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Number 159 - June 2015

In this issue:

Buzz, Buzz

Most Dangerous Jobs

Hot Link Bullshit Detectors


Men's Wisdom Circle, June 7-12. Check it out.

Buzz, Buzz

Buzz words, buzz words. Here are a couple that have been bothering me lately.

Trigger - more than just Roy Rogers's horse (O.K., I'm dating myself. Deal.)

Mindfulness - let's all sit like pretzels and hum "ommmm."

Trigger first. In the past couple of years, some college students and professors have advocated the use of "trigger warnings" for texts, lectures, media presentations, art, etc., because some people with a history of trauma or abuse could be affected. This has led to serious doubts about free expression and about how to define what might be a trigger. The list of potential triggers is long.

trigger warning

A report by the American Association of University Professors gave some background and catalogued some possible triggers:

The specific call for "trigger warnings" began in the blogosphere as a caution about graphic descriptions of rape on feminist sites, and has now migrated to university campuses in the form of requirements or proposals that students be alerted to all manner of topics that some believe may deeply offend and even set off a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) response in some individuals. Oberlin College's original policy (since tabled to allow for further debate in the face of faculty opposition) is an example of the range of possible trigger topics: "racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression." It went on to say that a novel like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart might "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more." It further cautioned faculty to "[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals."

How does this strike you? I have a few problems with triggers and trigger warnings.

First, the list is an open set. No matter how many potential triggers we identify, there will always be one more.

Second, people who are affected by certain topics and "isms" cannot avoid them in everyday life outside of academia unless they isolate and insulate themselves. Do we need trigger warnings in media such as TV ads or TV shows? The nightly news?

Third, people who are seriously affected by one or more topics can look at summaries, reviews, syllabi, or other sources and determine for themselves what might trigger them and then avoid situations that might trigger an unpleasant, dangerous, or crippling episode. Really serious cases of PTSD should be treated by psychological professionals; no amount of trigger warnings will protect them.

Fourth, the spread of forced or voluntary trigger warnings has a chilling effect on communication. And removing triggering material deprives everyone of whatever information, inspiration, or insights the material may contain.

Fifth, a trigger warning that states what is being warned against can be, in itself, a trigger.

Sixth, trigger warnings carry with them the danger of perpetuating a person's victimhood and preventing that person from healing or seeking professional help.

The AAUP article is well worth reading. Its observations about trigger warnings in the academic context can apply to many other situations.

And finally this: Many of us will eventually run into a person who is triggered by a word, action, or event - or a person who requests a trigger warning, perhaps in a confrontational way. When we're confronted with a specific situation like this, I think the most appropriate response is compassion and allowing the benefit of the doubt. We may have reservations about the whole trigger warning thing, but there's nothing wrong with being nice.

Mindfulness next. Is there no end to articles and scientific (and pseudo-scientific) studies on mindfulness? Some writers say it's just a matter of sitting and meditating every day. Short magazine articles urge readers to just be consciously aware of their sensations, emotions, and surroundings.


Others make things so complicated that they need entire books to explain mindfulness.

Mindfulness practices have entered into mainstream medicine, with some documented positive results. But these practices are aimed at people in some kind of personal distress, physical or mental. We shouldn't have to be sick to meditate. And since meditation fosters mindfulness of the inner workings of one's own thoughts, it's possible that meditation, absent other interventions and monitoring, can lead to increased and perhaps dangerous distress. Philip Hoggart, in online edition of The Guardian, makes the point that non-drug therapies (that is, mindfulness-based) can have side effects just as the psychoactive drugs do. These include deepening depression, depersonalization, panic, and so on. He writes about it here.

Even Buddhist teachers and retreat centers have acknowledged psychological problems among their attendees who were on retreat for self-discovery and not therapy. Tomas Rocha, writing in The Atlantic, tells about a program in Providence, Rhode Island, dedicated to helping patients recover from severe side-effects of meditation. Read about it here.

Commerce has gotten into the business of mindfulness, too, with expensive seminars or consultants who, for a large fee, will indoctrinate employees into its joys (and promise increase productivity, lower turnover, enhanced profits, etc.).

In the business world especially, some employees are annoyed (and beyond) by having meditation sessions forced on them, directly or subtly.

And the rest of us may feel that, with all the hoopla, we're somehow missing out on potential happiness, wealth, bliss, calm, enhanced health, and whatever else is promised by the proponents and proselytizers to those who follow their special system - buying the books and paraphernalia, attending seminars or experiential happenings.

It almost seems like the magic elixirs and patent medicines of old, especially when (a lot of) money is involved.

I don't think we're missing out on anything, and I'm deeply wary of anyone who promises miraculous results in five easy steps.

Although the mindfulness craze is relatively new, some form of meditation was probably practiced thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, many, perhaps most, spiritual traditions have fostered (and, yes, sometimes suppressed) disciplines of meditation and mindfulness. We are unlikely to find these disciplines practiced at services in a mainstream church, synagogue, or mosque. For mainstream religions, meditation is reserved for mystics, whose life styles we couldn't or wouldn't follow (vows of poverty, celibacy, and all that) and who seem somehow spiritually "better" than us.

But meditation and mindfulness are not out of reach for any of us who don't want to commit to someone's best-selling system or enter a monastery, yet are willing to learn a little and put out a little effort.

Did I say discipline? Did I say practice?

Here's the discipline part. Every spiritual tradition has a set of principles underlying meditation. These principles are not learned in a Sunday supplement or in a memoir of "how I turned my life around by meditating." The underlying principles often include physical, mental, and spiritual elements that have to be learned. They're more demanding than reading a best-seller.

There are lots of books and groups one can explore within any tradition. They cover the physical aspects and the spiritual foundations of their discipline. Some books (and people!) are highly abstract and hard to read, some are more down-to-earth, and some are downright flaky.

My advice is to find a tradition you understand and can resonate with. If the materials or the people are too abstract and arcane, or if they make you feel like some kind of dolt or a defective human being, try something else.

There will be a need for commitment and discipline, even if it's only finding the time to meditate. This is very different from advice like "set aside time once a day to take a walk and notice your surroundings" or "eat more mindfully."

Another piece of advice is not to let reading and studying become a substitute for actual practice.

So we've arrived at the practice part. To get to a state of mindfulness, we have to meditate. And to do that, we have to sit our butts down and be still on a regular basis. We can't just sit down one day and say, "I'm going to be mindful, now that I've read about what that is."

How does meditation lead to mindfulness? It's kinda mysterious, and I've had only partial success. But the physical stillness of meditation is the beginning of mental stillness, and both somehow open us up to an awareness of who we really are. And that awareness, I believe, is the beginning of mindfulness. We can't be mindful of stuff outside ourselves if we're not mindful of what's inside.

Uncomfortable things can happen along the way in meditation and mindfulness, as reported by Tomas Rocha (see above). The few people for whom the discomfort becomes disabling should seek help outside of a meditation practice.

So we can have fun (I know I have) reading popular treatments of mindfulness. When we're ready for the real work, we can start studying. And sitting.



Most Dangerous Jobs

I guess I'm gonna keep beating this drum. I posted deadly jobs (held mostly by men) in an essay for January, and here it is only May and I'm on the soapbox again.


My January essay was a little wonky, with a list of stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But today I ran across an on-line Bloomberg Business article from May 13 - "The Deadliest Jobs in America" - that provides a series of dramatic graphics for essentially the same numbers. Click on the link to go there. (Bloomberg consolidated data from 2005 to 2013 - the last date available. Military personnel were excluded.)

The authors, Christopher Cannon, Alex McIntyre, and Adam Pearce, present some of the data as quiz questions, such as "Which of these workers is most likely to die on the job?" with three possible answers (Security Guards, Firefighters, Garbage Collectors). No spoiler alert here, but the answer will probably surprise you.

You can pause your mouse pointer over most elements in the charts to get more detailed information: Job type, fatalities per 100 thousand workers, and median salary.

One of the charts provides a breakout of the types of fatalities for each job: slips and falls, violence or homicide, fires and explosions, harmful environment, transportation incidents, and contact with equipment. You can view it by raw numbers or by percentages, and you can click on a type of fatality and see the number or percentage of jobs associated with it.

Oh, yeah. Once again I'll point out the obvious. The jobs are mostly held by guys. And their bosses are usually guys.

Here are a couple of radical ideas.

o         If women want the same kinds of job opportunities as men, maybe we should point them in the direction of some of these dangerous jobs. Let's spread the joy.

o         If you have one of the more dangerous jobs, work with your co-workers, supervisors, and union to take a very hard look at working conditions and how they can be improved.

o         More important: If you're a manager or captain of industry, think long and hard about what you're subjecting your workers to, both male and female. If paying for increased safety and safety education bothers you and your stockholders more than the fatalities (and also nonfatal maimings, illnesses, shortened lives, etc.), change your ways or get the hell out.

We need most of these dangerous jobs as the underpinnings of our way of life. Take some of them away (garbage collectors?) and we're all in a heap of trouble.



Hot Link - Bullshit Detectors

Here's an article and video by Joss Fong on how people deceive themselves about the quality of the wine they drink: Click here.


But the article is also about self-deception, bullshit, the nature of truth, peer pressure, learned social cues, and snobbery.

Fong quotes from a 2007 essay by Princeton economist Richard Quandt:

First, there are some subjects that tend to induce an unusually large amount of bullshit ... Equally importantly, there are some people who engage in bullshit with greater frequency than the average; they have a special propensity to bullshit, perhaps habitually or compulsively or just for the fun of it ... In some instances, there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect.

O.K., this is all pretty funny. But it does remind us to listen and read with critical ears and eyes. Fancy words from supposed experts can mute or even disable our bullshit detectors.



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