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Three Books to Make 2021 a Much Better Year

Giving the Devil His Due, Transcend, and Awestruck offer wisdom for a new year.

Is it possible for a democratic country to pass a law that would give an Anti-Discrimination Board the power to pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions?

This isn't merely a thought experiment. In 1989, Australia passed the “Anti-Discrimination Act,” which did exactly that. The law even included a provision for damages, exposing reporters and publishers to fines of up to $40,000 for reporting deemed “unfair.”

Science historian and founder of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer calls the Australian law “Orwellian.” But of course, that is Australia, not the USA. We have the broadest freedom of speech anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves at a moment in which partisans on both the left and the right want to silence their opposition, believing that they alone can lay claim to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted precept: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but no one is entitled to their own facts.” And now each side also claims to be defenders of science. Those on the left point to climate change. Those on the right point to human biology.

In his book, Giving the Devil His Due, Shermer argues that the scientific method is an indispensable path to knowledge and accessing the truth about our world. Academia, then, is where we should expect a commitment to truth-seeking. After all, the “telos” (the purpose) of a university is — or at least should be — the discovery and dissemination of truth and knowledge.

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in their New York Times bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind, this is why some version of those words appear on so many university crests. Veritas (truth), for example, appears on Harvard’s crest. Yale’s contains Lux et Veritas (light and truth). The University of Chicago’s crest, translated from Latin, reads “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

But academics, writes Shermer, can tend to “see themselves as Philosopher Kings who know what is best for the masses, whom they believe are incapable of thinking as deeply as themselves. This elitist arrogance goes a long way to explaining the recent and disturbing trend on college campuses to censor unwanted speech and thought.”

Couple this with the fundamental need to belong, and we find ourselves in a world in which those who are censorious — and vindictive — are empowered. Censorship now appears not just on campus, but in journalism, entertainment, technology, and other businesses and non-profits. To belong and be accepted, too often, we fail to reject others' censorship, and we even choose to censor ourselves.

We are genetically predisposed to belong to a tribe. “While there is a yearning to be part of a larger political or religious ideology,” says humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “the realization of this yearning is often built on hate and hostility for the ‘other,’ rather than on pride and deep commitment for a cause that can better humanity.” We need to widen our circle of perspectives not only to thrive in a pluralist society but to truly understand ourselves.

A well-developed self, Kaufman maintains, in his book, Transcend, is constantly moving toward “freedom, responsibility, self-awareness, meaning, commitment, personal growth, maturity, integration, and change.” And one of the sources of well-being for a healthy personality is transcendence.

In his book, Awestruck, clinical psychologist Jonah Paquette explains how the transcendence we experience through moments of awe can make us happier. These experiences have the power to “boost our mood, improve our work performance, reduce the stress response in our body, and even decrease cellular inflammation.” And moments of awe can also help us feel more connected to other people, even leading us to act with greater kindness toward others. It creates greater empathic awareness and accuracy and promotes prosocial behavior. Awe, as it turns out, is a social emotion that can encourage us to act with more generosity and compassion.

While we’re living through a global pandemic, recurring lockdowns, economic insecurity, and a politically polarized climate, we could all use more generosity and compassion.

But how can we capture moments of awe? Paquette suggests creating an “awe portfolio.” Be your own awe curator. Collect images, objects, and other reminders of your experiences of awe. Keeping a journal of your favorite awe-inspiring memories is one option. Or hang pictures of those moments on your wall. If you have objects that remind you of those moments, put them in places of honor, where you will see them frequently. Or pull together videos, songs, movies, photographs, and other digital images. As you experience new moments of awe, he suggests, “find a way to add those to your portfolio or playlist as well. Try to devote some time each week, even for just a few moments, to relive and replay some of those moments and memories.”

As a difficult year comes to a close, these three books offer essential wisdom: That “freedom of speech has been one of the driving forces behind moral progress through science and reason because it enables the search for truth” (Michael Shermer, Giving the Devil his Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist). That “there is nothing sacred or unalterable about being a certain way; with enough adjustments to these patterns over time, we literally change our being” (Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization). And that “In an age of loneliness that borders on being an epidemic, awe can help us feel more connected with other people and with the world” (Jonah Paquette, Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected). ♦

Cambridge University Press/TarcherPerigee/Shambhala / Fair Use
Source: Cambridge University Press/TarcherPerigee/Shambhala / Fair Use

Pamela Paresky, PhD, is Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and the author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness. Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of any organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky

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