I love this brave and thoughtful Salon essay by Caitlin Seida so very much: My embarrassing picture went viral. It begins:

I logged onto my Facebook one morning to find a message from a girlfriend. “You’re internet famous!” it read. She sent a link to a very public page whose sole purpose was posting images that mock people’s appearances. There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”

Initially, she wasn’t angry, but then she saw some of the comments:

“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!

We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.

In addition to issuing takedown requests to various web sites — which she was able to do because the photo was hers — she also confronted people directly about their nasty comments:

…Facebook made it easy to find people who had commented on the images. By now, the picture had metastasized through reposts on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, 9Gag, FailBlog. But looking through the Facebook “like” function, I could track down the most offensive commenters.

Most of them were women. Shocked? I wasn’t. Anyone who’s survived high school can tell you how women slice each other up to make ourselves feel better. I sent several of those women a message.

“You’re being an asshole,” the note said. “Why don’t you just do the right thing and delete the post and stop sharing it?”

The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying. Their Facebook pages were set to private, after all. Most didn’t realize that when you post to a public page through your Facebook account, it doesn’t matter that your own content is restricted: The whole world can read your words anyway.

And of course, they hadn’t really thought of me as a person. Why should they? These images are throwaways, little bursts of amusement to get through a long workday. You look, you chuckle, you get some ridicule off your chest and move on to the next source of distraction. No one thought about the possibility that I might read those words. Far less, that I would talk back.

Read that last paragraph again. Personally, I’m going to be more careful about the funny things I share. I don’t want to be even a small part of any social media wave that makes a decent person’s life miserable.

Of particular concern, I think, are seemingly hilarious commentaries on the supposedly bad behavior of other people, such as this one by Elan Gale: This Man Is Hilariously Live-Tweeting His Flight-and-Feud With The Woman in #7A. I thought it mildly funny until I read the other side of the story: Bullying at 35 thousand feet. Of course, I have no way to determine the veracity of either story: both might be inventions. Yet the incident is instructive, I think. As I posted to Facebook:

It seems high time for everyone (including me!) to be suspicious of reports of god-awful behavior by random strangers. Perhaps the story is fabricated or embellished — or perhaps the circumstances aren’t quite what they seem — or perhaps the person who “schooled” the jerk just enjoys feeling like a self-righteous, sanctimonious prick. Surely, any truly awful person isn’t going to reform due to being the laughingstock of the internet… and it’s too likely that a good person will be unjustly vilified instead.

I love laughter, I really do… but there’s plenty of funny in the world without being unjust or malicious.

The Beauty of Gratitude

 Posted by on 14 November 2013 at 11:00 am  Benevolence, Education, Ethics, Justice
Nov 142013

On November 7th, Letters of Note published this touching and beautiful letter from Albert Camus to Louis Germain, the teacher who helped him rise so far beyond the miserable circumstances of his birth and childhood. (See the post on Letters of Note for a few details about that.)

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don’t make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus

Ah, what a perfection of gratitude that is!

The Illusion of Karma

 Posted by on 16 October 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, Charity, Ethics, Metaphysics
Oct 162013

Many people imagine that the universe doles out good fortune or bad fortune to people via some mysterious and even mystical process. The truth is far simpler. Much of the time, people create their own future circumstances — for better or worse — via their own choices, including choices to associate with some people rather than others.

Often, people receive what they give to others — magnified — if their benevolence is well-placed. Yet it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to know precisely where to invest your generosity in advance. Many promising people turn out to be disappointments in the end, while gems are found in unexpected corners. Casting a wide net via small acts of generosity can be an effective and rewarding way to find those hidden gems.

This moving short video shows that phenomena in action:

Jul 082013

On April 18th, a gal from BlogTalkRadio emailed me without prompting to apologize for Wednesday’s disconnection during the show and to inform me that they’re aware of the problem and working hard to increase their capacity. I decided to reply with the following message the next morning:

I just wanted to say thanks for the excellent customer service.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been enduring some of the worst customer service ever from another company (my podcast host, podbean). So your up-front, pro-active email was a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

She immediately replied:

You have no idea what your note did to brighten my morning. It’s been a truly rough couple of days, and knowing that there are people like you on our platform who support us even when we stumble makes the job I love that much better. Thank you so very much for your words of kindness.

I’m so glad that I wrote her! Her original email, and then her grateful reply, is a much-needed reminder that many businesses work hard at customer service. They deserve a pat on the back!

Benevolence of a Culture

 Posted by on 2 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, China, Culture, Ethics
Jul 022013

A while back, Robert Garmong posted the following story on Facebook:

Walking home from work, through the hard-packed ice left over from yesterday’s snow, past the construction zones, I saw a row of cars stopped, waiting impatiently while a very miserable-looking minivan spun its wheels on the ice.

(Incidentally, a Chinese minivan is truly mini. It comes up to my eye-level, at most, and it looks as though I could fit it into my backpack, yet somehow, like a clown car, you can get 8 people into it. They’re very crummy, and mostly used for low-end delivery businesses and the like.)

The driver clearly didn’t know what to do about his situation. He obviously didn’t get his driver’s license at age 16 in a small, snowy town in Illinois. After spinning his wheels a few times, churning up ice and spewing oily exhaust into the air, he got out of the car to come back and scratch his head, staring down at his rear wheels. He didn’t do any of the things I would have done: he didn’t put a rock or a piece of cardboard under his tire, didn’t throw dirt down, didn’t try to push his van past the glossy spot he’d worn by spinning his wheels. He just looked for a few seconds, then when the cars behind him started honking he got back into the van and started spinning his wheels again. The unofficial motto of China might as well be: Work harder, not smarter.

If this were Texas, there would have been five people lined up behind his little clown van to push him along (not that you’d need that many). The guy in the car behind him would’ve jumped out of the car to give him a shove, without even thinking about it. Passers-by would’ve joined in. Street vendors selling fruit alongside the road would have paused their haggling for a minute to come pitch in. (Well, I guess in Texas there wouldn’t be street vendors selling fruit alongside the road, but IF there were, they’d be helping.)

Here, all the guy got was a glance or two from the pedestrians, and a bunch of blaring horns from the cars piled up behind him. A larger bus going the opposite way rolled down its window so the driver could offer him some fairly useless advice, then drove off.

The clown-van driver was getting nowhere, so I jogged out into the road and gave a little tiny shove — I mean REALLY tiny — no stronger than would be required to open a stuck backyard gate. The van shish-shish-shished forward a foot or so, then got traction and chugged slowly up the road. The driver of the car behind him tooted a little honk of thanks, then the whole lot of them tailed the van-driver slowly, carefully up the hill.

For the most part, Americans are steeped in benevolence. We are willing to help others — including strangers — in a thousand small ways at the drop of a hat. That’s a huge value — and not one that we should take for granted. Such makes life so much better in a thousand small ways.

As it happens, I mentioned that culture-wide benevolence in my end-of-year Philosophy in Action Radio of 30 December 2012, where I talked about all the good in American culture. (That was the whole episode!) So if you’ve not heard it, take a listen:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Also, if you’ve not yet heard my two interviews with Robert Garmong on life in China… don’t delay! They’re chock-full of great stories and insights.

First, I interviewed Robert about “Teaching in China” on 19 September 2012. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Second, I interviewed Robert about “Should We Fear or Embrace China?” on 27 March 2013. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

People Caught on Camera… Being Good

 Posted by on 29 May 2013 at 9:00 am  Benevolence
May 292013

I really enjoyed watching this compilation of Russian dashcam videos of people being kind and helpful. Some people are jerks, but most people are kind and decent… thank goodness!

Note: Apparently the opening text in Russian reads, in part: “Anything you do without seeking to profit could become the kindest thing.” Well, you can guess what I think of that sentiment.

The Plight of a Good Samaritan

 Posted by on 27 May 2013 at 2:00 pm  Benevolence, Crime
May 272013

This story is just amazing: Good Samaritan faces fines for stolen car.

Basically, a good samaritan stopped to help a man from his just-wrecked car. That man then told the good samaritan that his kids were in the back — and by the time the good samaritan realized that was a lie, the just-rescued man stole the good samaritan’s car!

To add insult to injury, the thief has been racking up parking tickets, and the City of Denver was demanding that the good samaritan pay those fines, because his report on the vehicle theft was lost. That looks to be sorted now, thanks to some help from 9News.

What an awful mess for a good guy — Jesus Rivera — who was just trying to be helpful to a fellow human being in distress!

Thankfully, that’s not how benevolence usually works out… and that’s why Mr. Rivera says that he’d stop again to help someone from an accident.

May 082013

NPR recently ran a fascinating story on the origins of social prejudice: What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like? The article discusses a new book — Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (kindle) by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald — on how people tend to render assistance to strangers based on some kind of value-connection, thus inadvertently entrenching social boundaries and biases.

Here’s a story from the article that illustrates the power of such value-connections with strangers:

In the book, Banaji writes that Kaplan once had a terrible kitchen accident. “She was washing a big crystal bowl in her kitchen,” Banaji says. “It slipped and it cut her hand quite severely.” The gash went from Kaplan’s palm to her wrist. She raced over to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter. She was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her and started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job, she says.

But at this moment someone spotted Kaplan. It was a student, who was a volunteer at the hospital. “The student saw her, recognized her, and said, ‘Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here?’ ” Banaji says. The ER doctor froze. He looked at Kaplan. He asked the bleeding young woman if she was a Yale faculty member. Kaplan told him she was. Everything changed in an instant. The hospital tracked down the best-known hand specialist in New England. They brought in a whole team of doctors. They operated for hours and tried to save practically every last nerve.

Banaji says she and Kaplan asked themselves later why the doctor had not called in the specialist right away. “Somehow,” Banaji says, “it must be that the doctor was not moved, did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by a two-word phrase, ‘Yale professor.’”

Kaplan told Banaji that she was able to go back to quilting, but that she still occasionally feels a twinge in the hand. And it made her wonder what might have happened if she hadn’t received the best treatment.

Basically, the authors argue that much prejudice in the modern society is not the product of overt hatred, but rather patterns of favoritism. The article explains:

The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way, Banaji says. We feel like a great friend when we give a buddy a foot in the door to a job interview at our workplace. We feel like good parents when we arrange a class trip for our daughter’s class to our place of work. We feel like generous people when we give our neighbors extra tickets to a sports game or a show.

In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?

Now, I don’t think that such forms of benevolence should be regarded as “biased” or “wrong” in any way. People should exercise their benevolence and charity on causes and people that matter to them! However, I’d add that people should think hard about the importance of their values, as some make a better basis for generosity than others.

The fact that someone lives near your childhood home, for example, doesn’t reveal anything special about that person. That the person is a friend of a friend is more instructive, provided that you choose your friends well. Similarly, if you want to be a decent doctor, you don’t ignore the patient when she tells you that her hand function really matters to her, but then pull out all the stops when you learn that she’s a Yale professor.

That being said, for a person to deliberately aim to help worthy but “underserved” people is not altruism. By doing that, your generosity gets more bang for the buck — and that might easily outweigh any tenuous value-connection. Personally, that’s how I tend to direct my non-activist charitable dollars: I don’t give to causes that everyone posts about on Facebook, but rather to the less-popular cases in which help is desperately needed.

Here’s another example: Many dogs are waiting to be adopted, but large black dogs often languish for months or years longer than others. Personally, I don’t care much about the color of my dog, although I’m passionate about rescue. So why not look for that fabulous large black dog that others have overlooked? That seems like a win-win to me!

Back to the NPR article… the book definitely looks interesting to me, as I want to think more deeply about issues of charity and generosity. (I expect that I’ll disagree with aspects of it, of course.) The book is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s available in hardcover or kindle.

On the Boston Marathon Bombing

 Posted by on 16 April 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, Ethics, Evil, Terrorism
Apr 162013

I don’t have words to properly express my feelings about yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, so I’ll let Craig Biddle of The Objective Standard speak for me:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the explosions in Boston and to their families and loved ones. Kudos to the first responders and others who are helping the victims and hunting the perpetrators. May justice be swift and decisive.

I have read some gut-wrenching accounts from eye-witnesses, particularly Tragedy in Boston: One Photographer’s Eyewitness Account.

The stories of people helping the many confused, frightened, hungry, cold, and stranded runners are heartening, yet also somehow awful. It’s heartening to see ordinary people fight such evil with benevolence. Such people are not willing to allow the bombing to victimize any more people than necessary, and that’s so very good of them. Yet the bombing was not a natural disaster, but a vicious attack against innocent people. Such kindness should not be necessary, and that’s what makes it so awful too.

Also, for a well-earned smack-down of pundits already using the bombing to score political points, read: The 6 Worst Media Reactions to the Boston Marathon Bombing. Blech.

If, like me, you need to experience a bit of cheery goodness after thinking on such events, go watch this video: Hero Turtle Rescues Upside Down Turtle.

Granted, Hero Turtle takes his sweet time in accomplishing the rescue… but such is his nature!


As I mentioned on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, Joshua Lipana’s cancer has returned, and his power to fight it depends on whether fellow lovers of liberty contribute to his fund for medical expenses.

For those who don’t know Joshua, he’s been a tireless advocate for liberty for many years, and he’s worked as a writer and assistant editor of The Objective Standard for the last few years too. You can check out his TOS articles, and blog posts.

Craig Biddle has more details in this blog post: Joshua Lipana’s Cancer Has Relapsed and He Needs Our Help.

You can directly contribute via this link. Also, Craig says, “If you’d like to donate directly to Joshua’s PayPal account, you can do so by sending money to joshualipana (atsign) yahoo (dot) com. If you’d prefer to mail a check, please make it out to “The Objective Standard,” write “Donation for Joshua” on the memo line, and mail the check to: The Objective Standard, P.O. Box 5274, Glen Allen, VA 23058.” (Because we’ve made sizable contributions, we’ve sent money directly via PayPal. The fees are less that way.)

Also, if you donate more than $25, you’ll get get free cookies shipped to your door! (It’s $30 for paleo cookies!) That’s over at Tough Cookies vs. Cancer, thanks to Brittney and Ashley.

Please, if you value liberty and those that are fighting tirelessly for it, contribute to this fund. If you can’t afford to contribute, please help spread the word about it!

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