Tag Archives: human behavior

The Golden Age of Conspiracy

I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories.  When I say this please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them; how a person will take several demonstrable facts and then loosely connect them into something–which at first glance–sounds like a plausible narrative, which will appeal to a wide spectrum of people.  Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings.  It’s more about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses.  This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.

I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news.  It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story.  Why didn’t they accept it?  What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report?  Essentially none, but it didn’t matter.  There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story.  Or as my mother put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.”  This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.  The official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle.  But this just wasn’t big enough for most people, who to this day maintain there has to be more to it.  And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy.  Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning.

We have an innate aversion to simplicity.  Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.  It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain [and (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon].  It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for our meager minds to fathom.  This line of thinking is especially strong when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.

Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations.  What does satisfy out suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the “mainstream.”  That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp.  “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me,” is the popular tagline.  Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts.  It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting.  The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table.  For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States).  And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep people’s suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.

We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice.  The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate–immensely complicated and circumstantial–answer is really the most simple and obvious of them all.  Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).

Precisely because there appears to be something innate about the way the human mind is drawn to conspiracies the ease by which ideas are exchanged in our lifetime makes it a ripe golden age for conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists to thrive.  The reason being that this greater medium of communication, and the great vastness of information available to us in which we can indulge our niche interests, also makes it possible to feel as though we are exploring new pieces of data everyday without ever really having to step outside the conclusions of the particular niche interest we are being drawn to.  Given enough time, we’ll cease wanting to hear from an opposing view contradicting the knowledge we have invested so much time in attaining.  The deeper secrets we have learned will become a part of the way we view and interact with the world.  In short, the conspiracy will become a part of your identity, a personal matter for you to defend, and all competing and alternative data will work only to confirm what you already have accepted to be true.  Reducing reality to a matter of popular vs fringe consensus, the veracity of which is to be decided based on how titillating it is to one’s cynically credulous senses.

Agony by Eye Contact

I have always been told that I have an eye contact problem.  When most people hear this, they assume that I mean how I have trouble maintaining eye contact.  However, my apparent problem is the exact opposite; I’m told that I make too much eye contact with people while speaking with them.

It is one complaint that has followed me all throughout my childhood (and subsequent adult years), by people alleging that I am not showing them proper respect because I insist on “staring” at them as we talk.  Yet, despite numerous attempts to remedy this supposed faux pas of mine, I have never really been able to figure out what the socially acceptable amount of eye contact is supposed to be.  Hence, what results is me trying to simultaneously give someone my complete attention, while worrying that I have given her/him too much attention, and made her/him feel uncomfortable because of it.

The reason I have always been inclined to make direct eye contact with whomever I happen to be speaking to at the moment, is my desire to hear and understand every word that is being spoken to me by said individual.  I make the assumption that if you find it worthwhile to approach me in conversation about a topic, you want me to actually listen to what you have to say, and not nod my head and shift my eyes aimlessly, looking for a distraction to avoid looking at your eyes.

The strangest part is that when I’m confronted about my intense eye contact habit, and told that I’m being rude to the person whose words I’m trying to hear, my sincere request to get some constructive feedback on the matter is always met with scorn.  “You should already know why it’s obviously wrong,” is the answer I usually get (which is obviously asinine since I obviously don’t know).  The second most common answer is that it makes the person I’m speaking to uncomfortable, which though reasonable, still doesn’t validate the notion that my behavior is wrong.

Breaking the routine of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder will definitely make the person afflicted with OCD uncomfortable, but doing so is a necessary step in getting the person to break away from her/his compulsion (assuming the person wants to break from it).  In that same regard, how can I be sure that it is not society’s aversion to eye contact that is the problem here?

I know from my experience teaching in a classroom that students who actually look at me as I’m lecturing tend to retain more information, than those who never lift their heads from the paper in front of them.  This is because communication is not strictly verbal, so being told to listen with just my ears and never my eyes comes across as a strange demand to me, since I know that I will register more of what you’re saying if I look at you while we’re conversing.  Do you not want me to grasp and thoroughly contemplate everything you have to say?

And, yes, I’m aware that there are people who have different kinds of social anxieties and communicative disorders, who are physically and psychologically incapable of making eye contact with others.  But I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of people I happen to come across in casually conversation fall into this category.  Also, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I can totally understand the desire to not have people gawk at you incessantly while I’m giving a talk.  However, the issue I’m referring to here is limited strictly to a one-on-one conversation, usually started by someone approaching me to discuss a topic s/he feels is important enough to speak to me about.  The idea that it is impolite to maintain eye contact with someone who has chosen to speak with me, baffles me to no end, and honestly makes me wonder about the state of our self-worth as a people, when we are so easily unnerved and intimidated by anyone who dares to closely observe and pay attention to what we have to say.

Despite having said all this, I do constantly try to accommodate to people’s desires and limit the amount eye contact I give to a person during conversation, but I really wish someone would give me the guidelines to how much is too much, or not enough, since I obviously am not able to figure it out on my own.

Dear Noble Assholes,

Assholes don’t bother me.  Assholes who pride themselves on being assholes (and advertise their “asshole-ishness” publicly) don’t bother me, either.  However, there is a certain type of asshole that exists that does tend to irk me just a bit.  I would call this type the noble asshole.

Noble, because this sort of assholes has actually convinced themselves that being an asshole is synonymous with having an honest dialogue, thereby framing their need to be vindictive and rude towards people into a public service for the greater good of humanity.  Moreover, the noble assholes believe that being assholes just means that they are braver than you, because (unlike you) they aren’t scared to speak plainly.  Ultimately, I think it’s this sense of self-aggrandizement that grinds my gears about the noble asshole.

Because, tell me honestly, what great feat of bravery are accomplished by harping on about something as personal as someone’s physical flaws?  Do we honestly think that ugly people don’t know that they’re ugly?  That short people don’t know that they’re short?  So what great service is accomplished by calling for people to have to be confronted with these sort of shortcomings in every conversation they have, be they relevant to the conversation or not?

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I have no problem with anyone saying whatever the hell they want.  I really, really could not care less at how offensive something is (be it something said, published, or put on display), because within a free society the right to be offensive needs to be as protected as the right to be offended is.  And claiming offense cannot, and should never, serve as a tool to silence someone simply because you feel insulted by what s/he said or did.  What I am saying is that, in that same spirit, if you are being insulting don’t further insult our collective intelligence by pretending that you are doing anything else.

No, you’re not “just being honest”.  You’re going several steps beyond that, on account that anyone past the age of puberty, who isn’t on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, ought to have enough common sense (not to mention human decency) to know the difference between speaking honestly, and being an opinionated dick on matters where your opinion was never asked to begin with.

The most annoying part is that, while I went out of my way here to accommodate the noble asshole’s asshole-ish ways by openly stating her/his right to be as shamelessly insulting as s/he sees fit, this same type of asshole will always (and I do mean, always) cry foul the moment someone responds accordingly to the insults s/he so freely spouted out.  It’s a warped sense of logic, in which the noble assholes demand the right to insult you, but deny you the right to acknowledge the reality that they have in fact just insulted you.

And these are the self-proclaimed “truth-tellers” of our age?  The noble souls who can’t even grasp the basic physics of how exerting an action will result in an equal reaction.

Noble?  Truth-tellers?  There is a more fitting description for people who lack the ability to speak with others with the basic tone of civility, who lack the ability to have the foresight or maturity to understand the consequences or impact their conduct can have on others; we call such people children.  And if you behave like child, throw temper-tantrums like a child, and have the emotional maturity of a child, then I will presume that you wish for me to speak to you like a child.  Just like a spoiled, undisciplined child, who has no filter and spouts out the first thing that pops into her/his underdeveloped mind.

And make no mistake, if you are among the self-proclaimed noble assholes, I am not doing anything noble by writing all of this.  I am insulting you, and you should be insulted but it.

The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

The Self-Serving Root Behind Selflessness

In years past, I spent a significant portion of my free time volunteering at various hospitals and clinics.  My reason for doing this was always simply to offer a helping hand at venues that are in need of it.  However, deep down, I have to admit that my altruism also harbored a certain level of self-centeredness.  The volunteer work I did had no negative consequences on my life, and the moment it did there existed a decent chance that I would have abandoned it immediately.  (Yet, I still can’t be absolutely sure on this last part, since my observations inform me that we are very fond of the pleasures we derive from the self-flagellation of retelling, and re-imagining, personal hardships and sacrifices, and I have no reason to believe that I’m an exception to this mindset.)

Listen to any biography of any celebrity or public figure and you will instantly spot a narrative of personal triumph over great adversity (it doesn’t actually matter whether or not the adversity is of genuine helplessness, or the result of poor lifestyle decisions), the sentiment is always one of complete adoration for even the slightest of inconveniences a person may have faced.  And we love our inconveniences,  for if we didn’t have them what would we define our characters by?

It also makes us look stronger when we exaggerate our setbacks, especially if it’s to ourselves.  Not to mention it creates more interesting memories.  Neglectful mothers change into alcoholics, spiteful fathers become sadists, and that neighborhood boy that used to torture you after school turns into four thugs that you fought off with nothing but a broomstick.  There is satisfaction in knowing you’ve experienced something out of the ordinary.  Within that mindset even the most degrading past can make you feel good about yourself.  I can’t imagine anyone argue how that’s a bad thing?  It isn’t, as long as you make an effort not to forget what it is that you are doing here–how you are not reminiscing about the past, but creating and adapting it to your liking.

It is not a matter of lying to ourselves in order to function properly (that would imply a conscious effort).  No, in reality we function properly precisely because we lie to ourselves.  And we do it effortlessly.

This is best illustrated by the  average western-educated social activist, who feels the need to promote modernization efforts in the developing world, but refuses to acknowledge the fact that he is by extension claiming a level of superiority for his own cultural institutions.

To us living comfortably in the 21st century, to hear such talk is appalling to the highest degree.  How dare anyone dismiss a people’s culture, and in need of restructuring, simply because it lacks technological advancements, or the sociopolitical values we in the developed world might hold dear?!  But to me, this is a strange position to hold as it lies in contrast to every humanitarian effort ever organized.

When we speak of the need to spread literacy to impoverished tribal communities, are we not implying that the educational system we have designed is somehow better than that of these proud communities?  No?  Then why not allow them to carry on with their noble ways, undisturbed by the pesky trivialities of academics which obviously hold no merit to them?  When we insist on how important it is to promote democracy throughout the world, are we not also asserting that our system of governing is superior to that of civilizations which have seemingly gotten along for centuries without the ability to elect their figureheads?  Surely, by demanding all to conform to a matter we uphold as most virtues and important we are being condescending, refusing to acknowledge the self-serving interest that comes along from trying to impose values that are not indigenous to these regions.

Of course, we can make a respectable argument that we have good reasons for wanting to spread literacy, because an educated populace is more likely to persevere against the growing influence of a globalized economy.  Also, we can argue how we should champion the ideals of democracy, if we honestly do believe it to be the most rationally sound form of governance possible.  This is all well and good, but the fact still stands that we think that we possess a knowledge others simply do not.  A mentality of, “your way is fine, but mine’s better.”  Although we dare not say this aloud, because to do so would to most people imply a negation of the genuinely altruistic narrative that we have constructed around such much needed acts of charity.

Personally, I view such responses as absurdly redundant, because it is one thing for us to indulge in the clout of political correctness, but let us at least stop fooling ourselves with this absurd image of reluctant saviors that we have so readily concocted around activities we obviously have both an altruistic and self-serving, interest to perform (admitting the latter does not cheapen the former, at least not in my mind).

There is no need to lie to ourselves about the motivations we have for our actions, but to do otherwise is to me an impossible request.  To ask us as human beings to cease having a split-brained outlook, is to ask us to cease being human beings.  Even if we recognize and understand the irrationalities of our character quirks, we still can’t help but fall victim to them.  Nor would we know how not to want to.

Education System’s Deficiency in Deterring Disorderliness

There is a form of punishment used in many U.S. public schools.  Most of these schools have their own unique abbreviation/initialism for it, but essentially it can best be described as in-school detention.  Although policies can vary from district to district, the standard procedure by which this form of detention operates is to segregate students who are troublemakers away from the rest of their peers for a designated period of time, usually by placing them in a room with other equally unmanageable youths.  The reasoning underlying this practice is based on the principle of deterrence, where we are aiming to deter further behavioral problems from the troublemaker students, by cutting them off from the rest of the school network.  Moreover, we are aiming to deter any bad influences said students could have on their fellow classmates.  Unlike suspension, in-school detention presumably provides a set of extra motivating factors to correct bad student behavior.

When a student is sent to be disciplined in this way, her/his teachers will often get a note in their office box asking them if they could either send out busy work for some of the students currently “doing time” in in-school detention (they are still in school, after all), or if they could step in to supervise the troublemakers during one of their off periods.  Normally, none of this is mandatory, and unless one of the disciplined students is one of your own, faculty members generally don’t feel much obligation to respond.  The problem a lot of teachers are seeing, however, is that every time they receive the list of names of students placed in in-school detention, they notice a strange anomaly about the rationale behind this deterrence system; namely, that the names on the list are almost always the same.  Which means it’s the exact same students getting repeatedly crammed into this same room, for largely the same reasons they were there a week ago.

Now, I may not be the brightest bloke around, but how does a form of discipline, operating under the rationality of deterring bad behavior in students, keep having to discipline the same exact students for the same exact behavior it’s set up to deter?  At when point does the whole deterring factor actually come into play here?

I understand that something needs to be done about students who act out badly.  I know that undue lenience can lead to the same result as completely ignoring an obvious problem.  But is this form of punishment really any different from ignoring a problem?  If not, than why are the exact same students always the recipients of a punishment whose primary purpose is supposed to be to correct their bad behavior?  At what point can we say that the policies and procedures in practice have failed to fulfill their desired goal, and maybe–just possibly–an alternate route ought to be considered?  Because if the goal is to truly correct bad behavior (instead of just putting troublemakers out of sight, out of mind), what we are doing now in schools is definitely not working.

One suggestion I have been told is that the punishment is not severe enough.  The rationality here being that young people need to be frightened into a certain mode of behavior, and in-school detention is just not frightening enough to mischievous youths.  To individuals who feel this way I would like to–in return–suggest that they first take a look at how well emphasizing severity as a punitive punishment has worked out in the U.S. criminal justice system over the last 40 years in terms of deterring criminal behavior amongst convicted criminals.  Judging by the fact that the reciprocity rate of criminal offenders has suffered no drop whatsoever (while arrests, and re-arrests, have increases exponentially in most metropolitan areas), I would suggest that perhaps we brainstorm a few other ideas first.

Furthermore, speaking as someone who has supervised in-school detention periods before, I can assure you that the students who are sent there aren’t happy or proud about it.  They understand it’s a punishment, and they view it as a punishment, and they feel no pleasure from being there.  What they do feel is anger, which is fine if the goal is to make them feel pissed off for having been caught breaking the rules, but that’s not what these sort of disciplines are claiming as their goal.  The claimed goal of in-school detention is to deter and correct bad behavior.  Getting people angry for the bad things they do can never correct bad and stupid behavior, because anger is a catalyst for more bad and stupid behavior.  When you’re angry you don’t sit back and reflect rationally about your bad judgment.  In fact, in such a state of mind you are much more likely to exercise even more bad judgment.  Besides, short of going back to the olden days of beating bad behaving students with a ruler, I don’t really see what more we could do on the severity scale on account that for the hours they spend in in-school detention we are already treating them like incarcerated criminals.  And make no mistake about it, that is exactly how they feel and it’s doing nothing to remedy whatever is instigating their behavior.

“Okay, Sascha.  How about then you step down from your soapbox, stop being a condescending ‘know-it-all’ blogger, and actually tell us a practical alternative route we can take.”

Fair enough, hypothetical reader (who somehow always seems to know just what to say to keep the plot of my posts moving along smoothly).  You don’t correct bad behavior by ignoring it, and you don’t correct it by emphasizing the severity of punishment above all else either.  In my experience what works best is a combination of swiftness and discretion.  If a student breaks the rules in place in a classroom, it makes no sense to me to send her/him to the principle’s office, who will then send her/him to another office, who will then place her/him in a segregated classroom for about a week, where s/he will sit isolated from the rest of the school, without a word of explanation from anyone as to why s/he shouldn’t be behaving the way s/he did (aside from the patronizing, “Because it’s against school policy”).  But this is exactly what so many educators do.  Instead of dealing with the problem swiftly and directly, they pass the responsibility of assigning concrete consequences on to someone else; i.e. out of sight, out of mind.

In my experience, the best chance for actual long-term behavioral correction comes by confronting the student about their behavior, on your own terms, and explaining the consequences that will result from this behavior immediately following its occurrence, without constantly shipping her/him through some asinine administrative roundabout.  If the offense is committed in my classroom, it is my responsibility to deal with it, because individual cases of misbehavior require individual consequences.  And I promise you, when consequences are customized to each breach in conduct committed by each individual student, it leaves a much more lasting impression on the mischievous youth than a generalized decree ordained by some top-level administrator who doesn’t even know the student’s name, let alone the circumstances surrounding her/his behavioral issues.

Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by “confronting the student” as some sort of public declaration against her/him in front of class.  Consequences to bad behavior have to be swift, but they are also most effective when discloses in private.  When someone publicly confronts you about your behavior (even when you know that you’re in the wrong), you are much less receptive to the message than you would be if the person made the effort to avoid humiliating you in front of your peer group.  I don’t care how your intuition tells you to approach it, the plain fact is that discreteness in these situations works because it gives the teenager–whose full reasoning faculties are still developing–the thing s/he craves most:  the courtesy of being spoken to like an adult, instead of being repeatedly scolded like a child.

I know someone reading this is probably dismissing me as just too soft on those disorderly “little assholes”.  If you’re one of these readers let me ask you, what do you think is more likely to happen when a teacher publicly calls out a student for behaving like the “little asshole” s/he most probably is?  Do you think that the student will rationally consider the consequences of their misbehavior, and thereby learn the value of civil conduct?  Or is the student going to feel that s/he has to go on the defensive and save face in front of her/his friends by stubbornly locking horns with the teacher?  All of this is dependent on what results you’re aiming for.  I’m aiming to actually correct delinquent behavior; if you’re aiming to simply piss off “little assholes” and “give ‘em what they’ve got comin’” have fun engaging in your pissing match with an adolescent, just remember only one of you is expected to be the adult in the situation.

The reason I care about this issues is that I’m concerned that the policies and procedures we have in place to deal with misbehavior in the educational system parallel too closely with the practices prevalent within the criminal justice system.  Educators are entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing minds that are still maturing.  As the adults in the room–the sole individual with the experience and developed cognitive faculties to exercise the restraint and judgement necessary to deal with a volatile situation–the consequences of how disorderly conduct is treated and corrected has to fall on our shoulder, whether we like it to or not.  But I don’t see how we all can live up to this duty, how we can mend well-adjusted adults as a society, if we keep placing disorderly students into ineffective programs and policies that are firstly failing to address the underlying issues causing bad behavior, and secondly failing to correct said behavior.  I care about this because there is a decent chance that today’s delinquents will be tomorrow’s felons–and if we condition them at a young age that social institutions have no means or interest in dealing with them as thinking persons, there is little reason for them to be.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your interests lies in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignity and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.