From Gladiator Duels To Caesar's Last Words: The Myths Of Ancient Rome

In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe.
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In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe. Universal/Getty Images hide caption

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Historian Mary Beard has spent her career working through the texts and source materials of ancient Rome. She has written several books on the subject — including her most recent work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome — but she doesn’t feel like she’s close to being done with the topic.

“One of the great things about history is that it sort of isn’t a done deal — ever,” Beard tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “The historical texts and the historical evidence that you use is always somehow giving you different answers because you’re asking it different questions.”

Beard notes that history is a shifting discipline, and that many of our popular notions of ancient Rome are based on culture rather than fact. Take, for instance, “Et tu, Brute?”, William Shakespeare’s version of Julius Caesar’s final words. Beard says it’s “one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history — except it certainly isn’t what Caesar ever said.”

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Robin Corma/Liveright hide caption

toggle caption Robin Corma/Liveright

Despite her tendency to “myth-bust” ancient Rome, Beard still enjoys popular cultural representations of the empire. “There’s no reason not to enjoy those stereotypes and have all the fun with them,” she says. “Just as long as we realize that that’s what they are.”


Interview Highlights

On how Rome became a regional power

That is the big question about Rome, and I think it’s an even bigger question than the one that we’re more used to answering, which is: Why does it fall? I mean, why does it rise is such a puzzle. In the end, I think we can’t give any simple answer to that, but I do have a very strong hunch about what’s going on here and that … Rome’s success relates to its views about its own citizenship, about incorporating its enemies into the Roman network, the Roman project, the Roman power structure. I think you have to realize that most ancient warfare is really kind of hit and run, honestly. You go and you bash down the walls of some enemy 50 miles away and you take some slaves, you take some cattle, probably a bit of cash too, and then you say goodbye and go home and you probably do the same thing next year — or try to, or they do it to you.

Rome fundamentally changes the rules of that game. And when it bashes up one of its neighbors — and to begin with it really isn’t much more than “cattle-raiding” in our terms — what they do is they establish a permanent relationship with the people that they have beaten, either making them allies or often making them Roman citizens. … It may well be that the people they made Roman citizens didn’t want to become Roman citizens, but that’s the Roman model. And the consequence of that — because the main obligation of either alliance or citizenship was to provide troops for the Roman army — the consequence of that is very quickly Rome gets more boots on the ground than anybody else, and it’s boots on the ground that win ancient campaigns. People don’t win because they have clever military hardware, and they don’t often win because they’ve got clever military tactics; they win because there’s more of them.

On the architecture of ancient Rome

I think when we shut our eyes and think, “What did ancient Rome look like?,” we have a very Hollywood image in our minds of shining white marble and planned architecture developments — amphitheaters and theaters and temples. Rome eventually does become like that. If you went to Rome in the second century of the Common Era you’d find bits of Rome that really did look grand in that way, but that kind of grandeur doesn’t start until the very end of the first century B.C.E.

When Rome is actually conquering most of the world that it conquers from the third to the first century B.C.E., they’re doing it from a city which is low-rise, built of brick, rather ramshackle — a warren of windy, twisty streets. Nothing like the Rome of our imagination. They’ve got a million people in it by the first century B.C.E., but it isn’t the city of imperial grandeur that we have in our minds. That doesn’t come until later, and particularly it doesn’t come until they find some useful local marble supplies, which they exploit. … As the first emperor, Augustus, says: He found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble.

On the assassination of Julius Caesar

Assassination was up close and personal, unless you did it by poison, and poison was sometimes used. But [Caesar’s] assassination, like most Roman assassinations, was stabbing. And the more you read about it — despite the heroic image we get in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example — the more seedy and tawdry and messy it seems to have been. Some of the assassins stab each other by mistake, and they escape with their lives, but with a lot of blood all over them. Caesar looks up at his friends who are killing him, and in Shakespeare’s famous version, which we all remember, he says, “Et tu, Brute?,” which … was a marvelous invention by Shakespeare. What Caesar is supposed to have said — speaking in Greek, as he looked at Brutus — he said, “And you, my child?,” suggesting probably that he was just shocked that his younger friends and his younger associates and colleagues could be doing this to him. And then he died.

On the status of women in ancient Rome

You can tell the good side of that or the bad side of that. The good side of that is that compared with most other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, it was an awful lot better. It’s very clear that women had some property rights, they were sometimes entrepreneurs, they were renting out property, they were owning bars sometimes — and that’s something that would never have happened, say, in fifth century Athenian democracy. However, the downside is that they had absolutely no formal political rights whatsoever. No women in ancient Rome ever had the vote. They had no formal political power at all, and even those imperial ladies like the famous Livia, who was the wife of the first emperor, Augustus, … although they’re often written up as if they’re pulling the strings behind the scenes, they probably weren’t really. They were a convenient target to blame for what was going on, but actually they were out of the power structure.

On gladiatorial contests

I am going to be a bit of downer on gladiatorial contests, I’m afraid. … In a Hollywood imagination we have a very, very lurid view of gladiators and wild beast hunts. We imagine ourselves in the Colosseum and hundreds of pairs of gladiators are fighting to the death in some appalling bloodbath that the awful Romans are sitting there cheering and enjoying. Now, I think occasionally that did happen. I have no doubt that once in a while an emperor would put on an extraordinary display of both gladiatorial contest and wild beast hunts. … But I think we’ve got to be realistic, first of all, about how low-key most gladiatorial contests in most of the Roman world were. Gladiators are an expensive commodity and they don’t get killed very often. And nobody, apart from the emperor, can afford to bring lions to fight Christians. So I think an awful lot of the gladiatorial shows that you would have seen in the Roman world would have been more likely to be fighting wild boar from the local hills, and the gladiators would not have been fighting, usually, to the death.

On her favorite films and TV shows set in ancient Rome

I’m a great fan of Roman movies. All the classics are — they might not be accurate, but they speak to me about Rome. I loved Gladiator and I thought its depiction of gladiatorial combat, although it was an aggrandizing picture, was cleverly and expertly done. And I love Life of Brian.

But I think if I was going to have anything I’d have that old I, Claudius television series, which was shown both in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the 1970s. And it’s completely untrue, but it is such a marvelously slightly camp version of Roman empirical power.

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Northern Ireland's Abortion Law Violates Human Rights, Court Rules

A High Court judge in Belfast has ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion restrictions are incompatible with human rights.

Currently, abortion is permitted only when the life of the mother is under threat or her long-term health would be compromised by carrying the fetus to term. Monday’s decision will put pressure on lawmakers to allow for the procedure in some other instances.

Judge Mark Horner said that banning the procedure in the case of rape, incest, and when the fetus has fatal abnormalities violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

The BBC notes that Northern Ireland “has been a place apart within the United Kingdom since the 1967 Abortion Act.” The news service adds that:

“[The act] allowed terminations in England, Scotland and Wales at up to 24 weeks of the pregnancy on a variety of grounds, including having abnormalities that could lead to a child being ‘seriously handicapped.’

“Even if this judgement is put into effect — and it is likely to be appealed — the law would still be stricter in Northern Ireland.”

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the legal challenge.

Les Allamby, the group’s commissioner, said in a statement, “Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations. It was important for the Commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”

Northern Ireland’s abortion policy is governed by the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which imposes a potential penalty of life in prison for anyone convicted of terminating a pregnancy when the life or health of the mother is not at risk. In 2013, more than 800 women and girls from Northern Ireland traveled to hospitals in Britain for abortions, The New York Times reports.

Amnesty International, which lauded the high court’s ruling, said in a statement: “Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion date back to the nineteenth century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe.”

Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin has said he is considering grounds to challenge the decision. The Department of Justice, the BBC says, has six weeks to appeal to the ruling.

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Songs We Love: Wiki feat. Nasty Nigel, 'Living With Moms'

Living With Moms
YouTube

Of the myriad topics that rap songs cover, few are as emotionally charged as the subject of the relationship between rapper and mother. In the past we’ve gotten appreciative, heartfelt tributes to “Ma Dukes” from the likes of Kanye, Tupac and Ghostface; the caustic emotional purging of Eminem; and more recently, an apology in extended song form from a matured Earl Sweatshirt.

21-year-old Wiki, frontman of NYC’s progressive-rap crew Ratking, and Nasty Nigel, of the World’s Fair collective, are the latest MCs to get in on the conversation about moms and the rap life, with a lighthearted song and video for the Black Noi$e-produced “Living With My Moms.” “The song’s about being on the road and killing it and then coming back to the humbling experience of living with your mom,” says Wiki. “I was living with my mom on the Upper West [Side of Manhattan] at the time that I wrote it.” Wiki and Nigel aren’t the first rappers to talk about being the last to leave the nest (see: Thirstin Howl the 3rd’s “I Still Live With My Moms“); but they may be the first to contrast the rush of a rap career with the grounding experience of an apartment with your parents’ name on the lease.

Courtesy of the artist

Having fun with the song’s concept, director Alon Sicherman imagines Wiki and Nigel as a super-powered, rapping dynamic duo that spring into action in the middle of a show’s soundcheck when they sense that their moms (played by the actual mothers of the two MCs) are in danger. Nigel’s costume change is ’70s PI casual; his partner, on the other hand, dons a cape that hybridizes the Puerto Rican and Irish flags (a nod to Wiki’s heritage), and adds Charles Bukowski’s a****** drawing, to become his alter ego, “LepreCoquI.” Wiki and Nigel’s nemeses are an eye patch-wearing villain bent on kidnapping moms while raising the price of Dutch Masters cigars, along with his hapless, Devo-esque henchmen. After some cartoonish hand-to-hand combat the Wiki and Nigel rescue their moms and return to the stage just in time to rock the show. All in a day’s work for our heroes and a lesson learned for the bad guys: don’t mess with moms of rapping superheroes.

Wiki’s solo project lil me is out on Dec. 7 on Letter Racer.

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Woman pleads guilty in South African court to trying to sell baby online

A mother pleaded guilty in a South African court on Monday to having tried to sell her baby on the Internet for 5,000 rand ($346), the online news service News24 said.

“I admit that my actions were wrongful, unlawful and intentional. I have no defense,” the 20-year-old woman was quoted as saying by News24.

Police said the woman was arrested in October following a tip-off from a member of the public who said that a baby was being sold on the website Gumtree.

She was freed on bail and placed under house arrest. Sentencing will be carried out on Feb. 29 at the Magistrates Court in the eastern town of Pietermaritzburg.

(Reporting by Zandi Shabalala; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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A Mother Asks If She's Selfless Enough To Care For A Son With Autism

KQED News/ YouTube

Sophie Sartain had long worked in documentary filmmaking as a writer and editor. For her first film as a director, she turned the camera on her own family.

Starting in 2009, she began filming her grandmother Mimi, then 92, who had cared for Sartain’s aunt, Dona, for decades. Dona has an intellectual disability and “perhaps some undiagnosed autism,” Sartain says. From there the film Mimi and Dona was born. It was released last week on PBS’ Independent Lens.

Sartain’s grandmother was a “wonderful moving presence” who selflessly devoted herself to caring for her daughter. “Could I be like that?” Sartain wondered. “I’m not that good, I’m not that unselfish. How could I measure up to Mimi?”

But soon she would discover how her own path would overlap with that of her grandmother. “It was during filming that I started to fear my own son might have autism,” Sartain says. “And I wondered if I was just beginning a journey that Mimi had just ended.”

Her son Ben was diagnosed with autism. Sartain says she saw how her grandmother could be a role model for her and created this second, shorter, documentary, Sophie and Ben.

Mimi and Dona is streaming online through Dec. 23, 2015.

You can learn more about the film and filmmaker Sophie Sartain by visiting Independent Lens.

Lisa Aliferis edits the State of Health blog for KQED News.

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Did 'Hateful Rhetoric' Cause Shooting? Hear Planned Parenthood's Careful Response

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards listens while testifying during a Sept. 29 House panel hearing on “Planned Parenthood’s Taxpayer Funding.” Jacquelyn Martin/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Cecile Richards is walking a fine line: She paints the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic as one of many attacks linked to “hateful rhetoric.”

She doesn’t specifically say that rhetoric motivated the attack Friday in Colorado Springs.

The president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America spoke with NPR on Monday morning about the attack that left three people dead: a mother of two children, an Iraq war veteran, a police officer.

Richards spoke of an “incredible escalation of harassment and intimidation” over the past five years at clinics that provide reproductive health services, including abortions. She called the escalation “un-American.”

This sort of hateful rhetoric “has real impact,” Richards said, adding that some of the most heated language is in the presidential campaign. “Folks are willing to say anything, it seems, to get ahead in their political ambitions.”

She stopped short of claiming that a long-running conservative campaign against Planned Parenthood specifically motivated Robert Lewis Dear, the man accused of opening fire on Friday. News reports have quoted Dear as mentioning “baby parts” in a statement to police, but police have not released a motive.

Republicans have led a call to defund Planned Parenthood over edited videos released by an anti-abortion group alleging the organization violates rules on fetal tissue donation for research. Republican presidential candidates have rejected any link between anti-abortion rhetoric and the shootings.

Here’s what Richards said when asked if she linked the attack to the earlier controversy.

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Cecile Richards on ‘Morning Edition’

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'A Charlie Brown Christmas' At 50

The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees.

The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees. Charles M. Schultz/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charles M. Schultz/AP

Kristen Bell hosts a retrospective called “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown,” Monday night on ABC. Nicole Wilder/ABC hide caption

toggle caption Nicole Wilder/ABC

Tonight (Monday), ABC will air a special at 7 p.m. called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, to mark the half-century since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965. Then at 8, it will air the special itself.

There’s so much about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you’d never see on network television holiday specials now, I suspect. A special that, if not for children, is certainly intended to accessible by children would never use that “guzzling Irish coffee in a bar on a snow-blanketed night in New York when you just got stood up but you feel weirdly okay about it” Vince Guaraldi music. Mass-marketed entertainment doesn’t tend to trust kids’ capacity to appreciate either stripped-down scores or the natural blues of winter that much. The kids’ chorus singing would be replaced by a Demi Lovato version of “The Little Drummer Boy” or something like that. Pardon the cynicism, but … wouldn’t it?

Watching the special now, its bleakness is palpable and bracing. It opens with Charlie Brown defining his problem in part as, in these words, “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Straight-up dread, straight-up emotional emptiness. When Linus — who is, in many ways, the nice one — tells him, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie-Browniest,” it feels like the kind of improvisational brutality in which kids really do specialize.

And that’s not his only problem. Charlie Brown says things like, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” I know nobody likes me. That’s unvarnished, and while the special will end with everyone telling him “Merry Christmas,” you will not really see much evidence in the next 20-plus minutes that they do, in fact, like him. He’s sad, for real, and he lives in that feeling, and he uses the word “depressed” to describe it. As with most things in Charlie Brown’s life, it is a load that will be temporarily lifted, but never resolved.

He’s so desperate for help, in fact, that he continues to pay Lucy five cents to think poorly of him in more sophisticated language. Her solution to his need for “involvement” is to make him the director of the Christmas play, a doomed scenario from the start, no?

But of course, it’s also unlikely that a special would end with a character reading Scripture with the earnestness of Linus. (It might be unlikely for a character to exist with the earnestness of Linus in the first place.) But as common as it is for viewers to remark on the religious content of the special, that content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t exist to say, “It’s a religious holiday, and therefore you should spurn its secular aspects.” Quite the contrary: Linus’ reading inspires Charlie Brown to redouble his efforts to decorate his sad little tree. And it inspires his friends to follow him and, when he becomes overwhelmed with sadness about said sad little tree, to help him.

So as much as A Charlie Brown Christmas is about the significance of the religious tradition as what Christmas is “really about,” it sees that tradition at least in part as a gateway to, and an inspiration for, other actions. It doesn’t only suggest Christmas is really about the Bible story; it suggests Christmas is also really about friends, dogs, cooperating, the beauty of humble things, singing out loud, and hope. It’s just not about writing your Christmas list and asking for, as Sally does, “tens and twenties.”

The only thing you really can’t recapture from 1965 is scarcity. It was once the case that Christmas specials could only be seen at Christmas. Now, you and your family can watch Charlie Brown any time you want, anywhere you want. It’s convenience at the expense of a certain kind of preciousness, to be sure. But if you still want to be the kind of person who watches things when they happen to be on, Monday night is the night for that sad little tree.

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Recommended Dose: Our Favorite Dance Tracks From November

Philou Louzolo.

Our final monthly Recommended Dose mix of 2015 includes Afrobeat from Amsterdam, techno by a retired ballerina, disco by a soft-rock progeny, remixes by two American club masters, and vibey electro in the vein of Hieroglyphic Being.

We’ll be back in December with a megamix of our favorite tunes of the year. In the meantime, you can keep up with what we’re hearing by following us on Twitter at @spotieotis, @raspberryjones and @Sami_Yenigun.


Courtesy of the artist

Philou Louzolo, “Afrofuturism Dance”

A spectacularly banging Afrobeat re-edit from a young Amsterdam-based producer with pan-African roots who’s on a mission to remind the clubbing hot steppers that, as his bio reads, “all good music is ultimately African music.” The nature of Louzolo’s contribution to the excellent World Series 001 EP from Bristol’s Banoffee Pies label could not be simpler: a house kick underneath some expert slicing of circular percussion, an organ solo, a chicken-scratch guitar and the free-veering saxophone of one hot band (Afrika 70?), as well as some vocal asides (Fela?). This collision of old elements and new construction techniques is close to perfect.

Appears In The Mix: 00:00 – 04:49

World Series 001: Africa x Turkey is out now on Banoffee Pies.


Hubie Davison.

Courtesy of the artist

Hubie Davison, “Sanctified”

The month’s catchiest tune comes via Irish producer Hubie Davison, a Goldsmiths-educated musician with a gift for songcraft that may or may not have been passed down from his father, Chris de Burgh of “Lady In Red” infamy. On “Sanctified,” Davison stitches together snippets of The Commodores’ “I Feel Sanctified” and Moodymann’s “Ol’ Dirty Vinyl” for an inexhaustible disco edit that’s bound to be played at parties large and small over the next year. The track feels both “in-the-box” — i.e. produced using software program like Ableton — and bursting with analog life, making it a natural fit for sets of all sorts. It’s hard to go wrong with source material like Kenny Dixon Jr. and classic Motown, but it’s also hard to get it this right.

Appears In The Mix: 04:50 – 10:35

Sanctified is available on vinyl only on December 11 on ReGraded.


John Heckle.

Courtesy of the artist

John Hecker, “Sun Of U”

Not all nine-minute electro cuts effectively use their extended playing times, but on “Sun Of U” John Heckle’s made every last second count. It marks Heckle’s return to Mathematics, a record label imbued with the idiosyncratic genius of its owner: Rx Dose favorite Jamal Moss (a.k.a. Hieroglyphic Being). Listening to “Sun Of U” is like trying to eat cotton candy underwater — sweet but impossible to nail down. Psychedelic sitar synths give way to bird chirps that warble in and out of panning delay. The drums hold a steady, uptempo electro swing, balancing groove and bug-out in perfect measure. It’s all topped off with Moss’s spoken-word vocal, which nods to love, nature, longing, and embrace, adding a layer of warmth to an already welcoming sound.

Appears In The Mix: 10:36 – 18:35

Trema is out soon on Mathematics.


Malory.

Courtesy of the artist

Malory, “Boohbah”

Malory Butler moved to New York City to dance, not DJ. The Florida-born ballerina had hoped to establish a career in the fine arts, but a back injury forced her to channel her creativity in less physicality ways. She traded in the bright lights of the concert hall for the darkened booths of clubs like New York’s Bossa Nova Civic Club and Elvis Guesthouse, where Butler has emerged as one of the city’s more promising techno DJs and producers. Her debut EP, Malory, is an elastic take on basement beats, full of raw rhythms and rich low-end, that doesn’t sacrifice sonic space. “Boohbah” stands out thanks to a slinky bass motif that Butler brings in high and abruptly sinks, like the “Game Over” sound effect in a vintage video game. Only this time, it’s for the win.

Appears In The Mix: 18:36 – 22:17

Malory is out now on GODMODE.


Robert Hood and Radio Slave.

Robert Hood and Radio Slave. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artists

Radio Slave, “Don’t Sleep No Sleep (Robert Hood Remix)”

When giants collide, the thunder can sometimes shake the universe. Released in 2014, Matt “Radio Slave” Edwards’s “Don’t Stop, No Sleep” served as a great example of British techno’s renewed surge towards a kind of muscular minimalism, as it looked to do a lot with little more than a thick driving bottom, a hi-hat and some detached vocals. The song was a hit. Now, the only parts of that track retained by Robert Hood, an architect of Detroit’s legendary Underground Resistance and one of the founding fathers of minimal techno, are a snippet of the vocal (re-contextualized, of course), and the concept; then he takes this remix back to the Motor City laboratory for a tronik treatment. The result is a taut piece of classic techno, as perfect for libidinal club desires as for the alleys of one’s mind.

Appears In The Mix: 22:18 – 28:11

NONPLUS 033 is out now on Nonplus.


Seven Davis Jr. and Karizma.

Seven Davis Jr. and Karizma. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artists

Seven Davis Jr, “Sunday Morning (Kaytronik Ruff Kut Mix)”

7DJr ends his triumphant year on a major high: an anthemic remix of the instant-classic from his Universes album, by one of American house music’s Dons. “Sunday Morning” is a different kind of gospel house, the type that borrows from the carnal spirituality of Prince’s classic late ’80s period, and comes out reborn on the other side. Baltimore’s Karizma (born Kris Klayton), a one-time member of the legendary Basement Boys production team, is beyond familiar with the dots Davis is drawing upon, since he’s been connecting them for almost 20 years. And so a healthy bass-heavy jack, a few well-chosen lyrical snippets (“I bet you never had a love like this before”) and a flanging bass synth, are all the tools he needs to take this to church. Just as quite a few DJs are likely to, for a good long while — and rightfully so.

Appears In The Mix: 28:12 – 33:30

Kaytronik / Yoruba Soul Mixes is out now on Ninja Tune.

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How Psychology Can Save The World From Climate Change

A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called "Paris sets off for climate" on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week.

A man walks through hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed in Paris as part of a rally called “Paris sets off for climate” on Sunday, Nov. 29. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks this week. Laurent Cipriani/AP hide caption

toggle caption Laurent Cipriani/AP

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in France today to discuss climate change — and for good reason.

To quote President Obama’s State of the Union Address from earlier this year: “No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Yet public sentiment lacks the sense of urgency these remarks ought to instill. A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that only 29 percent of respondents rated dealing with global warming as a top priority for the president and Congress; well below the percentage that endorsed strengthening the economy (80 percent), improving the job situation (74 percent), or defending the country from terrorism (73 percent) as top priorities.

A new paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science helps explain why. The paper’s authors — Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz — review psychological research to identify key aspects of climate change and climate change communication that contribute to the mismatch between the urgency and severity of climate change, on the one hand, and widespread public disengagement, on the other. They highlight five features of human psychology that make climate change communication especially challenging, and they pair these with recommendations for how to make science communication and policy more effective.

In brief, here are their five insights and recommendations:

  • First, people are generally more responsive to personal experience than to abstract analysis. This can be a problem because climate change is typically described in very abstract, statistical terms — we see the numbers and figures, but we rarely recognize the effects of climate change it in our own, everyday experience. The authors suggest that “information about climate change risks needs to be translated into relatable and concrete personal experiences.” Fortunately, this might not be that hard: Climate change is already occurring in ways that do affect our own, everyday experience.
  • Second, when faced with the enormity of climate change, it’s easy to lose any sense of personal efficacy. But rather than despair, we can capitalize on the fact that we’re social beings who respond to social norms. Motivating individuals to act can be a challenge, but establishing and rewarding community norms can help encourage pro-environmental behavior even when individual behavior seems like a drop in the bucket.
  • Third, we tend to treat the immediate and personal quite differently from the distant and uncertain. When climate change is presented as distant in space and time, it’s easier to ignore. In making decisions, for example, immediate costs (like the inconvenience of reducing one’s carbon footprint) tend to loom large, while uncertain future costs (like the catastrophic consequences of warming) are underweighted. Climate change communication might be more effective by focusing more on regional impacts of warming that are close in space and time — like the effects we can see now in our own communities.
  • Fourth, research has shown that people’s attitude to risk can depend on whether they’re thinking about potential losses or potential gains. In particular, people are more willing to tolerate risk when dealing with losses, so some probability of a loss in quality of life downstream is a gamble they’re relatively willing to take. “These psychological insights,” the authors write, “suggest that shifting the policy conversation from the potentially negative future consequences of not acting (losses) on climate change to the positive benefits (gains) of immediate action is likely to increase public support.”
  • Finally, research suggests that motivating behavior with extrinsic rewards — such as monetary incentives for conserving energy — could be more effective when paired with appeals to people’s intrinsic motivation to improve others’ wellbeing and to care for the environment. Specifically: “Appealing to people’s intrinsic motivational needs can be a more effective and long-lasting driver of pro-environmental behavior.” When intrinsically motivated, pro-environmental behavior is more likely to be maintained after extrinsic incentives are removed, and extrinsic rewards can actually undermine people’s intrinsic motivation to change.

In sum, climate change is often presented as an abstract, uncertain cost, distant in space and time, and requiring external incentives to motivate individual action. Psychological research suggests this is an especially dangerous combination, sure to make people underestimate the risk and unlikely to compel them to action. Instead, policy makers and science communicators might do well to focus on the concrete manifestations of climate change in our own experience, the consequences of warming that are affecting our communities here and now, and the ways our current actions can be tied to gains rather than losses, to social norms and to our own intrinsic motivations.

Effective climate change mitigation will undoubtedly involve insights from the natural sciences and engineering. But changing our own attitudes and behavior requires insights from psychology, as well. It’s time to recognize the critical role for the social sciences in dealing with global warming, an issue that certainly ought to be a top priority for the president and Congress.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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First Officer Implicated In Freddie Gray's Death Goes On Trial In Baltimore

William Porter, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse for jury selection in his trial on Monday in Baltimore.

William Porter, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse for jury selection in his trial on Monday in Baltimore. Rob Carr/AP hide caption

toggle caption Rob Carr/AP

About seven months after Baltimore was rocked by a night of riots, the first police officer implicated in Freddie Gray’s death is being put on trial.

As NPR’s Jennifer Ludden reports, the case is being closely watched in the city and residents believe that a lot is at stake.

“The broad sentiment is that people want to see convictions out of this trial and they fear that there will be more unrest if that doesn’t pan out,” Jennifer told Morning Edition.

If you remember, Gray suffered a spine injury in the back of a police vehicle after he was arrested last April. Gray was unarmed and was never charged with a crime but he died from his injuries a week later, sparking mass protests and a night of riots.

Prosecutors charged six officers in Gray’s death in May. The trial of one of those officers, William G. Porter, begins today.

Jennifer reports:

“[Porter] was called in as backup after Gray’s arrest, and was present at several stops of the policy paddy wagon in which the 25-year-old man was transported, handcuffed and in leg irons.

“According to charging documents, Porter was present when Gray said he couldn’t breathe. The Baltimore Sun has reported that Porter told police investigators he informed the van’s driver that Gray was in medical distress, though also wondered if he was faking it. Prosecutors say they are trying Porter first because he is a ‘material witness’ against at least two other officers.

“‘Porter is going to be the key to everything,’ says A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore defense attorney not involved in the case. ‘What he negotiates or doesn’t negotiate, whether he’s acquitted or whether he’s convicted, he is going to be the determiner of how the other five proceed.'”

The Washington Post reports the trial is expected to last until mid-December and is expected to “provide fresh details about how Gray suffered a severe spinal injury while being transported in a police van.”

Porter’s attorneys, the Post reports, say he will likely testify during the trial.

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