In society, we tend to think about ethics in the sense of The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you wish they would treat you. Most people try to live up to this standard in their personal relationships. Yet, few think about it in their online world. We need more discussion about basic kindness and to develop a code of conduct for online activities just as we do in the workplace.
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Steven Mintz. Dr. Mintz author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, has frequently commented on ethical issues in society and business ethics. His Workplace Ethics Advice blog has been recognized as one of the top 30 in corporate social responsibility, and one of the top blogs for HR professionals in business ethics. He also has served as an expert witness on ethics matters. Dr. Mintz spent almost 40 years of his life in academia. He has held positions as a chair in Accounting at San Francisco State University and Texas State University. He was the Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Cal State University, San Bernardino. He recently retired as a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was not a good student in my K-12 years. My parents were frequently called to meet with the principal to discuss my behavior. I had no motivation to work hard in school. All I cared about was sports, and I was good at it. Somehow, I got into college and then things started to change academically. I’ve always thought it was because my older brother went through a similar experience and he started to shine in college. I was competitive and channeled my energies into getting good grades. I landed on the Dean’s List, went on to earn an MBA degree, and after a two-year career in public accounting, I decided teaching was for me. My goal at this point in my life was to interact with young people, share my knowledge, and help mold them into the best individuals they could be. After earning a doctoral degree, I began my 38-year career in teaching.
The moral of the story is you can be a troubled kid and still turn things around. The key is hard work and dedication to one’s craft.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have always been drawn to bettering myself whether in sports or academe. I asked a mentor of mine whether he could recommend a book to read on self-improvement. He was a baseball player and, like me, grew up in Brooklyn so I expected him to recommend something like The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. Instead, he suggested The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. This changed my life. The Dalai Lama says: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion.” I think of myself as a good person — kind, compassionate, and empathetic. The idea of accepting people you know and care about unconditionally and supporting them in time of need became my personal mantra and informed my later life as a published author. It’s an interesting story because of where I was as a youngster and how I made the journey to being a published author.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first college class I taught at thirty years old was an eye-opener. Most of my students were only eight years younger. I shared too much personal information. A female student, who was either drawn to me or a comic — or both –asked if I was married. After hemming and hawing I said: “not yet.” That got a laugh. I learned a valuable lesson, which is not to share too much information with students.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I just finished writing my first book for a commercial audience: Beyond Happiness and Meaning:
Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. The book is inspired by the stories of the Dalai Lama and theme of compassion. Being a compassionate person can bring happiness and greater meaning to life because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves. Being an ethical person helps to build self-esteem.
Everyone can use the information in my book to improve personal relationships, strengthen workplace interactions, and having a more pleasant experience on social media.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
I write three blogs on ethics under the pseudonym “Ethics Sage.” I wrote one blog on bipolar disorder. I had read an article about it and was moved to share what I had learned. The problem was bipolar is not a binary condition. One reader took me to task for overly simplifying the disease. The comment was made public.
Others wrote in saying the same thing. I felt badly given the number of people who suffer from being bipolar.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
I apologized in my next blog and revised it to include more accurate descriptions. It was embarrassing because I was trained as a researcher yet did a poor job of researching the disorder.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
Yes. But it was a long time ago. I’ve learned the lesson to think before I speak.
Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?
When I first started blogging and creating a social media persona, sometimes I would publish a piece just to get it out there without thinking about the consequences of what I was about to say. Some of the comments I received on my blogs were personal and over-the-top. In one case, a critic stated that my thoughts were not worthy of being on the internet, somewhat ironic to say the least. Anyway, I responded abruptly and said offensive things about the critic. I realized afterwards that I was playing into the commentator’s hands. The key for me now is to write the comment, email it to myself, read it once more the next day, and then decide whether any language should be changed before posting it.
When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
The feelings are as varied as are the comments. Given that the goal of harsh comments can be to embarrass someone or make them feel bad about themselves, it will, most likely, make the recipient angry. They may want to lash out on social media in revenge. Before you know it the tone of the conversation goes from insulting to abusive. I always say we need to learn how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. The anonymity of the internet makes it easy to make harsh comments, the kind that might be more difficult to make in person.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
That’s hard to say. Given that many people live their lives on social media, being the recipient of verbal attacks online can be crushing because so many people will read it and it can be out there forever. It can do real harm to one’s self-esteem. Harsh comments in person take a different toll. They may be hurtful but others don’t know about it. Our feelings will be hurt but the hurt goes away, in most cases, in a day or two. My dad used to say: “this too shall pass.”
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
On the one hand, the recipient may be humiliated by the shaming and fearful that others will see the comments and treat them differently, ratcheting up the disgrace. Taken to an extreme, the shaming may transform into cyberbullying, especially of young adults, when the words said take the form of intimidations or threats. Cyberbullying can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
1. Lobby schools to teach youngsters at the earliest ages about social media ethics and to encourage responsible behavior including the need for respect, tolerance, and civility in online activities.
-Example: Teachers should surf the internet and social media for topics that have an ethical dimension to it and use those stories as a teachable moment. The best way to promote right versus wrong is through an example. It could be an example of positive behavior or why an act was wrong. We learn from others and nothing could be more useful than using internet behavior to make a point and encourage civility.
2. Champion the cause of responsible behavior on the internet by teaching parents and kids, through social media posts (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), how to identify bullying and other harassing behavior, develop safe responses online, and instill a feeling in kids that they matter.
-Example: Common Sense media is a great resource for parents and kids to help navigate the sometimes choppy waters online. It rates movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment to serve as a guide to promoting the kinds of behavior that can lead to a kinder and more tolerant social media and the internet.
3. Start a blog to share ideas how to make the internet a safer place by emulating random acts of kindness, paying it forward, and showing gratitude towards others.
-Example: My Ethics Sage blog is devoted to making society a better place and improving the lives of others. Some of the random acts discussed include: to cook a meal for a neighbor whose spouse is in the hospital; offer to take a new employee out to lunch on their first day; and stop on the freeway when you see an accident to help and provide comfort to the victims.
4. Start a You Tube channel to produce and distribute video content and connect with people of a like mind.
-Example: There are many You Tube channels but few deal exclusively with civility and ethics. Surveys show that over 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every day. You Tube is replacing pay-TV service because most people prefer online video platforms to live TV. There is no better platform to spread the word about kindness in our online lives than through YouTube videos.
5. Use “Giving Tuesday” (December 3, 2019) to encourage online activities that promote worthy causes, give awareness about the needy, and encourage people to give to charities.
-Example: Giving Tuesday started in the U.S. in 2012 as a way for people around the world to gather through technology and social media and give back to causes and issues of concern in their communities. The underlying value of the program is generosity. Spreading this message on the internet and social media creates empathy for those less fortunate and a platform to be good by doing good.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
The right to free speech is guaranteed in our Constitution. However, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and others can limit, control, and censor speech. Federal law does not offer much recourse for social media users who object to whether and how these companies present a user’s content. It can be widely or narrowly restricted as the organization decides and they can set whatever guidelines make sense to them. For example, Twitter prohibits statements that promote violence against others or threaten them based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. They also don’t allow accounts whose primary purpose is to incite harm to others.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
I’d like to see some restrictions on sites that allow posting videos by terrorist groups that may have had their pages taken down because they have been designated a terror group by the U.S. government. Supporters post images and videos to get around the rules. Given the excessive gun violence in the U.S., such as the recent attack in El Paso, Texas, there needs to be better monitoring of social networking sites by the sites themselves. Here, the gunmen posted a so-called white supremacist manifesto that spewed hatred against Hispanics. Our country is violent enough without fanning the flames of hatred on the internet. We can also make a case for taking down sites that solely promote self-harm and suicide if for no other reason than studies show about 10 percent of young adults have had suicidal thoughts. They are vulnerable to messages online that show them how to do it.
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always been drawn to the quote “Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.” It’s been attributed to author D.A. Bale. I use this expression as a moral guide. Lots of times in our lives we are legally permitted to do something but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing — the ethical thing — to do. For example, we can legally disclose private information about a friend or family member but it’s not right to do so unless they approve. This is a lesson in responsible behavior that has guided my decisions in life. I like it because it focuses my attention on the consequences of acts before taken not afterwards when the damage may have already been done.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are many in business such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. But, I would most like to get together with Oprah Winfrey not because of what she has accomplished in her life, which is formidable, but how she has helped others around the world with her charitable donations and good deeds. She is truly a role model of how hard work can get you to where you want to be, something I’ve always believed in. I also chose Oprah because of her help for aspiring authors including the book club where she signals out self-help books and authors who are inspirational. Finally, Oprah writes in her new book The Path Made Clear that we should seek purpose in life, which is one of the themes of my book as well.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Read my blog: https://www.ethicssage.com/
Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics
Visit my website and sign up for my newsletter: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About the author:
Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder of Medium’s Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.