Don’t Accept that Apology!!

A few weeks ago Martin Bashir made an apology. He needed to make an apology. He implied that Sarah Palin deserved to have someone defecate in her mouth and urinate into her eyes. No matter how you feel politically about Governor Palin such a statement on a national program, even by a pundit, is not acceptable.
It was a good apology. Although no one can know what is in his heart, it seems like he was sincerely aggrieved at his actions. You can see this apology in this link. Note something else in this link. Note that the apology is not accepted by Robert Laurie who is a conservative columnist. In fact, as I listen to a variety of individuals talk about this situation there are a lot of people who will not accept his apology. Governor Palin herself does not seem eager to accept it either as she insists on Bashir being punished. That what Bashir did was wrong is very clear. But the fact that his apology is not accepted, especially by someone who prides herself on her Christian faith, is even more troubling to me.
Lest one thinks that I am only picking on conservatives I must say that I first noticed the unwillingness of others to accept apologies among progressives. Apologies of Paula Dean and Rush Limbaugh are not accepted by progressives any more than conservatives accept the apologies of Bashir. We seem to live in a society where we dare not mess up because we will not be allowed to apologize for our mistakes.
I am not suggesting that we accept an apology if the person does not seem sincere. The persona apologizing should name exactly what they did wrong and offer an apology for it. Nor am I arguing that there should not be consequences for the perpetrator’s actions even if there is an apology. If MSNBC decides to fire Bashir even with the apology I contend that they are in their ethical and moral rights to do so. Finally, we should expect the offending behavior to stop. If Bashir is talking next week about how Ann Coulter needs to be raped then all bets are off on accepting his apology. The Christian concept of an apology is called repentance. The way I was taught repentance is not merely that we are emotionally distraught at what we have done but are resolved to not do it again. That is the sort of attitude we should look for in an apology.
But when we see true repentance on the part of the person who wronged us, is it not healthier to accept apologies than to reject them? If you wish to live a life in bitterness then by all means reject apologies. Enjoy that bitterness and the depression that will come along with it. But a healthier path is to accept the apologies of others so that we can move beyond the offence we feel. Forgiveness allows us to live a life of wholeness rather than live in our rage and anger. Any psychologist who does not help a person work towards forgiving instead of living in bitterness is not one that I would recommend for anyone.
Given the advantages of accepting apologies, it is fair to ask why relatively few people accept the apology of a public figure, especially one that has taken strong political or religious stances. Here I tend to accept the wisdom found in conflict theory. Conflict between different social groups helps shape what occurs in our society. In this case there is an advantage in rejecting the apologies of those we disagree with (but of course to accept the apologies of those who support our political, social and religious ideas). Such rejection makes it easier for us to stigmatize them and makes them lesser spokespeople for their causes. From the perspective of pushing our point of view, when people we disagree with apologize, we are better off not accepting the apology and let them wallow in their sin.
Yes, we can punish them. But we also punish ourselves. We hold on to the offence and live anger at that person. That anger punishes us as it becomes the source of our depression and feelings of victimization. But we keep our ideological opponent stigmatized and controlled. We are able to warn others of his/her ideological position to be very careful in how they speak and what they say. We have gained an advantage in social discourse but have done so at the costs of our own personal and psychological health. I fear that too often in our society we trade our own psychological health to gain social advantage over those we oppose.
It is important to fully consider the benefits and costs of refusing to accept the apologies of others. There truly is an advantage in social dialogue when we reject the apologies of others. We are fools not to realize that fact. But this advantage comes at a cost of our own happiness. If we think our cause is worth sacrificing our health and happiness then by all means we should refuse to accept the apology of anyone who disagrees with our social, political and religious beliefs. Is there a social or political cause that is so precious to me that I will sacrifice my psychological health, and spiritual well-being, for? None of them are worth that great a price. So as for me, refusing to accept the apologies of others because I disagree with their social, political or religious perspectives is too high of a price to pay.

Muslim Fundamentalists and Married Bachelors

Did you know that the last time I saw a Muslim fundamentalist that he was a married bachelor? That is because both Muslim fundamentalists and married bachelors are logical impossibilities. By definition if you are married then you cannot be a bachelor. Also a Muslim cannot be a fundamentalist. But while we do not hear people talk about married bachelors, because everyone recognizes that they are logical impossibilities, we consistently hear talk about Muslim fundamentalists. In my academic dreams we would hear individuals talk about Muslim fundamentalists as much as we hear them talk about married bachelors. (Okay, so I do not have big dreams).
To understand why Muslim fundamentalist is a logical impossibility we have to understand what the term fundamentalist means. Fundamentalism comes from a series of essays, edited by A. C. Dixon, in books written in the early 20th century called The Fundamentals. The major purpose of these books was to create the boundaries between what the authors perceived as true Christianity and other religious beliefs in society. The tenets in these writings (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, resurrection of Christ) are rooted in Protestant beliefs. Thus, to be a fundamentalist, one has to adhere to Protestant beliefs. This makes Islamic fundamentalism impossible since Muslims by definition do not have the same exact religious beliefs as Protestants. For that matter there are not Jewish fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, or atheist fundamentalists either.
That I listen to non-academics misuse the term fundamentalist is not surprising. Often individuals are sloppy with their use of language. Most people do not understand the history of the concept and so it would be surprising if they did not sometimes misuse this term. But when I hear scholars of religion talk about Muslim fundamentalists, I want to tear my hair out (or would if I had hair). Such individuals should know better. It was especially frustrating for me to send in a book manuscript where I discuss the proper use of fundamentalist and a reviewer state that while I was technically correct I should just accept the common layperson use of the word. Is not part of the job of academics to correct misconceptions out in the public? Evidently not according to this reviewer.
It is useful to ask why this term has been corrupted. I can only speculate about why this corruption has occurred, but I would be naïve to not consider that certain social interests are invested in having fundamentalist misused in this particular way. It is clear that the term “fundamentalist” is being used to replace the term “extremist”. While a Muslim fundamentalist is a myth, a Muslim extremist is not. Thus individuals use the term fundamentalist when what they really mean is extremist. So the misuse of the term fundamentalist can be seen as a critique of conservative Christianity. The term fundamentalist implies that conservative Christians are at the extremes of society. Thus, talking about Muslim fundamentalists becomes a useful way to stigmatize conservative Christians.
In a society where there is evidence of a culture war and conservative Christians are on one side of that culture war, promoting the perception of them as being the same as Muslim extremists is purposeful for those who oppose conservative Christians. Linking conservative Christians to images of angry Muslims, some of who may be terrorists, provides legitimization to oppose those Christians. This is not to say that everyone who misuses the term fundamentalist intends on marginalizing conservative Christians; however, it is clear that the implications of that misuse is supportive of the idea that conservative Christians should be kept at the periphery of society. It is an idea I found among cultural progressives when conducting research on them for my book.
The way we use terms does not occur by accident. It generally occurs to reflect the social ideas of those who use the terms. If we conceptualize a culture war between cultural progressive activists and conservative religious supporters, then it makes sense that progressive activists accept interpretations of fundamentalism supporting notions that those conservative religious supporters should be marginalized. Since Christianity is the major religion in the United States, comments aimed at Christians, as opposed to those of other religions, should be especially relevant to cultural progressive activists.
As a scholar I would like to see the term fundamentalist used in a proper manner. Using words accurately is vital to communicating academic knowledge. So I will consistently encourage individuals, and especially my students, to use “Muslim extremist” instead of “Muslim fundamentalist”. But I am realistic about the chances of changing the patterns of how we speak about fundamentalism. I am also realistic that the current way this misuse serves certain social interests in ways that an accurate understanding of the term fails to do. I am tilting at windmills. But if I am going to call myself a scholar of religion, then I have to be honest about addressing such mistakes no matter who’s interest is at stake.

Happiness at Yale

Calhoun College shield

How can Yalies get more flow? Last night at the fourth meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project I started at Yale, we discussed the meaning of flow—being so engrossed in an activity that time feels like it has stopped– and how busy, high-achieving students can get more flow in their daily lives. Of the 5 elements of Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of authentic well-being that we discussed last night, flow was the hardest one to grasp conceptually and figure out how to improve on. But Seligman is adamant that we can all get more elements of all 5 parts of his well-being theory he calls PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement (flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. In his book called Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi gives numerous tips on how to increase flow in everyday life.

One obstacle to flow is just how busy students are. Who has time to stop and really get engrossed in one thing when all day is spent rushing to and from classes and extra-curricular activities? When I asked students to name when they experience flow, some said that like me, they experience it while engrossed in their studies. Another student practices meditation. A third student said she gets into flow when she works for nine hours straight at a restaurant students run once a week in Davenport College at Yale. She likes being so busy cooking and serving that she can’t think about her upcoming midterm.

My makeshift standing desk

Before our meeting yesterday, I definitely experienced flow as I wrote about my new project on young adults and resilience. On the advice of a friend who says that doing work while standing up increases energy throughout the day, I put together a makeshift standing desk at home, using a plastic box on top of my dining room table. In just 2 days of writing from that standing position, I wrote 14 single-spaced pages about my new project. Yesterday alone I stood in the same spot for three and half hours writing. That’s flow for sure.

Then I went on with the rest of my busy day, hustling back and forth from meetings and re-reading Martin Seligman’s book Flourish over lunch. I also listened to a video lecture on productivity “hot spots” which prompted me to reflect on my goals and whether how I use my time actually lines up with those goals. Then I rushed off to eat dinner in Calhoun College, carrying Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project with me.

In preparation for the evening meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project, I re-read Chapters 5-8 of The Happiness Project while eating. I laughed out loud several times…Rubin is just hilarious. When I stood up after finishing dinner, I rushed out of the dining hall and was planning on running back up to my suite to prepare some more for the Calhoun Happiness Project meeting.

Suddenly I was aware of beautiful piano music in the Calhoun Common Room. I stopped dead in my tracks. Didn’t I just read Rubin’s advice in Chapter 5 to “Be Serious about Play”? Didn’t she also say in Chapter 8 to take time to “contemplate the heavens’? Hadn’t I been frantically trying to fit into my busy schedule time to go to all the amazing music and theater Yale offers? Was I really about to rush past this heavenly piano music? Isn’t the first step in contemplating simply slowing down, something Yalies (including me) have a hard time doing?

I plopped onto a big leather chair in the Calhoun Common Room, said hello to another Calhoun Happiness Project group member sitting there, and closed my eyes. I relaxed and breathed deeply for the first time all day, marveling at the beautiful sounds I was hearing. When the student stopped playing, I remembered Rubin’s advice in Chapter 6, “Make time for friends.” Show gratitude to people, I recalled, is one piece of advice to make and keep friends.

So as the student walked away from the piano, I stopped him and said, “I really enjoyed listening to you play the piano.” His face lit up and he said, “Thank you!” Then he explained that he had started learning piano when he was 4, and used to play very seriously. Now he just plays because it makes him happy. Hello, I thought, is that flow or what?

“Do you think I could l learn piano even though I’m not starting at age 4?” I asked. “You see, I’m reading this book called The Happiness Project, and she recommends taking play seriously. And I know that to increase my happiness, I have to find more ways to flow than just working. I worked so hard today and my mind was racing to and fro. So when I heard your beautiful music, I realized I need to slow down and enjoy something beautiful today.”

The student, named Kevin, was fascinated by all my talk about happiness and flow, and totally encouraged me to learn the piano. “It’s the master instrument,” he said. “It’s like a spiritual experience when I play.” Kevin also was fascinated to hear about my research, especially the idea that there are certain parts of happiness we can’t get without suffering. “Oh…I had never thought of that. Can you say more?” he said. I briefly told him how I’ve been interviewing young adults who have had stressful life events, and how some of them have developed incredible compassion and generosity as a result of their hardships. Kevin and I only talked for about 7 minutes, but I felt like I had made a new friend, in part because we talked about things we are passionate about: happiness and music.

Friendship, I told the students later on that evening, is not only about spending time together, it’s also about sharing passions, and pursuing excellence in some activity. No, it’s not about being perfect in everything or winning everything. But friendships are based on shared activities that are conducive to flow. Try it out. This weekend, instead of going to a night club with your friends, go to a live classical music concert. Try to learn about the artists and the music before you go.

As I’m learning through my students, happiness resources and happiness groups are growing in number at Yale. I expect to learn more this weekend after a meeting hosted by the Yale College Council to discuss mental health at Yale. How can the happiness resources at Yale unite? What more can be done?

My sense is that the Calhoun Happiness Project is unique because it is integrated with one of Yale’s strengths: the residential college system. Students in the Calhoun Happiness Project see each other in the courtyard and dining hall, and continue talking about the book and their own happiness resolutions. I provide the intellectual content through monthly meetings, and since I live in Calhoun College, I’m available to talk with students one-on-one. The informal mentoring, coupled with a light responsibility to read about happiness and make resolutions, seems to be the right dose students need to make changes. It’s a light commitment with fellowship, mentoring, learning, and a quick payoff.

The first lesson to learn about happiness is that is starts right now, right where you are. So think about your own living situation, your own work situation. Flow is not only about playing or listening to beautiful music, if we practice flow, we can have it all day long even doing menial tasks. Try listening to what is going on around you, showing charity to everyone you meet. That’s step one to getting more flow: fighting the hustle and bustle and living inner contemplation even in the midst of outward activity.

Thanks to you Yalies who keep me in the flow, encouraging me to re-read my favorite books from positive psychology and make new resolutions. Yesterday I flowed first in my intense solitary writing, and then in my deep interactions with Yale students. I went off to bed tired but contemplating the heavens and giving thanks for my friends, and woke up this morning to find my flow writing this blog from my standing desk.

Now that is False Equivalency!!

When I discuss the reality that conservative Christians have certain disadvantages in our society I am sometimes accused of false equivalency. Yet at no point have I argued that the disadvantage of Christians is exactly the same as the disadvantage of non-Christians. To conduct a fair comparison of the Christian’s and non-Christian’s place in our society, we have to take seriously the fact that Christianity is at times an advantage and at other times a disadvantage in our society. I accept both facts in the above sentence while those arguing against me often only accept the former. In reality, the advantage of Christians in our society is tied to the lower numbers of individuals with animosity towards them than towards atheists. The conservative Christian disadvantage is that those with that animosity tend to come from a racially, educationally, economically powerful social position.

However, this week I came across an example of false equivalency that perfectly illustrates what this logical fallacy looks like. Here is a link to a video of Bill Maher’s show in which he dialogs with Michael Moore and Al Sharpton (warning: language – after all it is the Bill Maher show). It is about eight minutes long and if you do not want to invest that much time in watching it, I will quickly summarize it. Maher argues that Islamic terrorism is a special problem that has to be addressed while Moore and Sharpton basically argue that Christians are just as violent as the Muslim terrorists. Yeah, that is false equivalency and it is not even close.

It is silly to make overarching accusations about Muslims and violence, but it is clear that contemporary Christianity is not the violent threat that Islamic terrorism has presented to us. To make such an observation is not Islamophobia, but an acknowledgement of reality. One can make an argument that historically Christianity has been as violent as Islam. I would not agree with that argument but it is a logical assertion that can be adequately defended. There is no real logical argument that contemporary Christians are as violent as Muslim terrorists. Some will point to some isolated incidents where Christians engaged in violence. However, Christians who commit mass murder do so detached from overt support from their religious community; whereas, it is clear that many of the Islamic terrorists engage in their violence with the support of certain segments in their religious tradition. To argue that isolated Christian violence is the same as organized Islamic violence, which Moore and Sharpton appear to be doing, is a great example of false equivalency.

Here is another great example. When the subject of violence against women came up, Sharpton points out that many women get raped in our “Christian” counties. Those rapes are horrible, but when we find the rapist, we him in jail. In some Islamic countries women are not just raped but are treated as second class citizens in ways that are unthinkable in a contemporary Christian country. In those Christian countries women do not have to wear coverings, can go to school, and are allowed to drive. Equating the fact that we have not rid ourselves of rape to the gender based abuses that occur in some Islamic nations is a great example of false equivalency.

The problem is that while the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, there are certain sub-groups of Muslims who are terrorists and openly attempting to kill us. (Moore states that Christians want to kill non-Christians as well. He provides no evidence for this assertion but even if true, then where are the sub-groups of Christians engaging in terrorism today? Equating what people theoretically want to do with what others are actually doing is another great example of false equivalency.) What is the worst Christian group in the United States? My vote goes to the Westboro Baptist Church. They are despicable. But they are not violent nor is there any evidence that they are terrorists. I dearly would love for them to go away but comparing their rude, insensitive, but nonviolent protests is simply not the same thing as attempting to blow up those one disagrees with as we know certain Muslim terrorists do.

I would like to have a society whereby people are not punished socially, economically, or educationally for their religious belief or non-belief. But such a society requires a level of respect for those who differ from us, a respect that I often fail to see. I would welcome an honest discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of Christians and non-Christians in society. To have that discussion, individuals have to be open that religious out-group members sometimes suffer in ways that they do not suffer. I have personally observed the advantages of not being a Christian in academic circles and have done the systematic research documenting some of those advantages. But I also recognize advantages I have as a Christian in other areas of our society. Putting myself in the mind of the other allows me to be open to a more nuanced interpretation than some of my Christian brothers and sisters who only see Christians as a persecuted class. Likewise, I have dialoged with non-Christians who only see their disadvantages and are loath to acknowledged disadvantages conservative Christians sometimes operate under. Such individuals attempt to use the charges of false equivalency to argue that such disadvantages are unimportant before we can even get to the discussion of the nature of these disadvantages. But real false equivalency is stating things are alike when there is plenty of evidence that they are quite different. The discrimination Christians may face in our society is different than the type of discrimination those of other faiths may face, but it is not imaginary and pointing out that fact is not false equivalency. In reality, pointing out that fact allows us to seriously respect the disadvantage both Christians and non-Christians have in our society and helps us to comprehend sophisticated ways religion factors into how social stratification can operate in the United States.

Struggling to Stay Rational

When I heard about what happen to Adrian Peterson’s child I felt sick. How does a grown man “assault” a two year old boy to the degree that the boy dies? There is a part of me that wished for him to be sentenced to five minutes – alone with Adrian Peterson. But that is not consistent with my stance against the death penalty; rather it is a natural emotional reaction to a horrible crime. Since my objection to the death penalty is based on rational reasoning, I have to keep my opposition to putting to death a man, even one who killed a two year old boy.

This brings a larger issue to mind. We are emotional creatures. It is part of our makeup and we should not deny it. But we also should seek to be as rational as possible when making choices in our lives. How do we embrace our emotional nature and still make rational decisions? Work on confirmation bias indicates our tendency to consider our arguments rational even when they are not. Is there any way we can make sure that our thinking has not been poisoned by what we emotionally want?

There are no certain mechanisms by which we can assure that our emotions do not bias our decision-making. Think about the logical fallacies we observe all the time in the comment section of blogs (including Black, White and Grey) and articles. Think about how hard it is to agree with the referee’s decision when it goes against your sports team. Think about how the same politician attacks those of the other party for lying, adultery, being unethical, and yet dismisses the same things in his/her own party. We see evidence of confirmation bias and emotionally based decision making all the time. Our emotions generate presuppositions that often lead us away from a rational consideration of events and issues.

We can try hard to overcome such biases. As it concerns the death penalty, I came to the decision that it is not rational to deliver the ultimate punishment given incomplete knowledge. A criminal justice system we know is corrupted by racial and economic influences will inevitably have unjust propensities. The death penalty multiplies the level of injustice in our society as certain individuals (the poor, racial minorities) will be more likely to suffer the ultimate punishment. Beyond such injustice, there are powerful arguments that the death penalty does not deter crime and is more expensive than life in prison. If this blog was basically about my position about the death penalty I would go more into depth of these issues, but these are the concerns that have led me to the sober conclusion that the death penalty is not good for us. Having concluded that the death penalty is not best, I reason that if I allow my emotions to drive me to support the death penalty for the killer of Peterson’s son then I am throwing away my logical reasoning. If Peterson’s son’s killer is put to death then we have the question of where to draw the line on the death penalty. Is it for killers of children? Is it for those who kill multiple times? Can it be used for crimes that do not include murder? If my emotions allow me to leave my previous considerations then I start down a path leading to justification of a capital punishment system containing the elements of injustice I am concerned about.

Does this mean that anyone who supports the death penalty is illogical? It would be arrogant for me to believe that I make no mistakes in my reasoning and that all who disagree with me are wrong. I accept that my conclusions are the best I have come up with given what I know at this particular time. I also accept that although I tried to come to these decisions as rationally as possible, that my emotions and social position have presupposed me to develop certain conclusions about the death penalty. For example, perhaps because I am an African-American, I am more sensitive to possible criminal justice dysfunctions making me less supportive of the death penalty. It is wrong for me to think that those who disagree with me on this, or other issues, are being illogical, but it is fine for me to expect them to explain their logical reasoning if I discuss the issue with them.

This pondering about how to deal with information in a non-emotional manner takes on particular importance since I teach. How do I relate that information in light of the biases I, and everyone else, bring to teaching? Since I teach race/ethnicity classes can I do so without the biases I bring to it as an African-American? What about sociology of religion classes since I am a Christian? I see two honest different approaches to this. I can be upfront about my biases and freely exhibit them in the classes. That way the student can factor my biases into their consumption of what they learn from me. Or I can do my best to be as balanced as possible and even go out of my way to present perspectives that differ from my own in a fair manner. I have chosen the latter approach although there is nothing wrong with the former approach. What would be dishonest is to overtly teach the course in a biased manner but to claim that I am unbiased. I have a hard time respecting professors using that approach.

Ultimately, what is called for is an honest appraisal of our ability to overcome our emotional biases. When we forget the powerful mechanisms of confirmation bias and how our presuppositions shape our decisions, we become overconfident in the decisions we make. Ideally our appraisal of our cognitive abilities should lead us to be more careful about making proclamations about what we know. If you have followed my blog, you know that I have not been shy about making controversial arguments and being around to defend those arguments. I prefer to stick around and discuss those issues, as long as those I am having those discussions with do not degenerate into insults and/or stereotyping, so that I can see how my ideas are being challenged and to learn if I need to revise them. That is not a guarantee that I will be able to see the flaws in my reasoning, but it is one way I can protect myself from being overconfident in my assertions. Naturally I do not expect everyone to expose themselves to debate in such ways. But ideally all of us will find mechanisms by which we can be careful to counter our proclivity to allow our emotional responses overshadow our attempts at rational reasoning.