Monday, July 17, 2017

Emotional Maturity

I have recently written columns about principled realism and social individualism.  These were put forward as an antidote to the ideological crisis we are currently experiencing.  Yet if liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism are obsolete, can these alternatives fill the vacuum?
Last week, I spoke about our need for balance.  By themselves, none of the old truisms are sufficient for our purposes.  None answers all of our questions; nevertheless each supplies wisdom that if supplemented by the others can advance our joint interests.
The trouble is that implementing this balance or my suggested replacements presupposes the existence of a crucial foundation.  Ours may have become a mass techno-commercial society in which our affluence offers up a multitude of choices, but we will not be able to take advantage of them without “emotional maturity.”
David Goleman authored several books about what he calls “EQ.”  He compares this emotional quotient with IQ, that is, with the intelligence quotient.  Both are said to be crucial for social success, but the way he puts it is that IQ will get us a job, whereas EQ is essential for keeping it.
Unless we know how to get along with other humans, we are sure to alienate them.  If we can’t read people emotionally or control our emotional impulses, we are sure to behave in an off-putting manner.  It is, therefore, critical to understand and master our passions.
While Goleman is partial to a comparison between EQ and IQ, I prefer to talk about emotional maturity.  We are all born with a full complement of affects.  Some folks may be more sensitive than others; even so, we all feel fear, anger, guilt, shame, disgust, sadness, and love.
What distinguishes us, however, is how well we learn to use these emotions.  They must all be adequately “socialized” if our affects are to be helpful to our adult selves.  Were we to experience and deploy them the way that children do, we would be in enormous peril.  Our social life would, in fact, come to a grinding halt.
To illustrate, we all get angry. Yet how we get angry differs.  An extremely irate infant may literally bite the hand that feeds it.  Then again, were an adult to do something comparable, he would probably go to jail.  Adults must learn to express their irritation verbally—not physically.
Something similar applies to fear.  Adults need to learn the difference between what is dangerous and what is not.  Thus, while a ceiling fan might startle a baby, a teenager should be able to take this in stride.  The teenager should also have learned to cross a busy street by looking both ways.
Strong emotions must be controlled or they revert to their infantile forms.  Without self-discipline, people behave inappropriately.  They get angry when they shouldn’t.  They get frightened when they ought not.  Worse still, they lash out when they should keep silent or run away when they should stand and fight.
This is what I mean by emotional maturity.  It is not something we are born with, but something we develop.  Unlike IQ, it is a competence that we acquire.  All of us are able to learn how to be less afraid.  All of us can discover how to get angry without throwing a tantrum.
What is more, unless we do, we cannot engage in principled realism.  We would instead be so terrified by reality that we hid under a bushel-basket of fantasies.  We would also be so enraged by our frustrations that we immorally injured those who got in our way.
Social individualism is correspondingly impractical in the absence of emotional maturity.  We would not be able to make wise choices because we did not recognize, or honor, our limitations.  We would, in fact, be too busy pretending that we should get everything we desire.
Unfortunately, emotional maturity is currently in short supply.  We see this in politics.  We see it in the media.  We see it in our entertainments.  Everywhere we look, childishness is in full bloom.  Not only is it ubiquitous; it is celebrated as energetic and optimistic.
Too bad, because in its ignorance and impulsivity, this sort of immaturity is endangering our future.  A world that is converted into a puerile sandbox will shortly have all the coherence of a pile of sand.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Is There an Adult In the Room?

Barack Obama often liked to pretend that he was the only adult in the room.  As he saw it, he was the only one with the good sense and emotional control to make wise decisions.  Others were too caught up in the passions of the moment to put current events in perspective.
This, however, was a charade.  Our former president was an admirable speaker, but a juvenile thinker.  He could put words together better than most folks and do so with admirable composure.  As was said, he was no drama Obama.  Yet did this make him an adult?
Anyone familiar with Barack’s history knows that his political philosophy was formed when he was a teenager and underwent few changes as he supposedly matured.  He was always in favor of semi-socialist solutions.  He always regarded these as common sense.
Donald Trump, in contrast, is seldom thought of as an adult.  His language and demeanor are frequently those of an adolescent.  His penchants for name-calling and hyperbole unquestionably aim for the lowest common denominator.  They certainly do not inspire us with their penetrating insights.
Nonetheless, when our president called for “principled realism” in Riyadh and urged us to uphold our shared Western values in Warsaw, he conducted himself very much as an adult.  He also did so with a combination of restraint and determination in dealing with North Korea.
Members of the media, on the other hand, have behaved like a band of mischievous children.  They are so determined to bring down a hated president that they will stoop to any form of derision that makes him look bad.  Yet when they do, they do not stop to think about the best interests of their country—the way adults would.
To cite a small example from the recent past, mainstream journalists hysterically bemoaned Trump’s unkind dismissal of CNN while in Europe.  They complained this was unpresidential.  And yet they conveniently left out the part that he said this only because a reporter asked a question that virtually begged for such a response.
As for politicians, few of them have in recent years distinguished themselves as statesmen.  Thus, both Democrats and Republicans have amped up their mutual recriminations in the manner of schoolyard bullies.  The worst sorts of accusations are hurled without any concern for their accuracy.
Instead of quietly attempting to legislate on behalf of their constituents, congressmen nowadays preen for the cameras.  The problems we face are so complex and so vexing that mature thought would appear to be necessary.  This, however, is not what we get.  We get adolescent grandstanding.
Why is this so?  Perhaps it is because so few adults go to the voting booth.  Regrettably, not enough Americans think for themselves.  They are instead influenced by slogans and invective.  These provide easy answers that do not require them to exert effort.  This way they do not have to read, but can get solutions served up in digestible portions.
We see the same trend at the movies.  When I was an adolescent, I enjoyed reading my best friend’s stash of comic books.  The exploits of Superman and Batman were a secret indulgence that I even then realized was immature.  But today we see a comparable quest of empty-headed fun at nearly every theater.
It is currently summertime, with its tidal wave of computer-generated graphics designed to impress and excite.  The idea is to get our hearts racing, not our brains cogitating.  Throw in a dash of romance and a menagerie of monsters and we are happy as three years olds with two scoops of ice cream.
So where are the adults?  I am a college professor and I don’t see many of my students actively attempting to grow up.  For that matter, I have been shocked at how little serious reading some of my colleagues do.  They too seem to be in search of easy answers.
But guess what?  Childishness has a serious downside.  The world is too complicated for juvenile remedies.  Furthermore, the challenges we face require adult courage.  Without the clear-eyed collaboration of millions of determined adults, society is bound to become further disorganized.
Am I the only one frightened by this prospect?  I hope not!
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Toward a Balanced Society

The meanness and vituperation of the contemporary scene show no signs of abating.   Despite alarming instances of violence, politicians are still at each other’s throats, while the media remains as vulgar and ill tempered as ever.  Is there no way to end the vicious partisanship?
Recently I suggested a “social individualism” solution to our ideological logjam.  If we learn to be emotionally mature individuals who make decisions based on “principled realism,” we may be able to reconcile many of our competing interests.
Nonetheless, I fear that some of my recommendations may be misunderstood.  I have contended that not only liberalism, but conservatism and libertarianism are obsolete.  They, on their own, cannot help us overcome the partisan rancor.
But this does not mean that they can no longer contribute to our collective welfare.  Although they may not answer all of our needs, they can answer some of them.  Together, if they are balanced against each other, and if they respect our social and personal limitations, they can make life easier.
Let us start with religion.  We are an increasingly secular society, but belief in a deity remains widespread.  Spiritualism has been part of the human condition for as long as we have any records.  It is therefore safe to say that it is not going away.
Furthermore, religion provides warmth and reassurance to many lives.  It comforts people in the face of a frightening universe and furnishes a reason for living.  These benefits are too useful to be jettisoned.  As a result, religion should be preserved and protected.
Next we must deal with our market economy.  The freedom to buy and sell goods in the marketplace has enabled us to become wealthier and more secure than any previous generation.  We eat better, are more comfortably sheltered, and are even more extensively entertained.
Capitalism has not, irrespective of socialist complaints, enslaved people.  It actually provided the resources for democracy, thereby enabling people to enhance the quality of their lives.   And so, the free market too ought not be discarded.  It also deserves to be preserved and protected.
Then there is the welfare state.  The federal bureaucracy may have grown arrogant and sclerotic, but it continues to supply a safety net for millions who might otherwise suffer.  They too eat better, sleep better, and are better educated than they would be without these services.
If religion and the marketplace have added our security, so have the programs administered by the government.  While these may sometimes be inefficient and overbearing, most of us would not want to do without them.  Thus, they also merit being preserved and protected.
It is accordingly not a question of getting rid of any one of these.  None ought to be eliminated so that the sole survivor can dominate everything we touch and do.  Not only would this be overly restrictive, but it would soon demonstrate that a dogmatic monopoly was unworkable.
What is thus necessary is not the complete victory of one set of partisans over the others.  If a crucial balance is to be achieved, a reciprocated appreciation that no collection of ideas has all of the answers is indispensable.  Mutual respect is consequently in order.
Human life is complicated and our societies are even more complicated.  As a result, there can be no simple solutions to our metastasizing problems.  A bit more humility, accompanied by huge doses of realism and principled behavior are essential if we are to flourish.
This is supposedly the best-educated generation ever, but it is not very well informed if it does not respect the limitations inherent in our situation.  We can never have all we want or be all we want.  Sometimes we need to settle for what the universe makes available.
This must begin by accepting the fact that none of us has a corner on truth and goodness.  From time to time, we all need to make room for the other guy’s insights.  These need to offset our own so that solutions can come from multiple directions.
It used to be said that politics is the art of the possible.  Americans likewise once understood that compromise was central to our national institutions.  Unless we reclaim these truisms, we may never achieve the balance to prosper.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

The President's Tweets

I do not have a Twitter account.  Nor do I expect to open one.  So far as I can see, the space-limited blurbs in which this form of communication specializes are too shallow and egocentric for my tastes.  My preference is for books and columns that are better thought through.
As a consequence, I never expected to write something about Donald Trump’s tweets.  While I understood that this was one of the tools he used to get elected and that he continues to employ it to circumvent a hostile media, my own interests lie elsewhere.
What changed my mind is that our president’s Twitter remarks have come to dominate the news.  Not what he does in his official capacity, but what he composes in the dead of night or in response to his detractors has captured the imagination of the reporters who cover him.
Journalistic disapproval of what he conveys has become the cudgel with which his enemies beat him around the head and shoulders.  These harpies are ready to pounce any time he writes something that can be unfavorably construed.  They obviously hope some of their blows will prove fatal.
The latest brouhaha concerned Mika Brzezinski.  She, along with her MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough, has been leveling malicious insults at Trump for months.  Although they were once on apparently on friendly terms, the recent allegations have been scathing.
In any event, the president decided to fight back.  Not only did he decry what was said, but he made an unflattering remark about Mika bleeding during a visit to his home.  He implied that this was caused by a facelift.
That’s all he said, but it was enough for the sky to fall on his head.  For days, this utterance pushed every other piece of news off the front pages.  A travel ban had gone into effect, sanctions were levied against China to induce it to help with North Korea, and negotiations to repeal and replace ObamaCare remained under way.
Nevertheless, the offending tweet counted for more.  During an ensuing press briefing, at least three quarters of the questions concerned it.  Actually, they were not questions.  They were accusations disguised as questions.
Thus, the big one asked of Sarah Huckabee Sanders was: Isn’t the president ashamed of what he wrote?  Then she was asked if she was ashamed of what he said.  Next she was asked is members of congress were ashamed.  The obvious intent was to elicit an admission that they should all be ashamed.
Now, I admit that what Trump tweeted was not gentlemanly.  It is not something I would have said.  Nonetheless, the things that Brzezinski said were not ladylike.  Opining not once, but many times, that the president was “crazy” is not customarily regarded that the proper etiquette for a political critique.
Sanders described the president as fighting fire with fire.  It may also be assumed that months of discourteous recriminations occasionally get under his skin.  These do not excuse his crudity, but they help explain it—especially when coming from a New York City street fighter.
But let us keep in mind that female journalists can also go over the line.  Trump was characterized as having insulted all women, yet that assumes any rough handling of a woman reporter is, ipso facto, out of bounds.  Truman said, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”  Shouldn’t that apply to women when they launch public attacks?
Some pundits claim that Trump is stomping on his own message when he makes intemperate tweets.  They consequently recommend that he keep his candid responses to himself.  Actually they did the same to Truman when he came to the defense of his daughter Margaret’s singing ability.
The fact is that no matter what Trump says or does, the reporters who despise him will find something to turn into a scandal.  The president could cancel his Twitter account and it would make no difference.
These twitter storms are, in reality, an amusing sideshow.  While they can be unpresidential, the response to them has not been journalistic.  Reporters, who are convinced that something untoward is happening, should first look in the mirror.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University