Thursday, April 30, 2015

The liberty to constrain liberty?

I like the idea of pulling out one of the Supreme Court logical/rhetoric pivot points in each post – to keep away from the very heartfelt and passionate emotions people have about the issue as a whole.

Today’s is a brilliant point made by Justice Sotomayor.  As with yesterday’s post, it is insightful and a good learning experience regardless of which side of the issue you are on.

One of the attorneys said that the Court should preserve the power to define marriage with the states’ voters.  They should have this "liberty."  The voters should be “free” to define marriage in the way they see fit, without “constraint” from the Court. 

She replied that what the same sex marriage bans do is “constrain” liberty.  If anyone is allowed to marry if they want, to whom they want, and when they want, that is liberty.  A heterosexual person can decide to get married or not.  And if so, to whom.  So can a LGBT person.  A law that constrains any of these choices for any person, is giving some voters the ability to constrain the liberty of other voters.  It doesn’t give anyone more liberty; it gives the voters the power to constrain liberty.  So if the Court denies the ability of states to constrain liberty,that would be increasing the liberty of the individuals. The bans would be a "liberty to constrain liberty."

Whatever side of the issue you are on, that is a logical smackdown.  Perhaps the definition of marriage is one thing or the other.  That discussion is a different post.  But just in terms of maximizing liberty, allowing something is more liberty than prohibiting it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rhetoric at the Supreme Court

I have so much to say about the oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court about the same sex marriage debate.  But I want to focus on just one rhetorical point that struck me as something that people on both sides of the issue can appreciate.

There was one particular answer that was framed in different ways by different Justice’s questions to the attorneys regarding whether there was gender discrimination involved:
·         This is not a case of gender discrimination: Both men and women can marry someone of the opposite gender.  But neither can marry someone of the same gender.  Therefore both genders are treated equally.
·         This is a case of gender discrimination: A man can marry a woman but a woman cannot.  A woman can marry a man but a man cannot.  So the genders are treated differently.

The point I am trying to make here is how nuanced any situation can be depending on how you frame it – because both of these statements are logically correct.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Free Speech

I am constantly amazed at the public’s overgeneralization of what First Amendment free speech.  They seem to think it gives you the right to say whatever you want without consequence.

·         Comment on Twitter, free speech, and harassment.  A commenter said that because we have freedom of speech, Twitter can’t prohibit harassing speech on its service.  As a private organization, Twitter can restrict any speech they want.  They may face public backlash (which is also free speech), but it would not violate First Amendment free speech.
·         A sports reporter made a comment on one of his social media feeds that supported a very controversial military event from World War II.  He was fired.  Supporters claimed that his free speech rights were violated by the broadcaster.  Not true.  It is true that he has the free speech right to make the statement and be free from criminal or civil prosecution.  But that is where it ends.  As a private organization, the broadcaster has the freedom not to employ him. His employment contract could add additional rights or limitations, but that is not free speech that is contract law. Different thing all together.

I am not a constitutional law expert, but the basics are not that complicated. 

First Amendment free speech gives you the right to say whatever you want on your own property or on public property. There are some very restricted limitations based on safety (shouting “fire” in a theater, making direct and immediate threats “I am going to punch you right now, right here”, or speaking in a way that interferes with other peoples’ rights such as creating a disturbance).  But you have the right to be as racist, sexist, homophobic, agist, bigoted jackass as you want.  The government cannot prosecute you criminally or civilly.

But on private property, the owner also has rights.  They have the right not to allow you on their premises.  They have the right not to do business with you.  They have the right not to employ you. None of this violates your First Amendment free speech rights.  Twitter’s service is private property so they can exclude users who post speech they don’t like. The broadcaster’s company is private (even publicly traded corporations) so they can exclude people from employment due to their speech.  This is a whole different thing.

In places like Europe, there are hate speech laws which constrain this right.  In more authoritarian countries they have lots of additional constraints (e.g. the great censorship wall of China).  But in the US, we have what I think is the most free of free speech rights.  But that doesn’t mean that speech is without consequence.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Weekend Philosopher

I was catching up on some podcasts this weekend.  Some on psychology.  Some on history.  A few others.  But for some reason (perhaps a little Baader Meinhof going on), many of them were really about philosophy.  And mostly different ones.  So I thought I would share two thoughts with you.  First, I would describe (briefly) four different ways of looking at the world that were covered in the podcasts (and that I actually remembered from college).  And second,  because most of them misused or overgeneralized what they were talking about, I would leave out the official names as see if anyone can guess.

One old school philosophy:  There is a real and objective world out there where real things exist and real events occur.  But how these all affect our lives depends on how we approach them. Every person, event, or whatever has good points and bad points.  It is up to you how to feel and how to respond. Advocates of this school recommend focusing on the good parts and reacting in positive ways. Acknowledging the bad parts, but not focusing on them.  Even if they are the majority of a given event.  So the death of a loved one, while a terrible tragedy, can also be an opportunity to show compassion for other people who are also suffering the loss. 

Another old school philosophy: There is no real or objective world out there.  Descartes had it right (“I think, therefore I am”), although this is not Descartes school.  Your perceptions and responses create the world itself.  This gives you more power but also more responsibility in creating the world, and thereby the life, that you want. Advocates recommend taking a moderate path, never getting too up or too down. You are neither a success nor a failure.  Just your thoughts are. So choose them wisely.

A newer school (100 years –ish):  We need to take a big picture view to appreciate the world around us.  To see the true glory of G-d, or of humankind, or of society, or of nature, or of . . .   If you look too much at the details, you miss the important message.  Ironically (or perhaps obviously), many advocates of this school go to war with other over their big pictures.  The religionists v the naturalists v the societalists. Anyone who takes their version of the big picture as the only legitimate one.

Another newer school.  We can’t take a big picture view because humans aren’t capable of it.  Or because when we try, the higher power we seek knocks us down a peg.  The Titanic sank because we overstepped our bounds on dominating nature.  WWI happened because we overstepped our bounds on creating larger and larger societies.  Anarchists were a reaction to governments that grew too large.  Communists were a reaction to corporations that grew too large.   Even artists got into this one, with cubists painting objects as a function of their individual parts.  As with the previous example, depending on how you broke down the larger view, you might violently disagree with someone else doing the same thing.  The KKK wanted to divide humanity into individual races.  The Civil Rights movement wanted to go all the way down to the individual.  Odd parallel there.

Thoughts?  Guesses about what the schools are officially called?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Goal Setting: Big and Small

In the past year, six books by well-known authors were published on the subject of goal setting.  This is perhaps not too surprising because setting goals is a popular business topic and a popular focus for self-help books.  What caught my eye is the clever way Fortune Magazine contrasted three that advised to “think big” and three that advised to “start small.” These are not necessarily mutually exclusive – it is possible to have a big long term goal and to set up a path of incremental goals.  But the clever way they contrasted the six books inspired me to contrast the two approaches, even though they are not direct contrasts.

The first three books are:

The second three books are:

Here are the key differences that contrast the two approaches.  In Bold, Diamandis recommends that we ambitiously target a huge problem with a large impact and/or for a wide population.  It would be hard to set small goals to get from here to the moon.  Newton tells us to ignore the little diversions that fill up a normal life so that you can truly focus on the grand challenge of your life.  Ignoring the little things requires avoiding the incremental to some extent.  Mohr’s recommendation is more about one’s attitude, recommending that her readers put forth the air of confidence and greatness in all of their dealings.  To pull this off, it would be necessary to do it all the time, which would mean never having a visage of uncertain confidence.  So in all three cases, “Thinking Big” is really the antithesis of “Starting Small.”

Now let’s turn the tables and look at the other three.  Arnold’s recommendations share some similarity with the progressive extremism I shared here.  Instead of “eating healthy” just give up cookies at first. Work on the rest once you have the cookies out.  For this to work, it is best not to think of the end goal too much or it will seem overwhelming.  Lots of temptations to give up after cookies.  So thinking small requires ignoring the big.  Martin et al’s recommendations are similar, which is not surprising if you are familiar with the wide body of behavioral research published by Robert Cialdini.  They tell us that if you design to trigger unconscious behaviors, no one will even know you are there are can’t take steps to counter your objectives.  By definition, none of these can be big, or even medium sized.  Finally, McKeown recommends that we learn to value small things so we don’t need to pursue big goals in the first place.  Again, directly in conflict with big goals.

So which of these approaches is better?  Does it depend on who you are?  Your personality?  Your talents?  Your abilities?  Your motivation?  For today, I will leave that up to you.  Perhaps later, I will fill in some of these blanks.