Suicidal Nation

LOS ANGELES – SEP 11: Anthony Bourdain at the 2016 Primetime Creative Emmy Awards – Day 2 – Arrivals at the Microsoft Theater on September 11, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA

I recently read an article in USA Today by Kristen Powers in which she cited a statistic that suicides are up 30% since 1999. In the article, she quotes an author who says that “despair … isn’t always caused by our brains. It’s largely caused by key problems in the way we live.” I don’t know if there’s any research or professional opinion to back that up. The author is a journalist who wrote a book. That doesn’t necessarily make the author an expert. Still, I personally think there is some merit to the point.

Kristen Powers went on to assert her opinion that “we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” For proof, she quotes Tim Carey about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”

In spite of the lack of real evidence, I think she has a point. The article is prompted by the suicides of two famous TV personalities who seemed to have it all, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. We don’t have to think very far back to remember Robin Williams, who also seemed to have it all. Then there is Whitney Houston who maybe didn’t intentionally kill herself, but she drank and drugged herself to death.

It turns out that the list of famous people who committed suicide is quite long. (See, for example, the Famous Suicides List) The list of famous suicides includes some of the wealthiest people of their times. (See, for example, 10 Millionaire Businessmen Who Committed Suicide and These are 10 Rich People who Committed Suicide)

What is it that possess a person who seems to have everything anyone could want in this life to commit suicide?

Continue reading

Thoughts on A Plea for Round-Table Discussion, not Debates


Larry Hurtado wrote:

Debating is a win/lose contest, little subtlety or complexity allowed.  It doesn’t make for the sort of careful consideration of matters that is most often required. It certainly doesn’t allow for people to grow, develop/alter their understanding of matters. […]

via A Plea for Round-Table Discussion, not Debates — Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I’ve often been frustrated with debates as a tool for advancing knowledge and understanding. Many times, maybe even most often, both sides claim a victory, but wins and losses are hard measured in debates. Debates are seen as win/lose propositions, but they rarely deliver that kind of satisfaction.

Listen to any political debate, and both sides will claim victory. Listen to any debate of atheist and theist, and both sides will claim victory. The after debate responses are continuations in kind of the debate – both sides trying to convince the other and the world of their victory. The claims usually fall flat and ring hollow to anyone who makes an effort at remaining objective.

If we want to get at truth and understanding, debates are not the best way to do it. Respectful discussion and dialogue are much better platforms for truth and understanding.

I am not much a debate watcher, as you might expect from the perspective I have already presented, but they serve to illustrate my point. The first debate between the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, and his colleague, John Lennox, (the God Delusion Debate) is a good example. At one point it became evident that Dawkins defined faith one way (belief in spite of the evidence) very differently than Lennox (trust in the evidence).  Since they both started from different premises, the entire hour and a half debate was an exercise in the two of them talking past each other.

I recently listened to an interview by the atheist, Sam Harris, of the agnostic, Bart Ehrman, on What is Christianity? Harris began the interview lauding the virtue of approaching a familiar subject from a fresh point of view. Unlike a debate, Harris and Ehrman very much agreed with each other on most every point. One has to wonder what was the fresh point of view. It all had a very familiar feel.

The respect and generosity that Harris offered Ehrman in the interview would have made for a much more interesting discussion if Harris had a scholarly believer on with him to talk about the same subject. While the discussion was enlightening, it wasn’t as valuable as it could have been. It wasn’t a true dialogue – more like an echo chamber.

Today, just before I read the Larry Hurtado blog, I listened to an interview on the Unbelievable podcast of Christian philosopher, Dr. Robin Collins, and atheist philosopher, Dr. Peter Millican, on the issue of the Fine Tuning of the Universe. The discussion was exactly the kind of thing that debates and echo chambers are not.

Justin Brierley, whose podcast it is, does a great job of generating mutual respect and is generous in allowing well-rounded, nuanced discussion that is refreshing. The point isn’t to crown winners or losers in a dual of wits and rhetoric, and it wasn’t an exercise in preaching to the choir. The focus was, refreshingly, to get at truth and understanding.

We could use more of that. The one-upmanship of debates and the echo chambers of discussions with people who think like we do are platforms that are not as good at cultivating understanding, in particular, and truth as a healthy, respectful dialogue with people  think differently.

I am not going to go so far as to say that debates are useless, and discussions with people who think like we do are not wholly invaluable either. Debates certainly contrast points of view in ways that maybe dialogues don’t, and two people pulling in the same direction is, maybe, a better way of advancing a particular view or framework. Dialogues, however, take sharp edge off of debates and tend to generate more respect and understanding. Dialogues, on the other hand, sharpen our thinking in ways that discussions with like-minded people can not do.




The Gun Problem Needs Diagnosis

I recently read a post on social media with a quotation by Samuel L Jackson.

I don’t think it’s about more gun control. I grew up in the South with guns everywhere and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren’t taught the value of life.

I checked Snopes. It looks like the quotation is rightly attributed. For the record, though, Samuel Jackson denies any intention to speak in favor of guns or to weigh in on the issue. So what’s the point?

If you are still with me, I’ve got something for everyone, and I can guess that most people will not be happy with what I have to say (on both sides of the “fence”). That are sides to this issue with something like an insurmountable fence in between is what I mean to address.

So, let me begin with the quotation. For this portion of my comments, I ask that the gun law advocates stay with me for awhile. You might applaud, or at least take some consolation in what I have to say, in the end.

Continue reading

False News Travels Faster than True News

Depositphotos Image ID: 176371828 Copyright: chris77ho

A recent MIT study that analyzed over 100,000 news stories and millions of tweets concluded, convincingly, that falsehoods travels faster than truth. (See Study: On Twitter, false news travels faster than true stories) Let that sink in….

“’We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,’ says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings.”

The next time you are tempted to retweet, re-post or share a news story that triggers your ire, maybe you should stop and think about it first. Better yet, maybe you should do a little objective investigation first. In fact, as it turns out, there is characteristic emotional state that seems to accompany the sharing of false news.

“’We saw a different emotional profile for false news and true news,’ Vosoughi says. ‘People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust,’” he notes, whereas true stories produced replies more generally characterized by sadness, anticipation, and trust.”

The more shocking the story, the more fantastic it seems, the more likely it is that the story is false. Red flags should go up whenever something seems a little too great or little too despicable to be true. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t some true news stories that seem fantastic or disgusting. It’s just that anything that seems a little too fantastic or a little terrible to be true should be investigated more completely.

This is particularly true when the stories run along political lines and hit those partisan buttons that people seem to have set to ultra-sensitive these days. We are particularly susceptible to being duped when the stories trip our switches! The extent to which we are triggered shocked the researchers.

“[R]esearchers were ‘somewhere between surprised and stunned’ at the different trajectories of true and false news on Twitter.”

In fact, the researchers found that false news stories were seventy percent (70%) more likely to be retweeted than true stories! True stories took about six (6) times longer to “catch up” to the false news stories according to their study that was recently published.

That suggests that we should be automatically suspicious of any news story we are hearing for the first time, and doubly so if the story is unusually fantastic or disgusting.

Maybe one of the reasons that people run with false news stories today has to do with the way we consume news and entertainment (and news is entertainment the way it is produced and “consumed” these days!). News is big business, and it is designed to generate an impact and a response. “The news sells”, and bad news, fantastic news, disgusting news sells better than good news and ordinary news. We are programmed to respond to it because it is designed for a response.

News and entertainment has also conditioned us to short attention spans. From 30-minute sitcoms to to 30-second commercials to 140 words in a Twitter post (now up to 240 words!), we have gotten used to soundbites of information. I have always thought our soundbite, short-attention-span world began with MTV videos in which dozens of moving video segments kept the focus off any particular video component, but that is just a personal theory.

In the fast-world we live in, we don’t have time to digest anything for very long, and we seem to feel compelled to jump to our conclusions while the events, ideas, news or statements have even concluded and the dust settles on what we are considering. Perspective requires a certain amount of time to mature, but we have become too impatient to respond with more than a reaction.

Maybe a little self-realization will help. Maybe taking a step back will help us gain some perspective. The next time you come across something fantastic or disgusting, whether it aligns with your politics and ideology or strains it, take a deep breath… pause… and let it simmer while you take some time to dig into it. See if you can find some corroboration from an unlikely source – one that doesn’t align perfectly with your leanings.

If you don’t have time to investigate, then just let it simmer. The world isn’t going to spin off its axis if you don’t chime in right away.

One last thing about the study is that the researchers had a hard time agreeing on a definition of “fake news”. This is telling to me. Many things that people call “fake news” is really just a contrary opinion or conclusion. Opinions and conclusory statements are often confused for factual statements.

The researchers settled on using “false news” for the purposes of their study. False news consists of fact statements (assertions of fact, or supposed fact) not opinions or conclusions about fact the facts. Many things that people call “fake news” are simply someone’s opinion or conclusion about the facts.

Our propensity to rush to an opinion or conclusion about things is similar to our propensity to share false news. (In my opinion – this is an unsupported conclusion based only my personal observation and not backed by any objective study.) My support is only anecdotal, but it’s something to which I am sensitive as an attorney.

More times than I could count I have had clients insist to me that they have been wronged and relay to me a one-sided tale of personal wrongs that seems black and white – until I begin to hear the other side of the story. And then I often don’t know who to believe (he said/she said). We naturally see things through the filters of what we expect, what is best for us, what we like or dislike and other very personal motivators that color our worlds.

This is true (in my opinion) when it comes to news. Within minutes and hours of the Treyvon Martin shooting, and the Ferguson shooting, and – you name it – social media is flooded with armchair news anchors, investigative reporters, detectives and pundits who think they know exactly how it went down and are rushing to get their op-eds out to the world. The truth is that the real facts usually take months to sort out and sift through, and we often are left with more troubling ambiguities and inconsistencies than we would care to admit or accept.

All the more reason to be slow to jump to conclusions, to be thoughtful and considerate, to be circumspect about what we see and hear and to allow time for more thorough consideration. We should be willing to entertain new information and different perspectives. We should be careful about the facts we assume, especially if we are not in a good, ourselves, to judge them.

The MIT study gives us good reason to take a step back and to reconsider how we digest the news we receive and the things that we share.

School Shootings: Seeking the Why

Depositphotos ID: 87889252 Copyright: creatista (editorial use only)

Another school shooting has occurred, this time in Maryland at the Great Mills High School. (See the CNN report: Armed student dead after he shoots 2 others at Maryland high school, sheriff says). Some people will herald this incident as a vindication of gun rights because the shooter was taken down by an armed resource officer in the school. I will leave that debate to others. I want to focus on why school shootings are happening in the first place.

Yes, we can say school shootings are happening because of guns, but guns are not the whole story. Guns are not the root cause. Guns have been ubiquitously part of the fabric of American life going back to the Revolutionary War and before. Guns were accessible in our country throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, but there was never an indiscriminate, mass school shooting until 1966 when an engineering student holed up in a tower in Austin, TX and began shooting at passersby on the campus below.

Within months a copycat shooting took place in Mesa, AZ by another individual who spoke about inspiration from the Austin shooter and a serial killer. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US) Copycat inspiration is a likely source of motivation for indiscriminate, mass school shootings, but copycat inspiration doesn’t explain why. Why would anyone be inspired to emulate such an example as a school shooting?

Regardless of whatever we decide as a society to do about guns, we need to ask why!

Continue reading

Walk Out or Stand Up?

Depositphotos photography ID: 115252164 Copyright: icrogen

The news headlines were all about the national walk out yesterday. Students in schools cross the nation walked out of school in protest of the latest mass school shooting, urging politicians and other responsible adults to do something about the epidemic of school shootings. Judging by my Facebook feed, most adults supported and even applauded them in expressing their concern to the adults in their world.

It is our responsibility to protect our children. We need to take this seriously and do all that we can to protect them from this very modern danger. It is a modern danger by the way. Never before 1966 was there an indiscriminate mass shooting of students on a school campus in the history of the United States, and indiscriminate mass school shootings have ramped up each decade since then, shooting into the double digits in the 1980’s and beyond. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US.)

As if this trend isn’t disturbing enough, we can see another trend in the age of the perpetrators. From the 1980’s on, the perpetrators have been predominantly teenagers and young twenty somethings. The perpetrators have been as young as middle school age, and they are almost all boys and young men. What is going on with our boys and young men is a question we need to ask and answer. (See The Lost Boys with Guns.)

Meanwhile, I add my voice to the chorus of adults applauding our youth around the country for walking out in a show of unified protest and demand for the adults to make changes that will protect them from future attacks from indiscriminate mass shootings, but it isn’t enough.

Granted, protests are a last resort for people who don’t have the power, or, perhaps, feel they don’t have the power, to effect change directly. It’s an attempt to prick the conscience of the people who do have the power to effect the change that is needed. At least that is the perception.

Go ahead and protest. It raises social consciousness. It demonstrates a necessary urgency. It forces the issue top of mind and demands that we take the issue seriously. But it isn’t enough. Young people have much more power than they might think, but it will take much more effort, sustained effort, and we, as adults, need to help them in every way we can. Their lives may depend on it!

What am I talking about?

Continue reading