Detoxifying Social Media

Social media started as an enjoyable way to chat with people who shared our interests.

But it soon developed a dark side. It started to generate hostility and hysteria.

Crazed mobs started to harass and threaten people who made social media comments they didn’t like. Well-funded political operations used social media to misinform and mobilize armies of dupes. Social media encouraged users to hate people they’d never met, about whom they knew nothing, over subjects of which they were completely ignorant.

The problem isn’t partisan or ideological. It hurts everyone. What can we do about it?

Three Causes

It seems to me that the problem has three main causes:

  • All of us sometimes get angry or frustrated: We blow off steam by talking to our friends. Sometimes, we say outrageous things. Prior to the advent of social media, that was the end of it. The only people who knew about our outrageous comments were a few of our friends. But on social media, we’re sitting at our computers in home or office. We feel like we’re in private, so we talk like we’re in private. But we’re really talking to all of the two billion social media users on planet earth. Unlike our friends, many of those people won’t forgive our angry comments. They’ll get angry, too. At us. Sometimes, they’ll decide to do something about it.
  • Our attitudes about social media are inconsistent: Almost everyone knows that 90 percent of social media comments shouldn’t be taken seriously. In spite of that, almost everyone does take them seriously. “Did you hear what Trump tweeted? Did you see what Rosie O’Donnell replied? And there’s a Facebook page that says terrible things!” Far too much indigestion and anger are caused by things that don’t matter at all.
  • Our news media tend to hype outrageous statements: Outrage gets the news media clicks and viewers. Therefore, they have an incentive to stir up as much outrage as they can. In this case, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works against social welfare, not for it.

Three Imperfect Solutions

I can think of three solutions that aren’t perfect but that might make things better:

  • Reminder messages: When people start to post a comment, social media should display a reminder that they’re talking to the entire world: “Is this something you’d say in front of a room full of strangers?” If it isn’t, people can cancel the comment.
  • What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: Government and social media companies should promote “amnesty” for most social media comments. They should not be taken seriously in real life. Of course, such comments are different from targeted campaigns of harassment, some of which have even driven people to suicide.
  • A news media summit: The federal government should convene a summit of news media to agree on guidelines for news coverage that provides information without inflaming hatred. The government should only convene the summit, not direct it. If all the media cover the news more responsibly, then none of them will have an “outrage advantage” over the others. The summit and agreement should be public. The agreement should be vetted to avoid running afoul of antitrust laws.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it “a thoughtful consideration of torrid intellectual disputes.”

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Respect the Other Person


When you disagree with someone, how can you keep the argument focused on the issues?

You don’t want to get sidetracked, and you especially don’t want the discussion to turn into a screaming match.

The previous blog post (“How to Argue Productively”) explained how to manage the logical side of an argument.

This blog post explains how to manage the psychological side of an argument.

People aren’t robots. They have emotions. They need to feel safe and respected. They often identify their beliefs with themselves. If you attack their beliefs, they sometimes feel as if you’re attacking them. When that happens, they stop thinking about the subject of the argument and start thinking about “defending themselves.”

Here are some tips:

  • Start off by reviewing the points on which you both agree.
  • Keep the focus on the issues under discussion.
  • Keep the focus away from the people in the discussion.
  • In general, avoid making statements about the person with whom you’re arguing. Be  careful about any statement that starts with the word “you.”
  • When you agree with the other person’s arguments, clearly express your agreement. You can even praise an argument if the praise is sincere.
  • If it’s appropriate and won’t make you seem like a psycho, smile.
  • At the end of the discussion, sum up what you think are the conclusions. Ask the other person if he or she thinks you’ve given an accurate summary.

The American writer Dale Carnegie gave some wonderful advice in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

A man convinced against his will, Is of the same opinion still.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews said it’s “intriguing and vital.”

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How to Argue Productively


Most arguments aren’t productive. But argument can be productive if you do it right.

The First Rule

The first rule of productive argument is the same as in many other areas: Define your goals.

Do you want to discover the truth, understand the other person, or just win a competition?

This blog post applies only to the first two goals: discovering the truth and understanding the other person.

The Second Rule

The second rule of productive argument is obvious but usually ignored: Get a clear idea of what you’re arguing about.

Many arguments end up bitter and unresolved because of ignoring the second rule. People yell at each other for hours without making any progress because none of them know what they’re trying to prove or disprove.

At the very beginning, you should identify the points where you and the other person agree. At the same time, identify as clearly as possible the points where you disagree.

Focus your attention on the specific points where you disagree. If there’s more than one point, take them one at a time. Trying to do them all at once will just confuse things.

The Third Rule

The third rule of productive argument is: Identify the underlying points on which you disagree.

For example, suppose you disagree about whether or not “Person X is a racist.”

You might find that you disagree about:

  • What the word “racist” means.
  • What facts justify calling someone a racist.
  • What the facts are in the specific case you’re discussing.

At the end of the discussion, you might still disagree but you’ll understand why. You’ll also know what additional information might help you come closer to agreement.

As an added bonus, you will understand each other better. You will have taken a small step toward making society more rational, peaceful, and tolerant.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Can We See Past Our Own Foundations?


You can’t understand anything in terms of nothing.

That much is obvious. What’s less obvious is that it’s a barrier to communication and understanding.

Each of us has a foundational viewpoint that biases how we see the world. It includes things like:

  • Our basic concepts, such as time (day, hour, minute, second), animal, vegetable, and mineral.
  • Our basic assumptions about reality, such as that physical things usually stay the same from day to day.
  • Our basic assumptions about morality, such as that all people are equal or that democracy is good.

The problem is that we can’t really verify our own viewpoints.

Suppose that your viewpoint consists of 10 concepts and 10 assumptions. If they are all consistent with each other, how can you think critically about any of them?

If you try to evaluate assumption #1, you have to do it in terms of assumptions 2 to 10. You can collect additional evidence, but your interpretation of the evidence will still be shaped by assumptions 2 to 10.

Because your assumptions are consistent with each other, they and the evidence you interpret with them will probably certify that assumption #1 is correct. The same applies to any other basic assumptions.

Is there any way we can get out of our own box of assumptions and see them from the outside?

There’s only one way: Talk to people who disagree with us and listen carefully to what they say. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best method we’ve got.

In 2018, people tend to view disagreement and debate as unpleasant and unhelpful. They think we should all either agree or at least shut up about any dissenting opinions.

That’s a prescription for ignorance.

We shouldn’t just tolerate disagreement, we should welcome it. We can’t check our own assumptions, but people who disagree with us can check them for us. And we can do the same thing for them.

In order for that to work, we have to be more interested in learning the truth than in proving we’re always right. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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Legitimacy Matters


Life is full of trade-offs. In order to get more of one good thing, we often must get less of something else.

Attacks on authorities and institutions are a prime example. They force us to make a trade-off between order and freedom. Both are needed for a healthy society.

To cooperate for mutual benefit, people have to know the terms of their cooperation. What are they required to do for others? What are others required to do for them? What’s normal and expected in specific situations?

As a result, any society needs three things:

  • Rules: The rules can be formal or informal, embodied in law or merely in custom. They should cover most of the common situations of social interaction.
  • Authorities: Some institutions must publicly define, interpret, and enforce the rules.
  • Legitimacy: Most people must believe they have a duty to obey the rules. They must also believe that authorities have a right to define and enforce the rules.

Not even the most intrusive totalitarian state can put police on every street corner to enforce the rules. For any society to work, most people must follow the rules voluntarily most of the time. And they’ll only be willing to do it if they believe the rules and authorities are legitimate.

Therein lies the problem. On one hand, people need to believe in their rules and authorities. On the other hand, the rules are made by and the authorities are staffed by imperfect people. Those people make mistakes. Sometimes they even commit crimes.

Too much criticism of rules and authorities (even if it’s valid) tears down their legitimacy and disrupts society. Too little criticism leaves mistakes uncorrected and lawbreaking officials unpunished. In the long run, that also leads to social breakdown.

We have to find a balance between the two extremes.

One recent example of the extreme approach is Singapore’s prosecution of activist Jolovan Wham for “scandalizing the judiciary.” In a Facebook post, he made what Americans would see as a fairly innocuous remark that:

“Malaysia’s judges were more independent than Singapore’s when it comes to cases with political implications.”

Another man, John Tan, said on Facebook that he agreed with Wham. Tan was found guilty of the same offense. According to the government:

“By publishing their Facebook posts, Mr. Wham and Mr. Tan impugned the impartiality and integrity of Singapore’s judicial system and posed a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined …”

And here’s the thing: Both Wham and the government are probably right. In every country with a legal system, judges are sometimes influenced by political considerations — “except when they’re not.” But even if judges are inevitably biased “sometimes,” a functioning society needs a majority of its people to believe judges are fair most of the time. Otherwise, they won’t be willing to abide by the decisions of the courts, and society starts to break down.

What applies to judges applies to other officials and institutions. President Trump’s attacks on the FBI have hurt its legitimacy, just as did President Obama’s attacks on local police forces. Democratic politicians’ attacks on the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Kavanaugh have hurt the court’s legitimacy. News media personalities who suggest that some politicians and government officials are “traitors” have hurt the legitimacy of our government. Even if all the criticisms on all sides were true, they would still diminish the trust and cooperation that are need to make society work.

So should critics just shut up? Of course not. But people need a way to correct flaws and abuses without destabilizing the social order. It will be interesting to see what develops.

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Morality is Choice

Most people have the wrong idea about morality. They think it’s mainly about rules.

Rules are involved, of course, but morality is mainly about choice.

It’s about how we choose to live, what we choose to do, and what kind of people we choose to be.

In turn, those choices influence which rules we follow and how we apply them.

The rules themselves are helpful mainly because they distill the results of human experience from many centuries.

Those thoughts came to mind as I was watching this week’s episode of “Love and Pi,” a television drama series from Taiwan. It’s on the streaming video channel.

Yuan Yuan, the main female character, grew up in a rural orphanage with four friends. When they left the orphanage at age 18, they all moved to Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. Her favorite radio program is “Midnight Taipei,” a call-in show whose host Yu Guang dispenses sympathy, encouragement, and advice to his listeners.

Several years later …

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Several years later, she works at a travel agency with a callous boss and a backstabbing co-worker. Two of her friends have opened a restaurant that is financially struggling. Her boyfriend tutors the neglected son of Director Bai, a ruthless businessman. She and her boyfriend try to cheer up the little boy by spending time with him.

Yuan Yuan needs a “win” to save her job at the travel agency. Director Bai accepts her proposal for a lucrative group tour, but with a condition: She must remove her friends’ restaurant from the itinerary and substitute a different restaurant. She reluctantly agrees.

That evening, she calls in to “Midnight Taipei,” using the name “Ghost” and sobbing that she betrayed her friends. The program host, Yu Guang, consoles her and tells her not to judge herself too harshly.

The next morning, her phone rings. Yu Guang wants to meet with her. When she arrives, she is astonished to see Director Bai at a table. He owns the radio station, so she deduces that he got Yu Guang to call her.

Director Bai has two important lessons to teach her.


Lesson 1: Our choices are our own responsibility

She tells Director Bai (in effect) that he made her hurt her friends. He replies that he didn’t control her actions. She made a choice.

Yuan Yuan is a sympathetic protagonist, but she tried to shift the responsibility for her choice to Director Bai. He justifiably rejected her suggestion, pointing out that she was responsible for her own actions. Her expression showed that she realized he was right.

Lesson 2: Our choices sometimes require tradeoffs

Director Bai then recites Yu Guang’s advice to her from the program. She realizes that, incredibly, the tough businessman and the compassionate radio host are the same person.

He explains that “Midnight Taipei” is his way of helping people:

“In order to maintain the essence of the program, I rejected many business collaborations, causing a constant financial drain on the radio station. I could only be ruthless in my other business ventures, in order to protect the project that I love.” ***

Yuan Yuan had to choose between saving her job and being loyal to her friends. Both were legitimate moral concerns, but there was no clear way to choose between them. No matter which choice she made, someone might have been hurt. Both choices were right, and both were wrong.

Likewise, Director Bai had to make difficult choices in his own life. Devoting himself to business required him to delegate care of his son to nannies and tutors. His feelings of guilt made him appreciate Yuan Yuan’s friendship for his son, and made him want to help her. His choices — like Yuan Yuan’s — were debatable but not irrational.

The problem we all face

Yuan Yuan and Director Bai illustrate the problem we all face. We are responsible for our choices. How can we make them responsibly?

I can’t give you the answers. Your own answers have to come from you.

*** English translation by the volunteers of the Infinite Love team for

Available October 15, 2018: My book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it “impressively nuanced.” Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

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What a Difference a Year Makes


This evening is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, popularly known as the Jewish New Year.

It’s an important holiday for two reasons.

First, it falls in the Hebrew calendar’s month of Tishrei, commemorating God’s creation of the world.

Second, it challenges all of us in the coming year to re-create ourselves as better people.

In synagogue, the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) awakens us to examine ourselves and our conduct. The philosopher Moses Maimonides described its message:

“Awake, awake, 0 sleeper, from your sleep; 0 slumberers, arouse yourselves from your slumbers; examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls; improve your ways and works. Abandon, every one of you, his evil course and the thought that is not good.”

It’s interesting because if you think about it, Rosh Hashanah exists only in our minds and in our relationships with other people.

Time exists, sure. If there were no people, time would still exist.

But would minutes exist? Hours? Years? No, they wouldn’t. They are all conventional ways in which we organize the time of our lives. They are concepts that we superimpose on reality. The same applies to the calendar, and to Rosh Hashanah. Through time, we transform chaos into order.

That order has a purpose. It enables us to seek the truth, to do what’s right, and to love each other even when it’s difficult.

And where can we do those things?

They begin in the same place as Rosh Hashanah: in our minds and hearts. That is where they can start to make a difference.

Whatever it means, we want God to be proud of us. The coming year is our chance.

Resolve to make a new beginning. To do better. To be better. To act justly but with compassion. To help others. To improve ourselves and the world.

Let’s do it.

L’Shanah Tovah.

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