Friday, March 25, 2016

When Internet Bullies Come Out to Play

There were several news stories that caught my eye this week.  One was political, while the other was not.  But both had a similar theme: how easy it is to use social media to vilify or bully someone, often with no consequences for the person (or persons) doing the bullying.

Let's start with the non-political story, which began innocently enough, when Microsoft invented an artificial intelligence, a chat-bot named Taylor, or "Tay." The bot was created with the 18-24 year old demographic in mind, and was supposed to be able to communicate like a teen-aged girl.  (What made the predominantly older, male Microsoft developers choose the persona of a young, female teen is a subject for another day; but it seems kind of creepy when you think about it.)  Anyway, Tay could have been another interesting experiment in the ongoing effort to improve upon AI, but it didn't take long for problems to arise.  Evidently, Microsoft's development team did not anticipate that there are trolls online, folks who find it amusing to teach a bot to make insulting comments.  Tay was programmed without any filters, and without any plan for blocking hateful remarks.  In fact, Tay was designed to simply interact with whatever was said to her, often by just parroting it. (The Microsoft site said Tay was designed to "learn from" conversations with other users, who engaged with her on platforms like Twitter, Kik, and GroupMe.)  It all sounded interesting, but rather than learning how to discuss movies or fashion or sports, Tay was "taught" to make racist, neo-Nazi, and sexist comments.  Before things went so wrong, reviewers who tried to interact with Tay found her responses sometimes clever but usually awkward-- having a chat-bot react appropriately to human conversation is still a work in progress.  But it did not take much effort for certain users to "teach" Tay how to use expressions you might expect from a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Within 48 hours of her debut, Microsoft had to take Tay offline.

And then there was the political story, the one where Donald Trump tweeted out an unflattering photo of Ted Cruz's wife, juxtaposed with a beautiful shot of Mr. Trump's wife Melania, a former model.  (This was in response to an anti-Trump SuperPac ad that had shown Melania in a semi-nude photo taken back in her modeling days, with a snarky comment that implied she wasn't classy enough to be a First Lady.)  Mr. Cruz took to Twitter to call Donald Trump a "coward" and later suggested on social media that "real men don't attack women."  Meanwhile, throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has taken to Twitter many times to bully those with whom he disagrees-- he has vilified them, insulted them, and made accusatory remarks.  And yet, he has millions of followers, none of whom seem to mind the often-harsh tone of his tweets.  And whether it was Cruz's side or Trump's side that started it, attacking each other's wives is something new, and not a very positive development.  There has always been an unwritten rule that the wives and children of candidates should not be subjected to political attacks; yes, now and then some have been, but it's not the norm.  For the most part, candidates have remained respectful when it came to the families of their opponents... until now.

What I found noteworthy about both of these stories was they once again demonstrate how quickly online communication can descend into rants, accusations, and insults.  I generally enjoy being on Twitter and Facebook, but sometimes when I post my perspective on some current issue, I am still surprised by how vehement and angry (and rude) some of the replies are.  I've been called all sorts of names, just for expressing an opinion.  I understand it intellectually-- on social media, you can say things you'd never say to a person's face-- but I admit I still find the behavior puzzling.  (Yes, I've been known to use all sorts of "bad words," but you won't find me calling the people who disagree with me nasty names-- my mother would be spinning in her grave if I cursed someone out, especially someone I don't even know.)

As for the chat-bot, while I am not a fan of the Siris and Alexas and Cortanas and other friendly female voices in the realm of artificial intelligence, I can always choose not to use them, and I know that some people find them convenient.  But I fail to see what's entertaining about disrupting something Microsoft's programmers tried to create.  No, I am not eager to see the robots taking over, like in some bad science fiction movie; but there are undoubtedly some positive uses for AI.  And whether or not Tay was a good idea, it was an experiment that deserved a chance.  You may say, "Well, it had a chance and it failed."  That may be true, but I still don't think it was funny for internet bullies to teach her to talk like a Neo-Nazi. Or perhaps I'm just lacking a sense of humor.

The late communication theorist Marshall McLuhan envisioned a world united by media, what he called a global village.  At times, the internet does unite us, or at least make it possible for us to reach out more easily.  At times, we are living in a world made more connected, where ideas are exchanged, and friends from many countries can interact across the miles. But at other times, the internet is a place of divisiveness, argument, and bullying-- where candidates can insult each other (or each other's wives), where a simple comment can lead to a series of rude remarks, and a chat-bot can be taught to say she hates blacks and Jews.  Sometimes, we are welcomed, and sometimes we are attacked.  Perhaps Forrest Gump was right when he said that life (and certainly our social media life) is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you're gonna get.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Defining the Modern First Lady

I know we are not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I admit to being puzzled by the outpouring of grief at the death of Nancy Reagan.  I understand that she was the beloved wife of a very popular president, and her devotion to him was frequently praised.  And I especially understand that for conservative Republicans, she represented a golden age, when the country was led by Ronald Reagan, a president they believed could do no wrong. In this version of history, Nancy is remembered as the perfect First Lady: elegantly dressed, always feminine, someone who gave beautiful parties, upheld traditional gender roles, and always put her husband first.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but it omits a few other facts.  By most accounts, Nancy Reagan was an indifferent and even unloving mother to her kids-- her devotion was only for her husband, and her children often felt excluded. (They eventually reconciled with her in her later years.)  Her elegant style, while praised by her supporters, also brought criticism: she was accused of being extravagant, or at least tone-deaf:  as ordinary Americans endured a recession in the early 1980s, she spent large sums of money on decorating the White House, and she also entertained lavishly; she seemed to feel the most at ease in the company of the wealthy and powerful.  Like her husband, she was slow to acknowledge or address the AIDS crisis; her reaction to the specter of drug abuse was to tell kids to "Just say no"; and of course, there was the astrologer she relied upon to help set the president's schedule.  

But in fairness to Nancy Reagan, being a First Lady is often a thankless task.  As presidential historian Lewis L. Gould once noted, "Americans are ambivalent about presidential wives. First ladies must perform diverse duties without error, and any deviation from perceived standards brings instant criticism.  At the same time, the role undergoes constant adjustment as the public’s view of women evolves and the presidency itself changes.” And that is what strikes me as so bizarre:  on the one hand, women have come a long way, such that today it is no longer unusual to see women business executives, or doctors, or astronauts, or members of congress.  But on the other hand, the role of the First Lady is still stuck in the 1950s.  

If a First Lady previously had a career, she is expected to willingly give it up; and no matter how accomplished she may have been prior to being in the White House, she is not supposed to mention it.  Now that she is the First Lady, the focus turns to what kind of gown she is wearing at special events (and which designer created it), as well as which charity she supports.  A First Lady is expected to have her own favorite cause and to champion it (for example-- Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, promoted the Girl Scouts, while Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, promoted literacy programs).  But if a First Lady tries to discuss policy or take a stand on a current issue (as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton did), she is often harshly criticized for doing so.  And if she is perceived by the media or by the public as having too forceful a personality, that too will earn her lots of scorn.  

It is thus not surprising that the more traditional First Ladies, the ones who embrace the role of Hostess (and Wife) in Chief, who are content to remain in the background, who always look lovely and never say anything controversial, are often the most popular.  That may be why those who remember Nancy Reagan so fondly believe she brought dignity and grace to the position of First Lady.  It's all reminiscent of the era of "Camelot" in the early 1960s, when the equally elegant and photogenic Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady and became a fashion icon for the nation; a former journalist, she acknowledged to a reporter that her husband would not allow her to keep her career nor be in the spotlight more than he was.  So, she accepted her new position as queen of the domestic sphere, and always managed to look glamorous no matter what she was doing.

I understand that for some political wives, giving up their career and their identity in order to live in the White House (and be a fashion icon) sounds like an amazing life.  But the constant scrutiny, the endless criticism for daring to step outside the boundaries of the role, and the inability to openly speak out on current issues... all of this means it's not a life for just anyone.  Frankly, I don't know why in 2016 it would be such a problem if a First Lady kept her career or did something other than host parties and advocate for her favorite charity.  And what if we have a woman president-- what will we expect of her husband?  It's an interesting time to think about what it means to be a First Lady, or for that matter, a First Gentleman. Do we want elegance and glamour?  Do we want someone who stays in the background?  Or is it time to let presidential spouses define their role for themselves, rather than having a 1950s version of society define it for them?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Living in Angry Times

I had no intention of writing another post about Donald Trump, who gets way too much attention as it is.  But over the past few weeks, I've become increasingly nervous about the political climate he has created-- a climate where protesters are beaten up at his rallies, reporters covering the rallies are threatened, and the candidate himself seems at times to be egging the crowd on.  And worst of all, Mr. Trump's fellow candidates (along with most other Republicans) seem to feel no need to denounce him for any of this.  After all, outraged partisans are more likely to come out and vote, am I right? All that matters is winning, by any means necessary.

But believe me, this sort of campaigning has consequences, although some of my Republican friends may not want to admit it.  Whether my friends decide to vote for him or not, Mr. Trump has changed the tone of our politics.  It is now acceptable to mock people with disabilities, or show contempt for a former Prisoner-of-War like John McCain, or even talk about the size of one's package on national TV.  Mr. Trump claims he doesn't want to be "politically correct," and he also says he misses the days when you could punch a protester in the face.  His apologists say that's just rhetoric, but then yesterday, a Trump proponent actually did punch a protester in the face, and bragged about it.   Protesters have also been treated harshly at other rallies, while Mr. Trump reminisced about the good old days when it was okay to treat protesters that way.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm in a bad movie, or perhaps a bad TV reality show.  I understand that "politics ain't bean-bag," as the fictional pundit Mr. Dooley used to say, but this campaign seems more like professional wrestling than politics.  Mr. Trump thinks it's okay to encourage the crowds at his events to help eject protesters; he thinks it's okay to keep reporters and photographers in a pen, and has no problem when one is violently pushed to the ground for daring to step outside to try to get a better view; and he thinks it's okay to call journalists covering his events "scum" and encourage attendees to hurl insults in their direction.  And through it all, I hear few Republican voices saying enough is enough.  Even John Kasich, who (to his credit) has generally avoided mudslinging and name-calling, has not denounced the violent rhetoric at Trump rallies. I wish he, or one of his colleagues, would.  But so far, nothing.

Maybe I'm asking for too much, but I miss the days when candidates could be passionate without exhorting their supporters to be violent. I miss heated debates where actual issues were discussed, rather then an endless array of schoolyard insults.  No, I am not asking for sunshine and rainbows, and I don't even mind harsh political rhetoric.  I know it's all part of the game, and to some degree, both sides do it.  For example, I understand that Republican candidates want to blame President Obama for anything and everything; and even when fact-checkers point out that many of their assertions are demonstrably false, the candidates keep repeating them, and their voters keep applauding.  (And yes, in fairness, Democratic candidates have applause lines too, although I have never heard Hillary or Bernie express a wish to punch a protester, nor make threats against journalists.)

I keep hoping that somehow, sanity will be restored to the Republican presidential race. I know how easy it is to stir up anger and rage at some enemy, real or imagined (we've seen demagogues do it throughout history); but again, it's the consequences that worry me.  For far too long in this campaign, a rhetoric that promotes hatred of various people (including the president) has been allowed to flourish, often with the complicity of other politicians who felt no need to speak out.  Yes, this strategy may work well in the short-term, guaranteeing that the Republican base will come out to vote.  But what about the long-term effects?  People who have been repeatedly told they have every right to be furious are not likely to suddenly calm down.  And what none of his fellow candidates seem willing to discuss is what worries me the most:  even if Mr. Trump is somehow denied the nomination, the anger he has unleashed in his supporters will be very difficult to contain. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

This Is Not What I Expected

I have a very religious Christian friend from the deep south who truly believes we are living in the end-times. I've known her for years, and despite our religious differences, we've always gotten along well, until recently. Lately, she has become convinced that the Day of Judgment is coming soon.  And she worries about me, because if I don't accept Jesus right away, she believes I will burn in hell forever. She watches a lot of televangelists, and they tell her they see all of the signs that the end of the world is imminent (and if only she will buy their books and make a donation to their ministry, they will send her the information about how to be ready for the final days).   

But in addition to her sudden concern about the end of the world, she is also concerned about what's happening to America.  As she sees it, and as conservative talk show hosts remind her, President Obama is a secret Muslim who is trying to destroy the United States, a view echoed by some of the Republican candidates.  (The preachers she watches seem to have taken that to another level-- they say he might be the anti-Christ.)  We were talking politics about a week ago, and since she is an evangelical, I was certain she'd want to vote for Ted Cruz or Ben Carson in the primary-- she always gravitates towards the most religiously conservative candidate running.  But her response surprised me.  She said she was going to vote for Donald Trump.

Somehow, this didn't fit.  I mean, Mr. Trump has been married three times, and he admitted he was unfaithful to his previous wives; my friend is among the most religious Christians I know, and morality really matters to her.  In fact, she had been furious about Bill Clinton when he acknowledged his sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, and she believed he was too immoral to be president. Yet here she was defending Donald Trump, a candidate who often used vulgarity and insult, and who had certainly lived a somewhat morally dubious life.

I asked what she liked about Mr. Trump (she had seen his reality show a couple of times, but she wasn't a fan), and she said she liked his strength and toughness, his patriotism, and his willingness to build a wall and keep "illegals" out.  She also liked his stance about immigrants, and she especially liked his stance about Muslims.  She was certain he would also get gay marriage banned, get Obamacare repealed, defund Planned Parenthood once and for all, and bring back all the jobs that had been shipped overseas (including hers-- the factory where she had worked was sold, and the new owners shipped the jobs to India).  In other words, she was among the frustrated and angry working-class white voters who believed Donald Trump would take on the people who were ruining the country and, yes, make America great again.

And no matter what anyone said (or even what I said), in her eyes, Mr. Trump could do no wrong.  I asked her about his support for ideas championed by white supremacists, about the verbal threats he made against members of the media who were covering his campaign, about how he often sounded like a petty tyrant, about how he used schoolyard taunts when talking about his opponents, and about how fact-checkers at every major publication had refuted a number of the claims he made.  None of it changed her perception of him.  In fact, since she believed the media were out to get him, she disregarded anything the fact-checkers said.

Yesterday was "Super Tuesday," and Donald Trump won millions of primary votes in states all across the country. The Republican establishment is now extremely worried and they want to find a way to stop his momentum, but I wonder where they all were six months ago, when he was making the same outrageous comments and stirring up his followers in the same way.  So, now the party has a candidate who is attracting large numbers of people to his events and transforming them into Republican voters, but someone who is also a polarizing figure.  (When I observe Mr. Trump's large crowds, I have to wonder if they are actually Republicans; more accurately, I think they are Trumpians, loyal followers of a man who is giving them permission to lash out at those who are different, and who motivates his supporters by telling them "the other" is to blame for their problems.)

Back in 1861, another Republican, Abraham Lincoln, hoped we would listen to the "better angels of our nature"; but Mr. Trump has no time for that; in his world, there is only tough talk and anger.  And although it seems like a contradiction for a deeply religious Christian to also agree with Mr. Trump's less-than-charitable statements, my friend is among the many who have put their trust in him.  Last week in my blog, I spoke of "two Americas," how today's Republicans and Democrats see things in such dramatically different ways.  I understand that many voters are angry-- on the left as well as the right, and I know that candidates on both sides are just trying to appeal to the frustration the voters feel.  But I must admit I find it disconcerting when someone like my friend, who has spent her life teaching scripture and preaching the gospel, has come to believe that Donald Trump has the best answers to the problems facing this country.  As I said, this was not the response I expected.