Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.
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How President Obama was Viewed as ‘Other’

To understand the politics of race and who is and is not considered fully American in today’s politics and society, it is important to understand the way in which President Obama was perceived as something non-American during his time in office. The President was constantly portrayed as not quite American, and the “birther” conspiracy summed up people’s unwillingness to see him as an equal American. The conspiracy centered on a belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not a citizen and not eligible to be president.

 

David Sears and Michael Tesler were able to test theories of social response to President Obama’s otherness and analyze the data in their book Obama’s Race. The authors find that people who had less favorable views of black people and less favorable views of Muslims were more likely to support the birther conspiracy and were less likely to favor Candidate Obama in 2008.

 

Sears and Tesler wrote, “We expected most respondents to say Obama was born in the United States, even those who relied most heavily on Fox News. We were surprised, however, to find that only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American-born.”  The authors also write, “It looks as if much of the driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States is not just simple partisan opposition to a Democratic president but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African American president who is also perceived as distinctly ‘other’.”

 

It is important to note that simply watching Fox News cannot explain the reason why so many people felt that President Obama was an outsider and was possibly not born in the United States. From the data presented by Sears and Tesler, we cannot say that Fox News changed people’s beliefs, or whether people who already harbored feelings of racial resentment watched Fox News to reaffirm their beliefs.

 

Ultimately, what the research I believe shows us, is that we must be more considerate when we think about what makes someone American. Different groups across this country (across generations, racial groups, education groups, and groups defined by socioeconomic status) will have to accept the fact that American’s are changing demographically, with the nation becoming less white. This means that those groups who have dominated through their whiteness, even if the domination was unconscious or hidden, will have to shift who they understand themselves to be. This puts race in a pivotal role as we decide who will be American moving forward, whether the old order will cary the day, or if we are going to change who we allow to be American and represent American values.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.

 

In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.

 

The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.

 

On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.

The Traveling Experience

I am not good at traveling. I find it difficult to begin planning far enough in advance to travel and I don’t know how to put together and organize a travel budget. Colin Wright on  the other hand, is an excellent traveler and has lived across the world based on the suggested locations of his fans and audience. His most recent book, Come Back Frayed, is a reflection of his time in the Philippines where he explored the worlds we build for ourselves and looks at his experiences moving through different cultures. Looking specifically at travel, he writes, “A key part of the traveling experience is leaving yourself open to possibilities you can’t imagine yet and recognizing that there are many unknowns you’ll likely never know. But you still scramble to find as many of them as possible, despite that knowledge.”

 

I really enjoy what Wright has to say about travel, experiencing new places, and being in unfamiliar surroundings. I am truly motivated by his work to become a better traveler and to have a chance to learn about and experience new cultures, but I am still challenged by my own lack of planning. I recognize how much I simply don’t know about other people and cultures just within the United States, and I have a great desire to go to new places and meet new people.

 

I love the idea seeing new possibilities through travel. Engaging with new people and seeing the ways that different areas of the world interact gives us a sense of what is truly possible, beyond the existing realities of the place we currently live. Having a chance to simply walk and experience a new place is something I greatly enjoy, and Wright highlights the benefits that come from exploration.

 

For me, routines are powerful drivers to help me achieve my goals of fitness, surviving graduate school, and performing well at work, but they do limit my ability to plan for exploration through travel. I become so comfortable and feel successful within my routines here in Reno, Nevada that I don’t remember to explore and venture into the world beyond. Wright’s quote, especially for someone who strives to be genuinely curious about the world, is a great reminder of the importance of travel and spontaneity. His writing helps explain the benefit of changing our perspective through changing our actual physical and cultural place in the world.

Recognizing Our Own Shortcomings

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of turning inward and honestly judging our own character in a way that is intimate and helped us move our lives forward in a constructive manner.  Throughout his book Meditations he wrote of the importance of being self-aware, and provided notes about being socially responsible by becoming more intentional with our actions, and more honest in our thoughts.  He encouraged himself constantly to be humble and realistic about his abilities and his own faults, careful to never raise himself above other men despite the fact that for 20 years he was one of the most powerful people on the planet. The way that he looked at himself relative to others is summed up well in a quote from Meditations,

 

“When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger, if this consideration is also added, that the man is compelled; for what else could he do? Or, if thou art able, take away from him the compulsion.”

 

The important thing for Aurelius during the times when we see faults with other people is to recognize ways in which we share those faults or ways in which we have similar shortcomings in our own lives.  He encourages us to look inward at our selves rather than to put ourselves on a pedestal above others. When we see the faults in others and are blind to our own failures we limit our growth and build a false sense of exceptionalism in our lives.

 

Aurelius’ quote is similar to a quote I wrote about from Colin Wright in December of last year,

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

Aurelius explains the ways in which we can overcome the feeling of outrage that builds in us when we see others acting in a negative way. Their faults can be taken as personal insults or moral failures, and it is far more tempting to become outraged than to recognize that we share the same or similar shortcomings in our own lives. Failing to see our own faults and allowing ourselves to build a sense of outrage gives us the chance to tell ourselves how great we are, how correct our world views have become, and how much better we are than other people in society. It feels great to be outraged and to talk about our superiority over others, but it limits our interaction with other people and prevents our society from being able to join together to become better.

 

As emperor Aurelius had no shortage of opportunities to let himself build on outrage and feelings of superiority, but what he instead reminded himself in Meditations is that he could not place himself above others because in doing so he would become blind to the reality that he and all people make the same mistakes.  He was more focused on using self-awareness and reflection to grow and make the world better than he was on building his fame and influence by denigrating others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and where they come from can help us have conversations with others about the same failures and about ways in which our society encourages (or does not punish) those failures. Avoiding outrage and understanding our errors helps us become more human and helps us connect with others so that they may avoid the same shortcomings in their lives.

The Consequence of Doing Wrong

Looking at good and bad actions in terms of self-reflection, Marcus Aurelius in his book Meditations provides us with a clear view of the good and bad acts that we do.  “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly himself, because he makes himself bad.” In this simple quote Aurelius gives us a powerful reason not to do bad acts, and he reminds us why we must build honest self-reflection and practices of self-awareness in our lives.

When we do not take the time to honestly assess ourselves and evaluate our lives we allow ourselves to live in a world where we see ourselves as always correct and always acting in the most logical of ways. If we do reflect on how we behave and the decisions we make, it often does not take long to peel back the gilded surface and recognize our flaws.  We may tell ourselves that we are always nice people who treat others with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt, but just under our surface we may see that we yell at people on the highway, tailgate, or have particular driving habits that are meant to simply annoy someone around us.  A small dose of honest self-reflection can help us see these areas where our behaviors do not align with our self-talk and our beliefs about the people we are.

Aurelius’ quote takes the idea of self-reflection beyond the easy to find reflections of why we should be nice while driving on the freeway, and extends it to areas far beyond. He argues that we should strive to be cognizant of the negative aspects of our life so that we can change them. When we allow our shortcomings to exist, we allow ourselves to be bad people, or at least not the best version of ourselves.  Recognizing when we have an opportunity to do bad, and understanding how our bad actions are diminishing, even if they don’t harm others, can help us grow to be more aligned with the views that we hold or wish to hold about ourselves.