A mission to civilize

One of my first tweets was something mean about Olivia Munn. I’d love to blame it on being younger at the time (which is technically true), or an inflated sense of self-importance, just coming off hosting a moderately successful podcast. But the truth is I was simply being a negative, ugly person and I owe Ms. Munn an apology.

I finished watching The Newsroom in June and was absolutely captivated by it. It may just be my new favorite television series of all time. While it never seemed to be much of a critical darling, the recurrent theme of Will McAvoy’s quixotic “mission to civilize” really spoke to me. Unlike the critics, I really fell in love with unbridled sense of optimism and fast, smart dialog that is Aaron Sorkin’s hallmark. There is something compelling about dealing in reality, honestly, with facts, and simply trying to be a more positive person. Idiocy and falsehoods must be combated, but we must also make an effort to be constructive.

In “I’ll Try to Fix You”, Will is aghast that woman he’s flirting with would be so casual about writing a “takedown piece”- her job assignment is essentially to smear a woman on a reality tv show. He tries to point out the ugliness of the task and how perpetuating that attitude leads to the coarsening of society and gets a drink thrown in his face for his efforts.

Another example is in “What Kind of Day Has It Been”, when Neal returns to to work and find the ACN digital staff has devolved into writing snarky click bait articles like “the 9 most overrated movies of all time”. After noting the oldest movie on their list was The Matrix, Neal can’t help himself: “All time and 14 years are two different units of measurement. But my question is why is overrated more fun than, say, underrated? You embarrass me.”

“Snark is the idiot’s version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it.” -Will McAvoy

I can’t help but notice that most of the critical derision for the The Newsroom comes from blogs, snarky people, and those who likely view themselves as speaking truth to power.

Now, it can be said with relative certainty that Olivia Munn doesn’t read my blog, and I’m pretty sure we’re not connections on LinkedIn or Twitter. The fact that she proved I was a big ol’ jerk-face by being fantastic in the role of Sloan Sabbith on my new favorite series is just coincidental to greater lesson I’m trying to apply to my life. Would I apologize for being petty and rude, given the chance? Of course. But that’s a much smaller part of who I’m actually trying to be.

Human beings have a well-documented negativity bias [1][2][3]. “The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala  — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative” [2]. And the size of one’s amygdala has  positive correlation with how fearful (negative) they generally are [4]. The larger your amygdala, the more fearful/negative you tend to be. So a certain amount of our negativity is simply built into us, which makes sense. Rick Hanson, PhD, wrote it best, “But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact” [2].

Except most of us no longer live in the Stone Age or have to worry about being eaten by a tiger on our way to the office. In the modern age, carrots are more plentiful, and our sticks are more like twigs. The negativity bias that functioned as a survival mechanism for thousands of years just makes us irritable jerks now if we let it go unchecked. The smell and taste of spoilt milk impacted me more than imbibing uneventful glasses, and likely spared me some gastrointestinal distress. But what does it gain a person to watch Jerry Springer instead of something edifying? Why should I be more ready to discuss things I dislike than to be positive and talk about good things?

I really should quit griping about the Star Wars prequels. People ten years younger than me seem to like them, and what’s wrong with that? Sure, I wish society as a whole was more sophisticated, but does that give me the moral high ground to insult something as stupid if it’s harmless and brings joy to others? Aren’t I just trying to make them as miserable as me?

I’m a dad now. I have a beautiful son, and I want him to grow up to be kind, and happy, and brave, and honest, and curious. And I don’t think I can do that if I’m acting like a negative, inconsiderate, myopic example. If I want my son to be better than me, than I have to be a better example.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical. I last wrote about critical thinking and being honest in our pursuit of truth, and a conscious choice to be more optimistic [5] doesn’t change that. In Think Critically, Drs. Facione and Gittens made it expressly clear that critical thinking doesn’t mean being negative. [6] Lies and ignorance must still be defeated at all times. But we can argue like civilized human beings; we can attack ideas without attacking the person (ad hominem).

My optimism is not a cavalier belief that everything is rosy, but that truth can prevail if we’re smart and brave and honest and educated. We can be better than we are, but we have to start with ourselves and it has to be conscious choice every day. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

We also probably have to have a lot more kids and out-populate the cretins, but that’s another discussion.

I want to take up the “mission to civilize” and I don’t care that it’s quixotic, because I don’t have to change the world. I just have to be good enough to inspire my son.

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-wise-brain/201010/confronting-the-negativity-bias
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2999759/
  5. http://lifehacker.com/5982005/rewire-your-brain-for-positivity-and-happiness-using-the-tetris-effect
  6. Think Critically, 3rd ed. 2016. Peter Facione & Carol Ann Gittens

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