Free speech on campus holds the cure to America's growing polarization
Outrage culture is causing provocative issues to be pushed out of public discourse and important artworks to be literally white-washed. Teaching civil discourse at universities is key to sustaining the American experiment.
- In July 2019, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington – in part depicting dead Native Americans and laboring slaves – over concerns that the painting presented traumatic content.
- The mural, by Stanford University art professor Victor Arnautoff, was created as a pointed critique of Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans.
- The reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of America's growing outrage culture, which removes the opportunity for people to practice the skills they require to have difficult conversations.
In early July, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington that hangs over a staircase in George Washington High School in San Francisco. The reason: Concerns the images of minorities, including white colonists stepping over a dead Native-American and slaves laboring at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, will traumatize students.
In his historic painting, Russian-American artist and self-described communist Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford University art professor who specialized in social realism, was pointedly critiquing Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans. Eliciting reactions from students is the point. It's an invitation to learn about this history that is often swept under the rug, and it makes a pointed assertion about the importance of countering the prejudice it reveals. Censorship often harms the very people it's intended to protect – in this case, it would strip students of an important opportunity to grapple with racism in our past and deprive them of an opportunity to discuss solutions to the problems that history has created in the present.
The vote to destroy a "significant monument of anti-racism," reads an open letter signed by more than 500 academics across the country, "is a gross violation of logic and sense." It is. But that's not all. The school board's reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of broader cultural trends.
"[W]e're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether."
With social media facilitating our tribal instincts to gang up on the 'other,' universities grappling with pressure to remove faculty who work on provocative issues, and iconic works of art being literally whitewashed, we're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether.
Research confirms the trend too. A new Pew study found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are "not confident that others can hold civil conversations with people who have different views." Even more alarming, a recent academic paper found many people in each political party don't only disagree with the other, they believe members of the opposing party are "downright evil." And the latest Gallup/Knight campus expression study found that students today (61 percent) are more likely than they were in 2016 (54 percent) to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.
The student findings are notable when viewed as one symptom of this trend. They point to the fact that challenges facing campus speech aren't unique to the academy. This is a cultural problem, and we're seeing its reverberations across sectors of society – including higher education.
If it's a cultural issue and not a sector-specific one, it changes how we approach the solution. In fact, by zooming out, universities come into focus as uniquely positioned to help America address our growing divisiveness. Consider the environment that campuses traditionally provide for conversation and deliberation. They invite students to understand diverse views in their intellectual complexity while practicing the skills for having these important and difficult conversations.
"These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn."
Policy change can play a role in aiding that ideal. Though the past few years have seen a number of gross overreaches from state houses – bills to dictate what classes can be taught, establish partisan litmus tests for staff hires, and mandate minimum punishments for students – there's a role for principled, targeted policies in shoring up legal protections for free expression on college campuses. In a recent essay Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), pointed out that the percentage of colleges that maintain severely restrictive speech policies declined from 74.2 percent in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2018, while at the same time a number of problematic Department of Education regulations have been repealed or revised. That is, in part, attributable to policies tailored to addressing those barriers.
While legal protections of free expression alone don't foster an open environment, they help clear the way for civil discourse, open inquiry, and peaceful pluralism in general. And in that space, we're seeing a largely untold story unfolding through the efforts of innovative, path-breaking scholars who are expanding opportunities to come together in productive and scientific exploration. Courageous crusaders like those at Interfaith Youth Core who are gathering students, faculty, and staff from different cultures and backgrounds to build the will, skill, and knowledge to respectfully engage deep difference. Leaders at the newly growing HBCU Debate League who are giving students a platform to grapple with myriad ideas. And countless others tailoring opportunities to their own campuses at schools across the country.
These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn.
These projects stand to equip individuals to overcome the challenges of the present moment. And we have reason for hope. The American experiment – distinct from every country before it – is built not just on tolerance of difference but the invitation of it. Our diverse, dynamic society, with its rich mix of religious, cultural, ideological, and other differences, is made possible by civil liberties and a culture that values them. And higher education is at its best a microcosm of that.
Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America
An unconventional solution to the problem of violence.
In 2007, Mexico was catching up to its northern neighbor — at least when it came to safety. Two decades of rapidly declining violence had brought the country's murder rate to within throwing distance of the United States.
Credit: INEGI and SNSP, compiled by Mexico Crime Report (https://elcri.men/en)
Then, quite suddenly, a war broke out. Murders more than tripled, from fewer than 9,000 in 2007 to over 27,000 in 2011. In 2018, murder hit another all-time high, with over 34,000 homicides.
This year, murder has continued to climb, with June being one of the bloodiest months since the Mexican Revolution. So far, Mexico is on course for 40,000 homicides in 2019 — more than twice as many people as died in the Syrian civil war last year.
The cause of the violence is obvious: a massive war between Mexico's cartels. But the dynamics that are fueling violence south of the U.S. border are not unique to Mexico, or even to its sophisticated, transnational drug cartels. The problem of organized criminal violence afflicts nearly every country in the Americas.
In Central America, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have fostered an epidemic of murder, extortion, and kidnapping, which is helping drive the surge of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
In the United States, battles between street gangs have recently caused murder to spike in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis, while notorious prison gangs, like the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Latin Kings, are effectively running the U.S. prison system. In South America, a war between rival gangs has pushed Brazil's murder rate to all-time highs.
The natural response for governments facing such violent groups is total suppression: a full-frontal assault to crush the organizations and lock up the ringleaders.
But there is a powerful argument that this strategy, while understandable, is actually responsible for making the violence worse. One country is trying a radically different approach: in 2007, Ecuador began a process of "legalizing" its street gangs, and its murder rate has fallen by 70% in the decade since.
It's easy to read too much into one anecdote from a single country, but seen in context, Ecuador's example may offer a positive contrast to the cautionary tales seen elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Mexico: Splintering Gangs, Spiraling Violence
Mexico dealt with the violence and corruption associated with drug cartels for decades. But in 2000, a major shift occurred in the country's power structure, when Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its 70-year stranglehold on Mexican politics.
Newly elected leaders from the conservative PAN party did not directly attack the cartels, but the power transition led to turnover among police, prosecutors, and military officials. With government loyalties shifting for the first time in decades, cartels began losing their corrupt protection arrangements with the government, destabilizing the relatively peaceful relationships of previous decades. Even while the murder rate continued to fall, cartel-associated killings grew from about 1,000 a year in 2003 to nearly 3,000 in 2007.
In 2007, newly inaugurated PAN President Felipe Calderon promised to crack down on the rising violence and crush the cartels. For the first time in its drug war, Mexico deployed tens of thousands of troops inside the country. The military was tasked with executing Calderon's "kingpin" or "decapitation" strategy, systematically killing or capturing cartel leadership to try to destabilize the groups.
Officially, this strategy is still working. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was just convicted and is now facing life in an American prison, after being recaptured in 2016. The leader of the Zetas Cartel was also captured last year. Dozens of other shot-callers have been killed or imprisoned in recent years.
But rather than eliminating the cartels, this policy has simply caused them to splinter and fragment into new groups. There are now more cartels than ever, waging a bloody, multi-sided war for territory across the country. Research from the University of San Diego has tied the recapture of El Chapo, in particular, to the latest surge in violence, as gangsters fight for control of the Sinaloa Cartel and its territory.
Former President Enrique Pena Nieto, who served from 2013-2018, declared last year that the military had "won" the war against the big cartels, but admitted that "this weakening brought with it small criminal groups, without there being the capacity on the local level to effectively confront them."
In cities like Acapulco, the LA Times reports, "the cartel system has collapsed completely, with historic levels of violence being driven by dozens of warring street gangs."
The churn among senior management (and the loss of reliable partners inside the state) has caused organized crime to become disorganized — but it hasn't disappeared, and the chaos has made the violence worse than ever. With more gangs fighting over the same turf, there are exponentially more opportunities for conflict, and local police are hopelessly overwhelmed.
Supply and Demand for Gangs
The theory behind suppression strategies is that the gang itself is the problem. If we get rid of the organization — capture its leaders, disrupt recruitment, seize assets, etc. — it will crumble and evaporate, because it won't be able to sustain itself. Problem solved.
But that's almost never what actually happens. In Chicago, police tried a similar zero-tolerance approach and "decapitated" the old gangs, and the result was the same as in Mexico: smaller, less organized, and more numerous gangs, fighting a dizzyingly complex war. Chicago's violence has been difficult to quell precisely because there is nobody to call a ceasefire — or rather, there are now too many people who have to negotiate and agree on it.
Brown University economist David Skarbek isn't surprised by the failure of suppression strategies, because they are based on the same kind of mistake that has been playing out in the U.S. prison system for decades. In his book The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, he argues that we have been systematically misdiagnosing why gangs exist — and so it's no wonder why our solutions keep failing.
"Gangs don't exist because there are just a lot of particularly evil people, or because there are sort of 'gang member' types, people who are inclined to be gang members," he says. Instead, paradoxically, "Gangs exist because people want more safety in a dangerous, volatile environment — and they want more regular access to contraband in illicit markets."
In other words, gangs aren't a "supply-side" problem — it's not about the group itself, it's about the social and economic dynamics that create the demand for gangs in the first place. In violent, risky situations (like overcrowded prisons), people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them (like guaranteed safety) or will not (like cell phones and illegal drugs).
To facilitate these services, gangs have also created rules to regulate the black market and resolve disputes in private. "The gangs have some pretty clear rules about when you can use violence against other prisoners. You can't just choose to assault another prisoner," Skarbek says.
In violent, risky situations, people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them.
"They'll organize a controlled setting— maybe in a cell at a time when correctional officers aren't going to be around. They'll allow interpersonal violence to take place, but they'll regulate it in a way so that it's less likely to destabilize the prisoner community."
Spontaneous, public acts of violence often lead to prison-wide lockdowns, and that interferes with the gangs' business. "They can't sell drugs or turn a profit during periods of lockdown. They have a private financial incentive to reduce large scale disruptions, large scale rioting, and so that gives them the incentive to want to govern these interactions."
"I think of (gangs) as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Skarbek has no illusions about the brutality that these gangs are willing to inflict, both inside and out of prison. "There's much to be worried about with gangs," he says. "But I think of them as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Abuela Needs a Sicario
In his book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, the journalist Tom Wainwright tells the story of Rosa, "a barrel-shaped seventy-year-old who cannot be taller than about four feet six," who works as a maid in a suburb of Mexico City.
"In between mopping floors and making blueberry pancakes," Wainwright recounts, "she is plotting a murder."
Rosa had a problem that is increasingly common throughout Mexico: a pair of men had for years been killing, robbing, and stealing from her community with absolute impunity.
Three months ago, one of her sixteen grandchildren came home with her husband to find two burglars in the middle of ransacking their house. The robbers escaped but later came back to give the husband a vicious beating with an axe handle, as a warning not to report them. "He still walks like this," Rosa says, mimicking the awkward swing of his fractured arms.
… The police are doing nothing about all this. "Honestly, I don't trust them," Rosa says. "If the authorities don't do anything, what are we left with? One can't live like this anymore. We can't live with the fear that at any moment they can enter our house and kill us."
So Rosa and her neighbors began raising money to hire a hitman (sicario) to take out the robbers. "Rosa's story may be horrifying, but it is not as unusual as it sounds," according to Wainwright. "Many organized criminal groups provide this sort of 'protection.'"
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
This desperate grandmother was hardly a hardened criminal, but her case illustrates exactly the kind of incentives faced by people who find themselves in dangerous, poor, violent situations — within a prison, neighborhood, or even a country — where the formal authorities cannot or will not provide security.
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
Now, after years of rising insecurity, corruption, and chaos, ordinary citizens are also succumbing to the logic of gangs and forming armed groups for protection. In the Mexican state of Guerro, for example, private "self-defense groups" (effectively, vigilante gangs) have banded together into a 11,000-member paramilitary to defend their towns and fight the cartels. But this third power structure, outside both the government and the cartels, risks pouring new fuel on the conflict and further undermining the state — and, as Colombia has shown, paramilitaries are no more accountable or less susceptible to corruption than other groups.
A Different Path
Ultimately, the way to defeat gangs is to eliminate the demand for them by providing reliable security inside prisons, schools, and the community at large. This isn't easy to do, and the specifics will differ depending on the place and purpose of the gang.
Unfortunately for Mexico, there is little sign that newly inaugurated President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as AMLO) is changing course. In July, he inaugurated a new 70,000-strong militarized "National Guard" to try to quell cartel violence and circumvent corruption in the army and police. The new force may provide a brief boost to security, but it won't fundamentally change the dynamics that have corrupted the local police, federales, and army before it.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs. In his wide-ranging study Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America, the political scientist Benjamin Lessing argues that American governments need to abandon their tough-on-crime, maximum pressure strategy toward gangs and embrace a "conditional repression" strategy.
Conditional repression means offering a deal to the gangs (whether explicitly or implicitly): "We have a ton of firepower, but on a normal day, we're not going to let it all loose on you — unless you do X, Y, or Z"— for example, killing civilians, children, or police, or having shootouts in public.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs.
Lessing argues that "brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
The downside of this approach is that it tacitly admits that we are not "doing everything we can" to stop organized crime. The upside is that, because police pressure is not always 100% maxed out, there is a significant deterrent available to discourage open violence and channel cartel operations into less destructive paths.
Conditional repression tells cartel leaders that, at any given time, the police have the power to make their life much worse than it is. Maximum repression tells the cartels they have nothing to lose by attacking the state.
There is evidence from across Latin America that the government can also use this privileged position to negotiate and enforce truces between rival cartels, creating an incentive for the cartels to stop fighting each other. In 2012, the government of El Salvador (assisted by the Catholic Church) negotiated a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, which cut the country's murder rate in half in a single year.
Unfortunately, that truce fell apart two years later when the government minister responsible for it was removed from office. Brazil's recent surge in murder has been blamed on a gang truce from 1997 suddenly falling apart in the middle of 2016, as violence spilled from the country's dangerously overcrowded prisons into the streets.
"Brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
In Ecuador, the government seems to have embarked on a more successful and durable strategy of conditional repression, and the result has been a massive reduction in violence. By 2018, the homicide rate in Ecuador was nearly as low as in the United States.
Sources: FBI, UNODC, media reports
Starting in 2007, Ecuador made a number of radical changes to its law enforcement strategy, by doubling its spending on security and launching an ambitious program of "legalization" for the country's street gangs, including notorious groups like the Latin Kings and STAE.
The program allows gang members to register with the state to receive benefits, including training and job placement. Members are not asked to give up their gang affiliation — to the contrary, the goal is to bring in current gang members and transform the gang into a more benign social group — but they are expected to abide by the conditions of the program.
According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), "legalized" gang members understand the deal: "Our leaders told us that we were no longer allowed to go to war… After that, you know, the government began to give us job opportunities. So, if we began to act violently again, the government would take away what they had already begun to give us, so what we did was to reciprocate the government's help (to ensure the relationship continued)."
The main benefits the gang received from "legalizing" was different treatment by the police. According to the report,
Before legalization, if the STAE (gang) got together to hold a meeting in a park, the police would inevitably arrive to arrest and physically abuse them. … Legalization was primarily a reinstatement of the right to the city… They are no longer stopped and frisked or targeted for wearing their gang colors in public spaces. Many noted that this was perhaps the biggest victory of legalization.
But another key aspect of the program was conditional on keeping the street gangs away from the cartels, which historically do not operate directly in Ecuador, but launder money and smuggle drugs through the country.
"This is one of the most important aspects of the Ecuadorian approach," the report argues. "Mano dura (the heavy hand) for cartels but inclusion towards gangs. The government actively and consciously strove to avoid gangs working for cartels (especially due to the proximity of Peru and Colombia, both major drug-trafficking hubs), hence they aggressively pursued organized crime networks while applying policies of social inclusion to street gangs."
The legalized gang members understand that the arrangement is precarious, and it could fall apart if a new president is elected. According to the IADB, their goal right now is to "institutionalize the legalization process and give it a sustainability and legitimacy that would be impervious to political shifts."
It's not clear how much of Ecuador's decline in murders is due to random factors, more and better policing, or the new strategy on gangs. No one should imagine that Ecuador's gang problem has vanished, and it would be facile to suggest that Mexico should simply import this program wholesale, applying it to criminal organizations that are very different than Ecuador's relatively small street gangs.
But at a high level, the difference in approaches is worth noting. Ecuador's policy admits that as long as there is a demand for gangs, they will continue to exist, and they must be dealt with, rather than blindly smashed. By contrast, Mexico seems determined to follow the supply-side, mano dura policies that have failed across the Americas.
In Making Peace in Drug Wars, Lessing argues for a pragmatic approach, managing the problem of criminal gangs without chasing the illusion of eliminating it overnight:
It is critical to reframe the policy problem, from eradicating drugs or crushing the cartels or punishing dastardly traffickers, to minimizing the harms produced by the drug trade… Reframing the problem ultimately implies "diplomatic recognition": accepting that as long as there is demand for drugs, there will be traffickers, and orienting repressive policy to favor the sorts of traffickers we would like to have.
That is a hard sell, especially for voters that are justly horrified and outraged by the crimes these groups have perpetrated. What Ecuador might ultimately show us is that it is possible for a democratic government to increase basic public safety, while incentivizing less bad behavior from its gangs. The results have been a rare positive example in one of the most violent regions of the world. Whether the rest of the region can learn from its example remains to be seen.
While we can see many solar storms coming, some are "stealthy." A new study shows how to detect them.
- "Stealth" solar storms are difficult to detect before they are near Earth.
- The use of various imaging techniques from multiple angles allowed researchers to detect these stealth storms earlier than ever.
- Not seeing one coming could have disastrous effects on our electronic infrastructure.
Solar storms are a collection of disturbances on the sun that influence space weather. They include things like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a large release of plasma in the solar wind. They can affect Earth in a number of ways, such as by increasing the number of particles that hit the Earth's magnetic field causing an aurora or — in severe cases — by disrupting technology and radio transmissions.
Most of the time, scientists can see storms as they occur on the sun. Information about the impact on Earth can be gathered a few days before it is likely to reach us. However, in as many as 20 percent of CMEs, there is little to no noticeable activity on the sun to give us an early warning. These "stealth" CMEs can have a huge impact on space weather but have proven difficult to spot until they have nearly arrived.
Luckily, a new study published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences reports on new ways to detect so-called stealth solar storms long before they hit Earth.
The benefits of looking at the Sun
Unlike regular CMEs, stealth CMEs do not tend to give typical warning signs like clear dimming or brightening of the surface of the sun. Instead, they seem to form in a higher region of the sun's atmosphere called the corona than is typical. Unfortunately, watching for changes in the corona does not always give scientists the information they need to predict where a mass of plasma is moving.
In this study, the researchers took advantage of knowing the approximate origins of four stealth CMEs that were determined by data collected from Earth and the STEREO satellite, which was at a different angle with respect to the sun. The four CMEs differed in angle and intensity and occurred at different points in the solar cycle.
By using different imaging processes, subtle shifts in the upper corona were identified in each of the four cases examined. Most of the events also originated near areas with particularly strong magnetic fields.
The authors suggest that the small brightening and dimming effects they observed could be used to detect these CMEs in the future using similar methods. While they admit that the study does not provide a way to detect these CMEs before they form, they conclude that "identifying the source region of a stealth CME represents a first step toward providing more reliable predictions."
A bad day for Earth
Solar storms are not merely of academic interest. Large storms have occurred before, and the damage they can cause is potentially devastating. A strong solar storm in 1989 caused blackouts in Quebec and disrupted broadcasts of Radio Free Europe. That storm has nothing on the "Carrington Event" of 1859, however.
That solar storm was incredibly powerful, producing auroras visible in places like Queensland, Australia and the Caribbean. The auroras over New England were so bright that the residents could read newspapers by their light. Telegraph systems fried as a result of the huge amount of electromagnetic energy added to the Earth's magnetosphere, occasionally starting fires as they spontaneously sparked. Some telegraph operators reported being able to operate their machines without connecting them to wires.
A storm estimated to be just as powerful as the Carrington Event occurred in 2012, but the plasma it ejected narrowly missed Earth. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total cost of such an event to the United States today could be more than two trillion dollars. It would also cause damage that could take years to fully repair. It goes without saying that having large portions of our electric systems and technology fried with little time to prepare might also make things unpleasant for a lot of people.
Smaller storms hit Earth once every three years, often causing damage to systems that use electricity. Larger events are rarer, but not as rare as we would hope. A study from a few years ago calculated that the odds of a Carrington level event occurring is 12 percent per decade.
May the odds be in our favor
With odds and consequences like that, the ability to see a "stealth" solar storm coming might prove to be one of the most important tools humanity ever discovered.
Given enough warning, precautions can be taken to help minimize the damage to electronics from a large solar storm. For example, satellites can be moved out of harm's way, power grids can be primed to avoid being overloaded, and transformers can be taken offline to keep them from being destroyed.
If we fail to see the next Carrington Event coming, it might be a while before you can read the article we'll write about it.
Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
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