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We Need to Develop Character Instead of Celebrity
In The Road to Character, David Brooks argues that our moral vocabulary is severely lacking.
A patent attorney is a respectable job. Calvin doesn’t really acknowledge this. He sees his father as an alien or something other than human, choosing to spend his time with a pontificating stuffed tiger. Calvin hates chores and other adult ventures, becoming especially irked when his straight-laced attorney father repeats his famous mantra: because it builds character.
Six-year-olds don’t want to talk about character. They’d prefer to, at least in Calvin’s case, discuss dinosaurs and claim girls are G.R.O.S.S. This is to be expected at such a young age. Sadly, though, this mindset is lasting longer and longer, with many adults having no need of character either.
This is a cultural phenomenon. Celebrity has usurped character. In 1976 the goal of being famous ranked fifteenth out of sixteen categories among young people. A 2007 Pew Research poll discovered that 51 percent of youth rank fame as a top goal, with a majority stating that “getting rich” is the main motivation of people their age.
This drive is not limited to the young. Our language reflects this. For most of history you’d want to avoid anything “going viral.” Today we’ve adopted disease in a way that would make Susan Sontag’s head spin. Sontag was skeptical of the supposedly “liberating” nomenclature cropping up around cancer wards. We should give equal pause to clickbait candy draining our attentional resources, the currency of celebrity.
Social media has many benefits, but occupation description is not one of them. The term “public figure” is used by people who do little more than post pictures of themselves every day. Sontag knew that cancer is not a battle to be waged, but a disease in need of treatment. Public figures have become another disease requiring a cure.
Language is our major form of communication. How we use it shapes our identities; we understand our societal and familial roles through the language we use. According to David Brooks, there are words we need to reinvigorate. They all have to do with better understanding our moral codes. By banishing words such as “sin,” “virtue,” “character,” and “evil” from general conversation, he claims “that does not make life any less moral.” In The Road to Character, he continues,
It just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language.
In his fantastic biography of important historical figures, Brooks repeatedly returns to the need of cultivating humility to overturn the sins of arrogance and pride. Children are being educated to succeed, but the focus of that success is monetary and status-driven. It has nothing to do with the singular trait Calvin’s father kept returning to during the decade-long life of Calvin and Hobbes.
Brooks borrows the concepts of Adam I and Adam II from a 1965 book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to build his argument. Adam I is career-oriented and ambitious. He wants money, status, and, more than anything, to win. Adam II is our GPS through right and wrong. He sacrifices himself for the good of others and lives for the cultivation of character. By becoming a morally sound person he is able to be in service of those around him.
It’s obvious which Adam is winning out in modern America, the nation in which we were recently told we’re going to win so much we’ll grow tired of winning. As Brooks puts it,
We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives us little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.
Teachers, he continues, look for signs of intellectual strength to help students cultivate them. This is vastly different from school a century ago, when moral weaknesses were spotted so the student could improve upon them. We imagine such a time as stifling and domineering, though Brooks reminds us that liberation and, perhaps more importantly, contentment are found when your weaknesses are strengthened.
The pursuit of pleasure, the Buddha taught so long ago, can only lead to suffering, or, in Buddhist lingo, unsatisfactoriness. The quick dopamine rush of a hundred likes prohibits us from pursuing the patient goals that arrive with meditation, contemplation, and intense inner speculation. Journalist Nicholas Carr compares this to filling a bathtub with a thimble, the small drops of dopamine never quenching the ocean ahead. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin calls the dings and buzzes of social media alerts “sugar coated,” nutritionally useless fodder leading to an avoidable disease.
If you listen to the endless stream of self-help gurus promoting positive psychology as the ultimate means of creating the best life imaginable you’d think we’d be chilling in Eden. But as journalist Steve Salerno writes, “The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people.” Or, as Brooks puts it, “The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.”
That’s because the goals of these books usually include money, happiness, and self-righteousness associated with the notion that “your inner voice is the only one you need to listen to.” In the wake of decades of such advice we’ve become a nation addicted to pain-killing medications, to worshipping the cult of celebrity, to scrolling across a screen as actual life passes right in front of our eyes, unnoticed.
That’s because what we truly need is each other. Character is not an solo affair. Our morals are defined by how we act in society. We should not be turning to an ambitious “inner voice” seeking guidance, but rather look out into our community to discover what we are being tasked to do, where and how we can make a difference.
Celebrity is not character, but a crisis of character. The need for constant attention is occurring at a time when our attentional economy is already severely taxed. Few desire to write epic novels when witty tweets are so readily shared. And forgotten. Which is why the chase for celebrity will never be anything more than a ravenous beast, a hungry ghost never sated.
Modernity has not made us “depraved barbarians,” Brooks concludes. Yet it has greatly weakened our moral vocabulary. We might gaze back at the prior educational system incredulous that the focus was on obedience, but such a system has not disappeared. It has just been transformed into “the semihidden world of approval and disapproval.”
We can rise above this, though we have to gaze beyond our desires to find out what life is asking of us. Character is earned, Brooks concludes, “not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be.” Such humility leads to maturity, the final component of a life well-lived.
The mature person can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions from admirers and detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right. That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.