Daryl Davis can be a model for how to change people’s minds.
“How can people hate me, when they don’t even know me?”
This is the question that drives the subject of a fantastic new documentary on Netflix called “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America,” directed by Matt Ornstein.
For the past 30 years, soul musician Daryl Davis has been traveling the country in search of an answer in the most dangerous way possible for a black man in America: by directly engaging with members the Ku Klux Klan.
He’s invited KKK members into his home, he’s had countless conversations, and as unlikely as it seems, now considers a number of them to be his friends.
Daryl might say that he’s not really even doing anything special besides treating his enemies with respect and kindness in the hopes of actually dissuading them from their hateful views.
Yet, that’s something almost no one else has the courage to do, even when the risks are considerably lower.
Disagreements are stressful and difficult, and the more horrifying someone else’s viewpoint is, the easier it is to dismiss the people who hold those beliefs as inhuman garbage who simply can’t be reasoned with. Social media has also made dehumanizing people considerably easier, as we all get to interact with people from around the world without ever seeing their faces or considering their feelings.
As a result, we live in an increasingly polarized time when a lot of people are saying that the only answer to hate and awful ideas is to meet them with even more hate, more anger, outrage, and even violence.
And it’s not just a problem when dealing with the worst ideas in human history like racial supremacy and fascism. Some people now take this approach for even trivial and academic disagreements.
Don’t like a speaker coming to campus? Silence them and prevent them from getting into the auditorium.
Don’t like what a Facebook friend has to say? Block them.
And of course, if you think someone you meet is a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi, the only thing left to do is punch them in the face.
Punching Doesn’t Work
But consider that most of human history is filled with people allowing their disagreements to turn into bloody, horrific warfare; it’s only our commitment to dealing with our adversaries peacefully through speech and conversation that has allowed us to become more civilized. So escalating conflicts into violence should be seen as the worst kind of social failure.
And besides, punching people who disagree with you doesn’t actually change their minds or anyone else’s, so we’re still left with the same deceptively difficult question before and after:
When people believe in wrongheaded or terrible things, how do we actually persuade them to stop believing the bad ideas, and get them to start believing in good ones instead?
Judging by social media, most people seem to believe that it’s possible to yell at people or insult and ridicule them until they change their minds. Unfortunately, as cathartic as it feels to let out your anger against awful people, this just isn’t an effective strategy to reduce the amount of people who hold awful ideas.
In fact, if you do this, your opponents (and even more people who are somewhat sympathetic to their views, or just see themselves as part of the same social group) might actually walk away even more strongly committed to their bad ideas than they were before.
The evidence from psychology is pretty clear on this.
We know from studies conducted by neuroscientists like Joseph LeDoux that people’s amygdalas — the part of the brain that processes raw emotions — can actually bypass their rational minds and create a fight-or-flight response when they feel threatened or attacked. Psychologist Daniel Goleman called this an “Amygdala Hijack,” and it doesn’t just apply to physical threats.
People’s entire personal identity is often wrapped up in their political or philosophical beliefs, and a strong verbal attack against those beliefs actually creates a response in the brain of the target similar to a menacing lunge.
Even presenting facts or arguments that directly conflict with people’s core beliefs or identities can actually cause people to cling to those beliefs more tightly after they’ve been presented with contrary evidence. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have been studying this phenomenon for over 10 years and call it the “Backfire Effect“.
And when the people whose minds we desperately need to change are racists and fascists (or socialists and communists, for that matter), a strategy that actually backfires and pushes more people towards those beliefs is the last thing we need.
Principles of Persuasion
The good news is that in addition to knowing what doesn’t work, we also know a lot about how to talk to people in ways that are actually persuasive — and the existing research strongly supports Daryl Davis’s approach.
One of these principles is called “reciprocity”, and it’s based on the idea that people feel obliged to treat you the way you treat them. So, if you treat them with kindness and humility, most people will offer you the same courtesy. On the other hand, if you treat them with contempt, well…
Another principle Cialdini describes is the idea of “liking”.
It’s almost too obvious, but it turns out that if someone likes you personally and believes that you like them, it’s easier to convince them that your way of thinking is worth considering. One easy step towards being liked is to listen to others and find common ground through shared interests. This can be a bridge – or a shortcut – to getting other people to see you as a friend or part of their tribe.
You might think somebody like Daryl Davis would have nothing in common with a KKK member, but according to Daryl, if you “spend 5 minutes talking to someone and you’ll find something in common,” and if you “spend 10 minutes, and you’ll find something else in common.”
In the film, he connects with several people about music, and you can see these connections paying off — breaking down barriers and providing many Klan members with a rare (and in some cases only) opportunity to interact with a black man as a human being worth respecting instead of an enemy.
Even better, over time, forming these relationships has had an interesting side-effect.
In the last couple decades alone, over 200 of America’s most ardent white supremacists have left the Ku Klux Klan and hung up their robes and hoods for good.
Many of those robes now hang in Daryl’s closet.
And in a lot of cases, these individual conversions have much bigger consequences and end multi-generational cycles of bigotry. When a mother or a father leaves the darkness of the Klan, they’re also bringing their kids into the light with them. A few of these cases are profiled in “Accidental Courtesy”, and they’re indescribably moving.
Daryl Davis can be a model for how to change people’s minds and with everything that’s going on in the world today, we need successful models now more than ever.
Making Friends From Enemies
There’s another point to all of this that I think often goes unsaid.
Unlike Daryl, most of us aren’t actually interacting with KKK members or trying to change people’s minds away from truly evil ideologies, and yet we all fall to the temptation of yelling and name-calling, and using all those techniques of influence that have the opposite of our intended or desired effect.
It’s easy to allow outrage and emotion carry us off into treating other people as inhuman enemies to be crushed rather than human beings to be persuaded.
But if Daryl’s techniques can work to convince die-hard white supremacists that a black man — and perhaps eventually all black people — are worthy of respect, imagine how effective they can be when disagreements crop up with your friends, neighbors, and co-workers who don’t actually hate you or the things you stand for.
Who knows, if you have more genuine conversations with people outside your bubble, you might even find yourself changing a little bit for the better as well.
“Accidental Courtesy” teaches us that the way to deal with wrong or evil ideas isn’t shouting them down or starting a fight; it’s having the courage to do what Daryl did and making a friend out of an enemy.
Sean Malone is the Director of Media at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). His films have been featured in the mainstream media and throughout the free-market educational community.
Emma Morano, age 116, is the last person alive born in the nineteenth century. New cutting-edge technologies could mean that more than a few people born at the end of the twentieth century will be in the prime of life when they reach that age. But this future will require a culture of reason that is currently dying out in our world.
Is the secret to a long life raw eggs or genetics?
Signorina Morano was born in Italy on Nov 29, 1899. On the recent passing of Susannah Mushatt Jones, who was born a few months before her, Morano inherited the title of world’s oldest person. She still has a ways to go to best the longevity record of the confirmed oldest person who ever lived, Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) who made it to 122.Every oldster offers their secret to long life. Morano attributes her feat to remaining single, adding that she likes to eat raw eggs. But the reason living things die, no matter what their diet, is genetic. Cellular senescence, the fancy word for aging, means the cells of almost every organism are programmed to break down at some point. Almost, because at least one organism, the hydra, a tiny fresh-water animal, seems not to age.
Researches are trying to discover what makes the hydra tick so that they find ways to reprogram human cells so we will stop aging. As fantastic as this sounds, it is just one part of a techno-revolution that could allow us to live decades or even centuries longer while retaining our health and mental faculties. Indeed, the week the Morano story ran, both the Washington Post and New York Times featured stories about scientists who approach aging not as an unavoidable part of our nature but as a disease that can be cured.
Since 2001, the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped from $100 million to just over $1,000. This is spurring an explosion in bio-hacking to figure out how to eliminate ailments like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. We also see nanotechnology dealing with failing kidneys. New high-tech devices deal with blindness and other such disabilities.
An achievement culture and longevity
But this bright future could be fading. Here’s why.
The source of all human achievement is the human mind, our power to understand our world and thus to control it for our own benefit; Ayn Rand called machines “the frozen form of a living intelligence.”
But America, the country that put humans on the Moon, is becoming the stupid country. Despite increased government education spending, test results in science and most other subjects have remained flat for decades. On international ratings, American students are behind students in most other developed countries. It’s a good thing America still has a relatively open immigration policy! Many of the tech people here come from overseas, especially India, because America still offers enough opportunity to make up for its failing schools.
The deeper problem is found in the prevailing values in our culture. In the 1950s and ‘60s many young people, inspired by the quest for the Moon, aspired to be scientists and engineers, to train their minds. Many went into the research labs of private firms that became the production leaders of the world. It was a culture that celebrated achievement.
Today, many young people, perverted by leftist dogma, hunger to be political enforcers, to train themselves in power and manipulation. Many go into campaigns and government to wrest wealth from producers to pay for “entitlements,” and to make the country more “equal” by tearing producers down. A growing portion of the culture demonizes achievement and envious of success.
Were they to live for 120 healthy years, individuals with the older, pro-achievement values would find their souls even more enriched by their extended careers of achievement. But individuals in the newer, anti-achievement culture would find their souls embittered as they focused enviously on degrading their productive fellows.
All who want long lives worth living need to not only promote science but also the values of reason and achievement. That’s the way to create a pro-longevity culture.
Remember that weird kid in school? I don’t mean the really scary one. I mean the borderline oddball. The one you had to talk to a bit to spot the weirdness. The boy who never knew what TV show everyone was talking about. The girl who, when you asked her what her favorite music group was, answered some long name that ended in “quartet.” The kid who thought you meant soccer when you said football.
How did you treat that kid? (Or were you that kid?)
In “Homeschooling, Socialization, and the New Groupthink,” I suggested that the most useful definition of socialization is “ensuring that a child becomes sociable, that he or she develops the intelligence and social reflexes that promote peaceful and pleasurable interactions.” I also suggested that some of homeschooling’s critics might mean something more sinister: indoctrination into a particular vision of society.
But after reading my article, third-grade schoolteacher Heather Lakemacher, commenting on Facebook, pointed out yet a different meaning of socialization: not seeming weird.
This is the real reason, she said, “why this stereotype of the poorly socialized homeschooler exists.” Whereas I had only addressed adult perceptions of homeschooled children, the true culprit, she said, is other kids:
Many of us who were educated in a traditional school have vivid memories of meeting other kids our age who were homeschooled and thinking, “Oh my god! This kid is so WEIRD!” It’s entirely possible that the child in question grew up to be a happy, well-adjusted, productive member of society. …
However, I think the stereotype exists because of the power of those childhood interactions with a peer who just didn’t behave in the way we were expecting them to behave. That’s not an argument against homeschooling, but data will always have a hard time dispelling emotionally charged memories.
She’s right. Odd kids can make a lasting impression.
Grownups regularly note how polite my homeschooled son is, or how he’ll talk to them at all when so many other kids clam up and fail to make eye contact. Adults find his lack of awkwardness with them charming. But what do schooled kids see?
Diane Flynn Keith, a veteran homeschooling mom and author of the book Carschooling, writes that homeschooled kids are, in fact, “not well-socialized in the traditional school sense.”
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s nothing “normal” about our kids. Your homeschooled child is odd compared to the schooled population because they have not experienced ongoing school-based socialization and standardization. …
And most of the time, homeschooling parents love that about our kids — and about homeschooling in general. We don’t want them to be standard. Whether we admit it or not, we tend to think they’re better than the standard. But it’s true that our socially flexible and resilient children can be puzzling to their traditionally schooled peers, and vice versa.
So why does the assessment of weirdness flow only in one direction? Why don’t homeschooled kids think the mainstream schoolchildren are weird?
One answer is that our kids know the mainstream experience through television, movies, and books. They may not always track the finer distinctions between Degrassi High and Hogwarts, but they certainly know a lot more about schools and schooling than mainstream kids know about education outside a classroom.
But I think that even without the pop-cultural lens on the schooling experience, homeschooled kids are just less likely to see anyone as weird. It’s just not a part of their semantic reflexes. Instead they think, “I don’t get him,” or “I’m not into the same stuff she is.”
As a result, homeschooled kids aren’t just more tolerant of diversity; they’re probably also more diverse. And that’s a lot of what gets labeled weird by those who are better assimilated into the mainstream culture.
What’s probably obvious to anyone familiar with homeschooling is that it’s good for the emotional health of kids who don’t easily fit in. What is less obvious is the damage that a culture of conformity does not just to the oddballs in that culture but also to the kids who conform with ease — and to the liberty of the larger society.
For over half a century, studies have shown that the need for social acceptance not only changes our behavior but can even make us perceive the world differently — and incorrectly.
In the early 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments on the dangers of group influence. When presented with simple problems that 95 percent of individuals could answer correctly when free of group influence, 75 percent of Asch’s test subjects would get the answer wrong when it meant concurring with the group.
In 2005, neuroscientist Gregory Berns conducted an updated version of Asch’s experiments, complete with brain scans to determine if the wrong answers were a conscious acquiescence to social pressure or if, instead, test subjects believed that their group-influenced wrong answers were in fact correct. Not only did the subjects report that they thought their wrong answers were right; the brain scans seemed to confirm it: they showed greater activity in the problem-solving regions of the brain than in those areas associated with conscious decision-making. And the nonconformists who went against the group and gave correct answers showed heightened activity in the part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety.
Commenting on the implications of these experiments, author Susan Cain writes,
Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think. (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)
Groupthink, in other words, is dangerous to a free society. And we don’t always realize when we’re not thinking for ourselves.
This kind of cognitive conformity, however, isn’t fixed or universal. Not only does it vary, for example, between East and West; it has also declined in the West since the 1950s, according to a 1996 review of 133 Asch-type studies from 17 countries. That review assessed the cultures in which the studies took place to see if their results “related cross-culturally to individualism [versus] collectivism.” Unsurprisingly, test subjects were least susceptible to the reality-distorting effects of the group in the more individualistic national cultures.
We should expect the same to be true of more and less individualistic subcultures. I bet homeschoolers, for example, are less likely to show the Asch effect. I suspect the same thing of the oddballs at school.
That doesn’t mean everyone should homeschool, or that only weirdoes can be independent thinkers, but it does suggest that the more a culture values independence and diversity, the less vulnerable it will be to the distortions of conformity. And if socialization means helping kids fit in more easily with the culture of their peers, then parents of homeschoolers and schooled kids alike may want to reconsider the value of socializing our children.
Altho’ it’s true that we in the early 21st century all live in a notably illiberal Dark Age culture of considerable sadness, sickness, ignorance, irrationality, malevolence, and tyranny, nevertheless: it’s still quite possible for those of us in the West to gain great knowledge about, and then practice, a highly liberal philosophy and lifestyle. And this intellectual system of reason and science in epistemology, individualism and self-interest in ethics, and dynamism and heroism in aesthetics and spirituality, can still easily foster a mostly good, great, magnificent, and happy life.
Today’s philosophical liberalism – massively influenced by the pure genius of Ayn Rand – can create a way of life which is deeply meaningful, purposeful, satisfying, enjoyable, and even ecstatic. Yes, some people around us are hugely irrational, illiberal, corrupt, hypocritical, foolish, and depraved. And yes, the political system around us is remarkably powerful, malicious, and authoritarian. But in the West you can still minimize contact with such people, and such a system. Life today is still potentially beautiful, wonderful, and almost unbelievably pleasurable.
Liberals who are relatively mature experienced, educated, smart, clever, and slick can mostly keep the forces of evil at bay. The illiberals haven’t ruined everything on this planet — or even come close. Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero, Horace, Bacon, Locke, Smith, Voltaire, and Jefferson still have a lot of power and influence. Even Hayek and Rand.
There’s still plenty of good stuff in the world to enjoy: movies, t’v’ shows, music, dance, paintings, video games, comics, classic novels, sports, conversation, family, friends, and other sources of enjoyment. Properly understood and practiced, liberalism doesn’t just show the way to an outstanding, wondrous, and exalted lifestyle. It also provides a great shield against the Bad Guys. Soon enough, it’ll provide a great sword.
We live in an era of very rapid change driven by technological progress. Today’s world is enormously different from that of three or four decades past: consider the pervasive effects of the revolution in communications and computing technologies that has taken place over that time. Yet, human nature being what it is, most of the people who lived through this profound shift in capabilities and culture are nonetheless very skeptical of claims that the future will look radically different from today in any important aspect. It is strange.
In particular the concept ofactuarial escape velocityleading tothousand-year life spansis a very hard sell. People look at the large number that is very different from today’s maximum life span and immediately reject it out of hand, no matter the reasonable argument behind it. Any medical technology that produces some rejuvenation in old patients buys extra time to develop better means of rejuvenation. At some point the first pass at rejuvenation treatments will improve such that remaining healthy life expectancy grows at more than a year with each passing year. At that point life spans will become indefinite, limited only by accident or rare medical conditions not yet solved.
It doesn’t help that most of the public has very little knowledge of the present state of medical research in any field, never mind thespecific detailsof howaging might be treatedand brought under medical control. The only solution to that issue is to keep on talking: educate, advocate, and spread the word.
“The first thing I want to do is get rid of the use of this word immortality, because it’s enormously damaging, it is not just wrong, it is damaging. It means zero risk of death from any cause – whereas I just work on one particular cause of death, namely ageing.” de Grey said his research aims toundo the damage done by the wear and tear of life, as opposed to stopping the ageing process altogether. “If we ask the question: ‘Has the person been born who will be able to escape the ill health of old age indefinitely?’ Then I would say the chances of that are very high. Probably about 80 per cent.”
“The therapies that we are working on at the moment are not going to be perfect. These therapies are going to be good enough to take middle age people, say people aged 60, and rejuvenate them thoroughly enough so they won’t be biologically 60 again until they are chronologically 90. That means we have essentially bought 30 years of time to figure out how to re-rejuvenate them when they are chronologically 90 so they won’t be biologically 60 for a third time until they are 120 or 150. I believe that 30 years is going to be very easily enough time to do that.”
Reason is the founder of The Longevity Meme (now Fight Aging!). He saw the need for The Longevity Meme in late 2000, after spending a number of years searching for the most useful contribution he could make to the future of healthy life extension. When not advancing the Longevity Meme or Fight Aging!, Reason works as a technologist in a variety of industries.
This work is reproduced here in accord with a Creative Commons Attribution license. It was originally published on FightAging.org.
Beautifying the Universe – Article by Kyrel Zantonavitch
Human beings naturally, healthily, nobly, and heroically seek to live and thrive, with the maximum possible quantity and quality of life.
Humans are god-like creatures, at least potentially, who concoct their own purpose, and find their own meaning. Family, friends, humankind, and the gods can’t supply these.
The Holy Individual naturally and nobly strives for greatness and happiness – and even for sublime transcendence. He attains all of this – if he can – via success and triumph in his battles, and accomplishment and achievement in his work.
The potentially magnificent human individual observes the universe, his fellow man, himself, and all of life. He uses his insight and wisdom to conquer knowledge and draw powerful conclusions. Upon these he develops his sacred hopes and dreams – and then tries to realize them. He works and fights and struggles to move them from the realm of fantasy to the realm of reality.
Human beings need to make the world a better place, both socially and materially, i.e. both improving society and the physical environment. After all, the individual intimately lives in both. They exist for him to use and manipulate – so he should exploit them to the max.
But as a kind of partner to society and the environment – who naturally seeks integration and harmony with them – a proper individual strives to enhance and uplift them as well. He needs to leave the world a better place than he found it.
The ultimate purpose of life seems to be to make the cosmos more beautiful. To render it more organized and harmonious. To leave it more ordered and useful.
It’s the sacred moral duty of every man to make his world less random and chaotic – less metaphysically empty and dead. To render it resonantly more alive, exciting, and intense – if he can. The naturally disintegrating universe needs to be made more well-groomed and exuberant.
The cosmos needs to become more aware of itself. To be ever more all-seeing, and yet successfully introspective too. Ever more cohesive, coherent, self-driven, and self-controlled. Ever more wonderful and lovely to behold.
Art is the most important part of life in many respects. Especially visual and audio art, such as paintings and music. Man is the artistic animal.
A vivacious, dynamic, heroic life is itself a kind of work of art. And it seems to potentially live on forever via memory and records – and eventually via time/space warps and time/space travel.
The universe may be fundamentally cold and indifferent – but it’s always watching. And if a given human being is sufficiently good and great – the cosmos will enjoy and remember him forever.
Still falling for the written word, despite America’s killjoys
The Little Free Library movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol built a miniature model schoolhouse, put it on a post in his front yard, filled it with books, and put up a sign stating, “Free Books.” It was a way to honor his mom — a former school teacher — and to share his love of reading with his neighborhood. The idea took off, and now there are thousands of Little Free Libraries.
The idea is simple. You put a small book box up on a post in your front yard, stock it with books, and people who are passing by on the way to the park, or the mailbox, or the ice cream store, or the coffee shop grab a book, read it, and return it later. Or maybe they keep it and replace it with one of their own. It’s a quiet way of building community and of sharing the pleasure of books with your neighbors. It’s simple. It’s something one person can do to make a difference.
So, naturally, people want to shut it down.
Shreveport, Louisiana, recently declared Little Free Libraries to be “commercial enterprises,” which cannot operate in residential zones. Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, told citizens that Little Free Libraries could only be put in backyards — which completely destroys the whole idea of offering books to casual passers-by. Leawood, Kansas, made a nine-year-old take down his Little Free Library until the town council managed to pass an emergency moratorium that allowed him to return it to his yard. As soon as the Little Free Libraries go up, it seems, some killjoy finds them annoying and wants them taken down.
I know a lot of words. I’m not sure I have any that are harsh enough for people who want to stop others from making it easy and pleasant and fun and free to bring a book into your life.
Maybe that’s because I remember almost nothing that happened before the day I learned to read. But I do remember the day I learned. I was 3 1/2. My brother had just started kindergarten and was learning how to read. In the grand tradition of annoying little sisters everywhere, I immediately insisted on doing the same. So my earliest clear memories are of sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor while Mom loaded the dishwasher and listened to me sound out Arnold Lobel’s Small Pig one slow and painstaking phoneme at a time.
The words were difficult. But I was stubborn, and Mom was patient.
Over the course of two weeks or so, I read the whole book. By myself.
Having figured out the general principle, I assumed I could read anything and everything. And so I did. I stayed up past midnight to finish the Wizard of Oz because I had to make sure that Dorothy got home okay. I sat on the sidelines at recess, reading. I walked into more than a few walls, reading. And the local library should probably have named a wing after me because I racked up so many late fees on books I just couldn’t bear to give back.
Miserable and lonely middle school years were leavened by friends in books and by fantasy novels about escapes to other worlds. Heartbreaks in high school were softened by Jane Austen’s wit and by the greater tragedies in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Well-thumbed, borrowed paperbacks of Interview with the Vampire and Forever Amber provided another kind of education. And college? And graduate school? Orgies of the written word.
I loved all of it. I still love all of it. From the most erudite and complex poetry to comic books and genre fiction to (when I’m really stuck) the text on the back of the cereal box, my first and best and longest-lasting romance has been with the written word.
It started with Small Pig. It started on the kitchen floor. I fell in love, and I have never stopped falling.
And because I am so smitten, I want everyone else to be. I write this column and post on Facebook and annoy my friends by evangelizing about my latest book obsessions because I want a world of people whose minds and lives and hearts are changed by reading. I want a world of people who have the chance to have the experience that Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz had when he read Orwell. Reading, he realized that if the jihadis with whom he was allied ever achieved their goals, “they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm.” I want a world of people who find books that overturn everything they think is true and that challenge them to become better.
I want a world of people who do what Yeon-mi Park did. After escaping North Korea, she “read and read and read, even when I didn’t know what I was reading.” She read Orwell, too, and found that “it made complete sense to me. I was still so angry and hateful at this time because of the way I’d been treated.” Reading Gandhi and Mandela, she says, taught her compassion to balance that anger.
And because I want that world — a world where we exchange books and ideas peacefully and productively — the people who began and spread the Little Free Library movement are some of my heroes.
So I thought I’d write them a love letter.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sarah Skwire is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
When a book has a lot to offer—meaty ideas, well-crafted language, a plot that sings, characters that move me—I want to take my time with it. I want to savour it and make it last. On the other hand, there are some books that I want to have read, but that I’m not really looking forward to reading. Also, there are just a lot of books out there, and only so many hours to devote to reading in a given day, year, or lifetime. What if I could savour the best and speed through the rest?
Thanks to a Boston-based start-up named Spritz, I should soon be able to do just that. The company has developed a text-streaming technology that apparently allows readers to increase their reading speeds dramatically without loss of comprehension or retention, and with no special training required. Normal reading is like walking, in that you do it at your own pace. In contrast, “spritzing” is like being on a treadmill, with words coming at you one at a time at a pre-determined (but adjustable) rate. It also takes advantage of what the company calls the “Optimal Recognition Point” in each word. That may sound a bit hokey, but a quick trip around the Spritz website, where you can test out the tech for yourself, should dispel your doubts.
One possible use is quickly finishing a book that started out promising but is proving somewhat disappointing. I hate to abandon a book, and I’ll only do so if it feels like a complete waste of time. But I would have been happy, for instance, to step on the gas about halfway through The Luminaries, which won both the Governor General’s Award and the Man Booker Prize last year. What began as an intriguing tale of murder and mystery set during the 1860s New Zealand gold rush, packed with lots of well-defined characters, was not ultimately very fulfilling, in my opinion. Satisfying endings are not terribly common, but in this case, I found myself caring less and less about the characters as the story dragged on. With a really good novel, the opposite happens.
If this technology pans out, I’ll have more time to spend with higher quality books, which is reason enough to be excited. But as the cost of reading (in terms of time) falls, simple economics suggests that most people will probably read more, which frankly would be great. Just think: A wiser, more knowledgeable, more empathetic world may be right around the corner.
“By the mean of a thing I mean what is equally distant from either extreme, which is one and the same for everyone; by the mean relative to us what is neither too much nor too little, and this is not the same for everyone. For instance, if ten are many and two few, we take the mean of the thing if we take six; since it exceeds and is exceeded by the same amount; this then is the mean according to arithmetic proportion. But we cannot arrive thus at the mean relative to us. Let ten lbs. of food be a large portion for someone and two lbs. a small portion; it does not follow that a trainer will prescribe six lbs., for maybe even this amount will be a large portion, or a small one, for the particular athlete who is to receive it…. In the same way then one with understanding in any matter avoids excess and deficiency, and searches out and chooses the mean — the mean, that is, not of the thing itself but relative to us.”
This is not medical advice, but rather a general synthesis of philosophical and common-sense lifestyle heuristics for those who are generally healthy and seek to stay that way for as long as possible. All of the ideas below are ones I endeavor to put into practice personally as part of my endeavor to survive long enough to benefit from humankind’s future attainment of longevity escape velocity and indefinite lifespans. As an educated layman, not a medical doctor, I accept contemporary “mainstream” medicine (i.e., evidence-based, scientific medicine) as the most reliable guidance for specific health matters that currently exists. I consider the discussion below to be sufficiently general and basic as to be consistent with common medical knowledge – though, in any particular person’s case, specific medical advice should prevail over anything to the contrary in this essay.
It is easier for humans to live by absolutes than by degrees. If a practice or pursuit is unambiguously harmful, it can readily be avoided. If it is unambiguously beneficial, then it can be pursued in any quantity permitted by one’s available time and other resources. The very fact of being alive is itself an unambiguous good, of which no amount is excessive. On the other hand, death of the individual is an unambiguous harm, as is any behavior that directly precipitates or hastens death due to harmful effects upon the human body.
But much of life is comprised of elements that are essential to human well-being in some quantity but could become harmful if pursued to excess. This is where Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” – of virtue as being neither a deficiency nor an excess of various necessary attributes – can be applied to the pursuit of health and longevity. Indeed, much of health consists of maintaining key bodily functions and metrics within favorable ranges of parameters. A healthy weight, healthy blood-sugar concentration, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy heart rate all exist as segments along spectra, bordered by other segments of deficiency and excess.
More is known today about what is harmful to longevity than what would extend it past today’s typical “old age”. For instance, smoking, consumption of most alcohol (apart, possibly, from modest quantities of red wine), and use of many recreational drugs are clearly known to increase mortality risk. As these habits provide no support for any essential life function while having the potential to cause great harm to health, it is best to eschew them altogether. Indeed, the mere avoidance of all tobacco use is statistically the single best way to increase one’s remaining life expectancy. Yet this is the easy part, as one can quite resolutely and immoderately reject all consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs with no harm to oneself and only benefits.
An Aristotelian “golden mean” approach is needed, on the other hand, for those elements which are indispensable to sustaining good health, but which can also damage health if indulged in imprudently and to excess. Aristotle recognized that the “golden mean” when it comes to individual behavior cannot be derived through a strict formula but is rather unique to each person. Still, its determination is based on objective attributes of physical reality and not on one’s wishes or on the path of least resistance. The realms of diet, exercise, and supplementation are of particular relevance to life extension. It would particularly benefit individuals who seek to extend their lives indefinitely to adopt “golden mean” heuristics in each of these realms, until medical science advances sufficiently to develop reliable techniques to reverse biological senescence and greatly increase maximum attainable lifespans.
Food is sustenance for the organism, and its absence or deficiency lead to starvation and malnutrition. Its excess, on the other hand, can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of associated ills. It is clear that a moderate amount of food is desirable – one that is enough to sustain all the vital functions of the organism without precipitating chronic diseases of excess. Contrary to common prejudice, it is not too difficult to gain a reasonably good idea of the quantity of food one should consume. For most people, this is the quantity that enables an individual to maintain weight in the healthy range of body-mass index (BMI). (There are exceptions to this for certain athletes of extraordinary muscularity, but not for the majority of people. Contrary to common objections, while it is true that BMI is not the sole consideration for healthy body mass, it is a reasonably good heuristic for most, including many who are likely to object to its use.)
The comparison of “calories in” versus “calories out” – even though it must often rely on approximation due to the difficulty of exactly measuring metabolic activity – is nevertheless quite dependable. It is scientifically established that consuming a surplus of 3,500 calories (over and above one’s metabolic expenditures) results in gaining one pound (0.45 kilograms) of mass, whereas running a deficit of 3,500 calories results in the loss of one pound.
Consuming a moderate amount of food (relative to one’s exercise level) to maintain a moderate amount of weight is one of the most obvious applications of the principle of the golden mean to diet. Yet it is also the composition of one’s food that should exhibit moderation in the form of diversification of ingredients and food types.
Principle 1: There are no inherently bad or inherently good foods, but some foods are safer in large amounts than others. (For instance, eating a bowl full of vegetables is safer than eating a bowl full of butter.) Furthermore, one’s diet should not be dominated by any one type of food or any one ingredient.
Principle 2: In order to maintain a caloric balance at a healthy weight, consideration of calorie density of foods is key for portion sizes. More calorie-dense foods should be consumed in smaller portions, while less calorie-dense foods could be consumed in larger portions, provided that there is adequate diversification among the less calorie-dense foods as well.
Here my approach differs immensely from any fad diet – from veganism to the paleo diet to anything in between that prescribes a list of mandatory “good” foods and forbidden “evil” foods and attempts to rule human lives through minute regimens of cleaving to the mandatory and eschewing the forbidden. I acknowledge that virtually any fad diet is superior to unrestrained gluttony or the unconscious, stress-induced lapses into unhealthy eating that plague many in the Western world today. This, indeed, is the reason for such diets’ popularity and the availability of “success stories” from among practitioners of any such diet: virtually any conscious control over food intake and concern over food quality is superior to sheer abandon. However, all fad diets are also pseudo-scientific. Contradictory evidence regarding the health effects of almost any type of food – from meat to bread to chocolate to salt and even large quantities of fruits and vegetables – emerges in both scientific and popular publications every week. While some approaches to diet are clearly superior to others (e.g., most diets would be superior to a candy-only diet or a diet consisting solely of peas, as in Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck), no fad diet can claim to reliably extend human lifespans beyond average life expectancies in the Western world today.
In the absence of clear, scientific evidence as to the unambiguous benefits or harms of any particular widely consumed food, diversification and moderation offer one the best hope of maximizing one’s expected longevity prior to the era of rejuvenation therapies. This is because of two key, interrelated effects:
Effect 1: If some food types indeed convey particularly important health benefits, then diversification helps ensure that one is gaining these benefits as a result of consuming at least some foods of those types.
Effect 2: If some foods or food types indeed result in harms to the organism – either due to the inherent properties of these foods or due to dangers introduced by the specific ways in which they are cultivated, delivered, or improperly preserved – then diversification helps reduce the organism’s exposure to such harms arising from any one particular food or food type, therefore lessening the likelihood that these harms will accumulate to a critical level.
Diversification, coupled with consideration of calorie density of foods, has the additional advantage of flexibility. If one encounters a situation where dietary choice is inconvenient, one might still enjoy the occasion and accommodate it through judicious portion sizing or adjustments to other meals either beforehand or afterward. One does not need to condemn oneself for having committed the dietary sin of eating an “unhealthy food” – as it is not the food itself that is unhealthy, but rather the frequency and amounts in which it is consumed. The Aristotelian “golden mean” heuristic also implies that there is no fault with pursuing food for the purpose of enjoyment or sensory pleasure – again, in moderation, as long as no detriment to health results.
A final note on diet is that the approach of moderation does not favor caloric restriction – i.e., reduction in calorie intake far below typical diets that suffice for maintaining a healthy body mass. Caloric restriction has shown remarkable effects in increasing lifespans in simple organisms – yeast, roundworms, and rodents – but has not demonstrated significant longevity benefits for humans, at least as suggested by presently available research. It is possible that the positive effects which caloric restriction confers upon simpler organisms are already reaped by humans and higher animals to a great extent, such that any added benefits to these organisms’ already far longer lifespans would be slight at best. A calorie-restricted diet is an excellent option for those seeking to lose weight or transition from a diet of gluttony and reckless abandon. It is also likely superior to “average” dietary habits today in terms of forestalling diet-related chronic diseases. However, there is no compelling evidence at present that a calorie-restricted diet is superior to a moderate, diversified diet that maintains a caloric balance. Furthermore, extreme calorie restriction would either require activity restriction (to conserve energy) or would involve descending into an underweight range, which is associated with its own health risks.
Exercise cannot be disentangled from considerations of dietary choice, since it is crucial to the expenditure side of the caloric equation (or inequality). It is, again, scientifically incontrovertible that regular exercise is superior to a sedentary lifestyle in enhancing virtually every metric of bodily health. On the other hand, moderation should be practiced in the degree of physical exertion at any given time, so as to prevent pushing one’s body to its breaking point – which will differ by individual. Exercising in such a manner that gradually pushes one’s sphere of abilities outward will help render the probability of reaching a breaking point – the failure of any bodily system – increasingly remote. For instance, gradually building up one’s running ability can eventually enable one to run an ultramarathon without adverse consequences. However, if an overweight and completely sedentary person were to attempt to run an ultramarathon without any prior running experience (and did not give up after a few miles), the results would be disastrous. Likewise, it is possible to lift large weights safely, but only if one begins with smaller weights and gradually works one’s way up.
For virtually all individuals in the Western world today, no harm can arise from the increase in the absolute amount of physical activity, as long as the exercise is performed in a safe environment and with safe form. Immoderate kinds of exercise would include extreme sports (those which entail a significant danger to life), any sports in extreme weather, or any exertion at the boundary of the current tolerance of one’s heart and other muscles. Most people, however, can easily find activities – ranging from simple walking to light lifting and body-weight exercises – that would pose no such risks and would unambiguously improve health.
Diversification in exercise, as with diet, is superior to exclusivist fad regimens. While any safe exercise is superior to none, it is completely unfounded to insist that only one particular type or genre of exercise is “good” while all the others are “bad”. The currently fashionable “no cardio” camp is a particularly glaring example of absurdity in this regard, eschewing some of the most effective ways possible for burning calories, maintaining cardiovascular and muscular health, and preventing diabetes and many types of cancer. But it would be similarly unreasonable to reject all weight lifting or all flexibility training due to some dogma regarding “ideal” kinds of exercise. It is best to perform a variety of exercises, each of which emphasize different facets of health. That being said, the exact mix would depend on the attributes and preferences of a given individual, and appropriate diversification could still involve a heavily emphasized preferred type of exercise, in addition to various auxiliary types that enable one to also improve in other areas.
Again, it is important to emphasize that, while regular exercise can improve one’s likelihood of surviving to current “old age”, it cannot, by itself, protect against the ravages of senescence beyond perhaps slightly deferring them. The best case for regular, moderate exercise is that it can raise one’s chances of surviving to an era when medical treatments that reverse biological senescence will become available and widespread.
Because exercise should be pursued with the intention of maximizing health and improving one’s likelihood of long-term survival, great care must be taken not to allow the competitive aspects of any exercise to overwhelm the health aspects. For instance, the taking of steroids and other “performance-enhancing” substances in order to set athletic records or beat one’s competitors is counterproductive to the maintenance of good health and is often worse than doing no exercise at all. Likewise, engaging in sports such as American football, rugby, boxing, or lacrosse, which involve a high degree of physical contact and therefore a great likelihood of injury, is counterproductive to the goal of health preservation.
Supplementation, or Lack Thereof
Overall, it is important for the human body to obtain adequate quantities of essential nutrients – such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids – in order for healthy function to be sustained. Because these nutrients are not automatically produced by the body in adequate amounts, they must be consumed from external sources. However, excessive amounts of many such nutrients can be toxic. Moreover, contemporary science has not discerned any regimen of extraordinary supplementation (over and above medically recommended daily values) to reliably result in longevity improvements for those who are already healthy. Worse yet, enough research exists to suggest that supplementation with vitamins and other common substances, significantly in excess of medically recommended daily values, could increase the risk of early death. Again, the evidence points to the desirability of a moderate intake of vitamins and other essential nutrients – but none of them becomes a panacea when consumed in doses significantly above the moderate ones found in foods routinely available to virtually everyone in the Western world. Mild vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not harmful and may be helpful if one’s diet indeed lacks some essential nutrients, but mega-doses of any substance should be approached with great caution.
Supplementation with drugs and hormones – absent the clear and medically determined need to treat a specific health problem – is even riskier for a healthy organism; the side effects could be great, and the benefits are dubious at present. No “magic pill” for life extension has yet been discovered, and rejuvenation therapies are decades away even if billions of dollars were poured into their research tomorrow. Even when they are necessary to treat an illness or injury, many commonly used prescription medicines can result in severe side effects, implying that they should be used with extreme caution and awareness of the risks, even when they are prescribed. The time has not yet arrived for individual self-medication with the aim of life extension. As the details of the human body’s metabolism and its effects on senescence are far from fully understood, there are no guarantees that introducing any particular substance into the immensely complex machinery of the human organism will not do more harm than good. Most people will be much safer by adopting the heuristic of not fixing that, which is not obviously broken, while avoiding harmful habits, obtaining regular medical checkups, and following the advice of evidence-based medical practitioners.
Someday, hopefully in our lifetimes, medical science might advance to the point where it might be possible to inexpensively develop a deeply personalized supplementation regimen for each individual – a more compact, precise, and targeted version of what Ray Kurzweil does today at the cost of immense time and effort. Until then, Aristotle’s golden mean is still the best heuristic to enable most of us to survive for as long as possible, which will hopefully be long enough for improvements in human knowledge and health-care delivery to usher in the era of longevity escape velocity.