Where did we go wrong? A mid-mortem on America

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.

When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.

In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?

Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:

  1. We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
  2. Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
  3. Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.

There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.

Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”

Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.

Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:

Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.

Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.

Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.

To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.

Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”

That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.

Solving America’s problems will take a new kind of bravery

Lately as I’ve watched protests against racism and police brutality spread across the U.S., a bit from one of my favorite songs has been ringing through my head:

I contemplate

Believin’ in karma

If those on top could just break

We’d be eatin’ tomorra’

That’s from rapper Nas’s 2001 track, What goes around, which takes the listener across a landscape of injustice, hearbreak and despair: the drug dealer who meets his violent end, the poor who are preyed upon by fast food and beverage companies, the white suburban teenager trying in vain to meet the impossible standards of female beauty, the deadbeat dad who’s ultimately rejected by his adult children, and on and on. The message that ominously rings throughout this collection of vignettes is stated bluntly in the song’s final stanza: “What goes around comes around.”

This song probably doesn’t make anyone’s top ten list for an artist who is, arguably, his genre’s greatest-ever lyricist. Yet I have always found it irresistibly electric.

The problem with it is that its ultimate conclusion is wrong.

Embedded in the song, and in many other forms of art, is the notion that justice comes simply from the vanquishing of those who perpetrate injustice. If only those who are good could triumph over those who are evil, then justice would be restored. This message is as ancient as the Bible and as ubiquitious today as Star Wars. I think its ubiquitousness in art is due to the fact that it is easy to understand and even easier on our egos. With each of us believing that we are in the “good” category, it demands no difficult internal struggle, no uncomfortable self-reflection. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of comfort in knowing that no change in our own character and behavior is necessary. The responsibility for all change and effort is external.

The tendency to put everything in such simplistic, Manichaen terms removes the need for critical thought, and boils complex human problems down into more comfortable, self-aggrandizing one-line assertions.

Racism exists; we must stand up to the racists.

Environmental degradation is rampant; we must confront the fossil fuel companies.

Police abuse keeps happening; we must protest the police.

Women are debased and disrespected; we must shame those who are guilty of doing so.

And on and on.

The reality is that most forms of injustice are not simply solved by defeating the right people, no matter how convenient that is to believe. These problems arise from enormous systems of interactions that involve millions or billions of people; those we see as the perpetrators are often the figureheads of those problems, but not their architects.

It will take a special kind of bravery to admit that we — all of us — are in fact the architects.

The issue of police brutality in America against blacks and other ethnic minorities, which is the subject of recent protests across the U.S., is itself far more complex than we would like to admit. Among the societal problems upon which this horrifying reality rests are, in no particular order:

1) An adversarial system of negotiation between unions and employers, with the former seeing oversight and exposure to discipline as a chip at the bargaining table.

2) The seemingly perpetual under-funding of state and local governments, which among other things means police departments must hire from pools of less educated applicants.

3) The ghettoization of whole portions of American society into poorer, higher-crime areas, meaning the residents of those areas have far more interactions with police, with each interaction carrying with it the chance for a deadly mistake.

4) A private prison system which incentivizes over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-incarcerating, with ripple effects throughout communities and across generations.

5) A level of income inequality that is at its worst in a century, including a stagnancy in wages for the poor and middle class which exacerbates social problems such as addiction, depression, and stress among people of all backgrounds.

Regardless of what we tell ourselves, none of these problems can be eradicated by shouting louder and protesting harder. They require nuanced thinking, reasoned debate, and good faith collaboration.

The very effort to confront such problems with force and competition against some “other”, in fact, risks making them worse. We raise our voices louder, while those on the other side retreat to their ideological bunkers, with each of us entrenching ourselves deeper in our comfort zones. Occasionally we succeed in defeating our enemies, giving us a fleeting sense of accomplishment and a paper-thin veneer of justice. We feel like we’ve accomplished something, and we relax until the next crisis. Yet the systems remain intact, like gnarled roots under the soil.

As I’ve written before, there must be an alternative to this competition-based, power-obsessed, us-versus-them approach to problem solving. We Americans are thankfully waking up to longstanding injustices, but our own sense of self-righteousness limits us only to the easiest of responses. Few are ready to sit down and talk; even fewer are ready to listen. Narcissism is rife, and someone else is always to blame. Principles like love, unity, understanding, peace, forgiveness, brotherhood, spirituality — which had their rightful place in the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s — are now seen as quaint and naive. My greatest fear as an American is that after yet another generation’s worth of protesting, shouting, and demanding, our ultimate despair will be the realization that we’re right back where we started.

Don’t believe in God? You should still think about becoming a Baha’i.

milky-way-1023340_960_720Much of what I’ve written on this blog of late hasn’t been directly connected to the Baha’i Faith and issues of spirituality. Well, this post is going to be an exception.

This post is, first and foremost, for people who consider themselves agnostics and atheists. If you consider yourself in that broad category, please keep reading.

I am going to make this as direct and straightforward as possible: I think more people with ambiguous or even skeptical feelings towards the existence of God should think about becoming Baha’is.

How could this possibly be, given that a bedrock principle of the Baha’i Faith is that God exists? It’s because, as I have written about before, the concept of God in Baha’i doctrine is purposefully mysterious. God is described as ultimately “unknowable”, even as we are encouraged to cultivate our own sense of spirituality, and to “know and love” our Creator.

The best way I could think to articulate this is through a dialogue between two people. So, if you will indulge me, here is an entirely fictional discussion between “Jack”, a once-agnostic person who came to call himself a Baha’i, and this blog.

Note that Jack is not a real person, but much of what you’ll read below is inspired by numerous individuals I’ve met over the years who became Baha’is, some of whom had some measure of spiritual inclination and belief before they found the Baha’i Faith, and others who were pure atheists. I tried to capture the spirit of some of those conversations in the rest of this post. Note also that though Jack is depicted as someone with a Christian background (I had to pick something), the spirit of the conversation I hope applies to people of all backgrounds.

Enjoy. Continue reading

Break the idols

Today marks 200 years since the birth of the Báb in 1819, an occasion that Bahá’ís are celebrating around the world.

A video was commissioned for the occasion, which I had a chance to watch last weekend (you can watch it here). The most striking part of that video for me? The words below, from a poem by Tahirih, the great heroine of the Báb’s faith and one of the titanic women of Middle Eastern history. The full poem, entitled “Look up!” is as follows:

No ranting shaykh rules from his pulpit throne 

No mosque hawks holiness it does not know

No sham, no pious fraud, no priest commands! 

The turban’s knot cut to its root below!

No more conjurations! No spells! No ghosts! 

Good riddance! We are done with folly’s show!

The search for Truth shall drive out ignorance 

Equality shall strike the despots low

Let warring ways be banished from the world 

Let Justice everywhere its carpet throw

May Friendship ancient hatreds reconcile

May love grow from the seed of love we sow

Tahirih, known around the world also as Qurrat’ul’ayn and Zarrin-Taj, was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the Bab’s life and mission. She was an unapologetic iconoclast, and in discovering the Báb’s message I can only imagine the exhilaration she felt, like finding a long-lost home where you finally felt like you belonged, and which in your heart you always knew existed.

In times gone by, iconoclasts broke physical idols, the meaningless distractions and symbols of arbitrary power. Today we are tasked with breaking other idols, though this time instead of physical totems they are rigid dogmas, destructive prejudices, and stale institutions.

Which idols are we to break in our own lives? I hope you let the spirit of the Báb and the poetic words of Tahirih be your guide.

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves that the concept of “race” is mostly nonsense

faces-2679755_960_720Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.

In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.

As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.

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My local food truck trusts me with their money. Why?

A while back I wrote a post called “This nation is built on trust and self-service fountain beverages”, which was about how casual dining chains often trust you not to steal their drinks. It has always been amazing to me that these places trust me with an empty cup that they’ve given to me for free to actually fill it up with water rather than Orange Fanta.

A taco truck near my office had me thinking about this concept lately. It’s cash only, and I ordered three tacos for $9. After I collected my food and was about to hand the guy at the window a $20 bill, he quickly pointed to an open cash register and asked me to take the change myself. I’d never seen that before, and I thought it was awesome.

Why would a business do this? Aren’t they afraid of someone not paying the right amount, or worse yet, taking money out of the register rather than putting money in? The clear calculation that a business like this makes is that whatever they lose in customers cheating them, it’s worth it not to have to slow down the whole assembly line by taking off the latex gloves, handling the cash transaction, and putting them back on.

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What have we learned since the Cold War? Not much, apparently.

Above: Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone as eternal enemies in Creed II. Below: real-life competitors-turned-friends Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.

I finally watched the movie Creed II, which I had looked forward to for a while, since it’s essentially a sequel to the iconic Rocky IV of my childhood. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, let me summarize: in Rocky IV, the American boxer Rocky Balboa fights the Russian Ivan Drago during the Cold War. In Creed II, Rocky and Drago as old men serve as mentors to younger versions of themselves — in Rocky’s case, the son of his deceased friend and former competitor; in Drago’s case, his own son.

I saw Rocky IV as a kid but didn’t fully appreciate it until I got older. Why? Because the film, made in 1985, became a testament to American hysteria over the supposed Soviet menace that was prevalent before the USSR collapsed. The Russians are depicted in the film as technologically advanced and frighteningly efficient; the Americans, on the other hand, are poorly equipped and developmentally behind, but in the end triumph with sheer will and grit. A montage from the film is now famous for its ridiculousness: a svelte, clean-cut Drago trains in a gleaming facility complete with electronic gadgets and scores of lab coat-clad observers, while a bearded, woolen-looking Rocky pulls logs through the snow in what appears to be the Siberian wilderness. This seven-minute segment alone deserves to have a place in the syllabuses of college students seeking to understand the perverse psychology of the Cold War.

Of course, after the Cold War ended and Westerners got to look under the hood of the Soviet Empire, they realized they had it backwards. Yes, the Soviets had indeed managed to put a satellite in space and a man in earth’s orbit before the Americans. And just like the Americans, they had built enough nuclear weapons to kill all human life on earth many times over (impressive!). Of course, as the Iron Curtain was pushed aside, the world realized it was the Soviets who were struggling to keep up, not the other way around.

How does one follow up a film like Rocky IV, which so perfectly captured the erroneous thinking of the age? How do you make a sequel to a film that missed the truth so badly, its enduring legacy is as a farcical monument to national self-delusion? Apparently, by pretending that nothing happened.

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When a friend becomes a political prisoner

A friend of mine from graduate school, Peter Biar (whom I know as Peter Ajak), was detained several months ago in his native South Sudan. A few weeks ago he was finally charged with “sabotage, insurgency and possession of weapons for allegedly staging an uprising”. The charges carry the potential penalty of death, if convicted.

I do not want to venture into the details of Peter’s case, other than to express how farcical the charges are. Based on what I have gathered in the news, Peter’s true offense was to criticize the national government via Twitter, and call for a new generation of South Sudanese to lead that country’s ongoing peace process. Otherwise I do not understand the rationale for his imprisonment.

Perhaps if you’re from a country that lacks a strong rule of law and independent courts, this sort of thing isn’t so shocking. In much of the world criminal charges are fully disconnected from truth; they exist only as levers of political power and influence, with no consideration for actual matters of innocence or guilt. Even I, born and raised in the US, am not so naive. After all, I’m used to reading the constant reports of Bahá’is in Iran being summarily harassed, detained, and imprisoned under phony pretenses such as “spying for Israel” or “spreading of corruption”.

As I have learned, however, when it’s your friend this sort of thing takes on new significance. I must admit, the prevailing feeling is one of powerlessness. Peter has a legal defense fund, and the governments of the US and UK, as well as various international organizations such as Amnesty International, are lobbying for his release. I do not pretend to know much about his case, but I suspect that a lack of funding or awareness is not the reason he is still being denied his freedom. Larger political dynamics are at play.

If that’s the case, what can we do? The worst thing, I would say, is to let the feeling of alarm and concern simply pass. We should not waste those feelings. There are many prisoners of conscience in the world, and our time, money, and effort may make a difference to somebody, even if that somebody isn’t the one we care about most. Meanwhile, no matter where we live, we can do something in our local communities — or even our own families — that can make an impact. The point is to express one’s sense of goodwill, justice, and concern for the wellbeing for others, whoever they are. Perhaps, then, that feeling of powerless can — at least in some small measure — be dissolved.

I’d encourage any and all who are reading this to familiarize themselves with Peter’s case and get involved. And if you don’t think you’re likely to make a difference here, make sure to go out and find another place where you can.

Free Peter Biar

Amnesty international — get involved

Do all those mixed-race couples on TV count for anything?

Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.

The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.

But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.

I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.

mixed_race_ads_collage

Screenshots from the websites of American Airlines (above) and Amazon (below).

There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.

To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.

The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.

Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.

Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.