- Christopher Strain
2020 Florida Collegiate Honors Council Keynote Address
“In the Flo: Finding Light in the New Dark Ages,”
presented at "SoFloMind: Reclaiming Hope and Change,"
2020 Florida Collegiate Honors Council (FCHC) Annual Conference
Embassy Suites, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, February 7, 2020.
Thank you for the invitation to be here tonight with you in Palm Beach Gardens at the 2020 FCHC Annual Conference. I am thrilled and honored to speak before you.
I’d like to begin with the movie Idiocracy. This 2006 dystopian sci-fi comedy imagines a systematic dumbing down of the United States, an American futurescape governed by morons. The painfully average protagonist, played by Luke Wilson, time travels forward to a moment when he, in all his normality, is the most brilliant person alive. Directed by Mike Judge—creator of Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, and Office Space, among other comedy classics—the film depicts a society devoid of learning, intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and basic notions of human rights: a world in which people, named after corporate products, barely speak their native English tongue and irrigate crops with Gatorade rather than water. In Judge’s hellscape, anti-intellectualism and crass commercialism are the norm. Set five hundred years in the future, Idiocracy is a sharp satire of a future too stupid to be possible.
Fast forward ten years to 2016, when Time magazine staff writer Joel Stein contacted Mike Judge on the 10th anniversary of his film to ask him about Idiocracy’s predictions of the future. “I’m no prophet,” Judge said. “I was off by 490 years.” Even he is shocked at how eerily similar the world has become to the one his movie satirized. Indeed, today it sometimes seems like the racists and sexists and halfwits and self-deluding idiots have won, that the very worst people are running the show.
How can it be so? Are we witnessing the triumph of willful ignorance at the very moment that top scientists at Scripps and Max Planck and FAU are pioneering advances in areas of formerly insurmountable medical need, including cancer, muscular dystrophy, ALS, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and addiction? This paradox of having access to more information than ever before but knowing less is the subject of Michael Patrick Lynch’s book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. Lynch, director of the Humanities Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, distinguishes between deep knowledge and what he calls “Google-knowing”—a fast, easy, yet superficial kind of understanding facilitated by quick online searches, which we conflate with research. We are awash in this surface-level knowledge which is rather quickly transforming us into “digital humans,” life forms that exist in an information atmosphere, or “infosphere,” that we do not fully understand or even recognize. “What if our digital form of life has already exposed ‘reason’ as a naïve philosopher’s fantasy?” he asks. “What if we no longer recognize the same rules of reason?” Civil societies “need a common currency to exchange reasons,” Lynch cautions, and if we don’t agree on what counts as evidence, then “game over”—we are no longer playing by the same rules. Our epistemic principles are unaligned.
Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and adjunct professor at Harvard, offers a different take on the same phenomenon in his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Nichols cites media saturation, the Internet (which “encourages the illusion that we are all equally competent”), confirmation bias, the narcissism of votes, and “a childish rejection of authority in all its forms” in explaining how 21st-century American life (which he calls “a hockey game with no referees and a standing invitation to rush onto the ice”) undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. In surveying the political landscape, Nichols describes the Dunning-Kruger Effect: a kind of cognitive bias coined in 1999 by two Cornell psychologists in which people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence, assessing their intellectual ability as greater than it is. Such folks lack what Nichols calls “metacognition,” or “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” He uses the example of singers in a chorus: good ones know when they’ve hit a wrong note, whereas bad ones don’t, continuing to sing as everyone else winces. “The lack of metacognition sets up a vicious loop, in which people who don’t know much about a subject do not know when they’re in over their head talking with an expert on that subject,” Nichols notes. An argument ensues--one that rational individuals seem pre-destined to lose because reason cannot defend itself without resort to reason, and because those on the other side, having no idea how to make a logical argument, cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument. “People are no longer merely uninformed,” Nichols argues, “but aggressively wrong and unwilling to learn.”
One need look no further than our own Florida Man to see that the inmates are running the asylum. The phrase “Florida Man” is a generic descriptor for a person who commits bizarre or idiotic crimes, popularly associated with—and often reported in—Florida; it was formalized in 2013 as what the Columbia Journalism Review calls “one of journalism’s darkest and most lucrative cottage industries” by a Twitter account that now has nearly half a million followers. You’ve seen the headlines: “Florida Man Threatens to Destroy Everyone with Army of Turtles”; “Florida Man on Meth Attacks Mattress”; “Florida Man Wearing ‘I Have Drugs’ T-Shirt Arrested for Possession of Drugs”; “Florida Man Charged with Assault with a Deadly Weapon After Throwing Alligator Through Wendy’s Drive-Thru Window”; “Florida Man Breaks Into Jail to Hang Out With Friends”; and “Florida Man Arrested for Eating Pancakes in Middle of Busy Intersection” (which, I’ll be honest, I did not know was against the law). The hijinks of Florida Man have made our state a national punchline, much like the 2000 election did, when local residents here in Palm Beach County couldn’t seem to figure out how to perforate a simple ballot.
But for every Florida Man, there is an Anti-Florida Man—a Florida Woman, perhaps—smarter and wiser than her asinine counterpart; for every crazy antic, there is an unsung heroic deed. I would like to suggest that our state is greater than the sum of Florida Man’s parts. In Florida, and particularly here in South Florida, we are used to being on the forefront of national trends, issues, and concerns--the good, the bad, and the ugly--and we are used to grabbing headlines. Whether by the watery streets of Miami during the king tide or by the increasing frequency of major hurricanes (there is no other kind), we are often reminded locally of the effects of climate change and global warning. We intimately know the crisis of gun violence through the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and other mass shootings. We know the divisiveness of electoral politics through the pivotal role of this county in the outcome of every election since 2000. And I like to think that these challenges and crises have forged a certain fortitude in us Floridians. Our experiences as Floridians inform a unique point of view, what we might call “SoFloMind.” Anti-Florida Man possesses this SoFloMind: part Ernest Hemingway, part Zora Neale Hurston, part Thomas Edison, part Jimmy Buffett, and part Harriet Beecher Stowe (who lived out her days on the St. Johns River in Duval County near Jacksonville).
Let me try to explain. On November 20, I had the pleasure of hosting Mohit Mukherjee in the social entrepreneurship course that I teach with Dr. Timothy Steigenga, a political scientist and interim dean of the Wilkes Honors College at FAU. Mr. Mukherjee, a Jupiter-based social entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Executive Education at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, talked about the importance of positive psychology amongst the changemakers of the world. One of the concepts he discussed was achieving a kind of mindfulness that distills purpose, clarifies intent, and concentrates energy. Consider challenge and skill when tackling a task: too much challenge with too little skill creates anxiety; too much skill with too little challenge creates boredom. We are looking for that sweet spot, that balance of challenge and skill that occupational therapists encourage. You may know it as “being in the zone,” that feeling of energized focus, total involvement, and enjoyment while being fully involved in an activity. Termed flow by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Mee-hye Cheek-sent-mee-hye) in 1975, this hyperfocused feeling is defined by concentration, relaxation, and being wholly in the moment. Finding flow in our personal and professional lives is a key to a happy and productive existence. “A peaceful mind can be a fearsome mind,” notes Robert Wright, publisher of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter.
So what can we do cultivate peaceful, fearsome minds in anxious times? What can we, as thinkers and scholars, do not only to survive but also to thrive in the New Dark Ages? How can we find our flow? Here are my eight recommendations for reclaiming hope, envisioning pathways for meaningful change, and keeping a SoFlo state of mind:
1) Be grateful. Fill your heart with gratitude, if for no other reason than it’s good for you. To give thanks is to acknowledge the goodness in your life. In the process, people often recognize that the source of that goodness lies partially outside themselves; therefore, gratitude helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, to nature, or to a higher power. In psych research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
2) Feel what you feel. This is a talk—at least in part—about the power of positive psychology, but I’m not going to tell you to stay positive. Instead, I’m going to tell you to feel what you feel. You have been bestowed with a whole range of emotions--running the gamut from joy to anger to sadness--and it’s OK to feel them all. As clinical psychologist Dr. Mara Karpel has pointed out, we cannot pick and choose which emotions to numb and which ones to feel: it’s all or nothing. If we try to numb ourselves to pain, then we will not be able to feel pleasure; if we grasp at happiness it will surely elude us. Embrace all of your emotions as they come to you.
3) Read books that speak to our times. Even the greatest works of dystopian fiction—George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents—are not books about hopelessness and despair. They are cautionary tales, but as Unitarian minister Carl Greggs has noted they also expose paths of resistance and resilience.
4) Know that it’s OK to change your mind when presented with new information. Changing your mind is not a sign of being fickle or capricious or wishy-washy or unstable. It is in fact the only indicator that your brain is working as intended. You’ve heard the cliché that minds are like parachutes: they only work when they’re open. If you think that you have all the answers, you are wrong--you don’t. Enter dialogue with people you presume to be wrong and let them try to convince you otherwise; talk to people with other points of view and listen to them. You will be a better thinker and a better person and a better citizen for it. As former Vice President Al Gore notes in his award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, “it’s not what we don’t know that harms us—it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
5) Insist on the truth. The truth is not dead. It still matters—in fact, it may be the only thing that matters, and it’s important to maintain its integrity. We are not living in a “post-truth” era… truth-challenged, yes, perhaps, but the Age of Reason and Enlightenment is not wholly behind us. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, “post-truth is pre-fascism.” In your studies, in your readings, in your research, in your learning in college and beyond, pursue the truth doggedly and relentlessly. In the Latin, sapere aude—dare to know.
6) Organize. Find like-minded folks and band together. In unity lies strength.
7) Act as if the world is changeable. Guess what? It is—and you can change it. Don’t wring your hands and bemoan The State of Affairs. Whether you’re elated or apprehensive, whether you’re fulfilled or gloomy—none of it matters in relation to the work that needs to be done. What matters is the doing. Avoid the paralysis of analysis. Roll up your sleeves and get busy.
8) Be persistent. Remember the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If I were feeling punchy, then I might have included two more recommendations:
9) Drink. IF, of course, you are of legal drinking age. Because a sip of wine on occasion can soften the horrors of the daily news, self-care is important, and there’s some really good craft beers out there these days.
10) Don’t be a twerp. In other words, be kind; don’t act as if you’re the only person in the world. Get out of your own head. Think of others, not yourself. As pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz has noted, every one of us is experiencing trauma, anxiety, or grief of some sort:
"Everyone around you; the people you share the grocery store line with, pass in traffic, sit next to at work, encounter on social media, and see across the kitchen table—they’re all experiencing the collateral damage of living. They are all grieving someone, missing someone, worried about someone. Their marriages are crumbling or their mortgage payment is late or they’re waiting on their child’s test results… Everyone is grieving and worried and fearful, and yet none of them wear the signs, none of them have labels, and none of them come with written warnings reading, I’M STRUGGLING. BE KIND TO ME. And since they don’t, it’s up to you and me to look more closely and more deeply at everyone around us: at work or at the gas station or in the produce section, and to never assume they aren’t all just hanging by a thread. Because most people are hanging by a thread—and our simple kindness can be that thread."
So go easy. As C. S. Lewis said, ““The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough.”
But I’m not feeling punchy, and so I’ll stop at eight. Thank you so much for your time and attention. I leave you with a story, a parable:
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was tossing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the old man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy replied, “I’m saving these starfish.”
The old man chuckled and said, “Boy, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy bent down, picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water, turned to the old man, and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
I wish you luck in cultivating your SoFloMind. Good night—and have a great conference.