamentalists argue that more data is inherently better, closer to the truth, then there is no point in their theology at which enough is enough [my emphasis]. This is the radical project of big data. It is epistemology taken to its limit. The affective residue from this experiment is the Janus-faced anxiety that is heavy in the air, and it leaves us with an open question: How might we find a radical potential in the surveillant anxieties of the big-data era?

To tackle a problem first requires understanding it. I don’t think we can afford to be ignorant about this.

The Crux of the Matter

Over the past week, there has been a tremendous amount of digital ink spilt over the case of Brendan Eich. Eich was a talented programmer who ascended to the position of CEO at Mozilla (creator of Firefox) and then resigned in the wake of controversy. It came to light that he had donated money (US$1,500 in total) in support of Proposition 8, a 2008 Californian ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Many proponents of same-sex marriage were not happy about this and agitated for his removal.

There are two sides to this debate: (i) those who believe that Eich’s resignation was unequivocally a good thing and (ii) those who are troubled by its implications for the freedoms of speech and belief. On this blog I am much more interested in exploring how people think, rather than what the conclusion may be. The Eich case is a great example of where reasoning can go awry in support of a seemingly worthy cause. Ultimately I think the crux of the matter revolves around one crucial question: Is opposition to same-sex marriage bigotry, on par with, for example, racism?

First I want to show that some of the arguments marshalled against Eich are problematic upon closer inspection.

1. Eich voluntarily resigned, he wasn’t fired. I don’t see the issue.

Well… he only resigned because of intense pressure, both external and internal, for him to step down because of a certain belief he holds (and which he actively supported). This is why people care about what happened to him.

2. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #1: Clearly it was unpopular with the market. Mozilla was within their rights to respond to public disapproval and encourage him to step down.

This one superficially makes sense but is unsatisfying to me. Yes, it is an explanation of what happened: “It was bad for the company, so we had to change”. But if we’re arguing in the political/moral realm about someone’s speech and beliefs, do we really want to make business sense the arbiter for what is justified or not?

A lot of things make business sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them good, or right. I’m not saying this argument is wrong, I’m saying it is not enough.

So dumping our toxic waste into this river will help our bottom line? It’s a no-brainer then, amirite?

3. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #2: He was no longer fit for the job because he had lost the faith and trust of employees.

This is another seemingly reasonable argument. Factually speaking, it may be the case that some employees were troubled by Eich’s belief and the actions he took. And this could result in distrust and compromised performance at work. But consider this: isn’t every relationship a two-way street? As much as Eich’s attitudes and beliefs have been dissected and examined, what about the employees under him?

I’m sure the same employees who have concerns about Eich would fully subscribe to the notion that at work, what matters is your performance, not your beliefs. Is that too idealistic a notion? Perhaps. In an “ideal” world, beliefs should not matter, nor the position of the one who holds the beliefs (whether CEO, manager, desk grunt, or janitor). In the real world it’s not so simple. Beliefs don’t matter… until they eventually do.

This argument only makes sense if we accept that those employees should be able to do the very thing they would profess not to do: be intolerant of another person’s belief in the workplace.

But wait a minute. Surely some beliefs cross the line don’t they? We shouldn’t have to tolerate everything should we? Here we get to the crux of the issue.

4. What if Eich had donated to the cause of the KKK, or neo-Nazis, or to ban interracial marriage? Wouldn’t that be just cause to remove him?

Translation: (a) Bigotry (e.g., KKK, Nazism, etc) is wrong and should be resisted; (b) opposition to same-sex marriage is bigotry; (c) anyone holding bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished; (d) as a person in a prominent position (CEO), the natural and just punishment for Eich is removal from that position.

The key premise, I submit, is (b). Ultimately how you view Eich’s predicament — and the arguments you muster in favour or against — flows from your position on (b). For the record, I am sympathetic to both sides.

For those who have faced pain and injustice their whole life because of their sexual orientation, and for the many more that empathise with their plight, knowing that the law cannot recognise their affirmation of love and commitment to their partner must be disheartening indeed. The same-sex marriage movement is simply another chapter in the fight to claim equal rights for all people. Those who oppose it are either unenlightened folks or religious freaks.

On the other hand, I do see a distinct difference between supporting the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage and the kinds of bigotry that have been listed. It’s difficult to understand if you believe Christianity is all nonsense, but just for this moment try to see it from the other side.

Notwithstanding historical actors who have done bad things in the name of Christianity, its core teachings — e.g., that everyone is made in the image of God, and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves — are fundamentally opposed to any kind of prejudice or discrimination. Abolitionism in the Western world and the American Civil Rights Movement were strongly influenced by such ideas.

“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” — Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Christians also believe in the order that God created. And yes, that includes the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. If you’re a non-believer, does that seem unfair and ridiculous? Absolutely. Is it equivalent to racist bigotry, which many faithful believers had devoted their lives to fighting? I’m not so sure.

What kind of future do you want?

Commentators have been quick to note that regardless of whether Eich’s predicament is justified or not, it is another demonstration of just how far society has come in terms of recognising and legitimising same-sex beliefs. Indeed, as Ross Douthat observed, such beliefs have “won” — they are gaining popular acceptance in Western societies and are being translated into concrete policies.

I want to quickly touch on point (c) above (i.e.,”anyone holding [what I consider to be] bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished”). My concern, which I share with Andrew Sullivan, is the intolerance that undergirds the anti-Eich crowd. Skimming through the comments to various articles on the topic, I’ve come across:

  • Those who are gleefully sinking the boot in — “I don’t want to be magnanimous, I want to crush them”
  • Those who have seemingly forgotten that two wrongs don’t make a right — “But conservatives do X/Y/Z, isn’t it hypocritical for them to complain about this?”
  • Those who are downright inquisitorial — “I’ll forgive Eich when he apologises, comes around on this issue, and make amends by giving a large donation to an organisation promoting same-sex marriage”.

We’ve been at this juncture many times before in history. Now that a particular belief is in the ascendancy, how should its proponents deal with the dissenters? The future of a civil, pluralistic society depends on the answer.